The Mediterranean Sea is blessed with an astonishing variety of islands, from smoldering volcanoes to rocky specks fringed by sandy beaches and shaded by umbrella pines. What all islands in the Mediterranean have in common, though, is a complex and intriguing history.
For millennia, the Mediterranean islands have been crisscrossed by traders from Asia, North Africa, and mainland Europe, each group leaving its mark in the religion, architecture, art, and cuisine of the region. Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Moors, Venetians, and the Ottomans have left layer upon layer of history to uncover against a backdrop of sparkling sea, enchanting scenery, hospitable people, and varied and delicious cuisine.
Here are some of the best Mediterranean Islands to explore on your next visit to Europe.
Rugged and dramatic, Sicily’s skyline is dominated by the steaming hulk of Mount Etna, its snowy cap a vivid contrast against the deepest of blue skies. Etna’s rich slopes produce spectacular wines, so wine-tasting is an essential activity.
But there’s so much more to Sicily, the largest of the Mediterranean islands. Dazzling Greco-Roman antiquities are found all over the island, the most beautiful arguably being the exquisite Greek Theatre at Taormina, clinging to a clifftop, distant Etna framing the view.
One of the most magical towns in Sicily, a walk through Syracuse is like a journey back in time. There’s a magnificent Greek theater here, too, as well as a cathedral built in the 7th century on the remains of the Temple of Minerva.
Messina is a treasure trove of antiquities. From here, take a trip into the hills to the pilgrimage spot of Tindari to see the enigmatic Black Madonna and gaze out at the view across the sapphire sea to the distant Aeolian Islands.
Arguably the most dramatic of the Cyclades archipelago, Santorini is actually the remnants of a massive volcano, its towering black cliffs what’s left of the crater rim following a cataclysmic eruption some 3,600 years ago. Dazzling white sugar-cube villages spill over the cliffs, while the sea here is a dark, glittering navy, and the beaches are jet-black.
While it’s tempting to browse the many jewelry shops for delicate designs inspired by ancient Greece, or simply while away the day in a clifftop lounge with an iced coffee, taking in the endless views, Santorini has much more to offer. You’ll want to take a trip to Akrotiri, where a Minoan settlement has been beautifully preserved, having been buried under volcanic ash by the eruption and only excavated in the late 1960s. You’ll see artifacts, frescoes, and the remains of homes and streets on this fascinating visit.
At the opposite end of this Mediterranean Sea island, arty Oia is the place to head for those iconic shots of the blue-domed church against a backdrop of sheer, black cliffs and the sparkling Aegean. The town is peppered with superb tavernas, offering organic island specialties and wine, as well as galleries and independent fashion stores.
There’s a spiritual air about Ibiza, despite its reputation as a party island. From Phoenician times through the hippie era of the 1960s to the present day—the island is peppered with yoga and meditation retreats—this rocky speck in the Balearic archipelago is believed to have magnetic healing powers. Ibiza is undeniably lovely, its scenery surprisingly varied, from craggy mountains to eerie cave systems like Can Marca, once the hideout of smugglers.
Most people visit for the Mediterranean beaches. To the south, the shimmering salt pans of Ses Salines form a backdrop to the long stretch of Ses Salines beach, lined with cool bars and restaurants and frequented by the glamorous guests of the megayachts that summer here. Other beaches, like Cala Conta, are pretty coves, backed by stumpy pine trees and dunes, the sea an iridescent turquoise.
No visit is complete without uncovering the charms of Dalt Vila, the old, hilltop section of Ibiza Town, its castle and cathedral encircled by solid fortifications. Whitewashed houses and winding, cobbled streets, as well as some extremely cool boutiques and watering holes, make this tiny capital one of the best places to visit in the Mediterranean.
The long, skinny Mediterranean island of Corfu has a fascinating past; it’s here that Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, lived in the late 1880s in the Achilleion Palace, an elaborate Italianate confection set amid lush, formal gardens outside Corfu Town, the island’s capital.
