If the term “national park” conjures up images of snow-capped peaks, crystal-clear lakes, secluded hikes and unlimited adventures, we’re happy to report that you’re spot on.
Europe’s national parks are all that, and more. The continent’s protected wilderness is vast, it’s beautiful and it’s perfect for adventures. But, in our opinion, far too many travellers stick to the popular-for-good reason parks (think Italy’s Cinque Terre and Croatia’s Plitvice). So, in our mission to spread the positive impacts of tourism to lesser-known places, we’ve created our very own list of underrated national parks.
We enlisted the help of Intrepid Travel’s expert Product and Destination Managers (i.e. the people who organise our epic itineraries in Europe) so rest assured you’re getting tips from those in the know. From biodiverse gems in Belarus to magnificent canyons in Montenegro, this list has it all…
Pirin National Park, Bulgaria
Forests cover more than half of Pirin National Park, but it’s far from samey. Equal parts stunning and isolated, the park is home to brown bears and 159 bird species in addition to endless hiking, biking and caving opportunities. A must-visit in southwestern Bulgaria, Pirin’s waterfalls, meadows and mountains epitomise the beauty of the Balkans.
How to visit: Intrepid Travel’s 9-day Eastern Europe Express trip might be short, but it’s full of fantastic stops. Start in Bucharest, end in Sofia, explore up-and-coming Plovdiv, and, of course, venture into the Pirin Mountains.
Triglav National Park, Slovenia
Named after the country’s highest peak, Triglav National Park is a joy to behold. It’s also Slovenia’s only national park! And it boasts the largest glacial lake in the country! A dream for water sport lovers, Triglav is brimming with lakes, mountains and oh so much beauty.
Triglav’s magic, explained by Steph Millington, Intrepid’s Europe Product Manager:
I absolutely love spending time in an alpine environment – the crisp mountain air, the scent of pine and the sound of serenity is the most relaxing thing for me. Triglav NP is almost all covered by the Julian Alps, and is combined with river gorges and stunning lakes to make for a real playground for outdoor pursuits.
How to visit: Start in stunning Bled and explore Slovenia via hiking, biking and rafting on this 8-day active trip. Of all the activities, mountain biking through Triglav National Park is sure to be a highlight.
Picos de Europa National Park, Spain
This is Spain as you’ve never seen it before. An alpine wonderland and the country’s second largest national park, Picos de Europa has countless canyons, mountains aplenty, deep ravines and rolling grasslands. It also boasts more viewpoints than you could hope to gaze out from in a lifetime, as well as the Fuentedé cable car for a taster of the epic views.
How to visit: Intrepid’s 10-day Northern Spain Real Food Adventure is much more than (delicious) eats. Enjoy a wine tasting in La Guardia, browse markets in Potes and spend a few hours hiking through scenic Picos de Europa National Park.
Mljet National Park, Croatia
Occupying half of the island of Mljet, this national park is one of eight national parks in Croatia. It’s also a slice of paradise. Because it borders two salt water lakes, it’s a great spot for kayaking, swimming and sunbathing. Don’t leave without hiking up its hilly surrounds for dazzling coastal views.
How to visit: Intrepid’s sister company, Peregrine Adventures has just the trip for you. The 15-day Jewels of the Adriatic trip takes you from Venice to Dubrovnik, visiting popular Plitivce Lakes National Park as well as lesser-known Mljet.
Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, Belarus
Situated close to the Polish border, Belovezhskaya Pushcha is known its ancient oak trees and for being home to the largest population of European bison. If that isn’t enough to tempt you, maybe the numbers will. The park is home to nearly 900 trees and flowers and over 250 animal and bird species. It’s a place so special that words don’t do it justice.
How to visit: Explore all the Highlights of Belarus on this fun-packed 11-day trip. Start and end in capital city Minsk, visit castles aplenty and enjoy a scenic bike ride through Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park.
Tatra National Park, Poland/Slovakia
The Tatra Mountains, an awe-inspiring mountain range that forms the border of Poland and Slovakia, are exceptionally good-looking. Full of crystal-clear glacial lakes and endemic animal species, the national park is great to visit any time of year. As well enjoying countless hiking and skiing opportunities, visit Modré pleso, the highest lake in the Tatras.
How to visit: We’re feeling generous, so we’ll give you two great options. If you’re pressed for time and/ or love a good winter escape, check out Intrepid’s 8-day Winter Tatra Adventure (snowshoe walk and cross country ski trip in the Tatras included!). Alternatively, visit five incredible countries on Intrepid’s 15-day Best of Central Europe trip (and go hiking in the Tatra Mountains).
