One of the most enticing things about the Mediterranean region is its rich cultural legacy and abundance of historic sites. The Mediterranean Sea has long been the crossroads of empires – ancient trade routes crisscross the region, enabling the movement of people, goods, and information.
You will find fascinating cities and sights all around the Mediterranean, but these 10 islands are particularly great destinations for those interested in history and culture (and we’ve tried to give a variety of periods and influences here).
Sicily is the Mediterranean’s largest island and without a doubt one of its most captivating. Situated slap bang in the middle of the sea, it has always been an island of great strategic importance. Many of the Med’s great empires have occupied Sicily at one time – Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Bourbon, Arab, Norman, Spanish Aragon and more.
Highlights include some of the best-preserved Ancient Greek temples you’ll ever find at Agrigento, the unique Arab-Norman architecture of Western Sicily, and the 8 late Baroque towns of the Val di Noto that call for an epic road trip.
And that’s before you’ve even contemplated the volcanic spectacles at Etna and Stromboli, endless beautiful hilltop towns such as Erice and Enna, and the historic food markets of Palermo and Catania.
A short hop from Sicily is the island state of Malta which is similarly rich in amazing baroque architecture, but with a different historic slant. Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, the Knights Hospitaller, and the British have all left their mark on Malta.
As well as its blockbuster medieval cities, Malta has a whopping 9 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list (and a further 7 on the tentative list) and is also home to some of the best prehistoric remains on the continent. These are some of the earliest free-standing stone structures in the world. That’s over 7000 years of continuous history!
You can even find typical British red telephone boxes on the island, which is still a popular winter sun destination for northern snowbirds.
In the east of the Aegean Sea is the Greek island of Rhodes, another former stronghold of the Order of the Knights of St John and one of the best Greek islands for history buffs. Its proximity to the Turkish mainland has ensured a colourful history of occupation.
The showstopper attraction here is Rhodes Old Town – it’s one of the most extensive and best-preserved medieval quarters in Europe.
Don’t confine yourself to the city though – head beyond the city walls to discover more crusader castles at Monolithos, Feraklos, and Kritinia, and the Ancient Greek Acropolis at Lindos.
The Spanish island of Mallorca (or Majorca) is mainly known for its beaches. But Mallorca has just as much spectacular history as it does spectacular sands.
It’s the largest of Spain’s four Balearic islands, and its capital city, Palma de Mallorca, was founded by the Romans as Palmeria. These days its a vibrant modern city with an atmospheric medieval quarter, Gothic cathedral, and Moorish Palaces. It’s particularly regarded for its art and food scenes.
The rugged north of the island is home to a multitude of beautiful stone villages with spectacular settings and a artistic legacy. Adding to the charm factor is the vintage train ride past citrus groves from Palma to historic Soller.
Cyprus is another island often overlooked for its culture and history. In addition to some great beaches and infamous nightlife are some fabulous historic sites – some of them hugely under-visited.
As well as cracking archaeological sites (Paphos, Salamis) and castles (Kyrenia, Larnaca), mosques (Hala Sultan Tekke – pictured above) and monasteries (Kykkos and Bellapais, to name just a few), Cyprus is also home to dazzling painted wooden churches, caravanserais, and eerie abandoned ghost towns.
Capital city Nicosia is sliced in two by a demilitarized buffer zone (the Green Line) and provides a unique insight into this divided island.
There are many reasons to visit Crete, the largest and most distinct of the Greek islands. But if you’re interested in history then the legacy of the Ancient Minoans probably tops that list.
The Minoans were one of the earliest ancient civilisations in Europe, predecessors of the Ancient Greeks and contemporaries of the Ancient Egyptians (this is going as far back as 2700BC). The centre of this ancient kingdom was Knossos, now an extensive archaeological site close to modern-day capital Heraklion. It’s one of the biggest tourist attractions in the whole country – and possibly Europe’s oldest city. Don’t miss the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion which explains many of the site’s finds.
Elsewhere on Crete, you’ll find evidence of Venetian and Ottoman occupations in the old quarters of its cities – particularly Chania and Rethymnon – as well as important monasteries (Arkadi, Agia Triada), and traditional rural villages.
The beautiful Greek island of Corfu is another history hotspot thanks to its UNESCO-listed old town with its pretty neoclassical streets and three forts. The influences on show here include Corinthian, Roman, Byzantine, French, Russian and British.
Corfu Town’s main attraction is its impressive Old Fortress, while the lush gardens of the Palace of Achilleion are 10km out of town. Smaller sites include the ruins at Paleopolis, near the Mon Repos Palace, the Kardaki temple, the Byzantine castles at Paleokastritsa (Angelokastro) and Kassiopi, and a Venetian shipyard at Gouvia.
And recent TV show The Durrells has sparked interest in Corfu’s literary legacy.
For something completely different (and a lot less busy) try the wildcard island on this list, Chios. It’s one of the largest but least visited Greek islands. If you like your historic sites wild and empty then this is the island for you.
Chios is the home of mastic cultivation. You might not have heard of this product, but in the days of the Ottoman Empire, it was a prized and expensive crop which brought great wealth to the island.
There are numerous medieval villages to explore, the most striking of which is Pyrgi with its elaborate black and white patterns which hark back to its Genoese occupation. These are known as xista and influenced by the Italian technique of sgraffito. Pyrgi is the most famous village, but don’t most the completely fortified village of Mesta, and the vast and evocate deserted Byzantine village of Anavatos.
Highlights in Chios Town include the Castle of Chios, the monastery of Nea Moni, and 1the 9th-century waterside windmills just outside the city.
This Balearic island is substantially smaller than Mallorca – and is better known for its beaches – but it punches above its weight when it comes to history.
In Mahon and Ciutadella, Menorca boasts two beautiful and atmospheric old cities – the former being its capital and a one-time stronghold of the British Navy, the latter displaying a more ornate baroque style. Fans of naval and military history will find much to interest them around Mahon, which has one of the largest natural harbours in Europe, and the nearby harbour town of Es Castell.
But dotted around the island you’ll also find intriguing Bronze Age megalithic monuments. 274 of these stone monuments have survived, and in much better shape than on neighbouring islands, and they were possibly used as lookout towers as many as 4000 years ago.
The French island of Corsica has a unique heritage, and enchanting feel, and many eye-catching sights. For centuries it was the subject of a tussle between various Italian trading empires, and then later the Brits, the Aragons, and the French. It has a fiercely independent character flecked through with Italianate architecture and that French je ne sais quoi. It’s probably the most beautiful island in the Mediterranean.
There’s much to discover in Corsica – you’ll be smitten by its gorgeous hilltop villages and rugged mountainous landscape, impeccable beaches, ancient neolithic monuments, rustic food, and a unique polyphonic folk music tradition.
Corsica’s main cities and towns are honey-hued and well-heeled, with chic marinas, polished citadels, and museums galore. A particular delight is the vertiginous clifftop houses of Bonifacio (pictured above).
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Malta – St Julian’s: © By sakkmesterke / Shutterstock
Sicily – Palermo: © puckillustrations / Adobe Stock
Malta – Marsaxlokk: © kavalenkava / Shutterstock
Rhodes: © Vladimir Zhoga / Shutterstock
Mallorca: © Allard One / Shutterstock
Cyprus – Hala Sultan Tekke: © Evgeni / Adobe Stock
Crete – Knossos: © The Mediterranean Traveller
Corfu: © The Mediterranean Traveller
Chios: © © visualpower / Adobe Stock
Menorca: © tuulijumala / Shutterstock
Corsica: © Andrea Sirri / Shutterstock