A National Park is an area of particular natural interest that is representative of a region and, being protected, is in itself a method of conserving this natural wealth for future generations. The protection of national parks is the responsibility of the federal government, whereas the management of other protected sites, often known as natural parks, regional parks, or biospheres, resides with the state or regional government.
The words “national park” usually bring to mind Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or another famous American national park. Nonetheless, Europe is abundantly rich in natural attractions and equally active in terms of protecting them; in total, there are approximately 359 National parks in Europe! The number keeps changing because every year, each country has the potential to open a new national park, in order to preserve another particularly beautiful and fragile area.
National parks in Europe offer visitors a wide variety of scenery. Depending on the countries you visit, you can see alpine landscape, karst formations, lakes, rivers, tidal areas, islands, forests, fenlands, grasslands, and steppes. These reserves abound with different species of flora and fauna, some of them unfortunately on the road to extinction.
The vast range of parkland terrain makes possible an equally varied selection of outdoor activities. Walking and hiking are the most popular ways to visit the parks in an environmentally-friendly manner. However, some parks provide bicycles as an alternative means of non-polluting exploration, and some even offer equestrian trails and rides in horse carriages. In the more mountainous areas, you can try rock climbing, or take to the water for fly fishing, rafting and canoeing, or even a steamboat (such as on the Elbe river in Germany). At the seaside you can enjoy touring by boat, or hop in a small craft to go bird watching in tidal marshes and lagoons. In some cases, hiking excursions can last for several days, so you can sleep in the open air, under the stars.
Remember, however, that available activities vary from one park to another. Some have very strict rules and it is up to the visitor to consult the tourist boards or the parks themselves to be fully informed of detailed regulations for visiting and enjoying these protected natural areas.
The Europarc Federation is the umbrella organisation of Europe's protected areas. It unites national parks, regional parks, nature parks and biosphere reserves in 38 countries, with the common aim of protecting Europe's unique variety of wildlife, habitats and landscapes.
Certain European National parks are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, whose mission is the protection and preservation of our world heritage, both cultural and natural.
Some of the best wilderness protected areas in Europe are members of the PAN Parks network. These parks are independently certified to ensure high standards of management and also work together with local communities to develop sustainable tourism to maintain a viable economic future for these areas.
National Parks of the Benelux
Holland lists 20 national parks, in Friesland, Gelderland, Utrecht, Seeland, and the Northern Brabant. Drenst-Friese Wold National Park combines woods, moors, and sandy terrain over an area of 6,100 hectares/23.5 square miles.
Haute Veluwe Natural Park is the biggest park in Holland, where successive landscapes of forests, shifting sand dunes, and heather-filled moors shelter roe deer, boar, mouflon (wild sheep), and numerous species of birds.
Belgium, strictly speaking, does not have a national park, but don’t miss visiting Haute Fagnes Nature Park, a beautiful area of hills, moors, fenlands, and peat bogs as far as the eye can see.
Upper Sûre Natural Park spreads between Belgium and Luxembourg, in the Luxembourg Ardennes. The two countries share a joint project to develop this cross-border area, basing themed visits on local legends.
National Parks of Ireland
The Republic of Ireland boasts six national parks, each with its own uniquely beautiful scenery. Among them, the Killarney National Park, in County Kerry, is renowned for its lake-studded mountains. It is also the sanctuary of Ireland’s last herd of wild red deer. The Connemara National Park is distinctive for its seemingly endless, lunar landscape of peat bogs.
National Parks of the Baltic
Latvia has three National parks. The first, the National Park of Gauja, is 53 km/ 33 miles from Riga, stretching along 100 kms/62 miles of the Ganja River and its tributaries. The other two are Kemeri National Park and Slitere National Park.
In Lithuania, look for five National parks, all opened in 1991 after Lithuania seceded from the former Soviet Union. The parks symbolize preservation and ecotourism in Lithuania.
