Why Vienna is the Perfect City To Visit in the Off-Season

Traveling in the off-season has its perks; the low airfares and discounted accommodation enables you to travel abroad without spending a fortune and sights are often less crowded. Also, workers can sometimes be nicer and more helpful because they aren’t dealing with the craziness and large amounts of people that accompany the tourist season (okay, this isn’t guaranteed either way, but I definitely noticed a difference). But it can also mean that activities that are normally available in the touristy season are not offered in the low season, sights are closed, and tours are not operating. So, if you choose to travel in the off-season, you need to be cautious about where you go and ensure that it has plenty to do during the less-visited time of year.

I began my backpacking trip in December, so most of my travels so far have been during the low season. When planning my route around Europe, I did my best to choose cities that would have plenty to offer even during the winter months. Vienna, the vibrant capital of Austria, sticks out in my mind as one of those cities. The large capital has a vast royal history, gorgeous architecture, more than enough museums, and a variety of restaurants and cafes to choose from. It reminded me of Paris, with its wide streets, big parks, grand buildings with styles from different time periods, and a river flowing through it. Except, it felt a bit more laid back and undiscovered. I was there with my parents for two weeks, and we were busy sightseeing each day despite it being the middle of January (so busy that I needed to take a few rest days!).

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Some of the stunning buildings lining the streets

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Heldenplatz in front of the Hofburg

 

Here are all of the reasons Vienna makes the perfect destination for travel in the off-season:

It’s Easy to Get Around

During the winter months, you don’t want to be outside walking for very long in the cold weather. Luckily, the Vienna public transport system is advanced and includes trains, buses, and trams that can get you anywhere need to go. Though I stayed in an apartment outside the city center (money saving tip), it was no problem because the closest metro stop was a 5 minute walk and could get me downtown in 10 minutes. There are a variety of different travel passes that can help you save money and are valid on all forms of local transport, such as a weekly pass or 72 hour pass depending on your needs. This site does a great job explaining the various options. I was there for two weeks, so I opted for the weekly pass which made travel easy as I didn’t have to buy a ticket each time. I could just hop on and go.

The City’s Main Sights Offer an Escape from the Cold Weather

Because of its complex history associated with the powerful Habsburg monarchy who ruled from the city for more than six centuries, Vienna has grand palaces, exemplary churches, and high-quality museums to explore that are all open during the low season. Here are just a few of the many places you can visit to avoid cold, snowy, or rainy weather in the city:

Imperial Apartments at the Hofburg

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The Habsburgs were one of the most prominent royal dynasties in Europe. Known for increasing their power across countries through marriage rather than war, the Habsburg’s influence spread from Eastern Europe into Germany and Spain and even as far as Mexico. They were connected to the French royal empire as well, as Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI who was famously beheaded during the French Revolution, was a Habsburg.

The Habsburg’s palace in the city center reflects the grandeur of their reign. Visiting the Imperial Apartments gives you a glimpse into the massive wealth and way of life of the Austrian monarchy. And visiting the apartments during the off-season is even more enjoyable. I’d imagine touring the apartments in the summertime can get as crowded as the famous Palace of Versailles in Paris. However, when my family and I visited the apartments, there were so few people there that the guided tour we decided to join ended up being a private tour with our own personal guide! We could take our time, ask as many questions as we liked, and gain a deeper understanding of the Habsburg’s complicated royal lineage.

Schönbrunn Palace

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The Schönbrunn Palace was the Habsburg’s summer residence and like the Imperial Apartments, its splendor is not to be missed. Again, we were able to stroll through each room of the palace with few crowds, which made the experience much more pleasant. I’ve visited many popular tourist destinations in the summer like Versailles and the Vatican, and each time it’s been so packed that we were literally shuffled from room to room like herds of cattle. It’s so much better when you don’t feel rushed and you have the time to really take in all of the gorgeous decor around you.

