7 Top Destinations For Off-Season Travel From November-March
Published by: Robert Veel | Sep 6th, 2016
“Our happiest moments as travellers always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.”
— Lawrence Block
The Centuries of tradition dictates that summer is the best time to take holidays. So Australia’s December-January peak holiday season corresponds to the ‘off-season’ for tourism in much of the northern hemisphere. For busy professionals it’s often the only time to get a decent period of time away from work. But if lazing at the beach, fishing or other forms of physical inactivity are not really your thing, choices within Australia and South East Asia can be limited. But is it worth the long-haul journey to the northern hemisphere for a ‘cultural holiday’ if it’s going to be cold, wet and miserable?
The simple answer is, depending on where you choose to go and what you choose to do, off-season travel can actually be more satisfying than the peak season. With a bit of imagination and planning you can be warm, dry and full of joy! Academy Travel director and tour leader Robert Veel takes us through travelling in the “Off-Season”.
Choosing the Right Time To Travel
The most obvious and frequently commented upon pleasure of off-season travel is the absence of crowds. Take the archaeological site of Pompeii in southern Italy, for example. Between April and October the 67-hectare site receives upwards of 30,000 visitors a day, queuing for everything in temperatures that are regularly in the 30s. In January it’s around 500 visitors per day and sun-filled days of 18 to 20 degrees are not uncommon.
The Benefits of Traveling Off-Season
Other benefits of off-season travel are less obvious, but equally rewarding. Here’s five to start with:
Galleries and museums tend to put on their best shows in the off-season, looking to attract a sophisticated local audience in search of quality.
In major cities the theatre and music season is in full swing, offering new, ambitious and artistically adventurous programs rather than a tired line up of Nutcrackers, La Bohèmes and other unimaginative crowd pleasers.
It’s also a great time for foodies. A centuries-old combination of the autumn harvest and winter festivities opens up a whole world of culinary pleasures, especially in food-obsessed countries such as Italy, France and Spain.
Without all those other tourists hanging around, there is a lot more chance of genuine engagement with the locals – restaurant owners and store keepers who have time for a chat, or locals attending small festivals designed to beat the winter blues.
Last, but not least, prices are lower. If you select your travel dates carefully, accommodation costs can be 50% less than peak times, and many retailers hold extended winter sales of clothing and other goods that are hard to source in Australia.
7 Of The Best Destinations To Travel During The Off-Season
So what are some of the best places for the intelligent traveller to visit in the off season? And what places and times are best avoided?
New York in January
You actually wouldn’t want to travel to New York in the summer. It can be hot and unbearably humid any time between March and September. The city is jam packed in the shoulder seasons – April and October. If you’re prepared to dress warmly and forego that leisurely stroll in Central Park, January is a great time to visit. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA and the Guggenheim all have special exhibitions, and it’s a very special time on Broadway, with leading international stars appearing for two and three week runs, usually winding up on January 31. From mid-January onwards, Carnegie Hall has a full program and the Met Opera will have rostered of the world’s best singers in a mix of new productions and audience favourites. And the architecture? OK, it requires steely determination to admire the skyline when it’s only two or three degrees, but New York is full of wonderful interior spaces, from Grand Central Station to the Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim spiral.
London before December 15 or after January 15
Like New York, most Australians don’t travel to London for the weather, so what’s to stop you from travelling in the wintertime? There is a distinctive pause in London’s cultural program from mid-December until mid-January, but outside of these times there’s an almost endless variety of attractions. Galleries such as the Tate Modern and the Royal Academy hold major shows, the Royal Shakespeare Company is in town and cultural centres like Southbank and The Barbican have all theatres and concert halls operating.
Websites such as londontheatre.co.uk contain aggregate listings of what’s on, but it’s worth checking the individual websites of venues including The National Gallery, The Royal Academy, Tate Modern, The British Museum, The Royal Opera House, The National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Barbican and Southbank.
Venice – late October to March
We’ll begin with a myth buster: ‘aqua alta’! The legendary flooding that can occur in Venice’s squares and laneways is famous does reach a peak in the winter months BUT it only lasts a couple of hours in the high tide as is confined to lower-lying districts of the city. It’s not an impediment to travel, and in fact for many visitors it’s a veritable feature of the city – something to be witnessed, photographed and discussed on social media.
