Ancient ruins, awe-inspiring art, legendary cities and sun-kissed beaches – Mediterranean Europe is a visual and sensual feast. Visit once and you'll be hooked for life.
For many holidaymakers the Mediterranean's main appeal is the promise of summer sun and long, lazy days on the beach. Each year about 200 million visitors pour into the region, making it the world's top tourist destination. While not all head straight for the beach, many do – and with good reason. The Mediterranean's beaches are superb, ranging from big, sporty sands on Portugal's western seaboard to idyllic Sardinian hideaways and rocky platforms on Croatia's craggy Dalmatian coast. But there's more to the Med than the beach, and away from the coast, the region's ancient landscape offers some truly spectacular natural sights – snow-clad Alpine peaks, bizarre rock formations, swathes of unspoiled forest, even a stunning fjord in Montenegro.
The cradle of Western civilisation, Mediterranean Europe boasts an unparalleled cultural legacy. Prehistoric paintings reveal the preoccupations of France's primeval cave dwellers; Greek and Roman monuments testify to the power and ambition of the ancient superpowers; Islamic art tells of Moorish sophistication; Gothic cathedrals, Renaissance palaces and baroque facades record the great artistic movements of history. The region's celebrated galleries and museums are pretty special too, housing a considerable chunk of the Western world's combined art collection.
Food, Glorious Food
The region's passion for the finer things in life extends to the kitchen. Eating well is part and parcel of everyday life on the Med, as well as one of its great pleasures, and it doesn't have to cost a bomb. Picnicking on a loaf of freshly baked bread with cheese and olives and a bottle of wine bought from the local market could well turn out to be a holiday highlight. For dedicated foodies, France and Italy are the obvious destinations but each country has its own culinary specialities – think tapas in Spain, kebaps in Turkey, souvlaki in Greece. And for wine buffs, the Mediterranean cellar is really quite something, with everything from world famous vintages to thousands of cheerful local labels.
Capping everything is the fact that Mediterranean Europe is an easy region in which to travel. Sure, services might not always be what you're used to, and some areas can be expensive, particularly in summer, but English is widely spoken, public transport more or less works, and with so many accommodation and eating options to choose from, you're sure to find somewhere to suit your style.
Regions at a Glance
Stretching 4500km from Portugal's Atlantic coast to Turkey's eastern reaches, Mediterranean Europe encompasses a huge variety of people, places and beliefs. The region defies easy definition but there are some things that all Med countries share – a handsome and ancient landscape, a turbulent history, a proud cultural legacy and a deeply-ingrained respect for tradition. The vast majority of visitors head to the big holiday hot spots – France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey – for the classic cocktail of sun, sea, culture, great food and timeless scenery. But venture off the beaten track and you'll encounter heartfelt hospitality and stunning natural beauty in the eastern Adriatic countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Montenegro and Albania.
With everything from unspoiled bays to brash party strips, once-isolated Albania has beaches to rival those found anywhere on the Med. On the southern Ionian coast popular destinations like Drymades, Dhërmi and Himara attract the crowds whilst deserted coves lie waiting to be discovered.
Albania's mountainous terrain, picturesque lakes and silent forests ensure swaths of stunning scenery. In the north, the Lake Koman Ferry provides spectacular passage up to the craggy Albanian Alps, while down south, the Llogaraja Pass National Park boasts dramatic mountainscapes.
More than museums and galleries, Albania specialises in castles, steeply-stacked towns and the occasional ancient ruin. Highlights include Unesco-listed Berat and atmospheric ruins at Gjirokastra and Butrint.
Bosnia & Hercegovina
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Great, craggy peaks; deep, grey canyons; forested valleys; and fast-flowing rivers, BiH's landscape is typical of the rugged Balkans. For spectacular views make for the forested slopes of the Sutjeska National Park.
Adrenalin junkies are spoiled for choice in Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH). There's white-water rafting, kayaking and canyoning around Bihać, Banja Luka and Foča, skiing on world-class slopes near Sarajevo, and excellent hiking in the country's national parks.
