(Editor’s note: Terry Boyd and Jackie Harding also contributed to this post on Europe’s best beaches.)
Summer is only a few weeks away, and soon, all of Europe will be heading out on holiday. Some will lose themselves at one of the many music festivals all over the continent. Others will lose themselves amid the majesty of nature.
But most will simply head for the beach. Sun, surf, sand, sea, nightlife … living the dream.
If that’s your dream, then our new guide to Europe’s best beaches should be your first stop before grabbing the suntan lotion (or sunblock, if tanning is not your thing). Some of these beaches are what everyone expects, while others break the mold.
What we’re not including are the crazy-crowded beaches such as Benidorm in Spain or the over-developed La Grande-Motte-style resorts of France.
For this and future guides, we’re only picking a handful of beaches for your consideration, so we don’t overwhelm you. There are plenty of options out there, however, whether you’re looking for the endless party, the mystical experience or the perfect getaway; all you need to do is seek them out.
We always welcome reader input and try to add your suggestions as quickly as possible.
Elafoníssi: Some beaches are gold, like the sun on a clear day. Some beaches are black, like the darkest depths of the sea. And some beaches are white, like the fluffy clouds coasting along the blue summer sky.
And then, there’s Elafoníssi, located on the southwestern tip of Crete. The peninsula’s white sand beaches become pink in many places, all thanks to the many seashells crushed by the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. And speaking of those waters, the shallow depth near the breaking point of Elafoníssi is perfect for your little ones to play in and for you to cross to the other side of the peninsula.
Elafoníssi is also a protected nature reserve, home to the loggerhead sea turtle among other rare animals and plants. While the main beach draws crowds during the summer months, other areas along the peninsula are less so, perfect for leaving your clothes behind.
TripAdvisor’s crowd-sourced rating: 4.5 out of 5 (9,750 reviews.)
Palombaggia: Directly south of France is the island of Corsica, the homeland of Napolean Bonaparte, Alizée and Laetitia Casta. The island was held by the Republic of Genoa from 1284 AD to 1768, when it became part of France as part of a debt payment to King Louis XV; thus, there’s a lot of Italian influence in the island culture, an influence that exists to this very day.
If you’re looking for a French beach (mostly) free of crowds, then you’ve come to the right place: Corsica’s own Palombaggia. The beach is the most famous of all the beaches in Corsica, its two kilometers of golden sand flanked by pink granite headlands and pine trees. The paradise has shallow waters for swimmers finding their sea legs, while more experienced swimmers can go snorkeling among the many schools of fish traveling through the crystal-clear environment.
TripAdvisor’s crowd-sourced rating: 4.5 (3,995 reviews.)
Zlatni Rat: Central and Eastern Europe are blowing up as hot holiday spots, and nowhere is this more apparent than Croatia. The Central European country off the coast of the Adriatic Sea has kilometers of sun and sand for days, the perfect backdrop for the spirit of Ibiza to work its magic into the many parties and activities that make up Croatia’s nightlife.
Sometimes, though, you might want a break from the wubs. If that’s the case, pop on down to Bol on the island of Brač to check out Zlatni Rat. The white pebble beach extends south into the Hvar Channel, changing shape through a combination of tides, the strong currents of the channel, and the various winds.
And speaking of winds, Zlatni Rat is the perfect spot for windsurfing in the summer months, when the maestral comes in from the west to fill the sails on its way to brushing the Mediterranean pine grove farther north of the beach. The waters are cool and clear, and while the current can be hazardous, it merely carries swimmers back to Bol.
Also: the pine grove contains the remains of a Roman villa rustica, and the western part of Zlatni Rat is clothing-optional.
TripAdvisor’s crowd-sources rating: 4 out of 5 (2,240 reviews.)
Nissi Beach: Looking for the beach party paradise (that isn’t Ibiza) of your dreams? Cyprus has what you seek, in the form of Nissi Beach.
The beach is located in the resort town of Ayia Napa, and it’s small: only 500 meters across. Plus, the quality of Nissi’s pale blue waters is high enough to put the beach on the Foundation for Environmental Education’s Blue Flag certification list. Windsurfing, pedal boats and bungee jumping are some of the activities available at Nissi.
Nissi also draws clubbers from all over Europe, specifically to Nissi Bay Beach Bar, where music plays all day long, all day strong. Foam parties, guest DJs, and parties on the beach into the sunrise unite locals and tourists alike during the high summer months.
TripAdvisor’s crowd-sourced rating: 4.5 out of 5 (5,598 reviews)
Durdle Door: Most of the time, the words “English” and “beach” are in a sentence describing the former’s predilection for visiting the latter anywhere but England. This English beach, however, is for those who aren’t so interested in following the herd down to Greece on holiday.
Durdle Door in Dorset, England is a natural limestone arch along the Jurassic Coast, and is England’s first natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, recorded on the list in 2001. The arch is joined by a pebble and shingle beach, easily accessed via the staircases from Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door Holiday Park.
Durdle Door is the result of the waters of the English Channel eroding away the centre section of the formation, a process that continues to this day along the Jurassic Coast; UNESCO monitors both the condition of the arch and beach, where the nearby cliffs experience rockfalls and landslides on occasion.
And if Durdle Door looks familiar, it’s because you’ve likely seen the arch before: Tears For Fears, Billy Ocean and Cliff Richard have made videos here, and a number of films—including Wilde, Nanny McPhee and Far From The Maddening Crowd—have included the arch in a few scenes.
TripAdvisor’s crowd-sourced rating: 4.5 out of 5 (3,004 reviews)
Plage de la Côte des Basques: France has beaches for days, from the famed battleground of Normandy, to the glitz and glamour of the French Riviera. Whatever your beach pleasure, you’re sure to find it in France.
