Europe's Most Spectacular National Parks, Ranked
The United States is often heralded as the gold standard for national parks. But while its parks are undoubtedly magnificent, it is hardly the only country in the world to tout an impressive, intricate national park system.
Europe, for example, is an under-the-radar park destination where protected lands boast natural wonders on par with America’s — think remote alpine valleys, idyllic island forests and ancient glaciers — plus historic and cultural marvels that are uniquely European. Ancient monuments, mythology-steeped attractions and significant battle sites abound.
The continent is currently home to more than 350 national parks, all worth a visit. But the following 15 are the best of the best.
Remember, take only photographs, leave only footprints.
15. Timanfaya National Park - Canary Islands, Spain
Size: 19.72 square miles
Fun fact: Recognizing its topographic similarities to the moon, NASA uses pictures of the park to train astronauts for lunar missions.
Timanfaya is located on Spain’s Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco, but feels planets away, thanks to its barren landscapes and striking red-rock formations. Numerous geysers and craters further add to the stark Martian mirage.
The park began as a field of solidified lava and is often referred to as “the land of volcanoes.” Despite its seemingly inhospitable conditions, locals learned to cultivate its land to grow dryland crops such as melons, onions and tomatoes. The park is also home to a bounty of rare plant species, earning it World Biosphere Reserve status by UNESCO.
Visitors to the park can hike or ride camels along the desolate lava plains, enjoying views of the inactive volcanoes and surrounding Atlantic Ocean along the way.
The otherworldly atmosphere of the park distinguishes it from all others on this list, and indeed from every other national park on the planet.
14. Mljet National Park - Croatia
Size: 37.8 square miles
Fun fact: The park is home to a number of grottos, including the Odysseus Cave — site of the Homeric heroes shipwreck, according to legend.
Mljet is called Croatia’s “greenest island,” and its namesake national park is its verdant crown jewel. (Croatia only has eight national parks, and this is one of two to land on this continental best-of list.)
Over 100,000 tourists visit the park each year, opting to wade in its crystalline waters and hike its shaded paths. A Benedictine monastery from the 12th century and two saltwater lakes also land on most visitors’ itineraries.
To access the Mljet, travelers can take a quick ferry from Dubrovnik or the smaller Dalmatian towns. The park’s village of Pomena is the hub of activities, offering water sports equipment (canoes, kayaks, scuba gear) and bikes for cycling adventures around the island.
Mljet is best done as a day trip, as there are very few lodging options on the island. Spend a sunny day in idyllic isolation before returning to the buzzing mainland.
13. Sarek National Park - Sweden
Size: 761 square miles
Fun fact: Sweden became the first European country to establish national parks when it designated Sarek, along with eight other parks, near the turn of the 20th century.
The North Pole is not the only place where travelers and Christmas die-hards can seek out reindeer — Sarek National Park is a major habitat for these furry creatures, along with moose, bears and other wildlife.
Unique to many other national parks on this list, Sarek is not very hiker-friendly. The lack of trails, combined with the frigid temperatures of the Arctic Circle and inclement weather, make it unpleasant to trek. The Swedish proverb “there is no bad weather, there are only bad clothes” underlies the precautions visitors should take here.
At the same time, it is precisely this absence of crowds and hundreds of miles of true wilderness that makes Sarek so spectacular. The park’s many valleys, dissected by shifting rivers and lakes, stretch out between gloomy glacial mountains to create fantastical views.
12. Swiss National Park - Switzerland
Size: 66.75 square miles
Fun fact: Surprisingly, considering Switzerland’s legendary natural assets, this is the country's only national park.
Located in the Engadine region of the Alps, Swiss National Park serves as a symbol of the neutral nation’s breathtaking beauty.
The park is home to myriad wildlife — visitors can view ibexes, golden eagles, marmots and chamois (the goat-antelope native to this region) while exploring the alpine terrain. Hikers are prohibited from wandering off the marked path so these furry local residents can remain unbothered by people.
