Discover the best wildlife vacations Europe has to offer

We’ve covered the birds and bears of North and South America, but let’s not forget their European brethren of Icelandic puffin and Polish bison. Indeed, wildlife in Europe is equally as diverse, spanning cold-climate mammals in Scandinavia to elusive Eurasian wildcats in the forests of Eastern Europe. Hosting 200 habitats, from alpine regions to wetlands, Europe also counts 700 species of birds in its skies. Though the size of wild Europe is in decline, contemporary attitudes towards animal welfare are helping to conserve and protect what is left, with beaver and boar once again thriving in the Danube Delta. If you’re wondering where to start adventure vacations in Europe with an eye for local wildlife, read our rundown below.

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1. Wolf watching in Scandinavia

The Scandinavian region covers the kingdoms Denmark, Norway and Sweden, but for the most concentrated wolf populations, it’s the forests of Sweden that come out top. Sixty-five per cent of Swedish land is covered by taiga forest, making it the perfect habitat for bears, elk and wolves, as well as a variety of winged bird and butterfly species. What’s more, travellers can arrive in the forested wilderness within a two-hour drive from Stockholm, the Swedish capital. Embark on a wolf tracking tour in the Dalarna region (Kloten wolf territory) or Värmland, following in the footsteps of a skilled tracker in the summer months when mild temperatures also allow for sunset- and star-gazing on the lakes.

As well as wolves, Sweden’s Bergslagen woods are especially known for hosting the world’s highest population of elk, opening out on the beaver-full Lake Skarsjön, best experienced on a canoe tour. For a back-to-nature vacation to remember, stay in the basic huts beside Lake Skarsjön, bathing in the stream, collecting wood for a campfire and foraging for lingonberries. If wolves are of interest, you can also consider visiting Italy (with a population of 1,000 wolves), Spain (3,000 in Sierra de Culebra) and Portugal (4,000).

Sweden | Photo: Robert Larsson

Photo: M L

2. Brown bears and Iberian lynx in Spain

The largest country on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain will surprise visitors with its vast display of Europe native animals across its national parks and reserves. In the north, it’s the Cantabrian brown bear that gains most recognition, a creature most visible while trekking in remote sections of the Cantabrian Mountains, an hours’ drive from Santander city. Although these rare creatures were almost extinct in the 1980s, the population is slowly recovering and are now readily found on wildlife tours of the region, most active at dawn and dusk.

Meanwhile, in southwestern Spain, another animal – the Iberian lynx – takes precedence, an endemic wild cat distinguished by its spotted fur, bearded face and black ear tufts. Growing upwards of one metre in length, the lynx is another of the animals in Europe returning from the brink of extinction, quadrupling in number since 2002 (to a total of 404 across the nation). Trips aligned with local conservation goals are run by the European Nature Trust, allowing travellers to support researchers in their conservation efforts in Andalucía’s Sierra Morena, spending five days in Zafra before concluding in Granada. Daily activities on the trip include going on sunset drives with lynx researchers, helping to set camera traps and learning more about conservation in the region.

Birders travelling in Spain can head to the cork oak forests of Extremadura, on the Portugal border southwest of Madrid. Here, you’ll be rewarded by close-ups of a number of birds of prey, including the rare Spanish imperial eagle, golden eagle, Bonelli’s eagle and booted eagle. The lesser kestrel and Eurasian black vulture also roam the farmland and mountains in this region. Alternative options for picture-perfect scenery in Spain include wildlife vacations in Catalonia’s Ebro Delta or the Pyrenees and Alps, where hiking amongst fragile alpine flora – inclusive of the world’s rarest orchids – can put you in sight of birds such as the alpine chough and rock ptarmigan.

Photo: Zdenek Machacek

Camaleño, Cantabria, Spain | Photo: Mathew Macquarrie

3. Whales and Dolphins in Azores

For more of the best adventure vacations Europe has to offer, it’s to the mid-Atlantic we go. Here lie the Azores islands, an autonomous region of Portugal, where life centres on the sea. Beyond slow-moving fishing villages backed by volcanic landscapes and tea plantations, the Azores hosts no fewer than 26 species of whales and dolphins in its waters. On boat trips out into the Atlantic, expect to discover around six to eight different species, dependent on the time of the year. Between April to May, it’s blue, sei and fin whales that pass through en route to their summer feeding grounds, while, towards October, humpbacks proliferate. At any time of the year, bottlenose, Atlantic spotted and sperm whales can be seen alongside common dolphins, manta rays and sea turtles too.

