Europe contains some of the most charismatic and cultured cities on the planet. But the continent is also blessed with an extraordinary array of natural landscapes, which lure travelers from far and wide.
From the glacier-carved fjords of Norway to the sun-baked gorges of Greece, many of these areas have become national parks, conserving their beauty for everyone to explore and enjoy.
In this selection from National Parks of Europe, a practical introduction to the continent’s 60 best national parks as chosen by our expert writers, we give a glimpse of what to expect from a few of these wild, wonderful places.
Jostedalsbreen National Park, Norway
One moment you’re following a sinuous, fjord-hugging road that snakes across Norway’s west, the next you round a corner and find yourself face to face with one of the most extraordinary sights anywhere in Europe.
Mighty Jostedalsbreen is the glacier you always dreamed of – vast in scale, magical in its ice-blue beauty and seemingly alive as it groans and inches its way like a scythe through high mountain valleys and down to the water.
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Parco Nazionale delle Dolomiti Bellunesi, Italy
A grass-carpeted valley, birds chirping in the bottle-green trees, a twinkling brook: this bucolic scene is sheltered by a castellated line of mountains, formed of an almost luminescent pale rock. The drama is heightened by the contrast between the soft, gentle curves of the pastures and the sudden eruption of vast, sculptural mountains, each prong like a cathedral tower.
Parco Nazionale delle Dolomiti Bellunesi is geology as theatre. The scenic drama has been formed through the different consistency and brittleness of the rock, which has allowed erosion to sculpt it into jagged shapes, and hollow out deep, wide valleys and corridor-narrow gorges.
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Peneda-Gerês National Park, Portugal
About 300 million years ago, a continental collision pushed together the Iberian Peninsula and Europe, resulting in the amphitheater of the Serra da Peneda, Serra do Soajo, Serra Amarela and Serra do Gerês mountain ranges, dominated by immense granite cliffs and slabs.
The glacial fields that covered the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês mountains during the ice age of the Pleistocene era are nowhere to be seen. Still, the moraines, glacial deposits and deep, U-shaped valleys hint at the violent climatic events that shaped this land.
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Hortobágy National Park, Hungary
These vast prairies carry more than a whisper of the wild, wild West. But the puszta – the flat grasslands and marshes of Hortobágy National Park – stir the Hungarian soul. They are the bedrock of this country’s agrarian history.
The national park is part of the Great Hungarian Plain, which rolls across the eastern half of the country. This was once the homeland of csikósok, skilled herdsmen who thundered across the prairies. Pastoral lifestyles of lapsed centuries are frozen in time in Hortobágy: traditional sweep-pole wells dot its meadows, while herdsmen’s inns retain their original character. And while the csikós’ lifestyle has faded away, his descendants remain, many of them still learning horse-riding arts.
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Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland
Europe’s largest protected area, Vatnajökull National Park is a stunning sample platter of pretty much every dramatic natural landscape Iceland has to offer. As you roam this vast reserve, you’ll find calving glaciers, geothermal springs, rocky canyons, snow-capped mountains, featureless ice sheets, silent lagoons, buried volcanoes, eerie ice caverns, surreal basalt formations and even wandering herds of reindeer.
Sprawling over 13,600 sq km, the park takes up a good-sized chunk of eastern Iceland, so most people take small bites from the edges – from Ásbyrgi in the north, or from Rte 1 as it sneaks between the ice sheet and the eastern seaboard.
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Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales
Traveling through Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is like observing the work of a wizard who has cherry-picked his favorite places from around the world and plunked them down in Wales: turquoise Grecian waters, glacial ridges from Scandinavia and winsome villages from the south of France, hemmed in by the volcanic mounds of Hawaii.
And unlike most national parks, the preserve, too, seems to play hopscotch through the peninsula, protecting only the most coveted tracts of land and sea.
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Vikos-Aoös National Park, Greece
Experiencing Vikos-Aoös National Park can morph from tranquil to high-octane in a matter of minutes. On one hike, you’ll stand by the shore of Drakolimni, a lake as still as polished marble. The same day, your senses will whirl at the spectacle of Vikos Gorge, plunging 1km deep. By car, you’ll trundle over serene stone bridges and then moments later clutch the steering wheel around needlepoint bends.
The park nestles in northwestern Greece’s overlooked Epiros region, among the Pindos Mountains and close to the Albanian border. Its centerpiece is 20km-long Vikos Gorge, so deep it graces the Guinness World Records list – though this claim is contested.
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Durmitor National Park, Montenegro
No matter from which side you approach Durmitor National Park, you will be in awe – the glorious mountain peaks are rugged, smooth, sloping and jagged, all at the same time. The ancient pine trees dot the mountainsides with perfect cones, some reaching 50m high. And amid all this are the 18 glacial lakes that range in color from frosty blues to deep navy and turquoise, like precious beads scattered on the massif.
Durmitor has 48 peaks above 2000m in altitude, with the highest, Bobotov Kuk, measuring 2523m, making the park the perfect place for hiking, especially in the warmer months. There are spectacular karst or forest trails, and stunning views that stretch hundreds of kilometers.
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