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Many first-time visitors (myself included) to Spain have this idea that the country is a warm, perhaps semi-tropical land of sunshine, sangria and siestas. It is. And then it is not. Spain is a big country, and yes, many areas are lucky to have great weather year-round (the Canaries), while other regions are cold and rainy (Galicia and the Basque Country) most of the year. It’s January now, and here in Barcelona it’s cold. When I go out, I wear a wool coat and occasionally gloves. January temperatures usually average in the 5o’s°F with the sun shining, and at night the temperature will drop ten degrees or so. Those of you in Toronto, Canada, where it’s normally around 28°F, probably are thinking that 52°F is not so bad…I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective, but it certainly is too chilly to swim in the Mediterranean.
So where are the most ideal spots in Spain to spend the winter season? Here are my five top picks:
1. The Canaries
Known and well-loved by Northern Europeans, the Canaries are overlooked by many travelers from the US and Canada. I assume this is because Mexico and Central America is where most North Americans go to escape January’s chill. The Canary Islands offer a summery getaway and make for a smart add-on to any trip to Spain. For example, if you’re coming to Spain this March when most of the mainland is still pretty frigid, tour around Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian and Seville, and then end your trip on Tenerife, where it’s currently 70°F. Tenerife is my favorite of all the islands, though Fuerteventura is a close second with some beautiful white-sand beaches.
Right, it’s not Spain! But hey, it’s nearby—just a two-hour drive from Barcelona to the north. Andorra is famous for its skiing, winter sports, and shopping (less tax there). A visit to the tiny, mountainous country makes for an interesting junket and the countryside between Barcelona and Andorra is gorgeous. A few fun facts: they speak Catalan in Andorra as well as Spanish; a country made up of mountains the highest peak in Andorra is over 9,500 feet; it is the sixth smallest nation in Europe. If you’re a skier or snowboarder put Andorra on your list this winter.
It’s true that Madrid is frosty in the winter, and it can snow there, but the country’s capital deserves a place on this list because cities are excellent destinations when the weather is unpredictable. Madrid’s nightlife, art museums, and many festivals and events provide plenty for visitors to do rain or shine.
Of course, we can say the same about Barcelona, Spain’s most popular city. Wander around the Gothic Quarter, marvel at the organic shapes inside the Sagrada Família, and run your fingers over Roman walls. In both Barcelona and Madrid it can be cold, but more often than not the sun is shining. Soak up some vitamin D on a terrace with a café con leche, or cozy up inside with a hot chocolate.
5. La Garriga and other hot spots
Winter is also a superb season to take a dip in some of Catalonia’s abundant thermal hot springs. Many of these springs have been used since Roman times (or before) and are contained within elaborate, historical buildings. In the village of La Garriga, just forty-five minutes from Barcleona by train, there are two hot springs open for day-use or overnight stays. Further north there is Vichy Catalan and Sant Hilari Salcalm’s deluxe spa Font Vella, plus a handful of other thermal springs spas in the Pyrenees Mountains. For a complete list of villages with thermal hot springs, check out the Catalan Spa Towns website.
Spain is a diverse country with a wide range of travel options. With a bit of planning you could ski, soak in thermal springs, catch a show in Madrid, see Gaudí masterpieces in Barcelona and then hit the beach on the Canaries—all on the same vacation!