Although Corfu belongs to Greece, its architecture bears strong Venetian influences, with elegant, pastel-colored townhouses, making it one of the most unique places to visit in Greece. The British and the French occupied the island, too, each leaving their legacy. The Liston is Corfu Town’s most famous street, a graceful arcade of chic shops modeled on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, while the British created a cricket pitch that’s still in use.
Away from the town, the island is ringed by a necklace of gorgeous beaches backed by pine forests, the hills inland green with olive and citrus groves. The best beaches to visit include sandy Glyfada and the beautiful Paleokastritsa Bay. There’s no better place to sit with ouzo and freshly grilled fish while gazing at the astonishing aquamarine of the water.
Tucked up against the Turkish coast, Rhodes was once considered the gateway to the Aegean, its many natural harbors an attractive stopping point on ancient trade routes. Today, the island is crammed with fascinating history, from archaeological sites such as the Acropolis at Lindos dating back to the 4th century BC, to natural features like the protected lagoon of St Paul’s Bay, where the apostle is said to have landed in 51 AD.
There’s nothing left of the 110-foot bronze Colossus of Rhodes, which was toppled by an earthquake in 226 BC, but it’s nonetheless regarded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. You’ll see plenty of miniature replicas on sale in Rhodes Town. The real lure of this fortified port, though, is the polished marble Street of the Knights, built in the 1300s by early Crusaders. The street is still perfectly intact and lined with lavish palaces.
There’s no shortage of natural beauty on the island, from the sandy sweep of Rhodes beaches like Faliraki Beach to the pretty waterfront setting of the spa town of Kallithea. On the western side of the island, in an almost subtropical setting, thousands of brilliantly colored butterflies flit around the aptly named Valley of the Butterflies, another popular day trip.
An emerald jewel in the Ionian Sea, Zakynthos is best known for its gorgeous beaches. Navagio, or Shipwreck Beach, is one of the most photographed sites in Greece, surrounded on three sides by sheer white cliffs, a rusting shipwreck its curious centerpiece.
At the uninhabited Marathonisi Island, a national marine park, you could swim in the warm, greeny-blue sea in the company of graceful loggerhead turtles. The limestone coast is riddled with sea caves and stacks, best admired from the water, while olive and citrus groves cover the hilly interior, the scent of wild oregano on the breeze.
There are views from on high, too. From Argassi, hike up Mount Skopos through the pine-scented forest for vistas across the southeast of the island.
Rocky Sardinia, the second-largest of the Mediterranean Sea islands, is one of Europe’s last great wildernesses. Its mountainous interior is swathed in shaded forests of holm oak and dotted with tiny villages where there are more sheep than people. The coastline is indented with impossibly white beaches and turquoise bays.
Sardinia is Italian but seems separate, with its own distinctive wines, cheeses, and pasta. The island’s antiquities are impressive. Wander around Roman temples and aqueducts at the archaeological park of Nora, near Cagliari, or skip forward a few centuries to the city’s magnificent Baroque Cathedral of Santa Maria.
There’s plenty for outdoors enthusiasts, too, from hiking on Mount Arcosu, the habitat of the endangered Sardinian deer, to swimming, kayaking, and kite surfing off the endless sweep of Poetto Beach, the longest in Italy.
The largest of the Balearic Islands, Mallorca oozes cool sophistication. Palma, the capital, stretches around a palm-lined sweep of bay, one end dominated by La Seu, the city’s magnificent 13th-century Gothic cathedral. The tangle of the Gothic quarter lies just inland from the castle, garlicky aromas wafting enticingly from tiny tapas bars.
Beyond here, the elegant Place Major, the city’s main square, is often busy with market stalls. You’ll find beaches within easy reach of the city. Head west for a string of aquamarine coves, or caletas, perfect for swimming, sailing, and sea kayaking.
