If you’re dreaming of a sun-drenched beach break, you’re in luck. Southern Europe is one of the best places in the world to hit the sand, and not only are the beaches here truly dazzling, but you also get the added bonus of plenty of culture and history. Plus, this region is astonishingly diverse, so there’s a dream destination for everyone, whatever type of beach holiday you’re looking for.
With that said, here are 12 idyllic beach destinations in Southern Europe.
1. Istrian Riviera, Croatia
Croatia is known for its spectacular coastline – which features picturesque stony beaches and gin-clear waters. While the Dalmatian Coast and islands around Dubrovnik can get busy during peak season, things are quieter around the Istrian Riviera. This not only means there’s plenty of unspoilt coastline and a real sense of authenticity, but lots of travel deals on offer too.
There are many beaches here, from secluded coves to vast stretches of sand – and, at the port town of Rovinj, there’s a seaside forest where you can leap off rocks into the waters. If you like history, head to Porec, where pebbly beaches back on to a town packed with heirlooms; while, in Pula, the Roman amphitheatre is as popular as the beach. Or, for island-hopping, Krk, Cres, and Rab beckon.
Discover the delights of Croatia
2. Sardinia, Italy
Located in the heart of the Mediterranean, the island of Sardinia might be part of Italy, but it also feels like a country unto itself. If you’re looking for a unique holiday experience where you can relax on Caribbean-like beaches, feast on indulgent food, and soak up just as much culture and history as sun, sea, and sand, then this fabulous destination is for you.
The beaches here are some of the best in the world, with white sand and turquoise waters. The north coast is studded with 80 coves, and the clear sea is ideal for snorkelling. The language is Sardo, not Italian, and the culture is just as distinct, with Phoenician, Byzantine, and Catalan influences. The local architecture is astounding, and the rich food and first-rate wine also deserve a mention.
Uncover the unique charm of Sardinia
Right now, Montenegro is still one of Europe’s near-hidden-gems, but it won’t be long before this stunning country becomes a bustling tourism hotspot. Because Montenegro is so small (it’s just two-thirds the size of Wales!), it means you can do a lot of exploring during your stay, and visit many of the country’s most blissful beach destinations in one single break.
The Budva Riviera is home to excellent beaches, lively resorts, and elegant towns – particularly Budva itself, which has grand Venetian houses, historic bell towers, and pretty piazzas that are perfect for people-watching. The town of Becici is just a couple of miles away, and the lovely golden beach here backs onto pine-swathed hills; while, in the old village, there are quaint shops and local restaurants.
Experience the majesty of Montenegro
4. Crete, Greece
Greece is known for its idyllic islands, which have whitewashed towns that seem to shine under the blazing blue sky, and ancient ruins that loom above pristine sandy beaches. As the largest Greek island – and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean – Crete offers unrivalled sun, sea, and sand. But this is a beach destination that comes with a generous helping of history, myths, and legends too.
Crete’s size means there are 650 miles of coastline to explore, so whether you’re looking for busy beaches that boast all the amenities or quiet sands beside historical towns, you’ll find one to suit you. The rural interior is incredibly scenic, and once you’ve had your fill of sunbathing and swimming, the rugged mountains and gorges are ideal for hiking. The local food is also absolutely delicious!
Enjoy beach life with a side of myth and legend
5. Dalaman, Turkey
With long, pale stretches of sand, sparkling jade waters, and forest-blanketed slopes, visitors have been flocking to Dalaman for millennia (it was said to be the holiday spot of choice for many Greek gods!). Today, Dalaman is arguably Turkey’s most beautiful region, and if you’re looking for a classic beach break, you won’t get much better than this, as it’s not called the Turquoise Coast for nothing!
Dalaman’s chain of beaches, bays and coves are dotted with many cheerful resort towns where you can spend long, lazy days relaxing on the sand and enjoying delicious Turkish food in the beachside cafes. But, step off the beach and into the mountains and you’ll find a whole other world to explore; visit ancient cities like Xanthos, Tlos, and Arykanda, and admire the ornate tombs at Pınara and Myra.
Be dazzled by the beauty of Dalaman
6. Malta and Gozo
Malta is known for its gorgeous landscape, fascinating history, unique culture, and beautiful beaches. But its smaller sister island, Gozo, shouldn’t be overlooked and, together, these small but spectacular islands can offer the perfect break – particularly if you’re looking to do a bit more than just lie on the beach. However, the islands’ have such an impressive coastline you can happily do that too!
Both Malta and Gozo have rugged coves and sandy stretches, and the clear, warm waters here are astonishingly blue. If you’re a keen diver you’ll be in your element, as there are all kinds of shipwrecks and secret sea caves to explore beneath the waves. Though the islands are also rich in history, and from the Maltese capital Valletta to the ancient tombs at Xaghra, there’s plenty to do.
Uncover the magic of Malta and Gozo
7. Ischia, Italy
The beauty of Italy’s Amalfi Coast needs no introduction, and its topsy-turvy towns, dramatic scenery and neat beaches see millions of tourists flock here every year. But just a short ferry ride away is the legendary island of Ischia – a place where you can enjoy a unique sense of peace and respite. Known for its mineral-rich thermal springs, people have been coming here to heal since Roman times.
