Off season is on season in these 7 stunning cities
High season in popular tourist destinations often dulls the charm of travel. Who can appreciate the charms of Tuscany when it takes 45 minutes just to secure a table near the restroom?
Real cities are real cities 365 days a year. In fall and winter, these seven world-class destinations still offer world-class experiences without the distraction of packs of high school classes and flag-waving tour guides.
1. Florence, Italy
Recommended low season: October
From June to August, the quest for “real Italian cooking” sends pizzas spinning out of Florence ovens like Frisbees tossed at throngs of hungry tourists still high on “Eat Pray Love.”
October is a slower time, harvest month for wine, truffles and olives. That means fresher local delicacies. Numerous fall food and wine festivals make perfect excuses to spend a day or two in the countryside.
Seasonally discounted villas are equipped with kitchens, where you can cook fresh produce. There may be fewer restaurants open in low season, but that just makes it easier to detect authentic local eateries.
- Truffle Fest, Cortile della Maddalena, October 9-November 14, www.fieradeltartufo.org
- Osteria All' Antico Mercato (popular local eatery open year round), Via Nazionale 78/r, Florence, +39 055 284182, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4 p.m.-8 p.m.
- San Lorenzo Market, Piazza di San Lorenzo, 7, Farmacia S. Lorenzo, Florence, Italy
2. Edinburgh, Scotland
Recommended low season: Mid-September-October
Castles, fog, head-snapping booze and the most dizzying accents in the English-speaking world -- everything you love about Edinburgh is actually better once the weather turns chilly and the August festival crowds have cleared out of town.
Scotland is famous for its variety of beautiful autumn walks, but we love the way the sun pours through the Glentress Forest in Edinburgh. After a chilly forest stroll, there’s nothing more Scottish than shaking off the rain and slinging back a soul-warming Glenfiddich while slurring in a dimly lit pub filled with locals.
We recommend bringing up the winter haggis hunting season as an ice breaker -- not that you’ll need one.
No one goes to Edinburgh without touring Edinburgh Castle. The summer tourist destination looks even more imposing when it’s shrouded in the mysterious fog of fall.
And don't miss Glentress Forest, where you can find 40 kilometers of nature trails for walking and biking along with 2,500 hectares of vast rolling hills that are sure to provoke an exchange of fearless “Braveheart” quotes (+44 175 072 1120; Peebles is the nearest town. Take the A72 east from Peebles. Follow the signs for Glentress Peel. www.forestry.gov.uk).
- Canny Mans, an atmospheric pub crammed with loony collectibles and local characters. It is also peppered with nooks and crannies in which you can throw back a good selection of local whiskies. 273 Morningside Road, Edinburgh, +44 131 447 1484
- Edinburgh Castle, +44 131 225 9846, www.edinburghcastle.gov.UK, Adult £12.50 (US$20), Child £6.50 (US$10)
3. New York City, New York, United States
Recommended low seasons: October-February
To see locals acting like locals, visit New York in October, when this year the entire sports-crazed city will be cheering on its beloved Yankees as they go for another World Series crown (27 and counting). Major League Baseball play-offs run from October to early November. The New York Rangers (hockey) start their season around now too.
Winter chills bring fewer visitors to New York, making it easier to score Broadway tickets. Catch the most expensive (and weird) Broadway production in history, “Spiderman: The Musical.”
Running into February, New York Restaurant Week lures people out of their Snuggies with discounted rates on best local eats.
If you miss Restaurant Week, a publishing industry insider recommends, "The best lunch deal in the city is Jean-Georges’ Café Nougatine in the Trump Building. French haute cuisine for around US$25 every day."
- Sporting event tickets, www.stubhub.com
- New York Restaurant Week, www.nycgo.com
- Café Nougatine, 1 Central Park W., New York, +1 212-299-3900, www.jean-georges.com
4. Lhasa, Tibet
Recommended low season: November-February
Have you ever read that flowery jargon on the back of a box of tea boasting a fragrance so orgasmically herbal and minty it will transport your neurons to the ridgelines of the Himalayas?
That’ll never happen -- unless you’re breathing in a Tibetan winter.
There isn’t much solace in a Tibetan summer -- tourist arrivals in the capital of Lhasa rose 42 percent to reach 1.22 million in the first half of 2011, according to Lhasa Tourism and reported by CCTV.
