Travel inspiration: where to go on holiday in May

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Lizzie Pook
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Divani Apollo Athens

From crowd-free Spain to dry-season Botswana, these are the best destinations and hotels to travel to for a holiday in May.

Picnic blankets at the ready. May is when the UK seems to yawn, stretch and get ready to welcome in the warmer weather. Parks bloom into life, pub gardens lay out their best benches and we all get a taster of the balmy summer months ahead.

Elsewhere in Europe, the sunshine starts putting in some serious shift work, but it’s not yet peak heat, so you can explore beautiful historic towns away from the crowds and even bag a sunbathing spot on those normally-bustling beaches. Further afield, even the chilliest parts of North America are starting to warm up too.

With two bank holidays falling across the month, it’s is also the prime time to make the most of that hard-earned annual leave. So here’s our pick of the best places to go on holiday in May.

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  • Madrid, Spain

    Four Seasons Madrid
    Where to holiday in May: Madrid

    With warm days, clear skies and less of the crowds that come with the summer squeeze, May is a fantastic time to explore the buzzy Spanish capital.

    Known as a night-time city, Madrid is awash with cool rooftop bars, cosy drinking dens and wine joints that spill out onto the streets. But there’s plenty of daytime culture to be had here too, with art galleries (including one converted from an old slaughterhouse), an opera house and art deco cinemas.

    May also sees the opening of the much-anticipated Four Seasons Hotel Madrid, set within a collection of heritage buildings between the Puerta del Sol square and the Prado Museum (home to masterpieces by Velázquez and Rubens). With rooftop dining by Spanish celebrity chef Dani Garcia, a four-level spa (the largest in Madrid) and a sun-soaked pool terrace, it looks set to become one of the finest addresses in town.

  • New South Wales, Australia

    Over the past few months, Australia has been hit with some of the worst bushfires it has ever experienced, with the state of New South Wales being one of the most affected. But despite some obvious signs of scarring, the state is starting to rebound, and is welcoming in visitors with open Aussie arms.

    The beautiful Wolgan Valley, tucked into the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, is showing particularly promising signs of regeneration, with kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, reptiles and birdlife once again roaming abundantly across the reserve.

    The exquisite, carbon-neutral, Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley is the place to stay here. Guests at the ultra-luxe heritage homestead can explore the grounds via horseback, mountain bikes or guided nature walks, and May is a fantastic time to visit, with pleasant temperatures and low humidity, perfect for exploring.

  • Washington DC, USA

    Riggs Washington DC
    Where to holiday in May: Washington DC

    It’s 100 years since women won the right to vote in the States, so where better to celebrate the milestone than in the political heart of the country? All eyes are on the White House this year too, as America’s power players roll-out their election campaigns ahead of the general election in November.

    But there’s much more to DC than Capitol Hill politics, from monuments and museums to its insanely photogenic cherry blossom season (which runs through March and April into early May). The city also boasts a burgeoning food scene, with urban wineries, lively fish markets, forward-thinking chefs and old favourites blending to create an exciting gourmet offering to rival America’s best foodie cities.

    The recently-opened Riggs Washington DC (from the team behind Sea Containers London and Pulitzer Amsterdam) is a pretty special place to stay. Set in the capital’s thriving Penn Quarter neighbourhood, the building used to be home to Riggs National Bank (known as the ‘bank of presidents’). It’s now made up of 181 playful rooms and 15 impressive suites, including four speciality ‘First Lady’ suites inspired by a select few presidents’ unsung better halves.

  • Sri Lanka

    With lush tea plantations, crumbling temples and pristine beaches, Sri Lanka is a pretty wonderful country to visit all year round. But May gives you the best of everything – the less-visited east coast is filled with beautiful beaches that are relatively empty at this time of year, and in the south east the leopards will be out in full at Yala National Park (stay at the incredible Wild Coast Tented Lodge where each tent looks like a little sci-fi cocoon).

    This time of year, Yala’s palu trees also hang heavy with fruit, which means you may even be able to spot elusive sloth bears (the inspiration for The Jungle Book’s Baloo) coming out to eat.

    May is a dry month in Sri Lanka as the monsoon rains hold off, and the Buddhist holiday of Vesak – marking the birth, enlightenment and death of Gautama Buddha – is also widely celebrated across the country, meaning the streets come alive with lanterns and lights.

  • Athens, Greece

    Divani Apollo Athens
    Where to holiday in May: Athens

    Not for the first time in its rich history, Athens is undergoing something of a reinvention. With a thriving food scene, fascinating street art tours and a scattering of cool new galleries, it’s actually becoming something of an arty hub.

    Temperatures average 25°C in May, so you can avoid the coddling high-summer heat and the peak season crowds, too.

    There are also some fascinating sites that can be reached on a day trip from the city, including the temple of Poseidon, Delphi (the centre of the classical Greek world) and the idyllic Saronic Islands, filled with lemon tree forests, avenues of bougainvillea and teeny tiny taverns serving up authentic Greek delicacies. Stay at Divani’s collection of hotels, which are scattered across Athens from city to sea.

  • Botswana

    Where to holiday in May: Botswana

    May is a prime time to visit any of Botswana’s main safari reserves including Moremi in the predator-rich Okavango Delta, the Kalahari (where mini meerkats and big-maned lions roam) and Chobe in the north, where the lack of rain at this time of year means elephants cluster densely around the life-giving river.

    Not only does May present some of the very best weather conditions for safari (clear skies, pleasantly-warm weather and little chance of rainfall) but it’s also before peak season begins in June, meaning you’ll be less likely to run into other safari vehicles on your game drives.

    In the Delta, Tuludi – with its treehouse feel and kooky design touches – is one of the most beautiful places to stay, while Planet Baobab, on the edge of the stark, lunar-like Makgadikgadi Pans is an actually affordable safari option, with rooms available from just £72 a night.

  • Scottish Highlands

    The Fife Arms
    Where to holiday in May: Scottish Highlands

    The Highlands are almost absurdly beautiful all year round but May is when they truly burst into life.

    There are no pesky midges at this time of year, only staggeringly beautiful mountains, glassy lochs and fields filled with rhododendrons and candy-coloured wildflowers.

    Stay at the moodily beautiful Fife Arms to feel like a country laird that’s escaped to a romantic hideaway (even if that romantic hideaway is filled with beady-eyed taxidermy and a winged stag above the bar) and if the nippy Scottish temperatures get to you, just squirrel yourself away in one of the Highlands’ many whisky distilleries to warm your cockles.

  • Egypt

    Sanctuary Nile Cruise
    Where to holiday in May: Egypt

    Egypt is rebounding like never before and looks set to draw back even more history-loving holiday-makers in 2020 with the long-awaited opening of the $1 billion Grand Egyptian Museum, which promises a fascinating reconstruction of Tutankhamun’s extravagantly ornate tomb, as well as his chariot and funeral bed.

    Visiting Egypt in May means it’s off-season enough to bag a room at some of the nicest hotels (including the newish St Regis in the heart of Old Cairo) without having to pay premium five-star prices, and it’s also before the sweltering summer months, when temperatures can soar to a vest-soaking 40°C. You can even take to the Nile Agatha Christie-style on a beautiful small-ship river cruise (Sanctuary does some of the finest), and spot crocodiles, hippos and shore birds as you swoosh along one of the world’s most famous stretches of water. This once beleaguered country is now awash with optimism, so this is the time to get that (ancient) history fix.

Images: courtesy of venues 

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