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15 Hottest European Resort Destinations of Summer 2015

Surrounded on three sides by saltwater, dotted with lakes, and punctuated by soaring mountain ranges, Europe is spoiled for choice when it comes to summer playgrounds. Think of beaches, and a few names spring to mind: The Algarve, the French and Italian Rivieras, the Greek Islands, the Costa del Sol, the Canary Islands, and the Costa Smeralda. But even after you choose one of these regions, which resorts and which towns offer the best vacation experience? Are the best-known names the best places to go? And what if your idea of a great summer holiday does not revolve around sun, sand, and sea? What if Alpine lakes and mountain vistas are your Nirvana, or sampling new cuisines? Explore the possibilities of these fabled resorts and discover those that will make the summer of 2015 your best yet.

1 Capo Testa, Sardinia

Capo Testa, Sardinia
Capo Testa, Sardinia
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Few places say glamor, glitz, and privilege quite as loudly as the northeast coast of Sardinia, where the Aga Khan and his friends created a swanky enclave of uber-luxe resort "villages" overlooking the white beaches and luminous green waters they dubbed the Costa Smeralda, Emerald Coast. These carefully manicured resorts, designed to look like Greek island villages, still cosset the glitterati in style, but the adjacent Capo Testa promontory is surrounded by the same emerald water, and its glorious white beaches are embraced by wind-sculpted rock formations. Behind them, the region of Gallura rises sharply to mountain landscapes that are just as convoluted and are scattered with prehistoric stone towers that still mystify archaeologists.

Between Sardinia and the south coast of Corsica, which is clearly visible from the lively resort town of Santa Teresa Gallura, are some of the world's best sailing waters, and the entire coast is a favorite for yacht owners. Descend from Santa Teresa to the pink sands of 700-meter Rena Bianca beach, where the long, gentle slope into shallow blue-green water is an inviting place for children to splash. All around Capo Testa, paths wind down among the fantastic rock formations to beautiful sandy coves. More beaches line the Costa Paradiso, just to the west of Santa Teresa, where the sea caves and clear waters are a wonderland for divers. For seemingly endless and almost deserted beaches, hop aboard a ferry to the wild Arcipelago de la Maddalena, a clutch of low islands just off shore ringed by pink and white sand beaches.

2 Sagres and Portugal's Western Algarve

Sagres and Portugal's Western Algarve
Sagres and Portugal's Western Algarve
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With 300 days of sunshine annually and more than 160 kilometers of golden beaches, it was inevitable that the Algarve would become one of Europe's most popular resort areas. But don't believe everything you hear about its crowds; head west to find some of the continent's most spectacular coastline, where wildly eroded multicolored cliffs curve around perfect golden-sand beaches with plenty of elbow room. At Sagres, the far western point where the land ends abruptly in dizzying cliffs, Prince Henry the Navigator gathered Europe's top 15th-century navigators and geographers to direct Portugal's Age of Discovery. Visit their fortress and look inside the whitewashed churches of Lagos to see altars awash with New World gold. These and the magnificent Moorish castle at Silves lend a richer dimension to a beach holiday here.

Below Sagres, a five-star resort melts into the landscape above Martinhal's crescent of golden sand. North, where the vertical cliffs are sculpted by the open Atlantic, some of Europe's finest - and least crowded - beaches are washed by world-class surf and protected by Costa Vicentina Natural Park. Watch surfing competitions from the beaches or from the honey-toned clifftops. East of Sagres, choose any of the tiny villages that hide their beaches beneath the dramatic cliffs: look for the colorful caverns and arches of Porto de Mós or rent a paddleboard at fun-loving Luz. Laidback Sagres is an ideally located base for all of these.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Sagres

