Lounging on a Greek beach. Strolling down a sunny cobblestone street in Lisbon. Driving around Provence with the top down under a cloudless sky.
Fantasies about a European vacation tend to have a summery background.
But they come at a price: bloated airfares and inflated accommodation rates, interminable waits for popular attractions. To make matters worse, all the fun is bracketed by long lines at the airport because, guess what? Everybody else goes to Europe at the same time.
Things are different if you head across the Atlantic in winter, when travel and lodgings are much cheaper and there is less waiting time for anything, be it going through customs or visiting a museum.
Air France, for instance, flies direct from New York to Paris for $480 in February, almost half what it would cost in July — when you can still get a cheap-ish rate, but it would have to be on a low-cost airline like Norwegian. A nonstop to Barcelona can be found for $460 in February but is close to $1,000 a few months later.
Similar savings apply to hotels, inns and Airbnb-style rentals, where the bill tends to be 30 to 40 percent less in February or March.
Here are five European hot spots worth considering for off-peak travel.
Many people argue there is no bad time to visit Paris, and some even say that the city’s true lovers go in winter. In general, it’s a good time to take your time. Book a guided tour of literary Paris, for instance, then while away the rest of the day reading at a quiet cafe table. Or indulge in the old-school dishes that are too hearty for summer, like pot-au-feu or blanquette de veau — stews that stick to the ribs in the most satisfying way.
Museums are less crowded and your view of the Mona Lisa may even be unobstructed by selfie sticks.
Not that the art scene slows down. This winter the Pompidou Center (centrepompidou.fr) is presenting the first major French retrospective of optic-art forefather Victor Vasarely (through May), while “Doisneau and Music” gathers the famed photographer’s snapshots of jazz musicians, through April at the Philharmonie de Paris (philharmoniedeparis.fr). The Fondation Louis Vuitton (fondationlouisvuitton.fr), hosted in a superb Richard Gehry building, will have “The Courtauld Collection: A Vision for Impressionism,” 110 pieces from the collection of British collector Samuel Courtauld (Feb. 20-June 17).
Many Barcelona locals complain that tourists have taken over their city, and officials are trying to curb the flow of visitors by regulating accommodations. Anybody who has experienced the full-contact sport of Las Ramblas on a summer day will understand.
It’s a different scene a few months earlier. Barcelona has a milder climate than inland Madrid — the average daytime temperature in March climbs into the low 60s — the better to enjoy events like the Sant Medir festival (March 3), when horse-drawn carts gather in the Vila de Gràcia neighborhood, then head out in a procession, giving out sweets to bystanders. Indoor options abound as well, with a bevy of first-rate museums where the building itself is often worth the trip, such as the Joan Miró Foundation (fmirobcn.org).
Another good option for March visitors is the Barcelona Beer Festival (March 15-17, barcelonabeerfestival.com), where you can try out local brews and sample tapas. Those who crave something heartier than those small dishes should try the Catalan stew “escudella i carn d'olla” — though it is definitely not for vegetarians, or even omnivores with a delicate appetite.
Amsterdam is the kind of city where you actually wish for a cold snap: The canals freeze over and the hearty Dutch pull out their ice skates.
The city offers plenty to do with those who prefer indoor activities. It’s much easier to arrange a visit to the Anne Frank House (annefrank.org) in winter, for instance (timed tickets must be purchased in advance online). The Rijksmuseum is going all out to mark the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, presenting its collection’s 22 paintings, 60 drawings and more than 300 prints in “All the Rembrandts” (through June 10, rijksmuseum.nl).
If you happen to travel to the Netherlands nearer the beginning of spring, you can visit the famed Keukenhof Gardens (keukenhof.nl), which open March 21 to display 800 varieties of tulips. (A bus ride from the airport takes about 30 minutes.)
In any case, a visit to Amsterdam must include an order of piping-hot “poffertjes” (tiny, puffy pancakes), as well as the thin caramel waffles known as “stroopwafels.” If you only know the packaged version found at Starbucks, freshly made stroopwafels will be a revelation.
While Milan doesn’t have the touristy reputation of Rome or Florence, it is a great destination in its own right. Make sure to bring appropriate clothing, though, because March and April can be rainy, and the temperature drops in the evening. The mountains aren’t far, after all, and outdoorsy types could even tag a day or two at the alpine resort of Courmayeur (courmayeur-montblanc.com), a couple of hours away.
Dubbed by many the fashion capital of Europe, Milan is heaven for shoppers, especially if you’re in time for the big winter sales. You should be able to find an outfit appropriate for La Scala (teatroallascala.org), possibly the most famous opera house in the world.
For a different vibe, drop by the Museum of Science and Technology (museoscienza.org), which celebrates the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death with the exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci Parade,” presenting models and frescoes that illustrate the artist’s ventures into science (until Oct. 13).
And of course like many Italian cities, Milan has a carnival. While it is not as famous as the one in Venice, the Carnevale di Sant’Ambrogio (March 9) is an opportunity to revel among floats and costumed parade-goers and to feast on traditional “chiacchiere” fritters.
Telling your friends that you’re going to Stockholm in the middle of winter may provoke some raised eyebrows, and admittedly this capital city can be frosty. But winter is also a magical time in Sweden — and people there know how to make the most of it. A snow-blanketed Stockholm is a special treat, and ice rinks pop up here and there into March.
To recover, do as the locals do and enjoy “fika,” the afternoon coffee break that’s usually accompanied by a cardamom or cinnamon bun. Despite its reputation as being pricey, Stockholm actually won’t give too much sticker shock to New Yorkers, especially if they sample local delicacies at a food hall — the Östermalm one (ostermalmshallen.se) is especially great.
Even if you don’t think maritime history is all that interesting, the Vasa Museum (vasamuseet.se) is worth a pit stop. The titular 17th-century ship was painstakingly restored after sinking in the harbor, and the visit is illuminating.
But Scandinavia is also known for its style, and you can check out new creators at the “Young Swedish Design” exhibit (through March) at the National Center for Architecture and Design (arkdes.se), conveniently situated next to the Modern Museum.