Traveling off-season in Europe: guide me through the cold
November 25, 2006 10:29 AM   Subscribe

I'm about to take a long-awaited trip to Europe, but only recently have I acknowledged to myself that this is in fact winter, and the trip will likely be very different from the last summer I spent abroad. Help me prepare for the cold road, materially, intinerarily, psychically...

So this question breaks down into, i guess, what to do, what to wear, and what to expect where.

My two favorite things to do when arriving in a new city: go to the park, walk until i get lost. Seems like this will be significantly less enjoyable! I'd be happy, I suppose, spending my weeks in coffeehouses and museums. But does anyone have other ideas?

As for clothes, I'm from Miami so that makes this even more of a blind spot. I have a scarf. I have some sweaters. i need comfortable walking waterproof shoes and long underwear -- any recommendations? I have a coat but it's kind of ratty. I was thinking about bringing that along until i can find a suitable replacement that fits my fancy in some homey non-designer store somewhere...but maybe a coat is something you need to stick with the big names? I don't know! And what else should I be considering?

Finally, I'm planning to go to: Berlin, Vienna, Spain and Dublin. Some other places too, but any recommendations for good ways to spend entire wintry days in those spots? What's a great way to spend New Years' in Madrid?

Oh ok wait, this is finally finally: I'm thinking about bringing my laptop. I figure lots of days in coffeehouses, plus some lingering things i might have to do for work, I might as well. Anyone want to disabuse me of this folly?
posted by greggish to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Some macro observations: europe is way up north wrt Miami. (NY is about equivalent to Madrid). This does not have a great effect on temperatures around the shores of West-Europe because of streams in the atlantic ocean. But it does have a major effect on daylight. So expect short days and long evenings.
Around the edges (Dublin) the weather will probably be mild, deeper inside the continent (Berlin, Vienna) temperatures can be generally a few degrees freezing (-5 C).
I guess you will feel at home in the south of Spain; temperatures will be mild, around 16+ C.

Basically I'd say buy a good outdoor rain jacket and take a few sweaters of different thickness and you'll be fine. You probably don't need the long underwear.

Or go in summer.
posted by jouke at 10:46 AM on November 25, 2006

Only bring your laptop if it is going to be off most the time. And depending on how much luggage you are brining it might just be too big/heavy for the benefit you'd get. Use it when you must, but the computer is at home, whenever you want it. Bring books perhaps if you want to waste days at coffee shops. They are much easier to look up from, and see whats going on around you.

As for the winter clothing, a coat is essential, sweaters aren't enough especially if you've not lived in cold climates and hence aren't acclimated to the cold weather.

As for things to do, walk around, unless there is multiple feet of snow on the ground, the city will still be there, and you should see what there is to see. I personally prefer the old buildings and cathedrals and such instead of the parks, so maybe focus on that type of thing? Hanging out in an old square could be a lot of fun. Especially if it's heated.

Have fun on your trip.
posted by cschneid at 10:49 AM on November 25, 2006

Have you spent any time in cold environments? Europe is COLD, and nowhere is heated like the U.S.* Especially overnight trains, buses etc... Catching a cold is not an enjoyable way to spend your vacation. So... layers!! Especially if you want to wait until you're there to buy a jacket. And unless you want to dig through thrift stores (not sure what the Continental Europe thrift store scene is actually...) Expect to pay a nice sum for a jacket.

What do you have in mind with homey non-designer store? Non-Chain? Non-big name designer? Boutique?

In any case a jacket is a jacket, and you should be able to walk into any Zara in Europe and walk out with something nice and suitably fashionable.

I suggest you go out and get Lonely Planet's Europe, or Rough Guide's "Europe on a Shoestring". They should give you lots of ideas of what to do whereever you go.

On laptops: A couple points: I've done it both successfully and non-successfully,** but do not underestimate the weight that it adds to you walking around, 3 pounds of laptop may not be much here and there but after 8 hours of a strap on your shoulder + powerpack + 10 pounds of extra stuff books, sweaters, etc, that you stuff in there, it adds up and it weighs you down. And you should never put it down anywhere.*** Plus any electronics (mp3 players etc) keeps you from meeting strangers etc...

