Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

European Vacations for Winter School Breaks

by Doug Baker | February 28, 2024

Hey everyone, Doug Baker here, Wendy’s youngest son. Mom used to take us to Europe during our winter school breaks (such as Paris, above) when I was growing up. Now, I’m a college sophomore, and when my friends talk about where we should go for March break, I tell them Europe—and not just to avoid the summer rush.

Europe feels more authentic to me in winter. It’s easier to be part of the local scene. The weather might be colder and the days shorter, but there are so many fun activities, opportunities, and foods that are totally different from what you will find in summer.

A lot of people ice skating on an ice skating rink in front of Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Ice skating rink in front of Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Photo: Doug Baker

In winter, I’ve ice-skated on rinks from little town squares in Brussels and Bratislava to the Grand Palais in Paris and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (above). It’s a great way to meet local people! In winter, I’ve tried hot chocolate as thick and rich as a melted chocolate bar everywhere from Demel in Vienna to the ski slopes of Spain, and street food such as piping-hot kürtőskalács in Budapest, schupfnudeln in Germany, and this in Salzburg:

Doug at a pretzel and sweets shop in Salzburg, Austria.

Doug at a pretzel and sweets shop in Salzburg, Austria. Photo: Tim Baker

In winter, you must spend more time indoors, but museums and castles are more fun when you have them to yourself. I was able to do a scavenger hunt with my brother inside the Centre Pompidou in Paris that took us through every floor of the museum, and in Bratislava there was nobody in the ancient church, so I was able to play one of the world’s oldest pipe organs.

Most of all, people are much nicer to you in winter because the tourist crowds aren’t there to annoy them. It is much easier to have conversations and build connections with the local people. One more thing I tell my college friends when they suggest the stereotypical spring-break spots (and maybe I shouldn’t share this with their parents): The drinking age is 18 in Europe!

You’ll find more—and more serious—reasons to experience Europe in winter in the traveler reviews below. First up: A 19- and 16-year-old get educated in Eastern Europe about the Holocaust and Ukraine.

START A WINTER TRIP

Eastern Europe: “Making pierogi with Marta in her home…she told us how she housed eight Ukrainians for two months at the onset of the war…”

Travelers making pierogi in Krakow.

The Nury family learn how to make pierogi. Photo: Traveler Doug Nury

“The current state of our world is disheartening. Our March 2023 travels (arranged by a Wendy Perrin WOW List agent) took us to Israel as tourists, never imagining that seven months later, Israel would be at war with Gaza. Since October 7, our family regularly discusses the conversations we had with our two tour guides, Daphne (Israel) and Isla (West Bank) about the conflict and how both of them want a peaceful but fair solution. Through our vast international travel experiences, our family has learned to seek as many perspectives as possible, particularly from non-US citizens on domestic and international issues. As a result, we jumped at the opportunity for Gwen to plan an Eastern European trip over Christmas, not only to enjoy the Christmas traditions and markets, but also to hear the views of Europeans very close to the Ukrainian/Russian conflict.

Gwen’s tour guides were the best part of our trip. During our first four days in Budapest, Julia explained to us the devastating history of the Jewish population and how close to 500,000 citizens were murdered during WWII. She also arranged an enjoyable boat tour (the boat had heat!) on the chilly Danube, pointing out architectural landmarks on the Buda and Pest side, while cruising on the river.

Kate and Will Nury peek out of a secret stairwell in Prague's Strahov Monastery.

Kate and Will Nury peek out of a secret stairwell in Prague’s Strahov Monastery. Photo: Traveler Beth Nury

In Prague, our guide Christina spent the rainy morning with us inside the Strahov Monastery, an active monastery that houses the largest collection of Bibles in the world, and gave us a VIP tour of its two main halls, the Philosophical and Theological halls. In Poland, we toured Auschwitz privately with Wojtek Smolen, a tour guide with over 30 years of experience who had two family members imprisoned at the concentration camp. His narration and walking tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau was fact-based, with no political slant. The things I saw that day—the massive size and scope of the concentration camp, the vast piles of victims’ strands of hair, abandoned shoes and suitcases on display—will forever be tattooed on my brain.

Following Auschwitz, we drove back to Krakow and met Julie at the Krakow History Museum, which is located at Oscar Schindler’s factory, for a tour of Krakow before, during and after the Nazi occupation. The museum is well done and definitely worth visiting. Our final day in Krakow was spent making pierogi with Marta in her home. While rolling out dough, adding the fillings and pinching the pierogi before dropping it into the boiling water, she told us how she housed eight Ukrainians for two months at the onset of the war and is concerned about the conflict due to the proximity of Poland to Ukraine.

