Winter Sun 101: A Guide to Winter Sun Destinations in Europe (And Beyond)

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The nights are drawing in already. Not looking forward to another long, grey, dreary winter? Me neither.

If you’re in need of some Vitamin D, then this post is for you – a comprehensive guide to the best winter sun destinations in Europe (plus a few that are technically outside Europe but still short-haul for European visitors). 

To help you maximise your chances of warmth this winter, this guide will cover:

  • Understanding the Mediterranean climate in fall and winter
  • Winter sun destinations – weather summaries and average temperatures
  • Beach weather: where to go month-by-month
  • Sea temperatures
  • Sunshine hours
  • Highlights of the Mediterranean in winter
  • Best places for a warm city break in winter
  • Winter festival highlights

THE MEDITERRANEAN CLIMATE IN WINTER

Chania, Greece
Chania, Greece

What do we mean by winter sun? Which months count as winter anyway?

  • March / April / May = spring
  • June / July / August = summer
  • September / October / November = autumn
  • December / January / February = winter

In general, the summer tourist season in Europe and the Mediterranean region stars after Easter (bear in mind that Catholic and Orthodox run on different calendars) and runs through to October, when thunderstorms usually herald the changing of the seasons. If you’re planning on visiting the Mediterranean in winter, bear in mind that this is the offseason and some tourist amenities and resorts will be closed – particularly those that rely on beach tourism.

Syros, Greece
Syros, Greece

The Mediterranean climate is typified by hot and dry summers. Winters are milder than Northern Europe (with the mountain ranges forming a cutoff point) – sometimes crisp and sunny but sometimes damp, windy and rainy.

The shoulder seasons of May and September – as well as the second half of April and the first half of October – are also usually fine and warm with some changeable days. Whilst the Mediterranean climate is still milder than Northern Europe, winter can still bring low temperatures and lashing of rain.

If you’re looking for a beach break, it’s best to look outside the Mediterranean in winter. As well as cold and damp weather, you’ll also find that many beach resorts close down completely during October and become ghost towns throughout the winter.

Generally speaking, the further south you go the more reliable the destination for warm weather and sunshine – the Atlantic islands such as the Canaries and Madeira have reliable climates year-round as they are closer to the equator. These are your best options if you want a warm sunny beach holiday in the winter months.

However, there are some places to visit in Europe in winter with lovely mild microclimates. Particularly in the eastern Mediterranean, where the summer season is longer and beach days are still possible well into November. It’s an ideal time for city breaks to sunnier climes. Holiday resorts in North Africa and the Near East are also an option over the winter months.

WHICH ARE THE WARMEST PLACES IN EUROPE IN WINTER?

Fuerteventura, Canary Islands
Fuerteventura, Canary Islands

 

So, which parts of Europe get the warmest winter sun? Let’s take a look.

 Av. Temps (C)Av. Temps (F)Summary
Lisbon11-1952-66Mild and rainy but atmospheric
Marrakech13-2155-70Clear days, chilly nights, brief downpours
Malaga13-1655-61Warm winters, sometimes foggy
Seville11-2052-68Mild and sunny with brief downpours
Madrid6-1533-59Crisp with cold nights and some snow
Valencia9-1848-64Dry and sunny though at times stormy and overcast
Barcelona10-1850-64Mild temps but unpredictable weather
Mallorca10-1850-64Warm and pleasant but sometimes wet
Nice9-1848-64Chilly but clear with brief showers
Rome8-1846-64High chance of rainy days and cold nights
Naples9-1848-64Wet autumn with dry, but dark and cold, winter
Cagliari10-1950-66Mild and clear
Palermo13-2155-70Warm with big downpours
Malta13-2155-70Mild and sunny with occasional storms
Tunis13-2155-70Mild and sunny with occasional storms
Split7-1735-63Cool and windy mixed with sunny days
Athens10-2050-68Mild and dry with cool nights
Thessaloniki6-1643-61Comparatively cold and damp
Heraklion12-2054-68Mild with frequent showers
Rhodes13-2155-70Mild with frequent showers
Antalya10-2050-68Brief cool winter with lots of sunshine
Istanbul6-1634-61Cold, damp and wet
Paphos13-2255-72Sunny with intense downpours
Tel Aviv13-2355-73Sunny with intense downpours
Alexandria13-2255-72Warm sunny days with cold nights
Gran Canaria18-2364-73Reliably warm and sunny with occasional cloud
Fuerteventura18-2364-73Warm and sunny but windy
Funchal16-2161-70Long mild days with brief showers
Algarve12 - 1954-66Surprisingly mild but with downpours
Agadir16-2261-72Warm, dry days and cool nights
Hurghada16-2561-77Warm, dry and sunny

As you can see from the above figures, some southern cities are surprisingly cold – hello Istanbul and Madrid!

