When I talk about travel in Europe, most folks think about history — stately castles, museums filled with classic art work, walled cities, small villages with cobblestone lanes and sites such as the Colosseum in Rome.
Many people don’t connect Europe with nature and outdoor pursuits like hiking or kayaking.
They don’t think about mountains, forests, lakes and canyons.
And as Americans or Canadians or Aussies, I kind of get this.
We live in countries that are known for grand scenic landscapes and outdoor sports.
Remember — I lived in Colorado for 15 years.
I know all about the gorgeous landscapes of my country and playing in the great outdoors.
But as I had a recent conversation with a man who told me that he goes to Europe for his history travel and stays here in America for his nature fix, I kind of argued with him.
While I agree that Europe has some incredibly interesting and intriguing history — and a far longer and richer history than America or Canada or Australia — I also argued that there are some amazing natural destinations in Europe.
I often feel that natural Europe gets overlooked for historical Europe.
And I think this is unfortunate because Europe has some stunning scenery and wonderful spots to pursue outdoor activities.
From beaches to mountains to forests to lakes to rivers to canyons, Europe has it all.
Including some gorgeous stretches of coastline.
Here are just a few ideas for your outdoor Europe experience.
Forested area in Europe has been making a comeback since 1990 although there are still struggles.
But if you’re looking for your Hansel and Gretel fantasy walk you have plenty of choices.
The Black Forest or Schwarzwald is one of the most famous of European forests.
It’s located in southwestern Germany and is a mix of conifer and pines as well as deciduous trees.
The Black Forest has loads of hiking trails and is said to have that “fairy tale” like quality to it.
Another forest you may want to consider is Ardennes which is mainly in Belgium and Luxembourg but also creeps into France and Germany.
There are some steep areas here, but there are also rolling hills loaded with trees.
And there are some gorgeous walks here that lead to some impressive viewpoints.
Or perhaps you’d like to check out the Forest of Dean in England where the young wizards end up in as they search for the horcruxes in Harry Potter.
This is a fabulous place to explore one of the old growth forests of Europe.
There are more forests in Europe than you think!
There are tons of lakes and lochs in Europe.
I’ve had the pleasure of walking along a few of them: Lake Geneva (Lac Lemán) in Switzerland, Loch Lomond in Scotland, Lake Garda in Italy and Lake Lucerne in Switzerland.
I’ve stayed on and ferried across Lake Como in Italy.
And I’ve driven along Loch Ness in Scotland and Lake Trasimeno in Italy and trained by Lake Thunersee in Switzerland.
It’s kind of hard to not spend time near or on a lake in Europe.
Lake Geneva is a favorite of mine because it’s so large.
My advice for this is to make the walk through the UNESCO Lavaux Terrace Vineyards from St Saphorin to Lutry (or vice versa as I did).
It’s a fabulous day trip from either Geneva or nearby Lausanne.
The lakes of northern Italy are famous so I’d recommend spending time at one of them.
There are lovely towns along the shores.
There are walks to make around these or better yet, get out on a boat or wind surf.
Riva del Garda and Tarbole at the northern end of Lake Garda are great spots for wind surfing.
But to me being on some of the smaller lakes out in the middle of nowhere is even better.
While Loch Lomond in Scotland is not completely in the middle of nowhere, it is more pristine as it’s encompassed by protected park land.
I saw folks sailing, kayaking, canoeing and stand up paddle boarding on it as I walked the West Highland Way trail around it.
It’s a beauty for sure.
Then there’s Lake Bled in Slovenia and the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia.
And so many more making it easy to spend time on a lake on your next adventure to Europe.
Admittedly the USA has some incredible stretches of sandy beaches unparalleled in the world.
But there are some beautiful sandy beaches in Europe — you just have to know where to look.
The Mediterranean will not have a lot of these sandy stretches of gorgeousness.
It tends to be rockier and more pebbly here.
But there are some.
You’ll find sandy beaches on the Spanish islands such as Mallorca and Menorca as well as some of the Greek Islands.
Corsica, part of France, has a few too.