3 San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian, Spain
San Sebastian, Spain
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Claiming a whole galaxy of Michelin stars, the Basque city of San Sebastian has long been recognized as one of Europe's top capitals of cuisine. But the secret the Spanish keep to themselves is that within a few steps of these revered dining palaces stretch some of the best city beaches in Europe. Beginning at the edge of the compact Old Town, Playa de la Concha curves around a placid bay, backed by a wide promenade that is free of commercial clutter. All summer long, there's a carefree holiday mood here. It's a relaxing and undemanding place, however fashionable its devotees. Separating it at the far western end from the continuing sands of Playa de Ondarreta is the headland where the Spanish royal family built Miramar Palace in 1893, so the queen could swim at her favorite beach below. As if these two wide strands weren't enough, San Sebastian has another, Playa de Gros (officially Playa de la Zurriola), facing the sea. Surfers and a younger, hipper crowd hang out here, although the surf is gentle enough for learners, who can take lessons.

You're never far from the food that San Sebastian is most famous for - their special version of tapas called pintxos. A never-ending variety of these is displayed in mouthwatering profusion throughout the old town - and just about everywhere else. The favorite local pastime is grazing on these from place to place. Between the beaches and the food, take some time to explore the elegant late-19th-century buildings of the Centro Romántico, behind Playa de la Concha, and to visit the aquarium.

4 Bergen, Norway

Bergen, Norway
Bergen, Norway
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If ever a city was made for summer, it's Bergen. The season may be short, but the days are long - in midsummer the sky never gets completely dark - and Norwegians take advantage of every sunlit hour. Bergen's setting, in a horseshoe shape around its long harbor, is enviable. The crowded and colorful medieval Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage site, sits on one side, and the Art Nouveau newer neighborhoods on the other. Green parks and plazas as well as the harborside promenades invite strolling, picnicking, and listening to outdoor concerts. As you might expect from the home of composer Edvard Grieg, music is important in Bergen, and in June, Scandinavia's biggest music and performing arts celebration, the 15-day Bergen International Festival, fills every church, park, and concert space.

On Midsummer's Eve, one of the world's largest bonfires - an 18-meter-high pyramid of old barrels - lights Laksevåg Park. Shop for a picnic of fresh-caught seafood cooked on the wharf and board the Fløibanen funicular to the top of Mt. Fløyen. Eat on the terrace overlooking the city and islands or follow one of the many trails that crisscross the mountaintop park for a more private viewpoint of the inland mountains. Shop for beautiful handicrafts in the medieval warren of the Bryggen (and visit the Hanseatic Museum while there), tour the castle, and stroll through the narrow streets and alleyways that climb Mt Fløyen's lower slopes. The KODE Art Museums are filled with masterpieces by Munch, Picasso, Klee, and other modern masters, and you can see why the world has begun to notice Nordic cuisine at one of Scandinavia's top restaurants, Lyverket, in the KODE building. For a day of scenery that will take your breath away, book Norway in a Nutshell, a circuit that includes a fjord cruise and mountain train rides to give you a taste of what the rest of Norway offers.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bergen

5 Menton, Costa Azul (French Riviera)

Menton, Costa Azul (French Riviera)
Menton, Costa Azul (French Riviera)
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St. Tropez may be the jet-set darling of France's famed Côte d'Azur, and Antibes may have Europe's largest yachting harbor, but for tourists without a title or a bottomless bank account, Menton offers the same long beaches, the same Mediterranean sun, and an old-world air of gentility without the glitz and pretension. Add lush gardens, the fragrance of lemons, and eye-popping scenery as the Savoy Alps end at the sea, and you'll understand why Belle-Epoque British gentry chose to decamp here.

Menton sits right on the border to Italy, so you'll find a delectable mix of Italian and French restaurants along the steep twisting lanes of its photo-worthy old town. Take a break from the midday sun by strolling among the shaded pools of Serre de la Madone Garden, where plants from all over the world thrive on stone terraces beneath a Mediterranean forest. Awaken your avant-garde spirit at the Jean Cocteau Museum, an exciting bit of contemporary architecture clinging to the edge of the sea. It was Cocteau who described Menton as the "Pearl of France."

