Europe Is Bursting

Good thing the David is 5 meters high or no one could see him!

Not with refugees or immigrants: with tourists. In addition to the usual flocks of generously vacationed Western Europeans, Japanese tour groups, and North American college kids, families and retirees, there are now huge groups of Asian tourists, primarily from the rapidly rising economies and growing middle classes of China and India.

So if you’re going to visit any of the major tourist sites in Europe, you’d better enjoy lines and know how to move through tightly packed streets. (Football or hockey pads may help.) Or you’d better follow my advice below.

Go Someplace Else

Europe is dazzling, ancient, beautiful, a cornucopia for the senses.

So are lots of other places.

Flights to Asia are incredibly cheap these days. Several friends have done discount package tours to China that were a steal, and had great trips. Check out TravelZoo and others.

Colombia is super hot. My sister and her husband went to Bogota for his 50th birthday and loved it. Another friend is touring there as I write this. Costa Rica and Panama are also popular. Easy to get to from North America and inexpensive.

Want something completely different? Try Africa. My wife and I went to Senegal in November and it was spectacular. Amazing people, great food, wonderful and diverse scenery. Yes, you need to prepare yourself for the smells, dirt and weaker infrastructure that are features of less developed countries, but the experience of being in a place relatively few Westerners visit is more than worth it. (If you don’t speak French, I’d recommend an English-speaking country first, perhaps Kenya.)

Ecolodge Lompoul, Senegal

Go Off Season … Way WAY Off Season

Thanks to having a German wife, I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Northern Europe in November and December. It’s pretty dreary: damp, cold, grey. You’ll quickly understand why Googling “cheerful German literature” produces few results.

But then think about why you’re going to Europe. Is your focus mainly museums? If so, then why not go off season? You’re going to be inside anyway. And you can still see the famous outdoor monuments. It’s not like the Leaning Tower of Pisa or Eiffel Tower are hidden in winter.

Go to Lesser Known Places

Prague’s Old Town is justifiably popular. Notre Dame is beautiful, even after the fire. Westminster Abbey is bursting with history. St. Peter’s Basilica is stupendous.

So are lots of other places. Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, has its own Old Town that’s less crowded and quite the equal of Prague. I biked from Vienna to Budapest last summer and the only crowds I saw were at the beginning and end. The towns in between (Mosonmagyaróvár, Győr and Esztergom, Hungary, and Komárno, Slovakia) were beautiful and far less crowded.

In other words, seek out the “second tier” destinations. They’ll be cheaper, the people will be nicer (the most hospitable people simply can’t avoid becoming cynical in the face of the onslaught of tourists), and the sights just as beautiful.

Go Early and Go Late

There are very few things more pleasurable in visiting Europe than walking through narrow streets or along rivers late at night. The crowds are gone. You can hear your footsteps on the cobblestones. The ambience is superb.

The same goes for getting up early. The friend who accompanied me on my most recent European trip is wont to rise as early as 5 am and go for a run. The light is incredible for photography in the morning, and the tourists are mostly still sleeping.

Just look at the two pictures below. The left picture was taken at 9:30 in the evening; the other at 11 in the morning. And this is from early-May. I can only imagine how crowded it gets in the summer. (Oh and, by the way, the nighttime image is much more beautiful IMHO.)

Plan and/or Spend Some Money

At the end of the day, if you want to go to Europe, you want to go to the more well known destinations, and you want to (or have to in the case of those with school-aged children) go in high season, then my advice—and I hate to write this—is to plan ahead and/or spend some money.

You can buy advance tickets for many of the museums, cathedrals, monuments, etc. These often require you to go at a specific time. And they often allow entry via a special advance ticket entrance, avoiding the lines. (I spoke to two women who waited over two hours to get into the Duomo in Florence.)

You can also get into many of these places via the “skip the line” tour companies, which buy bulk tickets and then package them with a tour guide. Again you avoid the lines but it’s going to cost you at least double the cost of buying a ticket in advance. Then again, you do get a guided tour and this can be valuable. These groups don’t usually move at the pace I’d like and, particularly in the Vatican, there were moments where I couldn’t even keep up with the group as it was so hard to move through the crowd.

Another recommendation is to spend the money to stay right in the heart of the main tourist area, e.g., near the Duomo in Florence, right in the old town of San Marino, in Travestere in Rome, along the Seine in Paris, etc. It’s going to cost you—a lot—and you’ll be surrounded by the hordes during the day, BUT you’d be surrounded by the hordes even if you’re visiting from someplace else, by staying in the neighborhood, you can walk everywhere and, most importantly, see the area easily in the morning and at night when the crowds have mostly gone home. I’m in Cinqueterre right now, for example, in the village of Manarola. It was packed when I arrived but by 6 or 7 pm, it was totally quiet.

The pleasures of quiet streets at night: Florence

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