* Once I was stuck in the wee hours of the morning in Heathrow's bus shelter in winter. That specific bus shelter is actual a known hang out for homeless and vagrants. Never have I seen someone hock so many disgusting loogies INDOORS *shudder*

** However, never have I actually gotten ANY work done, but hey you may be more disciplined than me.

*** On my last trip I put my laptop bag down in a bus in the "bag section" and passed out. The bus went through so many bumps and shocks that it destroyed my Thinkpad in its protective case, and Thinkpads are made to take damage.
posted by stratastar at 10:50 AM on November 25, 2006

Oh thinking about it you should be able to find a jacket in a Sunday market anywhere. It may not last the trip but it'll be cheap!
posted by stratastar at 10:52 AM on November 25, 2006

Definitely think layers. A fleece is an excellent layering device, you can put it on top of a long-sleeve t-shirt and under a thick sweater and jacket and you will be toasty. As previously mentioned, Madrid will be warmer than everywhere else on your list, so layers are good for this, so you wont boil in unsuitable clothing. Vienna will be probably be at freezing point or below even in the daytime.

You mentioned a scarf, I also suggest - gloves, small beany hat (preferably one you can unfold and pull over your ears if you want). Your jacket (with hood) and boots must be waterproof. Get some decent quality socks to keep your feet warm, go to the local sporting goods store and get some good quality hiking socks. As well as being cold, it is often damp, which makes being cold 10x more miserable. Buying clothes there will generally be expensive, except for Spain which should be reasonably priced. Try and buy things made from performance materials, so you can fold them up in your backpack and not be lugging a giant lump of fabric around. I also suggest a small folding umbrella.
posted by Joh at 11:55 AM on November 25, 2006

Land's End is great for good quality winter boots at reasonable prices. Also, it's sale time, so check out the big chain stores for a bargain coat. JC Penney has some great bargains on their website, including thermal underwear.

Layering is good. You'll stay warmer wearing an undershirt, T-shirt, turtleneck, hoodie and topcoat than if you wear a T-shirt and one big thick sweater.

And don't forget a woollen or fleece hat. You lose 75% of your body heat through your head.
posted by essexjan at 12:01 PM on November 25, 2006

It sounds like you are going to be in Cities for most of your trip so there will be many interntet cafes for you to pick up emails. You probably wont need the laptop.

I've just spent a weekend in Berlin. You will not be disappointed, nor I suspect, will you be too cold. Most of the hotels and bars we visited were very warm. At that time of year, there will be strange wooden sheds that serve gluewein. These places are like saunas without the steam. Your main problem will be the wet weather, so make sure you take waterproof clothing.

If you are a sports fan, a trip to the Olympic stadium to see Hertha Berlin play football is worth it for a; the history - this is where Jesse Owens won gold 70 years ago and b; the flags and colour at the match. If you really want to be exotic, try one of the pickled herring sandwiches they serve at the game. Also, the olympic stadium is in a massive park, so you can get yourself lost after the match.

Public transport in Berlin is ridiculously cheap - you can get a 48 hour pass for about $15.

Wherever you go in Madrid will be a hoot but remember the locals do not go out until at least 10.30pm.

Dublin is very touristy these days and also like a building site right now. Make sure you pop into the Guinness museum for a half of the black stuff.

Oh, one last thing. I'd lay off the thermal underwear. Its Europe not the Arctic Circle.
posted by baggymp at 12:40 PM on November 25, 2006

I spent last winter in Berlin. It doesn't get really cold until later in December or early in January. I survived with a shirt, a sweatshirt, a sportscoat, a pair of crappy gloves, and some thick socks.

This year I am in Sweden, and I have come to my senses and purchased non-crappy gloves, and a waterproof, windproof jacket. The worst thing about winter is the lack of light and the sometimes intense cold in the shade. You might be okay in the sun, but once it goes behind a building your hands will fall off quick.

