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Aerial view across Dune di Piscinas in Sardinia

Where to find Europe’s quietest beaches

Escape the summer crowds with almost-secret stretches of sand where you can swim and sunbathe without fighting for space


Arriving at the beach and discovering you have it all to yourself is one of life’s greatest joys. But it’s usually an elusive pleasure – unless you know where to look. Even in the age of social media leaving no stone untagged, it is possible to unearth secluded spots that deliver sapphire waters without a carpark tailback. From wild dunes and oil-painting coves to shallow, swimmable seas, these beaches bring the goods – but few of the people.

Deserted beach at Arcachon

French Atlantic coast, Bordeaux

USP: the clandestine coast you won’t believe you didn’t know about

Bordeaux and beach sound like an unlikely pairing. Which explains why a magnificent 200-mile stretch, only an hour’s drive west, remains largely forgotten even in August. The sand is Caribbean golden, with a long walk out to a slowly deepening sea, and little shelter apart from dunes. Some beaches offer facilities: Hourtin Plage channels a Byron Bay energy, with juice stalls, surf schools and camping. At others, such as Plage de la Jenny, it’s just you and nature(ists). Grab a lazy lunch in the bay between Arcachon and Lège-Cap-Ferret, famous for quaint, brightly coloured oyster sheds. Menus are notoriously slimline (expect oysters, prawns, pâté, white wine, and not a lot more), but a dozen oysters, shucked by the farmers themselves, will cost less than €20. Favourites include La Cabane 57 in Le Canon and L’Huîtrerie in Arès.

Take off to Bordeaux

Cala Luna beach

Orosei, Sardinia, Italy

USP: the paradise found

To define ‘perfect beach’ you need only book a flight to Sardinia, where an eye-catching coastline abounds in every direction. For the quietest picks, it’s an east-west split. The eastern Gulf of Orosei is fantasy-island stuff: seemingly endless strips of amber-hued sand, such as Spiaggia Su Barone and Cala Luna, sit beside vibrant blue waters and deeply perfumed pine trees. For family swimming, note that Sardinia’s Tyrrhenian Sea deepens very quickly and suddenly. Adventurous adults should hit west-coast Dune di Piscinas (opening image), whose stunning good looks have been recognised by film directors and Unesco (it’s a World Heritage Site). Cooling winds constantly reshape four miles of species-rich sand dunes (look for sea turtles and deer in the area) and make for excellent surfing. The sheer scale of the place all but guarantees privacy.

Take off to Sardinia

Argilos beach, aka ‘Crete’s spa’

Xerokambos, Crete

USP: the beach-hopper’s hiding place

Inside Sitia’s Unesco Geopark, the winding, thyme-scented roads around Xerokambos village lead to a spectacular coastline where untouched nature coexists with shallow, family-friendly waters. North of Xerokambos, Alatsolimni’s fine-sand beach is within walking distance of meze-serving tavernas, yet remains blissfully secluded thanks to its salt marsh. At Katsounaki, also northeast, large dunes are interwoven with its namesake flower, the sea daffodil. South of Xerokambos, Argilos beach is known as Crete’s spa because of the clay, found in chunks in the cliffs that’s used therapeutically to soothe and exfoliate skin. And Mazida Ammos’s long, turquoise-dipped coastline is idyllic and easily accessible. Throughout, tourist facilities are sparse – a consequence of the decent drive east (around two hours 40 minutes) from capital Heraklion – but, then again, so are the tourists.

Discover Crete

llha de Tavira beach in Ria Formosa Natural Park

Ilha de Tavira, Algarve

USP: the family pick with space to fling sand

Around 45 minutes from Faro, Ilha de Tavira is a sand spit inside the flamingo-trodden Ria Formosa Natural Park – an estuary landscape featuring spacious swathes of sandy beach and traditional fishing boats, where Portuguese Water Dogs still dive down to retrieve fish from nets. For a day trip, catch the 20-minute ferry from Tavira mainland. The arrival beach of Praia da Ilha de Tavira is the most populated stretch (largely by Portuguese families), and you can rent loungers and wicker parasols. What saves ‘populated’ from being problematic is that these beaches are huge. Wander west and you’ll be alone in ten minutes. Go for 40, and it’s customary to be nude. If you get restless, there are restaurants and sports facilities, such as volleyball nets. Another points-scoring feature? It’s spotlessly clean. 

Take off to the Algarve

Cala Pilar beach sits in a marine reserve

Cala Pilar, Menorca

USP: the one that’s evaded social-media hype

TikTok may have rumbled the paradisical beauty of Menorca’s Cala Mitjana and Cala Macarelleta, making towel space on their floury sands an early-bird privilege, but Cala Pilar remains blissfully under the radar. It’s in a marine reserve on the northern coast, so getting here requires some (suitably attired) footwork for the 40-minute forested hike from the carpark. Your reward is the final wow moment when the wooden boardwalk snakes down and the beach suddenly appears, ensconced in ochre cliffs that look as if you’ve landed on Mars. For the more limber, Cala Pilar is a quenching stop-off along Stage 7 of the island’s famous Camí de Cavalls trail – a section that begins at the pebble beach of Els Alocs and finishes, three hours or six miles later, on the sandy cove of Algaiarens.

Explore Menorca

Boats moored at Burnham Overy Staithe

Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk

USP: the best-of-both-worlds for activities and switching off 

The tongue-twister of a name (‘staithe’ is Old English for ‘landing place’ and ‘overy’ means ‘over the water’) sets the scene for a Norfolk beach turned postcard of childhood nostalgia. The harbour’s tidal creeks are a playground for dinghies, kayaks, paddleboards and toy boats. Beyond that, a 1.5-mile marshland trail meanders through sand dunes to a dog-friendly beach that’s as wide and uninhabited as the eye can see. After drinking in the solitude, get actual drinks – in the form of speciality coffee – from the Norfolk Coffee Pedlar stall. Its cups, which can be bought, are handmade and painted by local artists who’ve used the beach landscape as inspiration. Sleep off that sea-air slumber at the six-room Nest Farmhouse, which was opened this June by the foodies behind London’s Michelin-starred St Barts and Nest.  

Discover Norfolk

The rippled sands of Rauðisandur beach

Rauðisandur Beach, Iceland

USP: the away-from-civilisation adventure

A rarity among the volcanic, black sand beaches of Iceland, Rauðisandur is actually red. Catch it on a sunny day and the sand glows like embers thanks to ground scallop shells. Getting to this remote part of the Westfjords is something of an adventure mission: the unpaved road is steep but navigable without a 4x4, and the ocean-overlooking views on the descent are worth the clinging on. At low tide, streams dance over the rippled sands, creating a surreal, otherworldly experience where you’ll have only the breeze, sheep and an occasional seal for beach-mates. For kids, it’s ideal terrain for engineering sandcastles or shell-hunting. There’s also a picturesque black church with a nearby café, but you come for the vastness of it all: serene, beautiful, deserted.

Explore Iceland