Best European Islands For Vacation
European Islands for a Unique Vacation
You want to go to Europe to explore the wide variety of culture and arts throughout the continent’s many countries, but the idea of lounging on the beach somewhere sounds equally enticing. Why not do both?
Don’t go fight the crowds at all the popular “hot spots” in Europe. For your next vacation, consider visiting one of the exotic European Islands. It will be a unique travel experience that you won’t soon forget!
I love Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal, in particular. All of these countries include islands within their territories. As you move away from the mainland, you’ll discover island life is as varied as the countries’ flags and traditions.
Here’s a list of 12 of the best European islands for vacation. Take your pick among locations in the Mediterranean or Atlantic. Don’t forget to pack the sunscreen and camera!
12 European Islands You Won’t Want to Miss
- Tenerife (Spain, Canary Islands)
- Sardinia (Italy)
- Madeira (Portugal)
- Santorini (Greece)
- The Azores (Portugal)
- Fuerteventura (Spain, Canary Islands)
- Sicily (Italy)
- Ionian Islands (Greece)
- Šibenik Islands (Croatia)
- Malta Island (Malta)
- Ibiza (Spain)
Why Travel to a European Island?
Some of the European Islands featured here are territories of mainland countries, and others are “stand-alone” sovereign states, including Malta and Iceland. Yet, each of these regions might as well be their own nation.
European cultural influences are evident, and the language or dialect may be “borrowed” from elsewhere. However, when it comes to the sights, sounds and tastes of these islands, you simply have to go there for the experience that mainland cannot match!
For example, one of Spain’s Wackiest Festivals, the Burial of the Sardine, takes place each year on the island of Tenerife (within the Canary Islands). If you’ve experienced Mardi Gras in New Orleans, then I suggest you find a book your cheap flights to Tenerife before next February so you can partake in the bizarre festivities that include parading a dead fish on a throne through town… and lots of drinking and dancing, as well!
Highlights of Tenerife
Although the Canary Islands are an autonomous territory of Spain, they are actually off the coast of the African continent, about 100 km south of the border of Morocco and Western Sahara. Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands and offers a wide range of activities from watersports to hiking, photography and unique cultural activities.
Spain’s highest mountain, Mount Teide, is found on Tenerife. From the top of this World Heritage Site, you’ll have a grand view of the rest of the volcanoes on the island. The region is rich in wildlife and natural beauty. Not surprisingly, tourists love to visit Tenerife – 12 million each year, to be precise!
If you like wine, you’ll love Madeira! Winemaking has long been a tradition in this Portuguese region. According to Wikipedia:
Madeira is noted for its unique winemaking process which involves heating the wine up to temperatures as high as 60°C (140°F) for an extended period of time and deliberately exposing the wine to some levels of oxidation. Due to this unique process, Madeira is a very robust wine that can be quite long lived even after being opened.
Like Tenerife, Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal, located in the northern Atlantic ocean. Its about 520 km from the African coast, and 1000 km from the west coast of Europe. Temperatures hover around 70 degrees F year round. Just perfect!
Year-round, tourists flock to the island to enjoy Madeira wine, its abundant, beautiful flowers and the largest fireworks show in the world on New Year’s Eve (as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records).
For amazing architecture, fresh, tasty cuisine, and unique culture, the island of Sardinia has it all! You’ll step back in time to an ancient era when you visit the Bronze Age stone towers (called Nuraghe), or the Roman bath runs at Fordongianus. The sacred well of Santa Christina is an architectural marvel, as well.
After your sightseeing, be sure to take a walk along one of the gorgeous sandy beaches of Sardinia (Luna Beach is pictured above). Fresh seafood is found in coastal restaurants, or you can enjoy a meal of slow-roasted meat inland.
Local culture is just that — local! Sardinian festivals are traditional celebrations that have been passed down from generation to generation. But don’t worry about crashing the party. Tourists are always welcome. The best known festival in Sardinia is the annual horse race at the beginning of July, called l’ardia di San Costantino.