Berlin has a huge park which is also near to other notable sites in case you get too cold. If you want a good museum, at which you can spend an entire day, I recommend the Hamburger Bahnhof; you should understand minimalism very well by the time you're done.
posted by beerbajay at 1:03 PM on November 25, 2006

I'd recommenced just getting the good warm jacket beforehand; in Spain the shop hours are unpredictable, European fashions can often be very odd to American eyes, the current exchange rate means it costs you about 30% more, and unless you are a very thin and not too tall guy, you may have a lot of trouble finding your size. (I assume you're a guy, greggish? Apologies if I'm incorrect.)

I recommend shopping at LL Bean or Lands End before the trip. I'd get:
- a basic down coat: can be quite warm when needed, but when left open not too warm, and compresses down to 25% of its size if you roll it up and stuff it in your bag. (However, don't make the mistake of wearing only a t-shirt or thin shirt under a down coat: that leaves you with only two options, "too warm" or "too cold".
- Also look at their combination shell/liner coats, very adaptable.
- I find a long sleeve t-shirt indispensable when I travel; it makes an excellent layer, and a black one can pass as dressy enough to wear on its own.
- these long underwear pants are great, well worth the price, and take up almost no room in your bag. However, it doesn't sound like Madrid will actually be all that cold - you'd probably be fine with flannel boxers under jeans or decently thick pants. (None of your tropic-weight Miami slacks, though!)

A good pair of walking shoes is also a must. (I usually feel pretty under dressed in Europe if I wear sneakers, and a good pair of walking shoes will actually provide you more support on cobblestoned plazas.)

Leave the laptop at home. It's much heavier than you think, you'll always be worried about it, there is so much logistical support involved in using it (voltage adapter, finding wifi) and you don't really need it. Its also generally pretty easy to find an internet cafe in most european city center when you really must check the webmail. Bring a good travel book and map, print out additional info if you need it, bring the long novel you've meant to read forever, and a little note- or sketchbook. Beautiful europeans have been known to approach a stranger in a cafe or tapas bar and ask him what he's reading or sketching, but nothing says "leave me alone" like a laptop.

In Spain the cafes are friendly and the tapas bars are friendlier. Either provide a great place to warm up over a snack and beverage and maybe meet some locals.
posted by Cranialtorque at 1:14 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

OH, 2 things: I somehow missed everywhere but Spain. Yes, invest in the thermal underpants. They're great. Also, definitely get a warm hat.
posted by Cranialtorque at 1:16 PM on November 25, 2006

Laptop? You're on vacation, no? For a limited amount of time, you will have some of the world's great cities at your feet- why bring along a competitor (least of all one from the office) for your valuable time? It's be like like going to the caribbean and watching television all day. For cafe lounging, you can always read a book, which is at less risk of theft and whole lot easier to toss or lose if necessary.

On the clothes issue- How about this? Pack socks and underwear and buy clothes on site once you arrive and can judge the weather accordingly. (You might want to go south to north for maximum efficiency, if that's an option.) Possible customs issue on coming back if you go over $800, but what the hell.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:18 PM on November 25, 2006

I go home to Dublin every Xmas, and while the temperatures are a good bit higher there, there is something damp in the air that I find excruciating. My feet are always cold in Dublin. The point above about things not being heated like the US (hotels, people's homes, everything!) is also a very very good one. Layers, scarf and hat required, but nothing crazy - no thermal undies or canada-style winter coats.

As to what to do, there are plenty of good museums (Chester Beatty is wonderful, the national museum is on the Luas line), galleries, pubs, food. Theatre can be a bit dodgy around Xmas in my experience, but Sheridan's school for scandal is on in the Abbey, and no doubt lots of other good stuff. The 90th anniversary of the easter rising is being marked at the museum. Go see the moving crib for traditional dublin tack. But do venture outdoors. Dog racing or horse racing both have a good atmosphere around Xmas. Newgrange will be open. No doubt there will be something at the RDS ... and so on ... The Guinness store is a crap tourist trap, go drink in Kehoes or somewhere instead. Email me if you're in town before January 4 and want to join me on any of this stuff.

