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The 20 Mediterranean islands you must visit in your lifetime

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 16/08/2022 Telegraph Travel
best mediteranean islands holidays where travel sardinia maddalena archipelago - Getty © Getty best mediteranean islands holidays where travel sardinia maddalena archipelago - Getty

Is it the sea, the strange sense of security, or just that wonderful feeling of escaping from life on the mainland that makes an island break so special? Whatever the exact chemistry, islands make brilliant holiday destinations, and nowhere more so than in the Mediterranean. With the help of our experts, we’ve created the definitive list – selecting the best island in each of 10 categories, with a runner-up in case you fancy somewhere different.

Best for beaches

1. Winner: Corfu, Greece

The warm turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea are hard to beat. From tiny pockets of pebbled perfection hidden beneath firs and pines along the somewhat swanky yet still unspoilt northeastern coast to surprisingly long, wide swathes of golden sand to the west, there’s a beach to keep everyone happy on Corfu

Families gravitate toward the larger beaches that are furnished with sun loungers, in easy reach of a taverna or two and replete with water sports. The more adventurous tackle rocky trails that lead to the island’s most secluded and astonishingly beautiful swimming spots. See our expert’s pick of the best beaches in Corfu, and our favourite hotels on the island.

2. Runner-up: Formentera, Spain

As soon as you kick off your flip-flops, step on to the warm white sand and gaze into the gently rippling transparent water that surrounds Formentera, you’ll understand why the tiny island just south of Ibiza is so often compared to the Caribbean. Some parts of Migjorn beach, which curves around the south of the island, get busy in summer, but you can always find a quiet spot. Take your snorkel and mask to Ses Platgetes, a string of tiny coves protected by pines, with boat shacks and places where the freshest fish is always on the grill. See our pick of the best hotels in Formentera

Formentera beach holiday island - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph Formentera beach holiday island - Getty

Best for luxury

3. Winner: Sardinia, Italy

Sardinia has been drawing the wealthiest clients since the Aga Khan stumbled on the island 60 years ago. There was only one small coastal strip that interested Prince Karim, however: the Costa Smeralda, which today has all the essential ingredients of a luxury enclave: fabulous beaches that eschew the regimented and overdeveloped in favour of the natural style, a romantic backdrop of granite peaks, bars and boutiques where the top brands are flaunted, and yachts aplenty. The hotels match up too, most with their own private strands not to mention fairways and helicopter pads – but prices can be eye-watering. See our pick of the best hotels in Sardinia

4. Runner-up: Cavallo, France

Dubbed the Mustique of the Med, Cavallo – between Corsica and Sardinia – has beaches of otherworldly beauty and an intriguing past. First it drew Romans, who cut columns from its granite to build their Eternal City; then, two millennia later, Parisians, when 1960s disco king Jean Castel bought Cavalló and built a nightclub and surreal cave-houses. Catherine Deneuve, Sasha Distel and Princess Caroline of Monaco flew in to eat lobster, drink champagne, and dance barefoot on the sand – a scene that grew increasingly hedonistic, the villas ever more dazzling, until the 1990s when environmentalists put a stop to further development. 

Now it’s owned by a syndicate of landowners, who safeguard its wildflower coast and rake its shores free of seaweed and litter. Lobster and champagne remain the order of the day at its only hotel, which hosts a new generation of celebrity – Beyoncé, Bono, Ronaldo. See hoteldespecheurs.com. Alternatively rent a villa via cavalloisland.com.

cavallo beach holiday island - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph cavallo beach holiday island - Getty

Best for families

5. Winner: Majorca, Spain

With its rugged coastline, sandy beaches and clear sapphire waters, Majorca is one of the jewels of the Mediterranean. Away from the coastline’s sheltered coves and dreamy sunsets, you’ll find the agricultural heartland and the Tramuntana mountains – a Unesco World Heritage site blossoming with orange, lemon and almond trees.

Majorca mallorca holiday beach family - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph Majorca mallorca holiday beach family - Getty

With dozens of child-friendly beaches, plenty of activities both in and out of the water for kids of all ages – plus parents and grandparents – and resorts of all shapes and sizes, Majorca is also unbeatable for a family holiday. Platja de Muro, on the north-east coast, has a long stretch of golden sand and shallow water where small children can paddle safely. Just up the coast, the resort of Port de Alcudia offers a huge range of watersports. Cala Mesquida on the east coast, framed by dunes and pine forests, is popular with windsurfers and walkers.

