Despite it being one the world’s smallest continents, Europe’s got plenty of holiday contenders to choose from for when it’s safe to travel again. Lucy Perrin whittles down over forty countries to just 17 must-visits – along with the best ways to see them.
1. Best for foodies: Amalfi Coast, Italy
The Amalfi coast’s tightly packed hillsides of pastel-hued villages are each as photo-worthy as the next. The coastline they cling to runs from Salerno to Sorrento – with Ravello, Positano and Capri tending to be the big names on the bill. Tick off all three on a Citalia tour which throws in plenty of gourmet experiences – think Limoncello tastings in Praiano, a cooking demonstration in Tramonti and cake-making at the famous Pasticceria Sal De Riso. Full details below.
2. Best for Instagrammers: Golden Circle, Iceland
While Iceland’s dramatic landscapes demand more attention than your average supermodel –its dashing looks more than warrant it. Glacial rivers, spouting geysers and black-sand beaches compete for camera time against gushing waterfalls, spluttering volcanoes and imposing mountain ranges. Snap the best of it on a bucket list tour of the Golden Circle, with highlights including the two-tier waterfall of Gullfoss, Thingvellir National Park’s volcanic rifts and a chance to spot the northern lights with an expert astronomer.
3. Best for Game of Thrones-esque cities: Split, Croatia
Often overshadowed by neighbouring poster girl Dubrovnik, buzzy Split’s got a carefully balanced scale of centuries-old UNESCO World Heritage Site on one side and just-out-the-wrapper bars, restaurants and shops on the other. Hvar, meanwhile, impresses with gothic palaces and squares bracketed by 13th century walls. The spot you probably haven’t heard of is Korcula – an island scattered with olive groves and vineyards. Can’t choose? Don’t choose – see them all with an eight-day cruise of the coast. Full details below.
4. Best for wildlife brags: The Faroe Islands
Despite being just an hour’s flight from Edinburgh, the Faroe Islands and their orange-billed puffin colonies have managed to fly under the tourist radar – meaning you’ll have them mostly to yourself. The 18 islands, floating between Iceland and Norway, are home to plenty of seabirds – so you can expect to spot everything from guillemots, fulmars and storm petrels to the famous Faroe Island puffins. See them on a four-day tour that also ticks off plenty of historical sites and charming capital cities.
5. Best for tradition: Lisbon, Portugal
Of all the up-and-coming destinations in Europe, Lisbon picks up points for being the most authentic with white-domed churches and canary yellow trams snaking their way around its cobbled streets. Accommodation-wise, you’ll find something at both ends of the scale, with luxurious hotels and family-run B&Bs neighbouring each other. And, when it comes to dinner, there are plenty of world class restaurants that plate up Portuguese classic dishes – don’t forget to try Caldo Verde, a tantalizing soup made up of onions, potatoes and kale, cooked with garlic and olive oil. Got longer than a few days? Head on a day trip to Sintra, a town home to a fairytale-worthy castle that spills down the hillside.
6. Best for beaches: Albania
You can easily spot Corfu from across the Ionian Sea, but Albania’s coast is a world away from its Greek neighbour. For beach lovers who want something a little different, explore the laid-back resorts that cluster around the Butrint National Park in the south of the country.
The village of Ksamil is studded with beaches, all of which have the full facilities you would expect, including beach clubs, water sports and play areas. Hire a boat to take you across to the tiny islands in Ksamil’s bay – or you can rent a paddle board or even swim across if you’re a keen swimmer.
7. Best for tranquility: Gozo
Feel time slow down in Malta’s little sister island, which is a magnet for visitors looking for some much-needed tranquillity as well as unusual landscapes and fine beaches. Sleepy Gozo takes you back to a time when life moved at a more relaxed pace, where you can stroll past Roman ruins along the red sands of Ramla Bay and explore the mysterious Neolithic Ggantija Temples.
Take leisurely hikes along trails that offer views of layer-cake cliffs, or discover rich marine life while diving in the Blue Hole. The cuisine is just as marvellous, blending Maltese with Sicilian and Arabic flavours.
8. Best for pretty old towns: Slovenia
Slovenia’s 27-mile coast is tiny but it packs a punch. Travellers wanting to combine history with some beach time should head for the exquisite fishing village of Piran. Jutting into the Adriatic on a little peninsula, Piran’s Old Town is a beautifully preserved warren of Venetian Gothic architecture. Climb the 17th-century bell tower of St George’s Cathedral for wonderful views of the harbour and a sea of terracotta rooftops.
Join the locals on the rocky beach for a swim before checking out the enticing seafood restaurants along the seafront. You’ll be instantly beguiled by Piran’s irresistible mix of Slovenian and Italian cuisine.
9. Best for a buzzing atmosphere: Lebanon
If you love good food and wine – not to mention the buzzing atmosphere of a coastal metropolis – you can’t pass up the chance to see Beirut. Here, life is lived outdoors along the Corniche in its seafront cafés, bars and restaurants, where you can savour superb wines from the Bekaa Valley and some of the best cuisine in the Middle East.
