European Islands: Culture, History and Beaches

Like their mainland counterparts, the islands of Europe are a diverse and deeply individualistic bunch. So while palm trees and tropical breezes may rule in the Caribbean, these Old World isles include everything from the limestone cliffs and woolly sweaters of the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland, to the exotic Greco-Turkish shores of Cyprus, birthplace of Aphrodite. In between, you’ll find islands with ancient ruins and historic sites, globally influenced cuisine and postcard views of the Baltic, Mediterranean, Adriatic and Black Seas.

By: Veronica Mullen
  • Time Travel: Malta
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    Time Travel: Malta's Catacombs

    Wander through 7,000 years of history in Malta, an archipelago nation perched in the Mediterranean Sea. 

    Photo courtesy of Malta Tourism Authority

  • Megalithic Temple
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    Megalithic Temple

    Thanks to its prime location between northern Africa and mainland Europe, Malta is rich with a variety of influences.

    Photo courtesy of Malta Tourism Authority

  • Medieval Town of Mdina
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    Medieval Town of Mdina

    You can check out ancient booty in the Museum of Roman Antiquities, explore the catacombs under the St. Paul and St. Agatha churches, visit the famed Megalithic Temples, and stroll the lamp-lit streets of the medieval town of Mdina.

    Photo courtesy of Malta Tourism Authority

  • The Lavender Isle: Hvar
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    The Lavender Isle: Hvar

    A 16th-century fortress stands watch over the crystalline Adriatic Sea in the charming town of Hvar, the central town of the Croatian island of the same name. A popular holiday spot along the Dalmatian Coast, Hvar’s got plenty to do on land, from touring Greek ruins and medieval villages to hanging out in one of the prettiest town squares in the country. Rent a sailboat or hop a water taxi to the nearby Pakleni Islands and don’t forget to bring a picnic and a bottle of crisp Croatian Malvasia white wine. Pick up some famous Hvar lavender — fresh, dried or as a pure oil — as a fragrant reminder of the sunny days.

    Photo Credit: Juraj Kopac/ Croatian National Tourist Board

  • Rural Romance: Corsica
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    Rural Romance: Corsica

    Set southeast of mainland France, near the Ligurian coast of Italy, the island of Corsica made its name as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. Nicknamed the “Garden of Corsica,” the La Balagne region in the north faces the Mediterranean and is known for its charming citadel towns, sandy beaches, seaside resorts and pretty mountains.

    Photo Credit: Atout France/ Daniel Philippe

  • La Signoria, Corsica
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    La Signoria, Corsica

    At their foot, check into the seafront La Signoria, an 18th-century Genoese estateturned- hotel with acres of gardens, a gourmet restaurant and 28 individually designed rooms (room rates start at about $200 a night; hotel-la-signoria.com).

    Photo courtesy of Relais & Chateaux

  • Mediterranean Feast: Cyprus
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    Mediterranean Feast: Cyprus

    East meets West—literally—on Cyprus, a Mediterranean island set at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. 

    Photo Credit: Stefano Girardi

  • A Cypriot Church
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    A Cypriot Church

     Along with its rich history (the island’s got everything from well-preserved prehistoric dwellings and Roman villas to churches with Byzantine frescos), Cyprus is a tourist favorite for its gorgeous beaches, secluded bays and its mouth-watering cuisine, which draws on a variety of influences. Mezedes (tapas style tastings of as many as 30 small plates) may include classics like taramosalata (fish roe dip), fresh greens dressed with lemon juice and pickled cauliflower, followed by main meals like spiced keftedes (minced meatballs), grilled halloumi cheese and lamb chops. Top it off with loukoumades — mini-doughnuts in syrup — or glyko, a traditional dish of nuts and sugar-preserved fruits.

    Photo Credit: Stefano Girardi

  • Room with a View: Villa Sant
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    Room with a View: Villa Sant' Andrea

    Both offer experiences like wine tours and picnics in vintage Fiat 500s, helicopter rides over Mount Etna and sunset champagne cruises—plus warm service, stellar dining and plenty of sun-kissed elegance (room rates start at about $340 a night; hotelvillasantandrea.com).  

    Photo courtesy of Villa Sant' Andrea

  • Grand Hotel Timeo
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    Grand Hotel Timeo

    Follow in the footsteps of the glam set and unpack in Taormina, a historic resort town on Sicily's east coast, set on the cliffs of Mount Tauro and the Ionian Sea. Split your stay between Grand Hotel Timeo, a hilltop legend with a gorgeous terrace and gardens, and its sister Villa Sant’Andrea, a former nobleman’s home with a private beach and up-close bay views (room rates start at about $340 a night; grandhoteltimeo.com). 

    Photo courtesy of Grand Hotel Timeo