Winter in Europe isn't all that bad: bundles of pillowy snow; steaming mulled wine at Christmas markets; the crunching score of ice skates on a frozen canal.
But then comes the rain. And the biting winds. That neverending darkness. We could all do with some sun and a long blast of vitamin D. Luckily, you don’t have to go far to find some. Europe’s southern reaches can provide plenty of blue skies, sunshine and mild (albeit not tropical) temperatures. What’s more, traveling in the low season means accommodation and car rental can be gloriously cheap, while beaches and local attractions are crowd-free.
Here are the best and sunniest spots for a European winter vacation. Feel your toes thawing out already?
Discover green countryside, culture and history
Malta can be scorching in the summer. So the cooler days of winter, when temperatures rarely dip below 50°F (10°C), are perfect for exploring the great outdoors. Rock climbing and hiking are particularly pleasant in the off-season, as the rural landscape is at its greenest. Culture and history buffs should catch a winter-solstice sunrise on December 22 at Mnajdra Temple, where the sun accurately lights up the edges of a megalith. Come February, the Maltese Carnival brings parades and late-night parties galore.
Revel in the Mediterranean’s warmest winter
With more than 340 days of sunshine a year, Cyprus is your best bet for a warm winter in the Mediterranean. While snow glitters on the peaks of the Troödos mountains, coastal areas, particularly in the east, stay warmer and drier. Stay in Larnaka to spot flamingos dancing around their winter home on the nearby salt lake before heading west for historic treasures such as the 3rd-century Tombs of the Kings and Ancient Kourion.
Rainy-day rescue: Spend a wet afternoon among the ancient artifacts of the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia, or find a cozy taverna for a long Cypriot lunch.
3. The Algarve, Portugal
Soak up more than 300 days of sunshine a year
With more than 300 days of sunshine a year and 87 blue-flag beaches, The Algarve has become an increasingly popular winter sun destination. This is when waterfalls roar back to life in the eucalyptus-filled Monchique Mountains and migrating birds flock to Ria Formosa Natural Park. Even popular Quinta do Lago Beach is blissfully quiet this time of year. If you can handle sea temperatures of 57°F (14°C), now is the time to surf. Work up an appetite before finding dinner in the whitewashed towns of Faro, Lagos or Tavira.
Rainy-day rescue: The interior of São Lourenço church near Loulé is an azulejo-lover’s dream. The ornate blue tiles here cover almost every inch, floor to ceiling.
4. Crete, Greece
Have deserted resort towns all to yourself
You can only reach Crete via Athens in winter and although most resort towns will be pretty much deserted, base yourself in Heraklion or Haania to get a sense of low-season life. There are still restaurants and bars open in both and they're good spots to hire a rental car for peanuts and explore the island. On sunny days you might find you have the pink-tinged sands of Elafonisi or the Palace of Knossos all to yourself. Temperatures can reach highs of 61°F (16°C) in January, but the nights are much colder, so pack layers. Still chilly? An evening with a bottle of local raki should warm you up.
5. Sicily, Italy
Eat like royalty on fresh produce
Magical Sicily is full of color in winter: citrus trees are heavy with ripening oranges, lemons and limes; food market stalls in Catania and Palermo creak under the weight of fresh vegetables, fish and seasonal walnuts; and all over the island locals are preparing for Carnevale (which takes place this year on February 8-13). While the weather can change at the drop of a blood orange, eight hours of sunshine a day and average highs reaching double those in London make it worth taking your chances.
Rainy-day rescue: Villa Romana del Casale is home to the most significant collection of Roman floor mosaics in the world – and the wooden roof protects them (and you) from the elements.
6. Seville, Spain
Immerse yourself in Mudéjar style, and sunshine
If you fancy a winter city break, look no further than Seville. Temperatures often rise to 63°F (17°C), with at least six hours of sunshine a day (though packing an umbrella is always wise). Top sights like the Plaza de Espana and the Real Alcázar feature indoor areas and outdoor delights, allowing you to bask in the sunshine and hide from a passing shower. Enjoy a sunset stroll along the modern Metropol Parasol, known locally as Las Setas.
7. Madeira, Portugal
An archipelago where it’s always 'eternal spring'
Mild winters are standard in Madeira, a Portuguese archipelago some 309 miles (498 km) north of the Canary Islands. Known for its 'eternal spring', temperatures rarely drop below 57°F (14°C) here. Beaches are rocky but the sea is warm, so pack your swimsuit – or join a dolphin- and whale-spotting tour. If you prefer dry land, Madeira’s rugged interior is ideal for hiking. Follow a trail along a levada – an ancient network of channels that distributed water around the island for over a century. These days they are sources of hydropower.
8. Turquoise Coast, Turkey
Admire the crystal-clear waters – without the crowds
Turkey’s Turquoise Coast is a tourist magnet in summer – perhaps it has something to do with the shade of that water. But when the crowds have dispersed, there’s nothing but you, those views and an average of 10 hours of sunshine a day. Moderate temperatures mean hiking is nowhere near as sweaty as it would be in August – so why not tackle some of the 335-mile (540km) Lycian Way? The route winds between Fethiye and Antalya, passing countless ancient ruins and clifftop wonders including the remains of Levissi, ancient Patara and the (mostly) sunken city of Simena.
Rainy-day rescue: Warm up, give your legs a rest and enjoy a treatment at a hammam (Turkish bath), found in most major towns.
9. Balearic Islands, Spain
Frolic on epic beaches and watch peerless sunsets
Adored by summer holidaymakers, these Spanish islands are just as lovable come winter. Ibiza's pumping beats and party crowds have left – but the epic sunsets and beaches remain. Culture-packed Mallorca, meanwhile, is quieter and cheaper. Lesser-visited Menorca lures nature fans with decent walking weather for crossing the Camí de Cavalls coastal path, while tiny Formentera beckons those who want total seclusion.
Rainy-day rescue: If you’re going to get wet, you may as well go diving. Sea temperatures allow for diving around the Balearics’ caverns and shipwrecks year-round.
10. Canary Islands, Spain
Take to the waves, dunes and hidden coves
Want sand dunes and hidden coves? Volcanic national parks and forested mountains? How about colorful villages, tempting restaurants and watersports galore? It’s all here, all year. Tenerife and Gran Canaria are generally the warmest of the Canary Islands in winter with highs around 71°F (22°C). Lanzarote and Fuerteventura can be a little windy – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you’re heading there to surf or take part in its annual kite festival. Lesser-known La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro will feel even more off-the-radar than usual in winter, though they will have plenty of sun.
Rainy-day rescue: Let the weather slow you down: book an appointment at one of the islands’ many spas for a massage, followed by a trip to a local vineyard or bar to taste local wines.