The best-known places in Europe will draw crowds. Not surprising, we all want to see the world’s most famous attractions. In fact, overcrowding is such a problem at some popular tourist destinations local governments are taking action to limit access.
While crowds can be a problem, there are ways to minimize the impact. With a little planning, you can shorten the time spent in line and enjoy more of your vacation. Here are my top ten tips to avoid the crowds on your European vacation.
Hire a Local Guide
Even if you’re traveling on a budget, do whatever you can to hire a private, local tour guide. A good guide is worth every, single, penny. Besides knowing secret, magical places to visit, a good guide will know WHEN to visit popular attractions, and WHERE to have an authentic experience without the crowds. A tour guide turns a nice visit into a fantastic holiday and something you’ll never forget.
Skip the Line
Pay for skip-the-line access to the most popular tourist attractions. Why? Because you have limited vacation time, and who wants to spend hours standing in line (save that for Disney World)? Many famous tourist attractions like the Louvre and Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Vatican and Colosseum in Rome and the Accademia (to meet Michelangelo’s amazing David) in Florence all have skip-the-line options for a fee.
Purchase Admission Tickets Before You Leave Home
Plan ahead if popular tourist attractions are on your must-see list. Buy tickets before you leave home to favorites like the Vatican, Palace of Versailles, Tower of London, Colosseum, the London Eye, etc. Otherwise, expect to wait in line for hours.
An Upside to Jet Lag
Most flights from the east coast of the U.S. travel overnight to Europe. That means you’ll probably arrive sometime between 5:00 am and 8:00 am. Drop your bags at the hotel and wander around the near-empty streets. If you’re ambitious, head to a popular tourist attraction and wait for it to open. You’ll enjoy a peaceful visit without the rush of a crowd. Otherwise, find a seat at a cafe and watch the city come alive.
Have you ever been to Paris in August? Did you notice something missing? Parisians! Most Europeans have a lot of vacation time and use it during the summer. The cities are still crowded in the summer, but it’s mostly tourists.
Consider traveling during the shoulder season (May and September-October). The weather is lovely, and the number of tourists declines dramatically. For families with kids, missing school is a hard choice, but I highly recommend it when possible. Middle school is a great time to bring kids to Europe.
Plan Ahead for Museum Visits
Many museums have “free” days once a month. Those days are incredibly busy. Try to avoid “free” days unless you want to fight the crowd. Keep an eye out for late night openings for a quieter experience. Some major attractions, like London’s Tate Modern, stay open late one or two nights a week and offer an alternative to busy daytime hours.
Consider Alternative Destinations
Everyone talks about the big guys – Rome, Paris, London, Prague – but there’s magic to be found in Europe’s other cities. How about Lisbon, Vienna, or Budapest? Even better, buy a Eurorail train pass and go where the wind takes you.
Travel Off the Beaten Path
Just because it’s in a guidebooks doesn’t mean you have to visit. You can visit London without going to Buckingham Palace and experience Italy without snapping a photo of yourself holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. There’s way more to a city than its tourist icons, so let the icons draw the crowds, while you find more unique ways to spend your time.
Choosing a smaller hotel in a more residential neighborhood with easy access to the center city is a great way escape the crowds at the end of the day. While a Holiday Inn or Best Western will offer cheap accommodations, it won’t feel special. Name brand hotels are all the same worldwide, you could be anywhere from Pittsburgh to Paris, and you won’t see a difference because they’re all exactly the same. Is that why you traveled to Europe? Plus, the owners and employees at small, local places are super helpful in suggesting some little-known jewels for restaurants and sightseeing. And, it’s good for the local economy.
Fear the Cruise Ship!
This is no joke. If you’ve ever gotten stuck near a port when a ship (or two or three) comes in you’ll understand my warning.
If you’re staying in a port city, find out when the cruise ships dock and make yourself scarce. Thousands of people will descend from the ship all at once clogging up streets, and making it hard to move, get food, or see anything at all. Find something else to do for the day. Hire a guide or a car and visit the countryside. You’ll be glad you did.
And if you’re one of the people debarking from the ship, see Tip #1 and hire a private guide. The cruise ship loads bus after bus of passengers heading to the same sights. A private tour guide with a driver will give you flexibility and create a more enjoyable experience.