Many Australians and those from the southern hemisphere are keen to experience a European winter vacation but are unsure whether travelling in winter is a good idea. Don’t let chilly temperatures, possible snowstorms and shorter opening hours of many attractions put you off visiting Europe over winter.
After travelling Europe in winter, I can recommend it as a great time to visit and the following tips will help you to be prepared and to get the most out this wonderful experience.
Europe in winter travel tips
So, you’ve decided you are ready to visit Europe in winter. There are a few things you should know so that you can plan your trip to make the most of your precious holiday time.
In most European cities the major tourist attractions remain open over the winter season, albeit often with shortened opening hours. The website of the attraction/s you want to visit will show you opening times for when you plan to visit so check this out before you leave home so you can organise your sightseeing accordingly.
Winter is often a really good time to visit some attractions as crowds are often smaller and therefore, queues shorter.
Once you get into rural Europe, though, many attractions will be closed for the winter months.
If you are travelling to a regional area, again, visit the tourist association's website and check out opening hours for places you want to visit. That way, you won't be disappointed if you get there and find out that longed-for visit to the local attraction is not possible.
Limit your luggage
Having as little luggage as possible is always a good idea as it makes things a lot easier when travelling. (See my tips on packing for winter in Europe below.)
I’m definitely not a ‘carry-on only’ traveller – I always take a suitcase which I check into the aircraft’s luggage hold – but always limit myself to just one additional bag such as a handbag.
Having one hand free makes it so much easier if I need to use an umbrella whilst out and about.
Limiting the amount of luggage you carry is also essential if you are travelling around Europe by train. Getting on and off trains – which usually only stop at the platform for a couple of minutes – is difficult enough with one suitcase.
Platforms can be covered in snow, too, so maneuvering multiple suitcases through snow can be a real test of nerves.
Travelling around Europe in winter
Unless you plan on joining an escorted coach tour for your Europe in winter experience, you’ll most likely by travelling by car or train. Both methods of transport have their advantages and disadvantages so below you’ll find a number of things to consider when planning your European winter travels.
Click here for ideas on European White Christmas and winter itineraries by car and train
Driving through Europe in winter
In many countries it is compulsory to have your vehicle fitted with winter tyres from December to March (inclusive). Check with your rental company that winter tyres are included in the cost of your car hire if you will be driving your rental car during this period.
If not, you may have to pay an additional fee for winter tyres on collection of your vehicle.
Major roads and autobahns, as well as city streets, are regularly cleared of snow by snow ploughs but extra care should always be taken when travelling in wet, snowy and icy conditions.
If you are at all apprehensive about driving in Europe during winter, I recommend you hire an automatic vehicle - not having to change gears is one less thing you’ll have to think about.
Travelling by train in Europe
Europe is well known for its efficient rail network but in particularly bad weather conditions services can be disrupted. Make sure you allow for some flexibility in your itinerary in case of delays.
If your rail journey requires a change of train en-route, allow plenty of time to transfer from one train to the next. Platforms can be snow-covered - and very slippery - so transferring from one platform to another can take longer than usual.
Further reading: Essential tips for travelling by train in Europe
Where to visit in Europe in winter
Choosing which countries to visit on your winter holiday to Europe will depend on a number of things. If your main focus is to experience the European Christmas markets, then countries like Germany, Austria and Switzerland should be in your itinerary.
Skiers and snowboarders will find the mountain resorts in Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria (amongst others), the place to be.
And those who just want to soak up the convivial winter atmosphere in rural villages surrounded by snowy fields will have no shortage of destinations to choose from.
In southern Europe, some countries, particularly those on the Mediterranean, enjoy a milder winter climate, so if you’re not particularly fond of cold weather, there are warmer destinations that you can head to.
I’ve written a number of destination specific posts about visiting Europe in winter. Click here to browse all the articles.
What to wear in Europe in winter
It goes without saying that you are likely to experience some pretty cold weather during your Europe trip in winter. Many of the northern and central European countries frequently have daytime temperatures below 5° Celcius so knowing what clothes to take to Europe in winter is vital.
Layering is the key
One of my biggest tips for deciding what to pack for Europe in winter is to layer, layer, layer. Shops, restaurants and museums are well heated and as soon as you enter you'll be stripping off clothes.