Swiss National Park features a number of nature trails for hiking, perfect for families or solo trekkers, all guaranteeing indelible views. The trails are divided by level of difficulty, with the most advanced treks requiring special equipment for cliffside scaling. The glacial peaks of the park give way to the cool green heaths and breezy meadows that make this region so picturesque.
To reach the park, travelers can take a 2.5-hour train ride from Zurich to Zernez, then ride a postal bus up to the park entrance.
The beauty of the Alps is incomparable, and Swiss National Park flaunts it accordingly.
11. Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park - Italy
Size: 12.36 square miles
Fun fact: The park is home to an incredible 1,350 species of plants — a quarter of all of Italy’s flora.
Italy is more than just Rome, Florence and Renaissance museums. The country is chock-full of natural wonder, from the cliff-flanked Amalfi Coast in the south to the staggering Dolomites mountains in the north.
Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park, located on the outskirts of that epic mountain range, showcases the beauty of this region to tremendous effect. It is located only two hours from Venice, but could not be more different than the sinking city.
Meadow basins filled with flowers, lapis lazuli lakes and snowy mountaintops are just a few of the reasons why this has become such a beloved national park in Italy. Most parts of Belluno Dolomites are unvisited and untamed, with rocky terrain difficult for hiking or camping. This inhospitality makes the park a botanist’s dream. Campanula morettiana, a vibrant violet flower endemic to the Dolomites, is the symbol of the park.
Visitors can join the Dolomites Alta Via, a trail that stretches throughout the mountains and is helpfully broken into smaller sections.
10. Black Forest National Park - Germany
Size: 38.85 square miles
Fun fact: The park’s setting evokes a fairy tale — and, in fact, it’s rumored that the forest inspired the Brothers Grimm to pen Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel.
The black forest in this park’s name is a bit misleading — it is not named for an inky-hued tree, but for its thickly interwoven canopies that strangle sunlight and prevent it from reaching the forest floor.
Here, snow-capped cirques, expansive heathlands and elm trees conjure up spellbinding views. Add in miles of moss-covered trails, gnarled trees and ruined castles, and you have an indelibly Germanic park that’s also unlike any other on earth.
A number of small towns are peppered through and around the park, and they house dozens of cute chalets and cottage-inspired hotels. Looking for respite? The picturesque villages of Baden-Baden and Bad Wildbad (actually good, despite the name) offer a plethora of pampering spas.
9. Durmitor National Park - Montenegro
Size: 150.6 square miles
Fun fact: The park is believed to contain the greatest variety of butterflies in all of Europe.
The Balkans’ status as a hotbed for gorgeous scenery continues with Durmitor National Park, a massif in the Dinaric Alps.
The park's dramatic landscape encompasses everything from soaring mountain peaks to low, forested valleys. Crowded woods of fir trees meet glacial lakes, ripe for watersport excursions. Calm rivers flanking the park wind through tall canyons that rival Norway’s fjords in beauty.
Hikers can trek to Bobotov Peak at 8,280 feet for panoramic views of the park that affirm why it was certified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A number of camping options are available, and mountaineering is the activity of choice.
Montenegro is an extraordinarily beautiful country that’s seeing an increase in tourism — May 2019 saw a year-over-year boost in foreign visitors of 14.9 percent. The appeal of this park has surely played a role in this growth.
8. Vatnajokull National Park - Iceland
Size: 5,460 square miles
Fun fact: This is Europe’s largest national park by a long shot — the next-largest park, Vikos in Greece, is nearly a thousand square miles smaller.
Yes, swimming in the Blue Lagoon is a must on any Icelandic adventure — but so is exploring Vatnajokull National Park.
This stellar park is centered around a massive glacier in southern Iceland, the largest of its kind in Europe and covering 14 percent of Iceland’s surface. Beneath the ice lies mountain ranges, frozen fields and even volcanoes. The geothermal, seismic and volcanic activity over millions of years created an extremely diverse region.