Yes, its true. Santorini is just that beautiful. The island is a popular destination, either on its own, or as part of a Greek isles cruise. Magical and romantic, many couples enjoy Santorini as a honeymoon destination.
Postcard-perfect photos like the one above are signature Santorini. Famous white houses with blue domes are nestled into the cliffs created by eons of volcanic eruptions. You can walk the crater rims or stroll along the magnificent beaches.
Cap off your evening with delicious Greek cuisine and perhaps a glass of ouzo.
The Azores, Portugal
If you haven’t heard of the Azores, you’re not alone. The 9-island archipelago, a territory of Portugal, is one of the most undiscovered European islands. Stunning natural beauty greets you and may even make you wonder whether you should keep the secret of the Azores to yourself so that it doesn’t get overrun by tourists….
If you like spending time outdoors, the Azores is the place to visit. Hike along trails to reach waterfalls, calderas and tiny seaside villages. All you’ll need are a pair of sturdy shoes and a camera! While there, be sure to walk to Sete Cidades on São Miguel, the main island. The village is nestled within a caldera, flanked by one blue and one green lake. Another favorite destination is the fajas, or coastal plains, of São Jorge. Visit Faial, which is a favorite among the yachting community and stop at the famous Peter Café Sport.
Amazingly, you can get to the Azores in just 4 hours via plane from Boston!
If you like Tenerife, you may want to extend your vacation to the Canary Islands with a visit to Fuerteventura, one of the Canary islands. The island is very popular with water sports enthusiasts, in large part due to the strong winds that propel sailboats across the waves.
Surfers love the giant swells and the beaches are simply amazing. Take your pick among clean, pristine white or black volcanic beaches. There are even guided walking tours along the sands.
Just 70 miles off the coast of Morocco, a trip to Fuerteventura is an island vacation like nothing you’ve ever experienced.
Sights in Sicily
Sicily is the large Italian island being kicked by the “boot” that is the mainland country. Practically a nation in itself, Sicily is steeped in history, art and excellent wine! Forget what you’ve read or heard about this island with a storied past. The people there are friendly and helpful, and while your travel experience will have an Italian flair, it will also be uniquely Sicilian!
Sights you’ll want to visit when in Sicily include the rumbling volcano – Mount Etna, the city of Sciacca in southwestern Sicily to enjoy amazing ceramics and its Carnival, and Ragusa province in which you’ll find many small towns and ornate churches. Bella!
Natural beauty abounds in Sicily, as well. Miles of vineyards cover the hills, as well as olive groves and citrus trees. The rugged mountainous landscape kisses the deep blue sea, allowing vistas that surely inspired some of the beautiful art you’ll enjoy when you travel to Sicily.
The Ionian Islands are a group of Greek islands that are also called the Heptanese, the “Seven Islands.” Located off the west coast of Greece, in the Ionian sea, the islands consist of:
- Corfu (Kerkyra)
- Paxos (Paxi)
- Lefkas (Lefkada)
- Ithaca (Ithaki)
- Cephalonia (Kefalonia)
- Zante (Zakynthos) and
- Cerigo (Kythira)
Though the islands are now part of Greece, they have a storied history with influences from a number of European countries. The experience is a unique blend of Greek and Italian culture.
Visitors agree that the lush green landscapes (Corfu has the highest rainfall in Greece) are a beautiful contrast to the blue seas.There are cruises and guided toursavailable through the Ionian Islands. You’ll soon see why the poet Homor declared the Ionian Islands a paradise in The Odyssey.
The Šibenik Islands, within central Dalmatia where the Krka river empties into the Adriatic Sea, are a jewel in a dense archipelago of islands. Part of Croatia, they were heavily fortified to ward off the attacks of the Yugoslav Army and the Serbs during the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995). The four main fortresses can be viewed, and all architectural damage from the recent war has been repaired.
