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Revised May 8, 2011

Whether you arrive during the dead of winter or the frenzy of the summer tourist season, you will have a great time. Yet, if you are fortunate enough to be able to select any season, you will want to consider spring and fall to visit the continent, when the crowds are smaller or gone and the prices of accommodations are lower.

When you choose to go should be based on

  1. when you can get away;
  2. what you want to do while in Europe; and
  3. how much your comfort is affected by variations in weather. Someone who wants to go canyoning in southern France should do it when the sun warms the rocks you slide through, someone who is cold sensitive should plan a trip between May and September, because winter days can bring snow or dreary rain that makes travel difficult.

Time in Europe

Like most Americans, Europeans tend to take their vacations in the summer, especially those with young children. If you are going to Europe to hear the sound of history echoing through castles and cathedrals, you might prefer to go off season when the crowds of locals and tourists thin. On the other hand, if you want to meet people, the warm nights of summer bring folks into the town squares and onto the streets, letting you experience the communal feeling that makes Europe so special.

The "high" season, throughout Europe, starts in June and ends in September. Most Europeans vacation in July and August. Specific dates when "high season rates" go into effect vary by community or facility, but you will generally pay more for services and find things a bit more crowded if you are traveling during the months of July and August.

The benefit of traveling during the "high" season is that every museum, hotel and campground is open and eager to make their season's profit. This is particularly important to the traveler who wants to visit museums and churches--the summer schedules tend to be longer. The down-side is that additional hours may disappear as you wait in longer lines.

The "high" season is the best time for seaside, lakefront, and other water-oriented vacations. Companies that rent boats and sailboards are open, snack bars are ready to rent beach chairs and serve drinks, and campgrounds are in full operation. Until July, you are likely to find cooler temperatures and fewer facilities available. In September, many of those companies shut their doors for the season.

Those who travel in spring and fall will surely save money, for most prices are lower during these "shoulder" periods. Europeans who aren't traveling with school age children often schedule their vacations in June, when facilities are open and less expensive but while the staffs at hotels and campgrounds are still enthusiastic about the upcoming tourist season. Many of the eager, helpful young people who start working in June are exhausted by the end of August and, perhaps, a little less energetic than they were a few months earlier.

Though most of Europe greets its guests in the warm summer month, the tourist season never ends in many of the major cities and in the alpine resorts that have developed ways for tourists to enjoy the spectacular mountains even when the snow has melted from the mountainsides.

Travel Activities

For most travelers, there are enough activities scheduled in the small towns and large cities to fill their plate whenever they go. Still, a local festival or world-class competition can be the icing on the cake so organize your schedule to attend some of these events.

Other tourists may arrive for specific events--Bastille Day in Paris, the Passion Play in Oberamnegau, or the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Their travel plans are controlled by the calendar.

There are other activities that are clearly seasonal (you don't need to be there on a specific day but have to be in the area some time during that period)--strolling the farmers' markets of towns throughout Italy and France which are at their peak after fruits and vegetables start ripening in the fields, photographing wildflowers in the Alps after the spring snows have melted or enjoying Oktoberfest in Munich or Vienna. The tulips and daffodils of the Netherlands are in bloom from late March to late May, making it the best time to see this lowland country. For specific information about seasonal events, go to the country listings.

If you plan on hiking in the foothills of the Alps, you should be ready for rain in July and August when these areas are wetter than any other time of the year. Bicyclists and hikers might enjoy a late May/early June visit more. On all of our summer trips to Europe, it seemed that there was a summer pattern that drove thunderstorms toward the Alps creating afternoon or evening downpour, one that made it difficult to get our luggage from our car to our bed and breakfast in the Swiss Alps village of Lauterbrunnen (but on a positive note, added to the drama of the 72 waterfalls that drop into the valley). Still, we were able to enjoy spectacular weather on the Mount Blanc tramway and crossing the Grossglocknerstrasse from Italy through the Austrian Alps in July, clear blue skies and sushine that glistened off melting snowfields.

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There are many opportunities for water activities throughout Europe. Sailing and sailboarding are popular activities along many coasts and on larger bodies of water, including . Many rivers throughout Europe offer opportunities to canoe or kayak while others just invite you to dive in for a cool swim. The warmth of a summer breeze complements the pleasant temperatures of the Adriatic or Mediterranean seas. And a day in the water is a refreshing break from all the castle-hopping and museum visits. One of the tips we took from Rick Steeves was to swim beneath the famed Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard, joining local teens who jumped from rocks into the warm river just as the men who built the impressive span must have done during the days of hot construction two millenia before.

Shopping is a year-round past-time in Europe but late season visitors will enjoy closeouts and clearance sales. Summer sales start in mid-July and offer real savings to those who can take advantage of the markdowns. And for those who treasure the sentimentalism of the Christmas holiday, small villages like Rothenburg twinkle with the glow of Christmas candles and ornaments even on the warmest days of July.

Climate

When you realize Paris is farther north than Quebec and Rome is at almost the same latitude as New York, you'll understand how the European climate differs from the North American weather patterns and the significant affect of the Mediterranean and other bodies of water on the temperatures on the continent.

The higher latitudes of Europe would point toward colder weather than found in the U.S. The seas and oceans that surround Europe, however, tend to moderate the climate of Europe, warming any arctic air that might be headed toward the continent. Still, winter snows are common in all of the nations including Greece.

