I’m not much of a city person, so I love getting out into national parks when I’m traveling. Whether it’s hiking, skiing, or even just taking a drive through, I want to see every bit of beautiful landscape that this world has to offer. When you think of Europe, though, I bet you’re probably thinking of its popular cities like Rome, Paris, and London—or even if you’re thinking of landscapes, you’re probably thinking of the beaches of Barcelona or the majestic Alps. There’s plenty more to Europe than that, though! Don’t miss checking out these absolutely stunning national parks (listed in no particular order):
1. Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park, Italy
The Dolomites are technically part of the Alps, but they look nothing like what you’re picturing. In many places, these impressive limestone formations seem to jut straight up into the air, with near-vertical slopes. There are a plethora of outdoors activities that you can take part in, including skiing, climbing, hiking, and paragliding. You can stay directly in the park in accommodations ranging from mountain huts to hotels. But be careful: one look at the peaceful morning sunrise coming in over those peaks and you might never be able to drag yourself away!
2. The Black Forest National Park, Germany
If you’re looking for gingerbread houses and other fairytale delights, look no further than Germany’s Schwarzwald, or Black Forest. The pretty little villages like Triberg, Kinzig, and Calw are everything that you would imagine, with half-timbered houses and plenty of places to buy traditional wooden cuckoo clocks and other delicately-carved woodcrafts. And if you’re looking to immerse yourself in nature, there’s no better place in all of Germany. This is the country’s largest national park, and it’s home to mountains, dense forests, and tons of varied flora and fauna. There’s hiking galore, plus plenty of other great outdoor activities to suit any interest.
3. Hohe Tauern National Park, Austria
When you think of Austria’s landscapes, you’re probably picturing something from the Sound of Music. And those dramatic mountains overlooking sprawling meadows are exactly what you’re going to get in Hohe Tauern—among other things. The park is home to Austria’s tallest mountain, along with roughly three dozen other distinct peaks, and it’s a great place to take a drive—the Grossglockener High Alpine Road is a great place to start. The park has inspired many artists and writers, so get ready to indulge your creative side as you explore by car, on foot, by bicycle, on horseback, or however else you choose.
4. Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
No matter where you look in this part, it honestly looks a bit surreal, as though your eyes were tricking you. The main reason for that is the colors: with its turquoise lakes (there are more than a dozen of them) and bright, leafy green trees, you’ll feel as though you’re caught in a photograph where someone bumped the saturation and changed the hue on you! Unfortunately, if you were thinking of taking a dip in these tranquil waters, that’s against the rules—but there are plenty of other great activities to enjoy like hiking, or you could head to Krka National Park instead, which offers similar views but with the opportunity to go swimming in one of the pools.
5. Triglav National Park, Slovenia
This is Slovenia’s only national park (surprisingly—but what they lack in number, they make up for in quality!). It’s another of those places where you won’t believe your eyes. Many tourists stay in nearby Bled and take daytrips into the park, but if you’re looking to get off the beaten path, it’s better to stay along the shores of peaceful Lake Bohinj or in one of the many mountain lodges, where you’ll really have the chance to find your zen and enjoy your surroundings. During the summers, locals and tourists alike flock to the rivers in the park for kayaking and other water activities. Hiking is also popular in the park, and you can get great views from the summits of many of the peaks or from the high alpine meadows.
6. Goreme National Park, Turkey
Goreme (also known to many travelers under the wider region of “Cappadochia”) is an incredible place to visit, from its cave towns to its general scenery. One of the most special experiences that you can have in your life is an early-morning hot air balloon ride over this alien-looking landscape of so-called fairy chimneys. The quiet is absolutely surreal, and the strange shapes of the rocks and the rising balloons will offer a thousand photo opportunities. Hiking and mountain biking are available for visitors of all fitness levels—and there’s a traditional Turkish bathhouse right in the middle of Goreme town where you can rest those muscles after a long, strenuous day. Just avoid traveling here during the height of summer, when the heat can be absolutely stifling; you’re better off visiting during the spring or fall.
Admission: fees apply to certain sites but are generally less than $10.
Location on map: Goreme National Park, Turkey
7. Curonian Spit National Park, Lithuania.
There’s nowhere in the world that’s quite like the Curonian Spit—in fact, the place is unique enough that it’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So what exactly is it, you may be asking? It’s a long, narrow strip of sprawling white sand dunes and 100-year-old pine groves that stretches along the edge of the Baltic Sea, forming the edge of the Curonian Lagoon. There are plenty of prime spots for sunbathing along the dunes; for the more active traveler, you may choose to hike or cycle through the area—just make sure to stay on the marked paths since the shifting sands and fragile ecosystem mean that straying from the beaten paths can do serious damage to the park!
Admission: €5 toll to enter the area + €0.80 to take the ferry across the lagoon; no fee to enter the park (see more information here).
