Winter brings with it the chance to explore Europe’s most overcrowded cities in relative peace. But there are other reasons – beyond a lack of queues and chaos – to visit the likes of Venice, Barcelona and Dubrovnik in the colder months. You’ll pay less, for starters, with hotel rates and flight prices typically falling by half in the off season. Cultural programmes are usually just as packed – the annual Venice Carnivale, for example, takes place in February. And you’re likely to be rubbing shoulders with locals, rather than other tourists, adding a veneer of authenticity to your weekend away.  
Here three of our destination experts explain why their city is just as magical – if not more – during winter. 
Does Venice have an off-season? With the possible exception of some mid-week days in early January you’re unlikely to have this watery dreamscape to yourself. But winter does bring relative calm, providing the chance to explore a more echoing and mysterious version of Venice. If, on the other hand, you prefer your cities to be bustling, there are also cold-weather festivities to enjoy. 
For any winter visit you’ll need to wrap up warm: icy winds whip down from the Dolomites. But if you’re lucky you’ll also catch brilliant blue skies which magnify the city’s colours. You may also get the chance to experience the novelty of acqua alta, most likely to occur between November and March. The city’s famous annual flooding is in fact a tide: it rises and falls swiftly, and large areas of the city are rarely affected.  
See Venice out of season and one thing you’re certain to see is… Venetians. For much of the year they shun the crowds, sticking to quieter, far-flung parts of the city. But there is a real, buzzing local community here and it’s most clearly on show when the city is quiet. To experience Venice as a lived-in place, aim for the weeks after New Year until the Carnevale jamboree (February 4-24 in 2023).
Most Venetian hotels drop their prices dramatically in the low season. Shop around and you might find even the glitziest options come into your price range (the uber-luxurious Aman Venice, for example, has rooms for €950/£833 in January – still very dear, but down from more than €2,000/£1,753 in the warmer months). Ditto airfares: with Venice Marco Polo airport served by easyJet, Ryanair and other low-cost carriers, prices plunge in line with demand.
Much of what makes a summer visit to Venice frustrating vanishes in the winter months. You can find a table at popular restaurants, and they are far easier to enjoy as crowds thin. You’re also unlikely to have to queue for galleries, for vaporetti or for major attractions like St Mark’s Basilica (though booking may still be a good idea – grab an early morning slot and you may have this magnificent church to yourself).
Venice’s blockbuster exhibitions cluster in the warmer months but winter 2022-23 has its attractions. The critically-acclaimed Burning Writings painting cycle by German artist Anselm Kiefer runs until January 6 at the Doge’s Palace. On the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the superb (and free) Stanze del Vetro gallery has an exhibition by Venini, one of Venice’s most renowned glass makers, until January 23. At Palazzo Grassi, works by the South African artist Marlene Dumas hang until January 8, to be replaced by hundreds of photographs from the Condé Nast collection documenting events and personalities of the 20th century (from March 12).
And then, of course, there’s Carnevale (February 4-24), during which Venice fills with throngs of costumed revellers, along with visitors snapping photos.
As the crowds disperse, the locals come out and you’ll find them re-staking their claim to the city. With fewer boats on the lagoon, expect to see them out rowing; on blue days they might hop on a vaporetto and cross the lagoon, heading to Lido or Punta Sabbioni for a bracing cycle along the Adriatic shore, more often than not crowned by a big seafood lunch at a beachside trattoria.
A Barcelona winter rarely feels like a real winter, and older Catalans still reminisce about the snowfall of Christmas Eve 1962. December and January see bright, sunny days, colder at night, but perfectly comfortable by day. The difference the change in seasons makes to the feel of the city is immeasurable, however, as the babble of foreign voices dwindles to a low murmur, drowned out by Catalans simply going about their day.
You won’t find prices for attractions or restaurants changing, but the savings you can make on flights and hotel rooms will free up a good chunk of your budget to throw down on the kind of restaurants you’d struggle to get a reservation for in summer. The difference in room rates is notable – at Casa Camper, for example, rooms that will cost you €280 (£245) in high season go for €158 (£139), and in all hotels it’s worth checking around for special winter offers that might include breakfast or a further discount for multiple nights.
Lower occupancy in the colder months also increases your chances of a free room upgrade.
As the sun sets on the beach season, the city’s cultural agenda gets into full swing. These tend to be the best months for both pop and classical concerts, with highlights for 2022/23 including Handel’s Messiah at the glorious Modernista Palau de la Música Catalana (palaumusica.cat) over Christmas and a production of Tosca at the Liceu Opera House (liceubarcelona.cat), running throughout January.
Cooler temperatures also bring with them a wave of major exhibitions. The CaixaForum (caixaforum.org) is increasingly thought of as Barcelona’s most interesting exhibition space, and the programme for the winter of 2022/23 bears this out. Comic: Dreams and History, the story of comic art from its inception, runs until January 15; Egyptian Mummies until March 26; and – from February 16 to June 4 – The Century of the Portrait, featuring 19th-century art loaned from the Prado in Madrid.
