You don’t need to board a long haul flight to discover the world’s most beautiful beaches. Europe is blessed with impressive and unique coastlines that are enough to rival even the most exotic resorts.
Whether we intend to lay down our towels and soak up the sun for the duration or wish to admire the view and feel the sand between our toes before enjoying various other adventures, the beach plays a huge part in our holiday.
So, where are the best beaches in Europe?
1. Elafonissi Beach, Crete, Greece
Pink sand is so rare that only a few beaches in the world are blessed with it – one of those is Elafonissi Beach on the Greek island of Crete. The hue of the soft and powdery sand is believed to come from thousands of broken shells. Which is why, depending on when you visit, you can find it in various shades ranging from a deep to a light pink.
This mile-long coastline is situated in the west of Crete, an hour and a half from Chania. This beach was relatively unknown until 2014 when it ranked among TripAdvisor’s top 25 beaches – not just in Europe but in the world.
The water is clear and warm – to the right of a sandbar, it is shallow, while the left provides the perfect conditions for windsurfing.
From this beach, you can walk through the sea across to Elafonisi island. This is a classified nature reserve – beach chairs and umbrellas are not allowed here. However, you’ll spot rare flowers including white sea daffodils and you might see loggerhead sea turtles in the lagoon.
Top Tip: Visit early in the day, so you can get the perfect Instagram snap – before the crowds start to arrive.
2. Concha Beach, San Sebastian, Spain
Concha Beach or Playa de la Concha is one of the best city beaches in Europe – if not the world. It is situated in Concha Bay within the Basque country of northern Spain and is the most centrally located beach in San Sebastian.
The golden sand and blue waters are nestled between Urgull Mountain and Igueldo Mountain.
The Belle Époque-styled white building you’ll see situated on the shore is La Perla Spa – the perfect place to relax and unwind while you enjoy views of the sea. The hydrotherapy pool features sea water and it is among the best thalassotherapy urban spas in Europe.
The beach has been awarded the title of ‘Royal Beach’. It’s where Queen Isabel II came for bath therapy in the 19th century – and why the city became the summer residence of the Spanish royal family. Palacio de Miramar can be seen from the bay and boasts wonderful views across it.
You’ll find all the facilities you could need here as well as a pretty promenade along the back of the beach where you can simply sit down and take in the whole view.
San Sebastian is the ideal destination for foodies – it boasts more Michelin stars per square metre than anywhere else in the world and serves up some of the most delicious and freshest seafood. Exactly what you need after a long day soaking up the sun and swimming in the sea.
3. Playa de Ses Illetes, Formentera, Balearic Islands
The pure white sand and crystal clear water is why the coastline around this island often appears in TripAdvisor’s top beaches and is one of the many reasons why it’s compared to those in the Caribbean.
Formentera is the smallest of the Balearic Islands. It can be reached by boat, from neighbouring Ibiza, in just 30 minutes.
Playa de Ses Illetes is the epitome of paradise. It’s situated on the north coast – on the west side of a peninsula – three miles from the port of La Savina where the ferries arrive from Ibiza. While you’ll find several beach restaurants here, there is no major development around the seafront – which has allowed this stretch of sand to retain its natural beauty.
Don’t forget your snorkel mask – the calm and shallow water is the perfect place to watch colourful fish darting around. At the end of the day, settle down on the dunes to watch the sun go down.
Top tip: If you’re on holiday in Ibiza it’s worth taking the boat across to Formentera to see this beautiful island and its tranquil beaches with your own eyes. It’s the perfect escape to find a moment of calm away from the lively party island.
4. Cala Goloritzé, Sardinia, Italy
Just south of Cala Biriola, on the northeastern coast of Sardinia in Italy, you’ll find this small beach, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995.
Cala Goloritzé is the most famous of many hidden beaches within this area. You’ll find it at the base of a ravine – although it isn’t the easiest part of the coastline to reach, it remains unspoilt and retains its natural beauty. Instead of travelling here by boat or car, it’s an hour hike starting from Golgo Plateau.
This is relatively difficult – so you will benefit from having hiking boots and a decent level of fitness. But, when you see how beautiful and peaceful it is and why it has received such a privileged status, it will all be worth it.
Here the limestone cliffs tower high above the white pebbles that lead down to the azure waters. Don’t forget to take a picnic because you won’t find any facilities here. You’ll also want your snorkelling equipment – this is the best spot in Sardinia.
Top Tip: Get here as early as possible to make the most of your time on the beach because about 4pm the sun will disappear behind the rocks.
5. Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, Iceland
The best beaches in Europe aren’t only found around the Mediterranean. Reynisfjara, on Iceland’s south coast, has been named among the most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world.
Here soft white sand is replaced with black pebbles and palm trees are swapped for basalt columns.
The world-famous beach is located beside the fishing village of Vík í Myrdal. This rugged coastline was created by lava when it flowed down to the sea and instantly cooled.
Need to know: You must be aware that there are sneaker waves here – they can creep out of the relatively calm water and are incredibly dangerous.
The basalt cliff that backs the beach was also created by lava and is called Gardar, while the two basalt cliffs that rise from the sea are known as Reynisdrangar. If legend is to be believed, these were once trolls that turned into rocks when the sun rose while they were trying to capture a passing ship.
You won’t be soaking up the sun on this volcanic beach – but you’ll be able to see one of the most unique coastlines in the world.
Top Tips: Layer up because it’s cold and windy and make sure you wear sturdy shoes for walking across the pebbles.
6. Zlatni Rat Beach, Brač, Croatia
Zlatni Rat Beach – which is also known as the ‘Golden Horn’ – has an unusual shape that has earned it the title of not only the most beautiful part of the coastline in Croatia, but in the whole of Europe.