One place in particular is Plage de la Côte des Basques, located on France’s southwestern coast in Biarritz, 25 kilometers from the French-Spanish border. Des Basques is where celebs, royalty and other elites come together when they’re not in Saint-Tropez, Nice or Monaco; the beach was also mentioned in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
Aside from the potential celeb-spotting, novice surfers can work on their skills in the gentle waves; the European surfing scene was born in des Basques in 1957. Swimming is also a popular activity, so long as the tide is low; the Atlantic Ocean shows no mercy to swimmers during high tide. And of course, the sand is endless, with views of the Spanish coast and magnificent cliffs creating the perfect backdrop.
TripAdvisor’s crowd-sourced rating: 4.5 out of 5 (1,488 reviews)
Sa Caleta: Electronic music fans need no introduction to this hot spot. For everyone else, 150 kilometers to the southeast of Valenica, Spain is the island of Ibiza (Eivissa en català). Ibiza is the place where spring break, summer holiday, nightlife and electronic music come together in a sudsy, wubby, bacchanalian celebration of life lasting year-round.
If you’re looking for serenity, however, Ibiza has you covered as well. On the southern coast of the island is Sa Caleta, a cove located 11 kilometers west of Ibiza Town. The cozy horseshoe-shaped bay was originally a natural harbor for Phoenician settlers from 654 BC to 594 BC, and serves local fishing boats today.
Sa Caleta’s crystal-clear, shallow waters are excellent for snorkeling and swimming, while the sandy beach and surrounding red cliffs provide the perfect backdrop for relaxing under the golden sun. The beach is also popular with locals, and thus – because of its small size – can be crowded on the weekends.
Should you be hungry and/or thirsty, though, a short walk to the Sa Caleta restaurant has what you need, especially if you love seafood. And if you need more relaxation, a masseur sets up shop at the entrance of the beach during the high summer months to help massage the stress of life away.
TripAdvisor’s crowd-sourced rating: 4.5 out of 5 (149 reviews)
Reynisfjara: Most beach-goers seek out palm trees, sun, surf, sand and piña coladas. This entry is for those who want their beaches to provide a mystical experience over a party atmosphere.
On the southern coast of Iceland is the village of Vík í Mýrdal, home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Reynisfjara. Black basalt sand disappears into the dark waters of the north Atlantic, enhanced by basalt columns and – during the summer solstice – the midnight sun.
Reynisfjara can also be dangerous, as the Atlantic mercilessly rushes across the beach further than one would expect, in the form of sneaker waves. There’s also the strong offshore currents which will drag those unaware to their frozen demise.
And, of course, Reynisfjara and Vík í Mýrdal are directly south of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which covers a sleeping giant known as Katla. The volcano last erupted in 1918, and is overdue to erupt in a manner that would melt the glacier, drowning both the village and beach below. Just sayin’.
TripAdvisor’s crowd-sourced rating: 4.5 out of 5 (1,066 reviews)
Praia do Carvalho: Portugal’s southernmost region, Algarve, is home to numerous beaches, including Praia do Carvalho near the town of Carvoeiro.
The small beach – once owned by a captain named Carvalho, according to the locals – is accessible via a man-made tunnel containing several fossils. Once through the tunnel, the golden beach and sapphire Atlantic waters welcome you with open arms during low tide; at high tide, the Atlantic rushes through the tunnel and nearby caves, spraying out through blowholes.
Praia do Carvalho’s sandstone formations include one called “the window,” formed from erosion over the years. The formations are also perfect for cliff diving into the deeper waters near the beach.
TripAdvisor’s crowd-sourced rating: 4.5 out of 5 (308 reviews)
Ilha de Tavira: The highlight of a visit to Tavira – and the reason for its under-developed coastline in the eastern Algarve close to the Spanish border – is the barrier islands of Ilha de Tavira and the Rio Formosa lagoon, a national park where more than 30,000 species of birds visit during the year.
These protected areas have kept away roads and hotels and have allowed the 11-kilometer beach to remain virtually unspoiled. Access to the beach is by foot (or small train in the summer months) from Santa Luzia, or the inexpensive ferry from Tavira.
TripAdvisor’s crowd-sourced rating: 4.5 out of 5 (1,940 reviews)
Ali del Mare, Chia: Obviously, the least touristy beaches are going to be those tourists can’t reach, or don’t know about. The Italians and French know Sardinia, but it’s no Mallorca in terms of popularity. Though it does have Costa Smeralda (see below) a magnet for the wildly wealthy, chock-a-bloc with mansions on the fabulous northern beaches.
But Sardinia, the largest Italian island after Sicily, has 2,000 kilometers of coast and a lot of nice beaches.
The best are near Chia – peach Caribbean-quality powdery sand and clear water. Ali de Mare always gets the top rating. Also, this is a place you can come early in the season or late in the season. The climate is that mild on the southern tip of the island.
TripAdvisor’s crowd-sourced rating: 5 out of 5 (62 reviews)
Spiaggia di Talmone, Costa Smeralda: This is NOT off the beaten path (well, it is a little), but most expats have never heard of it. Billionaires, though, have, and they fly in on their Gulfstreams because this is the Monaco of Sardinia. (We’re not the first to say that, by the way.)
Spiaggia di Talmone is about as private as you’re going to get in this tourist destination. But it’s worth the hike down the trail that leads you to the boulders in the sea à la Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands and small beaches. Lovely.
TripAdvisor’s crowd-sourced rating: 5 out of 5 (90 reviews)