There’s the old saying, ‘The rain in Spain falls on the plain’, and there are stereotypes suggesting that it’s always hot and sunny in Spain, and that they drink Gazpacho and Sangria to keep cool and always take a siesta. All of this is as inaccurate as people suggesting that it rains in Britain everyday and it’s always cold, which again, is not true either. So what is it really like here?
First let’s look at geography. It’s more complicated than just looking at north and south and eat and west. Spain is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe with plateaus, lush, green hills, deserts, mountains more than double the height of Ben Nevis, and glaciers, yes you read that right, glaciers. If you decide to live in or visit a certain town here, It’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into. Even a summer break doesn’t guarantee hot sunny weather, though it is more likely, and winters may experience colder days than back in England.
Living in Spain presents more challenges with the weather than you think. I live in Córdoba, and in winter, temperatures are around 15 degrees in January, but about 5 at night. That might sound amazing for a brit, but houses are designed differently , and not as well equipped for the cold compared to in Britain. Central heating isn’t a given in various parts of the country, and we suffer for it big time. House don’t always have balconies or terraces for us to enjoy the outdoors, but when we do have them, we have times where you don’t want to use them.
Let’s start with the North of Spain, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and most parts of the Basque Country, colloquially known as Green Spain. Why is known as that? because it has rolling green hills and mountains, and rugged coastlines that are lush and green, like England. It rains as much if not more than England too due to the Atlantic influence and the Cantabrian Mountains keeping most of the humidity on the coastal side. Temperatures are very similar to that of London during the summer, and are a little warmer in winter, so anyone complaining about how hot it is in Sevilla maybe should book a weekend in Gijón next time.
Now let’s have a look at the alpine areas of Spain, of which there are so many. The climate in Winter can be very extreme, with snow a feature in almost every autonomous community (even the Canary Islands). You will definitely experience a sub-zero experience, even at the bottom of the Valley. Pamplona, Vitoria- Gasteiz, and Teruel are Provincial capitals that are in the mountains and experience wintery weather pretty much every year, and you don’t have to travel far to reach mountains that are snow-capped. Even Granada and Jaén in Andalucía will have a wintery scene on their doorstep every once in a while. Storm Filomena in January 2021 brought temperatures as low as -29 degrees in the Teruel region, and temperatures -15 or lower in other mountain regions.
Summer in the mountains can bring some nice heat, but stay fresh at high altitude areas, especially the Pyrenees, where the glaciers are. Many Spanish people will go to the mountain areas in summer to escape the heat. the Cantabrian mountains and the Sierra Nevada will also have snow patches on the highest peaks until well into the summer which encourage hikers and extreme sports enthusiasts to visit.
The centre of Spain has one of the harshest climates in the whole country, being largely located on a high-altitude plateau called La Meseta Central. Divided between north and south via the Sistema Central mountains, the climate follows suit, and the North, being higher on the whole, has harder winters and more temperature variations between night and day. Major cities like León, Valladolid, Salamanca and Burgos are there, and some of the smaller provincial capitals like Soria, are over 1000m in altitude and have one of the hardest climates around. It’s normal to have sub-zero night temperatures in winter, and single figure night temperatures in Summer. I used to live in León, and there were spring days that would be in the mid 20’s and drop to zero at night.
The south side of the Meseta may have it a little better, but they are faced with even more distinct seasons than the north, and temperatures occasionally reaching 40 in summer and having a snow day or two in winter. Madrid is there, as well as the old Capital, Toledo, Cuenca and Albacete. Homes on the Meseta are usually well equipped for winter with central heating, but some might not have air conditioning. It isn’t as necessary in the Meseta Norte because of the cooler nights.
The majority of the Mediterranean coast, and the Costa de la Luz has the climate that is most famous for Brits abroad in the summer. Major cities like Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga, Tarragona, Cadiz and Palma are all in this zone, and have some of the warmest winters in Europe. That’s not to say that you are guaranteed an amazing life there. Winters will drastically reduce the amount of businesses staying open in. Certain areas. Salou is almost empty for 4 months of the year, but it is understandable since the sea is cold, there’s a notable chilly wind around. And it’s usually the most unsettled time.
