Western Europe is a large area of land with great diversity of people, climate and topography. Along with the many navigable rivers that aided commercial activities for thousands of years, western Europe has a convoluted coastline that has made it particularly adaptable to surfing.
This kind of coastline, open to groundswell from the North Atlantic Ocean and with favorable seasonal wind conditions, is much more likely to have surfable waves than a long and unbroken coral reef or straight sandy beach.
Surfing was relatively unknown in most of western Europe until well into the 1970’s, when a number of groups from outside the continent began to arrive with surfboards and primitive wetsuits.
Among these arrivals with boards and wetsuits were Americans seeking to avoid conscription into the military during the Vietnam war, who applied for and received conscientious objector status in Norway and Sweden.
Australian surfers also arrived in Europe at this time, working as lifeguards in the UK summer season and surfing in nearby Ireland and the Basque country of France and Spain.
Locals learned from the foreign surfers and took up the challenge, from the freezing waters of the Norwegian Sea to the balmy Mediterranean.
Let’s take a look at the best surfing countries in Europe.
The Ten Best Surfing Countries in Europe
10) Denmark, including the Faroe Islands and Greenland
In recent years with the availability of warmer and more flexible surfing wetsuits like 5mm/3mm and 6mm/4mm, along with better hoods and gloves, countries with cold water conditions like Denmark have become much more popular for surfing.
From the Danish mainland to the distant Faroe Islands, surfing has surged in Denmark. Most of the waves are being ridden in the autumn and winter seasons on the exposed Jutland Peninsula on the North Sea.
Klitmoller, a small town on the Jutland in Thisted municipality in the North Denmark region has done an exemplary job of promoting itself as a “Cold Hawaii” and a center for surfing in Denmark.
There are 30 or so documented surf spots in the area on the frigid North Sea and several surf schools and surfing-centric accommodation options for visitors. It may never get very warm in “Cold Hawaii” and even at the height of summer, no one surfs without a wetsuit and there are no coconut palms, but that is how the locals and the substantial numbers of visiting surfers to the area like it.
The other region of Denmark that has seen surfers in greater numbers and substantial amounts of media exposure in recent years are the remote and insular Faroe Islands
A self-governing nation under the external sovereignty of the Kingdom of Denmark, this group of remote and extremely rugged islands in the North Atlantic populated during the time of the Vikings now has two resident local surfers. The Faroes are seeing a steady stream of visiting surfers to enjoy the spectacular scenery, cold-water waves and distinct Faroese lifestyle of farming and fishing.
This lifestyle includes a controversial annual cull of pilot whales and dolphins for food, known as the “grindadráp”. The cull is a local tradition that has taken place for more than a thousand years, but is vehemently opposed by international conservation organizations.
Greece has been a seafaring nation for thousands of years, with a national history of voyaging, trading and fighting on the Mediterranean Sea that goes back far into the distant past.
With Greece itself made up of a large mainland area and thousands of islands, Greeks have always had a close relationship with the sea. In recent decades, the arrival of surfing; along with windsurfing and kiteboarding, has fit in well with this seafaring tradition.
Surfing in Greece, while inconsistent throughout the year, can have some very good waves in the winter months. Surfing in Greece has two distinct seasons: the summer northerly Meltemi wind season in the islands of the Aegean Sea like Tinos and Ikaria where north-facing beaches can have easy windswell for beginners and the winter westerly wind season in the Ionian Sea, with the Pelopponese region of the mainland having some of the best winter surfing locations in the country.
The large southern island of Crete has in recent years become a center for surfing in Greece, with the western portion of the island open to swell from the Ionian Sea and favorable deep water offshore bathymetry facing west and south.
Being slightly further south than the mainland, Crete is a little bit warmer and large west-facing beaches like Falasarna Beach
pick up every ripple of swell from the Ionian Sea. Falasarna can have rideable beachbreak conditions quite often from November to March and warmer water than the mainland.
Greeks have had a close relationship with the Mediterranean Sea for many centuries, with island communities dependent on the sea for their very survival
Santorini is a hugely popular island for visitors to Greece and can occasionally have rideable waves in the summer Meltemi wind season
Islands in the Aegean Sea like Santorini in the Cyclades Group can receive swell and favourable wind conditions for surfing in the summer months
Another cold-water surfing destination that has seen a considerable increase in the number of local and visiting surfers in the past 20 or so years is Iceland in the North Atlantic.
