10 best national parks in Europe
Endless plains, lush green landscapes, waterfalls – any backpacker that hears these words feels a spike in their heart rate. But are you struggling to decide where to go? Don’t know what to see? Well we’ve summed up the best national parks in Europe that you might have never heard of before!
Our guide will help you with how to get there, what to take, and when to go, so all you need is your passport to head on your adventure!
1. The Natural Park of the Bardenas Reales, Spain
Castil de Tierra, :@sarahheu
Have you heard of this natural, picturesque landscape in the north of Spain? In the region of Navarra you’ll find this beautiful European national park. With impressive canyons, vast deserts and weird yet amazingly beautiful rock formations, you’ll be the envy of all your Instagram followers for snapping these breathtaking views. Not only that, you can tick a Game of Thrones filming location off your list (and pretend to be a real Dothraki while you’re there).
The Natural Park of the Bardenas Reales is a unique semi-desert thanks to its rare formation of rocks, sprawling terrain, contrast of dry and wet climate and its former state as an ocean.
Climb up the canyons and visit the Castil de Tierra, an exuberant funnel-shaped rock formation that looks like a little mountain of cream (and it really is the icing on the cake in this park). The best way to explore the Natural Park of the Bardenas Reales is by car – just don’t forget to take plenty of water with you! So, get your friends together and rent some wheels – it’s road trip time. Who needs a trip to Nevada when you can go to Navarre?
You can get to the Natural Park of the Bardenas Reales from San Sebastian in about three hours, and it’s just over an hour from Pamplona by car. As it’s pretty isolated, it’s only really accessible from the major cities by car.
The park is open from 8am to an hour before sunset and is free to enter. For more information and specific seasonal times, check out their website.
Savour your time on the north coast by staying in one of these hostels in San Sebastian.
2. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
So, you might have already heard of this spectacular national park in Europe, but it’s so perfect we had to add it to the list! Located in Croatia, the Plitvice Lakes are renowned for their picturesque waterfalls. There are 16 lakes that are interconnected by several waterfalls of varying shades of blue. Within this lush sanctuary you might even spot reindeer, bears or rare birds – or who knows, maybe even freshwater mermaids! With an oasis this magical, anything is possible.
The Plitvice Lakes are easily accessible from Zagreb, Zadar and Split by bus, so these are the best cities to fly in to. From the main bus station in Zagreb the journey is around 2 hours and 20 minutes. From Zadar bus station the travel time is around 2 hours. If you’re coming from Split, organised tours can be arranged by private companies, but prepare for a 7-8 hour day trip!
This serene national park can be admired all year round from 7am-8pm in Summer, 7am-7pm in Autumn, 8am-4pm in Winter and 8am-7pm in Spring.
Why not extend your stay and choose one of our hostels in Croatia located in the park grounds? Start a captivating adventure with new friends from all over the world!
3. Saxon Switzerland, Germany
Deep in the German mountains hides this mysterious landscape with steep cliffs and green forests that could easily be mistaken for the Rocky Mountains or the grand plains of New Zealand.
The Saxon Switzerland National Park in Germany hypnotises adventurers, hikers and backpackers with its impressive rocky landscape known as Bastei. The park’s bridge (built in 1851) is a stunning sight, and a fun feat for all adrenaline junkies (who don’t get jelly legs like the rest of us!)
The massive mountains with flat surfaces that rise over the Elbe River are a visual spectacle and have already inspired many romantic artists and writers throughout time.
Explore this national park from sunrise to sunset and watch a magical morning transform into an orange evening glow. Whether you’re looking for bridges, forts, fog, sun, ravines, steep cliffs or forests; Saxon Switzerland is a spectacle you can’t miss!
Saxon Switzerland is on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic and is one hour by car from the city of Dresden. Dresden Airport is also the closest if you plan to fly in. Germany’s National Rail is well connected, and you can reach the national park from Budapest, Berlin, Prague or Dresden. There are also many bus routes from these locations.
Stay at a hostel in Dresden to enjoy an unforgettable city break combined with the best nature has to offer. Entry is free with no opening or closing times.
4. Sarek National Park, Sweden
What if I said that there was a place in Europe which is largely untouched? Deep blue lakes, green valleys and countless glaciers – you’d head there now, right? There’s no man-made noise, just the serenity of rushing waterfalls. The UNESCO protected Sarek National Park is where you can find this and more – the famous Valley of Rapa is here too! Turn off your phone and lock yourself into the great outdoors for a while.
The effort and price to visit this national park is high (but highly worth it): it takes around 18 hours on an overnight train to reach Gällivare and Jokkmokk (the two closest towns to the park) from Stockholm. There are no roads that lead to the park itself, so the only options are skiing or hiking!
Why not stay at one of the many fabulous hostels in Stockholm while you prepare for your adventure?
5. Triglav National Park, Slovenia
Calling all hikers and adventurers! There’s a very special experience waiting for you in Slovenia’s Julian Alps. The Triglav National Park is named after the largest mountain in Slovenia, the Triglav, which can be spotted on the national flag! The area has enchanting valleys and mountains, splendid peaks and wonderful views.
The national park includes a lot of different sub-parks and terrains including the So?a Valley, Kranjska Gora, Bohinj Lake and the famous Lake Bled.
Bohinj Lake, the largest lake in Slovenia, is not only the perfect place for water sports in summer, but also a good place for winter sports when the water of the lake freezes over.