The real downer to Venice in the depths of winter is the cold. The city’s unique water setting means that it’s always humid, and cold humidity can really chill you to you bones. We don’t really recommend travelling in January or February, unless you’re prepared to seriously rug up. However at the edges of the off-season, late October and the month before Easter, it’s generally mild and delightfully uncrowded, especially on weekdays. On some days it’s possible to dine outdoors, and you don’t have to fight to get a seat on the vaporetto or in the front door of San Marco, the Doge’s Palace or the Accademia. And the canals don’t smell.
Rome after January 7
Europeans flock to Rome in the Christmas/New Year period. It’s much warmer than anywhere over the Alps and for Catholics, Christmas is Rome has a special significance. It’s busy in Rome right up until the feat of the Epiphany on January 6 (‘La Befana’ in Italian, when a local witch gives presents to the good children and blocks of charcoal to the naughty ones). After La Befana the Eternal City really settles down. Even the Vatican Museums are uncrowded, and you can enjoy Michelangelo’s superb frescoes without the pressure of thousands of selfie-seeking gawkers who really aren’t that interested in art and history anyway.
Berlin, Prague and Vienna – Christmas and New Year
We’ve picked these three cities for a specific reason – their combination of great music and Christmas traditions. While most concert halls and opera houses take a brief break from Christmas to New Year, Berlin goes into overdrive. There are even two concerts at the Philharmonie on Christmas Day. It’s similar in Prague and Vienna, though not so frenetic. For music lovers, Vienna is the place to be at New Year – not for the schmaltzy New Year’s Day concert, but for the remarkable performances you can catch at the Vienna State Opera and the Musikverein and Konzerthaus concert halls. For New Year’s Eve 2017 there’s even Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, followed by fireworks. When you’re not enjoying the concerts there are truly charming Christmas markets to enjoy in all these cities. Prague is probably the pick – it’s less commercialized that the other cities and the snow is piled just that bit higher.
Sicily in November
St Martin’s Summer – l’estate di San Martino – is the term locals give to the pocket of good weather that frequently blesses Italy in the first three weeks of November. Days are mild and often sunny. In northern Italy, this is usually followed by grey skies and heavy rains, as the warm winds from the south meet the cool air of the Alps. But in Sicily it stays mild right through to January, and it’s a great time to visit, much more suited for visiting cultural sites than the hot months from mid-May through to October. Archaeological sites and museums stay open until around 3.30 in the afternoon and – best of all – the cruise ships have departed. However plan carefully if you want to visit Sicily’s outlying islands. Ferry schedules can be minimal and many hotels in places like Lipari close from the end of October until March.
The Bay of Naples in January
Over the years, Academy Travel has taken scores of visitors to the Bay of Naples in January, and it’s never let us down. As we mentioned at the top of this blog, there aren’t many tourists around and the temperatures are mild. If you love archaeology, you can literally spend days wandering around Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Vesuvian villas, undisturbed. Rather than becoming exasperated by the heat and crowds, your imagination is fired up as your mind’s eye recreates ancient Roman town life and you see yourself stepping off your chariot to address the throng gathered in the forum. Back in Naples, you can enjoy a waterfront hotel at low-season prices and indulge in as much pizza al forno di legna as you like. You’ll also need a regular intake of those fabulous Neapolitan pastries, sfogliatella and baba al rhum, to keep up your energy for the archaeological sites.
And the pitfalls?
For Australians, one of the main issues in off season travel can be airfares. Because it’s peak season in Australia you need to book and pay early if you want to travel between December 20 and January 7-8 and not pay a fortune. The later in January, the cheaper and more available the air travel becomes.
And finally, there are some places where it really is wet, cold and miserable in the off season:
Iceland (it’s dark 24 hours a day, and cloud cover means you almost certainly won’t see the Northern Lights)
Northern France, Belgium and northern Germany (draw your own Hindenburg line line from Dunkirk to Hamburg and don’t cross it)
Canada (many sites close down until late April)
Chicago and the mid-West USA (have you seen the waves on the shore of Lake Michigan freezing over?)
Travel in the off-season
If you’re looking for a cultural adventure, check out our website for many tour options over the off-season period.
Robert Veel is a cultural historian with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, the USA, Scandinavia and Turkey. He has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, architecture and music, and is a founding director of Academy Travel. Robert holds a BA, Dip. Ed and M.Ed, all from the University of Sydney. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney before a long stint at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, lecturing in Italian history and culture and working as Assistant Director.