Europe in the off-season


By Jim Byers

Millions of tourists swarm through the streets of popular European cities every summer, fighting the heat and battling the crowds. If you’re taking your kids, you might have to go when school is out. But if you’re there for the culture or the food or the history, it doesn’t really matter when you go. And, let’s face it, no one visits England or Ireland to work on their tan. So why not go when the crowds are down?

I’ve been in London in the summer and I’ve been in November – I’ll take November every time. I also have had great visits to Spain in February and Ireland in April. To me, a trip to Europe makes the most sense in early spring or late fall, when the streets are mostly filled with locals, and when prices are often cheaper than in the popular summer months.

Here’s one European lover’s list of five great places to check out in shoulder season.

MANCHESTER

I was only there once – a two-day visit a couple of years ago – but I fell in love with the stunning architecture and the cool neighborhoods. The interior of the John Rylands Library is as striking a public building as you’ll find anywhere in the world, and City Hall is equally majestic. The Northern Quarter is fabulous for small, quirky, independent shops and restaurants. Check out the old shipping canals for great atmosphere. There’s also a National Football (Soccer) Museum that sports fans will love. The Briton’s Protection is a fine, handsome pub.  The Midland Hotel is a classic property in the heart of the city.

A great destination for folks who’ve explored London and want to move on to a new city.


ITALY

The Eternal City of Rome isn’t eternally crowded; it just seems that way in summer. You’re much better off to visit in shoulder season, when you’ll be able to get close to the Trevi Fountain without getting elbowed by tourists from Toronto or Topeka. I also love the region of Emilia-Romagna, which is south of Milan and north of Tuscany. The food in the city in Bologna is to die for, especially the cheeses and the rich, meaty Spaghetti Bolognese. You’ll find marvelous hilltop villages all over the area, including San Leo and Verucchio. Modena is not only a gorgeous city, but a great place to taste authentic balsamic vinegar that has been aged and treated much the same as a fine wine. Check out the Ferrari Museum in Maranello, where you’ll be able to read about famed Canadian race car driver Gilles Villeneuve and other racing legends.

Food lovers can’t go wrong with Italy in particular, and the Emilia-Romagna region is home to some of the best food in the country.


PORTUGAL

Lisbon has become immensely popular, but it hasn’t lost its charm. Rickety streetcars rattle up and down the hills of the city, snaking their way past beautiful stone buildings and lovely parks. Take a walk through the wonderful, evocative Alfama district as you make your way from the city centre to Fort Sao Jorge where you can take in commanding views of the city. Not far from Lisbon is magical Sintra, a series of castles and noble houses high on a hill, with tremendous atmosphere and stunning design work. The Algarve region is a wildly popular beach destination in summer, but not nearly so crowded in spring. The weather in March or April is terrific for Canadian visitors, with daytime highs around 21 to 22 Celsius. I love the little town of Burgau, where you’ll find excellent seafood restaurants, a beautiful beach and fabulous clifftop hikes along the ocean.

A perfect location for folks who want both an urban holiday and relaxing time at the beach.


IRELAND

Dublin has the thriving Temple Bar district and the Ha’penny Bridge, but I was more impressed by Belfast. There, you’ll find amazing architecture and tons of history. I love the winding streets of the Cathedral Quarter with its tiny bars like The Spaniard and a vastly improved dining scene. The dining area at The Merchant Hotel is in an old bank vault with soaring ceilings and brilliant white cherub statues – possibly the most striking place to eat in the country. The Cliffs of Moher are justifiably famous, but they can be crowded. Located in low-key Donegal, the cliffs at Slieve League are even higher and you’ll probably find only a handful of visitors most days.

An awesome spot for a driving trip, provided you don’t mind the left side of the road. If that’s not your thing, try a guided tour with a few pub stops. Hey, let someone else drive!


SLOVENIA

I’ve often referred to this small sliver of a nation as “The Tiny Perfect Country.” It’s squeezed between Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Yugoslavia, with elements of each. The capital, Ljubljana, is a charming city with pastel buildings and onion-dome churches lining its river. You’ll also find lively markets, friendly locals and a small castle on a hill. I think of it as Salzburg without the Mozart kitsch. The coast near Piran feels very much like Italy, with casual cafes and pizza joints along the sparkling Mediterranean. Inland, you’ll see soaring mountains and be treated to epic alpine views. Lake Bled is famous for its crème cakes and sensational scenery: a brilliant blue-green lake watched over by a castle high on a hill. There’s a small island near one end of the lake with a pretty church you can reach by hiring a small human-powered boat. Slovenia feels like four or five countries in one, and its people haven’t yet been overwhelmed by visitors with selfie sticks.

A terrific country for explorers who feel they’ve seen the major countries in Western Europe and want something new. Or for folks who want to see a huge variety of places in a short time.