Of course, the only downside to visiting in the off-season is that the gardens are not blooming. However, instead of roaming the gardens we had coffee and cakes at the palace’s café, Café Restaurant Residenz, which was one of our favorite cafés in Vienna!

Imperial Treasury

As one of the longest ruling monarchies in Europe, it’s no surprise that the Habsburg’s have one of the most impressive treasuries in the world open to visit in the low season. You can see ornate crowns dating back to the 10th century, intricate relics, swords made of “unicorn” (narwhal tusk), and glittering jewels collected by the Habsburgs over centuries.

Kunsthistorisches Museum

The Habsburgs were great admirers of art and their vast collection of masterpieces can be seen in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The museum exhibits paintings by artists such as Raphael, Titian, Rubens (one of my favorites), Rembrandt, and Vermeer. In addition to the splendid works of art, the museum building itself mimics a royal palace with a gorgeous grand hall and massive staircase. You can spend hours here escaping the chilly winter temperatures.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

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The famous cathedral towers over the city’s main pedestrian street, Graben. You can marvel at its stunning mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture and pop inside to see where Mozart was married. Rick Steve’s offers a self-guided tour on his app, Rick Steves Audio Europe, that I recommend downloading before your visit to give you a better understanding of the historic cathedral.

You can listen to music at year-round performances in one of Vienna’s many music venues

Known as the City of Music, Vienna has a renowned musical history and many famous composers such as Mozart and Beethoven once lived in the city. It’s reputation for being the center of music has only increased with time and has led to the construction of beautiful concert halls where you can watch a variety of performances.

My family and I had a wonderful time seeing Cinderella at the famous opera house, the Staatsoper. There are performances happening year-round and the opera is even translated on a screen in front of your seat so you can easily follow along. I recommend looking into the various performances happening not only at the opera house, but across all of the venues Vienna has to offer and booking your ticket ahead of time, as they might sell out even in the low season.

You can warm up with a cup of coffee and delicious pastry in a Viennese coffee house

Coffee is a big part of Viennese culture, and a trip to Vienna is not complete without visiting a Viennese kaffeehaus. It’s very common and encouraged to order a coffee drink, read a newspaper, and sit for hours enjoying the slower side of life. The Viennese take their coffee culture very seriously, and the waiters even wear full black and white suits— it feels as if you’ve stepped back in time to the 1930s! The cafes also serve extravagant pastries. You can try the classic sachertorte (though not my personal favorite as I’m not a big fan of chocolate), a fruity apfelstrudel, or one of the many other delicious creations on the menu.

If you want a typical traditional experience in a café whose interior looks like it hasn’t changed in decades, try Café Bräunerhof. For a bit more modern take on the tradition, (and my favorite) try Café Diglas. Of course, coffee houses are open year-round, and it’s the perfect way to warm up during the colder months that will leave you feeling like a true Viennese!

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The Danube Canal

During my two weeks in Vienna in January, there was only one activity I was interested in that I wasn’t able to do, and that was see the Lipizzaner horses in action at the Spanish Riding School. This was because they were taking a short break from shows the two weeks I was there (not the whole winter, don’t worry). But, like my mom says, you always need to have a reason to come back to any place you’ve visited (smart woman, my mother)!

Overall, traveling in the low season has some awesome benefits like saving money and less crowds. But, you shouldn’t have to compromise anything when planning your vacation, either. Vienna is a city that offers beautiful sights, significant history, delicious cuisine and plenty of activities regardless of the time of year you visit, which makes it a great choice for travel in the off-season.

 


 

 

Day Trip to Peles Castle

Day Trip from Bucharest or Brasov, Romania

Peles Castle’s stunning Neo-Renaissance architecture and location in the scenic Carpathian Mountains in Sinaia, Romania makes this castle a must-see if you are staying in Bucharest or Brasov. Its beauty is considered to rival that of Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria (I personally preferred Peles, but that’s just me). Built in the late 19th century by King Carol I, under whose rule Romania gained independence, the castle was the summer palace for the Romanian royalty.