As well as boat tours, visitors can get into the water to view the whales and dolphins on their level. Snorkelling with expert guides will ensure you know how to act when you find yourself face down among a pod of dolphins, or otherwise opt for multi-day diving excursions in the deep, cavernous waters around Pico island, best booked from May to October. Turtle specific expeditions are also led by researchers on the island of Faial, allowing travellers to get involved in netting, measuring and tagging loggerheads to track their migration patterns, staying in a Horta townhouse for the duration. As well as Pico and Faial, Sao Miguel is also a common starting point for tours.

The Azores, Portugal | Photo: Ferdinand Stohr

Azores | Photo: Mayte Garcia Llorente

4. Polar bears in Norway

A worthy addition to every road trip planner Europe is the nation of Norway, not least for its stunningly diverse landscape of glaciers, fjords and mountains met by rugged coastline and icy seas. Under the glow of the Northern Lights and the chill of winter, wildlife makes itself unexpectedly at home. Brave the low temperatures for encounters with elk, reindeer and lynx, or orca whales and other marine life from the coast. Arctic fox and polar bears are also commonly found in the national parks of Borgefjell and Saltfjellet-Svartisen, though their white fur makes them hard to spot in the deep snow of winter. For this reason, polar bear spotting is best done from May to August, whale watching in October to February and Arctic birding from February to April.

The further removed region of Svalbard – an archipelago set between Norway’s mainland and the North Pole – is another great choice for adventurers eager to see polar bears. Here on Svalbard, polar bears outnumber humans (bears: 3,000; humans: 2,700), concentrated around their breeding grounds on the islands of Karl Prins Forlandet and Mofen. The region’s northernmost point of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, famed for its views of the Northern Lights, is another polar bear hotspot. Visit during May to September for the best wildlife encounters, booking a zodiac cruise for polar bear viewing along the coast, also spotting Arctic fox, walrus and diverse birdlife alongside, from puffins to purple sandpipers.

Jotunheimen National Park, Norway | Photo: Sebastien Goldberg

Photo: Bao Menglong

5. Bison in Poland

If you thought bison were solely a North American phenomenon, then the primaeval forests of Poland may surprise you. A symbol of Polish pride, the European bison makes itself at home among the forests, sharing space with countless species and quite a few intriguing rock formations. In particular, Poland’s UNESCO-listed Białowieża National Park is famous for hosting 59 mammal species, such as elk, beavers and otters, alongside a large population of Bison, best seen on safari tours (by bicycle or motor vehicle). Other elusive creatures in the Białowieża forests include lynx and wolves, the latter best tracked in winter. Otherwise, come at any time of year (excluding May and November), exploring the forest by bike in Summer. Alternative places to see bison include the marshlands of Narew National Park – the so-called Polish Amazon – also home to beaver, elk and martens.

Poland | Photo: Andrzej Kułak

6. Reindeers in Finland

Reindeers are for life, not just for Christmas, at least in Finland that is. To see them in herds at any time of year, visit the reindeer farms of the north (such as in Jerisjärvi and Ranua) where you can gain an understanding of these creatures both domesticated and in their natural habitat on reindeer tours and snowmobile rides in the region. Dogsledding is also a great way to traverse Lapland, staying overnight in cosy cabins in a multitude of small towns and resorts. As well as the 200,000 reindeer in Lapland alone, other native animals of Europe found in Finland include the impressive elk (weighing up to 700 kilos), which emerge from the forests to graze in Finland’s marshes and meadows at dawn and dusk.

Towards the east on the Russian border lies Finland’s Kainuu snow forest and wetlands, where nature lovers can delight in scant human populations and abundant wildlife. Brown bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx and elks can all be seen here, as can myriad species of bird, such as golden eagle, black grouse and Ural owls, with numbers peaking between spring and fall when daylight stretches longer. Winter, however, is still a consideration for nature photographers thanks to the snow-dusted pine, spruce and fir trees edging Kainuu’s glittering lakes. If spotting wolves or bears is your main interest, sign up for an organised excursion on the borderlands where wolves and bears are most numerous, staying overnight in the forest to photograph wild bears that feed nearby.

Lapland, Finland | Photo: Bente Hagens

Finland | Photo: Jacqueline Macou

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Brown bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx and elks can all be seen here, as can myriad species of bird, such as golden eagle, black grouse and Ural owls

Photo: Federico Di Dio Photography

7. Whales and puffins in Iceland

In keeping with the icy theme, our plan route Europe takes us to Iceland, a nation situated on the mid-Atlantic ridge at the meeting point of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. As well as finding a land mapped by mountains, glaciers and frequent volcanic activity, vacations in Iceland will put travellers in touch with much marine life, most notable Icelandic killer whales. For the best chances of seeing them, visitors should travel from Reykjavik to Vestmannaeyjar island by plane or ferry between April and September. Here you’ll be met by a community of research scientists who’ll waste no time in introducing you to the local tipple of Brennivin schnapps. Once sober, you’ll follow researchers on excursions to record the killer whales’ behaviour and collect samples for the lab, also noting some 20 different types of whale – such as humpback and blue whale – alongside dolphins and Atlantic puffins searching for their cliff colonies on Vestmannaeyjar’s south coast.