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Menton

6 Nerja, Costa del Sol

Nerja, Costa del Sol
Nerja, Costa del Sol
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It's time to rethink the old stereotypes of Andalucía's overcrowded beaches backed by cookie-cutter hotels. There's no question that this stretch of Mediterranean coast was overdeveloped initially and served as the poster child for what could go wrong with a coastline. But in recent years, the Andalusian government has stopped development, torn down the worst examples, and returned entire coastal stretches to natural landscapes with tasteful new buildings. Without losing the good-time holiday atmosphere, the Costa del Sol now provides Spanish experiences with an international twist. If you like your sand in smaller stretches backed by scenic rocky cliffs and dotted with small villages, head east from Málaga to the point where the mountains drop dramatically to the sea, hiding beaches beneath their cliffs.

The quiet resort town of Nerja has the best views of this coast, from the Balcon de Europa terrace, which overlooks three of its several beaches: Calahonda, Chorrillo, and Carabeo. Although small and reached only by a footpath, these natural coves are close to the town center and separated by picturesque cliffs and rock formations. The crystal-clear tranquil water makes them especially attractive for snorkeling and scuba diving. West of Balcon de Europa, in the center of town and easier to access, La Caletilla's clear blue waters are also defined by rock outcrops, and you'll find sun chairs, umbrellas, parking, and cafés here. The longest is 1.8-kilometer El Playazo, west of the center, a Blue Flag beach with lounge chairs, showers, and beachside restaurants. Almost all beaches have chiringuitos, kiosks selling tapas, snacks, and cool drinks. For off-beach attractions, head for Cueva de Nerja, a five-kilometer series of caverns; one of the chambers forms a natural theater where frequent concerts are held.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Nerja

7 Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps

Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps
Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps
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In the summer, the alpine villages, soaring peaks, and spectacular vistas of the Bernese Oberland draw hikers and climbers, and the cable cars and rack railways carry tourists to the best viewpoints. Brown Swiss cows graze among the wildflowers on land so steep it's hard to imagine how they find a foothold, and glaciers feed waterfalls that drop in silver ribbons from the cliffs. You don't need to be an intrepid mountaineer to enjoy hiking among these peaks, for many trails are reached by cable cars and are fairly level as they wind along ridges and terraces.

Lauterbrunnen is a good base, set in a high Alpine valley between vertical rock walls where waterfalls drop spectacularly - one in a 300-meter drop straight into the village itself. Not only are there beautiful walks and climbs in all skill levels, but a rack railroad runs from here up to Jungfraujoch, Europe's highest railway station. An Ice Palace carved from the glacier is here, and an elevator takes you even higher for glacier and mountain views. Nearby, a 6,967-meter cableway climbs to the Schilthorn, where the revolving restaurant Piz Gloria was the setting for the James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service. From picturesque Grindelwald, below the dramatic ledges of the Eiger, you can walk to two glaciers, one with an ice cave and the other reached through the Lütschine Gorge, where glacial potholes have been carved by meltwaters. An even more spectacular glacial phenomenon near Lauterbrunnen is Trümmelbach Falls, swirling in five stages through a vertical corkscrew carved in the rock by melting glacial water. More walks and climbs in the mountains and Alpine meadows begin from the postcard-pretty towns of Wengen and Murren, the former reached only on foot or by cable car from Lauterbrunnen, below.

8 Deauville and Trouville, Normandy

Deauville and Trouville, Normandy
Deauville and Trouville, Normandy
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The Odd Couple of Normandy's Côte Fleurie beach resorts, side-by-side Deauville and Trouville (it's seldom called by its full name of Trouville-sur-Mer) are separated by far more than the tidal stream between them. With its tidy rows of old fashioned bath houses and rainbow-colored umbrellas stretching from the boardwalk to the sea, Deauville basks in an air of discreet early-20th-century gentility that seems to step right out of an Impressionist painting. Behind the boardwalk and bathhouses, whose rails are inscribed with the names of movie stars who've come for the posh early-September film festival, are well-kept half-timbered buildings, chic shops, and extravagant Belle Epoque villas. The beach (free if you don't rent an umbrella) is lovely and gives the impression of having been swept each night. Of an evening, the boardwalk, Promenade des Planches, is the place to be - dressed for the occasion, of course. To get the flavor of life here in the 1920s visit flamboyant Villa Strassburger, its rooms still furnished as they were when it was the seasonal home of a millionaire race-horse breeder. Before that, it was the home of Baron Henri de Rothschild.

