We’ve all heard of the big hitters, such as Ibiza, Corsica and Sicily, but what about Europe’s lesser known islands? Have you ever dreamt of mixing it up with a windswept, heart-pumping hike on the remote hills of Foula? Or kicking through the sweeps of sand that pass for roads on La Graciosa?
It pays to follow your inner Robinson Crusoe and break away from the crowds in Europe. Here are 7 European islands you’ve probably never heard of, but should definitely consider for your next holiday.
For hikers: Foula, Scotland
It’s worth the effort of getting to the UK’s most remote inhabited island, especially as you might catch glimpse of a minke whale or an orca as you cruise across the Atlantic by ferry from Shetland’s mainland.
The reward on a remote outpost the Romans dubbed their ultima thule, literally ‘the end of the world’, is jaw-dropping hiking. The chances are you won’t see another human as you vault across the island’s lofty peaks (the highest, The Sneug, soars to 418m), but watch out for the bonxies. These giant great skuas don’t appreciate visitors and have been known to knock hikers clean off their feet.
Image by Robin McKelvie
For beach bums: Porto Santo, Portugal
No doubt you will have heard of Madeira, but what about its Macaronesian neighbour Porto Santo? It may only be less than 8km wide and 15km long, but this little gem packs a proper beach punch.
The main attraction is the epic sweep of golden sand right by the ferry landing that stretches off for over 7km into the distance. Savvy visitors from Portugal’s mainland know all about the sandy charms of this relaxed island, but few other Europeans have yet to descend en masse, even though there are plenty of decent hotels and restaurants on hand.
Image by Ghost of Electricity on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
For explorers: Saaremaa, Estonia
Ok, we won’t lie, the Baltic Sea is not the world’s warmest, but try telling that to the citizens of the Estonian capital, Tallinn, who flock here to laze around on the brilliant beaches and take a bracing dip in summer.
We recommend venturing here in spring (winter is extremely cold and summer can be busy), when you have a better chance of snaring one of the cosy wooden houses that snuggle in this tree-shrouded oasis. Hire a bike and head off looking for seals and seabirds, just steer clear of the bears, who we’ve heard are also occasional visitors.
Image by Kristjan Klementi on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
For a secret escape: Lastovo, Croatia
The emphasis here is on the ‘Last’ in Lastovo: from here there’s only open Adriatic all the way across to Italy. Most travellers these days know the Croatian tourist hotspots of Hvar and Brač, but this relaxed charmer remains relatively untrammelled by tourism, at least in part due to the vagaries of the ferry timetable.
This outlying island boasts a rich sweep of Venetian-era architecture, with its natural attractions recognised by the Croatian government who have declared it a protected nature park. The local waters also dish up a rich bounty of seafood, the best of which is the plump local lobster, or jastog, which is best enjoyed simply grilled.
Image by Lauren Jane on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
For relaxed ramblers: Graciosa, Spain
Forget images of bronzed sunbathers jostling for beach space in the Canary Isles. Bounce over the rough surf from Lanzarote and slip on a pair of sandals as you ease into Graciosa time on this remote isle.
There are no roads as such, just sweeps of sand that shift between the low-rise whitewashed houses of the island capital of Caleta del Sebo.
Embark on an epic walk around the north of the island, taking in one of the five volcanoes or the white sands of Playa de las Conchas, before returning to rest your weary feet in one of Caleta del Sebo’s fresh seafood restaurants.
Image by Gerard Girbes Berges on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
For dramatic landscapes: Viðoy, the Faroe Islands
Most people struggle to place the Faroe Islands accurately on a map let alone name one of the islands. This dramatic volcanic archipelago may only harbour fewer than 50,000 residents, but the island of Viðoy is home to what the locals claim are the highest sea cliffs in Europe.
Hire a local guide to tackle the wild heights of the most northerly point in the Faroes, Cape Enniberg. These remarkable cliffs vault over 750m above the fuming Atlantic. Seabirds like it here, too, with one of the most impressive colonies in Europe.
Image by DavideGorla on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
For history buffs: Gozo, Malta
Gozo has always often trod a separate path to the mainland, although it shares much of the same influences, with the Romans and the Phoenicians having breezed through, leaving their indelible traces.
The most striking site are the Ġgantija temples. Dating back to before Stonehenge was even thought of, these rocky remains are some of the oldest standing structures in Europe. The views are impressive from up here, too, with a whole swathe of the island opening up. There are also dramatic views from Gozo’s lofty citadel in the island capital of Victoria.