City break season is here: a time for wandering between museums, monuments and pavement cafes for a bite-sized slice of otherness. In the first few weeks of a new year, the UK’s off-white skies provide all the impetus needed for an escape, the drooling clouds low enough to press relentlessly on the spirits.
Unfortunately, there’s every chance that the most popular city-break destinations will offer more of the same shades of grey. Exploration is often tempered by downpours and a fierce wintry wind. You’ll obviously need to wrap up in Reykjavik or overdress in Oslo, but even seasonal city breaks such as Berlin, Venice and Paris can be punishingly chilly, with February average temperatures of around 1, 4 and 5.5 degrees respectively.
But there are a handful of easy-to-reach cities where the sun almost always shines and temperatures are at least in the mid-teens, lending everything a beguiling golden glow that’s an instant, in-your-face balm for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). They come with the usual museums and monuments, but promise a little something extra, too: an empty sweep of sand, a lingering lunch at a rooftop restaurant or a sunset warm enough to watch without a winter jacket.
So, pack your sunglasses along with the guidebook - and leave the umbrella at home.
February highs: 15C
HBO’s White Lotus may not have shown the Sicilian capital in its most positive light but the glimpses of fast-fading mansions and café-thronged streets still gave it a stand-out cameo. Nowhere in the country conforms more steadfastly to the Italian stereotype: washing is strung out to dry over alleyways, fast cars driven by suited ‘businessmen’ prowl through the towns and a thousand Madonnas stare calmly down on it all from roadside shrines.
There’s history in bucketloads, too. One of the most invaded cities in the world, Palermo comes littered with the detritus of civilisation after civilisation, from the Byzantine mosaics of the Capella Palatina to the grisly Capuchin catacombs, where the skeletons of monks still sport their trademark brown robes.
Though the short winter can be rainy, the weather warms up in February and can hit 18 in March. By April, the local sunbathers are topping up their chestnut tans at the long beach of Mondello to the north of the city. Punctuate the sites with trips to Palermo’s sprawling markets of Capo, Vucciria and Ballarò, which capture the city’s chaotic charm in a flurry of mismatched sun umbrellas, gesturing traders and delicious street food (persist with the long queues for moreish arancini).
Ryanair flies from Stansted and Edinburgh to Palermo. Doubles start at £88 at Casa Nostra Al Capo, a boutique B&B that’s a stroll from the markets.
February highs: 16C
Ancient, honey-hued Valletta hums with history. If you think it looks like a film set, you’re not wrong; the city is a bona fide movie star, taking on scene-stealing roles in blockbusters such as Gladiator and Game of Thrones.
Winter temperatures in the high teens combined with the city’s compact size make it perfect for a weekend of mooching. The sunny courtyards and art-filled corridors of the Grandmaster’s Palace (built in the late 16th-century by the Knights of St. John, and Valletta’s big-name attraction) are currently closed for refurbishment but the last place they ever built, the impressive National Library, is well worth a look.
Afterwards, trail down through the neat paths of the Barrakka Gardens to the Grand Harbour. This is the boarding point for boats to the waterfront at Birgu, once Malta’s medieval capital and now the perfect place for lunch overlooking the twinkling Med (grab one of the umbrella-shaded seats at Don Berto, a great spot for seafood risotto and a glass of something chilled and white).
Meanwhile, beyond Valletta's big sites, side streets reveal unexpected treasures, from tiny frescoed churches to the hole-in-the-wall Pub, the cave-like drinking spot where actor Oliver Reed had his final few beers while starring as Antonius Proximo.
Ryanair flies from UK airports including Liverpool, Stansted and Birmingham. Sleek boutique hotel Casa Ellul has doubles from £147, and is a stroll from the library in atmospheric Old Theatre Street.
February highs: 12C
During the short Provençal winters, this southern French city is bathed in a rich, unexpected light. It’s best observed at Mucem, the seaside Mediterranean civilisation museum that’s covered in a lace-like facade which transforms the sun’s glare into intricate patterns.
From here, visitors can cross the bridge onto Louis XIV’s hulkish Fort Saint-Jean and then move onto the Le Panier district, where streets full of crumbling two-up two-downs are interspersed with smartened-up restaurant squares and lavender-shuttered souvenir shops. You won’t find many Marseillais here when the sun shines, though, or in the Old Port’s crescent of much-improved waterside restaurants for that matter. Needing no excuse to strip off and sunbathe at the first sign of warmth, they’ll probably be at a beach by March and possibly in the recently revamped seaside suburb of Les Goudes, the once down-at-heel fishing village a ferry ride away. Join them to eat oysters at fashionable Tuba Club, but save some time for the criminally under-visited History Museum back in the centre, which tells the story of the city over the millenia.