The Canaries and Madeira have a reliable spring climate year-round.

For warmer winter temperatures, the best options are drier zones with desert influences and winds from Asia and Africa. Unsurprisingly, destinations in the Near East and North Africa are hotter and drier.

But you can also find these conditions on the islands of Rhodes, Malta, Sicily and Cyprus – which all have the mildest winter climates of Mediterranean Europe. 

Athens and the cities of Southern Spain make perfect city break destinations in the winter.

And the Algarve region of Portugal has a surprisingly mild climate throughout winter (just keep an eye on the forecast for downpours).

WHERE TO FIND BEACH WEATHER IN WINTER

La Graciosa, Canary Islands
La Graciosa, Canary Islands

It is possible to find a sunshine holiday in winter, but you might have to stretch the definitions of ‘short-haul’ and ‘beach break’. Unheated outdoor pools (as well sea temperatures) can be chilly in the offseason.

But are the destinations you should be looking at:

  • OCTOBER-NOVEMBER: most places in the Mediterranean are good in October though with increasing possibility of rain towards the end of the month, but summer hangs around longer Rhodes, Crete, Cyprus, Malta, Sicily
  • DECEMBER: beach days still possible in Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, or else head west to the Canaries for more reliable weather
  • JANUARY- MARCH: temperatures appealing and reliable in the Canaries, but also the resorts in North Africa
  • MARCH: perfect temperatures in Morocco and Tunisia (although the sea will still be cool), Canaries, and on the Red Sea
  • APRIL: stick to the Canaries to be safe, but the Mediterranean islands are starting to heat up and you can find some bargains

Many flights to popular beach resorts only run throughout the summer season – but the fares at the beginning and end of the season can be absolute bargains. I once flew London-Crete for £15 and there were only 7 of us on the plane! I recommend Skyscanner for finding these cheap fares.

WHAT ABOUT SWIMMING IN THE SEA?

Ayia Napa, Cyprus
Ayia Napa, Cyprus

Obviously, this depends on where you’re from and on your tolerance for cold water.

But as a rough guide:

  • May-August = increasing in warmth
  • August-October = nice and warm in most places
  • November-December = swimmable for the hardy
  • December-March = only food rush in

In the Atlantic, the Gulf Stream helps to keep the sea temperatures around the Canary Islands pleasant and less variable, but by the time those waters hit the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Africa they can be significantly colder with high winds and waves.

Egypt’s Red Sea is by far the best area to head if you’re after sea like bathwater. The Mediterranean is known for being comparatively cool and salty, though some parts are significantly warmer than others. 

The warmest parts of the Mediterranean are east, along the southern coast of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and surrounding Cyprus, and also the seas north of Tunisia and Libya, stretching northwards to Malta. But probably still too cold for most people December-March.

The coldest parts of the Mediterranean are around the northern Croatian islands, the northern Aegean islands, and the Languedoc region of France.

To give you an indication of sea temperatures (given as range across October-April):

 °C°F
Lisbon15-2059-68
Malaga16-2161-70
Mallorca15-2259-72
Nice13-2055-72
Sardinia14-2257-72
Malta17-2463-75
Split14-2057-68
Athens15-2259-72
Paphos17-2463-75
Tel Aviv18-2664-79
Gran Canaria19-2366-73
Algarve14-1957-66
Agadir17-2163-70
Hurghada21-2670-79

WHICH ARE THE SUNNIEST PLACES?

Agadir beach, Morocco
Agadir beach, Morocco

Warm doesn’t necessarily mean sunny, and vice versa.

Let’s have a look at the average number of bright sunshine hours (given as range across October-April):

Lisbon4-8
Marrakech7-8
Malaga5-8
Seville5-8
Madrid4-6
Valencia6-8
Barcelona4-8
Mallorca6-9
Nice5-7
Rome3-7
Naples3-6
Cagliari4-7
Palermo4-7
Malta5-8
Tunis5-8
Split5-8
Athens3-6
Thessaloniki4-8
Heraklion4-8
Rhodes4-9
Antalya5-9
Istanbul3-6
Paphos5-9
Tel Aviv7-11
Alexandria6-10
Gran Canaria6-8
Fuerteventura6-8
Madeira5-7
Algarve5-9
Agadir7-10
Hurghada9-12

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE MEDITERRANEAN IN WINTER

Nerja, Spain
Nerja, Spain

If you’re not determined to hunt down beach weather, that frees up plenty of time to enjoy some of the best places in the Mediterranean in winter – minus the crowds and the sweat and the prices of peak summer. 

