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1st winter Euro vacation. Advice please?

I've been lurking for a few weeks, reading what many of you have been discussing. I've got RS's ETTBD, and have been researching forums and articles on Europe in the winter.

My fiancée and I are planning to take a European vacation at the end of the year. She's from Brazil and has never seen snow. I'm from the Pacific Northwest, USA. Neither of us have been to Europe. We've got 3 weeks to play with, including Christmas and New Year. Right now, we're open to a lot of travel options: guided tours, My Way tours, cruises, etc. We'd like to hit the basics: museums, historical locations, castles, shopping.

I'm kind of stuck on how broad our trip should be. I've read a lot of advice about this. We could spend the whole trip in the UK, or spread it out to places like Amsterdam, Germany, Austria, Italy, France. Assuming this would be the first trip of many:

  • What's your advice for a nice, well-rounded trip?
  • If we were to marry abroad, what Euro countries have fairly relaxed marriage requirements? I.e., residency, paperwork, minimum stay, things like that.
  • Where would you suggest in Europe for a great authentic Christmas experience? Things like decorated cities, festivals, Christmas markets, For example, I've read a lot about Nuremberg, Munich, Norway, Hallstatt and Salzburg.
  • Where would you suggest for a great snowy wonderland experience? I've read about Oberlap pass and Glacier express.

Thank you for your thoughtful advice!

Posted by
5697 posts

Re: marrying in Europe -- have you investigated the regulations on getting residency for a foreign spouse ? (U.S. or Brazil, wherever you plan to live) ? Even with a legally-recognized marriage it's not a shoo-in. Many people asking here about wedddings in Europe are told the easiest is to marry here and then do a "ceremonial" wedding in whatever beautiful foreign location you choose. You can use the search button to look up forum posts containing "weddings"

For Christmas, Salzburg is our favorite but they haven't had Christmas snow in a few years.

Posted by
3956 posts

One factor to recognize is that northern Europe, being "north", has short days during the winter. The early sunsets won't necessarily change your activities but they're part of the planning process.

Posted by
3951 posts

My daughter and I had an incredible trip this past Nov-Dec exploring the xmas markets of Switzerland,[Bern, Basel, Luzern]; France [Strasburg & Colmar]; and Germany [Stuttgart, Esslingen, Rothenburg]. Just check my posting history for my Trip Reports. Another OP, Mrs. Jo, lives in Germany, and has reviewed numerous markets in Germany, with great info.

December can be early for snow, unless you visit some of the peaks. From Luzern, we took an hour boat ride to the cogwheel train to the top of Mt. Rigi, and it was magical. I haven't done the Glacier Express, but plenty of folks here have, so just do a Search.

Do note that many of the xmas markets shut down Dec 23-24. I do believe that the markets in Vienna continue beyond xmas, and that New Year's Eve in Vienna is reported to be spectacular.

Congrats and have an incredible trip!

Posted by
2674 posts

Sounds like you need to go to Central Europe, although it will be incredibly cold. This means you need to wear hats and buy top of the line warm coats. I would also pack hand and feet warmers.
The countries I would consider traveling to are Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

Posted by
613 posts

If you went to a grand buffet that had 4 different shrimp dishes, would you eat nothing but shrimp, or would you sample bits of everything to know what was worth going back for more of? Substitute Paris or Christmas Markets for shrimp, and go for diversity. Take a river cruise. You will hit lots of different types of sights (sampling the buffet), nearly everything is included, and your hotel room travels with you-- only once to unpack and pack. Start by looking at Emerald. Also goggle "fire on the Rhine river cruises".

The only sure way to get snow is to go into the Alps. Otherwise, its a maybe. We spent a Christmas week in Vienna, snow on the ground all week long, but that was long before Global Warming got cranked up. Christmas Week in London had green grass and roses in flower outside our hotel (again, long before Global Warming got cranked up. Why not wait until you get home and go the classic old NPS hotel on Mt Hood?

If must do the Alps, Switzerland will be most expensive and the worst food. You also have to gamble on the weather. You won't see much of the grand snow covered scenery if the weather is bad. Consider Austria (Salzburg, Vienna, or Innsbruck) or France (Evian les Bains-- home of Evian Water-- or Annecy) for the Alps-- access to both bad and good weather sight seeing.

Optimal river cruise for Fr or CH Alps: Amsterdam, Rhine Mosel, to Basel. For Austrian Alps, Amsterdam to Budapest.

