Solitude is easy to find if you’re travelling to remote destinations. But the best-known places – like Paris, Rome, Florence, London, Barcelona – are always going to draw lots of people, and with good reason. So how can we see these cities without feeling like we’re stuck in a herd of camera-toting sheep? From the travel experts at ToursByLocals, here are our top ten tips for avoiding the worst of the European vacation crowds:
1. Hire a local guide
Of course our first suggestion is to hire a private guide. A guide knows when the busiest places will have lulls in the crowds, and exactly where to go to soak in a city’s ambiance without being joined by hundreds of others with the same idea. They’re also remarkably adept at finding the fastest way to get from point A to point B, so the crowds won’t slow you down. A prime example of this is our London guides, who know precisely where to watch the Changing of the Guards without having to elbow your way to a view.
2. Skip the line!
Did you know you could do this? A major benefit of hiring a guide is that they often have the ability to skip right past a 2-hour long line-up and whisk you inside the attraction you’d rather not wait to see. For instance, this tour of the Louvre by our Parisian guide Eugenie.
3. Take advantage of jet lag
What does that mean? Imagine you managed to stay up until 9pm after an overnight trans-Atlantic flight. Now it’s 5am the next day and you’re wide awake. Instead of tossing and turning, get out of bed and go for a wander through near-empty streets as the city quietly stirs. Enjoy a coffee alongside locals on their way to work. Early morning can be a magical time to explore European cities.
4. If possible, travel off-peak
Have you ever been to Paris in August? The locals have fled the city for their summer vacations, leaving the tourists to take it by storm. Consider traveling in your destination’s shoulder season – and avoid school holidays like the plague! (Look into school holidays in the places you’re visiting as well – or you may find yourself in a “Spring Break” situation with throngs of local teenagers on mini-breaks.)
5. Do your research and plan museum visits accordingly
Many museums have “free” days once a month; these are always going to be busy days, and best to avoid. Also, some major attractions (e.g. London’s Tate Modern) stay open late one or two nights a week; visiting the gallery during these extended hours tends to offer a quieter experience.
6. Investigate “alternative” destinations
Everyone talks about the big ticket destinations – Rome, Paris, Venice, Prague – but there’s much magic to be found in Europe’s smaller cities. For instance, if you’re looking to experience Dutch culture, Leiden or Haarlem are beautiful and less crowded alternatives to Amsterdam. (For more suggestions on overlooked destinations, check out our article: 10 European Cities You Haven’t Visited – and Should!)
7. Benefit from local insight
Talk to the locals to learn about what’s popular with people who live in the city, rather than what’s popular with people who visit it. A good way to incorporate this wisdom into your trip-planning is to visit travel discussion forums like those on TripAdvisor. Many locals are present in these forums to answer questions and offer honest advice. Before you type in a question, do a quick search – chances are others have asked it before. And of course, your ToursByLocals guide is a superb resource.
8. Choose attractions off the beaten path
Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you have to visit it; you won’t get a failing grade for skipping the supposed “must-sees”. You can visit London without going to Buckingham Palace; you can experience Italy without snapping a photo of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. There’s way more to a city than its icons, so let the icons draw the crowds, while you ferret out more unique ways to spend your time. (Again, your ToursByLocals guide is a great resource here!)
9. Stay in hotels or apartments away from the tourist centres
...AKA don’t book a hotel near Trafalgar Square if you're looking for quiet! We’re not suggesting you book in an inconvenient location, but choosing a smaller hotel or vacation rental in a more residential neighbourhood with easy transit access to the places you want to visit is a nice way to escape the tourist crowds at the end of the day. Think West Kensington or Notting Hill in London, Bastille or the Upper Marais in Paris.
10. Be aware of cruise ship dockings
If you’re staying in a port-city, find out when the cruise ships dock – then hightail it out of there! And if you’re one of the people debarking from the ship, see Tip #1...then hightail it out of there with your guide!