Escaping the summer crowds in Europe is easy: avoid summer travel, school holidays and weekends and travel off-season or mid-week instead. If you must travel in summer, go off the beaten track, hire a car and do a road trip or settle into a holiday house or apartment in a lesser visited destination. These are our tips to surviving Europe’s peak summer tourist season and the sweltering heat and heaving crowds that go with it.
Before the pandemic, July-August had long been the peak period of the busy European summer tourist season, which starts end of June and continues until the end of August, 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, throngs filling museums and art galleries, and masses of people crowding cobblestone lanes and pebbly beaches, is the scorching summer heat. When I first wrote this guide to escaping Europe’s summer crowds, Europe was in the grips of a record-high heatwave that saw soldiers battling wildfires, villages evacuated, and schools shut. July and August are always sizzling in Europe.
In 2018 a deadly heatwave in Spain and Portugal broke Europe’s all-time temperature record of 48C (118.4F). It was so hot in Europe that mountains were melting (Sweden’s highest peak lost 4 metres of ice from its peak), rivers dried up, fish suffocated, toxic algae invaded beaches (in the Baltic, swimming was off limits in Sweden, Lithuania and Poland for a while), zoo animals were being fed frozen food, dogs were being fitted with shoes to protect their paws, and police water cannons were used to water public parks.
And, look, I do get the pull of Europe in summer. I have to confess that I absolutely adore Europe in summer, even in the scorching heat, and even when it’s uncomfortable. Europe in summer is a rite of passage for so many travellers. Once upon a time a European summer escape was my ideal annual holiday.
I could think of no better place to be in summer than in Europe – basking on pebble beaches by day or by hillside hotel swimming pools, gazing over pastel-painted towns; strolling through in air-conditioned museums to browse magnificent works of art; lingering over long lunches under shady umbrellas overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean; and sipping spritzes on buzzy squares in the balmy evenings. Sigh…
We spent 12 years travelling Europe before we settled in Southeast Asia, initially from our base in the UAE for annual summer holidays, when we’d spend two months exploring two or three countries: Italy, Spain and Portugal one year, Turkey and Greece the next, Italy and Croatia after that, France and northern Europe another year. It was bliss. Later we travelled Europe writing guidebooks on Milan, Paris, Lisbon, Belgium, Amsterdam, Greece, Cyprus, and Italy. Dream job, you bet. Deep, long sigh…
But that was before over-tourism. European cities were busy and beaches were crowded, but not like they were before the pandemic. In 1990, Barcelona was visited by 1.7 million tourists, in 2017 it was 32 million, around 20 times the local population. On our first trip to Barcelona in 1999 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 with people. 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 was an altogether different Europe before the pandemic; a Europe where tourists weren’t always welcome in some places, especially in summer. That was reason enough for escaping the summer crowds in Europe, and a good reason to get off the beaten track in Europe and visit places where you will be welcome.
Escaping the summer crowds in Europe is easy. If you can, avoid summer and travel off-season and if you can’t, and you must travel in July-August then follow our tips to surviving Europe’s peak summer tourist season, starting with the obvious…
Published 3 August 2018; Updated 20 March 2022.
Escaping the Summer Crowds in Europe – How to Survive the Peak Summer Period
Avoid Europe in Summer If You Can – Travel Europe Off-Season
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, of course). We adore Europe during those periods and I’ll tell you why in another post. I understand that travelling to Europe outside of summer 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…
Do a European Road Trip – Take the Roads Less Travelled
We adore travelling by train in Europe, but in summer the trains can get uncomfortably crowded, and even if you’ve got ticketed seats it can still be challenging to get people sitting in them to budge. We have memories of spending a several-hour train trip standing because the train was so crowded it was impossible to move and the carriage. That’s one reason to always buy first class seats with ticket numbers, as the conductor will boot the people from your seats. Or rent a car and do a European trip. While some roads can get grid-locked in Europe in summer, especially on weekends and especially coastal routes and to/from popular getaway spots, such as the Italian Lakes, the beauty of renting a vehicle and doing a road trip is that you have so much more freedom and can change your itinerary to head to less-crowded places and you will always be able to find a road less travelled. Just ask the locals for tips!
Try Europe’s Second Cities – and Second Countries and Second 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 last year by the French train strikes, which resulted in a 25% drop in tourists, and was eagerly welcoming visitors. Also try: Valencia in Spain, Thessaloniki in Greece, Genoa or Trieste in Italy, and so on. See our post below 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 for the Beach
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 very best restaurants will be closed, this is a fantastic time to experience the cities that locals leave for the seaside. Just be sure to do as the locals do: head out in the morning, take things easy during the hottest part of the day, linger over lunch, head back to the hotel for a long siesta, then go out in the evening when the temperatures drop and the streets are livelier.
Get Off the Beaten Track to Places Beyond the Obvious
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 big towns and villages that are off the beaten track for the tourist masses and empty of locals in July and 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 below on Off the Beaten Track European Summer Destinations for more ideas.
Avoid Weekend Travel and Travel Mid-Week in Summer
If you’re intent on escaping the summer crowds in Europe then avoid any weekend travel in Europe, especially to the beach. Locals who are still working or who can’t afford to go away on a summer holiday will travel on weekends, and more often than not, it will be to the beach they’ll be heading. 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 that you paid for – but even better, travel mid-week.
Plan Museum Visits Very 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 record-high heatwave, 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. Locals just go to different beaches to tourists. In Italy, while foreign tourists invade the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre, particularly Positano and Portofino – and in recent years Ischia, the latest hot destination on travellers’ bucket lists – Italians make a beeline for the Italian Riviera west of Genoa, the Adriatic Riviera or Riviera Romagnola centred around Rimini, Italian Lakes such as Lake Garda, Sardinia, Sicily, Puglia, and Calabria. Everyone – local and foreign – hits Capri. Sigh… if you want empty beaches, you’re better off heading to beaches and islands of northern 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, restaurant owners will be more laidback and up for a chat as the big summer rush is over and the touts will be so tired of tourists that they’ll leave you alone. It’s not as hot in September as July-August, but it’s still warm enough to work on your tan. The roads will be less busy and the sky clearer and air fresher as a result.
Learn a Little of the Local Language
Another one of my top tips to escaping the summer crowds in Europe is that as soon as you decide you’re going, start learning some of the local language so you have some basic conversational skills by the time you arrive. That way you can ask locals for tips to avoiding crowds, getting off the beaten track, exploring beaches, towns, and neighbourhoods only locals go. Sign up for a basic language course as soon as you select your dates (we love this online language learning site called Preply) and learn how to say things like “which beach do you head to when you want to avoid tourists?” (with a wink) or “where do you dine when you go out to dinner?” At the very least learn how to say ten words and phrases before travelling, from ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ to ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ (see the post below for the other six), so people are at lease friendly when you say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak your language… do you speak English by any chance?” and then proceed to pick their brains for lesser-visited spots. This is how we’ve long discovered the best local secrets.
Book Europe Tours and Tickets in Advance
Do you live in Europe, travel there regularly, or have you spent a summer in Europe? We’d love to hear your tips for escaping the summer crowds in Europe in the Comments below.