You can get to the park by bus from Ljubljana and Bohinj for very cheap (maximum €6). If you prefer to take the train, you can do so from the stations of Bled, Bohinjska Bistrica, Jesenice and Tolmin. Or how about a road trip? In front of the park you’ll find plenty of car parking and it’s easily accessible from Italy and Ljubljana.
The national park also has a hop on hop off bus in summer that goes around The Julian Alps.
There’s so many great hostels in Ljubljana, so why not stay at this stunning capital city to enrich your visit to Slovenia? If you enjoyed the park, you can extend your stay at one of the many hostels in Bled!
6. Vatnajökull, Iceland
Icy, harsh landscapes with no end in sight? It must be Iceland!
Iceland is the boss of natural landscapes and Vatnajökull National Park is no exception. Located in the south of Iceland, get ready to be immersed in ice, volcanoes, glaciers, cliffs, craters and waterfalls. It’s actually the largest national park in Europe and is made up of three parks in one: Jökulsárgliúfur National Park, Caldera of Askja and Skaftafell National Park. The park also includes the Vatnajökull glacier which is the largest one in Europe. But it’s not just ice, there’s plenty to do! From exploring the ice caves to riding motorcycles through the snow, you won’t get bored here.
With Iceland becoming more and more popular with backpackers, you better check this off your list ASAP!
The park is best accessible by car and takes around 3-5 hours depending on what part you want to visit. Flights from Reykjavik to Höfn run six days a week during summer and five days during autumn, winter and spring. Ice caving season is from mid-November to mid-March.
Book a hostel in Iceland, rent a car with your fellow adventurers and head off to discover the park with no stress!
7. Belluno Dolomites National Park, Italy
In stunning Italy lies a natural getaway – the Dolomites Belluno National Park!
Expect vast landscapes of mountains, countless plant species and crystal-clear lakes – what more could you want from a top-notch national park? We’re already in love with this place, how about you? Residents of the area migrated during the nineteenth century, leaving behind cottages and creating eerie ghost towns. Now you’re free to walk around this massive outdoor museum, admiring the many structures of previous inhabitants.
Just two hours from many of our hostels in Venice, this national park is perfect for a relaxing day with your new travel friends. How do you get there? Just rent a car and a blast a good playlist.
You can also take a direct train from Venice to the park, with a journey time of around 2 hours. Buses are also available at multiple destinations and can be found here.
The park is open to visit freely throughout the year.
8. Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales
When you think of the United Kingdom, trendy cities, picturesque pubs and royal buildings probably come to mind. But a paradise-like beach? It’s unlikely. But this national park really does exist on the southwest coast in Pembrokeshire. We think this hidden treasure is an ideal destination for backpackers – it’s got pristine waters suitable for water sports, a rocky natural environment that’s fit for exploring and a refreshing lack of tourists.
In the park you’re more likely to find rare birds and seals than other people, making it easy to enjoy this secluded dream of a destination all by yourself!
The area is also full of history, with prehistoric tombs, Iron Age forts, Norman ruins and medieval castles just waiting for you to explore them!
Vivid colours, impeccable nature, dramatic cliffs and empty beaches? Well I guess you’ll have to share the beach with us too, because it’s too good to miss out on.
The perfect base for exploring the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is a small town called Fishguard. From there you can reach the national park in less than 20 minutes. Don’t forget your hiking boots, picnic rug and a good book!
Trains run from Fishguard, Haverfordwest and Pembroke Dock. There are also ferry and coach services available.
For a stellar place to stay, check out all of our hostels in Wales!
9. Veluwezoom National Park, The Netherlands
Although the Netherlands is known for being green (for the meadows, why else?), the National Park of Veluwezoom has a great variety of colours. In addition to the many shades of green and yellow, there are beautiful mountains that stretch into the horizon.
The park is actually the oldest in the Netherlands, and also includes historic country houses within the grounds that are open for visitors. It’s also very easy to get around by bike, horse or foot.
But honestly, for the sky alone this park is worth the trek. Don’t forget your camera, because the sunrise is a sight that you will never want to forget.
10. Göreme National Park, Turkey
This national park is unique because of the erosion that’s happened to the rocks and stones over time, making for an unusual (yet highly instagrammable) sight.
It’s located in the volcanic zone of Hasan Mountain and Erciyes Mountain and is famous for its bizarre rock formations known as “fairy chimneys.”
Incredibly, entire villages built by residents in the 4th century are still standing and are waiting for you to come and explore! The national park is a work of art with spectacular landscapes, impressive rock formations and Byzantine art. A major attraction at the park is the Open-Air Museum, where you can dwell among ancient Byzantine churches.
A popular activity with backpackers is the balloon tour, which takes you over the incredible landscapes of these ancient towns in the glorious morning glow of the sunrise.
While we can write about it, YOU have to see it in person to understand its magic!
As a UNESCO world heritage site, it’s something unique and essential to add to your bucket list.
Not only can you sleep in the park, but even inside the caves! There are many different, highly rated hostels in Goreme for you to check out.
Goreme National Park is accessible by bus from the surrounding cities and from Istanbul. The closest airport is Kayseri (Cappadocia) where you can take a direct train to Goreme.
The best time to visit is from April to May and September to October.
Entrance to the Open-Air Museum costs 25TL per person.
Have you been to any of these national parks in Europe, or do you know others that a backpacker shouldn’t miss? Tell us in the comments!
About the author
Sarah Heuser is an all time tanned German with an obsession for beaches, sunsets and cheese. Social Media & Content Executive and #HostelworldInsider at Hostelworld. Favourite place on earth: Melbourne – Australia Favourite hostel: The Ritz, St Kilda Find me on Instagram @sarahheu