Surfing most likely arrived in Iceland in the 1970’s with the United States Air Force, which had several powerful radar stations active during the 1960’s and 70’s. Iceland has been a NATO member since inception in 1949 and with this radar equipment keeping an eye on air traffic from the Soviet Union, including the possible launch of nuclear missiles, the bases played a vital role in the tense days of the Cold War.
The airmen surfed on their days off, but were limited by the stiff and cold wetsuits of the day as there is no surfing in the far North Atlantic without a serious wetsuit. It took advances in wetsuit technology to make surfing in Iceland practical.
With several high-profile surfing media projects being filmed in the country, featuring video footage of wetsuited, gloved, hooded and booted surfers ripping high-quality waves on snow-covered beaches and with several competitive surfing events sponsored by Red Bull and wetsuit manufacturers taking place, surfing began to grow quite rapidly in Iceland.
Foreign surfers have arrived in the country in ever-increasing numbers, for the most part getting on well with the local surfers in the main surfing area of the Reykjanes peninsula
As the local Iceland surfers wisely say, with the freezing cold water, shallow lava reefs and strong winds of the area, the main rule of surfing in Iceland if you want to stay alive, is never to surf alone anywhere on the island.
Yet another country with great surfing locations and conditions that has benefited from advances in wetsuit technology is Norway.
Places like the now uber-popular Lofoten Islands were first surfed in the early 1960’s, but surfers were few and far between in Norway for decades afterwards.
Some of the first dedicated wave-riders in Norway and neighboring Sweden were American surfers, who arrived during the Vietnam war period requesting political asylum and stayed, avoiding conscription into the US Army that may have sent them to the jungles of Southeast Asia with a rifle.
Instead, they came to Norway with surfboards and wetsuits and pioneered many of the waves in the country, mostly in the summer and autumn as winter was just too cold for the primitive wetsuits of the mid-1970’s.
While the spectacular location at Unstad on Lofoten has received perhaps the most international media coverage of any surfing location in Norway, the actual center of Norwegian surfing is much further south in Jaeren, south of Stavanger and within driving distance of Oslo and other cities.
The Jaeren region
is significantly warmer than the Nordland area and has several popular beachbreak and rock point setups. Jaeren has hosted several international surfing competitions and has the largest resident surfer population in Norway.
6) Italy, including Sicily and Sardinia
Surfing in Italy has a remarkable amount of variety with point, reef and beachbreaks, considering the size of the country and the fact that all the swell is coming from the Mediterranean Sea, not the Atlantic Ocean.
While no one would label the waves on offer in Italy as consistent, the country does get quite a lot of swell, from different directions and at different times of the year. Overall, the best time of the year for waves is autumn and early winter, October and November, with the tempestuous springtime period of March and April a close second.
As anyone with experience surfing in Italy can tell you, swells are short and targeted to a specific region - there is no swell that can create waves on all the various coastlines of the peninsula and islands at the same time!
With the small size of the Mediterranean Sea, there is little room for swell spreading. One location can be head-high and offshore while only a few hundred kilometers north or south will be only a half-meter or less. Winds can also be very localized, with offshore wind in Tuscany and an onshore wind not far away in Liguria.
The three main surfing areas in Italy are the Lazio region around Rome, the northern Liguria region which can have some of the best waves on the mainland and the two large offshore islands of Sicily and Sardinia.
Sicily can get swell from several directions and is warm well into the winter months on the mainland and Sardinia is considered to be one of the best surfing locations in the Mediterranean Sea. Sardinia can have large and powerful swells from the famous Mistral wind, from the northwest and can provide challenging conditions for any experienced surfer.
The average Italian surfer develops a capacity for and understanding of forecasting
far better than the surfer on a major ocean like the Pacific or the Indian, where long-period groundswells are common and local winds are seasonal and highly predictable.
The Mediterranean Sea is much smaller and with the short duration of swells, highly targeted swell direction and rapidly changing winds, the Italian surfer must become a good forecaster and be willing to drive, or they simply won’t surf very often as swells directed straight to your home break with favorable winds are few and far between.
