I love the South of France just as much as the next person. Yet, sometimes the Promenade des Anglais feels more like a crowded Miami boardwalk than the beach-y slice of picturesque romance it’s supposed to be.
The usual beach destinations — Mykonos, Sardinia, Cannes, Ibiza, etc. — are fine, but if you’re looking to escape the scenesters, perhaps sip a glass of wine that costs the equivalent of 50 cents, and soak yourself with warm water and rays in entirely unique destinations, you might check out one of Europe’s least-touched beaches. From the Albanian Coast to little-known French islands, have a look at the beaches that will give you both bragging rights and some well deserved relaxation from all the usual beach-going fuss.
1. Himarë, Albania
It’s only about 50 miles east of Italy, but the beaches of Albania that sit on the Adriatic Sea could not be more different from the Italian Riviera. Beachfront hotels for $50, easy access to postcard-worthy ancient ruins like Butrint and Himarë Castle, gorgeous beaches (try Gjipe or Jali), and laid-back locals make the Albanian Coast good to go. Plus, it’s weird. Thanks to its Communist years, in some areas Cold War-era bunkers dot the coast, barely held up by the white sand.
The easiest way to get to Himarë is to fly into Athens, then take a short bus to Vlorë or to Himarë, where you can dive right into the blue Ionian Sea — not a soul in sight.
2. Vama Veche, Romania
Not the type of beach where you tan all day and head out clubbing all night, Vama Veche is more the communal “let’s camp and sing around the campfire” type of place. It’s a small village near the Black Sea, with a beach that’s like a subdued Burning Man, playing host to all sorts of fascinating people who bring along guitars, sleep in tents, and awake to the gentle sound of breaking waves in the morning.
It’s free to camp, but do be a little careful — there’s a nudist section of the beach, which, while discreet and well nestled away, might not be a pretty sight to wake up to.
3. Skagen, Denmark
Denmark is known for its philosophers, writers, physicists, filmmakers, even as Hamlet’s kingdom — few think of untouched beaches. But head to Skagen — once a hotspot for painters thanks to its clear, bright light — and you’ll find not only art museums but also massive white sand dunes.
Sometimes known as ‘The Scaw,’ this northernmost peninsula is in a constant state of flux, as the sand dunes are perpetually created and destroyed by the strong night tide. Somehow, though, little has changed in this Scandinavian city since it was founded in 1413. Seeing as the population is only about 8,000 people, take a flight into Denmark’s second-largest city, Aarhus, and enjoy the short bus ride to Skagen.
4. Piran, Slovenia
I first stumbled on Piran, a tiny town on the tip of Slovenia surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, from a few gorgeously colorful pictures of the city center I’d found on Instagram. Get here and you’ll be spending your whole day in the water (either in Piran, or take a short bus to the more spacious beaches in Isola) and eating at one of the restaurants on Tartini Square, where you can get a wonderful glass of Slovenian white wine and freshly caught seafood for practically nothing.
To really escape the crowds, navigate the cobblestone streets to the top of the city and its 7th-century castle. At the top of the stairs, there’s a panoramic view of the peninsula, the Adriatic, and the sparkling lights of Croatia in the distance.
5. Noirmoutier, France
It would be wrong to regard all French beaches as touristy and expensive. Linked to the mainland by a pair of bridges, the island of Noirmoutier is full of rugged, grassy terrain complete with Quixote-esque windmills and quiet boardwalks.
Yet what makes the island truly one of the best secret beach destinations is its French-infused Mediterranean vibe and a full 25 miles of sandy beaches. Make your way through the Boise de la Chaize — a small forest of oak trees and eucalypti — which opens up to the Plage des Dames. Here you’ll find soft sand, turquoise water, cozy beach huts, and, perhaps most importantly, not a hotel in sight.