Why does everyone love an island? Is it the sense of community, the isolation, or the ever-present contrast of scenery where water meets the land?
All that, and more, can be found on this list of the best islands in Europe. From some of its largest, such as Iceland, to some of its smallest, such as Santorini, there are contrasts in scenery, culture, and cuisine.
What they all share is that special something that all islands have in common, no matter how different they actually are. It’s that sense of excitement when you arrive, and that tinge of nostalgia when you leave.
Here are 14 of the best islands to visit in Europe.
As the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily has appeal for every taste. Whether you’re a beach, mountain, or city person, you’ll never run out of things to discover.
That’s before you even touch the marvelous food and wines that Italy is known for. Sicily’s unique cuisine blends Italian and North African influences, while the wines have 3,000 years of experience behind them.
A tour of the island’s heritage reveals even more influences, from Greek or Roman, to Byzantine or Arab. The Valley of the Temples, for example, is among the world’s best-preserved Greek archaeological sites.
Taormina is often called the most beautiful town in Sicily, while nearby Castelmola is one of its most enchanting villages. There’s heavy competition for those titles among the island’s many lovely towns in spectacular settings.
Topping most lists of the best places to watch the sun set in the world, Santorini is much more than that. It’s long been an exclusive retreat for food, wine, and its sheer beauty.
At the heart of this volcanic island is the town of Oia, its blue-domed white churches one of the most photographed settings in the world. A magnet for artists, Oia is the place to find exquisite jewelry, paintings—or just enjoy a meal overlooking the sea.
Swim in those crystal-clear waters at Santorini’s beaches such as Perivolos. The firm, volcanic-black sands make for great walking as well, with lots of bars and cafés if you need a break.
For an insight into the island’s history, visit the ruins of Akrotiri, dating to 4000 BCE. See for yourself why this “Greek Pompei” has been compared to the legendary Atlantis.
Long favored by anybody from families to cyclists, sailing enthusiasts, and even Spain’s royal family, Mallorca offers spectacular mountain and coastal scenery, a perfect climate, and superb cuisine. Add in fine Mediterranean beaches, and you have one of the best islands to visit in Europe.
Mallorca’s craggy mountains are as popular with hikers as they are with cyclists. The Serra de Tramuntana, the backbone of the island and home to some of the best hiking in Spain, is a Unesco World Heritage Site for its mix of history, culture, and nature.
Discover more local history at Bellver Castle, one of the few circular castles in Europe. Don’t miss the majesty of Palma’s La Seu Cathedral and gothic quarter, either.
For beaches, take yourself to the white sands of Palma Nova. Its three beaches are linked by a promenade and share all the watersports, bars, and restaurants serving some of the best Mallorcan food.
Greece’s largest island has a unique history and culture. Behind its famous Greek beaches, you’ll discover great cuisine, jagged mountains, and deep-rooted history.
The Minoans, who lived here from 3000 through 1100 BCE, left the palaces of Knossos, Malia and Phaistos. Romans, Byzantines, and Venetians also bequeathed impressive remains in sites such as Gortyna and the fortress of Spinalonga.
Nature has created its own wonders in the Samaria Gorge, the largest in Europe. The gorge is famed for its long hiking trail, one among many in the rugged and beautiful interior.
Many visitors, however, never leave the white or pink sand beaches in places such as the famous Balos Lagoon, or Lake Kournas—unless it’s to indulge in local food and drink, from lamb scented with wild herbs to unique wines such as Vidiano, Kotsifali or Liatiko.
Read: Magical Villages in Crete to Explore
At the crossroads of the Mediterranean, with three deep harbors, tiny Malta has a strategic importance belying its size. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Ottomans, and British were among those who fought for control of this rocky island to the south of Sicily.
The waterfront of Valletta is dominated by the fortifications that are a legacy of the Great Siege of 1565, when Christian knights held off the Ottoman Empire. Stroll the shady Upper Barrakka Gardens for a closer look at these ramparts, almost inhuman in their vast scale.
The knights left many other traces, not least in the wealth they brought to churches such as St. John’s Co-Cathedral. One of the most beautiful churches in the world, its gilded, baroque interior has treasures that include Caravaggio’s striking painting, “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist”.
Outside these architectural and artistic wonders, the island is a paradise of warm blue waters that make it extremely popular with filmmakers, never mind holidaymakers. Many of Malta’s beaches, coves, towns, and landscapes may seem familiar already from film and TV screens.
Madeira’s subtropical climate makes it a great year-round destination; in fact, it’s known as “The Island of Eternal Spring”. Its rich, volcanic soils grow a range of natural wonders, seen at their best in the Botanical Gardens overlooking Funchal, the capital.
Along the coast, rock pools left by ancient volcanic activity make lovely swimming spots. The village of Porto Moniz is one popular center, while Doca do Cavacas and Camara de Lobos are more rustic but equally lovely.
Behind the coast, much of the rocky interior is a nature reserve. Explore the whole island and some of the most beautiful places in Portugal by hiking, mountain-biking or other activities, including Europe’s highest skywalk at Cabo Girao.
The fertile soils also help produce the fortified wines that Portugal is famous for. Join a tour to widen your own knowledge of these interesting varieties.
The sun shines on Mykonos for around 300 days a year, while its strong winds keep it cool at the height of summer. Those winds powered the many windmills that remain a picturesque feature of the island.
Even more photographic is the area of Little Venice, one of the most beautiful places in Greece, where lovely old houses hug the water. Once the homes of merchants, many are now chic bars or restaurants.