Among Estonia’s five national parks, the most well-known are Lahemaa and Karula. Lahemaa’s principal attractions are its sandy beaches, immense pine forests, 200 species of birds and more than 900 species of plants.
The coast along the Baltic includes two national parks: Slovinie National Park, where the moving sand dunes move about 10 meters/11 yards per year, and Wolin National Park, which occupies the central part of Wolin Island. Enormous hills merge with steep cliffs on one side of the island and lagoons punctuate the other.
National Parks of Central Europe
Germany presents visitors with a choice of fourteen national parks offering marvellously preserved, outstanding scenery, from the high mountains of Berchtesgaden to the beech forests of Eifel and the mudflats of Hamburg, Lower Saxony, and Schleswig-Holstein. The Bavarian Forest was the first national park designated in Germany, in 1970. The island of Rügen, in the Baltic Sea, holds two national parks: Jasmund National Park, with its chalk cliffs, and Vorpommern Mudflats National Park.
Saxony Switzerland National Park is very unusual, with its tall pinnacles of rock in tortured forms alternating with gorges and canyons.
Austria's seven national parks cover more than 2,356 km2/909 square miles and include alpine massifs, alluvial forests, valleys and steppes. Four of the parks are in the Alps: Hohetauern, Kalkalpen, Gesäuse, and Nockberge National Parks. However, Austria can be equally proud of the steppes, prairies, and pastures of Neusiedler See-Seewinkel National Park, of Donau-Auen National Park, constituted of the alluvial plains of the Danube, and the newcomer, Thayatal National Park, created in 2000.
Swiss National Park refers to Switzerland’s unique national park, created in 1914, and the largest natural reserve in the country. It is famous for its rich variety of fauna and alpine flora.
Among the ten national parks of Hungary, Hortobágy National Park, with its 52,000 ha/200 square miles of plains and swamps, is the largest in Hungary. It has also been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1999. But if you can, give some time to Balaton High Country National Park and also that of Danube-Drava. You’ll be glad you did!
Poland is rich in national parks with twenty-three to its credit, each of them representative of its region and the natural beauty of Poland.
Pieniny National Park is teeming with rare species of flora and fauna, in a landscape of sinuous, narrow gorges.
Slovakia is understandably very proud of its nine national parks. Lower Tatras National Park has a bear as its symbol and is replete with caves and mountain lakes, sources of clean water and thermal springs. Slovenský raj National Park, the Slovakian paradise, offers visitors incomparable views of ravines, gorges, rivers, and waterfalls. To find out more...
The Czech Republic has four national parks, filled with forests and mountains that serve as a refuge for wolves, lynx, and wildcats: Krkonoše (Giant Mountains), Sumava, Bohemian Switzerland, and Podyji National Parks.
National Parks of Scandinavia
Sweden was one of the first countries to create national parks, starting in 1909. Its twenty-nine national parks are managed by the Swedish National Environmental Protection Agency. Färnebofjärden National Park is a mosaic of habitats gathered together along the Lower Dalälven River. Stenshuvud National Park extends the length of the coast and contains long sandy beaches that invite long, dreamy walks.
Laponia offers several national parks with glorious, unspoilt scenery: huge mountains rising from glacial lakes, rivers and marshes, and immense beech forests. Abisko National Park, thanks to its geographical location, has an unusually clement climate and a huge diversity of plant species.
Denmark has only one National Park, but an enormous one, in Greenland! Northeast Greenland National Park, managed by the Greenland Ministry of the Environment and Nature, is the largest park in the world, covering 972,000 km2/375,000 square miles. Situated at the northern end of the island, it shelters typical Arctic wildlife, such as polar bears, reindeer, and walruses.
A European project is under way to allow Denmark the right to designate its National parks as carefully selected protected zones, according to European directives.
