If you were planning to hike around the scenic shores of Lugano this fall, tramping through chestnut forests and lush vineyards while admiring its Alpine lake, you’d do well to bring an appetite. Each year, when locals in the picturesque Swiss city welcome the change in seasons, they do it with a rousing celebration of folk songs, traditional dances and heaps of the hearty cuisine for which the Ticino region is famous. The days might be getting shorter, but the longer nights are an excuse to toast the fall harvest—something the Ticinese do at dinner tables laden with their region's Chardonnays and Merlots.
And the Ticinese aren’t alone. All across Europe, the harvest marks one of the most festive times of year. For author James Fraioli, whose travels frequently take him to the Italian regions just south of Lugano, there’s no better time to appreciate la dolce vita. Researching Italian cuisine for his latest cookbook, "Festivals of Italy: Celebrated Recipes from 50 Food Fairs", Fraioli found the fall calendar crammed with harvest fetes. In towns across Tuscany, locals thronged to celebrate the arrival of the season’s truffles, chestnuts, wild mushrooms, wines and olive oils. The experience was typically vibrant, colorful—and, as Fraioli puts it, “intensely local.”
“A lot of these festivals are really small-scale,” he says. “You’re only going to find them by talking to the locals and discovering them. They’re tucked behind churches, and on cobblestone streets and [in places] that really don’t stand out in the public eye.”
For most American tourists, European vacations are synonymous with summer. But according to Greg Tepper, president of the Tampa-based travel group Exeter International, fall is when “the real residents of the cities return.” The cultural life, too, is “restored to the neighborhoods,” says Tepper, noting that while the temperature starts to drop in the fall, the cultural season is just beginning to heat up.
“Each September and October, theaters across Russia and Eastern Europe reopen after taking the summer off,” he says. In St. Petersburg, with its placid canals framed by grand Baroque palaces, top theaters and opera houses—dark for the dog days of summer—launch into their fall seasons with gusto. "Swan Lake" takes to the main stage at the majestic Mariinsky Theater, and the cream of St. Petersburg society flocks to debuts and gala events, ushering in a glamorous fall calendar.
Of course, rubbing elbows with Russian oligarchs isn’t for everyone. You could also say olé in a big way by heading to Madrid, where the city’s 25th Fall Festival takes place from October 13 through September 16. There will be more than 166 performances of theater, music, dance and circus arts.
With scorching summers giving way to the mild fall weather, autumn is also a great time of year for outdoors enthusiasts to explore the continent. “If you want to hike, or bike, it’s certainly much more pleasurable in September and October [than in the summer],” says Doris White, a travel agent with the La Jolla-based Travel Dynamics. While she notes that fall weather can be unpredictable in the heights of the Alps or the Pyrenees, most of the continent is basking in autumn’s warm glow.
“The classic trip that most [of my clients] do would be Burgundy in the fall,” she says. “You can do wine harvesting, biking, hiking … You have the wonderful foods and festivals, and some amazing wines.” The annual vendange, when locals crush their freshly plucked grapes (sometimes underfoot), is a colorful rite of the season that’s typically open to tourists. And after you’ve gorged on gourmet food and wine, says White, you can work off those extra calories by biking between villages.