Clustered in the blue-green Mediterranean an hour’s boat ride north of Sicily, the Aeolian Islands are one of Europe’s most visually stunning and historically intriguing archipelagos. Each of the seven volcanic islands has its own distinct character, allowing for an enticing variety of activities as you island-hop across the chain.
Lipari: Explore the island's ancient citadel and wild shoreline
Start your adventure in Lipari, the most populous of the Aeolian Islands. Lipari Town, with its lively warren of alleyways clustered beneath an ancient citadel, is a wonderful spot for aimless wandering, and presents a perfect introduction to the islands’ history. Back in the 4th millennium BC, Neolithic peoples discovered Lipari’s vast obsidian reserves, quickly establishing the Aeolians as the nexus of a trans-Mediterranean trade network. Spend a morning discovering six millennia of island history at Lipari’s archaeological museum, where obsidian tools and floor-to-ceiling assemblages of amphorae salvaged from local shipwrecks share the stage with an unrivalled collection of miniature Greek theatrical masks.
To see the island’s wilder side, take a 10-minute bus ride to Quattrocchi viewpoint, where a spellbinding panorama of rugged shoreline stretches 5km south to the smoking slopes of the neighbouring island of Vulcano. From here, descend the 15-minute trail to Valle I Muria, a pebbly stretch of cliff-backed beach where you can sunbathe, swim and sip drinks in the rustic beachfront cave bar of wild-haired local resident Barni. Afterwards, hop a ride back to Lipari Town on Barni’s boat, sailing past arched rocks, sea stacks and precipices glowing gold in the setting sun.
Vulcano: Climb the crater, kayak the coast and take a mudbath
Nothing impresses newcomers like the sight of Fossa di Vulcano, the sulphur-belching, reddish-gray mountainous hulk that looms over Vulcano’s harbour. Mythologized by the ancient Romans as the site of Vulcan’s forge, it still exerts an irresistible allure. From the ferry docks, a gradual, hour-long walk leads to the rim, where you can gaze down into the crater and wander through a surreal landscape of barren rock and smoking fumaroles, enjoying picture postcard views of the other six Aeolian islands on the northern horizon.
Back down by the waterfront, Sicily in Kayak offers opportunities to explore Vulcano’s precipitous shoreline, paddling into secluded coves below the main volcano and its baby brother Vulcanello. More sedentary souls can stroll over to I Fanghi, a gloopy natural pool of therapeutic mud where tourists loll about in bathing suits, slathering themselves head-to-toe with mineral-rich ooze. If sunbathing is more your style, continue five minutes further to Spiaggia Sabbia Nera, the nearby black sand beach.
Panarea: Beach-hopping and Bronze Age history
A vision of upscale Mediterranean bliss, tiny Panarea changes with the seasons. In summer, yachties pour in, golf carts zip about, and the local bars, restaurants, shops and discos do a booming business. The rest of the year things are much sleepier, and walkers have the island’s whitewashed lanes and hiking trails virtually to themselves.
A year-round highlight is the coastal stroll to Punta Milazzese, where you’ll find the spectral stone foundations of the Villaggio Preistorico, a Bronze Age settlement perched on a picturesque headland. From the ruins, descend for a swim at Cala Junco, a sheltered bay of pebbly shores and translucent turquoise waters, or spend the afternoon lounging on the sands of nearby Spiaggetta Zimmari.
Stromboli: Fall under the spell of the Aeolians’ most active volcano
Secluded at the archipelago’s eastern edge, the charismatic little island of Stromboli has been erupting non-stop throughout recorded history. Witnessing its pyrotechnics first-hand is one of the Aeolians’ peak experiences. Able-bodied adventurers can join a guided sunset ascent to the 900m summit to admire jets of red-orange fire spewing from Stromboli’s craters against the darkening evening sky.
Those disinclined to climb can enjoy equally dramatic views on an evening cruise along the coast to the Sciara del Fuoco, a 1km-swath of gray volcanic debris directly below the craters; boats set anchor here to watch red-hot rocks tumbling down the mountainside and crashing into the waters below.
Salina: Wine-tasting, spa treatments and sunset views
Gorgeous green Salina is the Aeolians’ lushest island, with its forest-clad pair of perfect volcanic cones presiding over a patchwork of fields, vineyards and picturesque seaside villages. Begin your visit in the countryside around Malfa, where a handful of wineries invite visitors to taste locally grown Malvasia, Salina’s renowned honey-sweet white wine. Afterwards, head for Signum Spa, a peaceful spa immersed in lemon trees and Sicilian tiles where you can soak in almond milk or geothermal spring water, indulge in a massage or steam bath, or pamper yourself with body treatments featuring island-grown essences of bitter orange, capers and olive oil.
Salina’s other enticements include shopping the boutique-lined main street of Santa Marina, climbing Monte Fossa delle Felci for bird’s-eye island perspectives, visiting the picturesque village of Pollara (the one-time film set for Il Postino), or cooling off with a whipped cream-slathered granita on the waterfront at Alfredo’s in Lingua. However you spend the daylight hours, evenings here are made for sipping aperitivi while savouring gorgeous sunset views of Stromboli smoking on the eastern horizon.
Filicudi: Explore sea caves and ancient shipwrecks
Countless cultures have sailed Aeolian waters, as evidenced by the graveyard of ancient ships littering the Capo Graziano shoals off Filicudi. In 2008, Filicudi’s collection of shipwrecks was protected as an underwater archaeological park, allowing divers to enter this world of ancient Greek anchors, lost cargoes and vessels buried in sand.
Non-divers will have almost as much fun circumnavigating Filicudi on a boat tour, in search of the Scoglio della Canna, a 71m-high rock pinnacle, and the Grotta del Bue Marino, a beautifully sculpted sea cave with dazzling blue waters.
Alicudi: Mediterranean living at a mule’s pace
With only 105 residents and a traditional seafaring lifestyle, remote, slow-paced Alicudi conjures up visions of the Mediterranean before mass tourism. The island’s quintessential adventure is the trek to Filo dell’Arpa, the long-dormant cone that towers above Alicudi’s lone fishing village.
Walkers share the trail with mules hauling goods for local residents, following sinuous staircases past multi-hued stucco houses and terraces planted with cactus and citrus, enjoying ever-more-dazzling Mediterranean vistas with each step. Up top, the trail emerges into a lonely, uninhabited landscape of high pastures surrounding the extinct crater, with goats clinging to the dramatic cliffs off Alicudi’s western edge. From here, even Lipari – less than two hours away by boat – feels like a world apart.