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Choose from Europe’s Most Spectacular Beaches for a Summer Getaway

by Barbara Radcliffe Rogers

May 7, 2024

PHOTO: © EVA BOCEK
| DREAMSTIME

Leisure Lifestyle 2024

Fringed by palm trees, surrounded by dunes, pounded by bragging-rights surf or buzzing with après-sun life — whatever style of beach floats your board, Europe has the right patch of sand for you.

ITALY
With its sand-ringed islands of Sardinia and Sicily, Italy claims more than its share of Europe’s most idyllic beaches. Scattered along its more than 4,500 miles of Mediterranean and Adriatic coastline, Italy’s beaches suit every vacation taste, from the hubbub of the resort havens at Rimini and Viareggio to the pristine dune-backed strands and secluded coves of Puglia.

The beaches of Puglia, at the heel of Italy’s boot-shaped map, are relative newcomers to tourism, but the fine white sand and clear, blue-green water, combined with the far-from-the-crowds vibe, won’t stay secret for long. Highlights are the long sands and dramatic cliffs bordering Baia delle Zagare and the historic little beach town of Polignano a Mare. The miles-long white beach of Pescoluse, surrounded by dunes, remains a favorite for families with young children because of its shallow water.

Even farther south, miles of beaches in the nature reserve of Torre Guaceto are backed by dunes and olive groves, rocky headlands hide small cove beaches, and more miles of golden sand stretch to the tip of the peninsula.

Off Italy’s western coast, the mountainous island of Sardinia boasts some of the world’s finest beaches. These range from the posh resort enclaves and fabled turquoise waters of the Costa Smeralda in the north to the wide-open stretches of sand along the Costa Verde and Costa Sud in the south. Some are bordered by Europe’s tallest sand dunes, others by ruins of Roman and earlier sites.

Sharing the emerald waters with the Costa Smeralda are the Maddalena Islands, an archipelago reached by ferry from Palau, on Sardinia’s northeast corner. Walk to beaches there or take a boat to secluded sands on other tiny islands. Between the Maddalenas and the Costa Smeralda, beaches of Capo Testa lie beneath dramatic wind-carved rock formations. More long, white beaches mark much of Sardinia’s coast; most are free, and many are uncrowded even in mid-summer.

© ELLESI | DREAMSTIME

More glorious beaches ring Italy’s island of Sicily. Alongside Zingaro Nature Reserve in the northwest, the wide beach of San Vito Lo Capo borders the soaring cliffs of Monte Monaco, and the more remote (and uncrowded) Capreria Beach lies inside the reserve. You can reach even more secluded beaches by boat.

For the fun and buzz of the traditional Italian beach scene, head for Cefalu and the sandy strand bordering the historic city’s tangled streets. For unparalleled scenic appeal, the beach at Scala dei Turchi, on Sicily’s south coast, lies below a towering white cliff that rises in layers like a giant staircase.

SPAIN
Italy’s long coast and islands don’t have a monopoly on Mediterranean beaches. Spain’s Costa del Sol is one of Europe’s best-known destinations for sea and sand. Although the area around Marbella still suffers from some over- development, its busy Playa del Real de Zaragoza mixes some natural shoreline with an expanse of golden sand and calm waters for swimming.

Beaches continue eastward along the coast to towns like Nervi, where Playa de Maro sits among natural surroundings, with few tourist amenities. Smaller beaches of Calahonda and Chorrillo are even more remote, reached by footpaths between the rocky headlands. Busier — and with showers and food kiosks — El Playazo is Nervi’s mile-long beach with lifeguards.

Farther east, along Costa Tropical, development also preserves the natural beauty. The main center, Almuñécar, features a promenade with restaurants and shops bordering the long crescent beach. Surfers and other watersport enthusiasts should head farther east to Laredo’s 3 miles of white sand.

© MARTIN VALIGURSKY | DREAMSTIME

Off Spain’s Mediterranean coast, the islands of the Balearic archipelago feature famous playgrounds; Mallorca is the largest, with a variety of beaches. S’Amarador, inside Mondragó Natural Park, has no development along its unspoiled beach. For even more remote surroundings, walk to the neighboring beaches of Cala Mondragó and Cala d’en Borgit, surrounded by dunes and forest. On the northern coast find Cala Formentor’s beach on a protected bay, partly shaded by pines.

The neighboring island of Ibiza is known as a party haven and for its LGBTQIA+-friendly vibe. Find the best beach party scene at Las Salinas; the clear, shallow water at Cala Xarraca proves fine for snorkeling; and in the late afternoon, everyone heads to Punta Galera for the spectacular sunsets. For quieter beaches, take the ferry to nearby Formentera and the white sands of Es Pujols.

PORTUGAL
Less well-known to Americans but a longtime retreat for the British and northern Europeans, Portugal’s Algarve basks in 300 days of sunshine annually. Long stretches of golden beach alternate with sandy coves carved out of fantastically sculpted red-rock cliffs. While resorts and holiday apartments clutter the larger central resort towns, smaller villages have an old-world feel, where fishermen still go out every morning for a fresh catch and mend their nets on the beach.

One of the finest is 4-mile-long Praia da Falésia, near Albufeira, backed by tall, red, sandstone cliffs at its western end; shallow waters to the east prove popular with families. Some of the most dramatically eroded red cliffs adjoin the little resort town of Carvoeiro. Walk along the vertigo-inducing clifftops west of Lagos to reach idyllic Camilo Beach, set among dramatic eroded rocks and arches, or take a boat to see caves and beaches hidden among the cliffs.

Beyond Lagos, small beach towns dot the shoreline to Sagres, where the coast turns abruptly north, facing the open Atlantic. High cliffs drop to long, uncrowded beaches that attract world-class surfers; more beaches continue north into the Alentejo region.

FRANCE
The French Riviera towns of Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez come first to mind when thinking of French beaches, but their international reputation seems largely based on their glamorous renown as celebrity playgrounds, less on the beaches themselves. For a variety of long, white-sand beaches and postcard scenery, the French choose the Atlantic coast of Brittany and the Basque region.

The undisputed queen of that coast is Biarritz, the bolt-hole of choice for royalty and high society ever since Napoleon III built his palace there, overlooking Bay of Biscay. (The palace still stands, now a hotel.) Colorful canvas beach cabanas line the wide Grande Plage and even more scenic Plage du Miramar, and a promenade and restaurants with outdoor terraces back the Grand Plage. The less-protected beaches along this Atlantic coast offer challenges for surfers.

For a cozier atmosphere, go south a few miles to pretty Saint-Jean-de-Luz, where a line of picturesque old houses overlooks the harbor, and the beach extends north along the curving coast. Sea walls protect the beach from waves, making it a good choice for families with young children.

Without the glow of Biarritz’s haut-monde history and elegance but with miles of pristine sand and incomparable light, the Île de Ré lies off the coast of Brittany, reached by a long bridge from La Rochelle. The entire coast of Brittany, with its dramatic cliffs and traditional villages, is filled with beaches, but none surpass this sand-ringed island with its dunes and low green meadows. Bicycles prove the perfect way to explore the little villages and discover your own spot of perfect white sand and sunshine.

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