The northerly location is more significant as it affects the length of days and nights. We experienced the long July days of Amsterdam when twilight still glowed at 10:45 p.m. and the first glimmers of dawn arrived about 6 hours later. Rome, by contrast, has approximately 7 1/2 hours of darkness on the summer solstice (the day when the sun shines longest upon places in the northern hemisphere); Orlando has 9 hours of darkness on that day. For some, more daylight is a true detriment to comfort because it makes sleeping more difficult. For us, the additional daylight hours were an opportunity for a great time. Our travel days were longer and fuller because we reacted to the rising and setting of the sun like Americans; we left our beds at sunrise and returned long after sunset, which significantly shortened our sleeping time. Still the long hours of activity made it very easy to fall asleep as soon as our heads hit our pillows.

The northern latitudes also mean that winter days are significantly shorter. That means less time to see the sights in daylight and less time for the sun to warm temperatures. The fog is less likely to burn off in foggy environments. Winter skiing in Scandinavia or in the Alps is likely to be under artificial lighting at temperatures that may not rise above freezing for days. If you're eager to experience the bleakness of a Dickens' Christmas, the weather in northern Europe will provide it. For others, the endless days of cold, rain or snow, and minimal daylight may trigger seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.). That's not a condition you want to develop over a vacation.

For those who have the time to stay longer, it seems that fall and spring make the best trade off between seeing the sites and saving some money; the winter savings are diminished by the temperatures and more difficult weather conditions. For the traveler who settles into a small village for a few weeks, you can hunker down through a storm, only traveling to the nearest market to gather provisions for dinner; but if your budget limits how long you can be in Europe, for most travellers, it is best and easiest to be there when it is warm (and you don't have to carry extra luggage filled with warm clothes, gloves and scarves.

Mean Temperatures

CityAverage Summer High TemperatureAverage Winter Low Temperature
Amsterdam7236
Berlin7427
Bratislava7927
Budapest8125
Copenhagen7027
Dublin6634
Geneva7628
London7235
Madrid8650
Marseilles8552
Oslo7028
Paris7534
Prague7428
Rome8841
Stockholm7023
Venice3481
Vienna7528
Zurich7528

Regional Climates

Ireland & Great Britain

These islands enjoy moderate temperatures most of the year and can attribute their beauty to the frequent rains that develop from the warm gulf currents. Winters can be cold with fog or, in more northern locations, snow. The sunniest seasons are spring and fall.

Scandinavia

Summer days are long and comfortable, though rain is common. Winter temperatures, during the long northern nights, may stay below freezing for weeks.

Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Northern Germany,
and Northern France

Summer brings warm weather with a likelihood of afternoon rains in many parts of this area. Still, the northern shores of these countries fill with sun-worshippers who enjoy the beauty of its pleasant summer climates. Expect some gray days in the area whenever you visit, but enjoy the lushness that the occasional rains bring to the area. Winter snows can be expected but rarely stay for long periods.

Switzerland, Austria, and the German and French Alps

The altitude and latitude of this area ensure the early arrival of winter snows that may continue into April. For winter sports enthusiasts, the weather is ideal, especially because it is likely to be bright and clear when it isn't snowing. Summer days are equally beautiful, though clouds frequently develop in the region and cling to the mountaintops. You are likely to experience a spectacular summer thunderstorm if you travel to this region, so build some extra time into your schedule so that you can wait till a potential storm blows through to enjoy this region. Fall is often the best time to visit. Whatever time you visit, remember that you are often above 2000 meters (6000 feet) in the Alps and may experience cold temperatures and storms. Bring clothing for the worst even if the sun is shining when you start your day.

Spain, Southern France, Italy, Greece and the Adriatic States

Be prepared for very warm/hot days that end with comfortable but sometimes humid evenings if you travel during the summer. In southern France you may also experience the strong, hot winds of the Mistral which blow violently through Provence and affect temperatures throughout the Mediterranean. (If you are camping, prepare for these winds which may fill your tent with dust and sand; in Venice, the same winds often cause the area near St. Mark's to flood.) Plan to develop a tan wherever you stay in this region during the summer and schedule sightseeing in the early hours and evening. Save the heat of the day for swimming and relaxation. Winter temperatures are fairly comfortable -- temperatures rarely drop below freezing. The best travel weather comes in late spring and returns in early fall.

Many people come to these countries to enjoy their summer warmth. While the air can be hot and humid in Venice, the balmy temperatures are ideal for playing in the Adriatic. If you are headed to Slovenia or Croatia, summer temperatures make river or ocean kayaking delightful and provide those sailing through the coastal islands with sunshine to warm the blowing breezes.

Portugal

Like Ireland, Portugal experiences the warmth and rain that is carried to it by the Gulf Stream, which is much warmer when it reaches Lisbon, so expect rain and warm days. Coastal temperatures tend to be consistently pleasant with small changes from the daytime low to the daytime high. Inland temperatures are still warm and mild.

Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania

These areas have warm summers but cool, snowy winters. These landlocked countries have climates that intensify the temperatures of their neighbors to the north as the warmth and moisture of the Atlantic, North Sea and Mediterranean dissipate as the air masses climb the Alps and other mountains to settle into these countries. Be prepared for cool gray autumns and springs as heavy winter fogs can linger into those seasons. If you arrive in winter, you may even find that the Danube has frozen as bitter winds arrive from the Ukraine bringing cruelly cold air.