Sicily has a growing surfing community with autumn and winter being the best season for waves in the Mediterranean Sea
Sicily is one of the largest Italian islands and can receive swell from several directions in the Mediterranean Sea
The island city of Venice in the Adriatic Sea once commanded a commercial empire that encompassed most of the Eastern Mediterranean
In recent years, surfing has grown enormously in the Republic of Ireland. A once-sleepy outpost in the North Atlantic of carefully guarded “secret spots” surfed only by rogues, desperadoes and adventurers has become very popular indeed with surf schools proliferating on the coastline in the summer months and thousands of new surfers annually.
It is in the autumn and winter that surfing comes into serious play in Ireland, as the stormy North Atlantic Ocean slings massive swell after massive swell at the Emerald Isle. In between waiting out howling gales and freezing sideways rainstorms in warm pubs with a pint of stout, there are moments of sublime perfection in an Irish winter season, when all the variables come together and produce some of the world’s best big-wave, cold-water surfing conditions at spots like Aileens in County Clare, Mullaghmore Head in County Sligo and Bundoran in County Donegal.
In recent years, Ireland has hosted many international media groups for photo and video shoots and many international competitions. In September 2011, for the 3rd time in the competition’s history, the European Surfing Championships were held in Bundoran
Fourteen countries from all over Europe descended on the town to experience not only the famous waves but also the renowned Irish hospitality. They were not disappointed, as there were good waves and plenty of socializing for all in the famous holiday resort.
4) United Kingdom, including the Channel Islands
Surfing in the UK goes back to the very beginning of modern surfing, with Captains James Cook and James Edward Alexander of the Royal Navy documenting people practicing “surf-riding” in Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean in 1788 and on the coast of West Africa in the Atlantic in 1835.
These were the first written accounts of wave riding ever published and fascinated the general public. With the Victorians in the United Kingdom itself popularizing the practice of “Sea Bathing
”, people put the two concepts together and began riding waves in Britain in Brighton on the south coast, North Devon in the Bristol Channel and the established beach resort of Newquay in Cornwall.
Various British royals passed through Hawaii on their world tours and were photographed and published going surfing with the beach boys in Waikiki. Surfing became a popular recreational activity in Newquay, featured on travel posters and practiced by all who could handle the cold water of the north Atlantic Ocean without a wetsuit.
The outbreak of World War II put the brakes on surfing development in the UK. The country struggled to survive the onslaught of Nazi Germany and everyone was occupied by the war effort. Postwar UK saw a depleted nation only slowly returning to pre-war normalcy.
What really kicked off the development of surfing in Britain in the 1960’s from a novelty act with wooden rental boards on the beaches of Newquay was the annual exchange of lifeguards with both Australia and the US.
Australian and American lifeguards would spend the summer working in Britain and in many cases, bring new boards, surfing skills and techniques with them. British surfers rapidly absorbed these new developments, soon crafting their own “Malibu” boards from foam and fiberglass and beginning to traverse the length and width of Britain to find and surf new waves.
Homegrown British manufacturers of all things surfing proliferated, with high-quality surfboards, wetsuits, accessories and magazines all made in the UK by the 1980’s and British surfers like Viscount Ted Deerhurst of Coventry were regularly traveling to France, Australia and Hawaii to mix it up with the world’s best.
A number of British competitive surfers made progress at the top levels of the sport, culminating with UK passport holder Martin Potter winning a World Championship in 1989. While Potter was born in the UK, he had grown up in Durban in South Africa but was widely embraced in Britain as a worthy British World Champion.
While few British surfers have achieved significant competitive success since Potter, surfing continues to thrive in the UK with established populations on every coastline where there are rideable waves.
These surf communities include the Channel Islands, North Devon, the southwest coast of Cornwall to the frigid Shetland Islands, Orkney Islands, Outer Hebrides and the north coast of Scotland at more than 60 degrees north of the equator.