With its mixed Muslim and Christian heritage, BiH is a fascinating blend of historic cultures. Many of the country's top sights, including Sarajevo's old Turkish quarter and Mostar's Stari Most testify to the country's past as an Ottoman province.
Croatia's historic towns and cities offer rich pickings for architecture buffs. You can admire ancient relics at Solin and Split, a Venetian fort in Hvar Town, and medieval city walls in Dubrovnik.
Croatia provides plenty of tasty eye candy. You can feast your eyes on virgin beaches and wildflowers at Rt Kamenjak, discover lakes, waterfalls and cascades in the Plitvice Lakes National Park, and explore pine-clad coves in Mljet Island.
Swimming in the crystalline waters off Croatia's 1778km Adriatic coast are some 1244 islands. The largest, busiest and most developed is Krk Island in the north, but sun seekers should head south to seductive Mljet and Hvar Island, said to be the country's sunniest spot.
Food & Wine PPP
Food & Wine
Oysters and foie gras, baguettes, smelly cheese and Bordeaux wine – France's foodie treasures are the stuff of gastronomic legend, and there's nowhere better to taste them than the country that gifted the world 'haute cuisine'.
France's great cities are at once exciting, fashionable, gritty and historic. Romance goes hand in hand with culture, couture and urban cool in Paris, whilst Lyon tops the culinary charts, Marseille bursts with colourful life, and Monaco woos the world's high-rollers.
France's landscape is as rich as it is varied, ranging from snow-capped Alpine peaks to the patchwork of primary colours that is Provence and the fairy-tale chateaux of the Loire Valley.
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Few countries do ruins like Greece and it's a thrilling experience to walk in the footsteps of the immortals at sites like Athens' Acropolis; ancient Olympia, host of the first Olympic games; and Delphi, where pilgrims once queued to consult a verse-spouting oracle.
Island hopping around the Greek islands is a quintessential Mediterranean experience. Favourite destinations include party hot-spot Mykonos; Santorini, famous for its lava-clad cliffs and black volcanic beaches; and Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands.
Generations of travellers have filled up on classic cheap eats such as gyros pitta (a Greek-style kebab), souvlaki (skewered meat), and Greek salads, all washed down with the local firewater, aniseed-flavoured ouzo.
History, myth and legend come to life in Italy's historic sites. Ancient ruins resonate with epics of lost glories, Renaissance palaces harbour dark secrets, baroque basilicas tell of papal plots and political intrigue.
Italy's many museums boast priceless artworks by the lorry load, with everything from ancient sculptures to modern design classics, whilst the nation's dedication to style, fashion and music makes for a rich, varied cultural landscape.
Italian cuisine is imitated the world over but still nothing can compare to a pizza served straight from a wood-fired oven in a neighbourhood pizzeria or a humble bowl of pasta dished up in a family-run trattoria. Italian gelato (ice cream) is a national treasure not to be missed.
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Montenegro crams an awful lot of spectacular scenery into a very small space – jagged mountains; sheer-walled river canyons; long, sandy beaches; and the spectacular Bay of Kotor, Europe's most southerly fjord.
Sports fans can get their fix on Montenegro’s mountains, and in its rivers and lakes. Durmitor National Park provides the dramatic setting for skiing, hiking and rafting, whilst kayaking is a great way of exploring Lake Skadar.
Historic Towns & Sites
Many of Montenegro's towns harbour handsome historic centres, including Kotor, Budva, and Perast, famous for its Venetian-style architecture. For a spiritual side trip head to Ostrog Monastery, dramatically sited on a steep cliff-face.
Towns & Cities PPP
Towns & Cities
One of Europe's under-the-radar capitals, Lisbon is a low-key charmer oozing character. Other notable towns and cities include Porto, with its Unesco-listed historic centre, the university town of Coimbra, and the hilltop stunner Sintra.
