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Go here, not there: overlooked European islands you need to visit

May 22, 2022
9 min read
Turquoise waters formentera
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While not exactly the Caribbean, Europe has hundreds of islands stretching all the way from Ibiza, Spain, to Capri, Italy, to Santorini, Greece, that are perfect for a sunny getaway. It's also easy to fall into the trap of visiting the most popular or well-known places: Most people think of Greece, for instance, and immediately book a trip to Santorini or Mykonos, or head straight for Mallorca or Ibiza when planning a Spanish island escape.

Our take on "go here, not there" isn't written to discourage you from visiting the most touristy islands, but rather to flag more affordable, underrated alternatives (in addition to) the more popular spots.

A black sand beach on the island of La Gomera. (Photo by Westend61/Getty Images)

So, in lieu of those package holiday magnets, here are some of the lesser-known islands you should consider visiting for your next escape.

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Instead of Ibiza, consider Formentera in Spain

Formentera's white sands. (Photo by Salvideo/Getty Images)

If you want to experience the Spanish sunshine in a luxurious, hip way, consider visiting Formentera, Ibiza's blissed-out little sister. You'll still find cool bars, beautiful beaches and delicious restaurants — all without the frantic party vibe of Ibiza. Instead, Formentera has a decidedly boho-chic ambiance for those who are mostly done with the raging party scene but still want to experience sexy Spanish coastlines, cocktail in hand.

Daytime activities include exploring the island — which is relatively flat — on bike (the island boasts more than 62 miles of bike trails). You can also pay a visit to some of the most gorgeous beaches in Europe, including the famous crystal waters of Ses Illetes and the hidden beach cove Caló des Mort. Evenings are for admiring the sunset and bar-hopping in the village of Es Pujols.

Related: 9 quirky destinations in Europe you have to see to believe

The good news about visiting Formentera is that you don't have to skip Ibiza entirely — spend a bit of time in Ibiza, then take a 30- to 40-minute ferry over to the paradisiacal island.

Instead of Santorini, consider Paros in Greece

A charming harbor in Paros, Greece. (Photo by Sven Hansche/EyeEm/Getty Images)

While Santorini's whitewashed, blue-domed buildings and magnificent sunsets are a call to the island, it can be crowded and often expensive, especially during high season (summer). Paros, which is also home to whitewashed villages and stunning shorelines, is a solid alternative.

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Much like Santorini, Paros attracts foodies and wine lovers in equal measure, as the island is home to thousands of acres of vineyards. Be sure to sample local wines, which are mainly white Monemvasia blends and red mantilaria varietals, as well as indulge your taste buds with fresh mizithra cheese, honey, roasted locally caught mackerel and even a special Greek-style pumpkin pie.

You won't have to skip Santorini entirely if you want to visit Paros — the ferry between the islands takes a few hours. Paros does have an airport (PAS), and you can fly to the island from Athens in about 45 minutes.

Instead of Capri, consider Ischia in Italy

The Italian island of Ischia. (Photo by GIUSEPPE GRECO/Getty Images)

Capri is the quintessential Italian island: weep-worthy scenery, delicious food and stylish visitors. But Capri, like many popular Italian locations, is often overflowing with tourists during the warmer months and is overly expensive compared to other Italian coastal destinations. For a real Italian experience, head to Ischia, another island in the Gulf of Naples popular among Italian visitors.

Related: 7 great family beaches

If you're traveling with a family, kids will love medieval Aragonese Castle, which juts off of Ischia onto its very own little island. Ischia is also known for its special thermal waters. The whole family can enjoy the mineral properties of the volcanic waters at Poseidon, a collection of baths overlooking the sea. Couples may prefer the Negombo thermal baths, which are built into natural rock and have more of a private feel.

Getting to Ischia takes around an hour on the hydrofoil from Naples. For a real local Italian adventure, combine a trip to Ischia with a few days in the city of Naples, where you can explore castles, eat pizza and wander the hilly Spanish Quarter. Just watch out for zooming motorbikes.

Instead of the Madeira, consider the Berlengas Islands in Portugal

Berlenga Grande, Portugal. (Photo by Nuno Pinto/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Madeira is popular with international tourists, especially United Kingdom visitors searching for winter sun. But the Berlengas Islands, located off the coast of Peniche (one of Europe's famed surfer hubs), are a lesser-known set of islands that are wild and mostly uninhabited. The islands are considered a natural reserve and are a protected space for a number of bird species and marine animals.

