Europe-bound beach vacationers tend to flock to Mediterranean hubs, like France’s Côte d’Azur, Italy’s Amalfi Coast, or the Greek island of Santorini. Europe’s coasts along the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea, North Sea, and the Atlantic cover millions of miles, so there’s clearly plenty of room for your beach chair outside these increasingly overrun and pricey destinations. Below, we’ve assembled a list of beach destinations that have yet to become staples on a European itinerary. Some are quite popular with locals, but lesser-known with international tourists, while others grant the opportunity to have the beach all to yourself.
Italy’s Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre take most of the spotlight for first-time visitors to the boot. However, the islands of Sardinia and Sicily are where you’ll find many mainland Italians heading in the summer. La Maddalena is an archipelago and national park located just 20 minutes off the northeastern coast of Sardinia, packed with lagoons and craggy coast and away from the summer hordes. The archipelago comprises seven large islands and dozens of islets. The main island, also named La Maddalena, was the site of a former NATO base and is home to the vast majority of the roughly 10,000 inhabitants. The base, which closed in 2008, dominated the economy, so the locals were not reliant on tourism, which means the area hasn’t been overdeveloped.
A boat is necessary to reach many of the best beaches, coves, and swimming spots. Most of the development is solely on Maddalena, with the most pristine landscapes farther afield. (Many don’t have much infrastructure, so you might want to only take a day trip.) To the west, Spargi’s uninhabited shores include the picture-perfect beaches Cala Soraya and Spiaggia di Cala Corsara. The main islands to the north — Razzoli, Santa Maria, and Budelli — offer a castaway-like experience. After sailing, swimming, or traversing the granite hills, most visitors make their way back to Maddalena, where nearly all the hotels are located. There are plenty of trattorias, cafes, and bars to entertain visitors off the beach. Departing Maddalena isn’t easy — take it from Giuseppe Garibaldi, the famous Italian general, who returned to the archipelago’s Caprera island (where he was once briefly exiled) after decades of conquest to live out his days.
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2. Himarë, Albania
The Albanian Riviera is just beginning to garner attention from Western European and North American tourists. It’s not surprising that the Albanian coastline, lying between the tourist hotspots of Croatia and Greece, is equally stunning. Himarë is a region of the southern coast, sandwiched between the Ionian Sea and the Ceraunian Mountains. Himarë is also the name of the main town, which has the most crowded beaches. Just to the north, Livadhi Beach’s white sands lead into the tranquil Ionian Sea. A more popular spot that’s still certainly worth seeking out is the beach at the village of Dhërmi. The long beach and surrounding area still have domed concrete bunkers from the country’s days as a socialist republic. A quieter stretch of sand awaits at Borsh, which has been spared much development.
Himarë isn’t just about lounging by the sea. Its historic and cultural attractions display the region’s Greek roots, with numerous Orthodox churches and monasteries constructed in Byzantine style. Himarë Castle, which houses even more churches and monuments, can be explored. The old town of Himarë and the village of Dhërmi both sport quaint stone walkways between the old stone homes and Greek tavernas. The region is renowned for its olive oil, which grows on hillside terraces, providing a scenic backdrop to the already gorgeous beaches.
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3. Isle of Lewis, Scotland
Lewis is the northernmost island in the Outer Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland. Scotland is far from an expected beach destination, but Lewis has several impressive stretches of sand in remote and postcard perfect settings. The western beaches of Dalmor and Dalbeag receive strong westerly winds, making them popular with surfers. Tolsta and Valtos both offer magnificent expanses of white sand, with camping allowed on Valtos. Bostadh Beach boasts a charming little cove as well as a restored Iron Age mill that reemerged from beneath the sand after a heavy storm.