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What I loved about this castle is the combination of European styles in the castle’s interior. Designed by German architect Johannes Schultz, the castle combines classic Italian, German, French, Turkish, and Austrian styles, transporting you to a different country each time you enter a new room. In addition, the entrance hall is an extraordinary example of intricate woodwork and contains a magnificent wooden spiral staircase. The castle’s beauty truly is the epitome of fairytale romance and needs to be seen in person!

 

To visit the interior, you must join a guided tour. I enjoyed having a guide because we learned so much more about the castle, and she even showed us secret doors and passageways that I wouldn’t have noticed on my own.

On your way to Peles, you can also stop and wander the peaceful Sinaia Monastery, located conveniently along the route to the castle. It’s a beautiful Orthodox monastery that dates back to the 17th century.

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After you have finished exploring the castle and monastery, you can relax with a meal at one of the many restaurants located in the town of Sinaia while you wait for your train. Dewey and I enjoyed some Romanian beer and Mamaliga, a traditional Romanian dish similar to polenta served with cheese and sour cream. Yum!

The combination of the striking Carpathian Mountains, the enchanting castle, and the charming monastery made this day trip a highlight of my time in Romania that I highly recommend if you are visiting Brasov or Bucharest.

How to Get There

The castle is just a short train ride from either Brasov or Bucharest.

Traveling from Brasov
Train time: 1hr 10min
Cost: 1-3€ one way

Traveling from Bucharest
Train time: 1hr 40min
Cost: 4-7€ one way

Finding the castle is simple once you arrive in Sinaia. From the train station, simply follow the signs that take you to a forest path that leads to the castle. The Sinaia Monastery is located along the path to the castle and is impossible to miss.

Castle Information

Opening Times

Summer: open daily from 9:15-4:15pm, Wednesdays 11:00-4:15, closed Mondays
Winter: open Thursday-Sunday 9:15-4:15pm, Wednesdays 11:00-4:15pm, closed Mondays and Tuesdays

Cost

The castle has two guided tours you can take. The main tour takes about 45 minutes and includes most of the castle except the upper floor, while the optional tour takes 1hr 15min and includes some rooms on the upper floor. I recommend taking the full tour while you’re there; it isn’t much more expensive and the rooms are spectacular!

Main tour:
Adults- 30 lei (6.50€)
Students- 7.5 lei (1.50€)

Optional tour:
Adults- 60 lei (13.00€)
Students- 15 lei (3.00€)

Things to Do in the Winter in Copenhagen

With Christmas markets, glogg stands, museums, and the magical Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen is one of the best European cities to visit in the winter. We spent 5 days in the city, which was plenty of time to enjoy the sights and relax. Whether you are visiting for a week or just a few days, here is a list of things to do for your winter stay in Copenhagen:

Get lost in Tivoli Gardens

Tivoli Gardens is a winter wonderland in December. When you enter the park, you feel like you’re walking inside a snow globe. Every pine tree is decorated with ornaments, fairy lights line the walkways, there is fake snow sprinkled across the ground and in the trees, and nonstop Christmas music plays from the speakers. They even serve Nordic street food… which is reindeer meat served in a pita (run, run Rudolph!).

Visiting the amusement park is a great way to get into the holiday spirit. They have a few rollercoasters, but don’t expect anything too extreme like those you’ll find at Six Flags in the US. You can get a pass for unlimited rides, or you can simply pay to enter and then pay individually for each ride. I’m not a huge fan of rollercoasters or anything that spins, so my boyfriend, Dewey, and I bought entrance tickets. We meandered around the park taking in all of the glorious Christmas decorations, window shopped at the little log cabins selling goodies, and picked up yummy snacks along the way. Yes, we tried the reindeer meat, and we loved it! We also had a lot of laughs playing carnival games and winning silly prizes.

Overall, I recommend going just for the scenery alone, especially in December. It’s right in the city center, so you can enjoy the park and then continue exploring after.

