Weather: European holiday islands

Most of what you need to know about the weather on the islands between Europe and Africa is summed up in the name of the sea that holds them. The Mediterranean's world-famous climate plays out on all of its islands through variations on a familiar theme: warm-to-hot summers that are bone-dry, and mild winters with regular, but seldom torrential, rains, all cast in a default setting of brilliant sunshine. On many Mediterranean islands, the best times to visit are late spring and early autumn, thus avoiding the rains of winter, the sultry conditions of mid-summer and the hordes of tourists.

As a rule, the larger the island you're on, the more weather variety it holds. Cyprus and Sardinia, for instance, are both big enough to have inland areas that are considerably colder in winter and hotter in summer than their respective coastlines. Elevation also plays a role, especially on the larger islands, but the effect isn't always straightforward. On Cyprus, for example, the top of Mt Olympos tends to be pleasantly mild even in mid-summer, but the lowlands just above sea level may be considerably hotter than the coast itself. Higher elevations across the Mediterranean can chill down substantially in the winter: frosts and freezes aren't unheard of, and the highest and northernmost peaks can be snow-covered for months. Even at sea level, you can expect temperatures on most of the islands to dip below 10°C/50°F regularly in mid-winter. Both longitude and latitude play a role in island weather: as you'd expect, more northerly islands are slightly cooler – especially in winter – and the westernmost islands, particularly the Balearics, also tend to be a touch cooler and less humid than the islands near Greece and Turkey, although northerlies across the Aegean tend to ease the worst heat there. Since each island has its own micro-climatic features, the city charts at the end of this section should be taken to represent each city's immediate vicinity and not the entire island.

Overall, the Mediterranean delivers relatively few weather surprises. Every so often a slow-moving depression drifts across the sea, which can bring an unusually long string of damp, unsettled, sometimes thundery weather. Autumn is an especially fertile time for these systems, particularly from October onward. During the spring, depressions spinning off fast-heating North Africa are more likely to bring a different weather headache: the scirocco, a hot, dusty wind from the Sahara. Islands closest to the African coast, such as Malta, are most likely to get a scirocco at its full desiccating power. The sea adds moisture and helps temper the worst of the heat, but its smooth surface also helps the wind to gain strength by the time it reaches southern Europe. From the other direction, summer brings the etesian northerly winds, also known as the maestro in the Ionian Sea and the meltemi in the Aegean. Although these winds may relieve the heat, they can blow at gale force during the day, especially by the time they reach Crete.

Many European holiday-makers venture a bit further afield and visit the Canary Islands, where even mid-winter is shirt-sleeve weather and strong trade winds lead to some of the world's best windsurfing. Rainfall patterns here are in the Mediterranean norm – a shower every 3 or 4 days in winter, with a few steadier rains in the mix – but the lower latitude means more hours of sunshine in January. Summer days are only a little warmer than winter ones, typically staying below 28°C/82°F, although the summer nights are quite mild and somewhat humid.