Where the wild things are: the best destinations for a European safari
Have you ever caught a glimpse of a lion lazing under a tree? Or seen the ocean turning black as a sperm whale glides under your boat? Seeing an animal in its natural habitat can be the best bit of your holiday (and provides dreamy photo potential). The good news is that you definitely don’t have to fork out for a long-haul ticket to have a brush with Mother Nature. Get planning your trip with my top picks for a European safari experience!
1. Whales, The Azores
When you see pictures of The Azores’ lush green pastures and volcanic lakes, you could be forgiven for thinking that this string of nine islands is in the tropics. In fact, it’s a region of sunny Portugal! Between April and October, some of the ocean’s most gentle giants glide by on their yearly migration, including blue, fin and sei whales. Sperm whales live in the islands all year round, gorging themselves on giant squid and growing up to 20m long, while humpbacks tend to appear in October.
Stay at Comercial Azores Hostel, just 350m from the ocean in Ponta Delgada.
2. Lynx, Romania
With its epic ridges, gravity-defying fir trees and mountainous peaks, Calimani Park is one of Europe’s last great wildernesses. Stags, wolves and eagles all roam freely, but most elusive of all is the Eurasian lynx, a fur-ocious wild cat that looks like a cross between a leopard and your average tabby. Between February and April, heavy snowfall makes this usually shy predator easier to track, with a good chance of seeing them at dawn or dusk.
Combine your wildlife adventure with a stay at Podstel Umbrella, a homely hideaway that’s located in Bucharest’s hippest neighbourhood, Piata Romana.
3. Flamingos, France
Soar above the Camargue National Park in a plane and you could be forgiven for thinking that this stretch of marshland just south of Marseille is bright pink. In fact, it’s home to tens of thousands of flamingos, particularly during the June to September breeding season when fluff-ball chicks hatch and take their first wobbly steps out of the nest. All together now: “Aaawww”!
In the pretty town of Arles, in the midst of the reserve, Hotel Regence is a traditional bolthole with views over the Rhone River, where you can bed down and make believe that you’re a local.
4. Wild Horses, Germany
Spot a Dülmen Pony frolicking in the Merfelder Bruch Nature Reserve and you’re pretty much looking back in time. The last truly wild horses in Europe, their family tree can be traced back more than 700 years. Although they live without human intervention for most of the year, the young stallions are rounded up and auctioned off on the last Saturday of May to prevent the herd becoming bigger than the reservation can handle. Watching the wranglers gather them with their bare hands is quite the show, and the money raised goes towards protecting the rest of the herd.
Base yourself at H.ostel Münster, which has an industrial chic vibe and a prime location in the medieval old town.
5. Wolves, Sweden
What could be more adrenaline-inducing than watching the moon rise above a Swedish forest while the eerie howls of the local wolf pack echo between the tree trunks? In Skinnskatteberg, just two hours from Stockholm, you can spend a night tracking these fierce creatures with an expert guide. Afterwards, listen to local folk stories around the campfire and spend the night under canvas. Visit between June and September for the best chance of spotting these ferocious canines.
When you’re ready to leave the wild, check into Generator Stockholm, a well-located hideaway with serious design credentials.
6. Brown bears, Spain
You may associate bears with the wilds of North America, but Europe’s biggest population can be found in the stunning Cantabrian mountains of Asturias – less than a two hour flight from London. It’s not at all unusual to see mothers and their cubs ambling through the Somiedo Natural Park, particularly during April, May and June when they’re just emerging after the chilly winter and on the hunt for honey.
Continue your nature kick at the Albergue Llanes Playa de Poo, a cosy eco-hostel that’s just 300m away from a dramatic beach and a short stroll from the super traditional town of Llanes.
7. Bison, Poland
10,000 years ago, most of north-eastern Europe was densely covered in primal forest. Today, Poland’s Bia?owie?a area is the last significant tract left. It’s home to more than 900 European bison, nicknamed ‘the kings of the wilderness’ because of their bulk. Sadly, they were hunted to extinction at the start of the 20th century, but have been reintroduced with the help of a careful breeding programme. January to March is the best time to spot Europe’s heaviest land animal, and a walk through this ancient forest in the snow is a magical experience. Just remember to pack your coat as temperatures can dip to -5 degrees… brrr!
Escape the cold at Warsaw Downtown Hostel, a quirky haven with social events every night of the week.
8. Egyptian vultures, Portugal
The hills of the Coa Valley in north-east Portugal are covered with startling shades of citrus yellow and parsley green, making for some seriously pretty hiking. Even higher than the hilltop caves, which are still scrawled with mysterious paintings from paleolithic times, you’ll find the craggy nests of Egyptian vultures. They’re instantly recognisable by their bright yellow faces and the fact that they’re the smallest vultures in Europe, typically weighing just 2kg. Between November and March they spend the winter in Africa and fly 7,000km on the round trip. Keep your eyes peeled for other airborne icons such as golden, griffin and Bonelli’s eagles too.
The nearest major city is Porto and it’s full of character. Porto Spot Hostel is in a historic Estado Novo building with several unique and beautifully designed rooms.
Have you spotted any of these incredible creatures in the wild? Or perhaps you have more tips about the best European safari locations? Let us know in the comments!
About the author
Imogen Lepere is a travel writer with a soft spot for anything quirky, surprising and incongruous. Her adventures include teaching in Kathmandu, riding the Trans-Mongolian railway and living with a nudist colony in Greece. She currently splits her time between London and Melbourne, where she can normally be found with a glass of wine in one hand and a pen in the other. Read more of her work on her blog or follow her on Instagram.
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