Get married before you go and for the Wedding Banquet, fly business class (recent long discussion on this under Tips and travel reports).

Posted by
16556 posts

London, Paris, Rome.... Sort of the basic introduction to Europe. But not much snow.
Then either head for the snow (Austria, Germany, Switzerland) or do one off the wall location like Budapest or Kyiv or Krakow. Or hit the Christmas markets in Germany, Austria and Budapest.

Posted by
52 posts

We were in Vienna, Berlin, and Paris this winter as well as on a Christmas Market cruise from Vienna to Nuremberg. We love Vienna and have been there in nicer weather. It was really cold...we were so happy we brought our down coats and long underwear, but we still got chilly. But the city is magical at Christmas time. All the streets in the center of the city are decorated with the most beautiful lights of various designs. We really enjoyed the Market at St. Stephen’s...good assortment of vendors and lots of tasty food and drink. One evening we attended a concert of Advent Music at that church...what a lovely experience with all the candles and evergreens.
The Nuremberg Market is very famous and huge. We actually found it overwhelming as it was so crowded. There were times when we were basically stuck in pedestrian traffic...we couldn’t go forward or backwards. Frankly, it was a little scary.
As it turned out, and this was a surprise, our favorite Christmas Market was in Berlin! It is one of our very favorite cities and we were not there for the Market, but we discovered an absolutely charming one in the Mitte area of the city. Most of the booths had true artisan items for sale, rather than the mass produced things that are common in most other markets. It was really special and if we ever get talked into another cold vacation...we’ll make sure to return to this Market! Also, Berlin is kind of off the usual tourist track so prices for both lodging and food are quite reasonable. Plus, the city is very cosmopolitan so you can sample many different cuisines besides the famous Berlin currywurst!
By the way, in 2019 we had almost no snow, just sleet and freezing rain.

Posted by
424 posts

For Christmas, Salzburg is our favorite but they haven't had Christmas snow in a few years.

Hmm... We were in Salzburg and Vienna for the 2 weeks before Christmas in 2018 and not only was there plenty of snow on the ground on the way to, and in, Salzburg, it snowed while we were there. Checking photos... yes -- it was snowing on December 15, 2018 in Salzburg. Judging from the photos, it looks like about 5 to 7 cm new accumulation on top of 12 cm or so already on the ground.

Vienna was more rain (and wind) but it was very nice. I grew up in a cold climate and may be more accustomed to cold than some, but I wouldn't characterize the temperatures we experienced on that trip as particularly cold. They were within a few degrees above or below freezing -- not that different from cold spells in PDX.

We haven't made it a huge focus to visit Christmas markets since we've lived in France, though we've been to them in Strasbourg, Montreux, and Vienna and Salzburg, as well as the smaller ones in Lyon, Dijon, and Paris that we've happened to stumble across while in town during December, and I would characterize Strasbourg's as the largest whereas Vienna's and Salzburg's were "better" -- more charming, better quality goods, better atmosphere. Montreux, with the view of the Alps across the lake, was the most scenic, but it's much smaller than the others and, being Switzerland, a bit spendy.

Posted by
12040 posts

Here are some things to keep in mind. As others have mentioned, except for the mountains, you are unlikely to encounter significant amounts of snow in any of the locations you mentioned. Snow is just about guaranteed in the Alps, though.

Despite Europe's more generally northern latitudes than most of the US, the gulf stream current keeps temperatures in most of the western portion of the continent within a fairly mild range in the winter (the Mediterreanean basin also benefits from a heat sink effect). So, you will likely not encounter very cold weather. However, expect conditions to be fairly damp. What this means for planning is, in combination with the very limited amount of daylight, this severely reduces the utility of rural exploration. More often than not, the countryside looks pretty grey and the visibility of distances can be quite limited. Going to see individual castles or monuments is probably still worth it, but don't expect the sort of technicolor views presented in travel photos and videos. Those images were inevitably obtained under optimal summer viewing conditions, not the dark, damp days of early winter. What might be a scenic drive or train ride in the summer will appear hazy and grey in the winter.

