The two UK bank holidays bookending May make it one of the easiest times of the year to squeeze in a pre-summer trip without eating into your annual leave. Happily, this is also one of the best times of the year for city breaks, particularly around the Mediterranean where things are hotting up without being sweltering. Beach breaks are back too, with all of the sun and none of the crowds of later months. If you have the time for a long haul break, there’s even more to see. Here are some ideas for the best places to holiday in May 2024.
Main photo: the Okavango Delta, Botswana (Alamy)
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1. Seville, Spain
Why go in May? For palaces and patios when the heat is just right
The province of Andalusia is blessed with both beaches and ski resorts, but away from sea breezes or cooler mountain climes, Seville experiences some of continental Europe’s hottest summers — temperatures above 40C are not uncommon. Spring and autumn are more comfortable times to visit this city of orange trees and courtyard gardens with tinkling fountains. The architecture is exceptional, mixing Moorish influences, Baroque extravagance and more recent whimsies such as the mushroom-like Metropol Parasol. Alfalfa is one of the most historic city-centre barrios, with fewer big-name sights than neighbouring Santa Cruz, but plenty of tapas bars and small shops. May is a quieter time in Seville’s busy festival calendar, unless a late Easter pushes the colourful Feria de Abril into this month. Located in an 18th-century building in Alfalfa, the Hospes Las Casas del Rey de Baeza has appealing courtyards and rooms with light contemporary touches, but the star feature is the rooftop swimming pool.
2. Lake District, England
Why go in May? For the best chance of a clear day’s hiking
Counting on any one period for sun in the Lake District is asking for trouble, but statistically May has the least rainfall of any month in England’s most mountainous region. And even with the two bank holidays, it’s still not as busy as in July and August. The famous Herdwick sheep have had their lambs and should be headed back to the fells now — just as hikers’ footfall picks up on the trails of this 912-square-mile national park. The village of Grasmere is about as central a base as the Lake District’s complicated layout allows and is poised between the gentler scenery of the southeast and more rugged country to the north and west. Lancrigg is a small and recently revamped country house hotel at the foot of Helm Crag outside Grasmere, with 30 acres of gardens and woods where you can spot red squirrels.
3. Bali, Indonesia
Why go in May? For an enchanting island after the monsoon and before the crowds
All those emerald tiers of rice terraces need a good watering, and from roughly November to April the weather in Bali obliges. May makes a great month for a beach break, though hotels aren’t as busy as during the peak period of June to September. On this popular island, it’s often wise to depart from the beaten track, to the north coast for example, but this quieter month argues for a stay in the visitor hotspots: the inland cultural hub of Ubud, and the south-end beaches. Bali’s best stretches of golden (as opposed to black) sand are largely developed, but the sunset-facing curve of Jimbaran Beach is mellower, despite its proximity to the airport. Jimbaran Puri, a Belmond Hotel, is a luxury spin on a Balinese village, with teak-furnished cottages and villas in temple-dotted gardens beside the two-mile-long Jimbaran Beach.
4. Okavango Delta, Botswana
Why go in May? For boat tours to spot elephants and lions in a marvel of nature
Canoeing through the desert is not some strange dream in Botswana; in the north of the Kalahari, the Okavango River exhausts itself through a vast maze of wetlands that are best explored in a traditional mokoro canoe. Botswana’s rains usually peak in hot and humid January, and end in April, but it takes time for the Okavango Delta to fill up with more rainfall from neighbouring Angola. By the end of May however, mokoro trips become possible when skies are clear, daytime conditions are less sweaty, and nights are cool but not as much as later in the dry season. The north of the delta is particularly good for spotting all the classic African big game animals at this time. In the far north of the Okavango Delta, Wilderness Safaris Vumbura Plains is a safari lodge with 14 spacious suites, perched on decks above the seasonally flooded grasslands.
5. Hardangerfjord, Norway
Why go in May? For fresh colours and fresher air beside the fjords
Norway’s national day on May 17 honours its Constitution of 1814, but it might equally be a celebration of spring, which is felt a little later in this northerly country. May usually has less rain than the summer months in Norway and if you head to the fjords under a clear blue sky, you could find a magical scene: blossoming trees in farms by the water’s edge, peaks above still crowned in white, and waterfalls fully fed by snowmelt. The many fruit orchards along Hardangerfjord, inland from the historic port of Bergen, mean there should always be trees in flower in May, from cherries and plums to apples and pears. Thon Hotel Sandven stands by the waterside in Norheimsund, to the side of Hardangerfjord, with an 1857 original building like a white-painted gingerbread house, and a contemporary annex.
