I made it my goal when I moved to Germany more than three years ago to travel to as much of the Mediterranean Coast as I possibly could. Now that I’m back in Maryland, melting in the unbearable humidity and preparing for a trip to Bethany Beach, it’s about time to reflect on all those trips to the Mediterranean and Europe’s other coastlines, because let’s face it—nothing makes me happier than being, or imagining myself in some post-Covid dream state, on the water.
Some of these beaches are sandy, some are rocky, some are more like coves that just beg you to lay your towel on a rock and go for a swim. And, well, there’s a surprise kind of beach at the end. For me, they’re all incredible in their own ways.
I want to add a disclaimer for people with Pinterest dreams like mine: a lot of the breathtaking beaches you see online can only be reached by boat. This severely limited our options, especially in places like the Greek islands where we only had 8 hours because we were on a cruise. Either that or you really needed a private boat to get to them, and we certainly didn’t have that kind of money. I truly wish I had more time in my travels to get to these deserted stretches of sand; however, the accessibility and cost, or lack thereof, of the beaches I’ve listed below is an important factor in why they’re so nice. We certainly don’t need to be stressed on vacation!
Praia da Dona Ana, Lagos, Portugal
This is hands-down my favorite beach in my favorite place in Europe: the Algarve! This southern region of Portugal has endless coves, caves and cliff-lined sandy shores to explore by hiking, swimming, kayaking or boating. Praia Dona Ana is right in one of the Algarve’s major towns, Lagos, a destination we loved so much we had to return to it for a second visit. While the beach is nestled in a cove surrounded by rocks and cliffs, it’s still wide enough that sunbathers and swimmers can spread out. There is a small restaurant with tables and to-go service where we like to get cheap cheeseburgers to eat for lunch, and it’s hard to resist the lined-up loungers with sun shades when you consider your only other option is to lie in the sand like a true European. Daring explorers can take advantage of low tide and walk through a small tunnel at the northeastern end of the beach that leads to other coves. Now that’s something we’re not used to in Maryland! Other honorable mentions include Praia do Barranco do Martinho, which requires a steep climb down sketchy steps; the beach inside Benagil Cave, which you can only get to by boat, kayaking, or swimming when it’s safe; and Praia da Marinha.
If you’re visiting the French Riviera, you will 100 percent have to stop by or stay in the seaside city of Nice. But the beach in Nice is composed of huge stones that could very well give you bruises if you decided to lie down on them. Just a quick bus ride in the direction of Monaco will lead to this adorable, mini-version of Nice, where the sand is a normal grain size and there are far fewer tourists. Colorful houses stand at the bottom of tall hills, making it a postcard-perfect spot to spend the day. However, the beach is rather small—I went on a Monday in April and there were still quite a few people—so this is probably a better option in the shoulder season than the summer.
The Blue Lagoon, Comino, Malta
This is not much of a beach at all, but it is without a doubt the most beautiful water I’ve ever seen. On a sunny day, the angle of reflection of light on the water creates this glowing turquoise color that will have you taking off your sunglasses because you’ll want to see it unfiltered. There is a tiny bit of sand but really just lots of rocks on the small uninhabited island of Comino, which you can easily hike all the way around. But once you step from the small sandy mound at the edge into the Blue Lagoon, you feel the most powdery softness on your feet and are wading in water so clear you would think you could drink it. The two times I went to Malta were both in March, so it was barely warm enough to get in the water, but that also meant fewer crowds. Boats take you to Comino for the day from the major port cities on the main island of Malta.
Turkish Steps, Sicily, Italy
I had been dreaming about this specific rock formation ever since I moved to Europe—it was one of those Pinterest dreams, as in I saw a most-likely photoshopped photo on social media and decided I had to go. I went in November so it was not bathing suit and swimming weather, but I still was in awe of this southern part of Sicily’s coastline. A 5-minute walk along a sandy beach led to a sudden change in landscape as you stumble upon layers and layers of white sedimentary rock that form a staircase shape for visitors to “climb.” This sudden, dramatic contrast between sand and rock made my jaw drop. It is one of the most mind-blowing geological formations I’ve ever seen and would make a perfect backdrop for a swim in summer months.
Reynisfjara, Vik, Iceland
Traveling Europe taught me that not every beach has to be a sunny one with white sand and turquoise water. In fact, as I look back at my photos from this famous black sand beach in Iceland, they almost look like I’ve used a black and white filter. Nope, it was just THAT dreary a winter day in Iceland, but there is no beach more unique than this one for me. I stood by the waves in my sturdy hiking boots, trying to capture pictures and running away like a small child every time the water came near me. The sand really was black, matching the rest of the lava rock landscapes of the island nation. This is also a beach where you not only want to look out at the horizon, but you also have to turn around and gaze at the huge stone cliffs with this insane, choppy, angular texture that makes you realize why this was the perfect setting for filming the Iron Islands in Game of Thrones. The stone pillars offshore are also iconic thanks to the TV series.