- Tvrđava Sv. Nikole
- Tvrđava Sv. Mihovila
- Tvrđava Sv. Ivana
- Tvrđava Šubićevac
The relatively small population allows the natural wonders of the islands to shine through. Be sure to visit the islands of the Kornati National Park, the Krka National Park and the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Waterfalls like the one shown above are even more stunning in real life!
In town, the central church in Šibenik, the Cathedral of St. James, enjoys recognition as a World Heritage site. Stroll through the streets to find many restaurants serving local fare (lamb, turkey, baked dishes and more). Dolac quarter in the town center is said to have over 100 cafés with live music.
You may want to plan to visit the Šibenik Islands during one of the annual festivals. The International Child’s Festival starts the last week in June, and the Day of St. James, the patron saint of the city, is commemorated each year on July 25.
Iceland may not be the first location that comes to mind when you consider European Islands. Yet the island nation will not disappoint tourists looking for a fresh alternative to traditional travel plans.
The scenery is pure and unmarred, given that its the largest uninhabited area in Europe. Enjoy birch forests, deserts of black sand and boiling pools of mud. The hot springs allow for outdoor swimming year round. Oh, and yes, there is that volcanotoo! The one with the name that no one can pronounce (Eyjafjallajökull).
Any trip to Iceland has got to include a guided horseback ride on an Icelandic horse. The species were brought to Iceland with the Vikings in the ninth century. You’ll marvel at the natural beauty of the untouched landscape, led by Bjarni Páll, who specializes in geology, and his wife Elsa, both from Saltvík. The tour takes you past Lake M vatn, Ódáahraun, the largest lava field in Icelan, and the waterfall Goafoss.
History buffs and budding archeologists will love visiting Malta! The Neolithic Temples built 1000 years before the pyramids of Egypt were created with 20-ton blocks. Just how the ancient civilizations accomplished this feat is anyone’s guess. You’ll also want to see St. Paul’s island, which marks the spot where St. Paul shipwrecked on the Malta coast. The event is commemorated in the Bible in the Acts of the Apostles! From there, you should visit the places where the Knights of St. John defended Christianity.
Its not just about history, however. Malta boasts some amazing views along its coastlines. Walk along the trails, or consider a boat excursion around the islands for the best vistas.
Whether you want to party at the clubs or take in spectacular scenery, the Spainish island Ibiza has plenty of options. Young adults flock to world-famous clubs including Pacha, Amnesia and Club Privilege. Keep a watch out for celebrities and models…
If drinking and dancing isn’t your thing, you can slow down the pace by finding a spot at the Es Vedrà from which to watch the amazing sunsets Ibiza offers up each evening. The uninhabited nature reserve is off the western coast in Cala d’Hort.
7 of the Best Hidden European Travel Destinations
Many of the most frequented travel destinations in the world are in Europe. Cities such as London, Paris, Venice, Rome, and Amsterdam are constantly swarming with tourists, and for good reason. Each city guarantees an amazing travel experience, and offers countless things to do and see.
Unfortunately for travelers, however, some of those more traditional European travel destinations have become increasingly globalized, commercialized, and touristy in recent years. The traditional European travel destinations are certainly still worth visiting, but many travelers long to escape the beaten tourist path and explore some places that quite aren’t as crowded or as well-known.
For those travelers longing to get in touch with the local people and culture and who are looking for a unique European travel adventure, here are 7 must-visit European travel destinations that are off the beaten tourist track.
1) Munich, Germany
Why you should go:
Munich is a beautiful city with a rich history. It’s not quite as globalized as Berlin, and it’s not a very common tourist destination. Therefore, if you’d like a glimpse into distinctly German city life, this is the place to visit. Two things in particular (other than just walking around and enjoying the German culture) that you might want to explore:
Oktoberfest. Oktoberfest is the world’s largest fair. It’s been a German and Bavarian tradition for over 200 years. To understand Oktoberfest, anticipate all the German sausage, beer, cheese, sauerkraut, and festivities you can handle. Then double that.
