In the latest instalment of our ‘most beautiful in Europe’ series, we set out on a quest to discover the most beautiful islands in Europe.
There are, of course, some European islands we couldn’t possibly exclude, particularly Crete, Sicily and Corsica, for us the most beautiful Mediterranean islands.
For us, the best islands in Europe come in all kinds of guises, from windswept Atlantic islands to sandy swathes in the Baltic Sea, and slices of paradise in the Adriatic to a volcano in the Tyrrhenian Sea. With a few surprises thrown in for good measure.
As befits our manifesto, we have frequently veered off the beaten path in search of the best European islands, and if you get the chance to follow suit, it is so worth the effort.
- 1 Crete, Greece
- 2 Gramvousa Island
- 3 Llanddwyn Island, Wales
- 4 Venice, Italy
- 5 Burano
- 6 Lundy Island, England
- 7 Corfu, Greece
- 8 Lake Bled Island, Slovenia
- 9 Ortigia, Sicily
- 10 Sicily
- 11 Capri
- 12 Santorini, Greece
- 13 Achill Island, Ireland
- 14 Corsica
- 15 Procida, Italy
- 16 Vis, Croatia
- 17 Ilha Berlenga Grande, Portugal
- 18 Mont St Michel France
- 19 Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
- 20 Rügen Island, Germany
- 21 Texel, Netherlands
- 22 Saaremaa, Estonia
- 23 Vulcano, Aeolian Islands, Sicily
- 24 Kampa Island, Prague
Crete could just be the most magical of all the Greek Islands. It’s the largest of the Greek islands, and the fifth largest of the islands in the Mediterranean Sea.
It’s a strong front-runner for the best island in Europe to visit, with one of the loveliest cities in the Mediterranean in Chania, some of the best beaches in Europe (check out Falassarna Beach, or the empty paradise at Kedrodasos Beach).
The south coast is far less developed than the commercialised north of the island, and it’s far less accessible. This is where you’ll discover the magnificent White Mountains, the Samaria Gorge walk and the sublime Agios Pavlos beach, close to Agia Roumeli.
You’re normally left with enough time – two hours – to bask in the splendour of Gramvousa Beach or to climb the steep hill to the Venetian ruin of Gramvousa Castle – and exceptional views over the beach. It’s right up there with the best beaches in Crete. Two hours is nowhere near enough.
Llanddwyn Island, Wales
Llanddwyn Island is one of the most beautiful Welsh islands, and one of the best undiscovered islands in Britain.
Seeking out this remote tidal island (it’s only briefly inaccessible either side of high tide) is one of the most rewarding things to do in Anglesey, an island that itself is a strong candidate for this article.
It’s a place for romantics and lovers of nature, inspired by the glorious Newborough beach and the wild scenery of the mountains of Snowdonia across the bay.
The far end of the island – named after Santes Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers – is around 40 minutes’ walk from the car park, and you’re rewarded by the sight of two lighthouses and two beaches.
Yes, Venice isn’t one island, rather over a hundred, low-lying mudflats linked together and turned into one of the most opulent and downright staggering cities on the planet.
It’s one of the few cities in the world that probably needs little introduction – though our 3-day Venice itinerary is a great way to dip your toes in the water a little.
Venice is also very much a year-round destination, and with the new Mose flood barriers now operational (provided they remember to turn them on) the inconvenience of the acqua alta high tides and floods should be a thing of the past, and make visiting Venice in winter an easier proposition.
The delightful fishing village of Burano is located on an island in the north of the Venetian lagoon, a half-hour boat trip from Venice proper.
It’s distinctly different from its grand neighbour, a village filled with similar-sized fishermen’s cottages painted a panoply of bright, vivid colours.
One of the first things to do in Burano is to walk the canals and back streets and photograph it – this could take you some time! You can also buy the famous Burano lace there, traditionally made by fishermen’s wives to supplement their husbands’ incomes.
It’s one of the most popular day trips from Venice, and you’ll soon see why.
Lundy Island, England
I have always been drawn towards Lundy, a three-mile-long sliver of granite off the north Devon coast where the Bristol Channel meets the Atlantic Ocean, which is often visible from the Gower beaches in Wales. It didn’t disappoint in the slightest. It’s a stunning isolated place, its cliffs battered by the Atlantic yet providing refuge to thousands of nesting seabirds each spring. I only went for a day trip with friends, and have yearned to return since, this time staying for a few nights in one of the cottages or even the lighthouse. It’s a place for the wild, windswept romantics among you, and if you happen upon some golden summer evening there you’ll wonder if there’s anywhere in the world more beautiful. And how I will envy you!
We’ve paid but a brief visit to Corfu, one of the most famous Greek islands, especially to Brits growing up int eh ‘70s and ‘80s. We went there with our young fellow when he was still in his stroller, which meant getting far and wide wasn’t on the cards.
