Europe is best known for its enchanting cities, stellar sunsets and captivating culture, but did you know that the continent is also home to over 500 national parks? While you can thank us later for this handy nugget of pub quiz knowledge, Europe’s offering of isolated islets, whimsical waterfalls and proud peaks are what you should begin swotting up on. From the glassy glacial lakes and cavernous canyons of Durmitor National Park, to the sprouting pillars and conical cliffs that form Turkey’s Göreme National Park, Europe knows a thing or two about dramatic topography. Yet, despite their grandeur and glory, a large proportion of these majestic parks remain relatively untrodden. So, if you’re in the mood to trade rush hour roads for soundless streams and high-rise offices for rustic pine cabins,the best national parks in Europe are our prescription…
Göreme National Park, Turkey
Geology really does rock in Turkey’s Göreme National Park. Sculpted by millions of years of erosion, its bizarre landscape of steep volcanic ravines, rock-cut citadels and captivating ‘fairy chimneys’ make it seem almost otherworldly. Most tourists hop on hot air balloons to explore the storybook scene, but we recommend keeping your feet firmly on the ground to explore this marvellous moonscape. Hike through Cappadocia’s winding valleys and honeypot villages, where supernatural spires (which were really created by millions of years of volcanic ash) intersect with rustic ranches and rippling rivers and take stock in a lone mosque overlooking sundried plains. Göreme National Park boasts its fair share of culture too. Its network of handmade honeycomb-like rock fortresses and underground cities, the oldest of which date back to 3000 B.C, are particularly worthy of a visit… especially if your legs need a rest.
Durmitor National Park, Montenegro
When you’re imagining what the best national parks in Europe look like, we have a feeling you’re probably thinking of Durmitor. Dizzying, dramatic and practically deserted, Montenegro’s mountainous masterpiece stuns with carpets of bottle-green trees, 6,500 feet-plus walls of soaring peaks and knife-cut canyons that provide the perfect canopy for the mighty Tara River. As well as being home to 163 different bird species and larger fauna including wolves, brown bears and eagles, Durmitor is the ultimate paradise for adrenaline junkies. Hike up one of its 50 limestone summits, kayak past inviting swimming holes and slalom (if you visit between December and March) through avenues of snow-dusted trees. The only thing this national park really requires is a sense of adventure.
Jotunheimen National Park, Norway
Roving over untouched isolated expanses isn’t everybody’s idea of fun (we’ve all seen 127 Hours enough times to understand why). But if anywhere is going to sway you, it has got to be Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park. Home to Northern Europe’s two highest peaks – Galdhøpiggen and Glittertind – and over 50 marked routes (all varying in degrees of difficulty), Jotunheimen is a smorgasbord of wild wonders. Dart over frosty glaciers, ogle at icy lakes and listen to faint animal echoes rise from rugged ravines. Make sure to stop off for a night or two in one of its charming cabins too. Peppered across the park’s plains, they are the ideal spot to put your feet up and enjoy a traditional farm-to-fork feast.
Cinque Terre National Park, Italy
Colourful, coastal and cool, the Italian Riviera has never lacked style – and nor have its national parks. Covering an area of only 15 square miles, Italy’s first and smallest park really packs a punch. Siloed between scenic inlets, where pastel villages tumble towards golden-syrup seas, you’ll be lured by the fresh fish and Aperol Spritz almost immediately. Hold off briefly (if you can) to explore its car-free hamlets, and numerous coastal paths, which offer spectacular views and fresh sea air. Although the park isn’t the secret it once was, don’t be dissuaded from visiting. It’s one of the best national parks in Europe for a reason.
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
Forget what TLC say, you should chase waterfalls. And in Croatia's Plitvice Lakes National Park, it’s quite difficult not to. Boasting an impressive 90 waterfalls, as well as an equally impressive number of lakes, Plitvice is a real aquamarine arcadia. Scale its glorious expanse of undulating forests, follow winding wooden footbridges surrounding the lakes’ mineral-rich waters and spot thirsty lynx, boars and deers hiding among the karst landscape. Regular shuttle buses and boats make it easy for everyone to get to but if you’re wanting to savour the park’s genuine wilderness, there are plenty of lesser-trodden trails to explore.