6. Runner-up: Brač, Croatia

One of the closest islands to Split on the central Dalmatian coast, Brač is home to Croatia’s most Instagrammable beach, Zlatni Rat – a finger of fine sand and shingle protruding off the coast from the small town of Bol, its shape ever changing with the surrounding currents. For older children, it is also one of Croatia’s top watersports destinations, with windsurfing, kayaking and kiteboarding all popular, and there’s no shortage of family-friendly hotels with pools. See our pick of the best hotels on Brac

Best for culture

7. Winner: Sicily, Italy

The range of cultural sights in Sicily is extraordinary, from the little island of Motya, with its Phoenician ruins, to the great ancient Greek cities of Agrigento, Selinunte, Syracuse and the Doric temple at Segesta. At Piazza Armerina are some of the most charming and extensive series of Roman mosaics to survive anywhere. But even these barely stand comparison with the amazing 12th-century golden mosaics in the great cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalu, and the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. If you prefer something more recent, there are the magnificent baroque towns of Catania and Noto. See our pick of the best hotels in Sicily

8. Runner-up: Cyprus

Cyprus can’t quite compete with the riches of Sicily, but it does have some treasures of its own. Some of the key sights are in the Turkish north, notably the Roman ruins at Salamis outside Famagusta, and the Byzantine/Venetian castles at Kyrenia and Hilarion. But south of the border are some remarkable Roman mosaics at Paphos, and all over the island some wonderful Byzantine churches, many with ancient wall-paintings. See our pick of the best hotels in Cyprus.

cyprus holiday island culture - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph cyprus holiday island culture - Getty

Best for romance

9. Winner: Santorini, Greece

The Cycladic island of Santorini is romantic almost to the point of cliché. Views west from its caldera rim, whether at sunrise or sunset, reliably mesmerise couples from around the globe. At dusk, especially between Oia and Thirasiá, excursion schooners in full sail glide across the improbably cobalt-blue waters of the caldera, under a frequently orange-streaked sky. Firostefáni and Oia are the classiest bases. Ikies Traditional Houses in Oia or Voreina Gallery Suites in lofty Pyrgos are best for lovers. See our pick of the best hotels in Santorini

santorini island romantic holiday - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph santorini island romantic holiday - Getty

10. Runner-up: Symi, Greece

If you’d prefere somewhere a little less crowded, there’s Symi. It has one of the most picturesque harbours in Greece, crowded with pastel-coloured houses, bars, tavernas and chic boutiques, and dozens of tiny beaches accessible only by boat. It also offers a wonderfully authentic Greek experience and some of the best food on any of its islands. See our pick of the best hotels in Symi.

Best for partying

11. Winner: Ibiza, Spain

Ibiza has exerted a potent pull on the world’s wandering spirits for centuries. The Carthaginians were the first settlers to be drawn to its shores, and in the ensuing years the Moors, the Romans and even pilfering pirates all took turns to stake their claim on this magnificent island in the Med. Such checkered heritage no doubt contributes to the mesmerising melting pot of influences visible on Ibiza today, not to mention its reputation as a cradle for everyman. 

It was, and remains, entirely without discrimination – a place for free thinkers to doze and dream. Consequently, it’s been home to everyone over the years, from creatives fleeing suppression to hippies on the hunt for limitless liberty – and while these days it’s probably most famous for its dazzling sunsets and thundering nightlife scene, that quintessential bohemian spirit lingers. Whether on a beach, a dancefloor, or a yoga mat, few are able to resist its unmistakable magic. See our pick of the best hotels in Ibiza.

12. Runner-up: Mykonos, Greece

It feels as if the wider world has only recently ‘discovered’ Mykonos, now mentioned in the same breath as Ibiza or Miami – yet it has appealed to A-list celebrities and those who embrace an alternative lifestyle since the Fifties and Sixties. Back then, those stars included Brigitte Bardot and Jackie Onassis; today you’re more likely to find Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan. 

mykonos greece island holiday party - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph mykonos greece island holiday party - Getty

As well as being a place to party, it’s profoundly beautiful. Stroll round the alluring main town, Chora, past sugar-cube-shaped buildings, their chalk-white walls accentuated by bright blue doors and shutters, and framed by colourful flowers, or hop over to the nearby island of Delos, a sacred site held to be the birthplace of Apollo. Nothing changes, or happens, very fast here; order a freddo espresso by the Old Port, and people-watch to your heart’s content. Do the same with a cocktail at the Skandinavian Bar by night, when the island’s denizens really come out to play. See our pick of the best hotels in Mykonos.