However, we saw enough to be well and truly enchanted, and to yearn to return ever since. It’s one of the best beach islands in Greece, with stunning coastal scenery such as Cape Dratsis on the north coast, and the gorgeous Old Town of Kerkyra (Corfu Town) a magical place to wander.
Lake Bled Island, Slovenia
In the middle of one of the most beautiful lakes in Europe you’ll find one of the most beautiful islands in Europe.
The scene could not be more perfect – turquoise water, a picturesque church on an island, a castle on a vertical cliff behind, with Alpine peaks in the background to top it all off.
The church – dedicated to the Assumption of St Mary – is a pilgrimage destination, and most visitors reach the island by pletna, a traditional flat-bottomed boat that departs from the lake’s southern shore. Or, like I did, you can row across yourself, a wonderful experience.
Ortigia is a labyrinth of atmospheric lanes and alleyways with the Tyrrhenian Sea on either side.
Sicily makes it twice onto our list, but this time it’s for one of its offshore islands.
Ortigia is the ancient core of Siracusa, also known as Syracuse, an ancient Greek colony which, for around half a century, was the greatest power in the Mediterranean and Europe.
Ortigia is very different in character to modern Siracusa. A wonderful place to get lost amongst the charming backstreets and sit in a cafe gazing out to the sea.
The highlight is Piazza del Duomo, easily one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, centred around the gorgeous Baroque cathedral built around an ancient Greek temple.
Sicily is one of the largest islands in Europe – it’s the largest island in the Mediterranean – and we say it’s one of the best islands in the world to visit.
It’s one of the best Mediterranean destinations, with an enormous volcano, breathtaking beaches, amazing ancient Greek sites and some of the finest Baroque architecture in Europe, particularly in the towns of Noto and Modica.
It’s one of the great Mediterranean melting pots, where Arab, Greek and Italian influences collide and where rulers as diverse as the Normans, Swabians and Spanish have held sway.
An incredible part of the world.
We’ve chosen two islands in the Bay of Naples, very different in character yet wonderful places to visit in their own ways.
Capri is the better-known of the two, is one of the easiest day trips from Naples or Sorrento.
It has been attracting visitors since Roman times, and Emperor Tiberius kept a residence, Villa Jovis, in the north-east of the island.
In more recent times it has had something of an exclusive reputation, and it is up there with the likes of nearby Positano on the Amalfi Coast in the expensive stakes.
That said, it is one of the great islands of Mediterranean Europe, with the famous Blue grotto and (my opinion) even more spectacular coastline, including the Faraglioni sea stacks, one of the best-known landmarks in Italy.
Santorini is one of the best islands in Greece, hands down.
If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a result of violent volcanic activity, the island (also known as Fira or Thira, after its main town) looking over the rim of a caldera where an active volcano, Nea Kameni, still bubbles away deep beneath the surface.
Most people visit for the Santorini caldera views, staying in Santorini villages such as Fira, Imerovigli and Oia where you’ll find the iconic blue-domed churches in Santorini, amazing places to watch the sun fizzle away for the day over the Aegean Sea.
Some visitors also head for the beaches in Santorini, which have volcanic black, grey and even red sand. Oia and Fira are swamped with tourism, but there are plenty of places where you can still Santorini crowds.
Achill Island, Ireland
For my first day in Ireland, my wife decided to take me straight to the deep end – the rain-sodden, storm-lashed, wind-battered Achill Island in County Mayo, on the country’s west coast.
Our little hired Citroen chugged its way through the horizontal rain, the island’s mountains distant murky outlines off to our right.
We passed moorland, peat bogs, deserted villages empty since the Great Famine of the 1840s, a great many sheep, a disappearing and re-appearing beach and Keem Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, a cross between the Faroe Islands and Australia.
Achill’s is a stark, bleak beauty, but one of the most compelling islands of Europe.
The French Mediterranean island with more of an Italian feel, Corsica is spellbinding, one of the most bewitching Europe islands.
It’s surrounded by the pristine turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, and much of the interior is mountainous, with some of the best scenery in Europe – not to mention some of the best hiking trails in Europe too. Add in some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, including the white sands of Palombaggia, and the memorable cliffs of Bonifacio, and you have an unbelievable island to explore. It’s one of the few larger European islands to give Crete a run for its money, and if you’re ever flying back from Rome to the UK sit on the left-hand side of the aircraft. They often fly along the east coast of Corsica, so prepare to gawp.
Procida is our other island in the Bay of Naples, and it’s a world away from Capri.
It’s a stunning little island with one of the most beautiful views in Europe down over the main town, Marina di Corricella, a mass of colourful houses crammed and huddled together on the hillside overlooking the sea.
It also has several beaches including the volcanic Ciraccio beach. Film lovers of a certain vintage may also recognise Procida as the setting for the deeply poignant ‘90s film Il Postino, about a fictional friendship between poet Pablo Neruda and his postman, who only delivers mail to him on his ‘round’.
One of Faye’s nominations, Vis can’t quite count as undiscovered since much of Mamma Mia 2 was filmed there, but it’s nowhere near as popular as the likes of Hvar.