Cala del Moro, Mallorca, Spain
Situated off the eastern coast of Spain, Mallorca is the largest of the Balearic Islands, and my personal favorite island that I’ve been to in the Mediterranean. It is an extremely touristy party destination, full of bachelor and bachelorette parties from the UK and bikers from Germany, but if you go to the right spot (i.e. not the resort towns full of clubs), you will have a peaceful natural landscape dotted with beach towns offering a surprisingly modern culinary scene and a laid-back atmosphere. The island is full of rocky coves, called “calas,” and Cala del Moro was the most stunning for me. We arrived when it was slightly cloudy, but the sun quickly emerged and turned the water a fluorescent aquamarine color. A steep hike down the hill took us to the water’s edge, which was calm and relatively shallow in its sheltered location. The area does get crowded, so I recommend getting there early enough to find a spot on the rocks to leave your belongings and to get some pictures without tons of people ruining them. Also on the island, I recommend Cala Ratjada for a wider, sandier beach that is more comfortable for spending the day.
Banje Beach, Dubrovnik, Croatia
In general, the beaches closest to a city’s center tended to be overcrowded and not the pristine landscape I was hoping for. Banje Beach was indeed more packed and rockier than I would have wanted, but there is nothing more exciting than cooling off in the water with the medieval walls and terra-cotta roofs of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, or King’s Landing to Game of Thrones fans, within view. Like Villefranche, this is another beach situated at the bottom of a huge hill, and when you compare it to America’s east coast beaches where there isn’t any sort of incline to be seen for miles, it truly is a spectacular feeling—like you’re small and insignificant in a humbling way. Sorry for the gushiness, but for anyone who knows me, have I ever not been gushy???
Agios Petros Beach, Corfu, Greece
Of all the beaches I saw in Greece, this one was definitely the most impressive. I feel like Santorini and Mykonos get so much hype, but after seeing them on our cruise, Corfu was the most scenic of the islands. Unlike most of the Mediterranean, it has a humid climate so the land is lush with greenery. That also meant I was super sweaty so taking a quick dip after a boat tour of the cliffs nearby was imperative and highly appreciated. This was another rocky beach, so if you go, go for the swim.
Kašjuni Beach, Split, Croatia
Just a quick Uber drive (if you’re American) or bus or bike ride (if you’re from anywhere else) will take you from Split’s downtown to this inlet within a gorgeous forest park. It’s the perfect escape from the city life and worlds nicer than Bačvice, the beach right in town. Like many of the other Mediterranean beaches I’ve described, walking on the “sand,” a.k.a. broken-up rocks, will destroy your feet, but as long as you have a cocktail or glass of wine in hand from the beach bar, you won’t feel a thing! Additionally, the beach bar serves up lunch, which is surprisingly delicious, and has really nice loungers and cabanas for rent if you feel like saving yourself some pain…treat yourself when you’re on vacation!
Het Zwin Nature Preserve, Belgium/Netherlands
At the beach here, you can cross the border from Belgium to the Netherlands without even knowing it! We came here for a quick morning walk in early May as we drove from Bruges to Amsterdam. Obviously, it was quite cold and pretty windy, but it was the flat, vast landscape that I am used to for the beach. It was peaceful with hikers and bikers, the ideal mode of transport for people in this region. I never returned to the Netherlands after an awful experience in Amsterdam, but I have heard of many Americans we knew in Germany who loved driving out to the North Sea coast of the country for easy beach vacations.
Playa de la Malvarrosa, Valencia, Spain
I am shocked myself to say that this city beach was my favorite in mainland Spain. While Valencia is the country’s third largest city, its shore was a quick bus ride from downtown and far enough away that you felt like you were getting an escape from the urban setting. The beach is long and wide with plenty of space for everyone to spread out. I also appreciated the lack of humidity there, as the climate feels like a desert on the coast, and I was not sweating at all! In that same trip I went to Alicante, an hour south by train, which is more built-up right on the beach, but it was still beautiful, and in the six-day trip, I think I saw a total of one cloud. On the south coast of Spain, Malaga also had a nice city beach, but it was definitely more congested because there wasn’t as much sand.
City Beach, Frankfurt, Germany
I know this isn’t a REAL beach, but I’m throwing it in for fun! One thing I loved while living in Germany was how they made do with being so far from the seaside by building fake beach bars, and this one is on a rooftop right in the middle of Frankfurt. The views of the skyline remind you you’re in the city while the sand, lounge chairs, cabanas, and wading pools take you south to the shore.
Beach Destinations I Still Wish To Visit
Crete: I’ve heard that Greece’s largest island is home to white sand beaches. All the beaches I went to in Greece were mostly rocky, so I would love to see some Caribbean powdery sand on the Mediterranean.
Montenegro: I was only in Montenegro for about three hours during our cruise, and we spent that whole time hiking, but I’ve heard only good things about its beaches. And perhaps it could be less crowded as it’s more underrated? I feel like Greece got popular, so people started going to Croatia, and now Croatia is so popular, so it’s only a matter of time before tourists discover the beauty of this other Adriatic country.
San Sebastián, Spain: Apparently this is the culinary capital of Europe, so there’s one obvious reason why I want to go, but the beach looks just as worthy of a trip. I’m still waiting for the beaches of mainland Spain to wow me as much as other spots on the Mediterranean, so maybe this one in the north of the country on the Bay of Biscay will be better.