If you have an interest in Christmas markets, take your trip well before the holiday. In Germany, nearly every town of a decent size has a market. Larger cities tend to run their markets for a few weeks, whereas smaller markets might only be around for as little as a weekend, but just about all of them wrap up by Christmas Eve. Which is the "best" is highly subjective. Expect for some of the smaller towns or more posh locations, most of the merchandise on sale is pretty much the same everywhere. The merchandise isn't really the attraction, its the food, drinks, and festive atmosphere. I will say that my least favorite market is probably the most well known, Nürnberg, mainly because being the most internationally popular, it gets packed with bus tour groups. Part of the fun of the markets is just observing the local residents enjoying themselves. This is much harder when the somewhat narrow spaces of the market are jammed packed with Instagramming tour groups. Personally, my favorite markets were Lindau and in the town of Lorsch. The former because of the magnificent setting on the waterfront, the latter because I lived nearby and knew many of the people (not saying you need to go out of your way to visit either, just illustrating the subjective nature of the question to which Christmas market is "best").

Posted by
6 posts

This forum is really helpful to me!
I'm seeing a lot of good advice about cities I hadn't considered, like Berlin, Bern, Basel, Luzern, Strasburg, Colmar, Vienna, Innsbruck, Evian les Bains, Lindau, Montreau...
Pat mentioned a Mrs Jo, so I'll look her up.
The cogwheel train to the top of Mt. Rigi, river cruises sound awesome, fire on the Rhine river cruises also sounds amazing (we won't be there when it happens in September), I'll also check out Emerald European river cruises.
Interesting advice about Switzerland in wintertime.
I'm reading Budapest a few times, so I'll check that out.
Several comments about the warming weather! I may definitely have to add higher elevations to guarantee a snowy experience. But snow in Salzburg recently was encouraging.
Lots of great advice on Christmas markets and what to expect. Thank you all!

Packing winter clothing: We're thinking of purchasing warm clothing at our first destination (maybe London) rather than packing them. I'm also reading Worst RS Advice suggest bringing a large suitcase when needing bulky things like that rather than mashing everything in a carry-on. What do you think?

Posted by
13207 posts

I think you'll find better end of season deals on warm clothing at REI or similar in Portland or online. Even if you buy it when you get there you'll still have to pack it. Consider using compression bags for your outer layers if you don't wear them on the plane. Here is what I'm thinking about from the RS store.

Use packing cubes for the rest of your stuff but really, to me all you'll need is a good outer waterproof hooded jacket, a puffy jacket under that and base layers. Plus warm hat, gloves, probably a neck gaiter. I am a light packer, a woman and 70. I need to be able to get my suitcase on and off a train by myself so I'd have it all in a 22" rollaboard, including winter layers. Puffy jackets squash down. Base layers can be warm but lightweight. You'll wear your waterproof layer on the plane as well as your warm shoes.

When you decide on a plan make sure you check to see what kinds of things are shut down over Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Years where you plan to be. UK shuts a lot of transport down (none on Christmas day) so you need to be in place and with food arrangements in mind on say, Dec 23. Other locations you may have more options but still don't plan to change locations on Christmas.

Posted by
8889 posts

Len, Some general comments.
To add to the climate points. In summer, Europe gets hotter the further south or east you go; in winter it gets colder the further north or east you go. Anywhere near the Atlantic has insipid summers and mild winters, snow in London is rare. Further inland . . . we've all heard of Russian winters.

Point 2, do not underestimate how much things shut down over Christmas. Do not expect to do normal touristing, places will be closed. This is particularly true in the UK. I would never book a hotel for 24/25/26 December unless it is part of a package with meals, or I have pre-booked a restaurant.

And now the good news, Christmas Markets. These generally (with exceptions) open last weekend in November, and close 23rd or 24th Dec. Only a few stay open until the new year.
That, and the above comment about Christmas closers, I would bias my trip to the week(s) before Christmas, and then "Chill out" in a romantic hotel for Christmas day.
And for SNOW, spend Christmas to New Year in an Alpine resort, Switzerland or Austria. But, be aware many will be primarily catering for skiers, you want one offering other options.

Recommended Christmas Markets, Strasbourg (still showing dates for 2019, it will be updated):
Nuremberg "Christkindlesmarkt":
And, because I live here, Basel:
It is also nice to visit some smaller, local ones.

The marriage: "She's from Brazil . . . . I'm from the Pacific Northwest, USA." - you don't say were you are living now, or what your citizenships are. Both US and Brazilian citizens can visit the Schengen Area (most of Europe) for "90 days in any 180" with just a passport, no visa. And both can visit the UK visa-free.
In order to get around the legal problems (arranging a legal marriage in a foreign country, ensuring it is recognised in wherever you live), I suggest you do a "legal" civil marriage at home, and just do the celebration in your desired country.
Are you going to be bringing any marriage guests with you?

