Islands & Archipelagos
Europe is not only the huge landmass of continental Europe; it includes thousands of islands as well. Regardless of its size, an island's relative isolation always gives rise to unique natural and cultural adaptations, and you can count on stellar coastal scenery, as well. Come along on our overview of the islands of no fewer than 18 European countries.
In the Baltic and the North Seas
Intrepid traveler seeks fresh air, wild, raw landscape, protected habitats, and a bracing climate. The North and Baltic Seas could be just what you’re looking for.
On the high cliffs of the Svalbard Islands in Norway, take the unusual opportunity to live by the Midnight Sun or to see the Aurora Borealis, an amazing spectacle. You may be lucky enough to view the native wildlife, including polar bears, reindeer, and the arctic fox. The imprint of the fierce Vikings marks the Faroe Isles in Denmark.
A milder climate, small villages, sandy and pebbly beaches, high cliffs and seemingly infinite dunes characterize the bucolic landscape on many northern islands. Consider Bornhholm in Denmark, far out in the Baltic, or one of Finland’s 6,500 islands in the Archipelago Sea, off the southwest coast near Turku. Öland Island and sunny Gotland Island are Sweden’s favorite big islands. Between swims, take the kids for a ride on a Gotland pony, a breed that still roams free on the island.
The Estonian archipelago in the west has its gems: Saarema is mentioned in the Scandinavian sagas and withstood numerous Viking attacks. Since then, with its neighbors Hiumaa, formed by a meteor, and Muhu, it has become a favorite get-away destination for Estonians. Why not you, too?
The preservation of the natural beauty of the Frisian Islands, also known as the Wadden Islands, is a shared effort among Holland, Germany, and Denmark. They are popular vacation spots thanks to their pristine condition, worthy of the UNESCO World Heritage distinction. Beach comb, climb a lighthouse, fly a kite, bird watch, taste some herring and try an Ameland “dunker”, one of the world’s best cookies for coffee. Pretty busy schedule for a relaxing vacation. The atmosphere on the German islands of Sylt and Rügen or Usedom is utterly seductive. On these islands you’ll find national parks and plentiful bird colonies to observe, and interesting villages to explore.
The Atlantic island spectrum
European islands in the Atlantic have climates ranging from rugged and demanding in the north to much mellower, sunnier climes off the coast of Africa. The effects of weather and topography, as usual, have a significant effect on island life.
The islands of Scotland, the Orkneys, the Shetlands, and the Hebrides, are perfect for trekking. From these peaceful islands, watch for seals, whales, and huge colonies of seabirds. Ireland’s Aran Islands are fun to explore. Quiet forays down small lanes to find old churches and lighthouses – or that friendly pub - will fill restful days here. Don’t confuse the Aran Islands in Ireland, where the famous Aran sweaters come from, with the Isle of Arran in Scotland, where the famous Scotch whisky is distilled – although both are excellent ways to keep warm.
Further south and much warmer is another Europe, the tropical one kissed by the trade winds. Go to Portugal, to the island of Madeira, a mountain pinned in the middle of the ocean, covered with exotic flowers, or to the Azores to watch whales and dolphins. Spain’s Atlantic islands are the Canary Islands. “the charmed isles”, these seven islands offer differing scenery, some gentle and some more rugged.
For Mediterranean idylls
Love the sun, gentle in winter and scorching in summer? Come to the Mediterranean! Gorgeous white sand beaches and rugged interiors of scrubland, vineyards, olive orchards, and pine groves typify these islands. What to do then but relax, sipping the favorite local drink to the sound of the cicadas?
Off the coast of Spain, the Balearic Islands offer both magnificent backcountry and cultural attractions. Ibiza, known for a lively social scene, also has protected habitats and natural attractions just as impressive as the glitter of the clubs. Towns steeped in ancient and crusader history lie among scrubland and cliffs plunging into crystal clear, turquoise water on the three islands of Malta.
On the largest island in the Mediterranean, the Italian island of Sicily, the lure of the beach fights with the pull of archeological sites. In Syracuse stand in a Roman amphitheater facing the sea, with Mount Etna in the background adding its own drama to the scene. Sardinia is an island of rare beauty, surrounded by incredibly clear water. Along its coast and that of Corsica, is the Madeleine Archipelago National Park. The rocky coast and crystalline waters are outstanding.
In the Adriatic, off the coast of Croatia, is a veritable diamond mine of over 1,000 islands sparkling in magnificent blue water. Their exceptional setting and undamaged nature have allowed a number of the islands to be designated as national parks, some even on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Take time out from bustling Istanbul to visit the Princes Islands in Sea of Marmara. No automobile traffic is allowed, so it’s easy to imagine the picturesque towns and gracious Ottoman mansions in a quieter time. Greece and its multitude of islands bring you face-to-face with history, with plenty of time and space for less strenuous activities, too, such as staring at the mesmerizing sea. On Crete you can visit the ruins of the palace of Minos, surrounded by pine glades, olive orchards, and cypress. At Santorini, stand amidst the blindingly white walls and bright blue domes of the villages, imagining the legendary city of Atlantis lying below the waves.
Cyprus entices with its archeological sites, Byzantine monasteries, and loads of beaches, one of which, mind you, was the birthplace of Aphrodite! Search the waves; perhaps the goddess will deign to appear to you in the sea foam at the shoreline?