The 10 Best Islands in Europe for History Lovers

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Islands of Europe come in all shapes and sizes. Whether at the crossroads of the Mediterranean or in the more remote North Sea, these islands very often have fascinating pasts. And it is the archaeology and history of these places that makes them popular tourist destinations. Here I take just ten of the best islands you can visit in Europe and explore what it is that makes them so attractive to history lovers.

Tourist boats arrive at the Cretan island of Spinalonga.

Given its strategic position the island of Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete, has a long and interesting history: from prehistory to Ottoman rule and then a leper colony in the 20th century.

With so many islands to choose from, producing a list of the ten best islands in Europe is no easy task. Each island has their own character and biography. And each one will not appeal to everyone. That said, there is no shortage of lists of islands you must visit.

As I am more interested in showcasing the archaeology and history on the islands, this list is a compilation of a number of lists. The ‘top ten’ of all these lists will surprise many, as it did me. For example, personally, I would rank Crete higher than some of these islands. After all, Crete is my favourite archaeological destination. And of course the islands of the South Aegean allows travellers to combine island hopping with extraordinary ruins and history.

But, the following are the top islands as voted for by a number of travel websites and their readers. I give details of why they would be great places to visit for travellers who particularly enjoy archaeology and history looking for travel inspiration.

10. Paros, Greece

A couple walk towards the Venetian fort in the port of Naoussa, Paros.

The maritime entrance to the seaside village of Naoussa is dominated by a Venetian fort.

From prehistory to the Byzantine past, the Cycladic island of Paros has interesting archaeology sites and history. If you have not been to Paros, chances are you have experienced first hand archaeology from the island. As early as the sixth century BC, the island was known for its high quality marble. A number of the great Classical statues we see in museums around the World today, for example Augustus of Prima Porta now in the Vatican Museums in Rome, were made of marble from Paros. The archaeological museum in Parikia, with some exquisite carved pieces from the various Classical periods of the islands past, prides itself in having the biggest collection of original, carved statues. There are no replicas here!

Byzantine churches are all over the island, but it is the Panagia Ekatontapyliani, the so-called Aghia Sophia of the Aegean – or the church of 100 Doors, that is definitely the jewel in the island’s crown. A large, monastery complex with six chapels, the oldest part of the church dates back to the fourth century AD – the cruciform baptismal is that old too, and is said to be the best preserved such font in the entire eastern orthodox world. In what was once the cells of the early monastery, visitors will find an incredibly rich collection of religious icons and other early ecclesiastical artefacts.

But don’t over look the small churches in the towns and villages on the island. In Naoussa, widely thought of as one of the prettiest seaside towns of the island, is the St. John the Theologian Church. This post-Byzantine church has some very well preserved frescoes, including one depicting Christ in the Walled Garden of Jerusalem.

For those who prefer their archaeology outdoors, you can walk along a Byzantine route, across an ancient bridge on a pilgrimage path from the town of Lefkes to the Holy Monastery of St Anthony near Marpissa – which is itself built within the ruins of a Venetian fort.

9. Isle of Mull, Scotland

The 13th century Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull, Scotland.

The strategically positioned Duart Castle; 13th century ancestral home to the Maclean Clan.

The Isle of Mull is the the fourth largest island in the Irish and British Isles, and is a popular destination for naturalists and photographers. Evidence of habitation dates back to the end of the Ice Age – about 10,000 years ago, and there are numerous, typical remnants from each period of the past since. Bronze Age standing stones and circles are common on the island, as are Iron Age crannogs, brochs and duns. There are also many castles on the island, built between the the Middle Ages and the 19th century – for defence and decoration. The 13th century Aros Castle is thought to be the oldest on the island, while Torosay Castle is one of the more recent.

Mull is home to one of the most imposing castles on the west coast of Scotland; Duart Castle, the ancestral home of the Maclean Clan. This picturesque castle is strategically placed on the end of a peninsula with a commanding view over three major waterways and within sight of a number of neighbouring castles. Clearly nothing got past the Macleans! Duart Castle is open to the public, where visitors are free to tour everything from the dungeons to the state rooms. A popular setting for television and film, the most notable being the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Many of these archaeological and historical sites are accessible, full details are available on the Mull Historical & Archaeological Society’s website.

8. Capri, Italy

A view from the gardens in Anacapri over the rest of Capri island.

Anacapri is not only know for its sweeping views of the island of Capri and the Bay of Naples, but also gardens and historic sites.

Capri has been a popular tourist destination, particularly during the summer, since the Roman times. It was to Capri that the Roman Emperor Tiberius escaped Rome in 27AD, tiring of the political scene there and also, it is said, fearing assassination. Tiberius lived the last ten years of his life on Capri, and it was from his large and palatial villa in the north east of the island that he ruled the Roman Empire until his death in 37 AD. During his time on the island the Emperor had 12 villas built, the remains of each are known and some are open to the public. Tiberius lived in the largest of the the villas – Villa Jovis, named after Jupiter.  Villa Jovis is one of the best preserved Roman villas in Italy, but the substantial remains still only hint at the villa’s former grandeur.