With the park’s massive size comes a plethora of activities and a wealth of hiking trails. Visitors and Icelanders alike favor the Skaftafell area, for friendlier weather conditions and gorgeous treks to frozen waterfalls and renowned viewpoint Sjónarnípa.
To experience the wonder of the glaciers, visitors can opt for hikes through actual glacier caves and follow paths of shifting blue hues.
7. Butrint National Park - Albania
Size: 36.4 square miles
Fun fact: The park’s ancient sites include a theater built in the 3rd century BC.
Located in what is known as the "Albania Riviera," Butrint National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s one of Europe’s unsung spectacular locales.
Once a thriving Roman colony, Butrint changed hands from the Byzantines to the Venetians before its abandonment in the Middle Ages. Visitors can now explore this repository of ruins, many of which have maintained their structural foundations through Butrint’s 2,500-year history. Spot classical Greek busts, explore an amphitheater overgrown with marsh and enjoy soothing views of the Ionian Sea.
Saimir Maja, a local tour leader for Intrepid Travel in Albania, praises the national park as an under-the-radar favorite: "It’s a place where ancient history meets beautiful nature with freshwater lakes, islands, hills and open plains to explore," she tells Far & Wide. "A visit to this park can take you back in time thousands of years."
6. Hohe Tauern National Park - Austria
Size: 695 square miles
Fun fact: The park is home to nearly a third of all of Austria’s biodiversity.
Austria’s largest national park is a magical setting of glacial lakes, Swiss pine trees and grassy mountains, part of the Tauern range. Grossglockner is the largest of the set, standing proud at an impressive 12,461 feet.
National park rangers can guide travelers through the trails and backroads of Hohe Tauern, where top natural attractions include Leitenkammer Gorge, Krimml Waterfalls and Weißsee Glacier — one of 342 glaciers in the park.
The mountains have a soothing effect (Austrians call it magic), creating a reflective and meditative atmosphere, with chirping birds and babbling waterfalls serving as your mantra.
5. Mount Olympus National Park - Greece
Size: 1,442 square miles
Fun fact: In ancient times, Greeks would run to the peaks of Mt. Olympus in honor of Zeus. Today, the Olympus Marathon keeps this tradition alive.
Follow in the footsteps of the gods at Mount Olympus National Park. Rich in history, culture and biodiversity, this is without a doubt the most fascinating of Greece’s national parks. As the supposed stronghold of the Olympians (the gods, not the athletes), much of the park’s history and attractions are steeped in ancient mythology.
There are a bevy of trekking routes in the park that fluctuate in rigor, with a trail to suit every god-seeker’s hiking expertise.
The mountain’s highest peak is Mytikas, also called Pantheon because it was believed to be the deities’ gathering place — and if you hike here, you can understand why the ancient Greeks purported this. The peak is almost 10,000 feet tall, with a steep, almost vertical ascent that leads to rocky outcroppings ringed with clouds. It’s easy to picture Zeus throwing lightning bolts from this impregnable perch many centuries ago.
At the foot of Mount Olympus is Dion, now a famous archaeological site that was the throne of Macedonian kings and an altar to the gods. Visitors can explore a hypocaust of ancient public baths, religious artifacts (many partially submerged in water) and even a museum of preserved antiquities. Excavations are ongoing, so you’ll see many a history hunter here.
4. Goreme National Park - Turkey
Size: 25 square miles
Fun fact: Starting in the 3rd and 4th centuries, monasteries were a fixture of the area where the park is today. Remains from this era include monk-cell alcoves and ancient wine-production facilities.
In the Central Anatolia region of Turkey, fairies are real.
Goreme National Park is famous for its peculiar rock “fairy chimney” formations, named for their natural narrow spires and rounded tops, so surreal that it is almost impossible to believe they were not man-made — hence, the fairy attribution. These wonders (officially the Rock Sites of Cappadocia) earned this park UNESCO World Heritage status.