For a rollicking good time and a reality check on how the rest of the world has fun at the beach, cross the River Touques to Trouville. Here, you'll find as many over-the-top fancy villas, but the shops sell more T-shirts than diamond necklaces, and the beach is a lively scene of kids playing in the sand while working-class families kick back in the sun. Beach-side restaurants are famed for their plateau de fruits de mer - a huge tray arranged with a variety of cooked and chilled local shellfish to savor with mayonnaise. There's a good-time feeling in the air, a relaxed lack of pretense that extends from the beach and kiddy rides into the streets of shops and to the lively fish market. Fishing boats line this side of the river, instead of yachts, another reminder that Trouville is for real.

9 The Greek Islands of Skopelos and Skiathos

The Greek Islands of Skopelos and Skiathos
The Greek Islands of Skopelos and Skiathos
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The two neighboring islands in the Northern Sporades were virtually unknown until they became the setting for the on-location filming of the Abba hit Mamma Mia! It's not enough for a Greek island to just have beautiful beaches; it's the whole setting that draws tourists here. The prime ingredients are white Cubist villages dazzling in the sun, lush landscapes, and little chapels set high on dramatic rock promontories above a turquoise sea. And of course the beaches - long golden strands and tiny coves secluded by rocky headlands. Skopelos and Skiathos score high on all the checklists - Skopelos is known as the greenest island of Aegean Greece - making them the perfect movie set. Although they are now "discovered" they are not over-run, and the locals have not grown tired of the attention.

The white-sand beach of Panormos on Skopelos is well supplied with services and faces a protected bay. Although it's about 12 kilometers from the main town, the adjacent village is well equipped with restaurants and cafés, as well as lodgings. The 600-meter Velanió beach is an easy five-minute walk beyond smaller Stáfylos beach. It's not only the longest beach but it's undeveloped, backed by pines, and has crystal water for swimming. Locals will direct you to their favorite hidden cove beach. The town of Skopelos was designated a Greek landmark town for its low-profile whitewashed buildings with tile roofs, balconies, and wooden doors. See the Monastery of Evangelistria for its setting and the view of the city and, if it's open, for the 14th-century gold-plated altar and the icons. Other beautiful churches and chapels are worth visiting for their dramatic settings and views. Take a ferry to Skiathos, once part of the Venetian Empire, to sample some of its 70 beaches and visit the small shipwright that still builds traditional Greek caiques. If you want a preview of what Skopelos and Skiathos look like, see the film - it's the best advertising an island could ask for.

10 Island Hopping in Scotland's Hebrides

Island Hopping in Scotland's Hebrides
Island Hopping in Scotland's Hebrides
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Few places are as well-suited to a restorative out-of-doors getaway filled with land and sea experiences as the islands scattered off Scotland's west coast. Connected by an efficient ferry system between its harbors, the islands are easy to access, and you'll find places to stay within easy reach of ferry landings. Or bring your car to explore larger islands. A network of hiking trails leads between towns, over low craggy peaks, and along shores that vary from white sand beaches to towering cliffs. Birders will find puffin colonies, entire sea stacks covered in nesting seabirds, and a number of rare species. Kayakers can paddle in protected coves or visit sea caves and spectacular rock formations, picnicking on uninhabited islands.

