When islands in Europe are mentioned, especially when it comes to vacation hotspots, then the Greek Islands win every time. Followed, usually, by the Balearics, the Canaries, and a few Italian islands, such as Sardinia or Capri. Admittedly, these are all gorgeous islands, and extremely popular with travelers, but not only does their popularity take away from their appeal, but also there are so many more beautiful European islands that are worth a visit. And, best of all, they are not overrun with tourists and allow you to discover parts of Europe you might not have considered before.
Being a dedicated island fan, I have selected a few in this roundup that might just spark your interest and entice you away from the crowds. Here are islands that have that little something different, are off the beaten path, or are popular, but not at the time I recommend visiting.
Ready for some island hopping?
1. Guernsey, English Channel
The bailiwick of Guernsey is part of the Channel Islands, and although a British Crown Dependency, the island is a delightful mix of all things French and English, lying some 30 miles off the coast of Normandy and 70 miles off the coast of England. The small island with a grand total of 65,000 inhabitants is perfect for hiking, with a coastal path spanning 110 miles of varied terrain. The island is historic, with a beautiful natural landscape that has inspired painters and writers. It has cute small villages and towns full of restaurants serving the freshest seafood, but most of all, it invites you to slow down and explore at a more relaxed pace.
2. Rügen, Germany
Do you know the painting Chalk Cliffs on Rügen by German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich? The artist is an ancestor of mine, and I was taken to see it at a museum when I was young. To me, it sums up the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea perfectly. Beautiful white cliffs, lush countryside, all surrounded by the sea, which is lovely and warm in summer, not too salty, and often freezes over in winter. A former society sea bath resort, the island is dotted with old grand hotels, and one of the prettiest piers in the world, the Sellin Pier, which has a white restaurant on a platform reached by a short wooden pier. While the island has perfect beaches for swimming in summer, this is an all-year destination that invites visitors to don comfortable shoes, grab a map and go out exploring.
Pro Tip: There are easy train connections from Hamburg or Berlin, that take you to the island in three to four hours.
3. Ile de Ré, France
Probably my favorite island in Europe, the Île de Ré, oozes French charm at every turn. Just a bridge away from the medieval city of La Rochelle with its quaint harbor, it seems a million miles away from anywhere. Endless beaches, towns with tiny harbors full of colorful traditional fishing boats, good food, houses with shutters in pastel colors, and even its own breed of donkey, the Poitou donkey, that looks very shaggy with its dreadlocks. Quite often you see them wearing trousers, which is not a gimmick but protects them from mosquitoes.
Rent a bike and explore the lighthouse, the windmills, the salt flats, and don’t forget to buy some of the famous Île de Ré coarse sea salt.
Pro Tip: As much as I love this island, the French love it even more, and come in August when you can barely step for people. However, visit in September and all the tourists with kids have disappeared, yet all the restaurants are still open, and the beaches empty.
4. The Princes Islands, Istanbul, Turkey
I love that when on a city break, you can take a short excursion and land somewhere completely different for a day. The Princes Islands are made up of nine small islands in the Sea of Marmara, four of which I believe are open to the public. The Islands are a mere 1.5-hour ferry ride from the heart of Istanbul. Arrive on the main island and you’ll notice straight away how quiet it is. No cars, just the clippety-clop of horse-drawn carriages, and the hum of electric trams and buses. The islands are wooded, and quite hilly, crammed full of prime real estate, and narrow beaches, always packed with locals on the weekend. There is not much to do in the way of sightseeing, but they offer such a contrast to bustling Istanbul, and the ferry ride is just lovely, that they are well worth searching out.
Pro Tip: If you are unsure which ferry to take or which island to choose, try a guided day trip from Istanbul, with a tour and lunch on the main island.
5. Texel, Netherlands
Texel is the largest of the Dutch North Sea islands, one of the Frisian or Wadden Islands which stretch from the Netherlands to Germany and up to Denmark. These islands lie in the large mudflat area called the Wadden Sea, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site because of its unique ecosystem. They vary in size, with Texel being large in comparison, at 15 miles long and 5.5 miles wide. Basically sand dunes overgrown with grass, the islands are a haven for wildlife, especially birds and seals, and the beaches are beautiful. That said, the tide goes out a long way, and when it comes back in, it comes in fast, so when out Wadden walking, always take care. Texel has several small communities but with lots to offer, from cheese sampling to wine tasting (yes, this island in the North Sea has a vineyard!) and there are some good restaurants, offering, not surprisingly, great fresh seafood.
Pro Tip: Stay at the Strandhotel Noordzee, right in the sand dunes and with great views.
6. Formentera, Spain
When everybody heads off to Mallorca or Ibiza, may I suggest instead visiting Formentera, the smallest of the Balearic Islands? Reached by a rather scenic ferry ride from neighboring Ibiza, little Formentera is not half as busy as its more popular neighbors but instead has empty beaches with turquoise waters, lighthouses, great walks, and superb scuba diving. San Francesc is the largest community on the island with its 3,000 inhabitants but has a surprising number of good restaurants, cafes, and shops, catering to incoming day-trippers and yachts arriving from across the Mediterranean Sea.
Pro Tip: This island is a perfect size to be explored by bicycle or scooter. Just don’t forget to pack a picnic and a beach towel.
7. Stockholm Archipelago, Sweden
Some 30,000 islands make up the Stockholm archipelago, some only large enough for a small beach hut, others sporting villages and ferry ports. Each one though is charming and offers the sort of getaway you don’t get in many places. Many Swedes own a beach house on one of the many islands off the Swedish coast and use them at weekends or over the summer months. Most are basic, without electricity or amenities, and you have to get there by paddle boat, bringing your supplies with you — and taking the leftovers off the island when you leave. But when it comes to peacefulness, then it doesn’t get much better.
Pro Tip: You can take day trips to various islands from Stockholm which will give you an idea of just how lovely this part of Sweden is. But even better, why not rent a tiny house on one of the islands and do as the locals do?
8. Comino Island, Malta
While Malta is a large island with a stunning, historic capital, Malta is also an archipelago, with only three of the islands inhabited: Malta, Gozo, and Comino. Although at last count, Comino only had a reported population of three. A popular day-tripping spot from the two larger islands, little Comino is a nature reserve and famous for its Blue Lagoon, and so popular because in Malta itself good beach bathing is at a premium due to the rocky coast.
Pro Tip: Best reached by boat from Malta, an organized boat trip also gives you the chance of seeing some other coves and beaches on the island.
9. Elba, Italy
The island of Elba officially belongs to Tuscany in Italy. Need I say more? The third-largest island of Italy, and famous for playing host to Emperor Napoleon during his exile in 1814 from France. Elba is historic, with plenty to see, surrounded by the beautiful Tyrrhenian Sea, offering plenty of watersports. Elba is large enough to give you a chance of a road trip and explore before settling down in a more relaxed seaside resort. The best thing is, while the Italians know about this place, foreign tourists usually head to the better-known islands, making Elba a little quieter.
Pro Tip: While on your Tuscan Road Trip, take the roughly 1-hour ferry ride to Elba from Piombino, and add a couple or three days of R&R on Elba.