The most popular of the islands is Berlenga Grande, which is about 5 miles off the coast and takes 45 minutes to reach by boat. The scenery from the boat is simply breathtaking — admire the island's rocky cliffs and tranquil coves as you go. The island's remote feel and wild nature really make it seem like a secret paradise.

Daytrips allow visitors to spend the day swimming, snorkeling and exploring caves, but don't visit if there's even a glimpse of bad weather on the horizon. Large storms tend to plague these parts, which is one reason why divers can see a number of shipwrecks near Berlenga Grande. Those with motion sickness beware: The boat ride over can be rocky, even in optimal weather conditions.

Instead of Tenerife, consider La Gomera in the Canary Islands of Spain

The Canary Island of La Gomera. (Photo by Heike Laibach/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Tenerife is one of the largest and most popular Canary Islands — its volcanic beaches and lively dining and nightlife scene are a call to travelers seeking warm temperatures and year-round vitamin D. But La Gomera, a short ferry ride away from Tenerife, is a natural paradise offering incredible hikes and gorgeous scenery. It's less touristy and perhaps even more beautiful than some of the more populated Canaries.

With more than 150 hiking trails, many of which are located within the island's unique Laurisilva forest in Garajonay National Park, the island is ideal for anyone looking to trade the busy city for lush greenery. La Gomera also features black sand volcanic beaches and is home to the famous Organos rock monument, named for its dripping rocks that resemble an organ. With restaurants featuring farm-fresh cuisine and local volcanic wines, visitors can not only explore nature but also the best of local Canarian gastronomy.

A trip to La Gomera is best combined with time spent visiting other Canary Islands. The ferry from Tenerife to La Gomera takes less than an hour, and it is possible to bring a car along, too. Or, you can fly to the main airport, La Gomera Airport (GMZ), from Tenerife or Gran Canaria.

Instead of Hvar, consider Rab in Croatia

The Croatian island of Rab. (Photo by Attila Barabas/Getty Images)

Hvar's famed party scene and gorgeous beaches make it one of Croatia's best hot spots to visit, especially if you're seeking sun and sea after a visit to the walled, medieval city of Dubrovnik. But Rab is on a whole other level when it comes to island beauty, as it features classic Croatian red-roofed buildings, 30-plus beaches and a number of bike trails for those wanting to get some exercise on their next sunny escape.

Rab is best suited to active travelers since it offers plenty of activities, such as sailing, trekking, cycling, diving, snorkeling, climbing and fishing. From sandy beach coves to wooded forests to rocky canyons, the geological contrasts this island features are especially beautiful — the north is rocky and dry, and the west side of the island is lush and green.

Related: Things go wrong on your flight? Here's what to ask for.

While it only takes a 15-minute ferry to reach Rab by boat from the mainland, its location off the more northern coast of Croatia makes it slightly more time-consuming to reach, so consider including a stop here during a Croatian road trip from a hub like Zagreb.

Instead of Porquerolles, consider Houat and Hoëdic in France

The French island of Houat. (Photo by Yannick Bodin/Getty Images)

Part of the Îles d'Hyères archipelago, Porquerolles is a popular summer vacation spot for visitors heading to the Côte d'Azur, especially since it's only a 10-minute boat ride from the French mainland. But for a more local and really off-the-beaten-path French island adventure, visit Houat and Hoëdic, two small islands located off the westerly Quiberon Peninsula.

Beyond their main Breton villages, these islands are delightfully exotic and uninhabited (think: breezy beaches, wooded paths and the ruins of old forts). Explore the larger of the two islands, Houat, on foot or by bike and you'll discover a destination that's ideal for communing with nature. For an even more tranquil escape, make your way to Hoëdic, a tiny island with nearly 5 miles of hiking and walking trails. It is a truly great place to get out and explore.

Arrive by boat from the mainland in less than an hour from the Quiberon Peninsula. The closest airport is Nantes Atlantique Airport (NTE). A visit to these islands could easily be combined with checking out castles and sipping wine in the Loire Valley. Win-win.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.