6. Kakadu National Park, Australia
Why go in May? For rich greenery after the rains in the tropical outback
The year in Kakadu National Park — a Wales-sized protected area in Australia’s Northern Territory — is usually divided into a rainy half that tails off in April, and a dry season that lasts until October. The indigenous people however recognise six seasons, and Yekke (May to mid-June) means a not-too-hot time, with billabongs full and blooming with water lilies. The great debate for visitors to Kakadu is when to see great waterfalls such as Jim Jim Falls: accessible by road but at a trickle in the dry, or at full roar but only visible from scenic flights during the wet. May in this part of Australia could go either way, or briefly be the best of both worlds. Cooinda Lodge Kakadu is in the heart of the national park, ideal for cruises on the Yellow Water billabong, and has air-conditioned bungalow rooms plus a resort-worthy swimming pool.
7. Champagne, France
Why go in May? For celebrating the holidays with a pop and some fizz
When booking a hotel room, guests are often nudged to add on a bottle of champagne — and if you’re going to indulge anywhere, it should really be in the namesake region of France — unless you’re saving yourself for a cellar visit the next day. Pleasantly warm temperatures in May make cycling tours a great alternative to exploring the vineyards and villages of Champagne by car. France marks three or four public holidays this month, so it’s a popular time to travel, but crowds should still be less than in summer. The town of Épernay is home to many prestigious champagne houses, and in the region’s biggest city, Reims, is the splendid cathedral where French kings were crowned. Château de Sacy has vineyard views from its hillside south of Reims, but the rooms in this restored 1850s mansion are often bolder in design than a traditional château from a wine label.
8. Holetown, Barbados
Why go in May? For sunny Caribbean vibes in the shoulder season
In the islands of the eastern Caribbean, May usually has just as good weather as the Christmas and New Year travel peak, but hotel rooms are more affordable. Barbados is one place where you can find relative bargains while still enjoying a beach holiday before rain picks up again in June. But which beaches? The east coast has the most captivating scenery, though the sea here is for serious surfers only. The south has gentler waves, and the Friday night party of Oistins Fish Fry. For the silkiest sand, the west wins out: it’s been dubbed the Platinum Coast for its luxury properties, though things grow more low-key as you follow the road north from Holetown to Speightstown. Family-run since 1970, the Sandpiper has an easy tropical charm, and is upscale but not rarefied for its location, by a lovely beach within walking distance of Holetown’s shops and restaurants.
9. Rome, Italy
Why go in May? For the return of alfresco life in the Eternal City
Italians like to start the month of May with a picnic somewhere green and in the parks of Rome and the surrounding countryside, the most classic of snacks is a combo of fava beans and pecorino romano. With the mercury climbing into the twenties, it’s also gelato time, while still temperate enough to favour sightseeing without burnout. The city’s roof terraces are much prized this month, with views of Classical colonnades and Baroque church domes given an extra oomph if you happen to be standing atop one of the old seven hills. Open House Roma, sometimes held in May, gives access to interiors that are usually off-limits. The Inn at the Roman Forum is in the cobbled streets of the hilltop Monti district, with vaulted cellars from ancient Roman days, and a dozen opulent rooms plus a small top-floor terrace.
10. Lake Titicaca, Bolivia/Peru
Why go in May? For the start of dry season in a land of llamas and reed boats
Bolivia is only the fifth-largest country in South America, though its landscapes could hardly exhibit greater contrast, from the Amazonian jungle to the almost-surrealist salt flats of Salar de Uyuni. One common theme is that rainfall is highest around January and low to non-existent in July, but altitude decides how cold things get in the southern-hemisphere winter. At over 3,600 metres, La Paz is the world’s highest capital city; acclimatise here before tackling treks amid the peaks of the Andes, or heading to Lake Titicaca (shared with Peru), which dazzles under clearer May skies, while nights are a tad less frigid than the following months. Take a boat over to starkly beautiful Isla del Sol to discover Inca-era remains and local culture alive in the present. Ecolodge La Estancia stands on ancient stone terraces 4,000 metres up on Isla del Sol, its well-appointed thatched-roof cabins looking out over the expanse of Lake Titicaca.
