It’s easy to get caught up in far-flung heat and exotic tropics, forgetting that some of the best beaches in the world are only a couple of hours away in Europe.
Europe is endowed with some of the most breathtaking coastlines on the planet. Long stretches of golden sand, secret coves, calm blue-green Mediterranean waters, and ferocious Atlantic waves to play in. Driftwood walkways through the sand dunes, charming seaside villages, and harbours brimming with sailing boats and wine glasses, making it difficult to choose the best europe beach holiday.
And it’s not just the beaches – it’s everything else that should come with a beach vacation. Few tropical paradises can compete with Europe’s seaside enclaves’ magnetic culture: the barefoot-chic island attitude, boho lifestyles, wild and free. Surf spots, hippie hangouts, and family-friendly hotspots. It’s a lot of fun for pleasure seekers, drinkers, and diners. There’s sand and sea and sunshine, but there’s also food and wine, music and dancing, swimming and playing.
We’ve compiled a list of the best beaches destinations in Europe to make you fall in love with it all over again
The most beautiful beaches in Spain
Spain is hard to beat for a traditional beach vacation. On the mainland, the sand stretches on forever; its many islands, each with its own personality, are endowed with thrilling beautiful coves and clear blue waters for swimming.
The white-hot Costa de la Luz, Spain’s stunning Atlantic coast with sun-bleached towns and wide, wild beaches between ancient Cádiz and surf-boho Tarifa, is located in the south-west (we love Bolonia and Valdevaqueros beaches especially).
Marbella, the gateway to the busy Costa del Sol, is located where the Mediterranean begins. The glitzy Andalucian town is crammed with sunny beach clubs, and the party atmosphere extends to nearby Málaga, where rooftop bars rub shoulders with hip new galleries. Costa Blanca and the laid-back Costa Brava are two more of Spain’s big hitters further up the coast. The former has some beautiful beaches, but it can get crowded in high season, especially between the resorts of Ganda and Benidorm. Alicante, the prettiest town on this coast, outshines its boisterous neighbors with chic boutique hotels and quieter coves. Meanwhile, Costa Brava combines lively beaches near Barcelona with rocky, romantic coastlines near the French border.
Ibiza is famous for its party scene, glamour, and hippie vibe, but its beaches are less well-known. The beaches are stunning, diverse, and numerous. Secluded coves for stripping, legendary beaches that are difficult to reach, and sensational bays where beach clubs host hedonists and rich hippies around the clock. Some of the town’s beaches are also beautiful. Ibiza’s best beaches include Aguas Blancas, Las Salinas, Cala Llenya, Calla Bassa, and Cala Moli.
The best beaches in Ibiza, according to local lore, are on Formentera. Take a boat to the sister island’s tranquil shores. Ibiza’s hippy little sister, once just a slew of sleepy fishing villages where Pink Floyd hung out, is now a beach holiday hotspot in her own right. With a few boho beach clubs, such as 10 Punto 7 on Migjorn, and still-deserted stretches of fine white sand and the most heavenly turquoise waters imaginable on Platja de ses Illetes, the island has the best of both worlds.
Cala Macarelleta is a sight to behold: an arc of icy white sand lapped by gentle waves of unnatural blue. Incredible beaches like this are just one of the reasons Ibiza graduates are increasingly flocking to Menorca, Spain’s most laid-back Balearic island. There are more Neolithic monuments on this low-key island than trendy beach clubs, and some of the most beautiful hotels are rustic stone villas strewn with purple bougainvillaea. Even in the height of summer, you might come across one of Menorca’s best beaches and discover it completely deserted, save for a few dozing cows. This is the Mediterranean at its most natural.
With soaring mountains, startlingly clear waters, and some of Spain’s most stylish hotels, the largest Balearic island packs a powerful punch. Many of these are concentrated in and around Palma, the elegant capital where well-heeled socialites moor their yachts to swim, sunbathe, and dine on Michelin-starred seafood. The nearby beaches are ruggedly beautiful, but softer sand can be found on Mallorca’s peaceful north-east coast. This laid-back region is home to beautiful olive groves, ancient citadels, and some of the island’s most stunning beaches. Cala Torta, with its silky sand and mirror-flat sea, is a prime example.
The Canary Islands
Despite being associated with package vacationers, the Canary Islands have a cerebral side if you know where to look. Begin on Tenerife, where you’ll swap garish resorts on Playa de las Américas for a pastel-colored hacienda in La Laguna. The best natural beaches on the island are just a short drive away in El Médano, on the island’s windswept south-east coast. Lanzarote’s north coast, with its warm waters and golden beaches, is equally tranquil. Famara beach is the most beautiful, with velvety sand and big swells popular with surfers. The sun shines even brighter on subtropical Gran Canaria, and wild sand dunes dominate the south. A memorable beach vacation could simply be spent wandering through Maspalomas – the undulating dunes of this beach resemble the dunes of the Sahara.
