Escaping the Summer Crowds in Europe – How to Survive Peak Travel Season
Escaping the summer crowds in Europe is easy: avoid summer and travel off-season or if you must travel in summer go off the beaten track. Too late? In Europe now or heading there? These are our tips to surviving Europe’s peak summer tourist season and the sweltering heat and crowds that come with it.
August is the peak period of the busy European summer tourist season, which starts mid to end of June and continues until the end of this month, when not only is the rest of the world descending upon the continent but most Europeans are also taking their annual holidays.
Added to the pain of dealing with never-ending lines, heaving throngs filling museums and art galleries, and masses of people crowding cobblestone lanes and pebbly beaches, is the scorching heat. August is always sizzling but Europe is currently in the grips of a deadly heatwave with Spain and Portugal set to break Europe’s all-time temperature record of 48C (118.4F).
It’s so hot in Europe that mountains are melting (Sweden’s highest peak lost 4 metres of ice from its peak), rivers drying up, fish are suffocating, toxic algae is invading beaches (in the Baltic swimming is off limits in Sweden, Lithuania and Poland), zoo animals are being fed frozen food, dogs are being fitted with shoes to protect their paws, and police water cannons are being used to water public parks. Stay cool, people.
I do get the pull of Europe in summer. It’s a rite of passage for some and once upon a time a European summer escape was my ideal holiday. I could think of no better place to be in summer than Europe – basking on gorgeous beaches by day or by hillside hotel swimming pools gazing over pastel-painted towns, lingering over long lunches under shady umbrellas overlooking the Mediterranean, and in the balmy early evenings sipping spritzes on buzzy squares. Sigh…
Before we shifted our base to Southeast Asia we spent 12 years travelling Europe, initially for summer holidays from our home in the UAE, when we’d spend two months each summer exploring two or three countries: Italy, Spain and Portugal one year, Turkey and Greece the next, Italy and Croatia after that, and so on. Bliss. Years later we travelled Europe writing guidebooks on Milan, Paris, Lisbon, Belgium, Amsterdam, Greece, Cyprus, and Italy. Ah, Italy. Deep, long sigh…
But that was before over-tourism. European cities were busy and beaches were crowded, but not like now. In 1990, Barcelona was visited by 1.7 million tourists, in 2017 it was 32 million, around 20 times the local population. Ten years ago Barcelona’s residents weren’t yet hanging banners from their balconies or scrawling messages on popular sights telling tourists to go home. Public spaces weren’t yet overwhelmed, old city centres hadn’t yet had their souls destroyed by 7-Elevens, Starbucks and Airbnb, and locals hadn’t yet been priced out of their own cities.
It’s an altogether different Europe now, a Europe where tourists aren’t always welcome in some places, especially in summer – which, in addition to escaping the summer crowds, is a very good reason to get off the beaten track and visit places where you will be welcome, preferably at another less busy time of year.
Escaping the summer crowds in Europe is easy. Avoid summer and travel off-season or if you must travel in August, follow our tips to surviving Europe’s peak summer tourist season.
Escaping the Summer Crowds in Europe – How to Survive the Peak Summer Period
Avoid Europe in Summer
My top tip to escaping the summer crowds in Europe will always be to avoid Europe in summer, especially in August, and travel during the shoulder seasons (April to June and September to October) or even off-season (November to March; Christmas to New Year aside). We adore Europe during those periods and I’ll tell you why in another post. I understand this isn’t possible for everyone, especially if summer is the only time your employers allow you to take leave, or you have kids at school and you have no choice but to take off during school summer holidays. If that’s you, read on…
Try Europe’s Second Cities – and Second Countries and Islands
For those of you eager to experience the continent at its finest weather-wise, my best advice on escaping the summer crowds in Europe is to spend your time in Europe’s second cities. For example, instead of Paris visit Lyon, which has glorious food, mouthwatering markets and riverside swimming pools, but was hit hard by the French train strikes, which resulted in a 25% drop in tourists, and is now eagerly welcoming visitors. Also try Valencia in Spain, Thessaloniki in Greece, Genoa or Trieste in Italy, and so on. See our post on Underrated Cities in Europe we Love for more ideas. Or instead of second cities, try second countries: spend time in Kotor in Montenegro instead of Dubrovnik, Croatia. And second islands: while we love Mallorca, we recommend Menorca during the peak season.
