If you're lucky enough to be in Europe in the summer, take my advice and hit the beach. Sure, Europe has many cities worth spending your precious vacation time but trust me, a European beach vacation (even for a few days) is just the ticket. Europe in the summer is hot. The beach is the best way to beat the heat while still being immersed in the local culture.
You've decided to add some beach days while you're in Europe so now what? What items do you need to ensure the best possible experience?
1. Beach Umbrella
As mentioned, a Mediterranean beach is going to be hot. The best way to protect yourself from the heat of the punishing sun is to pack a beach umbrella. Plan ahead and you can get your hands on a folding beach umbrella that will fit in your checked baggage.
If you can't sacrifice the luggage space or weight, at some beaches you can rent umbrellas and lounge chairs for the day. Be prepared to shell out at least €20 for this privilege. Buying your own beach umbrella will pay for itself in a couple of days. Bringing your own umbrella also opens up many more beach options. If you don't need to rent you can visit beaches that have no services but tend to be less crowded and more picturesque.
2. Snorkel Gear
If you like to snorkel, make sure you pack your gear. Europe, and especially the Mediterranean coasts of Italy, France, Spain, Greece and Croatia present abundant snorkelling opportunities. While a few places might rent you snorkel gear, it is not common. Trust me, when you get in that water for the first time, you'll be glad you brought your own.
3. Water Shoes
There are 3 types of beaches that I have come across in Europe: sandy, pebbly and rocky. While it is obvious that water shoes are a necessity on rocky beaches, don't let the pebbles or the sand fool you.
At a beach along the Costa Brava in Spain, I found myself settled in on a pebble beach having walked to my spot in my shoes. When I was ready for a swim I stood up and put my foot on the pebbles. Wow. You cannot imagine how hot these pebbles get. It was nearly impossible to get from my towel to the water without pain. While no actual damage was done to my feet, the pain was horrible and I vowed then and there to always pack water shoes.
The same goes for sandy beaches. The sand gets very hot and while not as uncomfortable as the pebbles, hot sand on your dry feet can be unpleasant too. Water shoes are light and pack down small. Pack them and you won't have to worry.
4. Wet Bag
Sitting in wet clothes, especially if you are taking transit to and from the beaches is not fun. You can usually find a spot to change – a bathroom or even a quiet corner on a more secluded beach – but what do you do with your wet bathing suits and towels? Bring a wet bag.
For my money, the best bang for your buck is a wet bag that will also do laundry. If you're travelling for more than a week, the ability to do a wash is a great thing. I recommend the Scrubba. It is technically a wash bag but can also double as a leak-proof bag for your wet stuff.
As mentioned, not all beaches in Europe (like anywhere) have amenities. You're lucky at most to find a usable bathroom and much luckier to find a cafe or a shop to purchase reasonable refreshments. To save money and time, bring a cooler filled with your own drinks and food. If you plan ahead and buy drinks before you go but don't have a cooler, you will be drinking hot water by noon.
A collapsible cooler is light and can usually hold enough for two people for the day. The main reason I always bring a stocked cooler to the beach is to save money. The beach restaurants and cafes gouge you like crazy. I have seen prices up to €6 for a small coke in high-end beach locations like the Cote D'Azur. Also, it is not uncommon in the Cote D'Azur to pay €20 for a salad. Pack food in your cooler if you can manage it.
6. Underwater Camera
The beaches of the Mediterranean have crystal clear water. This, combined with the abundance of rocky beaches, make for excellent snorkelling. If you have an underwater camera, you should pack it. The visibility underwater is great and you can find many beaches with calm waters which makes taking your photos easier.
7. Waterproof Wallet
Whether you're planning to snorkel or just swim, it's likely that everyone in your group will want to go together. What do you do about your valuables? Theft can be a genuine concern when travelling in Europe and don't think that beaches are an exception to that.
Try to limit the number of valuables you bring with you to the beach. Just bring the cash you think you might need, a credit card and ID. Leave your phone at home if you can.
If you have only a few items, get a waterproof wallet. This way, you can all enjoy time in the water without the worry of theft. Most waterproof wallets are big enough to hold a cell phone.
If you aren't bringing your phone, you can even try a Ziploc bag. I would double bag it and ensure it is in a zipped pocket or securely tied to you. I have tried this and everything has stayed nice and dry. I just don't think I would trust my phone in a Ziploc bag. If you want to go the Ziploc bag route, bring them with you. Good ones are not easy to find in Europe.
A Little About European Beaches
The beaches of Europe, especially along the Mediterranean coast are not like those you might be used to in North America.
Topless sunbathing can be a bit of a shock to us North Americans but it is common in Europe. It's best to be prepared. Also, Europe doesn't have the same liquor laws that you might be used to. Expect to see many people drinking openly on the beach. Luckily, I have never seen anyone I would call drunk at the beach during the day so it won't get out of hand. Along with drinking, prepare for the person on the towel next to you to light up a cigarette. Non-smoking beaches can be found but they are VERY rare.
Lastly, in Spain or Italy, prepare for your personal space to be invaded. Locals will sit close and right in front of you if they think they can find a tiny space for themselves and their large families. It's all part of the experience of travel, isn't it?
If you bring the right gear and know a little about what to expect before you go, you can sit back, relax and enjoy any European beach like a pro.