France’s best beaches
The Atlantic Coast
The weather and beaches are more wild on France’s west coast. Sand dunes and pine forests surround vast swaths of sand. The Ile de Ré, just off the coast of La Rochelle, is the quintessential French holiday island, complete with cute antique shops, oyster shacks, and beach horseback riding; this is where chic Parisians go for the weekend. The beaches in Cap Ferret are even wilder and quieter, with the highest sand dunes in Europe tumbling down to a dark blue Atlantic Ocean dotted with white sailboats. And down in Biarritz, where France meets Spain, the beautiful beaches of the Basque coast are popular with surfers and a quieter type of A-lister.
The Riviera de France
The Côte d’Azur stretches from Menton to Marseille, soaking up the sun all year and brimming with aristocratic charm. The beaches along its coastline are among the most beautiful in France, including old-school Nice, artsy Antibes, A-list Cannes, and sexy St Tropez, where Pampelonne beach is home to the legendary Le Club 55. Cavalaire-sur-Mer and Juan-les-Pins have quieter stretches of sand. To truly escape the crowds, head offshore; a short ferry ride from the Giens peninsula will take you to Les Iles d’Or, three idyllic islands shaded by eucalyptus trees and scented by lavender. Their white-sand beaches and sleepy little villages feel a world away from the mainland’s hustle and bustle.
Corsica, which shares the Mediterranean with Sardinia, combines French sophistication with Italian swagger. Its champagne-colored sand beaches are spectacular and have remained largely untouched by the twenty-first century. A typical Corsican skepticism has kept mass tourism at bay, and as a result, there are few motorways and high-rises to obscure the breathtaking views. The best beaches in Corsica are hidden on the quieter north coast: Palombaggia with its pink-tinted sand, serene Portigliolo, and Saleccia, the most rugged and remote of them all.
The best beach vacations in Portugal
The beach scene in Portugal has a lot to offer. Deep and wide golden sands; the vast deep-blue Atlantic Ocean; cool eco-lodges and boho beach-shack surf spots Despite fluctuating exchange rates, Portugal remains an excellent value for summer vacations.
The Algarve Peninsula
The Algarve is a perennial family-holiday favorite in the south, renowned for its long hot summers, breathtaking beaches, and the golden light that reflects off burnished rocks to great effect. The sun-drenched Ilha da Fuseta and Praia do Carvalho, famous for its sea caves, are among its most spectacular beaches.
Beaches on Portugal’s west coast
While the best spots on the Algarve are crowded during peak season, there are still hidden beaches to be discovered elsewhere. A boho summer scene has quietly emerged in Comporta, just south of Lisbon, and Costa Vicentina, further south, has emerged as a surf enclave.
Portugal’s vacation islands
Meanwhile, the Portuguese archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira, as well as the independent country of Cape Verde further south, have fantastic climates and year-round sunshine, as well as quiet beaches to explore.
The best beach vacations in Greece
The hard-edged, wind-whipped Cyclades have without a doubt the most dramatic beaches in Greece. The variety of the coastline is astounding—miles and miles of kid-friendly dunes rippling along Naxos’ south-west coast, the magnificent isolation of Vagia and Lia on Serifos, itsy-bitsy coves with milky water frothing against the rocky shores of Koufonissi. Some beaches, such as Mykonos’ party-loving Psarrou, Paraga, and Ftelia, are so well-worn by supermodels’ bare feet that you can barely see the sand. But for sheer variety, the island of Milos, with over 70 beaches ranging from chalk-white rock pools to blue lagoons, is unrivaled.
The Greek Islands (Ionian Islands)
The Ionian islands’ cliff-backed bays and wooded coves are the stuff of holiday fantasies, gentler, greener, and generally calmer than their Aegean counterparts. Corfu, the most populous of these lush islands, has a beach for everyone: Agios Georgios for windsurfers, Avlaki for toddlers, Halikounas for skinny dipping, and Peroulades for full frontal sunsets. Lefkada, an island for sailors and surfers, has a slew of stunning beaches along its western shores, our favorites being Egremni, Porto Katsiki, and Kathisma. The best beaches on Zakythnos are reserved for nesting loggerhead turtles (shown above), but there are some excellent swimming spots on the Vassilikos peninsula. A phalanx of yachts jealously guards Paxos’s gleaming pebble beaches and its mellow little sister, Antipaxos, which have some of the brightest, bluest water anywhere in Greece.
