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12 Best European Islands for Vacation

Stephanie loves to travel. She has written numerous articles with tips, photographs, and information on places to visit.

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!

Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands

Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands

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)
  • Iceland
  • 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 its 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 the 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 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!

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!

The north coast of Madeira

The north coast of Madeira

Madeira

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. It's 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).

Luna Beach on Sardinia

Luna Beach on Sardinia

Sardinia

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 ruins 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.

Blue skies, blue roofs and white buildings in Santorini

Blue skies, blue roofs and white buildings in Santorini

Santorini

Yes, it's 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

If you haven't heard of the Azores, you're not alone. The nine-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!

Majestic scenery in Fuerteventura

Majestic scenery in Fuerteventura

Fuerteventura

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.

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.

Greek architecture marries stunning landscapes in the Ionian Islands

Greek architecture marries stunning landscapes in the Ionian Islands

Ionian Islands

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 tours available through the Ionian Islands. You'll soon see why the poet Homer declared the Ionian Islands a paradise in The Odyssey.

Waterfalls beckon in the Sibenik Islands of Croatia

Waterfalls beckon in the Sibenik Islands of Croatia

Šibenik Islands

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.

Swimming in Iceland, no matter the temperature outdoors!

Swimming in Iceland, no matter the temperature outdoors!

Iceland

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 it's 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 volcano too! 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 Mývatn, Ódáahraun, the largest lava field in Iceland, and the waterfall Goafoss.

Maltese boats sit calmly in the harbor

Maltese boats sit calmly in the harbor

Malta Islands

History buffs and budding archeologists will love visiting Malta! The Neolithic Temples were 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.

It's 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.

One of the gorgeous bays of Ibiza

One of the gorgeous bays of Ibiza

Ibiza

Whether you want to party at the clubs or take in spectacular scenery, the Spanish 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.

© 2010 Stephanie Marshall