Top 5 National Parks in Central and Southern Europe

Andrew Barton  ·  4 / 12 / 2017

As one of the more densely populated continents on the planet, there are relatively few places in Europe where you can view nature in all its raw unadulterated beauty. Europe and more so Central and Southern Europe were relatively slow to grant national park status to their most sensitive and majestic natural environments after the 'new world' countries of the USA, New Zealand and Australia got the ball rolling in the late 19th century. The ratio of protected area to land mass is thus comparatively low, but we've selected 5 top national parks in Central and Southern Europe that are among the best on offer in the 'old' continent.

1. Tatra Mountain National Park (Poland)

Poland’s only alpine-type mountains, the Tatras are only two hour’s bus journey from Krakow to the National Park’s headquarters in Zakopane. Although the Tatras, which are part of the Carpathian mountain chain, are mostly on the Slovak side of the border, there are still 175km2 / 67mi2 to be explored on the Polish side, including the 2499m / 8198ft peak Rysy. With snow on the higher slopes for 7-8 months of the year, it’s the center of Polish alpine sports, and there are plenty of hiking tracks to explore in the warmer months.

The mountains and especially Zakopane are populated by the local highland folk, or Goral people, who are descendants of shepherds and other pastoralists who migrated through the Carpathian Mountains from the south during the Middle Ages. Relatively isolated from lowland populations, they retained a distinct culture and even today still possess their own regional dialect of Polish. In fact, until the early 20th century there was some debate over whether Gorals were technically even Poles, and the Nazis attempted to exploit this to create a division between the Gorals and other Poles during World War II.

While the Gorals are proudly Polish, they maintain their own distinctive forms of music, folk costume, and food, such as the smoked sheep cheese you will see sold throughout Zakopane. Their architecture is also unique and resembles traditional wooden building methods from the Carpathian Mountains. The so-called Zakopane style was developed in the late 19th century by local builders of chalets and resorts who wished to avoid copying the Alpine styles of building then in vogue in other mountain resorts. Instead, they drew on local architectural styles and skill in woodworking and combined it with selected elements of Art Nouveau. The result is one of Europe's most attractive and unique building forms.

To ascend the mountains from Zakopane, you could start with Gubałówka on the northern side of town, whose summit can be easily reached via a funicular railway. Unlike cable car tickets, which must be used at a set time, you can use pre-purchased funicular tickets to depart anytime on the day of purchase. Once at the top you can enjoy an amazing panoramic view of the High Tatra mountains, providing the weather is good. There are also other attractions at the top, including a summer bobsled. And if your fitness levels are low, you can take a very easy walk along a level paved road which runs along the top of the mountain. The road is lined with wooden market stalls selling cheese, trinkets, and souvenirs.

2. Bohemian Switzerland (Czech Republic)

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With the largest sandstone arch in Europe, soaring rock towers, and sweeping vistas of the verdant landscape around the Central Bohemian Uplands (České středohoří), the Bohemian Switzerland National Park is the jewel in the North-West Bohemian tourism crown. A national park since only 2000, Bohemian Switzerland is linked to Saxon Switzerland on the German side of the border, thus providing a combined area of 172km2 / 66mi2 to explore via a wonderfully well-developed network of hiking tracks.

The area has been known as ‘Switzerland’ since the 18th century when a couple of Swiss artists began using the name in homage to the similarities they saw in Northern Bohemia with their homeland. It began to attract large numbers of tourists in the 19th century and inspired a number of Romanticist artists drawn to the wild beauty of its rock formations, e.g. Adrian Ludwig Richter, whose work you can see in the Dresden Gallery in the nearby Saxon capital.

Most modern-day visitors make a beeline for the famous sandstone arch, Pravčická brána. Unfortunately, it’s been out of bounds since 1982 because of the erosion caused by too many visitors trampling over the top of it, but that doesn’t detract from its striking beauty. If you watch closely, you’ll see the natural monument in the film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe whose makers used several locations from Czech Switzerland. The actors appear to run across the rock formation, but they were superimposed in the studio.

