Slovenia was the first country to be declared a “Global Green Destination” in 2016 because of its commitment to sustainability and conservation. One of the most densely forested countries in the European Union, Slovenia has many nature parks but only one national park—and it’s breathtaking. Named for the country’s highest mountain (9,396 feet), Triglav National Park is is a corner of paradise in the Julian Alps near the border with Austria and Italy. Picture lush valleys flanked by mountains, cascades tumbling into the emerald green Soča river, gorges and glacial lakes. Activities run the gamut from white water rafting to cycling the high mountain passes. (Fun fact: The last Tour de France winner was from Slovenia!)
When it comes to sublime mountain landscapes, Switzerland needs no introduction. But did you know that when the Swiss National Park was opened in 1914, it was the first national park in the Alps? Today, this pioneering park, designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is an open-air laboratory showing off a Swiss mountain landscape left entirely to its own devices. Not just a favorite destination for outdoors enthusiasts in eastern Switzerland, the park is also an important nature education center.
High in the mountains of southwest Bulgaria, Pirin National Park was classified a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. Conifer forests give way to flower-dotted alpine meadows in this vast expanse encompassing nearly 100,000 acres. Carved by glaciers during the last Ice Age, the landscapes pack a powerful punch: craggy limestone peaks, deep valleys and crystal-clear glacial lakes. But what’s perhaps most astonishing of all are the rare plant species leftover from the Balkan Pleistocene period. The park is even home to Bulgaria’s oldest tree, the Baykuchevata Macedonian pine, which is said to be 1,350 years old. Plus, you may have sightings of wildlife like brown bears, gray wolves, jackals and chamois.
Forests and Fairies
Oulanka National Park // Photo by Kai Freund/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
Stretching along the banks of the Danube river, Serbia’s Fruška Gora National Park is blanketed in thick forest that’s home to more than 1,000 plant species, including 30 different orchids. This is also where rare birds, like the threatened eastern imperial eagle, choose to nest. Just an hour and a half from the capital of Belgrade, this national park is a favorite playground for cyclists, mountaineers and adventure-lovers, not to mention the runners who partake in the annual Fruška Gora marathon. Vineyards have been cultivated in Fruška Gora since the time of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, and oenophiles can try wines made with the Neoplanta, Župljanka and Skadarka grape varieties.
Lapland may be known as the land of Santa Claus and the Northern Lights, but it’s also home to eight of Finland’s national parks. One glimpse of the dense conifer forests makes it easy to understand why so many people around the world equate Lapland with Christmas. But the topography is also defined by tundra and arctic fells where you can enjoy the midnight sun in summer and the magical Aura Borealis in the winter. Top tip: It’s been scientifically proven that the air in the Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park is the freshest in Europe. And Oulanka National Park has Finland’s most popular hiking route: the Karhunkierros Trail.
Situated along the border with Germany and Austria, the Czech Republic’s Šumava National Park is a heavily forested region dotted with lakes that comprises a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. In fact, this area, when combined with the Bavarian Forest, is Central Europe’s biggest forest. At the Kvilda Visitor Center, you can see red deer and lynx in dedicated enclosures, while wolves can be seen at the Srní Visitor Center. The park’s most popular hike is the Povydří trail, following the Vydra River, which flows over the giant boulders considered the symbols of Šumava.
Parco Nazionale del Golfo di Orosei e del Gennargentu // Photo by Tore65/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images
While most travelers to Sardinia hit up famous beaches like the glitzy Costa Smeralda, the Italian island is also home to an under-the-radar national park that’s a must-see destination. The Parco Nazionale del Golfo di Orosei e del Gennargentu (Gennargentu National Park) encompasses the island’s highest mountain, where the Sardinian wildcat and mouflon roam; a dramatic canyon (Gola Su Gorropu), where you might see Bonelli’s eagle; and beautiful coastline lapped by the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. There’s a fascinating cultural element here, as well. Humans have been present on Sardinia since the Neolithic period—the Nuraghic archeological sites are the oldest stone fortresses in Europe—and the island’s hinterlands are a bastion of authentic culture. Today, the people in central Sardinia are renowned for their longevity.
Situated on the Gulf of Finland, just 40 miles east of the capital Tallinn, Lahemaa National Park is Estonia’s largest and oldest national park. Forest, bog, and sandy coastline merge in an alluring destination that’s also a showcase of ancient cultural heritage. Trails thread through mystical pine forests, where locals enjoy picking berries and mushrooms. An important bird sanctuary, the park is also a favorite spot for birdwatchers hoping to glimpse migratory birds like cranes en route to the Bosphorus and Egypt. History-lovers can also spy the ruins of a Soviet secret submarine base, built at Hara in the height of the Cold War.
Norway’s Jostedalsbreen National Park is home to the largest glacier in mainland Europe—covering a whopping 183 square miles and measuring 37 miles in length. Visit glacier museums in Jostedal and Fjærland or participate in a glacier walk to what’s also known as “Norway's roof,” offering jaw-dropping views of the nearby fjords.