European summer escapes were on my mind at this time every year during the many years we lived in the Middle East. A summer in Europe split between its sophisticated cities and the Mediterranean sand and sunshine was my idea of heaven. Here’s a personal guide to my favourite spots for European summer escapes.
European Summer Escapes — City, Sun and Sand
Summer is upon us in the northern hemisphere — the time to start thinking about European summer escapes.
If you structure your seasons by calendar months, as Australia does, summer would have begun on the weekend on the first day of June. If you follow the sun and farmers almanacs as much of the northern hemisphere does, then it will begin on summer solstice, when the sun reaches its highest point on June 21st. Although in Iceland, summer started in April!
Not that we really have any sense of summer in the tropics. We essentially have one long hot season that lasts from March to September that shifts between sizzling, scorching, sweltering and sticky and we increasingly get more rain as we move toward the wettest monsoonal months of October and November. Things begin to cool the closer we get to our few months of ‘winter’, which is more like autumn.
Because we won’t be enjoying any European summer escapes this year, I thought we should encourage you to take some. I’ll be looking forward to the European summer in spirit, as it was such a big part of our lives during the years we lived in Dubai, but hopefully you’ll get to enjoy some time on the continent.
My recent story on underrated cities in Europe that we love had me reminiscing about the many long, relatively dry, sultry summers we spent in Europe — eight glorious weeks each year soaking up history, culture, art, and music, gorging on divine food washed down with wonderful local wines, then retreating to a beach or island for some down-time.
One of the things I miss about living in that part of the world is the abundance of no-frills flights that enabled us to bounce around Europe. I’ll never forget when we flew from London to Brussels for just 99p and from there to Venice for just a fraction more. We spent the money we’d saved on flights on a water taxi direct from the airport to our door.
We’d often start our European summer escapes in capitals like London for a taste of the big city before jumping on a European low cost airline to a smaller destination in Spain or France or Italy for beach time.
Because I’m not the kind of person who can go to a resort and lie in the sun all day every day anymore, I need the stimulation that comes from being close to a city or town: busy streets and buzzy local markets, good restaurants and bars, museums and galleries, concerts and festivals — all the things that make European cities so fabulous, especially in summer.
So this time I’m compiling a list for you of some of our favourite cities and towns that make for easy European summer escapes due to their airports — essential if you have limited time – and have great beaches on their doorsteps or a short drive away.
Our Favourite European Summer Escapes
Most people probably don’t associate Portugal‘s UNESCO World Heritage listed city of Porto with beaches. For those, their thoughts lead to the Algarve. Port wine would be the first thing that comes to mind, then the beauty of this hilly, atmospheric city, with its austere cathedral and elegant buildings decorated with blue and white azulejos tiles, and perhaps its proximity to the Minho and Douro valleys and their distinctive wines.
But the city also boasts beautiful nearby beaches, some accessible by foot along the riverside esplanade, others by public transport. Foz is the closest, a one-hour amble along the waterfront, where the Douro River meets the sea. A few kilometres north are the surfing beaches of Matosinhos, with well-regarded surf schools as well as cafés, bars and restaurants at this port town.
On the southern side of the river, the beaches of Vila Nova de Gaia, such as Lavadores, Madalena, Salgueiros, and Miramar have creamy soft sand, seafront esplanades, wooden boardwalks, and more beachfront eateries and drinking spots.
On Portugal’s southern Algarve coast, pristine Ilha da Barreta remains fairly off the beaten track and feels remote, yet it’s just a short boat ride away from Faro. In the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, which is teeming with birdlife and popular with birdwatchers, there’s almost 10 kilometres of empty soft-sand beach. There are umbrellas for hire, great snorkelling, nature walks, and an eco-friendly restaurant with a solar-powered kitchen.
If you’re looking for a livelier base, Tavira, a one-hour drive down the coast, is charming. It has a special place in our hearts, as it was our first beach escape on our inaugural European summer holiday after moving to the Middle East many years ago.
These days, the Portuguese say that Tavira is what the Algarve was like before tourism. Expect cobblestone streets, riverside cafés, whitewashed buildings with pretty balconies and azulejo tiles, plenty of domed-churches, castle ruins, and red and blue fishing boats bobbing in the river. You can access a handful of beaches by boats that leave the port, but our favourite was unspoilt Tavira Island, also part of the Ria Formosa nature reserve. Pack a picnic lunch.
Palma, the capital of Spain’s island of Mallorca, is the departure point for some of the best European summer escapes. Palma has dozens of beaches on its doorstep, such as Magaluf, Palma Nova and Torrenova. But they are terribly crowded and eating and drinking options consist of fast food joints and Irish pubs. Rent a car, however, and you can do road trips to stunning, unspoilt stretches of sand.
