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The French Riviera in summer is synonymous with glistening water and Aperol spritzes by the beach. The downside is it’s equally synonymous with crowds, as summer is the time when tourists from every corner of the globe congregate in le sud along the Mediterranean. But venturing to Europe in the off-season means not having to share historical landmarks you’ve waited your entire life to see with thousands of other travelers. Indeed, "shoulder season" in Europe is an all-access pass to experiencing Europe's most popular cities without needing to fight the crowds. And it just might be time to start booking your ticket.
Prague, Czech Republic
Early fall or late spring are the sweet spots for Prague, which gets mobbed in the summer and frigid in the winter. To see Prague in October when the city is lit up with foliage clusters is to see the city in its most romantic form. Climb Petrin Hill as the golden leaves fall around you, and bring a coat so you can linger at the top and take in the views of the city.
Cinque Terre, Italy
Cinque Terre is comprised of five Italian seaside villages, and they are miraculous, but completely overrun with tourists in the summer. The hiking trails along the Mediterranean-adjacent cliffs are relatively narrow, so aiming for the fall or winter (offseason is from mid-September to May) is a smart choice.
Off-season in Iceland starts in mid-August, but if you wait until September, you might catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. The midnight sun is no longer a possibility in the fall, but you’ll still get about 13 hours of daylight in September.
Imagine having some of the best beaches in the Algarve all to yourself. Well, if you go to Lagos in the fall or winter months, that will be your reality. Visiting Southern Portugal in the winter means getting a cold-weather break; it can get up to the low 60s in December, and the Algarve sees 300 days of sunshine each year.
The medieval European city of Bruges is an under-the-radar treat for European travelers. Fall is shoulder season, mainly because the air starts to cool off, but the brisk weather feels invigorating as long as you have a cozy peacoat and a warm cup of cider. The canals running through the city make Bruges the “Venice of the North” and the still water against the orange and gold trees in the fall is stunning.
You’ll have the Balkans to yourself when visiting Montenegro in the fall or early spring. The weather is still terrific (low 70s in October, 60s in November), and you won’t need a reservation. Kotor is a UNESCO World Heritage site and filled with medieval charm. Because tourism has died down, wild nightlife and even guided tours are less accessible. However, you’ll have no lines when climbing the fortress of Saint Ivan to see the majestic coastal views.
September to November or February to April are the best off-season times to check out Barcelona. In the summer, there are so many tourists that you hear more English than Spanish. But in the off-season, you’ll hear plenty of Catalan, Barcelona’s regional Spanish dialect. If you’re planning a fall trip to Spain, make sure you see the Jazz Festival in Barcelona, which starts at the end of October.
While Lucerne is best known as an Alps skiing destination, May through October brings peace and quiet to the quaint Alps town. In the fall, visit the apple orchards and ride the Stanserhorn Cablecar, which promises unreal views of the mountains and Lake Lucerne from the roofless gondola. In the off season, you can also take a scenic boat ride on Lake Lucerne, one of the true gems of Northern Switzerland.
Visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park in the fall brings vivid colors and near-empty hiking trails. Starting in November, only the lower lakes are open, but the entire park is open in September and October. Admission to the park is cheaper in autumn, and while you might not be able to swim in the 16 lakes, you won’t have to worry about tourist mobs in your photos.
While temperatures are dipping into the 30s by November, fall in Copenhagen is breathtaking thanks to the foliage. January is also a great off-season month once the holiday crowds have dissipated. If you’re there in the chillier months, visit CopenHot, which has waterfront salt-water Jacuzzis and wood-fired saunas.
The times to avoid this luxury south-of-France city are May when the film festival takes over the town, and summer, when the crowds make finding a quiet spot on the beach unlikely. Fall is the best off-season time because you can still relax on the beach with temperatures consistently in the 60s and 70s.