Though some of the coastline is clogged with unsightly resorts, Crete (pictured) is large enough to have a plethora of beautiful beaches. The most remote beaches are on the Libyan Sea between Agia Fotini and Agia Galini, while nudists and yogis prefer the expansive sands of Ligres, Triopetra, and Agios Pavlos. Glyka Nera, Finikas, and Marmara, a string of sparkling coves west of Sfakia, require a hike or a boat ride, each with a simple but sensational seaside taverna. The best beaches in Crete are the pale pink sands and azure waters of Balos lagoon and Elafonisi, a floating nature reserve that can be reached by wading from Crete’s southwestern tip – but go early or off season, as crowds can be intense.
The most beautiful beaches in Italy
This Italian island boasts some of Europe’s best beaches. The sand on the Costa Smeralda (pictured) is so white and fine, and the iridescent waters are so calm and impossibly clear, that the Aga Khan made it a jetset playground in the 1960s. The La Maddalena archipelago, off the coast, is an antidote to the glitz. It’s a place frozen in time, where the beaches are sensationally beautiful, with barely a footprint on them, protected as part of a nature reserve, and dreamlike lagoons where you can pootle around in boats and marvel at the clarity and color. Cala Soraya on the uninhabited island of Spargi and Cala Coticcio on the pristine island of Caprera are two of Italy’s best beaches. On the island of Budelli, Mauro, a septuagenarian who guards the powdery-pink shores of Spiaggia Rosa, is a real-life Robinson Crusoe.
Laid-back Sicily has beautiful sandy beaches that are ideal for families and stretch for miles. There are some wonderful stretches of sand outside charming Cefalu in the north; quiet coves for families around Syracuse, all the way down to the stunning white sands petering into azure shallows of the south-east tip; and long, buzzy beaches around Catania under the smoking peak of Etna. Empty nature (and naturist) reserves surround Menfi and Selinunte, an ancient Greek city dotted with Doric temples, in the south-west. Walk down to the Foce del Belice nature reserve from Marinella Beach for a view of the last undeveloped stretch of Sicilian coastline, where the sunset turns the sand red.
Italy is consistently at the top of our list of ‘best countries in the world.’ However, its dramatic coastlines do not all lend themselves to beach vacations – too many steep steps down to rocky swimming platforms, too many sunbeds crammed into lidos. So, where can you find the best beaches in Italy with plenty of space to play and swim?
The country’s steep coastlines give way to a gentler, flatter landscape in the south. Puglia (pictured), in the remote heel of Italy’s boot, is a sunny haven of sophisticated hotels and sunbed-free sandy beaches, particularly near the Salento peninsula. Cotton-colored sand meets serene, crystal-blue waters on the rugged shores of Calabria, on the very tip of Italy.
And, just off the Amalfi Coast, the idyllic island of Ischia has soft, sandy beaches (Spiaggia dei Pescatori is a must-see) and thermal springs – it’s where Italians go for beach vacations.
Croatia’s best beach vacations
Every summer, yachtloads of partygoers flock to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast in search of all-day, all-night beach parties (specifically on the islands of Pag and Hvar, in case you were wondering). However, in order to find the best beaches in Europe, you may need to travel further afield. The ancient coastal cities of Zadar, Split, and Dubrovnik have lively beaches but also serve as entry points to Croatia’s hidden islands.
After an hour on the ferry from Dubrovnik, you’ll arrive at the secluded, sandy Sunj beach on Lopud island. Vis, Croatia’s most remote island, is also worth a visit; it’s just under three hours from Split. Its spectacular Stiniva beach was recently named Europe’s best. A visit to Zlatni Rat in Bra (pictured) should be included in any island-hopping itinerary in Croatia.
Montenegro’s best beach vacations
Montenegro has emerged as the new frontier for European beach vacations. With soul-stirring mountains, shimmering lakes, and Romanesque churches hidden between winding Medieval lanes, this fascinating slice of the Adriatic has a fairytale quality to it. The star of the glittering Budva Riviera is Aman Sveti Stefan, a fortified island village cast adrift on the Adriatic and now a hotel. Marilyn Monroe came to sunbathe on the beach in the 1960s, and Elizabeth Taylor checked in.
The Bay of Kotor is stunning, but the best beaches in Montenegro are those near Budva: expansive Beii, pristine Plavi Horizonti, and stunning Jaz Beach, with its broad sands and unbelievably clear, turquoise waters. The yachts in Budva’s harbor and Kotor’s beach clubs may be flashy, but the prices are surprisingly low.