23 March 2016 by Chris Kyprianou
With several seas to choose from, Europe is always going to have a host of high quality beaches. With so many countries claiming a stretch of coastline, you're assured of great options wherever you choose to lay your towel.
However, although there are a number of great beaches in Europe, there's also a selection of exceptional seaside escapes that have more to offer than simply sand and swimming. Explore a new culture, go on a self-drive adventure or uncover a new gem. Great in June and July, they're also well worth exploring later in the season, from September to October, when the crowds dissipate but the weather is still warm.
The island of Santorini in the Cyclades never fails to excite and inspire, especially at sunset, when the surreal landscape is illuminated in warm hues. The vast, submerged caldera, almost all of which is encircled by sheer lava-crusted cliffs on top of which stand traditional, white-washed buildings with deep blue domes, is unlike anywhere else. Surreal black sand beaches are available at Kamari and Perissa in the east, although you should travel to Oia on the northern tip for the most spectacular sunset views. Throughout, sample the island's fresh, dry white wine, which is considered some of the finest in Greece. To take in more than one island though, combine a trip to Santorini with a visit to Mykonos and stay at the exclusive, boutique Grace Hotels on each.
Stay at Grace Santorini, Greece
Greek Islands, Crete
The Greek island of Crete is more like a small country than an island. Full of history, it's a diverse and fascinating place, boasting Minoan palaces, Venetian fortresses, mosques, byzantine monasteries and the birthplace of Zeus. The island is also renowned for its natural beauty. Spectacular mountain ranges dotted with caves and gouged by gorges give way to Europe's only palm-tree forest beach, whilst the south coast has some of the most stunning beaches and isolated coves. Base yourself in one of the island's luxury hotels then venture out to explore.
A mountain ridge that rises from the Mediterranean, cloaked in pine and covered in coursing rivers, Corsica is wild and wonderful. At the foot of the saw-toothed peaks are white sand stretches; the best can be found at Spérone, the Golfe de Sant'Amanza and adjacent to the horseshoe shaped bay of Rondinara. Alternatively seek out the Desert des Agriates, a beautiful stretch of beach and scrub between St Florent and Ile Rosse that can only be accessed by boat or via a two day trek. Take time to also visit the coastal stretch around Bonifacio, which is believed to have featured in the Odyssey; Ile Lavezzi is the most attractive islet, with deserted beaches and natural plunge pools to discover.
France, Côte d'Azur
The Côte d'Azur, or French Riviera, has been a perennial favourite for centuries and remains a popular Mediterranean playground. Escape the glitz and glamour of St Tropez and Cannes though to explore the coastal roads between Nice and Monaco, where some of the most charming scenery can be found. Nestled here too is Villefranche-Sur-Mer, whose cobblestone streets lead to a port, beyond which is an attractive sandy beach.
Cefalù, on Sicily's north coast, is the perfect combination of sand, sun and culture. A one-time fisherman's village hugging the foot of an imposing crag, La Rocca, it's full of labyrinthine alleys that hide hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving up regional specialities. A Norman twin-towered cathedral dominates the main square whilst a ruined castle looms from the crag behind the town, providing people who make the climb with a great vantage point and panoramic views. Relax after the descent by retreating to the sandy beach below the town for a gelato.
Italy, Amalfi Coast
The Amalfi Coast, which stretches 50km along the southern side of the Sorrentine Peninsula, is just breathtaking. Steep cliffs step down to attractive coves and shoreline. Lemon-groves and coloured villas cling to the cliffs. Sorrento is the gateway to the coast, and the drive south from here, 500m above the sea, past cantilevered hotels and houses, will leave you breathless. First among the towns here though is Positano, an incredibly photogenic and correspondingly popular place that is home to big name brand shops and hip cafés; Le Sirenuse is an exquisite hotel with views to match. Capri too is known for its beauty, a limestone island sheltering the luminous waters of a 60m cave, Grotta Azzurra; the Capri Palace Hotel & Spa is a suitably grand affair at the heart of a charming village.