Other treats for visitors are the observation tower on the highest point in the national park, Děčínský Sněžník, and the punts that ferry passengers along deep gorges in the River Kamenice with running commentaries from the boatmen.  

3. Berchtesgaden (Germany)

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The Berchtesgaden National Park is one of the oldest protected areas in the Bavarian Alps. It is part of the alpine territory near the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden in the southeast of Germany and just a short bus ride from the Austrian city of Salzburg. The park was established in 1978 and covers 218 km2 / 84mi2, with altitudes ranging from 540m / 1772ft at Königssee (The King’s Sea) to the towering Mt Watzmann (2670m / 8760ft). The local fauna includes mountain goats, marmots, eagles (such as the very rare golden eagle), blue hares and the alpine salamander. The flora is equally beautiful and diverse and includes the horminum, Hausmann´s rock jasmine, and the dwarf alpine rose.

Berchtesgaden’s beauty attracted the interest of leading Nazi Party figures in the 1930s, which led to the construction of Hitler’s mountain getaway, The Eagle’s Nest, as a 50th birthday gift conceived by Martin Boorman. During World War II, Hermann Göring, who, among other responsibilities, was the State Minister of Forestry and Hunting, declared the area around Obersee (linked to Königssee) a protected natural conservation area, although that was more likely related to his desire to create a personal hunting ground than any nascent empathy for the natural environment.

Taking a cruise on Königssee is an unforgettable experience, regardless of the time of year. During the spring, numerous waterfalls cascade down the mountainsides. The riotous green of summer slowly transforms into bright autumnal colors, and then winter blankets the mountainsides in snow. In less than an hour a boat will take you to the red-onion domed monastery church of St. Bartolomä. On your way there, the boat will stop and a member of the crew will play a tune on a trumpet. The music echoes back and forth across the lake as it bounces off the rock walls of the mountains. Since the only motors allowed on the lake are electric, the lake remains blissfully tranquil. For those visiting in spring or autumn, you may even see farmers transporting their cattle across the lake as they migrate from the lowlands to pastures on the upper slopes of the mountains and back again. From St. Bartholomä boats continue on to the Salet docks in the summer months at the far end of the lake. From there, the equally stunning Obersee is only a short hike away.

You can also ascend into the Alpine peaks above the lake via the Jennerbahn cable car near the parking lot at Königssee. You can save money by only going to the middle station or by hiking back down (only recommended for experienced hikers with good footwear). If you get off at the middle station, you can also take an approximate 4 hour / 6 mile (9.5km) roundtrip to the Priesbergalm (it includes a climb of nearly 1000ft (over 300m). It takes you across a series of charming alpine pastures with superb views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. At the Priesbergalm (i.e. the Pries Mountain Pasture) you’ll find a guest house where you can enjoy some traditional Bavarian fare while soaking up the panoramic view.

4. Plitvice Lakes (Croatia)

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The most arresting and majestic of any natural attraction in Croatia, if not all the Balkans, the Plitvice Lakes National Park is an astounding 8-kilometer (5mi) stretch of 16 lakes that cascade one into the other over a terraced sequence of barriers formed over millennia. Thanks to its mineral-rich waters, the Park's lakes practically glow with a brilliant turquoise hue when see from afar, and are crystal clear up close. All the lakes have been made highly accessible via an intricate and lengthy trail of wooden boardwalks and bridges that snake around the edges of the waterways and numerous waterfalls, plus there are electric boats and a similarly powered shuttle service. It gets exceptionally congested in the summer months when bottlenecks form on the narrow bridges as everyone stops to take a picture, but an early start will reward you with unimpeded egress and some of the most beautiful scenery you're ever likely to lay eyes on.

