Today we’re celebrating some of Europe’s greatest national parks. When traveling to Europe, many of us automatically think of CITIES, museums, back-to-back sightseeing, sports matches, theater shows, concerts, nightlife, etc. These are all exciting, great parts of any vacation – and we highly encourage all of them. However, there’s one thing we’d like you to not skip entirely when planning your next vacation to Europe: nature. After all, Europe is home to some of the most beautiful national parks, nature reserves and gardens in the world!
And for many of us, vacation can’t be 100% sightseeing… It’s also about relaxing and disconnecting from stress. Visiting Europe’s national parks is a chance for fresh air, peace and quiet. Combine those with picture-perfect landscapes, and the results are quite invigorating. Now you might be asking, how am I supposed to get to these fantastic national parks? That depends. Some are located a short distance from major cities. Others are much more remote. Some are best to visit by car, while many can be reached with public transportation or on a sightseeing tour. Therefore, without further delay – here are five of Europe’s greatest national parks!
1. Parc national des Calanques
Location: France (near Marseille, Cassis and Aix-en-Provence)
Between France’s second-largest city, Marseille, and the pretty port town of Cassis lies one of the country’s most beautiful natural attractions: the Calanques. What are calanques? Often described as Mediterranean fjords, calanques are rocky coves or inlets found along the Mediterranean coastline. It is believed the hair-raising formations were once very deep valleys that were partially flooded with water thousands of years ago. An amazing panoramic view of the entire area can be had atop the colossal Cap Canaille cliff.
The rocky calanques are home to lovely pine forests, walking paths and exceptionally beautiful, pebbly beaches. Today visitors and tourists head to this national park to sail, dive, swim, climb, hike or walk along the nature trails. Approaching the shore by boat, the sea fades from sapphire-blue to turquoise, and one of the best ways to experience the Calanques is by boat tour. Most sightseeing boat tours depart from Marseille or Cassis, and while aboard – even when far out – the water is so crystal clear that you can often see all the way down to the bottom.
There is much to appreciate in this western corner of Provence. In addition to invigorating days filled with sunshine, sparkling seas and fresh air, visitors can pay a visit to Marseille’s historic port, dine on authentic bouillabaisse or enjoy the shopping in lovely Cassis. If you’re interested in winetasting, this is an excellent Provençal area to be in as both Cassis and the nearby fishing village of Bandol are both internationally-renown wine regions.
2. Berchtesgaden National Park
Location: Bavaria, Germany (near Munich and Salzburg, Austria)
Located a stone’s throw from Germany’s southeastern border with Austria, Berchtesgaden National Park is actually closer to Salzburg than to Munich. This beautiful Bavarian park is Germany’s sole national park in the Alps, and exploring it is like walking around inside your favorite postcard. One of the biggest draws of the park, which is an official UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is the dazzling Lake Königssee.
If you’re looking for fresh air and a pristine, mountainous background to temporarily escape from city sightseeing, the park has over 140 miles of walking trails with varying levels of difficulty: relaxing paths that crisscross the valley, higher-intensity routes through mountain pastures and ambitious hikes to the summit. Berchtesgaden is easily visited on a day trip from Munich. Visitors traveling from Salzburg often pair a tour to Berchtesgaden with one of Austria’s famed attractions: Hallein’s ancient, underground salt mines.
History buffs often travel to this area because of its connection with the Third Reich. North of the park, above the market town of Berchtesgaden is a retreat area called Obersalzberg. Because of the remarkable views, Hitler – along with other senior Nazi officers – built their vacation homes there. While most of these homes no longer exist, visitors can still visit the Kehlsteinhaus chalet (Eagle’s Nest), which was completed just before the outbreak of WWII as a present for Hitler’s 50th birthday.
3. Plitvice Lakes National Park
Location: Croatia (68 miles from Zagreb, 93 miles from Zadar, 170 miles from Split)
Set in the heart of Croatia – in one of Europe’s most beautiful karst landscapes, Plitvice Lakes National Park is a Croatian superstar. We’re not even kidding – some people travel to Croatia just to visit this legendary park! What’s the big deal about the park? The waterfalls – and the vivid colors of its sixteen lakes (shades of grays, blues and greens). Unsurprisingly, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Natural Site.
There are hiking trails located throughout the park, and ticket costs include the park’s electric boat rides and panoramic train rides. And as Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of Croatia’s best tourist attractions, it is relatively easy to get there (on sightseeing excursions and escorted tours, and using public transportation).
4. Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park
Location: Northeastern Italy, the Veneto region
Already famed amongst European vacationers wanting to ski, mountain climb or hike, the Dolomites are largely unknown to most Americans. These pale-colored, rugged mountains form part of the Alps, which descend into two of northeastern Italy’s regions: Trentino-Alto Adige and the Veneto. The Dolomites are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Natural Site, largely because of their spectacular shapes and striking beauty.
You wouldn’t be alone if you mistook this mountainous corner of Italy for Austria. It once was, and as soon as you visit you’ll instantly observe a fantastic blend of Italian, Austrian and Alpine cultural elements at play – in the cuisine, customs, music and even language. Some locals in this area speak more in German (or in another language called Ladin) than they do in Italian.
The Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park is located inside the Veneto, a truly wonderful region of Italy that is also home to Venice (its capital city), Verona, Padua, Belluno and Vicenza. From Venice you can drive to the park in roughly an hour and a half (unless of course you get sidetracked passing through Treviso, the home of Prosecco – Italy’s most popular sparkling wine).
Did you ever imagine you could have Venice’s beautiful canals along the Adriatic Sea and the Alps on the same trip?! You can in the Veneto region. Specifically near the park, in addition to the town of Belluno, other beautiful Dolomite towns and resorts to visit include Bressanone, Cortina d’Ampezzo, Sappada and San Martino di Castrozza. Alternatively, driving north you can travel from the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park to the Austrian city of Innsbruck in under four hours.
5. Cairngorms National Park
Location: Northeastern Scotland
Our last national park recommendation today will take you deep into the heart of the Scottish Highlands. As the largest national park in Great Britain, Cairngorms National Park is home to over 1700 square miles of wild, mountainous beauty and everyday Highland life. Five of the United Kingdom’s highest mountains are located within the park, and while the park does house the very scenic Cairngorms Mountains, its official boundaries extend beyond to include many lakes, forests, moorlands, towns and villages.
There are historic castles, gardens, art galleries, whiskey distilleries, museums, farmer’s markets, pubs and restaurants – all inside the park. Visitors can also enjoy the wildlife, amazing views and extensive hiking trails. Available sports inside the park include skiing, fishing, swimming, biking, golfing, walking and shooting – and Highland Games!
This ancient area was once the land of Celtic clans and Pictish tribes, and the ambience is extraordinary. Despite the remote feeling in certain areas of the park, it is actually easier than one would expect to reach by car or train from Inverness, Glasgow or Edinburgh.
We’ll level with you – Europe has so many great national parks, that we didn’t manage to squeeze them all into this post. Therefore, we will follow up soon with another post on our remaining six favorite national parks in Europe. If you would like more information on our go-today vacation packages, please click here. And while it’s not necessary to have a car to reach all the parks on this list, we do have some great-value, affordable Fly & Drive vacation packages to check out if you prefer to rent a car, grab a map and hit the road on your own!
Stay tuned and safe travels