Promising exhibitions elsewhere include Paul Klee and the Secrets of Nature at the Fundació Joan Miró, until February 12.
The festive season is an action-packed one in Barcelona, starting in late November with the exuberant display of Christmas lights that crisscross every street, and the ‘pessebres’, giant nativity scenes found in various locations around town. The most impressive is the life-sized and often outlandish fixture in the Plaça Sant Jaume. Slightly more traditional, but only just, is the nativity scene in the patio of the quirky little Museu Frederic Marès (barcelona.cat), by the side of the cathedral. Over Christmas and New Year, the museum is also free to enter. 
Running in parallel throughout December are the Christmas markets that line the Portal de l’Àngel, C/Argenteria and the square in front of the cathedral. 
Christmas itself is reasonably low-key, since the real festivities happen on the eve of Kings’ Day (January 6), when the three kings deliver the children’s presents. A long slow procession of dancers and floats, three of which bear their royal majesties, winds through the city and (literally) tons of boiled sweets are launched through the air to the expectant crowds.  
The next big event in the calendar is Carnival, the week of Shrove Tuesday (February 21 in 2023). The really wild parties are not in Barcelona, however, but a short train ride down the coast in the pretty seaside town of Sitges, where the entire population fills in the streets in various states of fancy (or un-)dress. The next day it’s back to Barcelona for the Ash Wednesday ritual of the Burial of the Sardine. The roots of this peculiar funeral cortège are lost in the mists of time, but the interring of the fish is believed by many to symbolise the beginning of sexual abstinence for Lent and the end of the party season. 
For a slice of relative warmth in winter, it’s hard to beat Dubrovnik. The mercury topped 24C when I visited at the end of October; the forecast for late November is in the high teens. I even swam in the Adriatic, whose waters still had more than a hint of summer’s heat. 
The city, lately synonymous with overtourism, is transformed in the off season. The queues to walk its famous walls evaporate, meaning there’s plenty of room to stroll at a comfortable pace and take in those wonderful views. There’s a relaxed buzz along the Stradun, the Old City’s main thoroughfare, instead of the usual heaving summer crowds. Cruise ship visits dwindle and tour operators wind down their schedule, leaving one able to stride instead of shuffle.
Understandably, many hotels and restaurants are closed until the spring, but enough remain open to satisfy the needs of both residents and tourists. Staff in these establishments, no longer knee-deep in tourists, are more relaxed too – adding to the appeal of a trip to the city right now. 
Hotel rates plunge from November onwards. Book yourself a superior sea-view room with a balcony at the luxurious Hotel Dubrovnik Palace in November and you’ll pay just €145 (£127). But come in May and you’ll pay €238 (£209), rising to €323 (£283) in July. Jadrolinija’s ferries, which go up and down the Adriatic coast all year round, are also slightly cheaper in the low season.
A shortage of flights to Dubrovnik in winter may eat up some of those savings, however. Jet2, easyJet and Wizz Air cease flying to the city, leaving British Airways as the only UK operator with a direct service. A return flight in December will set you back in the region of £150. 
An alternative is to combine two countries in one trip: fly to Podgorica in Montenegro (around three hours by car from Dubrovnik) with Ryanair for about £30 return, and then make your way to Dubrovnik via Kotor. 
Just when you think Dubrovnik might get a bit sleepy in the low season, the Dubrovnik Winter Festival arrives – from November 26 – and keeps things lively and festive until January 6. There are concerts by Croatian pop stars, food and gift stalls, children’s events, Christmas music, fireworks, a massive party on New Year’s Eve and a concert in the Stradun on New Year’s Day. At Sunset Beach in Lapad Bay, there’s an ice rink and festive train to go with a beachfront Christmas market. Dubrovnik is magical enough as it is, but it goes into overdrive when the city is decked out in Christmas lights and decorations.
Although things calm down after January 6, they perk up again from February 2-3 for the annual festival honouring the city’s patron saint, Sveti Vlaho (Saint Blaise). Experts processions, more concerts and, of course, lots of food.
Late autumn and early winter, when the temperatures are still in the mid-teens, are when hikers are in their element. You’ll spot local trail runners and dog-walkers tackling the steep, rocky footpath that zigzags its way up to Mount Srd overlooking the city, rather than stump up £20 for the cable car. It’s also an appealing time to hop on the Jadrolinija ferry to the Elaphiti Islands of Koločep, Lopud and Šipan – take a picnic and hike through olive groves and pine woods.
The district of Gruž by the main port has become one of the city’s trendiest districts. Drop by the Dubrovnik Beer Company to catch live bands, and check out the Red History Museum – not only for its fascinating exhibition on the history of communist Yugoslavia but also for its events.
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