Europe’s Forgotten Islands

flowers on a cliff side overlooking madeira

Many people think of Europe as one large mainland, with the UK to the left and the Nordics above. However, Europe is home to not only hundreds of islands but many stunning ones with natural beauty and interesting histories.

This post is part of our series Discover Europe

Madeira, Portugal 

Madeira is perhaps the most well-known island on this list, but it deserves a mention because it’s still overlooked. Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal with a ton of mountainous terrain and subtropical climate. 

The island offers renowned hiking trails, such as the Levadas, which wind through lush forests and along steep cliffs. It’s possible to walk around Flower Island in just over a week, with accommodation and catering included with some deals. 

The capital city of Funchal has some colourful markets and historic sites, but most people head to the rugged northern coast for the stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. 

funchal viewpoint over the city in madeira

The Åland Islands, Finland 

The Åland Islands is a little-known region of Finland. It’s situated in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden. Despite being Finnish, the islands are predominantly Swedish-speaking and have a unique political status and cultural identity. The archipelago consists of over 6,500 tiny islands, offering visitors a chance to explore the scenic beauty of the Baltic coast. 

aland islands small fishing village

Åland is known for its maritime activities, with fishing and kayaking being popular pastimes. The islands also boast a rich history with medieval castles and traditional windmills, along with well-preserved wooden churches. 

Svalbard, Norway 

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. It’s a very remote destination that can feel pretty wild. It’s located above Norway, on its way towards the North Pole. Svalbard is famous for its glacial landscapes and un-European wildlife. Because it’s so far north, visitors can encounter polar bears, Arctic foxes, and reindeer which you cannot see as much of in the rest of Norway. 

an arctic alrus on the svalbard islands of norway

There are many seabirds and the island in general is an important center for polar research, with several scientific stations studying the effects of climate change on the Arctic environment. Despite its remote location, Svalbard offers comfortable accommodations and guided tours, allowing visitors to explore this fragile ecosystem at the mercy of global warming.

The Azores, Portugal 

The Azores are another stunning set of Portuguese islands in the Atlantic Ocean, renowned for their stunning subtropical climate. It’s a paradise for nature lovers, first and foremost. Born from volcanic activity, these nine islands boast a rich biodiversity, with lush forests and unique flowers.

What many don’t know is that the Azores are a prime spot for whale watching. The surrounding waters are home to over 20 species of cetaceans. Visitors can also enjoy soaking in the geothermal springs and hiking through the volcanic landscapes.

pico island in the azores overlooking the atlantic ocean from a distance

But it’s not just nature — there are many charming towns and villages. The Azores’ remote location and commitment to sustainable tourism make for an unspoiled experience.

The Orkney Islands, Scotland 

The Orkney Islands, located off the very northern coast of Scotland, have a lot of historical significance behind them. With sites dating back to the Neolithic era, such as the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae, these sites date back older than Stonehenge! 

ring of bordgar on the orkney islands of scotland

Orkney offers a unique look into ancient civilisations. The islands also boast an interesting local culture, with traditional music and festivals celebrated throughout the year. In recent years, Orkney has become a leader in renewable energy too, with innovative projects harnessing the power of wind and tides. 

Elba, Italy 

Elba is the largest island of the Tuscan Archipelago and is best known for its historical connection to Napoleon Bonaparte, who was exiled there in 1814. However, the island’s history goes back further, with evidence of Etruscan and medieval settlements. Elba is also known for its deposits of iron ore, which have been mined since ancient times. 

a beautiful beach on a sunny day in elba italy

Today, visitors head over to enjoy Elba’s incredible beaches. Fishing remains important to the island, but visitors can still find a laid-back beach environment. The island is also popular for diving and snorkelling too, with numerous shipwrecks and some diverse marine life to explore. 

Final Thoughts

Europe’s forgotten islands offer a lot of diversity and experiences for travellers willing to venture off the beaten path. From the Atlantic to the Baltic, there’s a range of climates and nature. Sometimes, it’s not necessary to fly around the world to find a remote or white-sand beach island because almost everything is already on Europe’s doorstep.

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a view over the flower covered hillside of madeira with text overlay Europes Forgotten Islands
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