I used to live in the Tarragona area for a couple of years, and while you could visit monuments all year round, and enjoy some quiet moments at the beach, there’s definitely a different vibe and some people don’t like this change. This is the part where Brits don’t understand until they experience it themselves, it’s warmer than Britain, but in general, it’s not much warmer. It’s one of the biggest reality checks you get when you are off-peak. Even Cadiz and Malaga is notably different during this time, but there is plenty to do and enjoy still, it just won’t be what you imagined. The Balearic Islands are in the same situation, though more extreme.
Don’t think this excludes the Costa Blanca, Costa Cálida, and Costa de Almería either, the driest part of the peninsula. Alicante, Elche, Murcia, Cartagena and Almería lie in the true desert of Iberia, but that doesn’t mean the weather is always easy. This part has more sun than pretty much anywhere else in Spain, but it also has more flooding issues, because when it rains, it pours. Don’t let that put you off though, because if you really don’t like the cold, this may be the area. Almería is the only city as of 2021 to have never registered a freezing temperature. Heat here, can be just as tough as the rest of the Spanish Costas, but if you’re by the sea, you will cope just fine. But that doesn’t stop many Brits turning into a lobster!
Temperatures along the whole coast are anywhere from 14 on the Catalan coast, to 18 or so around Malaga, Almeria and Cartagena, and any time in winter you can enjoy 20 degrees and shelter yourself from the wind. A light jacket, and your fine, protect yourself from the wind and you’ll easily get through the winter. Heaters at night, are practically non-existent, you will probably end up with some small, electric heater on at night.
The Ebro Valley from La Rioja, to Mora la Nova in Tarragona is the 2nd driest part of the peninsula after Almería, but has a lot of extremes that are more notable than the coast. Winters can be very windy due to the Cierzo, a very chilly wind that can be quite unpleasant, but rarely freezing, and subsequently, can cause fog further east. I lived in Lleida, where the Cierzo wind could be really strong, or struggle to reach 5 degrees because of thick fog.
Summers are almost as extreme as parts of Andalusia, with temperatures regularly passing 35 degrees all the way up to Logroño, and occasionally reach 40+. The dryness and high temperatures can make it a dangerous environment for farmers during that time, and there are cases of heat-related hospitalisations during this time. Take care when outside here. The positive is that it doesn’t rain much, and you for the most part can enjoy sunny weather more often than not.
Now we head to the hottest part of Spain, where most of the temperature records are, and the highest summer average in the whole of Europe can be found here. The interior part of Andalusia, majority of Extremadura, interior part of Valencia, and Tortosa in Catalonia are the places that many travellers are totally not prepared for, and those living here, will often escape to the beach when they can. Sevilla, Badajoz, Mérida, Cáceres Córdoba, Jaén, Granada, Jerez, Xàtiva, and Tortosa are the major towns and cities that are in this zone.
There’s a place, known as the ‘Frying pan of Europe’ due to it having the highest summer average at just over 37 degrees in July callied Écija, in Sevilla province. The hottest temperature ever recorded in Spain is officially in Montoro, Córdoba. You question why someone would want to live somewhere like that, but the answer is that it isn’t always, and that there are rainy days and mild to warm days for the better part of 5 months of the year, and you are more comfortable that you thought you would be.
Similar to that of Almería and Murcia, when it rains, it can be quite a sharp shower, and occasionally quite a big storm from the heat may hit these parts. Winters are a little chilly at night, but usually mid- teens during the day, though you can get a night below freezing. You can however, enjoy the winter sun and not need anymore than a jumper, or sometimes even just a t-shirt will do. After the Mediterranean coast, winters in these parts are the most comfortable. Just don’t expect to see any snow.
The last climate Spain has to offer, is the sub-tropical area of the Canary Islands. I haven’t explored this area yet, but from what friends have told me, is that it is dryer the further east you are, and temperatures are warm to hot, all year round, except the peaks of the higher mountains, which can have snow on them during the winter. Despite the dryness at times, heavy overnight dews can give the impression that it has rained in these areas. A similar thing happens in places like Florida. I totally understand why somebody would want to live somewhere like the Canary Islands. The cold practically doesn’t exist, you can find it if you want it, and rain is a similar level to that of Murcia, depending on the island. But just like the rest of Spain, nothing is perfect.
There you have it, a country that has a bigger variety of climactic differences than probably any other European country. In conclusion, plan for the weather properly here, because Spain is not just Mediterranean, it’s alpine, arid, British and everything else in between. Make sure you have a just in case section in your luggage.