Though, it isn’t just spas where you can enjoy a good soak, as this island has dozens of excellent beaches, from long ribbons of golden sand to tiny, secretive coves. The forests and mountains are home to many hiking trails, so you can get your steps in before cooling off in the sea. After, treat yourself to Ischia’s fabulous rustic cuisine, and explore its wine heritage, which dates back to 700 BC.
Experience peace and tranquillity in Ischia
Another unique beach destination is Gibraltar, a three-mile-long headland on the sunny south coast of Spain – and what’s fun about holidays here is that it feels like you get two countries for the price of one. The Mediterranean-style landscape and beaches are perfect for exploring and relaxing, while Gibraltar’s culture and history add some familiar British flavours.
Strolling through the town can feel like you’re back in Britain, with traditional high streets, fish and chip shops, and even red post boxes. But once you see the beaches, you’ll know you’re in the Med. Catalan Bay and Sandy Bay are especially lovely, with sapphire waters and pastel houses that back onto the beach, and the hulking monolith of the Rock of Gibraltar provides truly jaw-dropping views.
Discover the unique charm of Gibraltar
9. Andalucia, Spain
Spain definitely isn’t short of gorgeous stretches of sand, but nowhere is lovelier than Andalucia, which is located in the most southerly part of the country. This region is home to whitewashed fishing villages, sweeping golden beaches, energetic resort towns, and windswept desert landscapes – and it’s one of the best places to discover Spain’s beauty, culture, and heritage.
If you don’t mind crowds and enjoy immersing yourself in holiday hustle and bustle, head to the Costa del Sol, Spain’s most famous stretch of coast. But, if you’re after a quieter break, you’re better off visiting the Costa de la Luz, where you can stay in traditional towns, kick back on rugged beaches, and visit pretty Isla Canela. Alternatively, head to Costa de Almeria, which is Spain’s sunniest spot.
Soak up sun, sea, and sand in Andalucia
10. Larnaca, Cyprus
The Larnaca region of Cyprus might be most famous for the bright lights and thumping music of Ayia Napa, though it has much to offer – and you don’t need to be interested in clubbing to enjoy an idyllic holiday here! Cyprus is a country that’s known for its seemingly unending coastline, and Larnaca boasts many of the island’s best beaches, as well as some gorgeous countryside.
If you like staying at big resorts where you all have the amenities you could need, Nissi Beach is ideal. Not only does it have a huge beach (and waterpark!), but it also has a promenade with more restaurants than you can hope to try. For something quieter, head to Protaras, where you can relax in tranquil coastal spots and eat in vine-wrapped tavernas. The wild countryside is a haven for walkerstoo.
Fall in love with Larnaca
11. The Algarve, Portugal
Portugal’s Algarve region may not be a hidden gem, but there’s much more to this stunning region than first meets the eye. While the eastern Algarve is home to package holiday resorts and bustling towns, the western Algarve can feel worlds away. This is a land of unspoilt, wild coastlines, gleaming white villages, tree-lined paths, flower-adorned meadows, and deep blue waters.
The shoreline boasts crescent-shaped bays, rocky inlets, and tucked-away coves, and the diving here is award-winning. There are all kinds of charming towns to stay in too, such as sleepy fishing villages like Olhos d’Agua or buzzing towns like Albufeira, where you can spend lazy days on the beach, and leisurely evenings strolling cobbled streets and dining in alfresco restaurants.
Uncover the appeal of the Algarve
12. Varna, Bulgaria
Bulgaria is one of the most up-and-coming beach destinations in Europe, and it offers much of the same beauty and history of neighbouring Greece, albeit with a much humbler price tag. The Varna region is especially popular with beach-goers, and its diverse coastline, sandy beaches, secluded coves and craggy cliffs offer plenty of variety.
The Black Sea Coast is home to lively resorts where you can drift from beach to bar to restaurant, and if you’re looking for space, you’ll find it here; the region’s largest beach is over eight miles long, and in some places, 300 metres wide! The red cliffs and eighth-century citadel of Cape Kaliakra are also popular, and after swimming, you can dry off with a game of golf at one of the three golf courses.
From Portugal in the west to Turkey in the far east, Southern Europe is big, beautiful, and wonderfully diverse.
Part of what makes it such a great place for a beach holiday is that there’s so much to do, whether it’s ancient ruins to explore, bustling towns to wander through, rugged mountains to hike, or glimmering waters to dive in.
You can stay in loud and lively resort towns or quiet, sleepy fishing villages, and you can tailor your break to be lazy and leisurely or action-packed and adventurous.
Plus, many of the destinations on this list are up-and-coming travel hotspots, so you can also escape the crowds if you wish to.
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Have you been to any of these destinations – or are you keen to visit? Do you have any other suggestions for idyllic beach destinations in Southern Europe? We’d love to hear about your travel experiences in the comments below.