Head west to Portugal and you’ll find more lovely beaches such as Falesia Beach or Praia da Rocha in the Algarve area of southern Portugal.
And if you go further north you’ll find La Concha in San Sebastian, Spain.
Take a drive along the coast in any coastal country and you may spot a sandy cove.
That’s the great thing about Europe as there are some hidden beaches.
I’ve actually found some of the most gorgeous, pristine and natural beaches in Ireland and Scotland.
Tramore Beach is my favorite in Dunfanaghy, Ireland while Five Fingers Strand on the Inishowen Peninsula is pretty special too.
In Scotland I absolutely loved stopping at Gruinard Beach as I drove in the Northwest.
And from what I hear, there are some more fabulous beaches further north in this area as well as out on the Isle of Harris.
In fact, Harris is known for its stunning beaches and turquoise waters.
Who knew you needed to go to Ireland and the UK for the best beaches?
Rivers and Streams
I think many of you know there are some great rivers in Europe — the Rhine, the Danube, the Thames — just to name a few.
But let’s talk about some of the smaller rivers and streams that offer up some recreational outdoor fun such as walking along, fishing in or kayaking on.
There are so many!
I’ll admit that I don’t know a lot about fishing in Europe since it’s not my thing.
I always suggest doing your homework before you travel.
What I can attest to is that on my drives through Ireland, Scotland, England and Italy I’ve seen people fishing along the rivers and streams.
Areas such as Connemara in Ireland and the Dolomite areas in northern Italy come to mind for those beautiful mountain fed streams.
And I know there are so many more.
As for kayaking or canoeing — the Soca River in Slovenia is one of the bigger rivers that has lots to offer — from kayaking and canoeing to fishing.
And the Cetina River in Croatia is a fabulous place for kayaking as well as taking a zipline adventure across it!
This is just the tip of the iceberg.
But as you can see water adventure and fun abounds in Europe.
America has the best canyon in the Grand Canyon.
No doubt about that.
But there are some spectacular canyons in Europe as well.
Gorges du Verdon in France is one that I’ve always heard of and is one of the deepest.
It’s located in Provence and offers all kinds of outdoor pursuits as well as a rim road with magnificent views.
Verdon is one of the most famous of the canyons and gorges in Europe.
The Vikos Gorge in northern Greece is another stunner.
Again you can do some hiking here as well as taking a drive.
I bet you didn’t think of Greece as a place for canyons, did you?
While there are more the last one I want to mention is Vintgar Gorge in Slovenia simply because Slovenia is a small country with LOTS of natural beauty — and high on my list to visit.
There are some nice walking paths and a stellar waterfall in this gorge.
I think it looks really cool.
There are places to do some canyoneering as well.
This post wouldn’t be complete without talking about mountains.
Now mountains may actually come to mind when you talk about Europe.
After all the Alps are quite famous.
Of course there are the Swiss Alps, the French Alps, the Italian Alps and so many more chains of Alps.
Having been in the Swiss Alps, there’s no doubt they are amazeballs.
And I’d love to see more of them.
Technically my beloved Dolomites in northern Italy are part of the greater Alp mountains.
They are breathtaking with their pink hued granite.
But there are more mountains to see and explore.
There’s the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain.
Then there are the Carpathians located in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine.
The Pennines that run north to south in northern England are another beautiful mountain range.
And the Mourne Mountains are in southeastern Northern Ireland.
I’ve seen these and they are lovely.
Oh and I can’t forget the Apennines that run down the spine of the boot — also known as Italy.
While some of these mountain ranges aren’t as high as the Alps, they are still incredibly picturesque.
And they all have loads to do in them — from easy walks to more challenging hikes to gorgeous drives.
So are you convinced that there’s more to Europe than historical sites?
Don’t get me wrong — I definitely take in loads of history while in Euorpe.
It’s one of the best things about traveling to Europe.
But over my years of exploring this fascinating continent, I’ve also discovered the astounding natural beauty.
And it makes me want to explore it more and more.
Every time I go to a new destination I seem to find more dazzling natural landscapes.
So I plan to keep on unearthing more!
How about you?