Best off-peak winter destinations

Chania, Crete
Chania, Crete

Best off-peak winter destinations

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Even in Europe’s northern reaches, autumn tends to linger a good long time, with warm days late into the month of October not unheard of. But inevitably, the hours of daylight grow ever shorter, and there’s a chill to the morning air.

Before resigning yourself to nearly a half-year’s wait for the return of that honey-warm feeling of sun on skin, a late-season holiday might be just what the doctor ordered. In many of southern Europe’s prettiest corners, the hordes of tourists have packed up for the season and the prices on premium hotel rooms have gone down substantially. Here are some places to go, and an idea for an extra-special experience that’s sure to create a memory you can savor over the long cold nights of winter.

Siracusa, Sicily

Syracuse is rife with ancient ruins. Take them in with a visit to Archaeological Park Neapolis, site of a large limestone cave known as the Ear of Dionysius, or at the Regional Archaeological Museum Paolo Orsi, where scenes from the Old Testament are carved into white marble. The city’s historical heart is found on Ortygia, a small island to the east connected to the city proper by bridge.

Must-do: Visit Riserva Naturale Orientata Cavagrande del Cassibile, a nature reserve about one hour’s drive from the city. A hike through the park reveals steep canyons, gorges and views of Mt. Etna off in the distance. On hot days, crystal-clear pools entice swimmers. Pack a lunch and plenty of water, as the cafe might not be open in the off-season.

Chania, Crete

Be enchanted by a charming 14th-century Venetian-style harbor, Egyptian lighthouse, narrow streets and a restaurant-lined waterfront. In terms of shopping, be on the lookout for handcrafted works of leather. Don’t miss the agora, a covered market where tourists and locals can shop for herbs, olives, cheese and freshly-caught fish.

Must-do: Unlike most of those little motorized trains that guide tourists only through city centers, the Little Fun Train of Chania takes its riders to some fantastic places. Its Seven Villages route passes through traditional towns, orange orchards and olive groves, as well as along the stunning coastline.

Ibiza Town (Eivissa), Ibiza

The island famous for its hedonistic nightclubs has a gentler and more historic side that’s best experienced by meandering through the alleys of Dalt Vila, the highest and oldest part of town. It’s topped by a cathedral offering stunning views out to sea.

Must-do: Hop a ferry and spend the day in Formentera, a much smaller island to the south that’s known for its white, sugar-sand beaches and turquoise waters. Rent a bicycle and cycle past dazzling coastal vistas, lighthouses and a salt lake that’s home to many unique species.

Kotor, Montenegro

This medieval gem of crooked streets and attractive squares is best known for its postcard-perfect, U-shaped bay encircled by mountains on the Adriatic Sea. When peeking into churches and museums grows old, feast on typical cuisine such as black risotto, which gets its color from squid ink, or “brodetto,” a seafood-packed stew.

Must-do: Hike the Ladder of Kotor, a steep and strenuous trail with more than 70 switchbacks. The reward for conquering this steep and challenging path is a stunning view over the Boka Bay.

Lagos, Portugal

This thoroughly modern town on the Algarve is known for its nightlife, with no end of cafes, bars and restaurants. Marvel at the impressive baroque Igreja de Santo António church and stroll through the harbor from which boat trips and deep sea fishing expeditions are easily arranged. History lovers will enjoy searching the age-old streets for traces of its former masters the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Moors.

Must-do: Visit the Ponta da Piedade, a headland where golden limestone formations take on the shape of arches, grottos and sea pillars. Explore from land, where winding staircases lead down to hidden coves with sands lapped by turquoise waters. Or approach by sea, and paddle your own kayak beneath the rocky outcroppings.

Marseille, France

This gritty city is known for chic shopping, tasty seafood and its bustling port filled with sleek watercrafts surrounded by restaurants and watering holes. Don’t miss the city’s oldest district, Le Panier, with its charming village atmosphere, creative craftspeople and brightly painted facades. Marseille is no tourist’s idyll. Some places may be raggedy, but refreshingly real.

Must-do: Hike atop the Calanques, the craggy white limestone cliffs running alongside the blue waters of the sea. The GR 98 hiking trail running from Marseille to Cassis would take more than ten hours to walk in its entirety, but even a shorter jaunt will provide vistas of hidden coves and sparkling bays.

Matera, Italy

People come to see the cave dwellings known as “sassi,” that was first occupied by monks, hewn into the rock in the form of cells, chapels and churches. This form of housing sheltered the poorest families right up until the 1960s. To really get to know the story of the caves and its residents, be sure to book a guided tour.

Must-do: If you have a car at your disposal, head 40 miles south to Craco, an uninhabited village perched high on a hill. Plagued by landslides, flooding and earthquakes, since 1980, it’s been completely abandoned. Nowadays, the ghost town is used as a filming location and is popular with day-trippers seeking an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere.

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