Before Tiberius established himself on the island, his predecessor Emperor Augustus also chose Capri as the location for one of his summer villas. During the construction of this building, the remains of animals long since extinct and Stone Age occupants were unearthed. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, author of De Vita Caesarum (The Twelve Caesars – one of which was Augustus), the Emperor was so interested in these finds that he had them preserved in his villa. So perhaps it could be said that Capri is home to what must surely have been the first palaeontological/archaeological museum. Today, the island has a number of museums in some superb historical buildings that explore all aspects of island life, past and present.

7. Santorini, Greece

Brilliant white buildings and blue domes of churches on the volcanic caldera at Santorini.

The iconic white buildings and blue-domed churches perched on the edge of the Santorini caldera.

Santorini is one of six islands, four of which are uninhabited, that are essentially what remains following the eruption of a volcano on what was once a single island some 3,600 years ago. This eruption, called the Minoan Eruption and thought to be the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, wiped out the Minoan settlement of Akrotiri on the island. One idea proposes that the ensuing tsunami may have even lead to the end of the Minoan Civilization in the Aegean.

Fortunately for us, Akrotiri was covered by a considerable deposit of volcanic ash – thus providing ideal conditions for the preservation of the town. Archaeological excavations have been ongoing since 1967, and now the vast archaeological excavation has a protective covering and walkways that enable visitors to walk over the excavated ruins examining the various archaeological features.

Because of the excellent state of preservation, Akrotiri is the best known of all the Minoan archaeological sites outside of Crete. Understandably, the archaeological site is often compared to Pompeii. And although only a small portion of the town has been excavated, the southern end, it is clear that at its peak, Akrotiri was one of the most important Bronze Age ports in the Aegean. Objects have been recovered that originate in Crete and mainland Greece, but as far afield as Syria and Egypt. Besides the well preserved houses with their staircases in tact, some of which are three stories high, the site is well known for its exquisite painted frescoes. Some of these, and other artefacts from the site are on display in the Thera Gallery of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. But there is still much to see at the Archaeological Site of Akrotiri, it is well worth a visit.

Santorini is as much a destination suited for families as it is well know as a romantic destination.

6. Cephalonia, Greece

Canoes on the Melissani Lake in Cephalonia, Greece.

In Greek mythology Melissani Cave, with its underground lake, was a cave of the nymphs. Today it is a popular attraction, particularly for taking a canoe ride.

The beautiful island of Cephalonia is perhaps best known as the setting for the popular novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières; and for the film adaptation a number of significant scenes were filmed here. Although evidence of human habitation on the island goes back at least 40,000 years, the Mycenaean period is of particular importance and interest to visitors. The archaeological museum in Argostoli, although small by some standards, has an impressive collection of artefacts from this period. And it is widely considered to be one of the better collections of Mycenaean artefacts on display in Greece. One of the exhibits in the museum displays artefacts excavated from Melissani Cave. This extraordinary geological feature is a popular tourist attraction. The entrance to the cave is almost hidden as it is surrounded by a forest. But beyond the entrance the roof of the cave opens and the light reveals an open lake with crystal blue waters. This magical setting of a lake within a cave made this an ideal setting for the nymphs of ancient Greek mythology, myths and legends that are played up by the local boatmen during their guided tours.
 
After a significant Classical history, the island had an equally interesting Medieval history. Cephalonia is now the largest of the Ionian islands in western Greece, but in the past it was conquered in turn by the Normans, the Franks, the Venetians, and the Turks. Each of these periods have left their mark in some way or another, from ancient Greek temples and tombs to Roman villas with wonderful mosaic floors and cemeteries, from impressive Venetian forts and Norman castles to remote Byzantine monasteries.

5. Milos, Greece

The Roman theatre on the island of Milos, Greece.

The view over the Roman theatre and the seaside village of Klima on Milos.

The Venus de Milo, or Aphrodite of Milos as she is also known, is perhaps the most well-known of all Classical sculptures. You will not see the statue on the island, although there is a faithful replica prominently displayed in the Archaeological Museum, but you will see a number of subtle signs around and about that remind tourists this is where she originates. Some cafés and hotels have small, unmissable replicas of the statue on show, while her image can be seen on the label of a few local products. The exact spot where the statue was found in 1820 is marked by a simple sign, amongst the ruins of the ancient city of Melos not far from the remains of the theatre and the early Christian catacombs.

Like Santorini, Milos is a volcanic island but it was not as dramatically altered in the past as Santorini was. Rather than destroying prehistoric settlements, the economy of the island developed as a result of the exploitation of volcanic rocks – an economy on which the island is still heavily reliant. Of particular archaeological interest are two substantial outcrops of obsidian, or volcanic glass, on the island. Stone tools made using this stone have not only been found at archaeological sites on neighbouring islands (for example, at Skarkos on Ios) but also on mainland Greece and even further afield. The significance of the prehistoric site of Phylakopi seems to have been related to this trade in obsidian artefacts. Some extraordinary artefacts have been recovered from the sanctuary during recent excavations at Phylakopi, which are now on display in the archaeological museum.