Music is a Portuguese passion and central to the country's cultural life. Soulful fado provides the soundtrack for Lisbon's atmospheric Alfama district whilst more modern tunes drive the city's thumping clubs. Bacchanalian street festivals provide a further excuse for red-blooded merrymaking.
Beach aficionados will enjoy Portugal. There are excellent beaches all over but for the best head south to The Algarve, where you'll find everything from long sandy strips pounded by Atlantic surf to small secluded bays lapped by limpid azure waters.
Outdoor Pursuits PPP
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Even serial visitors to Slovenia regularly stop and stare, mesmerised by the sheer beauty of this tiny country. Pack your camera for staggering Alpine landscapes around Mt Triglav and picturesque Lake Bled.
A wonderful, natural playground, Slovenia offers all sorts of sport. Bled and Bovec are popular centres offering canyoning, caving, kayaking and rafting as well as hiking and mountain biking. Ski resorts pepper the mountains and you can go underground at the World Heritage–listed Škocjan Caves.
Towns & Cities
With its relaxed cafe culture, hilltop castle and smattering of museums and galleries, Ljubljana offers a fine introduction to Slovenia. Elsewhere, Bled is pure postcard material and Piran boasts ravishing Venetian architecture.
Unique Modernista architecture in Barcelona, awe-inspiring Moorish buildings in Córdoba and Granada, flamenco in Seville, art and clubbing in Madrid – Spain's great cities cater to all styles and tastes.
For the food-loving traveller, Spain is a goldmine waiting to be tapped. Local specialities abound but the nation's greatest contribution to the culinary world is tapas. These tempting bar snacks are served across the country but are spectacularly good in San Sebastián, Spain's top foodie city.
Sun seekers are spoiled for choice in Spain with a full gamut of beaches, from the wild, rocky coves of northern Galicia to the dreamy Mediterranean beaches of the Balearic Islands. For pure beach bliss, head to Menorca.
Ancient Ruins PPP
From the ruins of Troy and the battlefields of Gallipoli to the domes, minarets and seething markets of İstanbul, the former capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, history is writ large on Turkey's vast and varied landscape.
Once a Roman provincial capital, Ephesus has survived in remarkable shape and its ruins are one of Turkey's headline sights. Elsewhere you can trawl ancient ruins at Troy and Pergamum, an important medical centre in ancient times.
Turkey's Mediterranean seaboard, known as the Turquoise Coast, boasts some superb beaches and heavenly azure waters. Popular spots include Patara; the beautiful Butterfly Valley; Olympos, famed for its ancient ruins and tree houses; and Çiralı.
When to Go
High Season (Jun–Aug)
- Hot, sunny days and packed beaches.
- Peak rates in coastal areas; inland cities may have discounts in August.
- High season also during ski season (December to late March), Christmas, New Year and Easter.
Shoulder (Apr–May & Sep–Oct)
- Sunny spring days in April and May; September is still hot enough for the beach.
- Crowds and high prices in many cities; more space and lower prices on the coast.
Low Season (Nov–Mar)
- The coldest and wettest time of the year with snow in mountainous areas.
- Prices are at their lowest.
- Many coastal resorts shut up for the winter.
Budget less than €70
- Dorm beds: €10–38.
- Pension double room: average €45 but can reach €110.
- Markets and supermarkets for self-caterers.
- Midrange hotel double: €40–120 (to €200 in some Western Europe capitals).
- B&Bs often good value for money.
- Restaurant meals from about €15.
Top end over €170
- Top-end hotel double: from €100 (from €200 in some cities).
- Top restaurants often have cheaper fixed-price lunch menus.
- Car hire: from €45 per day.
- Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com) Destination info, hotel bookings, traveller forum.
- Ferry (www.aferry.com) Research and book ferry tickets.
* Seat 61 (www.seat61.com) Comprehensive A to Z of train travel.
- Visit Europe (www.visiteurope.com) Has practical advice and useful links.
- Michelin (www.michelin.com) Good for road directions and online maps.
- Euroflights (euroflights.info) Lists budget airlines and routes.