I googled and got these two (no recommendation implied):

Posted by
3951 posts

For our 2019 Nov/Dec Europe trip, I bought an ankle-length down coat, with hood. I purchased it in the summer, and paid about $100 for it- it was quite a deal, and worked superbly - our lowest temperatures were around 30F. [I just saw a few women's down coats on sale at Sierra Trading- one of my favorite online sale sites.] You should find great winter clothes sales in the next few months. I imagine buying winter clothes in season, and with the USD to British pound exchange, would be quite pricey in London in December.

I brought a few base layers tops, and on a few days I did wear two layers under my long down coat. My daughter made fun of me for bringing hand warmers, but we were glad we had them in the evenings.

I brought two pairs of comfortable warm ankle booties, and sprayed them with a waterproof spray. [I wore one pair, obviously.]
Gloves, cashmere scarf, ski hat , and wool socks also combined to meet our needs nicely.

For rain, I used a poncho, because I don't like hanging onto an umbrella. And- we travelled carry-on only.
Note that it is dark until 8:00am, and gets dark again around 4:30 pm.
Have a great time planning your trip!

Posted by
6 posts

Re: The marriage: "She's from Brazil . . . . I'm from the Pacific Northwest, USA.". We're still living apart, in our respective countries, USA & Brazil.
We got engaged on my last trip there in December. With each of our schedules, we won't see each other until the Europe trip. That's why I'm looking into all the country-specific requirements way ahead of time... birth certificates, affidavits of address and eligible to marry, divorce decrees, apostille certifications... my god! nobody takes your word for it.

I've been big clothing stores in her home town in Brazil (João Pessoa), believe me, there are no stores there sells warm clothing like what she's gonna need. We intend on getting her appropriate winter clothing right after she steps off the plane and we meet.

Posted by
7172 posts

We lived in Augsburg, Germany near Munich for four years, working for the US Army. Winters were a bit depressing to us, since we are both from warm places. Christmas is nice in Germany with the Christmas Markets, but we would never pay to fly to Europe to go there again.

Around Christmas time it gets dark in Germany at 4:30 and days are short. It will be cold, not necessarily freezing, but could be. Take warm clothing, including a warm hat, gloves and warm boots or shoes.

You will likely save on airfare. I would not go to Scandinavia in the Winter, heck, we were there in June and it was chilly at times.

Travel in the Alps by car may be a problem, particularly in the higher elevations of Switzerland and Austria.

Glacier Express is neat, check it out when planning your trip.

Getting married in Europe is far more difficult than in the USA. My wife and I lived in Germany and wanted to marry and the paper work would have been a nightmare and expensive. We discovered that Denmark was the place to go. We married in Denmark. We even booked a tour designed for getting married. You arrive three days before the date, sign in at the courthouse, then show up for the wedding, which took about a minute. The Danish are very efficient.

If you want cold weather, the Munich area is nice. Switzerland is more expensive than Germany or Austria, so if you do the Glacier Express, do it and go to Germany.

Frankly, consider going to the Greek Island instead. In fact, if you find a cruise of Greece, that would be great.

Posted by
579 posts

You wrote: "I'm also reading Worst RS Advice suggest bringing a large suitcase when needing bulky things like that rather than mashing everything in a carry-on. What do you think?"

There's a whole section of the forum on packing. When I travel in the winter I carry my puffy coat over an arm, dragging a small roller bag (Rick Steves 21"), dressing in layers (perhaps a bulky sweater) and carrying day pack on my back. I do like compression bags. They don't help your suitcase weigh less but it's still a smaller suitcase so probably the frame of it weighs less that the large models. Plus you don't have checked luggage for the airline to lose.

In my opinion a trip with multiple destinations requires lighter packing because you have more opportunities to lug your stuff to taxi, train, plan, bus, whatever. It gets old fast.

Posted by
7172 posts

Regarding luggage and the option to just go with carryons, not sure how you would handle that in the Winter, needing heavy clothes to keep warm. Also, you have three weeks, so how frequently do you want to do laundry? Hotels charge a fortune for doing your laundry. I remember one hotel wanting to change me more than I paid for my underwear what I paid for the underwear.

You can find machine operated laundries in Europe, or a place that will do laundry in bulk. In the UK laundromats are called launderettes.

You can take some small packages of soap to wash clothes in your sink in your hotel, but you must be able to hang the items up to dry, which may take several hours.