In search of Winter sun
Forget cranking up the heating this winter and instead treat yourself to a toasty trip in one of these European suntraps, says Tristan Parker
Although never exactly under-the-radar, Malta has risen to a seriously desirable destination in recent years for those looking to grab plenty of sunshine in colder months. After all, this is a country whose temperatures can rise to the hottest in Europe during the height of summer. Much of the tourist action is based in the UNESCO-certified capital, Valletta, which boasts a wealth of ancient sights to admire and superb views from Upper Barrakka Gardens.
To really soak up the sun, try Gozo, Malta’s smaller, quieter sister island dotted with peaceful beaches. The headliner is undoubtedly Ramla Bay, a long stretch of reddish sand, backdropped by vegetation and often cited as Malta’s best beach. It’s the perfect spot in which to catch up on sunbathing.
DON’T MISS: ST JOHN’S CO-CATHEDRAL
Indulge in Malta’s historical riches with a visit to St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. Impressive from the outside, things quickly get to ‘stupefying’ once you’re inside gazing at the baroque interior. For extra wow, there’s even a masterpiece by Caravaggio: The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.
Although technically part of Portugal, this island (actually one of four in the Madeira archipelago) feels entirely its own place, not least thanks to the wild scenery and volcanic landscape. It’s also a dream come true for sun worshippers, often averaging temperatures of over 18°C in January and February. Many of the beaches here are pebble and dark sand, but don’t let that put you off. Praia do Porto do Seixal, for example, is a gorgeous, black-sanded beach on the north of the island, framed by greenery-draped cliffs.
Whether you choose to hit the beach or not, winter is a great time to take advantage of Madeira’s outdoor activities, which have always been a big part of its appeal. The weather won’t be stifling, meaning that hiking, biking, snorkelling, kayaking and even birdwatching can all be enjoyed comfortably.
DON’T MISS: FUNCHAL
There’s little chance you’ll swerve Madeira’s vibrant capital, since the vast majority of flights arrive into it, but make time to explore the city fully. It’s a welcoming and energetic place, with great bars and restaurants, and colourful, atmospheric streets. Hop in the cable car and glide up to Madeira Botanical Garden, a floral oasis thanks to the island’s sub-tropical climate. If you’re looking to party a little (or a lot), Funchal hosts the main sections of Madeira’s huge carnival, which takes place annually in February.
Having provided warm respite to cold and fed-up UK holidaymakers for years, the Canary Islands never fail to deliver when you’re looking for an easy-going sun-soaked escape. And as there are eight main islands to choose from (or seven, depending on who you ask), there’s no shortage of choice when it comes to beaches, scenery, cuisine and activities.
Tenerife and Lanzarote are often cited as the islands to head to for a dreamy beach fix. Seek out the dazzlingly golden arc of Las Teresitas on Tenerife or Playa de Papagayo for Lanzarote’s volcanic scenery. Prime opportunities for hiking and other outdoor pursuits are also in abundance on the islands. Fuerteventura is great for sea kayaking, while La Gomera’s rugged terrain provides life-affirming views when you’re tackling its hiking trails.
The Canary Islands’ food and drink scenes have also skyrocketed. Tenerife has a clutch of Michelin-starred restaurants, as does Gran Canaria. But whichever island you pick, you’ll not be disappointed, so don’t fret too much.
DON’T MISS: MASPALOMAS, GRAN CANARIA
If 60km of beaches aren’t enough for you on Gran Canaria, try the Maspalomas Dunes Nature Reserve. This naturally formed expanse houses 400 hectares of sand dunes, creating a unique, desert-like setting. Strolling barefoot across the dunes (sticking to the specified paths to help preserve the area) and feeling like you’re in another country (or world) is not to be missed. There’s even a dedicated beach area towards the ocean if you need something a touch more down to earth.
If you want your winter sun break to be accompanied by historical monuments, centuries of cultural riches and incredible food, Turkey could be the one for you. Coastal cities on or near the country’s Mediterranean side remain the warmest over winter, with buzzing Antalya proving a favourite destination for sun chasers, alongside Bodrum and Izmir. All three have first-class beaches, naturally.
But great weather is just part of the appeal. It’s difficult to do justice to Turkey’s cultural contributions over the centuries, but wherever you go, there will be ancient monuments, archeologically invaluable ruins, enlightening museums and galleries and bustling bazaars all within easy reach. The Istanbul Museum of Modern Art is a fine place to dip your toe into what’s available.
DON’T MISS: HAGIA SOPHIA GRAND MOSQUE
If sightseeing time is limited and you’re prioritising sun, try to factor in a visit to this showstopping venue. Hagia Sophia has operated as a Christian church, a mosque and – most recently – a museum, but was turned back into a mosque in 2020. It’s still possible to visit the inside of the building, but even if you only view the exterior, the intricate Byzantine architecture will bowl you over.
Another established winter sun favourite is the largest of the Greek Islands, which has more than its fair share of paradisiacal locales and brochure- ready beaches. And remember that ‘largest island’ is a relative term here – parts of Crete still feel wonderfully tucked away and it’s easy to find a spot where it seems you’ve got the island all to yourself, especially in winter. Visiting in winter also means you dodge the summer crowds.
When it comes to beaches, Elafonísi and its radiant pink sands often steal the show, but
Balos Beach with its sparkling blue lagoon – hidden away on a far western tip – is more rewarding. There’s also incredible wild scenery to be enjoyed on hikes or simply by driving around the island. Note that Cretan winters can get a little cool, especially at night, so do pack some mildly warmer clothing.
DON’T MISS: CHANIA
Crete’s capital is an effortlessly charming and beautiful city that feels much more like a cosy Mediterranean town. The best way to approach it is without much of an itinerary, as the greatest rewards come from exploring at a leisurely pace. Take in the mix of architectural styles, head to the harbour to see colourful rows of houses, walk out to the lighthouse, lounge in a waterfront bar. Do as much or as little as you like – it’ll still be a treat.