In addition the fairy chimneys, Goreme is honeycombed by the ruins of underground settlements built by Christians escaping Roman persecution. These subterranean shelters could house thousands of the refugees at one time.
Goreme National Park is located in the volcanic region of the Erciyes and Hasan mountains, creating a unique topography of plateaus, deltas, small hills and expansive plains.
The best way to experience the park? Via a hot-air balloon ride at sunrise, naturally.
3. Lake District National Park - England
Size: 912 square miles
Fun fact: Living up to its name, this park is home to England’s deepest lake (Wastwater) and wettest inhabited place (Seathwaite, which gets about 140 inches of rain a year).
As they step into this park, visitors will experience an epiphanous moment of “ah, yes, this is England!” The rolling hills, silhouetted low mountains and picturesque farmlands are timeless — Downton Abbey could be on the other side of that ridge.
The park is poetic in its visuals and history alike, a common star of many Romantic verses. William Wordsworth, who like Beatrix Potter lived in the neighboring town of Hawkshead, once lauded the Lake District as, "A sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy."
There are a number of exciting activities to ensure full enjoyment of the park, with hikes ranging from lakeside ambles to treks up the tall ridgetops; watersports, like sailing through the tarns; and miles of cycling paths.
The park is less than an hour and a half drive from Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, easily accessible by English natives and visitors alike.
2. Picos de Europa - Spain
Size: 250 square miles
Fun facts: The park is home to Covadonga, site of the cica-720 Battle of Covadonga, a seminal clash between Islamic Moors and Christians. Today, the park is Spain’s second-most significant pilgrimage site after Santiago de Compostela.
The scenery of Spain’s Picos de Europa National Park is absolutely stunning — peaceful meadows stretch for miles underneath mighty massifs and blue skies. Deservedly one of Spain’s most popular parks, the endless hiking paths here draw thousands of visitors each year and have earned it the nickname “the Dolomites of Spain.”
The nature in Picos de Europa stays a lush green thanks to the region’s rainy weather, resulting from its proximity to the Atlantic coast. The vacillating ravines house shimmering lakes, shady woods and even herds of meandering brown cows belonging to the villagers of Covadonga.
Park visitors can observe Picos de Europa from a bird’s eye perspective with the Fuentes Dé gondola, lifting visitors from the village Potes along the central massif, to a perch of 6,070 feet. Pack a picnic or sip on a café con leche at one of the village cafes following the funicular experience.
The small villages around Picos de Europa are quintessential old-fashioned Spanish, bucolic hamlets with medieval architecture and strong generational traditions. Its situation at the intersection of three regions — Asturias, Cantabria and León — lends to local spirit that blends coastal geniality with mountain ruggedness.
1. Plitvice Lakes National Park - Croatia
Size: 114 square miles
Fun fact: To get around the park, visitors uniquely board electric trains or electro-powered boats.
Situated in the northern mountain ranges of Croatia, Plitvice is the country's oldest and largest national park, a natural wonder containing 16 turquoise lakes, shimmering waterfalls and cool, dense forests. Connecting these lakes is a criss-crossing system of wooden walkways, snaking under waterfalls and over high bluffs.
Plitvice is divided into two regions, the Upper Lake and the Lower Lake. The entire park can be traversed in six hours, or shortened by taking many of the park’s free boats and buses, leaving roughly every 30 minutes. The park is an easy day trip from Zagreb or Split, with a number of hotels within walking distance to the park for devoted hikers.
It is advisable to arrive to the park as soon as it opens because it can get overwhelmingly crowded, especially in the summer — we’re not the only ones who think this is the best national park in Europe.
In the early hours the park is quiet and cool, morning dew mixing with the mist of many waterfalls, as the many lakes of Plitvice rest in their vitreous state.