One of the best things to do in Mykonos is to visit Ano Mera, the island’s second-largest settlement after Mykonos Town and a quiet escape from the busy capital. At its heart is an historic monastery, while its many excellent restaurants feed less spiritual needs.
On the eastern side, Kalafatis Beach is a center for watersports, especially windsurfing. The clear waters of this Mykonos beach make snorkeling and scuba diving an attractive option, too.
Iceland’s very name is a clue as to what to expect in Europe’s far north. Still, plunge into the famous Blue Lagoon—one of the best hot springs in Iceland—and you can be as warm as anywhere else on the list.
It may be a surprise to learn that this pool is the run-off from a geothermal power plant. But Iceland is a place where you’re constantly reminded of nature’s power.
Thingvellir National Park is one of the most beautiful places in Iceland. The chasm between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates is the setting of the world’s oldest parliament.
Over 1,000 years ago, Vikings looked at the awesome geology and decided it was the perfect place for meetings.
Experience Iceland’s nature and embrace the ice, literally, by joining a thrilling guided tour inside the Langjökull glacier. You’ll see rivers and waterfalls flowing deep under the ice, and explore vast ice caverns and man-made features, including an icy wedding chapel.
The second-largest Mediterranean island has over 1,000 miles of coastline, with some of its best beaches. It also has a wild interior that’s perfect for communing with nature.
With its Italian heritage, Sardinia also boasts wonderful restaurants. Meanwhile, you’ll discover quiet villages where life has been unchanged for centuries.
Sardinia’s beaches, such as the white sands of Poetto, or the unusual tiny pebbles of Cala Goloritzé, are major draws, great for people-watching, beach bars, and swimming in the clear aquamarine water.
History lovers will enjoy sites such as Nora, a Roman city with an amphitheater, and bath complex. The even older site of Su Nuraxi has unique “nuraghe”: prehistoric fortified structures dating back to 1900 BCE.
Rhodes is officially the sunniest Greek island, and has some of its best beaches. But it’s history that really helps this eastern Mediterranean spot stand apart as one of the best islands in Europe.
Rhodes’s Old Town is Europe’s oldest inhabited medieval city. Wander its cobbled alleys to find Ottoman mosques and Byzantine churches, a legacy of occupation by Turks, Italians, and many others over the centuries.
The most famous occupiers were the Knights of Saint John, whose history is told in the historic Palace of the Grand Master. The Acropolis of Lindos, with its temple dedicated to Athena, takes you even further back in time.
Firmly in the present, you’ll enjoy sumptuous seafood with excellent local wines in Rhodes. To find out more, take a tour among vineyards with 2,500 years of history behind them.
Read: Best Beaches in Rhodes
The Azores is an archipelago of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic. They are a paradise for whale-watching, hiking (including on Portugal’s highest mountain), and diving.
After, or even before, any such adventures, you’ll want to explore the many hot springs. São Miguel island is home to pools such as Poca da Dona Beija baths, or the Caldeira Velha.
Sete Cidades is famed for its twin Blue and Green lakes, said, romantically, to be formed from the tears of a princess and her lover. The island also has one of the most beautiful lakes in Europe, Lagoa do Fogo (“Lake of Fire”), a protected crater lake surrounded by natural, endemic forest.
The whole region of Ribeira Grande is also a center for wild, untamed beaches. Activities such as surfing, horseback riding, and paragliding make the whole a playground for all.
Read: The Ultimate Azores Food Guide
Zakynthos—Zante to insiders—officially has 28 beaches. But it’s Navagio, or “Shipwreck” Beach that grabs the attention.
The wreck lying on the golden sands of this cove makes for a spectacular sight, even more so when it’s so challenging to access: hemmed in by steep cliffs, the beach is best reached by boat.
The rocky coast of this remote island hides many other equally lovely beaches, however, and its own Blue Caves. Inland, the flower-covered mountains—including Skopos Hill with its ancient monastery—are also rich in natural beauty.
Taking in some of those mountains, as well as three small islands, the National Marine Park of Zakynthos has a rich variety of flora, fauna, and photogenic landscapes. The whole interior and coastline is great for scenic walks, or more serious hiking in Greece.
The birthplace of Napoleon is close to France and Italy, combining the best of both in its cuisine and culture. The emperor was born in Ajaccio, the capital, which mixes Italian architecture with the atmosphere of the French Riviera.
The city’s St. Francois Beach shows off that combination at its best. A short drive away—or even shorter boat ride—is the quieter resort of Plage de Porticcio.
While in Ajaccio, don’t miss the Fesch Museum for its collection of Italian art. These works by greats including Titian, Botticelli, and Bellini tend to overshadow the impressive exhibit of Corsican artists.
Beyond the Corsican beaches, the Prunelli Gorges showcase the best of Corsica’s interior: lovely villages, dramatic views, and that glorious food and drink impress every visitor.
Read: The Ultimate Corsican Food Guide
Famous for its world-class nightclubs, there is much more to Ibiza than leisurely days on the beach before dancing the night away. Of course, the wonderful Ibiza beaches that first attracted so many sun-worshippers to the island—such as Cala Conta—remain a draw.
Picturesque D’Alt Vila, the old hilltop capital of this island, surprises many first-time visitors with its ancient fortress, restaurants, and boho-chic shopping. The contemporary art museum here is worth a visit, too.
Las Salinas is a famed destination, but Las Salinas Natural Park offers much more variety in terms of terrain and wildlife. Birds flock to the salt beds, wetlands and forest, and viewing platforms allow you to watch them at your leisure.
Has this list of the best islands in Europe inspired you to take to the sea to explore? Then browse Celebrity’s European cruises to find the perfect itinerary for you and your loved ones.