Iceland’s Puffins and other innumerable seabirds – such as gannets, guillemots and razorbills – are best seen in Summer on the Látrabjarg Cliffs of the Westfjords or Borgarfjörður Eystri in the east, with the north side’s Lake Mývatn hosting its own collection of birdlife. That’s not all in Iceland however, as the seal colonies of Vatnsnes Peninsula must be seen to be believed, followed by a trip to Hvammstangi’s Seal Museum for more insight. Then, the native Arctic fox is rare but not impossible to find, particularly in the Hornstrandir region of the Westfjords (accessible by ferry from Ísafjörður). And, finally, the 3,000 wild reindeer of Iceland can also necessitate a tour, towards the interior in warmer months or in the remote region near Snaefell in winter.

Deplar Farm, Iceland | Photos: Eleven Experience

Iceland | Photo: David Klaasen

8. Birding in The UK

Travelling in the UK may significantly increase your Europe trip cost but once you arrive in the British Isles, whether you want eagles or dolphins, you’ll see your journey was worth every penny. Of the UK’s many national parks, reserves and trusts, Ark Wildlife Park and Rescue Zoo (Lincolnshire) sets a fine example with its abundance of wildlife in one place. For osprey in its natural habitat, join a wildlife cruise within Rutland Water Nature Reserve (north England) in spring and summer or, otherwise, consider travelling to North Wales for sightings of choughs, puffins, kestrels and waders on the coastal cliffs, lakes and bogs of Great Orme, Colwyn Bay and Anglesey. North Norfolk is another option for its large display of seabirds, where visitors can enjoy self-guided walks along the flint cliffs of England’s east coast, stopping by RSPB Snettisham or the Holkham and Cley reserve reedbeds for countless bird species. The nation’s largest butterfly species can also be found in the area, within the Norfolk Broads (particularly Strumpshaw Fen or Hickling Broad on a warm summer morning) as well as the largest seal colony on Blakeney Point, an area made comfy for humans thanks to a large collection of country pubs and guest houses.

Despite a reputation for drizzle, the UK is home to some of the best luxury vacations Europe has to offer, notably in Scotland where bird lovers can also feel at home looking out over the huge northern gannet population on the cliffs of Bass Rock (on the Firth of Forth estuary) between February and October. Learn more at the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick or join a boat trip for close-up views of dive-bombing gannets. For eagles, however, Scotland’s Isle of Mull is your best bet, an island hosting endangered white-tailed and golden eagle varieties across its Highland, glen and moorland habitats. Besides birds, bottlenose dolphins can be found in the waters surrounding the UK, the largest population swimming in the area around Newquay’s Cardigan Bay, where charter boats can help passengers to spot harbour porpoise and Atlantic grey seal.

Photo: Andreas Dress

Photo: Andrew Neel

9. Lynx in Romania

Last, in our list of activity vacations, Europe is Romania for its abundance of wildlife strewn through forest, mountain and Black Sea territories. Unexpectedly, perhaps, this southeast European nation hosts 60 per cent of Europe’s brown bears and 40 per cent of its wolves, in addition to over 300 species of bird – including pelicans, cormorants and night and purple herons – concentrated on the Danube Delta. Stay in a houseboat hotel on the Danube for the most convenient access to the second-largest and best-preserved delta in Europe, touring extensive wetlands that extend into the Black Sea and rival Botwana’s Okavango.

Travellers looking for Eurasian lynx (Romania’s national animal) – as well as bears and wolves – can tour Transylvania in central Romania, following an expert guide into the snow-covered Carpathian Mountains during mating season (between March and April) when these nocturnal wildcats are most active. Visitors to the region can base themselves in any of Transylvania’s medieval villages and Saxon cities, exploring famed castles and churches before embarking on birding missions, mountain trekking and lynx-tracking excursions. As well as apex predators, the mountainous southern section of the Carpathians, an area inlaid with meadows and canyons, is also remarkable for its populations of chamois, red and roe deer and wild boar, protected by Dutch non-profit Rewilding Europe. Camping in the forests of Calimani National Park (on the northern side of the Carpathians) is also an option, easily booked on organised tours lasting up to 10 days.

Photo: Markus Spiske

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Travellers looking for Eurasian lynx (Romania’s national animal) – as well as bears and wolves – can tour Transylvania in central Romania

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Photo: Zdenek Machacek

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