Towan Beach in Newquay is famous for the unlikely suspension bridge linking the rock outcrops
Viscount Deerhurst of Coventry, "Lord Ted, the Lord of the Board", blazed a trail for British surfers at the top levels of the sport before his early death in 1997
Newquay in Cornwall has been a popular British beach resort for nearly a century
3) Spain, including the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands
Starting in the late 1960’s, Spain was a traveling surfer’s destination country until well into the 1980’s. There were few local surfers anywhere and visiting surfers, many of them from the UK, dominated the lineups from the Basque country to Galicia and from Fuerteventura to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands of the Atlantic Ocean.
Perhaps the location in Spain with one of the longest surfing traditions is the village of Zarautz. A large, open beachbreak in the Basque region not far from the border with France, Zarautz picks up all swells from the Bay of Biscay and is rarely flat or unsurfable.
Zarautz is the location of many accommodation options and surf schools and the town has hosted many contests, due to the consistency of swell and the number of surfable sandbars at any given time of the year with autumn and winter considered to be the best seasons.
Surfing gradually filtered through the north coast of Spain into the Galicia region of the northwest, well-known among sailors and fishermen for ferocious winter storms and the many shipwrecks that have occurred along this rocky and treacherous coastline.
While there are large and active communities of surfers now in every region of the Iberian mainland, the one wave in Spain that appears on every listing of “Best Waves in Europe” and “Best Waves in the World” is Mundaka, the long lefthand rivermouth wave in the Basque region not far from Zarautz.
Mundaka was first ridden in the 1960’s by visiting surfers, probably driving in from France on a big swell and the reputation of the wave for producing long and hollow sandbar perfection has only increased through the decades.
Mundaka doesn’t break perfectly on every swell or even during every season. To get the right combination of big swell, low tide, sandbar shape and offshore wind is actually rather difficult. For those surfers that have been there when all the elements have aligned for a few hours, they speak of the experience with almost religious intensity, such is the perfection of the wave and the rarity of everything being good at the same time.
While the mainland of Spain has many surfers and quality surfing locations, there is an offshore group of Spanish-sovereignty islands with warmer water and highly consistent swell during the northern hemisphere winter season. The Canary Islands have been a Spanish possession since the 1500’s and a favorite European holiday destination for decades. Since the 1970’s, surfers have been traveling to the islands for the winter warmth and consistent swell.
While there were few to no local surfers on any of the islands in the 1970’s, the local surfing communities have grown considerably in the Canary Islands. Similar to many other visitor-dependent surfing locations worldwide, there have been nasty clashes between visiting surfers and territorial locals demanding “respect” (respeto, en español). Visiting surfers should be aware of the occasional hostile vibes
from local surfers in the Canaries and if received, go elsewhere for the day.
The iconic catholic church of Santa Maria dominates the Mundaka lineup
The rivermouth sandbar at Mundaka in the Basque Country is on every listing of the "Best Waves in Europe"
The Canary Islands in the North Atlantic Ocean are a popular winter destination for UK and other European surfers
2) Portugal, including Azores and Madeira
Perched on the western edge of continental Europe, there is nowhere else to go in Portugal except into the sea. The Portuguese embraced this concept with enthusiasm, becoming one of the greatest seafaring peoples the world has ever known.
What the Greeks did in the Mediterranean in antiquity, the Portuguese did in the rest of the world, starting in the 15th century with the voyages across the Atlantic to Brazil and West Africa. The Portuguese produced astounding feats of navigation, eventually going around the Cape of Good Hope and all the way to the spice markets of India with Vasco da Gama and in 1521, around the entire world with Fernão de Magalhães, better known as Magellan, his Spanish name.
When foreign surfers began to arrive in the chilly waters of Portugal in the 1960’s, Portuguese were keen to follow them into the new lineups like the thumping beachbreak at the rustic fishing village of Nazaré, surfed by Mark Martinson and Billy Hamilton in the MacGillivray/Freeman surf film “Waves of Change”in 1968.
Other Portugal locations became popular with traveling surfers, including the right points of the Ericeira area and the sandbar beachbreak at Supertubos in Peniche. Locals began to take to the waves in earnest, with several waves in the Lisbon area having crews of local Portugal surfers as far back as the mid-1970’s, like the left point at Carcavelos on the outskirts of the city and the soft beachbreak of Cascais, ideal for beginning surfers.
With a mainland coastline of over 1000 kilometers on the north Atlantic Ocean, Portugal offers a huge variety of surfing locations, from beachbreaks to reefs to point breaks, with the giant winter waves of Nazaré now the most famous.