Wander Strøget Street

Strøget is Copenhagen’s pedestrian-only cobblestone street that winds through the center of the city and leads to the popular waterfront area, Nyhavn. String lights and garland decorate the street in the winter and it’s filled with restaurants and shops. It’s a busy area with squares where street performers play classic Christmas jingles. We enjoyed strolling down the street while munching on Danish hot dogs and people-watching.

Take it all in at the Nyhavn District

Nyhavn is Copenhagen’s well-known canal and waterfront district. It is worth visiting just to see the vibrant colored houses and the house where the famous Danish writer, Hans Christian Anderson, lived. It’s lined with restaurants, but you don’t need to spend money here— unless you enjoy an overcharged meal! Simply take a walk and enjoy the scenic atmosphere.

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Browse the Christmas markets

In December, Strøget street and the Nyhavn area are filled with Christmas markets. Decorated stalls sell everything from intricate Christmas ornaments to different kinds of savory cheeses and meat. Of course, you must sip on some Glogg (mulled wine) to keep you warm as you browse the stalls! Dewey and I have been to lots of Christmas markets on this adventure so far, and we can confidently say the mulled wine in Copenhagen was our favorite because it’s served with shaved almonds and juicy cranberries. For an extra kick, ask for a shot of whiskey with it!

Relax with Danish beer and a movie

Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break from all the sightseeing and just relax. When I’m traveling, I like spending a day doing things that aren’t typical tourist activities, like seeing a movie with Danish subtitles! On our walk into the city center, we passed a large pink building that was odd-looking and made me curious. Turns out, it was a movie theater. We went to see a movie and it ended up being a unique experience because it was the premiere of the new Spider-Man movie, which was apparently a big deal in Copenhagen. The lobby of the theater was blasting music and had fog machines and laser lights made to look like a spider web. It was packed full of movie-goers and had a red carpet with people posing next to cardboard cut-outs of Spider-Man.

Afterwards, we headed to Taphouse for a beer. They have over 60 taps serving both local and international beer. It’s a cool place and great for trying different Danish beers. Go at happy hour for even better deals!

Stroll through Christiania

Christiania is a hippy commune that developed in a squatted military area in 1971. It’s a Freetown that has its own rules independent from the Danish government, though its legal status is controversial. It’s a peaceful place where yoga and meditation are practiced and important to its citizens. I originally thought it wasn’t going to be very impressive, but the commune is much more modernized than I expected. It has a concert venue, food stands, small bars and restaurants, and even a large market inside an old warehouse.

We strolled down the main drag known as Pusher Street, where hash used to be sold openly out of stalls (it is still sold, but the stalls are gone and it’s definitely not as open as it used to be). We enjoyed listening to a jazz band and ate traditional Danish open-face sandwiches purchased in the market. It was truly a unique place that you should go to just to see and get a sense of the hippy culture that is so strikingly different from the rest of the city.

If you go, be sure not to take any photographs! The town does not allow tourists to take pictures.

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Visit the National Museum of Denmark

A trip to a foreign place is not complete without learning a bit about its history. Plus, museums are a great activity for escaping the cold. The National Museum of Denmark covers 14,000 years of Danish history and it’s easy to spend hours there! The “Stories of Denmark” exhibit was a highlight for me because it does a great job of showing you what life was like for the Danish throughout different periods in history all the way up until the present. Learn about Vikings, gaze at the Sun Chariot from the Bronze Age, and stroll through a room filled with intricately made dollhouses (one of my favorite rooms). You can even see an old hash stall from Christiania before Danish authorities banned cannabis trade in the commune. All in all, it’s a unique museum and should definitely be added to your list! They don’t offer student discounts, but it’s worth the $15 ticket.

