Sure, everyone knows Santorini or Majorca, but Europe's waters are full of lesser-known patches of land that can give any southern isle a run for its money. These are some of the most astounding destinations across Europe’s high seas – from way-out Nordic islets to microscopic Mediterranean specks.
The one for beatniks and big names: Hydra
This gorgeous Greek island has long been a magnet for notebook-scribbling troubadours and other artistically inclined visitors, who can’t resist its tottering white-stone architecture and tumbling limestone coves. That hunky crooner Leonard Cohen was so enchanted by the island that he bought a house in 1960 and lived there for seven years, meeting fellow singer-songwriter and muse Marianne Ihlen along the way. The two were part of a burgeoning artistic community whose legacy is still visible in the island’s dinky art galleries and unhurried outlook. And since there are basically no cars or scooters on the island, hurrying is nigh impossible here.
Must see: Hydra’s shimmering, crescent-shaped harbour is the best spot on the island to install yourself with a coffee and make the most of the area’s excellent people-watching.Book holidays to Greece Book flights to Greece
The one for good-time yachties: Hvar
Croatia’s most glamorous island is also its sunniest, clocking in 2,724 hours of clear, bright sky each year. It’s no wonder it draws a crowd of uber-glam party people every summer, who come to soak up the rays, eat like kings and dance on tables. But beyond the high-BPM bars of the Old Town, there’s so much to see on this svelte stretch of land in the Adriatic – namely, world-class vineyards, heavenly lavender fields and an undulating landscape that dips and climbs between lush valleys and craggy peaks. It’s hard not to be smitten with this little slice of Dalmatia – whether or not you arrive on a yacht.
Must see: The coves that line Hvar’s southern coast are all spectacular, but Jagodna is especially worth seeking out – it's an out-of-the-way bay with pristine sands and emerald waters, all watched over by a litany of fragrant pines.Book holidays to Croatia Book flights to Croatia
The one for lazy days: Formentera
Poor, dinky Formentera doesn't get much attention – the smallest Balearic island lives in the long shadow cast by its more famous neighbours. But it’s a crime that this tiny speck is so oft-skipped – it’s by far the chillest of Spain’s eastern isles, spared from Ibiza’s party crowds or Majorca’s resorts. And while no Balearic is unlovely, Formentera’s beauty is the most untouched, with quiet limestone coves and calm, electric blues everywhere you look.
Must see: Sure, you could venture inland to explore Formentera’s salt pans or its UNESCO-grade fortresses – but really, you’re coming here for the beaches, and Playa Migjorn delivers that total-escape, desert-island vibe holidayers dream about.Book holidays to the Balearic Islands Book flights to the Balearic Islands
The one for tree huggers: Salina
Nature is a good friend to this miniscule island off the coast of Sicily – it’s been blessed with lush vegetation, striking volcanic terrain and salubrious freshwater springs that keep its exotic wildflowers and knotted grape vines well-fed. The island is crowned by two ex-volcanoes, now happily slumbering and shrouded in thick caper bushes and fig trees. Speaking of capers, the island is known for the stuff, as well as its bountiful, sea-fronted vineyards and insanely delicious sandwiches (try the pane cunzatu or prepare to live with regret).
Must see: While the main port, Santa Maria, is where all the tourists land, it’s worth trekking northwards to Malfa, a tiny village that sits between the foot of a mountain and a series of sheer white cliffs. It’s here that the island’s beauty is on full display.
The one for going off grid: Isle of Skye
Skye’s name comes from the Norse sky-a, which means ‘cloud island’ – fitting, because when you’re here, you really do get the sense you’re living in the clouds, so removed is this Scottish island from any petty mainland trifles. The northern-most corner feels particularly like a little piece of heaven, with its mist-shrouded hills and angular, aureate cliffs. It’s here you can chase the elusive aurora borealis in winter, since this part of the island shares a latitude with both Norway’s Stavanger and Alaska’s Nunivak Island. Proper edge-of-the-world vibes.
Must see: The Fairy Pools – an epic series of criss-crossing waterfalls that plunge into crystalline rock pools – are a must on a summer trip to the island, since you can splash around in the bracing spring water.Book holidays to Scotland Book flights to Scotland
The one for epic scenery: Lofoten Islands
Looking out from the ferry as you glide lazily up to Lofoten, you’ll spot spiky, white-capped fjords and rocky mountains in the expanse of the Norwegian Sea. It’s a vision that will stick in your mind forever – the beauty of these tiny islands off Norway’s coast is almost too much to get your head around, as each tiny speck (Austvågøy, Vestvågøy, Flakstadøy and Moskenesøy are the main islands) is more staggering than the last. Lofoten’s good looks have drawn aesthetes and artists over the years, who have established a cool creative community here. You’ll find them hanging out in the islands’ many excellent galleries.
Must see: If you really want to get to grips with the islands’ astounding beauty, rent a car and take a spin on the E10, which runs all the way through the islands, past sleepy bay-fronted villages and between soaring, snow-covered crags.Book flights to Norway
The one for dodging crowds: Procida
Itty-bitty Procida is only 40 minutes by ferry from Naples, but it’s about 40 times chiller than Italy’s bustling southern city. Its pastel-coloured villages rival Cinque Terre – and even better, Procida is still hovering below most travellers’ radars, so Cinque’s usual crowd is nowhere to be found. You’ll be left to explore the electric fishing village of Corricella in relative peace, and have no problems bagging a marine-side table for a sunset spritz.
Must see: The volcanic nature reserve of Vivara – on a tiny islet next to Procida – is fiercely protected from any unnatural intruders, and is thus home to an impressive ecosystem of rare plants, as well as wild rabbits and normally hard-to-spot migratory birds.Book holidays to Italy Book flights to Italy
The one for peace and quiet: Porquerolles
Zero. That’s how many cars you’ll find on this ickle island off the French Riviera, officially a national park where wheeled vehicles are verboten. Another stat: just 200 people live permanently here, and you’ll find most of them gathered in the island’s adorable, terracotta-hued town square, sipping coffee, chilling and probably feeling pretty smug. We don’t blame them: Porquerolles is stunning, blessed with pristine beaches, transfixing flora and, best of all, pin-drop quiet.
Must see: Aside from the beach, Fondation Carmignac is the main draw for day trippers – a cool contemporary art gallery housed in a revived Provençal farmhouse, with over 300 pieces on display including work by Basquiat and Warhol.Book holidays to France Book flights to France