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9 Secret European Islands

SmarterTravel

Get on a ferry and off the beaten path with a visit to one of these nine European islands that are undiscovered by the tourist crowd.

Svalbard, Norway

There are lots of enticing facts about Svalbard that will compel adventurers to visit—it’s one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas, its name means “jagged mountains” in Dutch, and it’s home to more polar bears than people. In the summer, the sun never sets, and in the winter, the Northern Lights illuminate the sky. Sold? You can catch a flight from mainland Norway (either Oslo or Tromso) to get there.

Where to Stay: The Coal Miners’ Cabins offers a ski in/ski out location close to the main attractions and restaurants of Svalbard.

Stromboli, Italy

How brave are you? If you’re risk-averse, opt to peer at Stromboli from a safe distance on the water. Adventurous? Spend a night or two on this European island. Really bold? Live on Stromboli, one of the eight Aeolian Islands north of Sicily, where the volcano “erupts” approximately every ten minutes. These eruptions are minor, but there was a major explosion in 2009—yet visitors still dare to come to the island, even hiking up to the volcano’s summit.

Where to Stay: Hotel Villaggio Stromboli has a private beach and swimming pool, and is close to Stromboli Volcano.

Isle of Tiree, Scotland

If you’re a Scotch fan, you’ve probably heard of Islay, Jura, and Skye, all of which are part of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides archipelago. You may not have heard of the Isle of Tiree, a lesser-known European island that’s the westernmost one in this chain. It’s nicknamed the “Sunshine Island”, which isn’t something you’d expect to find in gloomy Scotland! However, thanks to the island’s location near the Gulf Stream, it’s one of the sunniest places in the United Kingdom. Come to this secret European island to soak up those golden rays on Tiree’s white sand beaches.

Where to Stay: The Isle of Tiree is only 12 miles long and three miles wide, but there are still plenty of places to stay. The Scarinish Hotel is within easy walking distance to downtown and not far from the ferry hotel, plus has The Lean to Bar, a cozy gathering place for locals.

Pico, Portugal

Portugal’s nine island group, the Azores, has flown under the tourism radar for quite some time, but that’s all changing thanks to direct (and fast) flights from Boston and New York City. Most visitors hit the more easily accessible islands (like Sao Miguel and Terceira), and miss out on the less explored ones like Pico Island. Pico is named after its imposing mountain, which is the highest mountain in Portugal. At 7,713 feet, it can be climbed in a day by ambitious tourists. Still, it’s highly recommended to hire a guide to navigate the volcanic mountain’s hard to follow trails.

Where to Stay: Hotel Caravelas has an outdoor pool from which you can enjoy the Azores’ year-round mild weather.

Kythira, Greece

Hidden between mainland Greece and the island of Crete, Kythira is most easily reachable by ferry, but you can also fly there from Athens. Surprisingly, Kythira is one of Greece’s largest islands, yet it is completely overlooked by most tourists who are keen to hit the more famous European islands nearby (like Mykonos and Santorini). Kythira has a diverse geography that includes waterfalls, cliffs, rolling green hills, and plenty of beaches—so you should definitely add it to your Greek island hopping itinerary.

Where to Stay: Kythira Golden Resort has a gorgeous roof deck with a pool that overlooks the sea.

Dugi Otok, Croatia

Dugi Otok’s name means “Long Island” but it’s a far cry from the more famous one in New York that shares its name. A quick glimpse at the map affirms Dugi Otok’s name—it’s 27.7 miles long by 3 miles wide. If you’re seeking solitude, you’ll find it here, in one of the many secluded beaches that dot the shoreline. Sakarun is the most well-known beach, thanks to its incredibly clear water and white sand.

Where to Stay: Hotel Maxim is a four-star hotel that’s close to Sakarun Beach.

Grinda, Sweden

Hop on a fast ferry from Vaxhom, Sweden, and within an hour you’ll land on Grinda, an inhabited island that also happens to be a nature reserve. Go for a hike, take out a kayak, or swim—but make sure you end your day here with a relaxing session in Grinda’s floating sauna. You can rent a wood-fired sauna raft for two hours, for a totally unique experience.

Where to Stay: Rent one of 27 cabins available in Grinda’s Cabin Village, which are outfitted with private patios, kitchens, and barbeques.

Mykines, Faroe Islands

Mykines is only home to approximately 10 year-round human residents, but it houses hundreds of birds, giving it the nickname “the paradise of birds”. One famously adorable species, the puffin, makes its home nesting in the clifftops in the summer months. The hundreds of them attract dedicated birdwatchers. Mykines is the westernmost island in the Faroe’s chain, and you can hike out to a lighthouse, Mykineshólmuron, on the most western point of the island for uninterrupted ocean views.

Where to Stay: For a cozy, homey experience, check out Marit’s House Bed and Breakfast.

Bled Island, Slovenia

Brilliantly turquoise water surrounds a fairytale castle rising out of lush green trees—Bled Island is so unbelievably beautiful that it looks Photoshopped. The island, located in the middle of Lake Bled, is real, and you can visit it by taking traditional wooden boats that resemble gondolas across. Once you’ve landed, climb up 99 stone steps to the Assumption of Mary Church. Make a wish and ring the church’s bell—legend says it will be granted.

Where to Stay: The Grand Hotel Toplice is a boutique luxury hotel located right on the banks of Lake Bled, offering comfort and stellar castle views.

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Caroline Morse Teel wants to visit all of these European islands. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from around the world. 

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