The Five Best Lighthouses in Europe and the United States

From Maine to Iceland to Spain, discover extraordinary lighthouses on two continents

Published 04/08/2022 by Lisa Hübener

Lighthouses: They are signposts, beacons of hope and symbols of homecoming—exactly what you long for in difficult times. Lighthouses are among the oldest means of communication and although their origins are unclear, they’ve inspired poets, writers, painters and filmmakers and stand witness to history, war and culture.

The lighthouse of Alexandria, on a small island off the coast of Egypt, is considered the oldest lighthouse in the world. Built between 299 and 279 B.C., the monument, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, was the tallest lighthouse for many eons. Unfortunately, an earthquake destroyed it completely in 1323.

Despite its fate, the lighthouse of Alexandria inspired other architects, mainly in the Mediterranean, to erected replicas. Today, lighthouses are everywhere, from the Atlantic Coast of the United States to the Indian Ocean to the Tasman Sea. 

Even though most ships today navigate via GPS, lighthouses are still strategically necessary even if some have become tourist sites rather than beacons luring sailors home to their sweethearts. It’s time to navigate the most scenic lighthouses in the U.S. and Europe. 

Akranesviti in Akranes, Iceland

Hilmar Sigvaldason, the cheerful, engaging lighthouse keeper at Akranesviti—about an hour north of the capital Reykjavik—loves his two lighthouses. Cheerful and gregarious, Sigvaldason takes guests on a tour of the larger of the two, built in 1947 (the smaller was built in 1918).

Reykjavik

Art lovers will have eyes for the canvases on display inside, but the acoustics of this lighthouse will inspire music lovers. Swedish pop singer Zara Larsson and Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds are both fans of Akranesviti. The latter paid homage to the lighthouse in his “Old Skin” video.

Regardless, it’s the view that humbles and inspires. Nearby, you can watch eider ducks breed, and in good weather, you might be able to spot the Reykjanes Peninsula to the south, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula to the west, and the snow-capped mountains to the east. In winter, northern light aficionados head here for the annual extravaganza.

Tower of Hercules in A Coruña, Spain

The Torre de Hércules in Galicia in northwestern Spain is the oldest lighthouse in the world still operating. Built in A Coruña in the second century, legend has it, Hercules killed the giant Geryon and buried his remains here.

A Coruña

Unlike today’s ubiquitous cylindrical lighthouses, the exterior of the Tower de Hercules is rectangular. The UNESCO World Heritage Site mimics the lighthouse of Alexandria but got its classicist look via King Charles IV, who commissioned a restoration in 1788.

Head up the 242 steps to reward yourself with 360-degree views of the rugged coastline. Tour the sculpture park, rock carvings, and Muslim cemetery, which dates back to Moorish rule. 

Tourlitis Lighthouse in Andros, Greece

Greece is a natural fit for lighthouses since it boasts plentiful coastline. The Cyclades are the most well-known island group, thanks to Mykonos and Santorini. But it’s Andros, which you can get to via ferry from Athens, that has inspired artists and architects. The latter built the Tourlitis Light, a picturesque spot that even Poseidon would envy and respect.

Andros

Situated on a tiny outcropping near the harbor of Andros, the cozy light can only be viewed closely via boat when the wind is calm. A small set of stone steps cut into the rock, forming a staircase to the light, which was destroyed during WWII but rebuilt by a local couple in 1994 in memory of their deceased daughter. For the best views, head to the small fortress in the harbor for an IG-worthy snapshot. 

Lighthouse in Lindau, Germany

Most lighthouses sit on the sea or ocean, but a few, like the lighthouse in Lindau, Germany, sit on a lake. While not the largest lighthouse (just 10 feet tall without the platform), this lighthouse is still special in many ways.

Situated on the western pier of Lindau’s harbor in Lake Constance, it’s the southernmost lighthouse in Germany and the only one in Bavaria. At 1,400 feet above sea level, it’s the highest beacon in Germany, and boasts a charming, integrated clock.

Lindau

Completed in 1856, the Lindau Light replaced the 12th century Mang tower, which is why it’s also known as a new lighthouse. Initially, the keepers used oil, fire and kerosene to operate it, but it became an electric light in 1936.

From the surrounding viewing platform, which you reach after climbing 139 steps, you have an excellent panoramic view over Lake Constance and the imposing Bavarian Lion. 

Portland Head Light in Maine, USA

Considered the most beautiful lighthouse in the United States, the Portland Head Light is one of many reasons people head to the tiny seaside town of Cape Elizabeth in the summer.

Portland

Completed on January 10, 1791, this lighthouse in Maine is the oldest in the state and served as a base of communications during the American War of Independence. According to lore, George Washington asked builders to use local quarry stone to construct the 80-foot lighthouse. The United States Department of the Treasury operated the lighthouse for nearly 100 years. Today, the United States Coast Guard and the town of Cape Elizabeth operate it together.  

The Portland Head Light became automatic in 1989 and has managed without a keeper since. The former residential buildings now house a museum that provides insights into the tower’s history. From Fort Williams Park, a former military site, you have the best view of the tower from rocky outcroppings.