For an am-I-really-in-Scotland? moment, cross the island of Barra from its pretty harbor of Castle Bay (it does have a castle in the middle of the bay) to the world's only airport whose runway is a beach. Watch planes land and take off at low tide as you munch scones in the airport tea room, then cross the road and climb the dunes to descend onto a long white-sand beach that could be on a tropical island. The rocky hills of the Isle of Lewis slope down to more pure white sands. History blends with nature at the Medieval Abbey of St. Columba on Iona and world-class prehistoric sights of Callanish and iron-age Carloway Broch. While they don't reach the scorching temperatures of a Mediterranean summer, the Hebrides are protected from severe winter cold by the surrounding waters, explaining how tropical plants can thrive in Inverewe Gardens on Loch Ewe a mainland stop for most ships cruising the Hebrides. You can island hop using the convenient ferry network or go in style, aboard Hebridean Island Cruises.

11 Formentera, Spain

Formentera, Spain
Formentera, Spain
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Divers, snorkelers, birders, and beach-lovers seeking quiet sands and crystal waters should head to the southernmost, and smallest, of the four inhabited Balearic Islands, off Spain's Mediterranean coast. Only half an hour by frequent ferry from the life's-a-party scene of neighboring Ibiza, Formentera is everything Ibiza is not. Stretching from La Savina to Espalmador, Platja de Ses Illetes is the best beach, with fine white sand, plenty of space, and turquoise water reminiscent of the Caribbean. The water is warm and calm, and the beach slopes gently with long shallows so it's a good choice for children. Snorkelers should try the island's longest beach, Playa Migjorn, uncrowded even in the summer when you can rent beach umbrellas and loungers. One of the most beautiful beaches is the tiny cove (it's not even 150 meters long) of Cala Saona, although it's not too small to have food and cool drinks within easy reach.

The diving is superb, with visibility of up to 45 meters and a cliff-lined shore of underwater caves and cliffs. Feathery sea fans and the Mediterranean's best "fields" of seagrass form an ideal habitat for a wide variety of marine life. At less than 30 meters depth off Punta Pedrera, the sunken shipwreck of the Florin Brothers lies against a wall of seagrass teeming with fish. Most of the best sites are in the Es Freus-Ses Salines Nature Reserve, which covers much of northern Formentera and whose shoreline marshes protect more than 200 bird species, including herons and flamingos.

12 Playa Blanca, Lanzarote

Playa Blanca, Lanzarote
Playa Blanca, Lanzarote
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Less well-known than the larger Canary Islands, Lanzarote's dramatic volcanic landscapes are far different from the lush tropical greens of neighboring Tenerife and Gran Canaria. The golden sands of Playa Blanca, on its southern coast, are backed by tall cliffs and tempered in the summer by refreshing trade winds. A 20-minute ferry ride away, the long, white beaches of Fuerteventura are known worldwide as some of Europe's best for surfing. But you won't want to spend all your time at the beach, because Lanzarote is such a fascinating place. Half-day excursions from Playa Blanca will take you to the summit of the simmering volcano of Timanfaya, where you can lunch on chicken grilled directly over its Vulcan fire. Tour the tortured landscape of lava swirls and caves, then collect a handful of tiny green gems on El Golfo beach or go for a camel ride on the volcano's slopes.

Playa Blanca is a laidback beach resort town, filled with amusements, lodging, and restaurants for all budgets, and although you may want a car to explore the island on your own, plenty of day tours will take you to all the island's highlights. Among these are the outstanding works of Spanish artist/architect Cesar Manrique, whose vision and talent saved Lanzarote from the ravages of unchecked mass tourism. He used the island's unique landscape and resources to create stunning tourist attractions: a stylish modern home inside a lava bubble, a swimming pool in a collapsed lava tube, a restaurant and concert hall inside a huge volcanic cave, and a beautiful cactus garden in an abandoned quarry.