A new Guinness Book or World Records was set at this wave on 29 October 2020 when German surfer Sebastian Steudtner
, a windsurfing convert to big-wave surfing, was towed by his PWC driver into one of these majestic peaks and went screaming down the face of the wave, eventually reaching safety on the shoulder.
Using Steudtner’s shin bone as a reference, the wave was later scientifically calibrated at 26 meters (86 feet) thus earning Steudtner a new world record for his efforts, a record that took experts 18 months to confirm as the largest wave ever surfed.
In addition to the large variety of waves on the Portuguese mainland, Portugal has two Atlantic island groups that have been Portuguese territory for centuries. Both the Azores and Madeira have their share of quality waves in the autumn and winter wave season and have had a tourism industry for decades.
Madeira is particularly well-known for surfing, with the world-class big wave point break of Jardim do Mar
on the far west coast of the island. Unfortunately, the wave has been compromised by an unnecessary seawall and road building project funded by the European Union, money the local politicians found impossible to resist. The wave only occasionally breaks with the same quality as before the construction and visiting surfers have largely abandoned the village.
The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) in Belem near Lisbon was opened in 1960 to commemorate the Portuguese seafaring tradition
Coxos has been popular with foreign surfers since the 1970's, when feral Australian and South African surfers camped on the bluff overlooking the wave
Praia de los Coxos in the Ericeira area is one of the best waves in Portugal, breaking over a shallow and viciously sharp reef
1) France, including Corsica, French Polynesia, Réunion, New Caledonia, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St Pierre and Miquelon
There can be only one “Best Surfing Country in Europe” and thanks to the many offshore territories in the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean with world-class waves, that country is France.
Metropolitan France itself is not without very good waves, with a long coastline exposed to the North Atlantic Ocean. Ever since the modern version of the sport was first introduced in the resort town of Biarritz in the Basque Country in 1956 by Peter Viertel, a German-born Hollywood screenwriter from California, France has had surfers.
On the mainland, the center of the action has been in the south, in the province of Aquitaine with towns like Lacanau-Ocean and Hossegor with their perfect sandbar waves attracting surfers from around the world for the autumn and winter wave seasons. Hossegor has also hosted many professional surfing events and is the European headquarters of many multinational surfing labels.
Since the 1960’s, French surfers have fanned out across the world to each and every French territory in all the world’s oceans from Réunion in the Indian Ocean, to St Pierre and Miquelon in the north Atlantic to the tropical paradise islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean Sea.
Perhaps the most significant French surfing territory outside of France is the Society Islands of French Polynesia, where in recent decades, surfers have ridden some of biggest and most powerful waves on the planet at the reef break of Teahupoo, scheduled to be the venue for the surfing competition in the Paris Olympic Games in 2024.
Modern surfing or He’e Nalu (“wave sliding”) as practiced by Polynesians was first documented in French Polynesia by the expedition of British Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy, who sailed to Tahiti in 1769 with a crew of scientists and astronomers to carry out a series of experiments to precisely document the passage of the planet Venus across the sun, in an effort to improve navigation for the Royal Navy. Cooks’ ship, the HMS Endeavour, spent several months in Tahiti at Point Venus, where the astronomical observations took place on shore.
With all the talented surfers from the many regions of France, it is rather surprising there has never been a French world surfing champion on the professional level. Indeed, French surfers who have been consistently successful at the top level of professional surfing have been few and far between, with the English-speaking Anglo-Saxons from the US and Australia traditionally dominating the pro tour and with the Latin Brasilians being the new force in competitive surfing.
Like the French national football side, for many decades considered to be a talented underachiever on the world stage but now having won the World Cup twice, in 1998 and again in 2018, perhaps French surfers and French surfing will also realize their competitive potential, someday.
Tahiti in French Polynesia has been named as the venue for the surfing competition in the 2024 Paris Olympic Games
Locations in metropolitan France like Lacanau-Ocean in Aquitaine have hosted many professional surfing events
Réunion in the Indian Ocean is an integral part of France and has several world-class waves - and many sharks
Text © John Seaton Callahan / surfEXPLORE®
Images © John Seaton Callahan / surfEXPLORE®