The dry Lhasa winters feature clear blue skies, thanks to seasonal lack of rain or snow. This makes winter the best time of year to snap cloud-free, postcard-worthy shots of the Himalayas or the holy Lake Namtso (“Heavenly Lake”) 240 kilometers from Lhasa.
“This is by far the most colorful and exciting time to be in the Tibetan capital."
If the crisp temperatures get to you, steep yourself in the Yangpachen hot spring. The natural spring maintains a piping 47 C all year round.
To check on updated travel restrictions visit: www.tibettravel.org
- Jokhang Temple, downtown Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China, RMB 75, 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
- Yangpachen hot spring (90 kilometers northwest of Lhasa). To enjoy a hot spring in Yangbachen costs around 40-60 RMB (US$6.20-9.35) per person. You can take a minibus to Yangbachen from Lhasa long-distance bus station or you can rent la four-wheel drive to Namtso via Yangbachen, www.windhorsetour.com, +86 28 8559 3923
5. Berlin, Germany
Recommended low season: October-December
Ever wanted to step into a post-Impressionist painting? Say, Van Gogh’s “Autumn Landscape”?
That’s how it feels walking through Berlin parks such as the massive Tiergarten, where the vivid saturation of fall colors -- gold and red leaves fill the trees and carpet the ground -- highlight arguably the most beautiful autumn in any major city in Europe.
A full third of Berlin is devoted to parks, lakes and gardens, providing venues for a near endless array of places to hold hands.
With more than 60 Christmas markets, December in Berlin smells of roasting chestnuts, warm gingerbread, sizzling bratwurst and Glühwein (mulled wine).
Spandau Old Town hosts Berlin's largest Christmas Market. Local craftsmen, performers and storytellers focus on the origins of Christmas.
The market is equipped with about 250 stalls during the week and 400 on weekends. Expect to see wooden figurines and traditional glass ornaments -- not mass-produced bargain items.
- Berlin Tourist Office, Am Karlsbad 11, 10785 Berlin, Germany, +49 30 26 47 48 0; email@example.com; www.germany-christmas-market.org.uk
- Tiergarten Park, Strasse des 17. Juni, Berlin 10117, open all year round. Berlin.de
6. Vancouver, Canada
Recommended low season: December-May
Despite the embarrassing Stanley Cup riot this year, Vancouver is (usually) the world’s friendliest city. The June to August high season is unpredictable to plan for, as some summer days fail to reach 20 C until August.
Ski bums don’t have to hit up Vancouver’s expensive Whistler Blackcomb ski resort. The city is convenient for connecting downtown to cheaper “local” mountains less than an hour's drive away, such as free-style favorite Cypress Mountain or family friendly Grouse Mountain.
Vancouver is an international hub, making it easy for lone rangers to make friends in the metropolis. Locals are known to be hospitable to foreigners, particularly while cozying up in local Irish bars during winter. All you have to say is, “Jeez -- pretty cold out ‘ere, eh?” and everyone will rejoice.
- Doolin’s Irish Pub (backpackers and locals bond over the hot wings and Guinness), 654 Nelson St. at Granville, +1 604-605-4343, www.doolins.ca
- Cypress Mountain, West Vancouver, +1 604 926 5612, www.cypressmountain.com
- Grouse Mountain, 6400 Nancy Greene Way, North Vancouver, +1 604 980 931, www.grousemountain.com
7. Goa, India
Recommended low season: June-October
Ok, this isn't a city, but the vibrant state of Goa was just too good to pass up.
Sure, you can line up at a temple, have your picture taken with an elephant and impress a few of your less-traveled pals back home, but enduring an Indian monsoon is a unique experience you won’t need a photo to remember.
Goa tourism has been promoting “Monsoon Tourism” for the past few years, and there are few better ways to get in touch with nature than by being pelted by howling wind and rain.
Go to a Monsoon festival or watch villages transform from a gray dry dusty town to a lush Eden of vegetation.
- Sao Joao festival is an annual July event celebrating the earth’s fertility. The festival takes place at the start of monsoon season in Goa.
- Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary is a great spot to see preserved plant and animal life.The sanctuary is located in Ponda Taluka, Central Goa, 20 kilometers from Mollem National Park.
- Hire a taxi from Panaji or Margao to reach the Sanctaury. www.goatourism.co.uk