Most people think of Spain and picture fine sandy beaches, sweltering cities, ice cold glasses of sangria and plates of paella by the coast. Yes, Spain is great in summer, but it’s also a fantastic country to visit in winter, with world-class museums and art galleries, top ski resorts and magnificent mountain peaks.
There’s nothing quite like sipping a hot cup of coffee, sitting in an atmospheric plaza, while admiring the snow-draped peaks above the Alhambra Palace. Granada can get very cold in winter, surrounded as it is by some of Spain’s highest mountains, but it’s also very beautiful. One big plus is that the sky is often clear and the sun is often shining, so even on the coldest of days you can find a spot to sit outside and warm up under the sun’s rays. Besides the obvious city attractions, such as the Alhambra Palace, the cathedral, the Moorish Albaicín district and the flamenco caves, Granada is just an hour’s drive from the Sierra Nevada, home to one of the best ski resorts in the country.
Winter is an ideal time to visit Madrid and experience its many cultural attractions, without the unbearable heat or overwhelming crowds. And since some of its most important sights are indoors, you won’t get too cold. Don’t miss the Golden Triangle – the famous art museums of the Reina Sofia, El Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza – or the opulent Royal Palace. The city also looks spectacular covered in Christmas lights and puts on an amazing fiesta at the Puerto del Sol on New Year’s Eve. And if it does get too chilly, just step inside one of the best churrerías in the city to warm yourself up with crunchy, doughy churros dipped in hot chocolate.
In the mountains just south of Madrid lies the historic Unesco World Heritage town of Toledo, recognised for its history as a City of Three Cultures with strong Islamic, Christian and Jewish tradition. With a dusting of snow on the surrounding mountains, the monuments look even more spectacular. Among the best are its imposing gothic cathedral, the Alcázar palace-fortress, the Synagogue of El Tránsito with its Museo Sefardí (Jewish Cultural Museum) and the museum of the artist El Greco, who lived and died in the city. Warm up at one of the cafes or bakeries and sample some of the marzipan figurines the town is famous for.
Barcelona is a perfect city all year round, with plenty to do when the chill of winter sets in. Packed with museums and art galleries, quirky shops, flamboyant architecture, flashy cocktail bars and innovative restaurants, this is one place you’ll never get bored. It will be cold, but sunny, so you’ll find plenty of things to do both indoors and out. Check out its amazing Modernista masterpieces by the likes of Gaudí and Domènech i Montaner, visit the art museums of Picasso and Miró and get lost among the streets of the Barrio Gótico. Don’t miss the amazing New Year’s spectacle at the Plaça d’Espanya or the magical Three Kings parade on the night of 5 January. In addition to city sights, you’ll also find a few good ski resorts within a two-hour drive from the centre, including La Molina and La Masella.
If you’re after a bit of winter sun, you’ll find that the Canary Islands are definitely the warmest place in Spain during the winter season, with temperatures averaging around 17C (63F). Lying off the coast of Africa, they have a subtropical climate. Some days it may even be warm enough to swim in the outdoor pools or go to the beach, but if not, you’ll find plenty of interesting cities such as Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, and national parks such as Teide National Park in Tenerife, to explore. The island of Gran Canaria is also known for its excellent spa hotels.