My husband and I hope that this trip punctuated the importance of visiting historical relics and learning from experts at the site about past events instead of watching a YouTube video for our teenagers (ages 19 and 16). It’s also essential to engage with people worldwide to gain insight on their perspective of US leadership and diplomacy.” —Beth Nury

Read more reviews of Eastern Europe trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Italy: “On our day trip to Florence we were able to attend a football match. That was wild!”

Enjoying a gelato cone in Rome.

Enjoying a gelato cone in Rome. Photo: Shutterstock

“There were six of us: me, my husband, our three children (15, 13, 10), and my mom. It was a lovely time to be in Rome because, while still busy, it was not anything like what we would have experienced in the summer months. The weather was perfectly moderate for walking around, between 55° and 60° most days. Jennifer listened so closely to what our interests were and how we wanted to divide up the trip between time in and outside of Rome. She developed the perfect itinerary, even paying attention to timing of morning excursions so as not to start too early after a late night.

While we enjoyed all of our excursions, the ones we enjoyed most were not the main tourist attractions. Collectively, we all loved the cooking classes: one a pizza and gelato class, and the other a pasta and tiramisu class. Perfect for all six of us! Our other favorite excursions were Pompeii, Villa Adriana on the way to Tivoli, and our day spent in the Jewish neighborhood and former Jewish ghetto. I was extremely pleased that Jennifer’s team only works with Jewish guides in the Jewish neighborhood. I think that is a very important detail. Having all private tours made it easy to adapt tour and timing to all of our needs, which is particularly helpful with three kids/teens.

Timing worked out that on our day trip to Florence we were able to attend a football match. That was wild! My husband and oldest son are HUGE sports fans. Even though the rest of us are not as much, it was still really terrific to be part of an event that is so important to European culture.” —Aimee Kleiman

Read more reviews of Italy trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Norway & Copenhagen: “We got to see the Christmas lights in Tivoli Gardens and took a ride on a wild roller coaster, wandered with some hot drinks…”

Kate Ogg and son Will see the northern lights from the driveway of their lodge in Alta.

Kate Ogg and son Will see the northern lights from the driveway of their lodge in Alta, Norway. Photo: Traveler Ryan Ogg

“My husband, Ryan Ogg and I (Kate Ogg), and our three children, Will (17), Charlotte (15), and Wyatt (12), went to Copenhagen, Denmark, and Oslo and Alta, Norway, from December 28 through January 6. Will is graduating from high school this spring, and so we let him choose the destination for a family vacation this year. He wanted to go someplace cold, snowy and dark, where we could do some fun outdoor adventures, and hopefully see the Northern Lights (which we had tried and failed to do in Iceland a couple of years ago).

It was a fantastic trip. Copenhagen was still pretty magical the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and we found some good restaurants despite a few of the ones we had hoped for being closed. We got to see the Christmas lights in Tivoli Gardens and took a ride on a wild roller coaster, wandered with some hot drinks, shopped and just enjoyed the festive vibe. The next day we started the day with a boat ride through the harbor and some of the bigger canals, which gave us a sense of the city’s geography as well as a lot of the architecture.

Oslo was all closed while we were there because it was both Sunday and New Year’s Eve, but a walk through the sculpture garden, to the Fram museum to see a polar expedition ship, and a chance to see the Nobel buildings and then along the harbor was a nice way to spend the day before a fancy dinner at our hotel (The Thief) and a midnight toast on the roof. On New Year’s morning in a snowstorm, we made it to Oslo airport and up to dark Alta. The Sorrisniva Hotel was fully booked by the time we planned our trip (August), so we stayed in a little fishing lodge in the woods, down the driveway from Tristin and Trine Restaurant and past some sled dogs.

It was absolutely charming, and best of all, the very first night as we walked out of our lodge to dinner, the sky lit up with northern lights that continued to brighten and dance until we gave up and went to bed. I credit our very dark spot in the woods for the fantastic viewing. Our adventures in snowmobiling, reindeer sledding, snowshoeing, and king crab fishing all showed us different parts of the landscape and culture in northern Norway, and it was just…magical. We truly loved it.” —Kate Ogg

Read more reviews of Scandinavia trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Paris: “A trip fit for royalty…”

Louvre Museum at night, Paris, France

The Louvre Museum at night, Paris. Photo: EdiNugraha/Pixabay

“We had three weeks to plan a Paris trip with our adult children after our Israel trip was canceled. Jennifer, a WOW planner through Wendy Perrin, created a trip fit for royalty. We stayed in a gorgeous, boutique hotel in the Marais district and had private car and tour guides for the Louvre, Versailles, Chateau, Jewish and History Tours. We saw the Eiffel Tower with a private tour, the Dior Exhibit at the Foundation Giacometti, we had an amazing time.

Our WOW Moment started with a car picking us up at noon, taking us to an unknown destination which was a fabulous restaurant, Shabour. The owner told us that since we couldn’t go to Israel, this was a Jerusalem-Paris dining experience. We sat at the bar to watch the chefs prepare a delicious, fun, memorable lunch. It was awesome.