It’s a slow but scenic drive along winding roads and then a sweaty scramble to the beaches of Cala de Deià, Cala de Sa Calobra, Platja Formentor, and Cala Sant Vicenç, but they are some of the prettiest, with crystal clear water and enchanting settings. There are even more alluring, yet more remote, wild beaches accessed along rough mountain roads, such as Cala Torta, Cala Mitjana, Cala Estreta, and Cala Mesquida.
A little easier to get to are Cala Mondrago with two clear-water coves backed by sand dunes, and the five kilometre long, white-sand Es Trenc, which feels tropical. Take picnic hampers and some shade, as there are few facilities at some of these beaches.
Even more accessible is lovely Cala Santanyí near the whitewashed fishing village of Cala Figuera; the bay at Porto Colom, which boasts pine-shaded beaches and is dotted with beach house rentals, and Porto Cristo, where swimming pontoons float on a shimmering bay surrounded by craggy cliffs.
One of our favourite destinations in France, Perpignan is fabulous for foodies and festival-lovers, and is one of our favourite European summer escapes as it’s also handy to some beautiful beaches, just a short drive away.
A warning: before you get to these alluring stretches of sand there are some drab town beaches along the way, backed by ugly apartment buildings, with few appealing attributes, so avoid them.
Of the stunners, 23 kilometres south of Perpignan, Argèles has soft cream-sand beaches bordered by promenades and leafy parks overlooked by stately old villas and restaurants with terrace seating and sea views. It can get crowded in summer, however, when you should spread your towel out on comparatively quieter North Argèles instead, which attracts holidaymakers from the nearby camping grounds and beach houses.
Or drive 40 kilometres north of Perpignan, to La Franqui, where you’ll find two long, wide, white sand beaches — one skirting a cute village and the other running between the sea and an inland lake, which feels like it could be in Australia. Both are popular with wind-surfers, which means things can get breezy, so take a shelter.
Make a beeline to the south of France for the most quintessential of European summer escapes. The glamorous, jet-setting capital of southern France’s Côte d’Azur, Nice has enough to keep you entertained for weeks.
For starters, there’s the labyrinthine Vieux Nice (Old Town) to explore; the Cours Saleya to stroll on flower market mornings; and compelling museums to see, including the wonderful Musée Matisse (the legendary artist lived here from 1917 until his death in 1954); magical Musée Marc Chagall (another favourite painter of mine); and fascinating Palais Masséna (for insights into old aristocratic Nice).
Then there’s the palm-lined Promenade des Anglais, which wraps around the Bay of Angels, to amble, and an abundance of brilliant beaches — public and private — to test out. Between 20 to 40 minutes away by bus and a little less by train and car from the centre are a few of the best beaches.
Pretty Villefranche has good swimming with still water, clean coarse sand, and restaurants near the beach. Beaulieu-Sur-Mer boasts a quiet cove, clear water, and posh crowd. Close to Monaco, Cap d’Ail is surrounded by dramatic cliffs, with two private beaches with gravelly sand, although absolutely gorgeous jade-coloured sea.
Most travellers to Italy’s Florence come for the history, art and architecture. The Tuscan city is crammed with treasures. The outstanding Uffizi Gallery with its Renaissance gems, paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio, and Rubens, can occupy you for days.
Then there’s Michelangelo’s David, frescoes by Giotto, the splendid Duomo with Brunelleschi’s cupola and Ghiberti’s wonderful ‘Paradise’ doors on the baptistery, the medieval Ponte Vecchio, and Palazzo Pitti with its Medici collections.
But little do most foreign visitors know, but Florence is one of the best cities for European summer escapes with some gems not far from the city on the coast too — some of Italy’s finest beaches, including 18 beaches classified as ‘Blue Flags’, the highest rating for environmental sustainability and water quality.
The closest stretches of sand are in the upmarket Versilia area which is as well-loved for its lively nightlife as it is for its lovely long, wide beaches, which include Viareggio, Marina di Carrara, Forte dei Marmi, Pietrasanta, and Camaiore.
These are old and established too with private beaches with changing rooms, showers, sun-beds, deckchairs and umbrellas, and plenty of cafés, bars and restaurants overlooking the promenades that are as much a part of the experience as the sun and sand.
European Summer Escapes — Getting There
- There are countless low-cost airlines operating in Europe these days and it’s easy to find cheap flights to Europe’s seaside cities.
- For moving between cities, European trains are unbeatable and will always be our preference over planes.
- If you’re not straying too far away from the cities, you can use public transport, which will take you to beaches around Nice and Porto.
- If you’re travelling a bit of a distance from cities, as you would need to do from Perpignan and Florence, it’s best to hire a car. We used Europcar for many years, generally picking the vehicle up from the airport upon arrival.
- Keep in mind that during European summers accommodation can be booked out months in advance, so reserve something early. Grand hotels and B&Bs can be atmospheric but we always prefer settling in for a while into holiday rentals, whether its apartments or beach houses.
Do you have any favourite European summer escapes? We’d love to know. Feel free to share your tips below.