Destination Wednesday: 5 Tips For Avoiding Long Lines In Europe

Don't expect to get to the front of the line to see the Mona Lisa without a struggle. (Sharyn Alden photo.)
Don’t expect to get to the front of the line to see the Mona Lisa without a struggle. (Sharyn Alden photo.)

By Sharyn Alden

Heading to Europe this summer? Good for you! What fun – but what a pain if you drop by the Louvre or the Sistine Chapel when the crowds are at their worst. Maybe you’ll visit the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam’s most popular art museum, or Stockholm’s Royal Palace – or maybe you’ll take one look at the crowds of impatient (and sometimes downright snarly) tourists winding around the block and have a nice coffee instead.

I’ve talked to plenty of people who went out of their way to visit sights like Rome’s Vatican Museums or Barcelona’s Picasso Museum but came away museum-less. It wasn’t their tight travel schedules that kept them out — it was the crowds waiting outside.

Okay, but giving up isn’t why you came to Europe — and now you won’t have to. Here are some tips for moving yourself to the front of the lines.

(Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as getting there early for world-famous sites like the picturesque Prague Castle, Madrid’s Prado Museum, London’s Tate Museum and Westminster Abbey, and Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle. Yes, you can get up at 4 and stand outside the doors of many of these places for four to six hours just so you can be first inside, but this is your vacation. Is that really how you want to spend it? If you stayed up all night, maybe. But anyone who believes in sleep might want the tips instead.)

Pick the Best Time, Not Just The Early Time: When I stumbled onto Lisbon’s famed Berardo Museum of Contemporary Art, I couldn’t get in. I checked out other nearby spots of interest, but that large art museum stuck with me.

I had an idea, and planned a return visit on Sunday morning before the opening times of nearby eateries. My plan was to miss the brunch crowds that would likely show up at seaside cafes near the museum.

The plan worked. By going counter to typical tourist behavior, I was able to breeze right through the museum’s doors.

Here’s another one: Going early may work, but going late may be better. Check to see if your hot spot is open in the evening. During peak season you may hit a homerun if you go on a Friday or Saturday night when many tourists are dining and not wandering historical sights.

Looking at which days are better, many European sights are closed Sundays and/or Mondays; therefore, try to avoid going on a Tuesday. Overanxious tourists are chomping at the bit to get in the big sights the day after they reopen. Also, avoid free days, which happen once or twice a month. Free is good, but expect mobs of people coming out of the woodwork.

Remember, these tips are only for the outside line. Inside, don’t expect to get up-close with that small Mona Lisa at the Louvre without a struggle.

Buy Tickets Online From Sites Or Ticket Partners: It’s amazing how often tourists decide to go with spontaneity, only to be smacked down by the realities of access. If you buy guaranteed-entrance-time tickets online, you trade that carefree feeling of showing up whenever for the assurance of a guaranteed entry time. Tickets for top draws should be booked weeks if not months in advance. Buy from the museum directly or partners such as for Florence, Italy. Along those lines:

  • Buy tourist cards. These cards may not save you lots of money, but they save time. The Madrid Card, for example, can get you into places like the Prado without a standing-in-line headache.
  • Buy combo tickets that cover top sights. If you’re only interested in one or two museums, these might not be the best deal. But that extra price may be worth it if you get to line-skip at the one place you’re really interested in.

Hire Local Guides: Hooking up with a group may go against your free-wheeling nature, but it’s a good option for avoiding museum lines.

At St. Petersburg’s famous Hermitage Museum, the lines were long inside and out and the first-floor crowds were almost impossible to walk through. Thankfully, I’d hooked up with a city guide that gave us a private tour in English. Okay, it wasn’t the same as wandering the museum on my own, but our guide had clout, and he continually whisked us in front of big lines throughout the mammoth building.

Another option: Take a bus tour that includes sights you want to see. Bus tours aren’t for everyone, but the ones that visit museums often can move their guests in front of lengthy lines.

Do You Have to Use the Front Door? Have you looked for alternate ways to get in? It sounds so obvious, but finding a secondary (legitimate) entrance to a museum works in your favor. Too many people see a line and immediately get in it, never realizing there could be quicker side entrances.

Not far from Lisbon’s Contemporary Art Museum is the marvelous Maritime Museum, a multi-building seafront facility that tells the story of Portugal’s mariners. Lines were long, so after wandering the grounds, I tried a passage connected to a small café. Sure enough, it was a way in. I had to get tickets from the main desk, but I made it to the front of the line by circumventing the obvious route.

Here’s another example. The Louvre has long lines to enter through the famous I.M. Pei glass pyramid. But a Parisian friend told me to go underground—literally — to an underground entrance through a small shopping mall where the lines were reasonable.

Go Local: The final tip: When in Rome (or anywhere in Europe), tap into a local resource for guidance. Even if your local contact hasn’t been to a specific museum, they know the rhythm of the city, when the crowds swell and recede.

Now, on to Europe!

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.


Editor’s Note: Everybody’s heading to Europe this summer. the smart ones are going with ExactCare, comprehensive travel insurance from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. Get it here.