For something a little calmer, head to the ancient Phoenician city of Byblos, one of the oldest in the region. Immerse yourself in thousands of years of history among the ruins left by the Persians, Greeks, Crusaders and Egyptians.
10. Best for variety: Montenegro
Montenegro pretty much has it covered for travellers looking for variety. Want a classic beach holiday with a bit of history thrown in? Try Budva, a busy resort that comes with a lovely Venetian old town as well as the beaches of neighbouring Becici.
In search of compelling culture and history in a breathtaking setting? Explore the medieval and Baroque beauty of Kotor and its hilltop castle. Carry on further south to Bar, whose old town, Stari Bar, is now an atmospheric ruin. Or get away from it all in Lake Skadar, where you can go kayaking in one of Europe’s largest untouched wildernesses.
11. Best for craggy coastlines: Corsica, France
France’s largest Mediterranean outpost deserves its nickname of Île de Beauté. Craggy coastlines harbour sandy beaches and incredibly clear waters backed by towering cliffs. Stylish port towns all around Corsica’s coast offer a bewildering choice of places to visit, including fashionable Calvi on the northwest coast, Genovese-style Ajaccio on the western side and the mind-boggling sight of Bonafacio clinging to the cliffs on the southern tip.
Oddly, Corsican cuisine looks to its mountainous interior for inspiration more so than the sea: expect to find full-flavoured wild boar saucisson and pungent sheep’s milk cheese, accompanied by exceptionally good rosé.
12. Best for dramatic landscapes: Santorini, Greece
Santorini’s volcanic landscapes are pure drama, from the caldera’s stark reddish-brown cliffs to its black-sand Aegean beaches to the familiar blue domes and whitewashed houses of its villages. Clinging to the edge of the caldera is the village of Fira, from where you can take a jaw-dropping zigzagging path that slices through the cliff down to the port.
For the classic blue-and-white view of Santorini, head to the northwestern village of Oia, whose whitewashed cottages seem to tumble down the cliff. The island produces some of Greece’s finest wines, which you can discover for yourself on a tour of the cellars.
13. Best for fancy capitals: Corfu, Greece
One of Greece’s greenest islands, Corfu also has one of the most attractive capitals. Unesco-listed Corfu Town mixes a handsome Venetian heritage with 19th-century contributions by the British. Head to the town’s easternmost tip to Palaio Frourio, a 16th-century Venetian fortress that offers far-reaching views as well as a small Byzantine museum.
Corfu’s northwest coast has sandy beaches tucked into olive-covered hills and plenty of places to relax, such as Agios Georgios and Afionas. If you want to follow in the footsteps of the Durrell family, you’ll find some of their old haunts around Kouloura cove on the northeast coast.
Oia Santorini Greece
14. Best for pretty squares: Ibiza, Spain
Put aside for a moment Ibiza’s reputation as the party capital of the Mediterranean and discover the serene beauty of this Balearic island. Its cove beaches, known as calas, are truly lovely, while thick pine forests smother the island’s hilly interior. Duck behind the medieval walls of the Unesco-listed capital, Ibiza Town, and explore cobbled streets and pretty squares such as Plaça de Vila. Take in panoramic views of the harbour from the hilly vantage point of the 13th-century cathedral.
Cala Jondal on the southern coast is one of the island’s most chilled-out beaches and lies in the shelter of pine-covered hills.
15. Best for glamour: Sardinia, Italy
Sardinia’s countless sandy beaches are among the whitest in Europe. You’d almost think you had landed in the Caribbean when you stroll along the pale sands of Su Giudeu on the Costa del Sud. If you prefer a taste of glamour, head to the glittering beaches of the Costa Smeralda squeezed into its northern jagged coastline. History buffs can explore the Phoenician ruins at Nora or the nuraghic site of Su Nuraxi.
Catalan flavours infuse the flavours of Alghero’s cuisine, while in the south, the island’s capital, Cagliari, makes the most of the fruits of the sea.
16. Best for botanical gardens: Madeira
Seemingly marooned in the Atlantic off the coast of Morocco, this mountainous Portuguese archipelago has an enviable subtropical climate and an exotic lushness to match. Take in some of the finest views on the main island from the slightly scary viewpoint of Cabo Girao, where there’s a glass-bottomed balcony for the brave. Explore the capital, Funchal, by taking the cable car up to the Botanical Gardens.
Take the ferry to Porto Santo, where you’ll find many of Madeira’s best beaches. And don’t leave without raising a glass of the fortified wine that takes its name from the islands.
17. Best for historical capitals: Malta
Tiny Malta, closer to Tunisia than to mainland Europe, is a fascinating hotchpotch of historical influences that have built up over seven millennia. Its equally diminutive Baroque capital, Valletta, sits snugly behind 16th-century bastions and spent 2018 as the European City of Culture, showing off its legacy as the city built by the Knights of St John.
Malta‘s sister island of Gozo has some astounding natural wonders built into its unusual coastline, as well as prehistoric temples that nobody can quite explain. Add to the mix some sublime beaches and a cuisine that blends Sicilian, Arab and Italian flavours.