To take in the whole scene, head up the hill to the 14th-century Bellver Castle, one of Europe’s few circular castles. You should explore the hinterland, too. A spine of craggy mountains, the Serra de Tramuntana, stretches along the west coast. Take the Sóller vintage train, which rattles up through pinewoods and orange groves from Palma to the lovely old town of Sóller, all honey-colored stone and sidewalk cafes.
The largest of the Greek Islands, Crete has it all: high mountains, golden beaches, wineries and olive farms, forest, and sun-drenched valleys. Most of all, Crete has history, from the remains of the frescoed Palace of Knossos, from where the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur originated, to the colorful old port of Chania, the harbor lined with elegant Venetian and Ottoman houses.
Relax on the beach—Agioi Apostoloi is especially pretty, a string of four golden beaches fringed by pines and eucalyptus. Or drive up into the White Mountains to sample traditional cuisine; Crete is famous for its cheeses, hand-made pies, wild herbs, and wild greens, as well as its delicious olive oil.
You’ll find mythology, mountains, and medieval castles in Cyprus, an island basking in the far eastern corner of the Mediterranean. Cypriots are known for their boundless hospitality and superb food. A Cypriot meze is typically enormous and worthy of a long, lazy afternoon on some gorgeous, vine-shaded terrace.
The Tombs of the Kings, outside Paphos, is an astonishingly well-preserved Hellenistic and Roman site with breathtakingly intricate mosaics. Paphos itself, a busy resort, is guarded by a squat medieval castle. The foothills of the Troodos Mountains, which stretch across the center of the island, are peppered with sleepy wine-growing villages, their golden stone and terracotta roofs glowing in the sunshine.
Even the coastline is steeped in mythology. West of Limassol, the vast sea stack of Petra tou Romiou is said to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love, who emerged from the sea here, carried on a shell.
Opportunities for enjoying the great outdoors in Cyprus are many, from 4×4 expeditions into the mountains to hiking. Try the trek through the sun-dappled forest to the foaming cascade of the Caledonia Falls, where you can take a dip in the cool mountain pool on a hot day.
Read: Best Beaches in Cyprus
Corsicans claim to pick up the scent of their beloved island as they approach from the sea, the herby aroma of the maquis, the wild scrub that grows here, carried for miles on the salty breeze. The island is undeniably beautiful, wild and rugged, with impenetrable mountains at its heart and dramatic scenery around its coast.
Napoleon was born on Corsica, and you can visit his ancestral family home in Ajaccio, the capital. Or head out of town into the hills; one of the most beautiful trips from Ajaccio is to the Prunelli Gorges, where wooded granite cliffs plunge into the Prunelli River as it cascades out of the sapphire-blue, man-made Lac de Tolla.
You don’t have to travel far from Ajaccio to get to the best beaches in Corsica. The golden sweep of St. Francois is an easy trip. Or take a boat ride to the Iles Sanguinaires, the “blood islands” that guard the Bay of Ajaccio. They’re named because of the red rock that forms the archipelago and are known for their birdlife and crystal-clear water.
Tiny Malta punches way above its weight in terms of dazzling architecture, art, and history. Even a ferry ride across Valletta Harbor will leave you gaping in wonder, such is the majesty of the capital, built by the Knights of St. John and guarded by towering, honey-colored ramparts.
Valletta itself is all swaggering Baroque beauty, from the opulence of the Grand Master’s Palace to the extravagant interiors of St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Once you’ve stopped gazing at great swathes of gold and marble, admire the exquisite (if graphic) work by Caravaggio, The Beheading of St John.
Out of town, take a trip to the megalithic temple of Hagar Qim, built more than 5,600 years ago— it’s one of the oldest free-standing structures in the world. Or explore the silent beauty of Mdina, the former capital, a beautifully preserved walled city of medieval and baroque buildings.
There’s plenty to see around this Mediterranean island’s rocky coast. The Blue Grotto is a complex of seven sea caves, the water here an astonishing shade of cobalt. Nearby, the seaside village of Marsaxlokk is the perfect lunch stop to try the catch of the day and admire the brightly colored fishing boats, known as luzzu, bobbing on the harbor.
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