Europe is an incredibly diverse continent. There are so many different countries, languages, religions, and ethnicities in a relatively compact area, and border hopping is so easy! Catholicism is the official religion of many different countries, and the Catholic holidays are just as important as other national holidays. But traveling during Easter in Catholic countries can get a little tricky. Religious countries go all out for the holiday, locals take off or shut everything down, and travelers can often get left wondering what to do.
I’ve traveled in Europe three different times during Easter to date: I was in Spain for semana santa (Holy Week) in 2010; in Stockholm, Sweden, and Warsaw, Poland, for Easter in 2014; and in Budapest, Hungary this year in 2016. While my situation may have been unique, I noticed quite a bit of similarities between the Catholic countries during my Easter travels (Spain, Poland, and Hungary). Here are my top 8 tips for traveling in Catholic Europe during Easter!
1. Most places will be closed.
Easter is a very big deal in Catholicism. Most museums, sites, and attractions will either be closed or have very limited opening hours. Accept that you won’t be able to see everything and try not to be too disappointed. If someplace you want to see is closed and you only have a limited amount of time, you might just not be able to make it happen.
2. Easter Monday is a public holiday.
Everything will probably be closed on Easter Monday too. I had no idea about this when I showed up in Warsaw—only to accidentally walk in on a service in a church in the Old Town (and quietly walk right back out) and then wander around for an hour, literally the only person in sight. Had I known this beforehand, I would have given myself more time in Poland’s capital, since I lost one of my two days of sightseeing!
3. Find out opening times before you go.
For the things you really want to see in advance, check online or at your accommodation when you get there to find out opening times. Figure out what (if anything) is open, and make a plan for your visit from there. By planning ahead, you can make the most of your time in a destination, and you won’t be disappointed by showing up and finding somewhere closed!
4. Prepare to queue.
If there’s anything open over Easter, I can guarantee it will probably have long lines. Everyone else will have the same idea as you: going to whatever is still open! Prepare to wait a while to get in to the one museum or attraction that is actually open—and keep this waiting time in mind when planning your day.
5. If a store is open, buy everything.
A lot of shops shut down during the holidays. As in, if you don’t think ahead you might legitimately struggle to find food, since every shop and restaurant nearby could be closed (or have very limited hours) over the holiday. So if you find a place that is open, buy whatever you need (anything you might need!) then and there. You don’t necessarily know when you’ll find the next open shop!
6. Give yourself extra time for public transportation.
On Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, always assume that public transportation will be running on the least frequent schedule (usually the Sunday/holiday schedule). This might mean that the bus you want runs hourly, instead of every 10 minutes—so being patient and giving yourself extra time is very important.
7. Go to Mass or another religious service.
On of the best parts about traveling is immersing yourself in another culture. The Easter holiday is one of the best ways to fully experience a new place—what it’s like when everyone goes all out. Church services are always free to attend and regardless of whether you’re religious or not, it will definitely be an experience! Going to Mass in the stunning St. Stephen’s Basilica was definitely one of the highlights of my whole trip to Budapest.
8. Enjoy sites from the outside.
With so many attractions and places shut down, you can always explore a new place on foot and see buildings/monuments/parks/etc. from the outside. It will be completely free, and you will still get to see some places in your destination!
Through my own experiences, I’ve seen both sides of traveling Catholic Europe during Easter: memorable experiences that reveal the fascinating side of religious countries, and also being unable to visit places I had planned on due to short opening hours. I hope these tips help if you are planning on traveling to very Catholic places in Europe during the Easter holidays!
Have you ever been to a country during a big religious holiday? What was your experience like?