During the ‘70s and ‘80s it was used by the Yugoslav army, so remained off limits. It’s a fairly small island with two towns, Vis and Komiža. Much of Vis dates from the 17th century, and the harbour entrance is guarded by the Monastery of St Nicholas.
Don’t miss the tiny Stiniva beach on the south coast, an implausibly beautiful spot hemmed in by cliffs on either side, lapped by gorgeous clear azure water. One of the best islands in Croatia.
Ilha Berlenga Grande, Portugal
The Berlengas are an archipelago of rocky islands and islets off the central Portuguese coast, around 10 km from the port of Peniche and, if you’re an early riser, one of the longer day trips from Lisbon you can accomplish. The largest of the islands, Berlenga Grande, is on the receiving end of some ferocious Atlantic winds and storms, and the main reason to visit is its dramatic coastline. It’s also home to thousands of nesting seagulls, which use the one tiny beach as their local poop patch. The main landmark on Berlenga Grande is the early 16th century fortress of Sao Joao Baptista, which occupies an islet in a beautiful bay. Glass-bottomed boats also offer tours of the nearby caves or dolphin-watching trips from the harbour.
Mont St Michel France
Le Mont-Saint-Michel is one of the great landmarks of Europe, a tiny tidal island on the border of the ancient duchies of Normandy and Brittany. The site was developed after the Archangel St Michael is said to have appeared three times to Bishop Aubert of nearby Avranches telling him to build a monastery dedicated to him on the granite rock in the bay.
It became a pilgrimage site and impregnable fort, impossible to conquer due to the surrounding shifting tidal sands, The citadel is very heavily touristed, so try to visit late in the day when the tour bus groups have gone. The Abbey at the crown of the hil is a Romanesque and Gothic masterpiece, not to be missed.
Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
The Isle of Harris in in the southern part of the island of Lewis and Harris, the largest in the Outer Hebrides in the north-west of Scotland. It’s more mountainous than nearby Lewis, which has plenty of charms of its own (amazing beaches, the famous Callanish standing stones for starters).
Its mountains soar to just shy of 800 metres above sea level, and dramatic Clisham, at 799 metres, is the highest peak in the Hebrides. This taste of the Scottish Highlands contrasts with the glorious white sand beaches of Luskentyre and Seilebost in the south of Harris. It’s one of the best islands Europe has hidden away, a phenomenally beautiful part of the world.
Rügen Island, Germany
Rügen is hugely popular with German holidaymakers, but the English-speaking hordes have never followed, deterred first by the fact it used to be behind the Iron Curtain, and secondly because the Brits (especially) have always headed for the Mediterranean – where they’re more or less guaranteed sunshine – rather than venture elsewhere, including to the Baltic. This is a pity, as Rügen has fantastic sandy beaches, the stunning white chalk cliffs of Jasmund National Park and some lovely 19th century resort architecture unique to the Baltic coast.
Texel is the largest of the Wadden Islands in the North Sea, with a stupendous 30 km (19-mile) beach and superb sand dunes to explore. There are also several villages, some with beautiful thatched cottages. You’ll also find typical Dutch windmills and 0 if you’re there early enough in the year – tulip fields. Head to the north of the island to the picturesque red Texel lighthouse, and a view to the neighbouring island of Vlieland.
Texel can be reached by a short ferry ride from the port of Den Helder in North Holland.
Saaremaa is the largest island in Estonia, and is easily reached by ferry from the mainland, It’s a real step back to yesteryear, a quiet rural island criss-crossed with country roads and several unexpected sights to see. These vary from Kuressaare Castle, a solid fortress built by the Teutonic Kinghts, who were also responsible for the outstanding Malbork Castle in Poland) to a series of meteorite craters dating from around 4,000 years ago. You’ll also find coast from wide sandy beaches to the stratified cliffs of Panga, and architecture from Dutch-style wooden windmills at Angla to the tallest lighthouse in the Baltic at Sörve. Saaremaa is very popular with Estonians, but not many of us first-language English-speakers seem to find our way there.
Vulcano, Aeolian Islands, Sicily
The word ‘volcano’ is derived from this beauty in the Aeolian Islands, a small archipelago around 25 km north of Sicily. The Romans believed it was the workshop of the fire god Vulcan, and it remains volcanically active, the fumaroles around the main Gran Cratere letting off pungent sulphuric steam. The peak is 501 metres high, and the crater is undoubtedly the main thing to see in the island. There is also some amazing coastal scenery, with black sand beaches, spectacular sea stacks and thermal mud baths to explore.
Kampa Island, Prague
We’ve cheated again slightly. Kampa Island is a gorgeous area of Prague, adjoining the Charles Bridge and part of the Mala Strana (Lesser Town Prague) district. It comprises a few beautiful streets and Kampa Park, which sits between the river Vltava on one side and the Čertovka canal, lined with old water mills. It’s one of the quieter areas of Prague, a welcome retreat from the crowds you usually find on the Charles Bridge.