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Marseille. Right on the seafront, Les Bords de Mer has doubles from £200. Expect head-clearing views and bright rooms, all done up in white with floor-to-ceiling windows.
February highs: 18C
Bookings for Spain were up 52 per cent year on year in 2022 according to data from trip.com, with Seville one of the country’s most-popular destinations. This is a place where visitors traditionally hide from the sun rather than seek it out (sultry summers often hit 40C), be it in the tree-hemmed squares of Alfafa and the colonnaded courtyards of the Alcazar, or far below the vaulted ceiling of the famous Cathedral.
In winter, however, the city brings a welcome dose of warmth – and it is properly warm, reaching 18 degrees in February. It’s best soaked up from one of the many rooftop restaurants or bars - far quieter now than in the height of spring or summer. Though many overlook the tiled rooftops of town, a view over the Guadalquivir river is more romantic, so order a tinto de verano (red wine and lemonade) and a plate of Iberico ham atop the castle-like turret of Mariatrifulca, which watches over the wide sweep of water from lesser-visited Triana. Now is also the optimal time for gazing at the city sprawl from the Setas de Sevilla, a sinuous, lofty structure at the heart of the fashionable Soho Benita district that has an undulating aerial walkway.
Ryanair flies from Stansted, Manchester and Edinburgh. Doubles start at £190 at Unuk Soho, which has fast become the coolest address in town.
February highs: 18C
There are few places as unexpectedly delightful as Funchal – and quite why the Madeiran capital isn’t in the full-beam glare of winter city breakers remains a mystery. Less crowded than Lisbon, hotter than Porto and with its own brilliant booze scene, the city is on Madeira’s sunniest stretch of coast with highs reaching 18 degrees in February.
Uninhabited until the 15th century, Madeira was colonised when King John I sent a wave of families over from the Portuguese mainland. Funchal’s stolid cathedral has been standing more or less ever since, and there’s a palpable sense of the city’s history in the roads between it and the lemon-yellow fort of São Tiago to the east.
History aside, it’s almost compulsory for holidaymakers to partake in the bizarre custom of hurtling down a hill in a wicker basket piloted by a couple of Carrieros do Monte, the straw boater-sporting drivers who can reach speeds of almost 20mph. Head to their starting point on Funchal’s cable car, which swings above the city’s suburbs towards the leafy Monte neighbourhood – and soothe any residual nerves with a traditional poncha (punch) of sugarcane brandy, sugar and citrus outside the busy Venda Velha bar. There’s another reason for visiting in winter: Funchal’s Carnival, which takes place in February, is a Rio-esque riot of samba and spangles that promises to be livelier than ever after an enforced break during the pandemic.
Easyjet flies from Manchester, Bristol and London Gatwick. Rooms start at £100 at Three House, an aparthotel with some of the best views of the city.
Tel Aviv, Israel
February highs: 18C
At five and a half hours, the flight time to “The Big Orange” might be longer than the others in this list, but the reward is sunny skies, a balmy 18C and a year-round buzz. It’s home to some of Israel’s best beaches, so start in earnest by exploring its four-mile promenade, a Miami-like strip of skyscrapers and wavy sand that gets busy with sunset seekers as dusk descends. It’s home to one of the city’s best-loved seafood restaurants, Manta Ray, an institution where you can have a ceviche and Bloody Mary brunch or a sea bream dinner on a terrace by the beach.
Meanwhile, for street food and souvenirs, head to sprawling Shuk HaCarmel where a maze of stalls sell everything from falafel to football jerseys. Alongside it, the peaceful, colourful Yemenite Quarter is the heart of the food scene with family-run cafes and restaurants serving up savoury pastries, silky-smooth hummus and big bowls of stew from its picturesque backstreets.
Wizz Air flies from Luton and Easyjet from Manchester. Doubles start at £185 at The Rothschild, an Art Deco hideaway on the sweeping, tree-lined street of the same name.
February highs: 21C
While it’s far too hot to be wandering in Marrakech come summer, it’s during winter (rather than high-season spring or autumn) that the city is at its most magical. At a dependable 20C, the sun is less blistering when sipping tea on the riad rooftops or squeezing your way through the medina’s evocative alleys.
This is a time for long lunches in the sunshine of La Famille’s lemon-tree scented garden or rummaging through the tagine pots, lamps, rugs and less salubrious bric-a-brac of the Souk Bab El-Khemis (an alternative to the slipper-stacked lanes around the Djemma El-Fna). Meanwhile, the cobalt blues and sunflower yellows of Yves Saint Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle seems to glow even brighter in the cool winter light – and without the click of a thousand tourist cameras, too.
