Features

These Are Definitely The Six Coolest European Islands

And none of them are overrun with tourists.

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Culture, food, history and … amazing beaches? Europe isn’t exactly most people’s first thought for island getaways, but that doesn’t mean you can’t catch a few rays between checking out the Louvre and partying hard in Berlin. These European islands run the gamut from subtropical paradises to Arctic Circle oddities, but they all have a few things in common: good food, great hospitality, and a relaxed pace that will wash away the stress of navigating Europe’s hectic capital cities.


#1 Lofoten, Norway

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Photo: Jakob Nilsson-Ehle / Flickr

The islands of the Lofoten archipelago aren’t tropical, but they’re remarkably warm when you consider that they sit above the Arctic Circle. Both Røst and Værøy vie for the title of the most northerly part of the world where temperatures remain above an average of zero degrees celsius through the year (thanks to the warming effect of the Atlantic gulf stream).

This makes them the perfect European islands to go check out the northern lights or the midnight sun without running the risk of freezing to death.


#2 Isles of Scilly, England

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Image: Nosha / Flickr

Before Brits got their yearly doses of vitamin D via cheap flights to Benidorm, they visited the United Kingdom‘s own slice of paradise, the Isles of Scilly. Located off the coast of Cornwall in England’s south-west, the Isles of Scilly has attracted a thriving artistic community, drawn by the mild winters, cool summers, and charming beauty of the islands.

Tourism here is low-key: all about taking walks, going horse-riding, eating well, and quietly soaking in the Isles’ uniquely British charm. They’re easy to get to, too: just hop on a boat cruise from Penzance in Cornwall.


#3 Madeira, Portugal

Few European islands are quite as dramatic as those of Portugal’s Madeira archipelago – the wild topography has to be seen to be believed. Located roughly 1000 kilometres south-west of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, these volcanic islands deliver year-round warm weather, subtropical rainforest, excellent surf breaks, delicious cuisine, and rugged beauty.

Oh yeah, and there’s wine, too: one of the world’s strangest and best-value drops is produced here. The one catch? Getting here isn’t easy if you’re a nervous flyer. The airport is famous among pilots as one of the most difficult landings in the world.


#4 Sardinia, Italy

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Image: Roberto Cossu / Flickr

Italy’s other big island – just a touch smaller than Sicily – is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, receiving cultural influences not only from mainland Italy but also Spain, France, and Austria. It’s also a stunner, boasting some of the world’s best beaches along the famous (and famously expensive) Costa Smeralda.

There’s plenty to do here: puzzle over the remains of the prehistoric Nuraghic civilisation that once called Sardinia home, see pink flamingoes in the wetlands of the west coast, spelunk through extensive caves, and eat and drink local goodies such as spit-roasted pork, native wine varietals. For the culinary adventurer, the infamous casu marzu (a rare cheese inhabited by live maggots – yes, really).


#5 Pano Koufonisi, Greece

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Image: Paolo Gamba / Flickr

As far as European islands go, everyone knows about Greece’s show-stoppers – Santorini, Mykonos, Corfu, Kos – which means that those islands are packed every summer. Not everyone knows about Pano Koufonisi, a tiny and impossibly cute islet off the coast of Naxos, home to a mere 300 or so locals and about as many boats.

There are no proper roads, very few cars, and electricity only arrived on the island in the 1980s, which means that it’s about as close to authentic Greek island life as you can still get. In-the-know Athenians have been quietly slipping here for a break over the last decade, drawn by the slow pace, pristine beaches, and the impossibly blue water of the Aegean. Despite being off the beaten track, it’s not hard to get to: fast catamarans leave daily from Athens and Santorini.


#6 Belle-Île-en-Mer, France

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Image: Sylvain Naudin / Flickr

Belle-Île-en-Mer’s name is literally French for “beautiful island in the sea”, which tells you just about everything you need to know about this charming little speck of land on the Bay of Biscay. It’s had its fair share of celebrity admirers, too – the beauty of the Côte Sauvage drew in Claude Monet, and Sarah Bernhardt retired to an abandoned fort at la Pointe des Poulins.

It’s not exactly a well-kept secret inside France – plenty of mainlanders take their holidays here – but it’s off the beaten track for international guests. There’s plenty to do here, too: surf in the wild Atlantic breaks, stroll around impossibly pretty gardens, or gorge yourself on local produce. The only way to get here is by ferry from the Brittany coast, but leave the hire car behind: the island is small enough to bike around.

Ready to explore Europe’s coolest islands? Find the perfect trip for you today with Contiki.

(Lead image: Alfonso Pierantonio / Flickr)