Port of Bari. Credits: Shutterstock

Top 8 Sun-drenched European Cities to Escape Winter

by Irene Hernandez

Sometimes you just need to get some sun. You know the feeling. February comes around, it’s been dark and cold for months, and you just need to feel some familiar warmth on your face. We’ve all been there. Sometimes, even a weekend is enough. That’s why we at Omio have collected some of our favorite warm-weather destinations in Europe so you can escape the winter without going too far. From the urban beaches of Cadiz to the palazzos of Syracuse, Sicily, here are eight winter vacation ideas to help you escape the cold and dark. Read on!

Europe’s oldest winter escape: Cadiz, Spain

Cadiz, sticking out of the side of Spain’s Andalusia region like a thumb, is often called western Europe’s oldest city. Since it was founded by the Phoenicians way back in 1100 BCE, it’s been known for its temperate weather, great food, and (perhaps less romantically) convenient proximity to the shipping lanes going through the Strait of Gibraltar – known in that time as the Pillars of Hercules.

Today, the old town of Cadiz is a dense warren of winding streets, exhibiting spectacular architectural remains from the city’s many ages: a Roman theater, remains of the ancient city walls, and the grandiose yellow dome of the Moorish-inspired Cadiz Cathedral, to name a few. Let’s be honest, though – you’re probably here to feel the sun on your skin. And it’s true! One of the main draws of Cadiz is its sunny, warm weather, making it the perfect destination for those seeking a winter escape in Europe.

Anyone looking to really escape the winter in the best way possible will certainly enjoy the weather in Cadiz. Here, you can get lucky with the weather even in winter, and Cadiz is certainly the place to enjoy that luck: the historic city center is flanked by long beaches such as Playa de la Caleta and Playa Victoria, frequented by locals practically year-round. Further afield, you can find Playa Bolonia, a gorgeous beach backed up against a stunning collection of Roman ruins.

Other things to do in Cadiz that wintertime visitors can enjoy are the city’s Carnival celebrations – Spain’s largest. In Cadiz, Carnival is a weeklong affair (2023 dates: February 16 – February 26) that transforms the city into, well, a carnival. Costumed revelers throng the city’s narrow streets, singing, dancing, and indulging in one last spasm of excess before the Lenten season. Keep an eye out for the satirical political floats and comedic musical performances, known as chirigotas.

Getting to Cadiz from the airport is easy: there are several transportation options available like taking a train to Cadiz. The most convenient option is to take a taxi from the airport near Cadiz, Jerez de la Frontera Airport, which is approximately 30 minutes away. Alternatively, you can take Bus Line M-050 or the Renfe MD 13014 train between the airport and city center, which each take about 40 minutes. Not a bad option for a winter beach vacation!

To escape European winter, make like a bird and fly south to Faro, Portugal

If you’re not done with your escape from winter just yet, take a hop, skip, and a jump west from Cadiz to Faro. Faro is the principal city of the sun-drenched Algarve, continental Portugal’s southernmost region. It’s known for its temperate wintertime climate, rich history, and spectacular natural surroundings. It’s set in the middle of the network of brackish lagoons, marshes, and sand dunes that make up Portugal’s Ria Formosa Natural Park.

Home to several historic sites, Faro’s small city center is a good place to begin your exploration. The Cathedral of Faro is one of the city’s most notable landmarks, a beautiful Gothic-style cathedral built in the 13th century. The old town of Faro is also worth exploring, with its narrow cobbled streets and charming cafes. As you stroll through the cobblestone streets, keep an eye out for Portugal’s famous azulejo panels, those beautiful blue tiles known around the world. A good place to spot them is the Carmo Church.

One of Faro’s chief wintertime attractions is birdwatching. The lagoons and marshes of the Ria Formosa National Park are crisscrossed by a comprehensive network of dirt trails and causeways, making them easily accessible both on foot and by bicycle (boat tours are also available). Keen-eyed wintertime visitors should expect to spot spoonbills, ospreys, black-winged stilts, and even flamingoes.

But the Ria Formosa isn’t the extent of Faro’s avian attractions: those who just can’t get enough of our feathered friends should also make a trip to the Ilha Deserta, a nearby island with miles of sand dunes and stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. The island is home to a rich variety of bird species, including the sandwich tern and the black-headed gull.

Getting to Faro from the airport is easy, with several transportation options available. Faro Airport is located just a few miles from the city center and visitors can take a taxi or use the bus lines 14 or 16.

Live out your White Lotus dreams in Syracuse, Italy

For many American travelers, The White Lotus may have put Sicily on the map. With its sparkling waters, excellent wine, and rich palazzos, it certainly makes an excellent setting for that thrilling tale of privilege and excess. But that’s not to say these things are unattainable: Monaco this is not. Rather, Sicily is an island with something for everyone, and nowhere is this more visible than in the coastal town of Syracuse.