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Old hash stall on display at the National Museum of Denmark

 


 

 

A Day Trip to Howth

4E77DAD6-B0AF-45A5-A560-7F5AB81B56B4The sky is overcast with strips of sunlight piercing through the clouds. The air is crisp, with a faint, salty smell from the fishermen’s most recent catch in the harbor below. It’s a cool 45 degree day, and I am comfortable in my white down jacket and beanie hat that covers my ears. I’m walking along a narrow, dusty path that traces the side of the mountain. In front of me are strikingly green hills sprinkled with yellow ferns and vibrant purple heathers. The hills transform into moss-covered rock as they approach the sea, and the water calmly laps against the edges. It’s my first time venturing out of the city, and I now understand why Ireland is so famously called the Emerald Isle. The sight is spectacular and I am happy to have left the busy city for a day spent exploring the coastal town of Howth.


If you are visiting Dublin, a trip to Howth (pronounced Hoth) is a must. It is a small coastal town with gorgeous views, plenty to do, and provides a calming escape from the city. It’s only about a 35 minute train ride on the DART (the Irish rail system) from the city center and costs about 3.50 euro each way. Keep reading for ways to make the most of your day.

1. Meander through the Howth Market

Conveniently located directly across the street from the rail station is the Howth Market. An array of Irish crafts, such as handmade jewelry, are sold here and are great for gift shopping. However, there are some touristy-type items as well, such as overly-priced souvenirs, so be weary of that.

There’s also plenty of food vendors offering everything from steamy empanadas and sausages to freshly baked goods. If you’re like me and enjoy some hot soup when it’s a bit chilly out, I recommend getting the chowder. It’s creamy, filled with vegetables and chunks of fresh salmon and cod, and it’s the perfect snack to give you some fuel for the hike ahead.

2. Pick a trail and get hiking!

There are four hiking trails (blue, red, green, and purple) that provide scenic views of Howth, Dublin Bay, Baily’s Lighthouse, and Ireland’s Eye, an island just north of the harbor. Fortunately, there are signs for each trail immediately when you exit the rail station. Each trail has a varying level of difficulty with red and purple being the longest/most difficult.

I chose the green trail, which was relatively easier than I had anticipated. It was more of an upwards stroll rather than a hike, but it was relaxing and a great option if you are traveling with kids or want to bring your dog along (I met a cute Labrador named Trixie). The views were fantastic and the trail offered many photo-ops!

If you are looking to see the views but in need of something a little gentler than a hike, there is an option to drive or take a bus to the summit and then walk your way down until you reach the town of Howth.

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3. Have a beer at the Summit Inn

Once you’ve made your way to the top, you’ve earned yourself a nice cold brew. The Summit Inn serves a variety of hearty food and has relatively cheap beers on draft. It was originally built as a cottage in the 19th century and has an authentic Irish pub feel. It’s the perfect place to rest your feet before you begin the walk down to the town.

4. End the day with dinner at one of Howth’s many restaurants

Being a coastal town, most of the restaurants here are known for their freshly caught seafood. Having had chowder earlier in the day, I opted for something a bit more hearty, yet still an Irish classic: Shepard’s Pie. I ate at Dog House Blue’s Tea Room, a funky restaurant that features a dining area set up like a cozy outdoor living room with soft cushion chairs and couches. They have a wide selection of tea and coffee perfect for sipping in front of their fireplace.  It’s BYOB, so if you’d like to drink you’ll need to stop by a convenience store first.  They have heat lamps, so no need to worry about being cold!

If you are interested in sampling Irish fish and chips, many have recommended getting take away from Beshoff’s, a popular place with Dubliners. It’s a great option if you are looking to nibble on a classic as you stroll down the pier.

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At the end of the day, all you have to do is hop on the train and it will take you directly back to Dublin’s center.

If you are only in Dublin for a few days but would like a chance to see all of the green that Ireland is so famous for, or if you would just like a calming escape from the bustling city center, Howth is great option.

Though it’s not necessary to plan much (half the fun is just discovering things to do as you go!),  Here is a link that provides more detail on things to do and places to eat in Howth.