Travelers walk down a path in the small village of Gimmelwald in Switzerland. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Travelers walk down a path in the small village of Gimmelwald in Switzerland. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Tourists get to experience a more authentic Europe in winter

Rick Steves, a longtime travel expert, explains the perks of European travel in the offseason.

Want to see the real Europe without all the fakery staged for teeming crowds of tourists — and save some money in the bargain?

Visit in winter.

That’s the recommendation of one of Snohomish County’s best-known residents: Rick Steves, 64, the travel writer, author and television personality who lives in Edmonds. Steves has been the host of the PBS travel series “Rick Steves’ Europe” since 2000.

Here, he talks about the perks of traveling Europe in winter, what to pack and the sights to see.

What’s it like to travel in Europe’s big cities during winter?

It seems like there is more serious, real culture going on the winter, whereas you get the little string quartets in leotards and fake wigs going on in the summer. In the winter, it settles back down to high culture for the locals. As a traveler, that’s a huge bonus.

Which cities would you recommend visiting?

If you like urban culture, if you like high culture, if you like the idea of getting to go to London, or Paris, or Rome or Barcelona, really as a temporary local as much as a sightseer, any of those places would just be great in the winter.

What are the perks of being a tourist in winter compared to other seasons?

It’s cheaper to fly there. Hotels are probably cheaper. There’s more selection. You’re going to have less congestion to see more key sights these days. There’s a handful of sights around Europe, but they’re flat out hard to get in during tourist season. You’ll be able to be a lot more flexible with your sightseeing if you go in the winter, if you want to see the Alhambra (a palace in Granada, Spain), or the Uffizi Gallery (an art museum in Tuscany, Spain) or something.

Tell me about Europe’s culture in winter.

There’s ski life, there’s concert seasons and cultural spectaculars. Every culture in Europe will have a calendar of events through the winter, and that’s something smart travelers learn about before their trips. If they’re going to be in a city when there’s s festival going on, there are two concerns really: hotels and tickets. You’d want to do your research, arrange for your hotel and get your tickets.

What should a smart traveler do before reaching Europe?

Nowadays, there’s 20 or 30 of the most important sights in Europe that you cannot get in without a reservation in advance. They are very good now in letting you book online. There’s two (types) of travelers: Those who wait in lines and those who don’t wait in lines. If you’re on the ball, you have your reservation and you walk in at your appointed time. You probably even still want to get a reservation in the winter, but it’s much easier.

What about smaller European cities in winter?

I would prefer big cities to small towns. Small towns are charming in the summer. I find small towns kind of dreary and vacant during winter. They suffer more in winter. On the other hand, you could say big cities are more themselves — less congested, more relaxed, they’re more welcoming of tourists because there’s fewer tourists.

What are your suggestions for family trips?

The two best family vacations I ever took was meeting the family in Vienna with a rental car, and driving all the way across Austria and Switzerland, and doing all the mountain stuff. That was just a great trip. And then on another trip, we had a week in Venice and a week on the Cinque Terre (a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera), connected by a single train ride, and that was a beautiful trip. We have family chapters in every one of our books: If you have a family in Paris, this is what you do, or you have a family in Dublin, this is what you do.

What should tourists keep in mind once they’re in Europe?

All over Europe, they like to tell the tourists, “There’s no bad weather — only inappropriate clothing.” The tourist needs to remember that you’re not just going from the car to the hotel or the car to the restaurant. You are outside for an extended period, so you need really warm shoes, hat, mittens, down coat. You need to be dressed to be out in the 30-degree weather for hours at a time. You almost need to be dressed like you’re skiing. North of the Alps it can be bitter cold. I’ve traveled in Venice and Florence when the fountains are frozen over. I was glad I had my winter clothes.

Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427; ethompson@heraldnet.com; @ByEvanThompson.

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