Visit the Cities Locals Abandon
August is beach month for locals as well as tourists, so while Europe’s star destinations of Paris, London, Barcelona, and Rome are busy year-round, more local cities, such as Madrid and Milan empty of tourists in August when residents de-camp to the beach. If you can handle the heat and the fact that the best restaurants will be closed, this is a fantastic time to experience some cities. Just be sure to do as the locals do and take things easy during the day and go out in the evening when the streets are livelier.
Get Off the Beaten Track
Another means of escaping the summer crowds in Europe is to spend time in the towns and villages that locals have deserted and most tourists ignore. Italy, for instance, has countless small cities, big towns and villages that are off the beaten track for the tourist masses and empty of locals in August (see above). In northern Italy, for instance, most tourists focus on Venice, Verona and Bologna, but Cremona, Mantua and Padua also hold a lot of allure. See our post on Off the Beaten Track European Summer Destinations for more ideas.
Avoid Weekend Travel
If you’re intent on escaping the summer crowds in Europe then avoid any weekend travel in Europe. Locals who are still working or who can’t afford to go away on holiday will travel to the beach on weekends. Book European train tickets well in advance, travel first class on trains if you can – there’s nothing more excruciating than standing for hours on an over-crowded train as you can’t get the seat you paid for – and travel mid-week.
Plan Museum Visits Carefully
There’s nothing worse than standing in line for hours at the Vatican or Louvre and then experiencing the crush of the crowds inside. It’s enough to bring on panic attacks in the most laidback people. If you have the luxury of time and flexibility call the museum you want to see and ask when is the quietest time to visit. With some museums, it’s best to go as soon as they open – most people on holidays want to sleep in. For other museums, lunchtime is best when everyone leaves to eat. Whatever you do, avoid the free days and nights when they’re packed. Museums are good ideas in summer for the air-conditioning alone.
Buy Museum Fast-Track Skip-the-Line Tickets
Alternatively, if the budget allows, one of the best ways of escaping the summer crowds in Europe – particularly the hoards of people lining up for the most popular sights and attractions – is to buy fast-track tickets in advance online that you allow you to skip the lines at museums and attractions. They’re an absolute must in Europe in summer and can save many hours of waiting in line for top sights such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Museum D’Orsay and Orangerie in Paris, the Colosseum in Rome, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Acropolis in Athens.
Do Exclusive After-Hours Tours
Another great way of escaping the summer crowds in Europe – once again, those masses of people that can overwhelm museums heaving with people – is to do an exclusive after-hour tour with a guide so you can amble museums in peace. We’ve visited the Vatican both ways over the years, the first time lining up in a queue that stretched around the corner and way down the road, and the second time on a private after-hours tours with a brilliant guide with a PhD who had done her research in the Vatican libraries. I know which way I’ll do it again. Highly recommend exclusive early morning or after hours tours for the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel in Rome in the early morning before the masses arrive or after the museum closes in the evening, St Mark’s Basilica and The Doge’s Palace After Dark VIP tour in Venice, the Accademia Gallery (home to the statue of David) in Florence, and the Opera Garnier in Paris.
Avoid European Beaches in August
Avoid Europe’s beaches in August, which is not only when kids are on school holidays, but when most Europeans take leave. Many businesses close completely for the annual summer vacation, others operate with a skeleton staff, which means August is beach month in Europe for locals as well as tourists. They just go to different beaches. In Italy, while foreign tourists invade the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre, particularly Positano and Portofino – and this year, Ischia, the latest hot destination on travellers’ bucket list – Italians make a beeline for the Italian Riviera west of Genoa, the Adriatic Riviera or Riviera Romagnola centred around Rimini, the Italian Lakes, Sardinia, Sicily, Puglia, Calabria. Everyone – local and foreign – hits Capri. Sigh… But if you want empty beaches, you’re better off heading to Southeast Asia where it’s low season.
Hit the Coast in September
The best way of escaping the summer crowds in Europe – especially in the countries that boast the best Mediterranean beaches, such as Italy, Spain, Greece, and France – is to wait and take your beach holiday in September. Everyone will be back at work, the temperatures will be more tolerable, and touts will be so tired of tourists they’ll leave you alone.
Book Europe Tours and Tickets in Advance
Do you live in Europe, travel there regularly, or have spent a summer in Europe? We’d love to hear your tips for escaping the summer crowds in Europe in the Comments below.