So, when I say Europe, I bet you don’t think of national parks, do you? I’m sure when you think of Europe, you think of grand cities like Paris and Rome. You think of gorgeous works of art by Van Gogh and Monet. Architecture by Gaudi or Brunelleschi. And you probably think of small towns and villages in the countryside. But, national parks? Visiting a national park is probably not high on your list for your trip to England or Italy or Germany. But, maybe it should be.
Below are 5 European National Parks. Each one is a little different. But, all are quite popular, with reason. I’ll be following up in a few weeks with more national parks in Europe that are a bit less visited. This list is a good starting point to get you acquainted with some of the national treasures in Europe.
Cinque Terre National Park (Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre) – Italy
Not only is this gorgeous area of the “Five Lands” a national park, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Located in the Liguria region of northwest Italy, this national park comprises the 5 seaside towns of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. These towns, linked together by a series of trails, cling to the cliffs, looking as though they are about to tumble into the sea. It’s a symbol of the delicate balance between man and the environment.
Terraced vineyards have been cultivated here for a thousand years, but are in danger of being lost to erosion. In October 2011 a flash flood hit the area leaving Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza virtually destroyed.
Since then the National Park is striving to better maintain and revitalize the slopes. You see, many of the terraces were not being used – basically, they had been abandoned. The goal is to return these terraces to their previous usage, growing Albarola and Vermentino, two of the grapes that make some of the fabulous wine of the region. There is a tremendous effort for the park representatives to work very closely with the local people to retain the authentic customs, foods and wines of the region and to keep the connection with the land.
The Cinque Terre is certainly not undiscovered, and as such, there is the struggle for the land and the towns not to be overrun with tourists. It’s all about sustainable tourism here. Four of the towns are closed to vehicles. And, the park staff and the locals are always striving to keep the negative impacts at bay, while giving tourists a truly authentic and memorable experience.
This is truly one of the most beautiful and unique national parks in all of Europe – a must see for everyone.
Saxon Switzerland National Park (Nationalpark Sächsische Schweiz) – Germany
Located just south of Dresden and on the border with the Czech Republic, this German national park is unique with its free-standing sandstone peaks – all 1106 of them!
In Saxon Switzerland you’ll not only find these free-standing spires, but cliffs, mesas and gorges. And, surprisingly, you’ll also find meadows of wildflowers, moors and thick forests.
As you might imagine with all those rocky spires, this is a rock climber’s paradise. Free climbing was said to have its beginnings here. Climbers of all skill levels will find routes to satisfy their itchy climbing fingers. And if you’re a beginner, you can learn at the local climbing school.
However, there are also some great walks here with the 112km Painters’ Way being the long distance prize. But, if you don’t have the time for this lengthy walk, there are plenty of other shorter hikes for all fitness levels.
Saxon Switzerland is a park where you can truly see what the elements of wind and water have created over time. These places, like many of the parks in southern Utah in the USA, are really extraordinary.
Be sure to check out this special national park on your next visit to Germany.
Écrins National Park (Parc National des Écrins) – France
Located in southeastern France, this park, one of the largest of France’s national parks, is located in the French Alps southeast of Grenoble.
Being a mountain gal, this is my kind of national park with soaring peaks, wildflower-filled meadows, rushing streams and crystal-clear mountain lakes. Écrins actually has more than 100 peaks over 3000 meters in altitude with Barre des Écrins taking the prize as the highest at 4102 meters (13,458 feet). And there are still some glaciers here worth checking out.
With some 700+ kilometers of trails, there is definitely one to fit your fitness level. There are, of course, a few more difficult trails that require more technical, climbing skills if that is your cup of tea. And, in winter, there are some lesser known ski areas if you enjoy skiing and snowboarding.
The Ibex and Chamois still make this home and if you’re quiet (and lucky) you may catch a glimpse of one of these elusive creatures.
There are a few villages nearby, though none are located in the park itself. Écrins is truly a place to commune with nature and feel your pulse slow down. If you make a trip to southeast France, be sure to put this stunning national park on your list.
Plitvice Lakes National Park (Nacionalni Park Plitvička Jezera) – Croatia
Located in Central Croatia near the border with Bosnia Herzegovina, this beautiful national park is also UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Plitvice Lakes is famous for its lakes which are arranged in cascades. Each of the 16 lakes is connected to the next. They are only separated by natural dams of travertine, a form of limestone that is deposited by mineral springs. At the top lake, there is a fabulous view out to the rest of the park and down to the bottom of many of the lower lakes where you can often see fish at the bottom.
But, what really fascinates visitors is the incredible colors of the lakes. Azure, turquoise, grey – depending on the angle and quality of light and the quantity of minerals and organisms in the water. It is mesmerizing!
Fellow travel blogger and photographer, Kerry Hobbs of England, recently visited Plitvice Lakes. Her reaction is what many folks experience when they see the lakes for the first time.
“I had looked at images on Google of Plitvice National Park but I was not prepared for what I was about to experience. As soon as I walked out of the wooded area and saw the first lake for the first time in person I was completely blown away at how beautiful and clear the water is. I was in awe of how at one with nature the park still is. And I think it is amazing how Croatia has managed to preserve a place like this.” Be sure to check out Kerry’s site.
Lake District National Park – England
This is England’s largest national park and arguably the most popular. But, given it’s size, you can find quieter places if that’s what you’re after.
Located in the northwest corner of England in County Cumbria, the Lake District is known for it’s namesake gorgeous lakes. But there are also beautiful mountains and valleys dotted with picturesque towns and villages.
Obviously, this is a great place for walking and hiking. There are loads of walks for all fitness levels. If that’s too strenuous for you, then how about a boat cruise on one of the lakes? Windermere is the launching point for many boat cruises. This lake is the largest of the Lake District and quite popular for boat cruises.
There are numerous small towns and villages to explore as well as historical sites. After all, some of England’s literary greats spent time here – William Wordsworth, John Ruskin and Beatrix Potter – to name a few. You can see why they found the Lake District so inspiring. And there are museums and houses that pay tribute their time here.
Yes, the Lake District is a popular park and with good reason. It’s a stunner! But, you’ll find places in the north or to the west that are a little less busy with the Eskdale Valley in the west being a fabulous choice for a tranquil spot. So, it is entirely possible to still find some peace and quiet in England’s most visited national park.
This is just a short list of many of the national parks and national lands you’ll find in Europe. In a few weeks, I’ll add to the list with some lesser visited parks to check out. There’s a great big world out there! What are you waiting for?