Where the wild things are: the best safari parks in Europe

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Have you ever caught a glimpse of a lion lazing under a tree? Or seen the ocean turning black as a sperm whale glides under your boat? Seeing an animal in its natural habitat can be the best bit of your trip (and provides dreamy photo potential). The good news is that you definitely don’t have to fork out for a long-haul ticket to have a brush with Mother Nature. Get planning your trip with the best safari parks in Europe!

 

Best safari parks in Europe:

  1. The Azores, Portugal
  2. Calimani Park, Romania
  3. Camargue National Park, France
  4. Merfelder Bruch Nature Reserve, Germany
  5. Skinnskatteberg, Sweden
  6. Somiedo Natural Park, Spain, Asturias
  7. Białowieża, Poland
  8. Coa Valley, Portugal

 

1. Whales, The Azores

When you see pictures of The Azores’ lush green pastures and volcanic lakes, you could be forgiven for thinking that this string of nine islands is in the tropics. In fact, it’s a region of sunny Portugal! Between April and October, some of the ocean’s most gentle giants glide by on their yearly migration, including blue, fin and sei whales. Sperm whales live in the islands all year round, gorging themselves on giant squid and growing up to 20m long, while humpbacks tend to appear in October.

European safaris - Whales, The Azores

📷 Isa Jokela-Gomes 

  • Best time to visit: May to October
  • Wildlife: dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and many bird species
  • Nearby hostels: Ponta Delgada Hostel, Green Island Hostel

 

2. Lynx, Romania, Calimani Park

With its epic ridges, gravity-defying fir trees and mountainous peaks, Calimani Park is one of Europe’s last great wildernesses. Stags, wolves and eagles all roam freely, but most elusive of all is the Eurasian lynx, a fur-ocious wild cat that looks like a cross between a leopard and your average tabby. Between February and April, heavy snowfall makes this usually shy predator easier to track, with a good chance of seeing them at dawn or dusk.

European safaris -Lynx, Romania

📷 Uriel Soberanes

  • Best time to visit: May to October
  • Wildlife: brown bears, lynx, wolves, and deer
  • Nearby hostels: Călimani Lodge, Mountain River Cabins

 

3. Flamingos, France, Camargue National Park

Soar above the Camargue National Park in a plane and you could be forgiven for thinking that this stretch of marshland just south of Marseille is bright pink. In fact, it’s home to tens of thousands of flamingos, particularly during the June to September breeding season when fluff-ball chicks hatch and take their first wobbly steps out of the nest. All together now: “Aaawww”!

European safaris - Flamingos, France

📷 Lachlan Gowen 

  • Best time to visit: May to October
  • Wildlife: flamingos, horses, bulls, and birds
  • Nearby hostels: Mas des Cigales, Le Castelet des Alpilles

 

4. Wild Horses, Germany, Merfelder Bruch Nature Reserve

Spot a Dülmen Pony frolicking in the Merfelder Bruch Nature Reserve and you’re pretty much looking back in time in one of the best safari parks in Europe. The last truly wild horses in Europe, their family tree can be traced back more than 700 years. Although they live without human intervention for most of the year, the young stallions are rounded up and auctioned off on the last Saturday of May to prevent the herd becoming bigger than the reservation can handle. Watching the wranglers gather them with their bare hands is quite the show, and the money raised goes towards protecting the rest of the herd.

European safaris - Wild Horses, Germany

📷 Isabella Jusková 

Base yourself at H.ostel Münster, which has an industrial chic vibe and a prime location in the medieval old town.

  • Best time to visit: May to September
  • Wildlife: wild horses
  • Nearby hostels: Haus Mariengrund, Pension Haus Waldesruh

 

5. Wolves, Sweden, Skinnskatteberg

What could be more adrenaline-inducing than watching the moon rise above a Swedish forest while the eerie howls of the local wolf pack echo between the tree trunks? In Skinnskatteberg, just two hours from Stockholm, you can spend a night tracking these fierce creatures with an expert guide. Afterwards, listen to local folk stories around the campfire and spend the night under canvas. Visit between June and September for the best chance of spotting these ferocious canines in one of the best safari parks in Europe.

European safaris - Wolves, Sweden

📷 Eva Blue 

When you’re ready to leave the wild, check into Generator Stockholm, a well-located hideaway with serious design credentials.

  • Best time to visit: June to August
  • Wildlife: bears, wolves, and moose
  • Nearby hostels: Skinnskattebergs Vandrarhem, Kolarbyn Ecolodge

 

6. Brown bears, Spain, Somiedo Natural Park

You may associate bears with the wilds of North America, but Europe’s biggest population can be found in the stunning Cantabrian mountains of Asturias – less than a two hour flight from London. It’s not at all unusual to see mothers and their cubs ambling through the Somiedo Natural Park, particularly during April, May and June when they’re just emerging after the chilly winter and on the hunt for honey.

European safaris- Brown bears, Spain

📷 Anthony Renovato 

  • Best time to visit: June to September
  • Wildlife: brown bears, wolves, and wildcats
  • Nearby hostels: Casa Rural La Solana, Albergue de Torrestío

 

7. Bison, Poland

10,000 years ago, most of north-eastern Europe was densely covered in primal forest. Today, Poland’s Białowieża area is the last significant tract left. It’s home to more than 900 European bison, nicknamed ‘the kings of the wilderness’ because of their bulk. Sadly, they were hunted to extinction at the start of the 20th century, but have been reintroduced with the help of a careful breeding programme. January to March is the best time to spot Europe’s heaviest land animal, and a walk through this ancient forest in the snow is a magical experience. Just remember to pack your coat as temperatures can dip to -5 degrees… brrr!

European safaris- Bison, Poland

📷 Luuk Timmermans 

  • Best time to visit: May to September
  • Wildlife: European bison, wolves, and lynx
  • Nearby hostels: Białowieża Hostel, Pokoje Gościnne u Karoliny

 

8. Egyptian vultures, Portugal, Coa Valley

The hills of the Coa Valley in north-east Portugal are covered with startling shades of citrus yellow and parsley green, making for some seriously pretty hiking. Even higher than the hilltop caves, which are still scrawled with mysterious paintings from paleolithic times, you’ll find the craggy nests of Egyptian vultures. They’re instantly recognisable by their bright yellow faces and the fact that they’re the smallest vultures in Europe, typically weighing just 2kg. Between November and March they spend the winter in Africa and fly 7,000km on the round trip. Keep your eyes peeled for other airborne icons such as golden, griffin and Bonelli’s eagles too.

The nearest major city is Porto and it’s full of character. Porto Spot Hostel is in a historic Estado Novo building with several unique and beautifully designed rooms.

  • Best time to visit: May to October
  • Wildlife: ibex, wild boar, and birds
  • Nearby hostels: Casa da Cisterna, Casa das Tílias

 

Have you spotted any of these incredible creatures in the wild? Or perhaps you have more tips about the best safari parks in Europe? Let us know in the comments!

About the author

Imogen Lepere is a travel writer with a soft spot for anything quirky, surprising and incongruous. Her adventures include teaching in Kathmandu, riding the Trans-Mongolian railway and living with a nudist colony in Greece. She currently splits her time between London and Melbourne, where she can normally be found with a glass of wine in one hand and a pen in the other. Read more of her work on her blog or follow her on Instagram.

 

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