The Duetsches Museum. The Duetsches Musuem is one of the world’s largest museums specializing in science and technology. Of course, everyone knows that Germany is famous for its aptitude and achievement in science and technology. You can think of the DuetschesMuseum as Germany’s answer to the Smithsonian.
2) Heidelberg, Germany
Why you should go:
While Munich will give you a taste of authentic German urban living, Heidelberg gives travelers a glimpse into not only small-city German life, but also into the German medieval culture. During World II, much of Germany’s beautiful Medieval architecture was destroyed.
Heidelberg is one beautiful German city with medieval roots that made it through World War II relatively unscathed. The major travel highlights in Heidelberg are the OldTown, the River Neckar that runs through the city, and HeidelbergCastle.
3) Interlaken, Switzerland
Why you should go:
If you love nature, adventure, and the great outdoors, Interlaken, Switzerland should be at the top of your short list of must-visit locations.
Whether you’re looking to enjoy pristine, unspoiled, and gorgeous rivers, trails, and mountains, or you’re looking to try your hand at skydiving, bungee jumping, canyoning, or any other outdoor activity you can think of, Interlaken will not disappoint.
While in Interlaken, I took advantage of a chance to try bungee jumping. If you’re going to try bungee jumping, it’s hard to top Interlaken. One company will take you up in a gondola over an Alpine lake and let you jump from the Gondola. Believe me, it’s an unforgettable experience you won’t regret!
4) San Sebastian, Spain
Why you should go:
San Sebastian is officially within Spanish borders, but it’s traditionally considered part of Basque Country. To this day, the Basques consider themselves and Basque Country to be distinct from Spain.
San Sebastian is a picturesque coastal city in northern Spain near the French border. It offers a great place to try surfing. There are many instructors who will give you lessons and let you rent surfboards for a very reasonable price. Lesson learned: surfing is harder than it looks! If you love ocean destinations and aren’t interested in dealing with the prices and tourists in places such as Nice, France or Barcelona, Spain, you will love San Sebastian.
Also, if you’re interested in the Running of the Bulls or the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, both of which I had the opportunity to participate in (see link), San Sebastian is a great city to commute from. Pamplona is a very expensive place to stay during the San Fermin Festival and the Running of the Bulls, but you can stay in San Sebastian for a fraction of the price and commute by bus.
5) Seville, Spain
Why you should go:
Seville, Spain is one of those cities that’s difficult to completely take in unless you have a full week or two to explore. Seville is absolutely jam-packed with things to do and see.
Seville‘s Old Town district. One of the largest old towns in Europe.
World’s largest cathedral.
Tomb of Christopher Columbus.
Seville‘s bullring. When it comes to Spanish bullfighting, this is the top of the top. Only the best matadors fight here.
However, Seville is located in the Andalusia region of Spain, so be advised that it gets hot in the summer.
6) Lagos, Portugal
Why you should go:
Lagos has everything you’d expect from a Portuguese town: elaborately black and white tiled walkways, the ocean, and beautiful white Portuguese architecture.
Lagos is a small town, but it’s very popular among backpackers. While there is some sight-seeing to do in Lagos, the main draw is the laid-back, peaceful, small-town Portuguese coastal atmosphere.
Lagos is a great place to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
7) Pisa, Italy
Why you should go:
Italy has no shortage of tourist hotspots. Admittedly, Pisa is frequently visited by tourists, but it somehow manages to retain its unique and authentic atmosphere.
Pisa is most famous for the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the beautiful Cathedral next to it, but it also offers an excellent opportunity to explore the Italian culture and people. Once you get away from the Leaning Tower, you’ll find that tourists aren’t nearly as common as the local people. You can live among them, eat with them, buy some of the authentic Italian leather goods and cuisine that they sell on the streets and in stores, and spend some time living and loving life, Italian style.