The Plitvice Lakes have been attracting nature-lovers since long before they were declared a national park in 1949. Accommodation for travelers was built in the 1860s, but it was a stopover by royalty in the form of the wife of the Austrian Crown Prince in 1888 that really put the lakes on the tourist map. Rebecca West, the author of the most famous of all English language travelogues on the former Yugoslavia, Black Lamb, and Grey Falcon, was moved to write of the lakes in the interwar period as “..the most laughing and light-minded of natural prodigies. Here the creative spirit is as far from the normal as at Niagara or the Grand Canyon or the Matterhorn, but is untouched by the tragic or by terror, it is dedicated solely to gaiety and loveliness. Sixteen lakes, some large, some small, lie among lawns and wooded hills, joined by glittering and musical waterfalls that are sometimes spiral staircases and sometimes amphitheaters and sometimes chutes, but are always ingeniously pretty, without a trace of the majestic. It is rare to find great beauty on this plane”.

These days the pressure of tourist numbers requires visitors to enter via two main entrances after the purchase of an entry ticket whose price is much higher during the summer. Entrance One is best for swift access to the 256ft / 78m Veliki slap (‘the big waterfall’), which is the park’s single most dramatic feature. Entrance Two is preferable if you’re most interested in first seeing the biggest group of cascades where waters from the highest lake, Prošćansko, tumble down into a series of pools and tarns before reaching Lake Kozjak lower down.

Travelling about the lakes in the spring and summer months is made easier with the electric boats that ply the waters on Lake Kozjak, as well as the electric bus and carriages that operate between both entrances and Labudovac in the southern part of the lakes (the cost is included in the price of admission). You can walk around the lakes to the entrances from Labudovac, but the national park contains much more, and this is the best launch pad for hiking further afield from the lakes.

5. Mljet (Croatia)

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Wonderfully unspoiled and a perfect place to seek some sanctuary from the crowds on the mainland coast, Mljet has little in the way of tourist infrastructure outside the villages of Polače and Pomena. The main attraction is Mljet National Park, an area of bucolic beauty with untouched Mediterranean forest, eminently swimmable blue-green saltwater lakes encircled by foot- and cycle paths, and an island within an island containing a beautiful 12-century monastery church. The park and island are ideal for a day's hiking or cycling.

According to legend, Odysseus was trapped here with Calypso, the nymph ruler of the island, and there’s a famously beautiful cave that bears Odysseus’s name near the village of Babino Polje. Mljet can also stake a claim to being the island of Melita, where St Paul ran aground on his way to Italy and was bitten by a viper before he set sail again. (Mljet's snake infestation was once so bad that a colony of mongooses had to be imported from India to get rid of them, and the fat-tailed carnivorans are still evidently enjoying their migrant life in the national park today.)

Located on the western third of Mljet Island, Mljet National Park occupies 98.1 square kilometers (37.9 square miles) and is serviced by the ferry terminal in the tiny settlement of Polače (there's another small harbor for ferries 20km further east on the island in the township of Sobra). Ferries operate from Gruž Harbour in Dubrovnik all year round (two hours one-way), with more frequent sailings in the high tourist season when there are also connections to and from Korčula and Lastovo. You have to count on staying overnight in the low season in one of the local hotels.

Although there is no official entrance to the park as such, and by the time you arrive in Polače you're already well inside it, you should still purchase an entrance ticket (100 HRK). You can buy one from a kiosk in Polače, where you can also obtain park information and maps.

The national park borders two saltwater lakes - Veliko and Malo Jezero (Large and Small Lake), which are connected to the sea by a small channel. Smack dab in the middle of Veliko Jezero there's a small island called Otok sveta Marija (St Mary's Island) where the Benedictines established a monastery in the 12th century. The monastery building is now a café/restaurant and is accessible by boats that ferry visitors there from both sides of the lake.

If you want to experience these 5 top national parks in Central and Southern Europe then contact us at Go Real Europe and order an itinerary for these countries today. Our travel consultants will be happy to help you out if you have any questions about the parks listed above or any other natural beauty spots that we can help you visit.

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