11. Rhineland, Germany
Why go in May? For radiant days along a river that inspired painters and poets
The banks of the Rhine have been an evergreen favourite with travellers over the centuries, but with vineyards looking lush again in mid-spring, this is an ideal time to take a river boat tour down its most storied stretch: the Rhine Gorge between Koblenz and Bingen. It’s a landscape where towns such as Boppard, Bacharach and Sankt Goar just about fit their half-timbered houses at the foot of steep slopes, and medieval castles perch on every strategic vantage point. The city of Koblenz marks the point where the Rhine is joined by the Mosel, itself a river of many beautiful meanders, its flanks making up a wine region of great renown. Castlehotel Schönburg is a sight to be seen: a restored medieval fortress high on a cliff above the Rhine between Sankt Goar and Bacharach, with canopied beds in its 27 rooms and suites.
12. Tbilisi, Georgia
Why go in May? For a land at the crossroads, in a mild season
Georgia isn’t on the mind of many travellers (if we’re talking about the country on the blurred boundary between Europe and Asia, rather than the US state) though with mountain scenery and historic sites like a setting from a fantasy novel, it deserves to be. The climate is varied for its relatively small size, but May is a great time to visit overall, without winter freezes in the highlands, or summer stickiness in the lowlands. Ancient monasteries, the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus and perhaps the world’s oldest wine industry are Georgian signatures, and between them all, the capital Tbilisi is vying to make itself a cosmopolitan destination for the 21st century. Georgia does design hotels too, as Tbilisi’s Stamba Hotel proves: a Soviet-era publishing house given a sympathetic post-industrial makeover, with an in-house coffee and chocolate roastery.
13. Hawaii, US
Why go in May? For blissful island-hopping in the low season
Officially, Hawaii enjoys a dry season from May to October, but in these far-flung Pacific islands, you’ll find your location has much more bearing on the weather than the month does. The northeast side of an island is typically wetter, with tropical plants growing thickly, while the leeward southwestern slopes of the mountains are drier. Warmth comes year-round, but busy holiday periods make a difference, and May is low season — apart from the first week, with Japanese visitors on the hub island of Oahu, home to Honolulu and Waikiki Beach. Hawaii proper (a.k.a. the Big Island) is a wonderfully diverse volcanic island with new land still being created, while Kauai (the “Garden Isle”) has impossibly deep gorges and lacy waterfalls, as seen in the first Jurassic Park film. Ko’a Kea Hotel & Resort is tucked between two dreamy beaches in Poipu, on Kauai’s south shore, and has a more boutique feel than many of its peers, with coral patterns a theme in the largely restrained decor.
14. Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Why go in May? For warm but not scorching days in a Silk Road staging post
The ancient cities of the Silk Road can look splendid in any month with their turquoise-tiled domes and intricately patterned minarets, but between winter temperatures just below zero and summer highs into the thirties or forties, most visitors to the “stans” of Central Asia prefer to come in the transition seasons. The end of May usually sees the Silk and Spices Festival in Bukhara, one of Uzbekistan’s four world heritage-listed cities. Khiva and Shakhrisyabz also boast monuments from the age of camel caravans, but Samarkand is the country’s crowning glory, thanks to Timur (Tamerlane) who made the city his capital. Bibikhanum Hotel stands next to the restored 15th-century mosque of the same name in Samarkand’s old town, and has rooms filled with Uzbek folk art around a galleried two-level courtyard.
15. Valletta, Malta
Why go in May? A historic city without the crowds
Temperature-wise, things will be swinging into summer in Malta’s diminutive capital, but the associated crowds won’t have quite arrived yet. It means whether you’re sitting at a terrace cafe or exploring this historic city’s cobbled streets, there’s just the right amount of buzzfcana to provide a jovial atmosphere. The city is perfect for a weekend — it’s small enough that you’ll be able to see most of the sights in a day or two without feeling too hectic, while Three Cities and Sliema are just across the water on either side if you’re staying for longer. Just outside the city gates, The Phoenicia Malta was the country’s first five-star hotel and offers unrivalled views of Valletta from its rooms.
16. St Lawrence river, Canada
Why go in May? For the start of the whale watching season
The St Lawrence river is a summer stomping ground for over a dozen species of cetaceans, including blue whales, humpbacks and orcas. Some live here year-round, but really the season kicks off in May. The best way to see these magnificent creatures is on a zodiac, and there are small group tours departing from Tadoussac that provide all the wet weather gear you’ll need. If you’re not so bothered about getting close to them, grab binoculars and you’ll be able to spot them from up high or even on a ferry crossing. In your down time, explore the many hiking trails in this part of Quebec, which are among the most picturesque in the country. Hôtel Tadoussac is in a prime location in the village with views out over the river.