Wear clothes on top that are easy to remove, or if your coat is super-warm, only wear a couple of light layers underneath.
You'll be surprised how few clothes you need to wear indoors so once you've removed your coat, gloves, scarf and hat, you'll probably be warm enough inside with just a light jumper or sweatshirt and long pants.
Essential items to pack for winter in Europe
Thermal underwear is great for layering. Don't dismiss thermals as being just for skiing trips - they are fantastic insulators and reduce the amount of other clothes you need to wear.
And even though they might remind you of grandma, consider taking a pair of thermal long johns - I swear by mine when travelling in Europe in winter.
I’m often asked which are the best thermals for European winter travel. I’ve only personally tried the Kathmandu brand (I buy them when they are on sale) and Uniqlo and I have found them both to be excellent.
Hats really make a difference when you are outdoors - it's amazing how much warmer you feel when your ears are warm - so grab a beanie or woollen hat and wear it every time you go outside.
Whilst we might associate woolly hats with skiing and football games in Australia, in Europe you'll see the locals wearing them whenever they are outside - to work, going shopping or out to dinner. You definitely won't be the odd one out if you're wearing a warm hat.
Scarves (the woollen variety) and gloves are two more things to take to Europe in winter. Both are easy to carry, quick to put on or take off and great for added warmth.
Scarves can also add a bit of that European chic to an outfit - an added bonus!
When choosing the best shoes for Europe in winter, put comfort and practicality ahead of fashion. Rain, snow and ice can make footpaths slippery and wet so having the correct footwear is essential.
I’ve worn both a soft adventure/hiking style shoe from Merrell as well as long leather boots during my winter travels in Europe.
The Merrells were great for everyday sightseeing whilst the boots were perfect for evenings out and for the occasions when I wanted to feel a little more dressed up. European winter travel doesn’t have to mean dressing down!
When packing your shoes and boots, don’t forget warm socks. I love Explorer socks that we can buy in Australia and always have a few pairs with me.
The bulkiness of coats and jackets can be a nuisance when planning your European winter packing list but your outer layer doesn’t have to be squashed into your suitcase.
Why not carry your jacket or coat onboard the flight with you? It might even come in handy as a blanket if you get cold on the flight. Keep this in mind when considering coats or jackets for European winter travel.
If you are shopping especially for winter coats for Europe, look for ones that are waterproof, windproof and are made from a breathable, insulating fabric.
Winter packing list for Europe
Now that you have assembled all the necessary pieces of clothing and footwear it’s time to pack for your winter trip to Europe. A lot of travellers tend to stress about how to pack for Europe in winter – and I’ve been guilty of this too - but the thing to remember is that whatever you forget to take, you can buy in Europe.
Below is a list of the main items I pack for a winter trip to Europe. You may wish to change it around slightly (perhaps you’d prefer to sub out a pair of bottoms for a warm skirt and leggings or tights) but these are the basic items that will see you through a week.
Packing list for winter Europe travels
3 x bottoms (jeans, pants, etc.)
5 x lightweight long sleeved t-shirts or shirts/blouses
3 x jumpers/cardigans/sweatshirts
1 x waterproof jacket or coat
2 x pairs of boots or shoes
2 x thermal tops
1 x pair thermal pants (long johns)
Pyjamas and slippers
Unfortunately carrying sturdy footwear and coats is going to add bulk to your luggage. My biggest tip for how to pack light for winter in Europe is to make sure that all the clothes you pack earn their place in your suitcase.
Can you wear at least two of your jumpers or cardigans with each pair of pants? Can each pair of shoes or boots be worn with at least two of your pants? If you can change up your outfits by wearing the same pieces in different combinations you’ll go a long way towards packing light.
Things to do in Europe in winter
I've written numerous articles on things to do in winter, particularly at Christmas time, including:
- Fun things to do at Christmas time in Germany
- Where to spend Christmas in Switzerland
- Things to do in Salzburg in winter
Book your European winter travels
Now that you're armed with all these tips it's time to start booking your holiday to Europe over winter. Enjoy!
Do you have some tips for travelling Europe during winter? I'd love you to share them in the comments box below.