(Also, I don't know about Berlin/Vienna but don't recommend you plan on buying clothes in Dublin; they're ridiculously expensive compared to the US. Even before you factor the exchange rate and not knowing where to shop issues).
posted by jamesonandwater at 2:24 PM on November 25, 2006

I recommend silk long johns; they're lightweight and can fit under slacks on frigid, dank days. They can serve as pajama bottoms in under-heated hotels. (I pack mine even in summer. And I'm not from a warm climate.) I don't have a silk long-sleeved undershirt, but if I were on the road in winter, I'd get one. L L Bean and Wintersilks have them.

Take a hot shower at night just before you go to bed, especially if your room or bed is cold. If you go to bed gunky, you'll shiver all night.

Keep your head warm.

In case your plane arrives on a freezing winter day, you might want to take a warm coat with you. How about checking out thrift shops before you go to find a lightweight warm coat long enough to cover the rear end? Wherever there are snowbirds, there must be coats for sale, even in Miami.
posted by sevenstars at 3:08 PM on November 25, 2006

Response by poster: Maybe i'll have to make this a separate question, but: I have a ski jacket, i guess you call it a parka? It's waterproof, and neutral grey colors. I don't really know much about winter clothes, being from miami and all, but are ski jackets a lame thing to wear off-mountain, instead of a coat? I feel like they are, but what do i know?
posted by greggish at 5:13 PM on November 25, 2006

Haha, I get the feeling that you're going on an expedition to some uncharted continent.
Get a ski jacket if you want to. There are people who wear that.
But you'll as a rule have more rain than bitter cold. So some gore-tex like thing will be very worthwhile.
posted by jouke at 5:29 PM on November 25, 2006

Lots of people wear giant jackets (ski jackets included) in places like Berlin (which gets very very cold), though I'm not sure about the other places to which you'll be travelling.
posted by beerbajay at 2:38 AM on November 26, 2006

Think most about footwear. Walking in damp socks and/or sodden shoes makes life absolutely fucking miserable. Smartwool and Gore-Tex are your friends. And the ski/puffa jacket isn't lame, especially if it's in muted colours.

(A US Navy issue peacoat is pretty decent, too, especially if you can nab one for cheap. I'm guessing that Navy types stationed in Florida don't really need them.)
posted by holgate at 7:39 AM on November 26, 2006

The done thing in Madrid on New Year's is to go to the Puerta del Sol and eat twelve grapes, one for each stroke of the clock at midnight. Then you go out, and out, and out. Finish with chocolate and churros at the Chocolatería San Gines just off c/Arenal if sampling the local food is your thing.

I don't know if going to Sol on New Year's Eve is as crowded and/or cliché as going to Times Square, but it's a thought. There's lots of bars in the area (I fancy Bodegas Melibea a few blocks off Sol on c/Espoz y Mina; sangria is 10 Euros a pitcher and comes with manchego and olives and whatnot) and also some semi-cheesy clubs (both Joy Eslava and Palacio de Gaviria, which is a real old palace with an amazing interior) are, again, right off Sol on c/Arenal. All of this is within five-ish blocks of Sol.

Oof. Those are just the places I used to go, but if you let me know what you are into, I can drop some more hints.
posted by anjamu at 1:54 PM on November 26, 2006

You'll want a coat, beanie, gloves, scarf, good shoes and thick socks. Personally, I'd take the old ratty coat and then buy something new when you get over there. It's so much easier to just walk into a department store and pick one of the 50 coats there, than try and predict what you'll want/need. Thermals can be nice, but I never wore mine (mainly 'coz they were pink and purple striped), thick jeans were fine. Don't go overboard on sweaters, if you have a good coat you won't really use them. Oh, and something waterproof, umbrella, or the coat you choose.

I wouldn't bother with the laptop unless you hate to read or write. Take books and something to write in instead. You will absolutely be able to walk around the city and get lost, just budget for more than your usual coffee breaks to warm up, and remember that it gets dark really early. You can also do the public transport exploration version - you stay warmer and can see an impressive amount of a city if you stay above ground.

Oh, and take multivitamins, your body will thank you.
posted by kjs4 at 10:22 PM on November 27, 2006

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