Best for value

13. Winner: Malta

With 300 days of sunshine a year, some of the Med’s clearest waters and an astonishing density of historic sights, you’d be forgiven for thinking Malta might be expensive. Not so. Accommodation is excellent value, hire cars are cheap and eating out can be a bargain compared to elsewhere in Europe. Many low-cost airlines fly here, keeping air fares competitive. Malta’s bus system is also inexpensive and extensive; from Valletta you can get pretty much anywhere on the island for a couple of euros. See our pick of the best hotels in Malta.

malta holiday island - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph malta holiday island - Getty

14. Runner-up: Rhodes, Greece

This classic bucket-and-spade destination is well served by both low-cost airlines and package tour operators, meaning affordable holidays are easy to find. And its highlights don’t cost a penny, from days lolling on long, sandy beaches and strolls around its Unesco World Heritage-listed capital to hikes across its verdant interior. 

The northern half of the island is the most developed tourism-wise and where most hotels are located, including multiple all-inclusive options. New, high-end resorts are slowly unfolding along the south-eastern coast. The wind-whipped western side is where you’ll find serene, umbrella-free beaches amid a landscape of dramatic mountains, low shrubs and castle ruins. See our pick of the best hotels in Rhodes.

Best for watersports and sailing

15. Winner: Lefkada, Greece

Large bays and consistently strong winds lure thousands of windsurfers, kitesurfers and sailors to the Greek island of Lefkada. Vassiliki, on the south-west coast, and Nydri, on the east, are the main bases. Rental firms line the seafront in both resorts. But the island is not just about shooting the breeze. Gorgeous fine shingle beaches backed by sheer white cliffs, typical of the Ionian, are found all along the west coast (Egremni and Porto Katsiki are the most dramatic). See our pick of the best hotels in Lefkada.

16. Runner-up: Menorca, Spain

Fornells Bay, on the north coast of Menorca, is one of the best and safest places in the Mediterranean to learn dinghy sailing and windsurfing. It forms a vast, sheltered natural harbour, with generally steady winds and flat, clear waters. There are several sailing schools, Minorca Sailing being one of the best. See our pick of the best hotels in Menorca.

menorca island holiday - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph menorca island holiday - Getty

Best for peace and quiet

17. Winner: Vis, Croatia

For years closed to foreigners, when it served as a Yugoslav naval military base (1944-1989), the Croatian island of Vis remains blissfully unspoilt. Today its tumbledown stone cottages are gradually being renovated. Locals line up along the quay to greet the ferry, laden with deliveries from the mainland, but many visitors arrive by sailing boat, lured by peaceful turquoise coves, authentic seafood eateries and organic wines. If you want a back-to-nature escape, Vis is for you. See our pick of the best hotels in Vis.

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18. Capraia, Italy

“You mean Capri?” This is the most common response when you tell people you’re off to the Italian island of Capraia. But the inhabitants of this mountainous raft between the Tuscan coast and Corsica aren’t bothered by the confusion. It suits them just fine. They know that those intrepid visitors who make the long crossing on the ferry from Livorno are not ticking off boxes on a grand tour of Italy. They disembark here precisely because it’s not Capri. 

Both islands most likely derive their name from the Italian word for goat: ‘capra’. Both are rugged places of a wild beauty – except that one – Capri – was discovered by the Italian and international jetset and became a byword for Mediterranean glamour and luxury, while the other – Capraia – remained simple and relatively unexplored. See our pick of the best things to see and do in Capraia

Best for walking

19. Winner: Crete, Greece

Crete’s wild west is where to find the island’s top walks, which compare with some of the best in Europe. Fly to Chania and explore the hinterland behind Kissamos, following old shepherds’ trails into a gloriously unspoilt region of stunning beaches, snow-capped mountains and dramatic gorges. The most famous trek is the gruelling 10-mile hike down the Samaria Gorge. Two walking seasons avoid the fierce midsummer heat: mid-April to mid-June and September to October. See our pick of the best hotels in Crete.

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20. Runner-up: Corsica, France

One of the great walks of Europe is the spectacular two-week trek along the high mountainous spine of Corsica. It’s not for the faint-hearted. The track, known as the GR20, is rough and remote, and crosses only a handful of roads over its entire length, and you’ll have to camp and carry your own food. See our pick of the best hotels in Corsica.

Do you have a favourite Mediterranean island? Please let us know in the comments below

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