Europe is home to some of the world's most-celebrated seas — the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the Aegean — and its cultural mosaic makes it a top choice for beach lovers looking to mix sun, fun, art, history and nightlife. Windsurf in the morning, visit ancient ruins in the afternoon, shop for the season's hottest beachwear before enjoying sunset cocktails and then partying until dawn. Sound good? Read on to discover the 10 best beach vacation destinations in Europe.
Few places do charm and decadence better than Mykonos. This sunny Greek island's calling cards are almost-anything-goes beaches (expect plenty of skin), Instagram-worthy Cycladic architecture (whitewashed buildings with brightly hued shutters and cascading flower boxes), 16th-century windmills (a must-see at sunset) and legendary discos and dance clubs in Mykonos Town. As for the beaches, check out Ornos Bay for pretty views and excellent windsurfing, chic Psarou for celebrity spotting and Paradise and Super Paradise for hedonistic sun-worshipping and dancing until sunrise.
This beautiful Mediterranean oasis, the largest of the Balearic Islands located off the east coast of Spain, is a hot spot for northern Europeans, who flock here in summer to enjoy long days of sunshine and fresh air. Once you get beyond the urban sprawl of the capital, Palma, mountainous, bay-fringed Mallorca delivers some of the region's most amazing azure water and soft-sand beaches — there are more than 250, from popular 3½-mile Playa de Muro to secluded Cala Mesquida. The view from the water is pretty incredible, too: centuries-old hilltop villages constructed of golden stone backed by peaceful olive groves and vineyards.
In between swimming, sunning and windsurfing, visitors to this summer-resort island, located in the Adriatic off of Croatia's coast near Split, can tour a 13th-century fortress and cathedral, go wine tasting (if you haven't tried Croatian wine, you should) and in June and July, inhale the heavenly aroma of lavender, which grows in abundance here. Hvar's beaches are known for their intense scenic beauty — many are set in serene bays surrounded by cliffs and pine forests — and tempting options include Dubovica, Zavala and Ivan Dolac.
If it's seaside drama you seek, consider Saint-Malo, a walled city in France's Brittany region where the cobblestone medieval streets of Old Town are surrounded by a series of sandy beaches, some of which are only walkable at low tide and offer access to rocky islands (timetables tell you when to visit). When the tide's high, tour the Cathedral of Saint-Vincent (constructed between the 12th and 17th centuries) and the city's landmark fortress with its four round towers. Or you can always kick back and relax on Plage du Sillon, a vast beach that stretches for almost 2 miles along the English Channel.
It helps to be young to enjoy the 24/7 frenzy that is Ibiza — the wildest isle in the Med thanks to its world-famous clubs blasting dance music. Should you be awake when the sun's shining, top activities on Ibiza, which is also one of Spain's Balearic Islands, include music festivals, beach-going (Cala D'Hort has a view of the distinctive Es Vedra rock formation or hop over to neighboring island Formentera, known for its white sand) and scuba diving, since visibility here is superb.
If you're a fan of old-school destinations — scenic, slow-paced and filled with tradition — you can't go wrong with Sicily. This Italian island, the largest in the Mediterranean, is home to stunning beaches, yummy treats such as ricotta-filled cannoli and meat-filled rice balls called arancini (both invented here) and ancient Greek and Roman ruins dating back several millennia. It also boasts Europe's most active volcano: Mt Etna. Book a beach resort for maximum access to sun and sand, or stay in charming hilltop Taormina and day trip to beaches such as Isola Bella or Giardini Naxos.
The hot Iberian sun shines along the southern coast of Portugal 300 days a year — and in summer, the region receives very little rain — so it's no surprise that the Algarve ranks among the top beach destinations in Europe. It's also incredibly pretty and quite affordable, with a variety of hotels, rental apartments and homes located in cities and villages stretching from Sagres in the east to Villa Real in the west. In between are more than 150 beaches, with Praia da Falésia near Albufeira, Praia da Camilo near Lagos and Praia da Marinha near Lagoa featuring photogenic limestone cliffs.
As Greek Isles beaches go, Crete has some of the best. But Greece's largest island is also its most geologically diverse — so beaches here range from sweeping and tranquil to compact and crowded. For the former, head to Balos Lagoon near Kissamos on the west coast or Elafonisi Beach, also in western Crete, with its pink sand. For the latter, there's Vai Beach near Sitia in the northeast, which is backed by Europe's largest natural palm grove, and Matala Beach on the south coast, where you can follow your swim with a seafood lunch at a local taverna.
There are hundreds of beaches along this rugged peninsula on the Atlantic in southwest England, some ideal for surfing, others for beachcombing and others for seaside shopping and dining. It's all incredibly wild and moody, the kind of setting that's equally inspiring to artists and adventure-lovers. For pure visual delight, it's hard to beat the beaches around St. Ives, especially Porthmeor, while Kynance Cove seduces at first sight with its unblemished natural beauty. Add in fishing villages such as Mevagissey and Polperro and you'll discover how Cornwall charms visitors with a raw authenticity that's ever harder to find these days.
On this vast Italian island, the second largest in the Mediterranean, it's possible to be a jetsetter or a backpacker, to step back in time while strolling tiny villages or channel the 21st-century while sunning on a modern mega-yacht, to visit ancient temples or enjoy the latest youth-enhancing spa treatment. Long celebrated for its talcum-soft beaches and clear aquamarine water, Sardinia's alluring Costa Smeralda has been a summer hot spot since the mid-1960s. Yet the island also has a harsh interior landscape that has shaped the local mindset and cuisine (fava beans, sheep's milk cheese and lamb with artichokes compete with seafood and pasta on many menus). But it's Sardinia's coastal beauty that has made it envied the world over.