The ancient city of Syracuse, Sicily, was founded by the Greeks in the eighth century BCE, making it another of Europe’s most venerable cities. It was here that Archimedes conducted his famous bathtub experiment to prove that his king had been cheated by a local goldsmith. Today, the city’s old town occupies a small island, Ortygia, and spills out onto the opposite shore. It’s known for its beautiful baroque architecture, all carved from the cream-colored limestone that is mined in the city’s famous quarries. Visitors to the old town can admire the beautiful Piazza del Duomo, home to the city’s magnificent cathedral, and stop by the famous Fountain of Arethusa, a natural spring bubbling up in the city center that is said to be the source of the goddess’s name.

Though the remains of Greek Surā́kousai are stunning, a historic tour of southern Sicily is not complete without a day trip to Agrigento, home to the Valley of the Temples, one of the most magnificent collections of ancient Greek temples and ruins in the world. While you’re there, stop by the Scala dei Turchi, a spectacular outcropping of brilliant white stone jutting out into the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean. The same type of stone makes up the famous white Cliffs of Dover. The smooth, grayish mud formed by the dissolving Scala is said to cure skin ailments.

The city of Syracuse is easy to reach from the airport – there are several transportation options available, especially from the nearby major city of Catania. Catania-Fontanarossa Airport is located just a short drive from the city and buses are frequent.

All aboard to Chania, Greece: a maritime winter escape

What’s more summery than a boat trip? To really escape the winter blues this year, board the Chania ferry in Athens, Greece, and set sail for the island of Crete! Crete, Greece’s southernmost major island, enjoys mild winters and is well-positioned as a weekend winter getaway. Visitors can expect relatively warm weather even in the winter – they even grow bananas here, the only place in Europe where the crop is commercially grown.

Chania is another of Europe’s most ancient cities: the site dates back to the Bronze-age Minoan civilization. The city’s more recent history is dominated by the Venetian and Ottoman periods, and remains of these are visible all through the old town’s cobblestone streets. The city also boasts a collection of museums that offer a deeper look into the local history, such as the Archaeological Museum of Chania and the Ethnographical Museum of Crete.

But we’re here to escape winter, and what better way to do so than by visiting one of the most gorgeous beaches in Europe? Head over to Balos Lagoon, close to the neighboring town of Kissamos, Greece. It’s located on the far side of one of the long peninsulas that jut out of the western end of Crete. The Balos Lagoon itself is sheltered from the wider Mediterranean by the outcrop of Tigani, creating a calm bay of vivid blue water and white and pink sand. The placid waters are perfect for children and offer great swimming and snorkeling opportunities. If the water is too cold, the peninsula itself has various hiking trails populated by friendly goats and boasting gorgeous views of the surrounding beaches and cliffs. A must-see!

Crete is also known for its delicious cuisine. Local dishes include dakos, a traditional salad made from barley rusks – dried crusts of bread – topped with ripe tomatoes, feta cheese, and olive oil. Naturally, seafood is also on the menu in the local tavernas: whole grilled fish, shellfish, and of course, calamari.

Chania can be reached by ferry from Athens’ Piraeus port via an overnight ferry operated by Anek Lines and bookable on Omio. The ferry runs at least once a day year round and multiple times per day during the high season, and takes approximately eight and a half hours.

Wintertime beach vibes on a budget in Sarande, Albania

Albania might not be the first country that comes to mind when thinking about wintertime escapes, but that’s an oversight we’re interested in correcting here at Omio. Albania’s southern city of Sarande offers stunning beaches, historic ruins, and affordable prices. Those looking for a budget-friendly escape from the wintertime blues should look no further than Sarande.

Sarande’s mild weather makes it a great place for wintertime beach activities. The nearby Ksamil Islands, rocky uninhabited islands that are part of Butrint National Park, offer sandy beaches and pristine waters. The aforementioned Butrint National Park also includes the impressive ruins of Butrint itself, an ancient city located in a marshy delta that is now populated only by tortoises and a few stray dogs.

Further historical outings can take interested travelers to the ruins (and beaches!) of Himara, another ancient town, as well as the historic city of Gjirokastra, perched precariously on the hillsides to the east of Sarande. Gjirokastra is known for its Ottoman-era architecture and the prominent role it played in the Albanian struggle for independence.

For another unique day trip from Sarande, take the hydrofoil to Corfu, Greece. Though it may seem strange and retro now, in its day this strange vessel was the peak of maritime technology, and it still skates across the waves just as well as it ever did.