The trick is sticking to the parts of Southern Europe that aren’t too damp and chilly in winter. Avoid taking ferries, green places with high rainfall, and summer resorts which will close down. Instead, make a beeline for larger cities with a year-round population.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Forget the Greek islands, you’ll have the ancient sites of the Greek mainland (Delphi, Olympia, Corinth, Epidaurus) all to yourself
  • In January the almond trees of Mallorca erupt into blossom
  • November/December is the perfect time to visit Andalucia, where the days are still crisp and sunny
  • Wine, olive, and citrus harvests occur in the autumn/winter months, often accompanied by festivities – who wouldn’t want to be in Italy for these?
  • Malta’s mild climate and baroque cities make it a popular escape in the winter – although there are chances of thunderstorms, most days are sunny with temperatures in the teens
  • Autumn and winter are cool but crisp in the French Riviera, with plenty of sunshine days
  • February brings Carnival and other pre-Lenten celebrations throughout Europe

WARM WINTER SUN CITY BREAKS

Malaga, Spain
Malaga, Spain

Autumn and winter can be the best time of year for a city break in Europe. There’s nothing like a quick blast of sunshine; flip flop weather when it’s raining cats and dogs back home.

One caveat, however, is to make sure that you’re booking accommodation that has heating suitable for the winter months. Whilst sunny days with temperatures in the late teens are common throughout winter, temperatures can plummet at night.

Spain is a classic destination for a sunny city break in winter – as flights to the mainland continue throughout the year, and there’s any number of beautiful historic cities to choose from. Rainfall on the north coast is high, but Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Malaga, Alicante, Madrid, Valencia, Toledo, Seville, Granada, Cadiz, Cordoba, Jerez are all good options with airports nearby. 

Granada is a great choice as crowds visiting the Alhambra (the most visited tourist attraction in Spain!) have dissipated and the temperature is much better for exploring the city.

Italian cities are best visited in fall before the rains start, you could hit up: Rome, Catania, Palermo, Genoa, Bologna, Florence, Perugia, Naples, or Pisa.

If you want to embrace the cosy winter vibe then consider Ljubljana in Slovenia, northern Italian cities such as Milan, Turin, Bergamo and Trieste, or Croatia’s Zagreb. Venice can be incredibly cold and damp in winter – but with that comes brooding fog and empty streets.

In France, head south to Avignon, Nice, Marseilles, Menton and Cannes.

Athens is vibrant and cosy in winter, with crisp sunny days perfect for exploring ancient sites and enjoying the city’s cafe culture.

Lisbon and Porto are delightfully atmospheric in late autumn, despite drizzly days. There’s a better chance of sun in the Algarve cities of Faro and Lagos, which both have a ready supply of cheap flights throughout the winter.

If you’re happy to fly further afield, Tel Aviv makes a great winter city break. As do Marrakech, Fes, and Tunis. It can be a good time of year to explore Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, just be sure to pack warm clothes for the cold nights.

Cordoba, Spain
Cordoba, Spain

WINTER FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

Dates may vary, this list is just mean to give you a sample of festivities to look out for:

  • OCTOBER – Notte Bianca (Malta), Alba Truffle Fair (Italy)
  • NOVEMBER – St Martin’s Day (Portugal)
  • DECEMBER – Christmas markets (Lille, Milan), Feast of St. Nicholas (Nancy, France), Festival of Lights (Lyon)
  • JANUARY – New Year, Epiphany
  • FEBRUARY – Carnival (Venice, Patras, Tenerife, Cadiz, Naples, Nice), Saint Agatha’s Day (Catania), Agrigento Almond Blossom Fair (Sicily), Battle of the Oranges (Ivrea, Italy), Menton Lemon Festival (France)
  • MARCH – Venice Marriage of the Adriatic, The Fallas (Valencia), Feast of the Annunciation
  • APRIL – Easter (Patmos, Corfu, Chios), Semana Santa (Seville), Holy Week (Malaga), San Marco (Venice), Feast of Agios Georgios (Skiathos, Skyros)

Read more:

10 Best Greek Islands to Visit in Autumn and Winter

Where to Find the Clearest Turquoise Seas in Europe

21 Best Sandy Beaches in the World

20 Best Sandy Beaches in Europe

Best Mediterranean Islands for Sandy Beaches

Where to Stay on Rhodes: Ultimate Beach Resort Guide

Where to Stay on Fuerteventura: Ultimate Beach Resort Guide

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Image credits:

Corralejo, Fuerteventura: Tamara Kulikova (Adobe Stock)

Chania: © gatsi / Adobe Stock

Syros: © Stavros / Adobe Stock

Fuerteventura beach: © The Mediterranean Traveller

La Graciosa: © nito / Adobe Stock

Ayia Napa: © Aleksandr / Adobe Stock

Agadir: © Curioso / Shutterstock

Nerja: © milosk50 / Shutterstock

Malaga: © Valery Bareta / Shutterstock

Cordoba:  © emperorcosar / Shutterstock

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