Wigry National Park, Poland
Home to 15 islands, there’s no doubt that Wigry Lake is something special. A dream destination for kayakers, cyclists and hikers, the national park it sits serenely in is also a must-visit for birdwatchers. Located on a peninsula in the lake, the Kamedul Monastery of Wigry is well worth an explore.
How to visit: There’s nothing like this 11-day Uncover Northern Poland and the Baltics trip. Highlights include a foodie walk in Riga, a guided tour of Vilnius, a visit to Malbork Castle and a boat tour of beautiful Wigry Lake.
Durmitor National Park, Montenegro
Durmitor deserves hyperbole. This gem in northwest Montenegro is all glacial lakes, limestone peaks and dense pine forests. The highlight? Tara River Canyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the second longest canyon in the world (after the Grand Canyon). Ski here in winter; hike or raft in the summer. This place has it all.
Cilento National Park, Italy
Jagged coastlines, hidden bays and stunning walks are what Cilento National Park is all about. Despite being just a few hours from Naples, this part of Campania is visited far less than the Amalfi Coast, making it a dream for adventurers. Don’t leave this gorgeous region without gorging on its outstanding mozzarella.
How to visit: Discover Italy’s stunning south on Intrepid’s 15-day Highlights of Calabria and Sicily trip. You’ll love the day trip to Mt Etna and Anti-Mafia Movement Tour nearly as much as the scenic hike through Cilento National Park.
Aukstaitija National Park, Lithuania
Aukstaitija has 126 lakes and is 70% covered by dense forests. That’s probably reason enough to visit, but the peaceful lakes and small villages only add to the charm. You still want more? How about ancient pagan sites AND the Ažvinčiai Forest Reserve? Aukstaitija is the gift that keeps on giving.
Aukstaitija’s wonders explained by Stefan Hellmuth, Intrepid’s Europe Destination Manager:
This national park consists of dense forests that are interspersed by all manners of waterways. It’s a perfect park for kayaking, hiking or simply relaxing. Locals in the few small settlements within the park are friendly and welcoming.
How to visit: Visit six (yes, six!) countries on Intrepid’s 15-day Baltic Experience tour. Curonian Spit National Park is fantastic but it’s the guided kayak tour through Aukstaitija that might just be a highlight.
Mount Olympus National Park, Greece
Home to Greece’s highest mountain, Olympus National Park is famous in Greek mythology for being the dwelling of the 12 Olympian gods. There are a ton of symbolic sites because of this, but also rocky peaks, deep gorges, lush forests and more. And whatever your skill level, it’s a wonderful spot for hikes.
How to visit: Intrepid’s 15-day Dubrovnik to Athens trip is a classic: must-sees, lesser-known gems and everything in between. Embark on a day trip to Macedonia’s Matka Canyon, enjoy a boat cruise through Lake Ohrid and hike all afternoon at Mount Olympus National Park.
Valbona Valley National Park, Albania
The gem of the Albanian Alps, Valbona National Park is well worth seeking out. But it’s pretty much the definition of off-the-beaten-path, so expect equal parts seclusion and beauty. The secluded valley is lacking tourist infrastructure, but that means you’ll enjoy spending time on forest and mountain hikes and with the friendly villagers living nearby.
How to visit: Wow, this really is something different. You’ll love it. It’s beautiful. Visit Albania’s Valbona Valley National Park on Intrepid Travel’s 15-day Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia Explorer trip.
Sao Miguel, Portugal
Sao Miguel is the largest island in the Azores (an amazing archipelago in the mid-Atlantic that’s an autonomous region of Portugal), and arguably the one with the most to offer. Now we’re being a bit cheeky here, because we’re not referencing one specific national park… But the island’s diverse landscapes are such a must-visit that I think you’ll forgive us. We’re talking crater lakes, hot springs, waterfalls, black-sand beaches and more.
How to visit: If you really want to do Portugal’s good looks justice, we suggest Intrepid’s 10-day Azores and mainland Portugal trip. You’ll visit the cities of Lisbon and Porto, in addition to Sao Miguel National Park and other Azores delights on a true island-hopping adventure.
Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, Romania
The second largest river delta in Europe is well worth a mention. Again, this is not quite a national park but it is a biosphere reverse and a fascinating one at that. It runs through, or forms a part of the border of nine different European countries, and fascinatingly enough, boasts the third largest biodiversity in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos).
How to visit: The Danube Delta is just one of many, many incredible spots on Intrepid’s 13-day Moldova, Ukraine and Romania Explorer trip. Take a boat ride on the Delta and visit Chernobyl, and so much more.
Ready to explore these dazzling national park for yourself? You can visit all of them on one of Intrepid’s Europe tours.
(Canoeing in Lithuania image c/o Ken Harris. All other images c/o Intrepid Travel.)