Finland, land of a thousand lakes, owns thirty-five National parks, which it considers as crown jewels. They abound with forests, rivers, and lakes, which give great pleasure to hikers and walkers. In the northern territory, in Lapland, the Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park is a land of tundra and low hills. These immense valleys are a veritable paradise for trekking and a fairyland when the aurora borealis (northern lights) is on display.
Norway is extremely and justly proud of its twenty-five national parks of vastly differing character, including high mountains, glaciers, evergreen forests, and lakes. Almost 85% of Norway’s parks are mountainous. Access to the parks is free, the same as for all open land in Norway. Forollhogna became a National Park in 2002 to protect the unique herd of reindeer that lives there. Jostedalsbreen, north of Sognefjord, boasts the biggest glacier in Europe on dry land. In Dovrefjellet National Park you can go on safari to follow the track of the ancient musk ox.
Iceland, land of geysers, has four national parks: Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, in the north of Iceland, presents an extraordinary landscape of coloured mountains, the result of a volcanic eruption beneath the river. Skaftafell National Park, in the south, is known for its more clement temperatures and small birch forests, dominated by a glacier. Also noteworthy are Snæfellsjökull National Park, on the west side of the island, and Þingvellir National Park, in the south. This last has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004.
National Parks of the Balkan Peninsula
Bulgaria’s three national parks are Central Balkan National Park, Rila National Park, and Pirin National Park. This last preserve is an immense territory of high-altitude prairies and forests which are among the oldest in Europe, as well as numerous lakes. Animal life (chamois, wildcats, bears, and birds of prey) and plant life are abundant and well-protected. This park made the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1983.
994 km2/384 square miles of Croatia are in national parks, of which 235 km2/91 square miles are marine. The eight parks are all located in karst territory, but are characterized by three different kinds of scenery. Risnjak, Paklenica and Sjeverni Velebit Parks are in the verdant karst mountains, where erosion has created natural caves and strangely shaped promontories. Kornati, Mljet and Brijuni Parks are composed of islands. Plitvicka Jezera, which became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, and Krka are particularly well-endowed with rivers and waterfalls.
Montenegro possesses four national parks: Durmitor, listed by UNESCO, with seventeen glacial lakes including the famous Black Lake, the fascinating Ice Cave, and Tara Canyon, the deepest canyon in Europe.
Biogradska Gora National Park is one of the last three jungles in Europe: don’t miss it!
Lovcen Park, which takes its name from Mount Lovcen, and Skadarso Park, the largest bird sanctuary and last habitat for pelicans in Europe, will mesmerize you with their breathtaking scenery, worthy of the gods.
Serbia can be proud of its five national parks: Djerdap National Park is an assortment of valleys, gorges, and canyons, crossed by the Danube; Fruska Gora National Park is nicknamed “The Mirror of the Geologic Past” and is a landscape of incontestable charm, bewitching its visitors. The most important of the parks, open to the public, is Kopaonik National Park, which is home to the highest and most visited mountain in Serbia. Famous for its natural beauty, the rich variety of plants and animoals, and pretty valleys laced ribboned rivers and waterfall. The park is an ideal place to ski, snowboard, rock climb, hike, bike, raft, hang glide, and enjoy all sorts of outdoor activities.
Romania’s eleven national parks include Reteza, where a very rare species of vulture lives alongside chamois, marmots, wild boar, lynx, and bears. Rodna Mountain National Park still has traces of quaternary glaciers. Its karst formations have created countless natural grottos.
Slovenia’s Triglav National Park takes its name from Mount Triglav (2864 m/ 9,397 feet high), one of the symbols of Slovenia and the Julian Alps. The park was created in 1961. The steep slopes gradually smooth into gentle valleys laced with rivers.
National Parks of the Iberian Peninsula
Spain’s thirteen national parks are excellent representatives of the regions in which they are located. The parks are noteworthy for their variety, but above all, for their stunning ecological wealth. Some of them, such as Picos de Europa and Ordesa y Monte Perdido in the Pyrenees, are a last refuge for endangered species.