Location on map: Curonian Spit National Park, Lithuania
8. Oulanka National Park, Finland
No matter what time of year you visit Oulanka, you’re sure to find some incredible scenery there to greet you. You’ll want to avoid visiting during the spring, when the park is prone to flooding, but in the summer, you’ll find jewel-bright greens. In the fall, on the other hand, the foliage will change over to brilliant orange and yellow hues. And in the winter, when everything is white, you’ll find that, far from being a harsh and forbidding landscape, Oulanka’s snow-covered trees and huts beckon you in to explore a special kind of solitude. The most popular trekking route in Finland (the 80-kilometer Karhunkierros Trail) lies within Oulanka’s borders, as do many other shorter routes, and if you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of reindeer!
9. The Lake District National Park, England
I love everything about England’s countryside, from its sprawling hills to its rich pastures full of sheep. What I love most about the Lake District, though, is the color palette. Here, you’ll find deep purples, greens, and blues like you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Although the mountains may not be as impressive as some of the others on this list, the juxtaposition between the sprawling mountains and tranquil lakes is definitely a sight to behold. Don’t even get me started on charming towns like Keswick or Grasmere. And as if that all weren’t enough, there’s plenty of history in the area as well, with everything from castles and abbeys to the Neolithic Castlerigg Stone Circle.
10. Jostedalsbreen National Park, Norway
Jostedal Glacier is the largest glacier in continental Europe, so if you’re looking to go trekking, take some amazing photos, or just soak in views of some of the best things nature has to offer, this is the place for you. Even if you’re averse to cold weather, you can enjoy a visit to the glacier: the glacier continues to exist because there tends to be a decent amount of snowfall during the winter months, but temperatures actually stay pretty comfortable during most of the year. However, I personally recommend visiting during the winter or early spring. The temperatures may be a bit colder, but you’ll have the chance to take a guided tour underneath the glacier and into the Blue Ice Cave.
11. Sarek National Park, Sweden
If you really want to visit a place that emphasizes how vast and magnificent the world really is, my vote is for Sarek National Park in the Lapland region of Sweden. There’s just something about the sprawling valleys and wide open, untouched expanses of beautiful land that will have you standing mouth agape in awe. Part of what makes it feel so rugged and wild is the lack of marked trails and signage—unless you’re an experienced backcountry hiker, it’s recommended that you travel with a guide. It takes a little more work to explore than some of the other parks on this list, but if you’re willing to put in the effort, you’re sure to have an incredible experience.
Admission: free, but it’s recommended that you travel with a guide, which can get pricey.
Location on map: Sarek National Park, Sweden
12. Snæfellsjökull National park, Iceland
There are plenty of amazing landscapes to captivate the traveler lucky enough to visit Iceland, so narrowing it down to just one national park is difficult! However, Snæfellsjökull offers a little taste of everything, from sweeping shorelines to volcanoes to glaciers and more. The area is home to an impressive selection of wildlife, and it’s also notable from a literary standpoint as being the point where the characters in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth find the actual passage to the center of the Earth. Although you may not find any evidence of that passageway during your trip, you will be able to view different archaeological remains such as the Forni-Saxhóll farm, thought to date back to roughly a thousand years ago.
13. Snowdonia National Park, Wales
Snowdonia is a hiker’s paradise, with nearly 1500 miles of trails spanning its roughly 800 square miles. The northern parts of the park are the most popular with tourists, many of whom choose to climb (or take the train up) Snowdon Mountain, the park’s namesake and the largest mountain in all of Wales and England. But there are plenty of other mountains in the park, with varying levels of remoteness, plus bogs, coastline, and more. And with a plethora of classes on offer to the public, there’s way more to do than just hiking! One thing to note is that parts of the park are private property—so make sure you stay on marked routes or in places that you’re sure offer open access rights, and if you plan on fishing, make sure you have the appropriate permits.
14. Valbonë Valley National Park, Albania
Hiking in the Alps can get frustrating when you’re rubbing elbows with tourists every step of the way. But Valbonë’s craggy mountains, rivers, and lakes will offer you a lot of the same scenery without all the bustle and mass culture. Plus, how many people do you know who can say that they’ve danced at a St. George’s Day celebration (May 6) in an Albanian village that numbers only a couple hundred inhabitants? Best of all when you’re hiking during those summer days? The temperature tends to stay relatively cool, usually in the upper 60s or lower 70s Fahrenheit. Despite Albania’s small size, it can take a while to travel to Valbonë—but once you make it there, you’re sure to forget all about that!
15. Pyrénées National Park, France
From canyons to greenery to wildlife (and domesticated animals like sheep) to waterfalls, this section of the Pyrenees has everything that you could hope for and more. It’s a paradise for bird-watchers and hikers during the spring and summer, and in the winter, there’s the possibility for some great ski-touring too. Even if you’re not big on outdoor activities, there’s plenty to enjoy in the Pyrénées, such as the Train d’Artouste. One of my favorite things about a trip to the Pyrénées, though? Undoubtedly the food! From a scrumptious picnic during the summer to some hearty soup by the fire in the winter, you’re sure to find that the meals are a perfect complement to the beauty around you.
This is, of course, only a small selection of the national parks that Europe has to offer. What are some of your favorites? Share your personal list or a link to your photo albums in the Comments section!