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Marsaxlokk bay harbour, Malta
cristianbalate | Adobe Stock

The 7 Most Underrated European Islands

SmarterTravel

At the first sign of hot weather, Americans are ready to laze around the craggy coasts of Europe’s Mediterranean islands. But come August, finding a sliver of sand to claim as your own can be an impossible task, especially in popular spots like Mykonos, Santorini, Sicily, and Mallorca. Meanwhile, not too terribly far away and under the very same sun, there are other European islands that are just as good (if not better), but have yet to appear on the radar of most American travelers.  

Why is that? Well, often, these places aren’t so easily accessible to Americans. Maybe they require an additional connecting flight. In some cases, there are overly complicated bus schedules and ferry routes to plan. Americans receive notoriously few vacation days, so it’s understandable we’d be eager to hurry up and get there in as few modes of transport as possible. But sometimes? The extra effort can be worth it. 

Formentera, Spain

Boats in a harbor at Cala Soana beach on Formentera, Spain
robertdering | Adobe Stock

Spain’s Balearic Islands are hardly a secret. These days, everyone knows about hard-partying Ibizia, the budget all-inclusive resorts of Mallorca, and family-friendly Menorca. But just south of Ibiza sits its quiet little sister Formentera, the smallest of all the Balearic Islands and certainly the most low-key. You won’t find beaches cluttered with sprawling mega-resorts or cheesy bottle service tourist traps here. Instead, the island remains mostly undeveloped aside from its famous lighthouses and whitewashed villages. On the northern tip of the island is Ses Salines d’Eivissa Natural Park, home to over 200 species of birds and other flora and fauna unique to the island. Luckily, or unluckily depending on your outlook, there’s no airport in Formentera. Visitors must first make their way to Ibiza and take a 25-minute ferry. 

Lampedusa, Italy

"Rabbits Island" / "Isola dei conigli" from Lampedusa, Italy
pepinho84 | Adobe Stock

If Italy is the boot and Sicily the football, then Lampedusa would have to be the tiny speck of dust flung from the cleat. At about seven miles long and two miles wide, it’s definitely small. Sandwiched between Sicily and Tunisia, Lampedusa is closer to Tunisia than it is to Italy. It is most known for its perfectly clear waters and gorgeous beaches, which swell to capacity every August when Italians arrive on vacation. Lampedusa lacks the tourism infrastructure of Sicily, along with its variety in accommodations, but that rustic vibe is all part of its charm. Ready to make the trip? It is possible to take a ferry to Lampedusa from Sicily, but flying is the most convenient way to go. Flights are available from Sicily and, in warmer months, from the Italian peninsula. 

Pantelleria, Italy

Harbor and surrounding buildings onPantelleria, Italy
bepsphoto | Adobe Stock

Similar to Lampedusa above, Pantelleria is another Sicilian island that is actually closer to Tunisia than it is to Italy. Because this is a volcanic island, the rugged coast and darker sand may not appeal to everyone. However, the waters off Pantelleria are famously clear, and conditions are ideal for snorkeling and diving. Pantelleria’s undeveloped beauty has also caught the eye of directors like Luca Guadagnino who shot his 2015 film A Bigger Splash on the island. Wine lovers flock to Pantelleria for its famous sweet wines which received UNESCO World Heritage status in 2014 for their traditional production methods. Those who wish to make the trip can do so by plane from Palermo and Trapani, with increased service in the summer months from Milan, Rome, and other Italian cities. If you have the time, overnight ferries are also available from Trapani.   

The Azores, Portugal

Angra do Heroismo from the Miradouro da Serreta, the Miradouro da Serreta , Azores, Portugal
marinzolich | Adobe Stock

Often referred to as the Hawaii of Portugal, this Mid-Atlantic volcanic archipelago is comprised of nine islands, each with its own unique reasons for visiting. For outdoorsy types, the lush green hills of the Azores offer some of Europe’s most biodiverse landscapes and an ideal setting for hiking or cycling trips year-round. Most visitors tend to stick to Pico, Sao Jorge, Failal, and Terceira, the cluster of central islands close enough to one another to allow for island-hopping. Tourism has experienced an uptick in recent years and the islands certainly rely on the revenue, but they are cautious to avoid saturation. Hotel beds on the islands, for example, are strictly capped. That’s all to say that no matter which island or islands you choose to visit, odds are you won’t be struggling to find solitude. From the U.S., Azores Airlines (formerly SATA) operates nonstop service from Boston to Ponta Delgada, with service from New York’s JFK set to begin later this year.  

Malta

Boat in harbor in Luzzu in Marsaxlokk, Malta
Kavalenkava | Adobe Stock

Located smack dab in the middle of the Med, Malta is a cultural mishmosh of its many former rulers. That’s a very long list and has included the Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, the Spanish, the French, and—until 1964—Britain. But beyond its fascinating history, the main attraction for visitors is its clear sea and the 300+ days of reliable sunshine. The lack of direct flights from the U.S. makes it a tad more challenging for Americans to make the trip, but it isn’t impossible. Air France, among others, offers connecting service between U.S. cities and Valletta, Malta via Paris, and routinely includes Malta in fare sales.   

Gavdos, Greece

Coastline of Gavdos, Greece
Giovanni Rinaldi | Adobe Stock

This small Greek island between Crete and Libya is Europe’s southernmost point and boasts one of the highest tallies for sunny days anywhere on the continent. In Gavdos, there are no mega-resorts and, in fact, even basic accommodations are few and far between. That holds especially true in the busy summer months. For that reason, Gavdos has become a popular destination among backpackers who camp in the forests along the beaches (and anywhere else they can find). Though the island has a few mostly-seasonal restaurants and tavernas, you can be sure that what is available will be good. Gavdos is only accessible by ferry service from Crete.

El Hierro, Spain

Tamaduste village on Hierro island, Spain
dudlajzov | Adobe Stock

It may be the second smallest of Spain’s Canary Islands but El Hierro packs a big wallop with its colorful volcanic sand beaches and dramatic cliffside lookouts. An even bigger draw is its lack of crowds, at least compared to neighboring islands. El Hierro is a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve which means it is “a learning place for sustainable development” and eco-tourism. That means the most likely interruption to your beach reading will be birds, not a DJ at the all-you-can-drink resort next door. El Hierro is accessible by ferry (about two and a half hours from Tenerife) or plane from Gran Canaria and Tenerife. 

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