The main entry point to the isle is Stornoway, which can be reached by regional flights from the mainland or by ferry from Ullapool. It is the only substantial settlement on the island, home to the majority of the isle’s shopping, bars, and eateries. There isn’t much reason to stick around in Stornoway, but if you’re visiting in July, look out for the Hebridean Celtic Festival. Beyond the beaches, Lewis boasts the most westerly distillery in Scotland — Abhainn Dearg Distillery, which is Gaelic for red river. The relatively new distillery is open for tours and tastings, and their first batch of 10-year malt will be ready in 2018. For anyone who has been disappointed by a visit to Stonehenge, the Callanish standing stones on Lewis will make up for it. The stones, raised during the Neolithic era and utilized during the Bronze Age, stand in a cruciform pattern with a center circle. Several other stone circles and ritual sites are nearby, notably Callanish II and Callanish III. It’s likely there’ll be just a handful of other visitors, so making for a great photo op. Don’t forget to take in the impressive setting beside Loch Roag with rolling hills as a backdrop.
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4. Lastovo, Croatia
Out of Croatia’s thousands of islands, Lastovo and its surrounding archipelago are the most remote. The island can be reached via a four-hour ferry from Split, with less frequent connections from other islands, such as Hvar and Korčula. Lastovo has just 792 people living on its 18 square miles of steep terrain. The island interior is mainly covered in pine and oak forest, but there are limestone and dolomitic formations that fashion five sizable caves and craggy cliffs. Just a handful of quaint stone villages and beaches dot the island, so there are plenty of coves and bays to explore without a soul in sight.
A hike up one of the many hills will reward you with 360-degree views of the Adriatic and surrounding islands. But if you’re looking to unwind, just relax and enjoy fresh seafood with a glass (or bottle) of Lastovo Maraština, a flavorful, dry white wine produced on the island. There isn’t much else to do on Lastovo, but that’s kind of the point. The only hotel is Hotel Solitudo, but several apartments, and a lighthouse on the island’s southern coast offer accommodations.
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5. Gotland, Sweden
Just off Sweden’s southeast coast in the Baltic Sea, Gotland is Sweden’s largest island and a popular summer retreat for urban Swedes. Although it’s quite popular within locals and decently well known to other Scandinavians, it is not on the radar of most international travelers. The summer months see over 20 hours of sun daily, allowing for long warm days by the sea. One of the finest beaches lies between Sjaustrehammaren and Ljugarn on Gotland’s east coast. Pine forests meet the golden sand along this long stretch of beach. Just outside the town of Visby, Snäck can be reached by a leisurely bike ride. To get even more remote, head offshore to the small island of Fårö for Sundersandsviken and its protected bay.
Hours of fun in the sun aside, Gotland also beckons with its historic town. Visby, the main town on the island, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town is incredibly charming, complete with a medieval city wall, cathedral, and ruins. The best view of the wall, which has 36 towers, can be seen from the north gate. The town has plenty of lodgings, cafes, and bars, but it’s the surrounding nature, villages, and coastline on Gotland that merit further exploration. Sweden’s inclusive stance on public property allows access to any land that is not specifically marked. This allows anyone to walk, swim, pick berries, or camp anywhere they choose. The Swede’s call this “allemansratten,” and it’s protected by constitutional law, so wander freely (as long as you clean up after yourself). It’s worth renting a car, or at least a bicycle to reach the more secluded areas, since public transportation on the island is limited to a handful of bus routes. Gotland can be reached from many of Sweden’s cities in under an hour by flight or via ferry from Nynäshamn.
Poland isn’t exactly what comes to mind when contemplating European beach destinations, but the Central European nation claims over 300 miles of coastline on the Baltic Sea. Sopot is one of Poland’s premier resort towns, noted for its wooden pier, the longest in Europe. Sand and pedestrian walkways span Sopot’s coast, which becomes packed with Poles in the summer months. Sopot features everything from standard seaside kitschy attractions to trendy bars and resort-style hotels. The town’s main pedestrian area, Monte Cassino Street, is chock full of cafes, artists, bars, as well as the Crooked House (called the Krzywy Domek in Polish), which is a shopping center distinguished by its façade’s digitally distorted appearance. Away from the tourist streets, just outside of town, the Forest Opera holds musical and opera performances from late spring through summer.
If you’re looking for activities outside of town, Sopot sits between the cities of Gdynia and Gdańsk and is less than a 20-minute drive to both. Gdynia is known for hosting the Open’er Festival, which features major international indie rock headliners on par with any American festival. On the other hand, Gdańsk’s impressive old town is steeped in history.
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