Ah, the infamous shoulder season. For those unfamiliar, shoulder season is the time period where a destination is transitioning from its off-season (in Europe’s case, winter) to its high season (in this case, summer). Both spring and fall are considered Europe’s shoulder seasons, each offering plenty of tempting reasons to book a European vacation. However, springtime has a higher chance of warm temps and lush landscapes.
Why Visit Europe in the Spring Off-Season?
If you’ve ever taken a trip to Europe in the spring, you probably saved some money on airfare and didn’t encounter swarms of crowds at popular attractions. You also probably had more affordable accommodation options, as hotels and vacation rentals weren’t booked full.
With plenty of low-cost carriers now traveling the transatlantic route, it’s worth staying up to date on airfare sales for spring travel to Europe. We recommend Airfarewatchdog (our sister site) for finding the most sought-after airfare deals for travel to Europe.
In general, spring is an ideal time to visit hot spots that are overcrowded in summer, but there are some standout destinations for spring specifically.
Where to Go in Europe in the Spring
And now, since you’re in the know about Europe’s “secret” shoulder season, here are the best places to go for March, April, and May in Europe to maximize your savings.
The Best Places to Visit in March in Europe
You can ride the coattails of winter off-season savings well into March. You may not luck out with perfect weather, but I’d argue these spots are even better with misty cloud cover.
Chance your luck (with the weather) and visit the Emerald Isle in March. Temperatures tend to be mild compared to most places in the U.S., and you’ll catch the country during its most festive time, St. Patrick’s Day. The rainy weather is also a perfect excuse to explore the country’s famed pub scene.
Pleasant temperatures (some days can get up to the high 60s) and low humidity mean March is an opportune time to visit Barcelona. Make sure to hit the city’s vibrant neighborhoods, like the Gothic Quarter and Gracia, and enjoy smaller crowds at popular attractions like La Sagrada Familia and the Picasso Museum.
Similar to the rest of the U.K., Scotland’s weather fares much better than that of many U.S. cities during the gloomy month of March. And besides, what’s a more perfect excuse than “it’s raining out” to enjoy a whiskey tour through the Scottish Highlands?
The Best Places to Visit in April in Europe
As the weather warms up, Europe’s street side cafes open and botanical gardens flourish.
We recommend the Netherlands in spring for its blooming tulip fields, cross-country bike trails, and the iconic canals of Amsterdam. There’s no shortage of outdoorsy spring opportunities in the Netherlands’ moderate marine climate. Plus, every April 27th, a sea of orange takes over Amsterdam to celebrate King’s Day.
Visiting Italy in the shoulder season, especially April, is a no-brainer, as it carries the trifecta: lower prices, fewer crowds, and better weather in comparison to summer … especially when you take into consideration that many hotels don’t have air-conditioning. Plus, April kicks off orange blossom season on the Amalfi Coast; who needs cherry blossoms in Japan when you can sip your espresso seaside in Italy?
In recent years Dubrovnik has quickly become one of the most popular destinations to visit in Europe over the summer. So instead of visiting when everyone else does, head to Croatia in April.
Spring is typically the rainy season, so you may want to pack an extra umbrella for your trip. Despite the rain, however, prices are among the lowest of the year and there are plenty of indoor activities, like exploring churches in the Old Town of Dubrovnik or museum-going in Split.
The Best Places to Visit in May in Europe
If you’re lucky, you’ll get summer-like temperatures in most of the southern continent for the month of May, but fewer crowds before summer vacations start.
Even though Estonia is relatively affordable year-round, May is particularly pleasant with festivals like the Tallinn Flower Festival. It’s also worth considering a Baltic or Scandinavian cruise to get the most bang for your buck in the shoulder season.
Between castles, national parks, canals, and forests to explore, Germany has plenty of outdoor activities to offer. And its cities are best appreciated while sipping a pint outside. If it does rain, there are tons of museums to visit (Berlin alone has more than 150).
Another summer hot spot (complete with hot weather) is the coastal country of Portugal. With plenty of nonstop routes now from the U.S., you can easily visit Portugal in May before school vacations start. Whether you chose to wander the neighborhoods of Lisbon, soak in the ocean air in Cascais, wander around Sintra’s castles without crowds, drink port in Porto, or visit the lesser-known Alentejo region, you’ll enjoy Portugal more in the shoulder season.
Get the most bang for your buck and tack on a trip to Turkey—which is usually more expensive and harder to get to than some other parts of Europe—by rail, with a wallet-friendly Eurail Global Pass or Select Pass (both are valid on Turkish Republic State Railways). Room rates typically go up in June in Istanbul, and airfare increases as well during the summer. Tourist hot spots like Cappadocia are also less crowded in May, and the weather isn’t terribly hot yet. Check a hot air balloon ride off your bucket list, hike the Lycian Way, visit ancient ruins crowd-free, and see the capital’s famous tulips all in spring.
What to Do in Europe in Spring
Unless you’re traveling in the southern part of the continent toward the end of spring, you probably won’t be blessed with beach weather, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the outdoors. Wander through botanical gardens, dine alfresco, and experience Europe’s breathtaking national parks and attractions, all without sticky summer temps and crowds.
Spring Break in Europe
A trip to Europe over spring break is becoming an increasingly popular way to spend time off, and rightfully so. If you’re a college-aged student looking for a different type of spring break, check out any of the following tour groups to help plan your bucket-list European spring break affordably: Contiki, EF Ultimate Break, Intrepid, G Adventures, Topdeck, and U River Cruises.
Bear in mind that traveling over school breaks means higher prices. Typically, Easter is a busier time for European holidays, so it might be worth planning a trip outside of these dates if you want cheaper prices and fewer crowds.
River Cruising in Spring in Europe
Signing up for a springtime river cruise in Europe almost guarantees fairy-tale landscapes and fields of flowers. And while the scenery might be in your favor, one note of caution is that you run the risk of higher water levels depending on the amount of rainfall. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a river cruise in spring, because you can also save a decent amount in comparison to summer prices; just book with caution and consider travel insurance.
What to Wear in Europe in the Spring
What to Wear in Europe
Men’s European Packing Guide
More from SmarterTravel:
- Europe in the Winter Off-Season: Where and Why You Should Go
- Packing for Europe: 8 Items to Leave at Home
- Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide
Editor’s note: Caroline Costello and Sarah Pascarella contributed to this story.