4. Orkney Islands, Scotland

The stone built Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae on Orkney's Mainland sialnd.

Skara Brae, one of many Neolithic archaeological sites in Orkney.

Numerous smaller islands surround the much larger Orkney ‘Mainland’ – the name of which is a corruption of the Old Norse name Meginland. Physical evidence of the Norse Vikings is not hard to find either. Off the north west coast of Mainland is the tidal island of Brough of Birsay with its remains of a Viking settlement. Orkney is an archaeological dream, with some of the most important Neolithic sites in Europe. Most of these sites are concentrated on the western side of Mainland, and four of the better studied archaeological sites make up the UNESCO World Heritage site ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’.

Maeshowe is a typical chambered cairn and passage grave, and is physically aligned so that during the winter solstice its central chamber is illuminated by the sun. Whatever the chamber contained was looted by Vikings. But the runic inscriptions they made on the walls of the passage tomb today comprise one of the largest collections of such inscriptions in the world. The Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar are the remains of large, circular henge monuments – the typical megalithic stone circles of the Neolithic in Western Europe. These funerary Neolithic monuments are complimented by a group of eight stone-walled houses. The houses at Skara Brae are widely accepted to be Europe’s best preserved Neolithic village. Together these four sites make up a unique prehistoric cultural landscape, and one that includes many other sites that are not accessible to the public. Although relatively remote in the North Sea, the island has good sea and air connections with mainland Scotland – making it relatively easy to get to Orkney.

3. Malta & Gozo

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta' Pinu on Gozo island.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu on Matla’s sister island Gozo.

The islands of Malta and Gozo are almost slap bang in the middle of the Mediterranean. Consequently these islands are on all the major shipping routes that criss-cross the sea, connecting eastern Europe and the Near East with western Europe, north Africa with southern Europe. And this has been the case for some seven thousand years. Besides the strategic location in the Mediterranean, a number of natural harbours have made accessing the islands and the resources attractive to a number of sea-faring civilisations, including the Phoenicians and Romans. The islands’s complex history has resulted in some of the most spectacular archaeological and historical sites. In fact the Maltese claim that the density of sites here is greater than anywhere else in the World.

Unique in the prehistory of Europe are the Neolithic temples scattered about Malta and Gozo. Some of these enigmatic megalithic temples are amongst the oldest free-standing structures in the World, being older than other well known ancient structures such as Stonehenge or the Pyramids. There are 30 of them in all, and most are open to the public. Archaeological excavations have revealed some extraordinary artefacts, which can be seen in various museums on the islands. If you are planning a trip to Malta and Gozo, you may be interested in our Tips for Visiting the Megalithic Temples.

Much more recent but no less characteristic of Malta and Gozo are the Medieval fortifications and citadels – around which many of the major towns of these islands have developed. Our Travel Guide to Archaeological Sites and Museums on Malta and Gozo has more information.

2. Naxos, Greece

Remains of the Temple of Apollo near the harbour of Naxos.

The remains of the temple of Apollo with the town of Naxos in the background.

The archaeological past on Naxos greets visitors to the island as they arrive by ferry. On a small island in the port the ruins of the Temple of Apollo stand out, in fact it is the entrance to the temple that has remained standing to this day. This and the many other temples on the island are a testament to the mythological significance Naxos had in ancient Greek Mythology. Legend has it that the young Zeus was raised in a cave on the mountain named after the god, Mount Zas. Theseus is said to have left the beautiful Ariadne on the island, a myth that Richard Strauss used as inspiration for his opera Ariadne auf Naxos.

Naxos is the largest of the Cycladic islands, and it was at the centre of the prehistoric Cycladic Culture. A few thousand years later, Naxos was again at the political centre of the Cyclades. In the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade the Venetians set up the Duchy of Naxos, which included all the islands of the Cyclades (excluding Mykonos and Tinos). As with many of the Cycladic islands, Naxos has some wonderful Venetian castles and forts.

1. Lewis and Harris, Scotland

Sunset behind the Callanish stones on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland.

The Calanais Standing Stones at sunset.

Off the north west coast of Scotland, the island of Lewis and Harris has a large concentration of megalithic archaeological sites – not far from the town of Callanish. Known as the Callanish Stones, the focus of the principal site is a circle of thirteen standing stones, some over 5 metres high, that has a diameter of thirteen metres. The circle is approached from the four cardinal points by avenues of standing stones. Nearby there are several other smaller stone circles and groups of standing stones. Thought to have been erected around 5 to 4,000 years ago, these stones are thought to be amongst the most spectacular megalithic monuments in Scotland.

But the island is also best known for the so-called Lewis Chessmen, a collection of 78 12th century walrus ivory chess pieces that are now in the British Museum (London) and the National Museum of Scotland (Edinburgh). Most scholars accept that these exquisite chessmen were made in Norway. Vikings first settled on the island in the ninth century AD, a time when Lewis and Harris was officially part of Norway.

Enjoy exploring islands? If you are looking for more inspiration for visiting islands in Europe with an interesting past, check our Sardinia Travel Guide for History and Adventure Seekers.