13 Puglia Beaches and Torre Guaceto

Puglia Beaches and Torre Guaceto
Puglia Beaches and Torre Guaceto
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Italy's hottest "just discovered" beach resort area is Puglia, the heel of the country's familiar boot shape. Surrounded by sea, the peninsula alternates between scenic rock headlands and white sand beaches. Although these are not nearly as crowded as those farther north on the Adriatic coast, you can find even more solitude in the nature reserve of Torre Guaceto. Backed by dunes, maquis, forests, and olive groves, the reserve's beaches stretch for miles. Those near the carpark can be crowded, but walk a little farther and the crowd thins quickly. There are loungers to rent, but they don't cover the prime spots as they so often do at Italian beaches. For dining, you'll need to head north or south outside the reserve, but there is a beach snack bar.

The visitor center has nature walks, bicycle excursions, and snorkeling tours (bikes and snorkel gear are included) and there are trails to walk or cycle through the reserve, where you can see flamingos and migratory birds. Other programs can include star-gazing talks. The clean, warm waters offshore are part of the marine reserve and are ideal for snorkeling and popular with kite-surfers. There are plenty of other beaches along the coast, along with seaside towns filled with beautiful Baroque architecture. Puglia won't remain off the tourist routes much longer, so this might be the summer to explore it.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Puglia

14 Viareggio, Tuscany's Riviera

Viareggio, Tuscany's Riviera
Viareggio, Tuscany's Riviera
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Viareggio goes in and out of style as often as the fashions on the catwalks of Milan, but it always seems to come back; it's hard to match a single beach more than 15 kilometers long lapped by the Tyrrhenian Sea. The sand begins in the north at Forte dei Marmi, a somewhat more sedate beach that made its fame as the playground of the rich and famous in the early 20th century. Don't even think of Viareggio for a quiet week on uncrowded sands. It's all about the buzz, and you can't ask for a more authentic Italian beach experience. The crescendo is in August, when all of Rome, Milan, and Florence seem to arrive and claim a square of sand. This sand comes at a price, but pay it to get a lounge chair, umbrella, and access to restrooms and changing cabanas. It's also the way to assure the full experience of what may be Italy's prime social season, a continuing round of effusive greetings, food and drink, beach volleyball, sand castles, bikinis, and occasional swimming, all of which ends abruptly when it's time to change for the obligatory evening passeggiata along the Belle Époque promenade. This ritual stroll, punctuated by stops at fashionable-label shops, is followed by a leisurely dinner of impeccably fresh seafood.

To find the free beach, head south along the Passeggiata Margherita boardwalk for about a kilometer to an opening in the row of private beach entrances. This leads to the public beach. Many of the hotels have private beaches for their guests, a good choice if you plan to spend a lot of time on the beach. Several of the hotels and a number of private villas are in Liberty style, the Italian version of Art Nouveau that was in vogue during Viareggio's early years, including one built by the composer Puccini. Just south of town in Torre di Lago is the open air theater where the Puccini Opera Festival is held in late July and August. Cittadella Jazz and More concerts run from mid-June through mid-August.

15 Brač Island, Croatia

Brač Island, Croatia
Brač Island, Croatia
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Croatia has been called "the New Riviera" as its beautiful beaches, once the secret getaways of Europeans, have been discovered by the rest of the world. There are plenty to choose from, but perhaps the most idyllic is Zlatni Rat in Bol, on the Dalmatian island of Brač. A long triangle of sand extends from the foot of Vidova Gora mountain on Brač's southern coast, so perfect that it is nicknamed the Golden Cape. The exact shape and size of this beach peninsula changes continually as winds drift the fine sands, but it extends for about 500 meters. Portions of the beach are traditionally clothing-optional; if this is a concern, ask locally for the exact locations.

This spit of land is about two kilometers west of the town of Bol, where there are hotels, apartments, and restaurants, along with a yacht harbor. Ferries connect Brač to the beautiful coastal town of Split on the mainland and to the island of Stari Grad, just to the south. It's difficult to tear yourself away from the golden sand, but little Bol does offer a few low-key diversions. Branislav Dešković Gallery displays about 400 works of regional artists in a beautiful Renaissance-Baroque palace. The museum of the Dominican Monastery has works by the great Italian Renaissance painter, Tintoretto.

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