Europe can get hot and crowded in summer. So why not try a trip in winter? Air fares and hotels will be less expensive, often wildly so. And you won’t have the crowds. Which means more time to delve deep and really explore. Here are some great spots to try.
IRELAND A bit cool, you say? Well, it’s not like summer in Ireland is a guaranteed heat furnace. So why not explore Dublin’s Temple Bar when you don’t need a reservation for the best bar stool? And why not try a night at a sumptuous spot like Ashford Castle in winter, when you can cozy up to the fire and enjoy the lobby? Galway is a great university town with marvellous pubs, while Belfast is a fascinating spot in Northern Ireland. If you can manage it, swing a night at the lovely Merchant Hotel in Belfast; one of Europe’s most elegant places to sleep.
LISBON I’d never been until earlier this year, but I fell in love with the hills and the winding, narrow streets and the rambling, rumbling streetcars/trams. The food is quite good, the wine exceptional, and the value tremendous. They’re on the Euro, but you can find good meals for less than $15 Canadian and good wine for $6. Super friendly people, too. Don’t miss a day trip to beautiful Sintra, with its hilltop castles and forts. If the weather’s nice, the beach is also close by.
SPLIT, CROATIA You hear more about Dubrovnik, but I love the feel of Split. The ruins are spectacular, and there are white stone passageways leading into hidden laneways all over the centre of the city around Diocletian’s Palace. The area encompasses some 31,000 square metres, so there’s plenty of space. A photographer’s delight, and a great place to feel you’re miles away from North America.
SOUTHERN ITALY It’s hard to beat the beauty of a coastal town like Taormina, Sicily. You might not find so many places open in winter, but the scenery will be that much prettier without the hordes of cruise ship passengers climbing the stairs of the Roman amphitheatre and wandering the main streets of town. Also worth checking out would be Sorrento, Naples and the Amalfi Coast. You can expect daytime highs in the mid-teens in winter; shirt-sleeves and shorts weather for us Canadians.
STOCKHOLM You’ll have to be prepared for the weather, but it’s probably warmer here than most Canadian cities. I haven’t been for a long time, but I still remember the beautiful islands that dot the city’s harbour/waterfront area and the lovely shops and restaurants. It’s not a cheap destination, but you’ll find better deals now than in the heat of summer. I spotted a room at the lovely Radisson Blu on hotels.com recently for just $133 Cdn. for a weekend night in January. I’ve paid that much for roadside hotels in Belleville, Ontario. Not that there’s anything wrong with Belleville.
ZURICH I’ve made many visits in December over the years when I was covering the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne. I always enjoyed the Christmas goodies for sale in and around the main train station; one of those old-style, super-solid beauties that somehow makes everything seem romantic and fanciful. They have 150 stalls at the main station selling all kinds of Christmas bits, plus a giant tree decorated with glowing Swarovski crystals. Stroll around the shops, then repair to a lovely café for a cup of coffee or some mulled wine.
BORDEAUX You don’t hear a lot about the city of Bordeaux, likely because of the famous wines that grow around here. But it’s a pretty city that’s been given a pretty serious facelift in parts. The old city is one of those typical older areas of Europe with tiny alleyways jammed with patios where you can sip local wine or a French beer or drink your coffee all morning long. Nearby St. Emilion is one of the most beautiful villages in France.
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AVERAGE DAILY HIGH TEMPERATURES FOR JANUARY
Bordeaux +9 C
Dublin +7 C
Lisbon +14 C
Palermo, Sicily +16 C
Split +10 C
Stockholm -1 C
Zurich +2 C
JIM’S DEAL OF THE WEEK
Contiki, which specializes in youth and young professional travel, is offering a very solid 30% off on all remaining 2015 trips as part of a Black Friday celebration. Tours include great spots in Asia, Europe, Latin America, California, New Zealand and Australia. www.contiki.com
JIM’S DESTINATION OF THE WEEK
It’s pretty tough to beat San Francisco. Even when it rains, which isn’t often, the city positively glows with energy. Try a cable car ride and check out the drivers and ticket-takers as they banter with tourists from all over the world. It’s one of the most unique ways to see one of the most unique cities in the world.