Sarande can be reached by regular buses from Tirana Airport in Albania’s capital. Travelers can also reach Sarande from Greece, either by the hydrofoil from Corfu (geographically the closest major airport), or a longer bus from the central Greek city of Ioannina.

Escape the winter with flair: eat, drink, and be Bari (Italy)

When people think about an Italian vacation, their minds probably go to the hills of Tuscany or Rome’s Lazio region. Beautiful locations, to be sure, but in the winter they can be downright chilly. That’s not the case in Puglia, the often-neglected southeastern heel of the Italian boot, and Bari in winter is no exception. Bari has spent its history as a transition point between Italy and Greece, a place where those two centers of Classical civilization met and mixed.

Bari boasts an array of great food, from fresh produce and seafood to orecchiette, the “little ear”-shaped pasta the city is known for. There are plenty of great restaurants, but for lunch at least, those in the know will head to the local fish market, where €5 gets you a plate of whichever sea creature your heart desires, plus bread and lemon wedges. Just head downtown to the square in front of the Margherita Theatre around lunchtime.

The city’s down-to-earth culinary tradition is somewhat belied by its grandiose architecture. Wandering the streets of Bari Vecchia, as the old town is called, is enough to satisfy even the most discerning of architecture buffs. The Basilica of San Nicola, for example, dates back to the 12th century.

The region surrounding Bari, Puglia, is also home to many unique towns and villages, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site Matera, with its distinctive and ancient cave dwellings. Puglia is also known for its baroque architecture, which is visible in many of its cities and towns. The nearby city of Lecce is sometimes called “Florence of the South” for its beautiful baroque churches, palaces, and squares. The town of Martina Franca is famous for its stunning baroque constructions.

Travelling from Bari Airport to the city center is simple and takes around 40 minutes by bus. Look for Line 16, run by the bus company AMTAB, at the airport to get dropped off in Bari’s central piazza.

Escape the winter’s rain and gloom in Almeria, Spain

Sick of raincoats, umbrellas, boots, and puddles? Look no further than Almeria, Spain: Europe’s driest city, and indeed one of the least rainy places in the world. At roughly 1,000 years old, the city is a relative youngster in general terms of the Mediterranean, but you can still find your fair share of history here to explore – and let’s not forget the weather!

Almeria is a great destination for those looking for a sunny escape, with mild temperatures throughout the winter. Its position in the southeast of Spain, surrounded by the Sierra Madre mountains, shelters it from the winter rains of the Mediterranean and is responsible for its unique climate.

This rain shadow effect is also responsible for one of Almeria’s most unusual attractions: the unique-in-Europe Tabernas Desert, the only such ecosystem on the continent. Its resemblance to the American southwest made it the setting of numerous “Spaghetti Westerns,” including Once Upon a Time in the West. Visitors can appreciate unique geological formations like naturally formed rock arches, canyons, and plateaus. It’s a popular location for 4×4 driving, camel rides, and plain old-fashioned hiking.

In addition to its stunning natural landscapes, Almeria also has several cultural attractions that make it worth visiting. Its Moorish roots, evident even in the city’s name, can be spotted all around the city. The Alcazaba, an imposing Moorish castle, overlooks the city from atop a high hill, visible from almost everywhere. History buffs who can’t get enough can check out the Almeria Archaeological Museum to get a truly detailed look into the city’s past.

Like many smaller cities in Spain, transit between the local airport and city center is straightforward and quick. A bus ride takes about 30 minutes and costs barely more than €1. Exit Almeria Airport and look for Surbus line 30 to get the direct route to the city center.

Escape winter without leaving Europe at Germany’s Tropical Islands Resort

If you’re stressed for time and looking for a very quick winter escape, look no further than the Tropical Islands Resort in… Germany? That’s right. This unorthodox tropical vacation is constructed inside a gigantic former zeppelin hangar, a building so large it creates its own weather formations inside. Located just outside of Berlin, it’s the farthest-north destination on this list.

The interior of Tropical Islands is kept at a balmy 77°F (25°C) year-round and has been styled after a fantasy island in the south Pacific, including white sand beaches, palm trees, crystal clear waters, and of course, Tiki-themed everything. Inside the protection of the hangar, visitors can enjoy activities like mini-golf, waterslides, white water rafting, and beach volleyball. There are even “beach bungalows” for rent in case you’re enjoying your island vacation too much to leave.

If the weather is agreeable, Tropical Islands also boasts large outdoor spaces with additional activities open year-round, like a simulated whitewater river, wellness and sports facilities, and even a wave simulator for surfing.

Getting to Tropical Islands Resort from Berlin is quite easy, as the resort has a small dedicated train station. Catch the RE2 or RE7 from Berlin Central Station.