Cinque Terre, Italy
Italy, Tuscan Coast
Move out from Florence’s designer boutiques and Renaissance cathedral domes through terraced vineyards and golden wheat fields to a picturesque coast. Here you’ll find pristine sandy beaches – the foreground to the magnificent Apuan Alps – while getaways range from olive-tree villas to grand hotels. Romanesque churches bookend leafy promenades and hidden coves wait round each coastal turn. There are also the nearby delights of Pisa with its famed leaning tower and the laidback city of Lucca whose palace gardens and 11th century cathedrals are a real delight. As the landscape suggests, this is a place for foodies. Locavores will delight in fresh, seasonal produce in hand-cut pasta washed down with artisanal wine.
San Sebastian, Spain
Spain, San Sebastián
San Sebastián is a charming coastal city with one of the best urban beaches, La Concha, in Europe. Although never a major port, the city has a charming old town at its heart and hosts a wealth of festivals and traditional events, including a raucous carnival, five-day Jazz festival in late July and a week-long film festival in September; this busy calendar has led to the city being recognised as European Capital of Culture in 2016. If that wasn't enough, the stretch of coast east to Bilbao has a wealth of seascapes to uncover. Cosy, traditional homesteads stand amidst fields that end abruptly in plunging cliffs; a highlight is the hamlet of Elantxobe, whose colourful houses cling improbably to a vertical cliff face.
Spain, Balearic Islands
Although the Balearic Islands have a reputation as being excessively popular, the second largest, Menorca (Minorca), is the least overrun and most calm, with beaches and coves along the coastline offering tucked away escapes. The north coast of this essentially rural, wooded island is less-developed, with a rugged appeal and plenty of off-the-beaten-path beaches to look out for; Platja Cavalleria, a sweeping double-crescent, is the pick of them though. Nearby Mallorca is sunny and varied enough to be a year-round destination too, with culture, coastal charm and striking inland scenery to discover; retreat to the hills and stay at La Residencia in Deia, the Gran Hotel Son Net in Puigpunyent or the luxurious Jumeirah Port Soller Hotel & Spa in Soller.
Spain, Canary Islands
The Canary Islands have been a popular getaway for many years, with a good choice of elegant accommodation options in close proximity to good beaches. The biggest and best-known island is Tenerife, whose attractive beaches vary from golden to volcanic black sand. Smaller but just as atmospheric is La Palma, which also has a volcanic interior, fabulous beaches and activities from windsurfing and walkign to jeep safaris and camel rides.
Krk Island, Croatia
Croatia, Kvarner Gulf
Sandwiched between the Istrian peninsula to the north and Dalmatia to the south, the isolated Kvarner Gulf, containing an archipelago of islands, is backed by forested mountains. Along with fishing villages, narrow alleyways and lush gardens, the islands boast four of Croatia's best beaches. At the southern end of Krk Island, Baška is a superlative 2km-long crescent; further out, Cres Island has crystal-clear coves at Lubenice and Bell, whilst pretty pine trees shade the shallow waters and sand of Paradise Beach on Rab Island.
The Maid and the Seagull, Opatija, Croatia
Malta and Gozo
Malta is made up of seven small islands. Steeped in the past it also bustles with contemporary life. The country is constantly reinventing itself and currently is moving away from its stereotype; people still come for an unforgettable beach break but they're also discovering the country's rugged coastline, history, culture and food. From the historic centres of Valletta and Mdina, with their exceptional architecture and art treasures, to ancient stone temples, regional markets and restaurants full of local delicacies, beautiful beaches, dive zones and some of the Mediterranean's finest swimming spots, people are discovering that this tiny archipelago confirms the adage about the best things.
Portugal, The Algarve
When you push past the package holidays you’ll find – in the far west of the Algarve – deserted beaches that are your very own slice of Mediterranean paradise. Make your way towards Sagres whose 13th century fortress looks out over dramatic cliffs and a laid-back town centre; its quiet beaches are a joy. There’s also Faro – the Algarve capital – where parks and plazas are lined with outdoor bars and its medieval quarter features intriguing museums and centuries-old churches. Move away from the coast for an interior strewn with premier golf courses, the ideal holiday from a holiday.
The Algarve, Portugal