1. Sights – A highlight of any European vacation are the amazing sites, from the Vatican to the Eiffel Tower and everything in between. During the holidays all of these famous landmarks are even more fun to visit. If you’re religious, then the many churches and cathedrals all celebrating the season with special services is a unique experience not to be missed. You don’t have to understand the language in order to feeling the significance. But even the secular landmarks are fun to visit this time of year. In the middle of Brussels is a large open square known as the Grand Place. It’s surrounded by massive buildings including the town hall and many old guild headquarters. Throughout December an elaborate music and light show plays off these buildings every fifteen minutes, attracting thousands of onlookers but creating a special memory as well. Special events like that are found throughout Europe all during December, you just have to know where to look.
2. Off-Season – In spite of Europe’s Christmastime popularity, this is still the off season for the Old World which means you get the benefits. In general most hotels should be cheaper than in the summer, but then again it depends on the city and holiday markups. The greatest benefit though is how few tourists there are visiting. Contrary to the height of the summer rush, you can actually get around Europe in December without losing your mind and getting annoyed by a million other tourons. There are some tourists without a doubt, but it’s a much more pleasant experience than waiting in lines in the August heat. There are challenges to this as well, some places are closed and the weather may not be to everyone’s liking, but I love nothing more than traveling during the off season.
3. Food – Ok, so you knew this one was coming. Europe is great any day of the year in large part to the delicious diversity of foods, but during the holidays this is amplified to whole new levels of culinary wonder. First are the shops, every food related storefront is busy creating tasty treats for parties and family gatherings. One of my favorite experiences was wondering the streets of Paris a week before Christmas looking at all of the elaborate window displays in the pastry and sweets shops. We in the US have lost the traditional bake shop so it was the first time I had seen such delicious looking displays, all containing different edible desserts to make perfect Christmas festivities. The variety of Yule logs in particular was stunning. The Bûche de Noël or Yule log is made from sponge cake that is rolled, frosted and decorated within an inch of its life. If that weren’t enough, Europe is famous for its preponderance of Christmas markets, from the smallest village to the world capitals themselves. I visited a lot of them last year and while I noticed a certain similarity, regional dishes also pop up. For savory meals the offerings are similar to a European carnival, with shawarma as my own personal highlight. As with the shops though the desserts are the real stars and I’ll never forget cradling a warm Nutella crepe in the chilly night at the Brussels Winter Wonders Festival, listening to Bing Crosby and watching thousands of people out with their families enjoying the season.
4. Weather – So this is a very personal preference and many of you probably won’t agree with me, but I love the weather in Europe in December and January. Yes it’s cold, grey, wet and drizzly but I think it’s perfect. I don’t want warm weather around Christmas, I want to bundle up and feel the cold nipping at my nose. Can it be a little depressing? Yes, at times it can, but most of the time it adds to the festivities and I couldn’t think of a better way to enjoy Europe at Christmas than with a big jacket and warm gloves.
5. Holiday Spirit – Maybe I’m imagining it, but all of these qualities combine to create a special holiday spirit that I just don’t experience at home. At home our shopping mostly happens online now and there are precious few examples of holiday cheer that aren’t in a mall. We don’t have the great markets and downtown cores of Europe, something that while sad makes traveling to Europe that much more important. Last year we felt such a strong Christmas spirit and had such an amazing time that we vowed to return for the holiday season whenever possible. That’s why I’m thrilled that we will return again this year, this time in Italy mostly but with a few days in Belgium thrown in too. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s an experience I want to relive as many times as possible.