The current has formed the shape of this beach, on the southern coast of Brač and continues to change it ever so slightly. This thin strip of land sticks out into the Adriatic Sea creating a V shape. From the tip, it stretches for about half a mile either side. At the centre and providing a backdrop, is a pine forest.
The forest is the perfect place to escape the heat of the sun and find some shade. If you have kids with you then you’ll find a playground in here alongside a cafe where you can pick up some refreshments.
This protected nature area, which is just over a mile from Bol and can be reached via a 20-minute walk along the sea, looks like a white sandy beach but is actually formed of tiny smooth pebbles.
The clear water is ideal for snorkelling while the westerly wind attracts windsurfers in the afternoon. You can also have a go at jet skiing, paddle boarding, surfing and kite surfing.
From here you can look across the water to the island of Hvar – make sure you take a seat as the crowds start to leave after a day of sunbathing, to enjoy the stunning sunset.
7. Navagio Beach, Zante, Greece
The cove, on the Greek island of Zante, is only accessible by boat and is commonly known as, ‘Shipwreck Beach’ or ‘Smuggler’s Cove’.
On the sand you’ll find a stranded freightliner. Legend has it, the ship was used for smuggling. In the early 1980s it was carrying cigarettes and alcohol when it ran aground while being chased during a storm. It has been here ever since attracting tourists who wish to get their own snaps of the most photographed beach in Greece.
Top Tip: This popular tourist attraction can get very busy. Visit early in the morning and avoid the crowds.
Boats depart from Porto Vromi every hour and take around 20 minutes. The first thing you’ll see on arrival is the towering limestone cliffs which give way to white sand that leads down to the turquoise Ionian Sea.
It’s worth following the signs to the viewing platform in the cliffs where you can look down on the shipwreck.
You’ll need to pack a picnic and take plenty of water because there aren’t any facilities here.
8. Cala Macarella, Menorca, Balearic Islands
On the southwestern coast you’ll find one of the most visited beaches in Menorca.
Limestone cliffs and woodland provide the backdrop to soft golden sand and calm, clear water which features various shades of blue.
It’s a two-mile hike along the cliffs from Cala Galdana to get here. Alternatively, you can drive the winding road from Ciutadella then take the pleasant 20-minute hike through the forest down to the beach.
You’ll find plenty of facilities here including a restaurant, showers and toilets.
A 10-minute walk away you’ll find Cala Macarelleta. This beach boasts the same soft sand and clear water but is calmer and more private. Although you might not want to visit with the kids – this area is particularly popular with nudist and skinny dippers.
9. Fig Tree Bay, Protaras, Cyprus
Fig Tree Bay, which is situated on the eastern tip of Cyprus, has had a long reputation as one of the finest beaches in Europe and has been listed among the best coastlines in the world.
The name comes from the fig trees that line the 500-metre long beach that has been awarded a Blue Flag.
As well as soaking up the sun on the golden sand and paddling in the crystal clear water, you’ll find plenty of activities on offer in this area. As well as watersports including water skiing, windsurfing and parasailing, there is a small island you can easily swim to and explore. The shallow water is perfect for little ones.
At the top of the bay you’ll find a café and there is a car park, if you’re driving.
10. Praia de Augas Santas, Galicia, Spain
If you don’t recognise the name of this beach it may be that you have heard it called something else. Its nickname is Praia das Catedrais – The Cathedral Beach – due to the fact that the Atlantic Ocean has carved away at the rocks. As a result, it has formed archways along the Galician coast.
Some of the arches on this unique beach are more than 90 feet tall. It’s so impressive that it has been declared a ‘National Monument’ by the local Ministry of Environment and is listed among the best in the world.
The beach, which is situated in the Lugo province near the city of Ribadeo in northwest Spain, is quite small at high tide and the arches are only accessible when the tide is out.
Need to know: To ensure this beach, which has grown in popularity, remains unspoilt, the numbers have been limited to 5000 each day during the summer. It’s free but you’ll need a reservation. You must book on Galician regional government website more than 30 days in advance.
11. Spiaggia dei Conigli, Lampedusa, Sicily
This is another beach you may know by a different name. Spiaggia dei Conigli, which is located in the Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea, is better known as Rabbit Beach.
Despite the name, you’re unlikely to find any of these furry creatures. In fact, you’re more likely to see loggerhead turtles who lay their eggs here.
The name comes from the fact that it is so close to the Isle of Rabbits. It’s believed, however, that both names actually came from a mistake in interpreting an ancient map.
This part of the coastline has become a protected nature reserve due to the turtles. You’ll find that umbrellas can only be used on half of this beach to keep the eggs safe. It is an ideal spot for wildlife lovers because you may also spot the royal gull nesting here and the psammodromus algirus lizard.
The white sand and crystal clear water has ensured this beach features among the best in Europe and among the most beautiful in the world.
12. Ölüdeniz Beach, Mugla Province, Turkey
The water here is such an intense shade of blue that it’s known as both the ‘Blue Lagoon’ and the ‘Turquoise Coast’.
This large, curved beach is situated on the south coast of Turkey near Fethiye. Mountains provide a breathtaking backdrop while you may see turtles swimming in the water.
The natural beauty of this unspoilt spot is a tranquil place to relax and unwind.
As well as being in the top beaches, it’s also one of the best places for paragliding in Europe. The spectacular views, during a one-hour ride from Babadag Mountain, make the experience even more incredible.
These beaches may sound impressive but you really need to see them with your own eyes to truly appreciate how beautiful they are. So, pack your towel and swimwear and decide which one you’re going to visit first.