Tui flies to Marrakech from Gatwick, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester. Set in explosions of flowers and foliage, Beldi Country Club has doubles from £199, ten minutes’ drive from the centre and with three heated pools for winter dips.
Santa Cruz, Tenerife
February highs: 21C
Like your winter sun with added sights? Consider Tenerife’s capital instead of one of its resort towns. Not only does this sunny city have a fascinating history (stretching right back to 1494), but a handful of decent boutique hotels have sprung up in recent years, too.
Once a key stop-off on the trade route between Europe and the Americas, Santa Cruz is at its most atmospheric along La Rambla, a long, flower-topped lane where locals have been promenading since it was built by the 17th-century governor Captain General Gerónimo de Benavente y Quiñones to show off his new-fangled carriage. Just off this street, the Parque García Sanabria is straight from a fairytale, with flower arches, cactus gardens and hidden fountains as well as a couple of teeny terrace cafes.
Not all of the remnants of the city’s past are so pleasant. Franco lived for a time here before staging the uprising that started the Spanish Civil War and a contentious 1966 statue built for him - named ‘Angel of Victory’ - remains on a corner of La Rambla, despite calls for it to be torn down.
More pleasantly, however, urban sunseekers can lay out at artist César Manrique’s lagoon-like Parque Marítimo, perhaps the world’s most design-conscious lido (with a bargain entry price of £4.25). It sits alongside another impressive structure by a Spanish architectural superstar: Santiago de Calatrava’s great white wave of a city auditorium.
Wizz Air flies from Gatwick and Luton. All done up in cream-caramel colours, doubles start at £81 at F24 Emblematic, set within the prettiest building in town.
February highs: 14C
The Menorcan capital has been coming up in the world for years, but luckily it’s never quite drawn the crowds of other island hotspots (although two newish and very elegant hotels suggest imminent gentrification). For now though, the streets have a humble, rakish charm that’s a world away from the glitzier Balearic capitals of Palma and Ibiza Town.
Of the city’s attractions, the great towering hulk of Santa Maria Church is the most visible (better from the inside, with marble floors, gilding and a gigantic organ). But what Mahon lacks in sites it makes up for in atmosphere, especially in winter when there’s a more authentic feel.
Though the temperature dips significantly from December to February, the sun is a perennial resident, shining for around ten hours every day on La Mola fortress with its widescreen views of the coast, as well as the ribbon of restaurants by the port and the streets leading off the Placa de la Constitutió. By March, when it’s warmed up to 16 degrees, it’s worth making the short drive to stroll along the pretty beach of Sa Mesquida.
Sometimes though, the wind whips up Mahon’s hills, sending residents scattering into its coffee shops. Join them at Es Llonguet, named after a Balearic bread roll and vending the best traditional pastries in town, or grab a beer and some tapas in the busy halls of the fish market.
Vueling flies direct from Gatwick to Mahon once a week in February, with more flight routes from across the UK in March. Pretty Hotel Ses Bruixes has sun-filled doubles from £128, as well as an atmospheric courtyard restaurant.
February highs: 14C
Though it’s not bikini-hot, Athens shrugs off winter more quickly than the UK. By the time Carnival rolls around at the end of February, temperatures can reach the mid teens with a flurry of flowers announcing an early start to spring. This is the perfect time to take in the city’s biggest attractions without the crowds or the stifling heat.
Start at the Acropolis, obviously, but then mooch down to the pretty neighbourhood of Plaka which, come May, is thronged with tourists. At this time of year, it’s far easier to nab one of the tables squeezed onto the ancient steps outside Yiasemi cafe and watch the world go by over coffee and cake. And it’s also far easier (and less sweaty) to make the hour-long hike up Lycabettus Hill for views over the entire city sprawl.
Even without the high temperatures, busy Athens can feel overwhelming. Escape for a while by taking the tram to the city’s seaside suburbs where a lively local population equates to a year-round scene that you won’t find on the islands. It’s most polished at Glyfada, where the beaches come with added designer shops and restaurants that lend the place a distinctly LA feel. Here, an outpost of the seafood restaurant chain Barbournaki serves up the freshest fish (some of it for less than £10 a dish).
Easyjet flies to Athens from Gatwick, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh. Stay in one of Plaka’s oldest buildingsat the A77 Suites, with doubles from £176 (or pay more for an Elegant and Iconic room, with postcard views of the Acropolis).