We had a concierge service at the airport on both ends, making it easy to maneuver. I can’t say enough about Jennifer and her staff who gave us a perfect trip in such a short period of time. We have traveled the world with Wendy Perrin’s WOW List. It is the best way and the only way we travel.” —Adrienne Goldberg

Read more reviews of Paris trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Austria & Czech Republic: “The cathedral tour was incredible! We were on the roof walking along the outside perimeter and inside the ceiling about the nave…”

Roof of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna captured from above.

Roof of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna captured from above. Photo: Julius Silver

Gwen planned a wonderful Christmas week in Vienna, Bratislava and Prague. Both hotels—the Sans Souci in Vienna and the Andaz in Prague—were great choices. Both were near the center but in a quieter area. The rooms, staff and breakfasts were lovely.

Our private guided walking tour of Vienna was enjoyable. The cathedral tour was incredible! We were on the roof walking along the outside perimeter and inside the ceiling about the nave. A truly interesting and unique experience. The food tour was fun and enjoyable: We went to five different locations and got to sample different Viennese specialties. We enjoyed the outstanding museums and lovely shopping streets. We loved the tour of the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace. Another day we took a train to Bratislava and were met on the platform by the guide who showed us this interesting city.

The train to Prague was easy. We walked everywhere in Prague—Old Town, Jewish Quarter, Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square. The Strahov Monastery library and Prague Castle complex were impressive. We were so lucky that the line to the remarkable St. Vitus Cathedral was quick and we got to see it. The Lobkowicz Palace is a treasure—we could have spent hours there.

Gwen suggested terrific restaurants, including two outstanding meals at Michelin-starred restaurants Field and La Degustation in Prague. It was a wonderful vacation—the days spent in each location were just right.” —Susan Sullivan

Read more reviews of Austria and Czechia trips. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

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Portugal: “Sitting on the patio watching the sunset over the ocean was the perfect end to the trip…”

A winter sunny day with clear blue skies at Riberira beach in Ericeira, Portugal.

A winter day with clear blue skies at Praia de Ribeira, Ericeira. Photo: Shutterstock

Goncalo and Sofia created an itinerary that was perfect for our family. And, they gave us a trip that we will always remember! Some highlights…

The hotels were AMAZING!! We typically stay at the same hotel chain when we travel and were so grateful for their suggestion of boutique hotels. Not only did they provide our family plenty of space, but they each felt warm and welcoming every time we walked into the room. My daughters LOVED the set-up and decor of The Lumiares hotel in Lisbon, stating they never wanted to leave. The Rebello’s views of Porto were breathtaking (unless the fog rolled in) and the access to an incredible running path along the water made it the perfect place for us to stay. Our final hotel stay at the Immerso was exactly what we needed after a very busy trip. Sitting on the patio watching the sunset over the ocean was the perfect end to the trip; we only wish we had a few days to explore the area. : )

The guides they found for us were exceptional!! The tours provided us with interesting historical and present-day content. They were all engaging and ready to shape the tours to match our family. Tiago, in particular, was amazing!! The tour of Sintra could have been a disaster due to the weather, and he made it one of the most fun with his depth of knowledge and witty humor! For a family who loves to travel, Goncalo could not have put together a more perfect trip for us.” —Shannon Jones

Read more reviews of Portugal. To get your own WOW trip, start with our trip questionnaire, reached via the black button below.

START A TRIP TO PORTUGAL

Spain: “Traveling in January was surprisingly ideal! There were no crowds and the weather was comfortable…”

Placa Reial on a winter evening, not too crowded with people, Barcelona, Spain.

Placa Reial on a winter evening in Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Shutterstock

“We just returned from an amazing winter vacation in Barcelona and Lisbon. We traveled with our 2 college-aged kids and wanted to make sure they were as excited about the itinerary as we were. Luis and Silvia did a terrific job balancing all of our needs and interests.

Traveling in January was surprisingly ideal! There were no crowds and the weather was comfortable. We were able to see all of the popular sites without lines or overcrowding. Our favorite parts, however, were more off-the-beaten-path excursions. Silvia arranged for Alex, our tour guide through the Catalan neighborhoods, to cook paella and drink vermouth with him and his mother Lourdes in a flat with a rooftop deck. This was a highlight of the trip.

In addition to sightseeing and immersing ourselves in the culture, we were interested in recommendations for restaurants, nightlife, and vintage stores. Silvia provided detailed recommendations for each and arranged nightly restaurant reservations. Our favorite meal, a 17-course tasting at the Michelin-star Loco in Lisbon, was a very special night!” —Lisa Powers

This trip was arranged by a WOW List candidate. Here’s what that means.

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