Europe is definitely more associated with medieval castles and train journeys than sand castles and ferry rides in most people’s minds, but any close inspection of a map reveals that the continent is home to thousands of miles of coastline and scores of islands off its shores.
Some islands in Europe are well known homes of hedonistic frolicking while others are more the sandy-and-silent type, but going to any of them will give you a sunny-and-salty slice of life you simply won’t stumble across on dry land. So just in time for summer, here are some of the best islands in Europe to escape to during your trip.
Texel, The Wadden Islands, The Netherlands
Caramel-colored beaches, windswept dunes, and messy mudflats made for stomping are the signature scenes on Texel, the jewel of the Dutch Wadden Islands. The Waddens are an archipelago of 50-plus islands that stretch from west-to-east across Dutch, German, and Danish territory, but the very first one is Texel, making it a short 30-minute ferry ride from Den Helder, a town an hour north of us in Amsterdam. Once on Texel, a few of your preconceptions of Holland may change as gaggles of grazing sheep, seven peaceful villages, and one giant red lighthouse all vie for your attention and reside within a short cycle to the beach. The weather may not always be tropical on Texel, but it’s nothing a light sweater and a bottle of wine can’t fix.
Hvar, The Dalmatian Islands, Croatia
This sliver of an island lying just off Croatia’s coast has seen its reputation rapidly rise in recent years as the tales of its beauty have been fervently told by travel writers, celebrities, and really rich people that sail around in things called yachts. For good reason too, as like the rest of the Dalmatian Islands of Croatia, Hvar is home to old towns full of faded-white stone buildings bumping up against teal blue harbors full of bobbing boats. Add to the mix swaying fields of lavender and chic sunset bars built into the rocks, and you have yourself a glamorous stop in the Adriatic that manages to feel both off-the-beaten path and on the coastal catwalk. If you are like me, you will want to hit the Hula Hula Beach Bar for drinks and then snore so loud that night that your friend has to pile clothes, towels, and shoes on top of you to muffle the noise.
Santorini, The Cyclades, Greece
Even if you have never heard of Santorini, Greece, before, you have likely already laid eyes upon its beauty dozens upon dozens of times. A favorite of the cell phone wallpaper, motivational poster, and film industries, Santorini and its chalk-white buildings wearing a crown of blue are an “I can’t believe I’m actually here” feast for the eyes. The village of Oia is the place to go to see the azure-topped beauties, and is a great place to take part in the local tradition of asking a stranger to take a photo of you so you can use it later as a profile picture. The rest of the island is home to sun-soaked villages all with their own rustic appeal. The cliffs the villages cling to and the colorful red, brown, and black sand beaches below aren’t just composed of any old rock as the crescent-shaped island of Santorini is in fact an active volcano. Don’t worry, though; there hasn’t been a large eruption in over 3,000 years, and even if there is one, at least you will be able to say you went out on top.
Jersey, Channel Islands, Jersey (?)
Jersey, or Old Jersey if you will, is the largest of the Channel Islands that lie between England and France and is awash with idiosyncrasies that make for a unique European island experience. An English-speaking enclave with French street names, Jersey is well connected to both nations by a bevy of ferries and flights and is home to an independent streak that comes from being a British overseas territory but not a full-fledged member of the United Kingdom. Weather-wise, Jersey benefits from being sheltered by the Gulf of Saint Malo, and as a result is home to considerably warmer and sunnier days than you would expect for this region of Europe. Charming harbors and beaches abound on Jersey, but for those who like to get active on holiday, the interior of Jersey is criss-crossed with biking and hiking paths, and even the crumbling ruins of a castle.
Ibiza, Balearic Islands, Spain
Known the world over as a hub of clubs that thump dance music to the break of noon, the Spanish island of Ibiza is worth – raving about (get it?) – for a host of other reasons. The “hippy sister” of the Balearic islands has a much more laid back Bohemian vibe running through its sands than many people expect when they arrive, and as a result has a real tendency to surprise. Make no mistake, if partying and clubbing is your thing, you won’t go home a wallflower, but Ibiza is home to a surprising amount of serenity and history too. Ibiza Town, and its fortified old town dates back to the 7th Century B.C. is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the island is home to many quiet coves and beachy enclaves where you could hear a glow stick drop.
An earlier version of this post appeared in U.S. News & World Report.