Doñana National Park, in Andalusia, has been under UNESCO's protection since 1984. The park provides refuge in particular for bird colonies, as well as for the Iberian lynx, which has become the emblem of the park. The right bank of the Guadalquivir River affords you a view of lagoons, marshes, sand dunes both stable and shifting, and maquis. Other parks are fantastic observatories for bird watching, such as Atlantic Islands National Park and Cabrera Archipelago, the largest land and sea-based national park in Spain, particularly noteworthy for its meadows of Neptune grass.
The Canary Islands’ Teide and Timanfaya National Parks offer impressive volcanic landscapes while at Garajonay National Park, also under UNESCO protection, you can admire lush primeval vegetation, now almost nonexistent in southern Europe.
Also in Andalusia, the Sierra Nevada National Park offers numerous activities in spectacular mountain scenery, where you can find over sixty different varieties of flowers.
Portugal has thirteen natural parks and one national park…but what a park! The splendid Peneda Geres National Park, in the northern part of the country, is where the Iberian wolf and the royal eagle live in a world of contrasting granite and lush vegetation.
National Parks of Southern Europe
Greece has established ten national parks, covering ground approaching 69,000 hectares/ 266 square miles.
Mount Olympus National Park, whose very name evokes mythical gods, features the quintessential southern Mediterranean mountainous landscape. Vikos-Aoos National Park has incredible gorges. The smallest national park in Greece is Ainos Park, on the island of Cephalonia: its mission is to protect the local species of evergreen, the Apollo Pine, from being hybridized.
Cape Sounion National Park, which gives onto the Aegean Sea and to the Cyclades, has for centuries been known as the “Sacred Point” where the Temple of Poseidon was located.
In Crete, White Mountains National Park is well-known, as are the Gorges of Samaria, which attract many visitors. In the Dikiti Makedonia region, Prèspès National Park has in one part Mikri and Megali Prèspa Lakes, separated by a sandy band of alluvial deposits, surrounded by high mountains.
Italy’s twenty-three national parks are considered a rich endowment in Europe!
Gran Paradiso National Park, in the Val d’Aoste, dates from 1922 and takes its name from the Gran Paradiso Peak, whose summit reaches to 4600 metres/15,092 feet. The Italian Alps are also home to Stelvio National Park.
The biggest and most recently created park is Pollino National Park; thirty wolves still live there in the most remote reaches, and the pines, some of which date from the last glacial period, can be more than 40 metres/130 feet high! Abruzzes National Park, the oldest National Park of the Apennines, shelters the last colonies of Northern European bears, as well as chamois and wolves.
Vesuvius National Park protects the environment of the famous volcano of the same name.
Göreme National Park, in the centre of Cappadocia (central Anatolia) in Turkey is a phantasmagorical panorama of domes, chimneys, arrows, and pyramids of rock. During periods of Roman and Arab persecution, the inhabitants took refuge in dwellings constructed in the troglodytes. Since 1985 this site has been protected by UNESCO. A pretty way to get a special view of this area is by hot-air balloon!
If you’re lucky enough to be on holiday in Cyprus, do not miss the chance to visit the island’s national parks, in particular Troodos National Forest Park, one of the spots in the Mediterranean where you will find the richest diversity of plant life.
If the Republic of San Marino can’t claim a National Park, on the other hand it has a magnificent attribute: Mount Titano, which benefits from a surprising micro-climate that supports only a small amount of vegetation. The discovery of fossilized whale bones attests to the movement of the earth over the centuries from the sea coast to the interior.
Monaco hasn’t a national park, but if you have the opportunity to go to the Rocher (Monaco’s highest point), tour around the area and take a moment to appreciate the well-preserved coastline and gorgeous depths of the Mediterranean.
Malta may not have a National Park per se, but it abounds with natural reserves and incomparable scenic beauty.