When you think of a vacation in Europe, you tend to think of sunshine, walking and sitting outdoors, spring flowers, and packing only light clothes. Think of November, and gray skies, rain, and cold spring to mind -- off-putting when it comes to travel, for sure.
While I must admit to being a Northern European with a distinct foible for snow and ice, I do not like persistent rain, either. But really, the weather should only be one consideration when planning a trip, because the weather is only a small part of it, and undesirable weather can work in your favor as well.
With that in mind, here are a few cities that I personally think are perfect to visit in November, even if you might have to pack an umbrella and a warm coat.
Moscow is a great city to visit, and in my opinion, it is better in the cold season than in the summer. It is supposed to be cold in Russia, right?
Put on your winter layers and walk across Red Square, sip decadent hot chocolate in the GUM department store, and see the river ice over -- it’s all part of the experience. You can go ice skating in Gorky Park and then walk through the Muzeon open-air sculpture park just opposite the main gates. And during the winter, the opera and ballet seasons are in full swing; consider a sumptuous night at the Bolshoi Theatre. For a break from the cold, explore as many of the equally sumptuous metro stations as possible.
The best thing about visiting in November is that you get to enjoy winter, but not the extreme winter that Moscow often experiences in December and January. You’ll see your breath and ice and snow, but you can still easily enjoy the city’s sights.
Pro Tip: The vast and architecturally interesting Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Gorky Park is now open, but you’ll need to book tickets in advance.
Like Rome, Athens is a city that needs to be explored on foot, but in the summer it is often too hot and too crowded to really enjoy the experience. November brings fewer crowds and temperatures in the mid-60s, so you can actually climb up to the Acropolis and enjoy watching more and more of the city’s ancient structures come into view. This is such a better approach than arriving by air-conditioned coach!
Afterward, you can meander through the old neighborhood, the Plaka, without having to dodge the crowds, and enjoy the Monastiraki Flea Market without having to push people out of your way. The weather might turn, but you’ll have plenty of museums to escape to for a few rainy hours.
Pro Tip: Make sure you enjoy some day trips to places such as Delphi and Cape Sounion, since those places are usually too crowded to enjoy in the summer.
Sofia is a small city for a capital, but in addition to being worth visiting for its history, it is also a hub for day trips to the legendary Transylvania. In late autumn, when the weather turns colder, the leaves that are still clinging to the trees display beautiful hues, the mist lingers over the region, and snow can be felt in the air. This is the time to wrap up and go to see the seemingly endless Bulgarian countryside!
After a weekend in Sofia, head for Pristina, a picturesque ancient town normally filled with day trippers. Explore the UNESCO-listed Rila Monastery and search out the many castles that sit on Bulgaria’s mountaintops, most notably Bran, said to be the home of Count Dracula.
Be sure to hike up Vitosha, a mountain on Sofia’s doorstep. You can take a local bus and then a chairlift up to some sections. It is particularly beautiful in the morning when the mist clears.
The capital of Hungary, Budapest, is a majestic city on the just-as-majestic Danube, and November is probably the best time to enjoy it. It is chilly, with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees, but sunny. You can still experience those fabulous old-fashioned baths, open outdoors all year long. The crowds are at their thinnest before the Christmas rush, but, luckily, the Christmas markets open in early November, so you can still get into the Christmas spirit.
Budapest is famous for its old-fashioned coffeehouses and sumptuous cakes, and they’re especially welcome after a day spent out in the cold. Try Cafe Gerbeaud for its charm and cakes. And of course, it really needs to be a little chilly outside for you to truly appreciate a big, warm pot of hearty Hungarian goulash!
Rome is an amazing city, second only to Paris -- although many will argue that it is better than Paris! But it suffers for its beauty and history by attracting too many visitors, and, quite honestly, in summer, when it is hot and overcrowded, you’d be better off visiting any other city but Rome.
And that’s why November is perfect. It’s the month there are no school holidays anywhere in Europe, and it’s when the Eternal City enjoys a lull before the Christmas rush. The weather is a mild 60 degrees, allowing you to sit out on the piazzas in a light jacket and enjoy the city’s famous gelato.
Pro Tip: November 1 is a national holiday in Rome, so everything except for the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums will be closed.
Malta is a Mediterranean island brimming with history. And while the sea might beckon, there is so much to explore that in the warmer months it is just not possible to do it all without suffering from heatstroke. In November, however, the temperature is a balmy 70 degrees, which is perfect not only for sightseeing but also a dip in the water.
In Valletta, the ancient capital of Malta, head straight for Saint John’s Co-Cathedral. I have traveled a lot and visited many exquisite churches, but this is one of the most beautiful I have seen. Be prepared to spend an hour or more inside -- it is truly awe-inspiring.
Afterward, enjoy a relaxed harbor cruise, seeing all the fortifications from the sea while enjoying the warm weather, and then head to the forts themselves, taking time to climb up the ramparts.
Pro Tip: The Three Palaces is a festival that takes place over the first 10 days of November in Malta, featuring concerts ranging from opera to jazz.
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is another gorgeous European city that is too popular for its own good. The ancient city, the castle, the cobbled streets, and the famous Charles Bridge get so overcrowded in the warmer months that it takes all the fun out of visiting. November temperatures range from 33 to 43 degrees, and the city gets around 4 hours of sunshine every day; it is chilly, but perfectly fine to walk around.
Though the crowds are thin, there are plenty of special events and exhibitions on. One you shouldn't miss is the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery Prague until January of 2021.
One interesting way to see Prague and learn about its history is by taking an after-dark walking tour. The good thing about November is that it gets dark early, and you won’t have to stay up all night for the tour.
Istanbul is one of those cities that does all seasons well. I have visited in the height -- and heat -- of summer, in the snowy wintertime, and in between, and each season has something going for it. But, again, it is the lack of crowds in November that makes visiting at this time of year so much more enjoyable. You can meander through the Grand Bazaar and take your time, without having to dodge people, and get a prime seat on the many ferries up the Bosporus, and you won’t have to queue around the block for the harem at the Topkapi Palace.
For art lovers, the Istanbul Biennial contemporary art festival takes place every other year between mid-September and mid-November.
Pro Tip: On November 10, Turkey erupts in celebrations commemorating Kemal Ataturk’s death, with festivals and ceremonies across the country.
Reykjavik is great all year long, but one of the prime reasons to go to this northern island in the winter is to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. You’re more likely to see glaciers and amazing waterfalls then, too. And November, in particular, offers the best of both worlds: The waterfalls are in full force, the glaciers frozen, and the mini-icebergs on the Black Diamond Beach in their prime, but you won’t be too cold or experience too much snow on the roads to get around. And it’s aurora borealis season, so your chances of seeing the amazing Northern Lights are good.
Pro Tip: Iceland is famous for its warm lagoons, and they are so much more enjoyable when it is cold outside. Even the popular Blue Lagoon is not too busy in November.