For such a long settled region, Europe still has plenty of corners where the wilderness is left alone. Where nature is allowed to do its thing and those that enjoy getting away from it all have somewhere to go. This means there’s no shortage of destinations for nature walking and hiking for those travelling to Europe.
It can be challenging though trying to balance out all the city sightseeing in your Europe itinerary with activities that get you away from it all, but that still feel touristy. I know I’ve struggled managing that balance properly. But I’ve come to realise though that there are actually quite a few places where sightseeing and boundless nature overlap. And its great; you still feel like you’ve had local experiences all the while benefiting from the restorative effects that being back in nature provides.
Here are 5 places not necessarily known for combining sightseeing with hiking (or known at all!) but will deliver gorgeous, memorable sightseeing nature walks.
Sintra is a magical place and one of my favourite towns I’ve ever visited. This peaceful spot lies on the edge of a vast and hilly forest, not far from the city of Lisbon but still feeling a world away. Sinta grew to prominence as the home to summer palaces for the royal family living in the country’s capital, Lisbon. Above the town in the woods are many strikingly beautiful palaces and manors for visitors to explore. Generally people either drive themselves up and around the spread out spots or take the frequent tourist buses. For those that have the time though, choosing to walk the sights of Sintra will be so much more rewarding.
Following the winding roads that lead out of town up the hillside and forest will take you to Sintra’s star attractions. But before you reach the palaces like the Pena National Palace, Quinta de Regaleira or Monserrate, you’ll make your way through serene woodlands and past small manor houses with little gardens. With the exception of infrequent passing cars and buses, walking along the roads outside of town is incredibly peaceful and restorative. If you want to get truly lost in nature, the walking trails that run south of the N375 road near Monserrate will give you what you’re after. It is here that you can walk to the Convent of the Capuchos but make sure to take a map, you may not see another soul out there.
In Sintra, you have the chance to walk through some impressive woodland in between visiting elegant 19th century palaces and historic monasteries. Truly a great option if you’re in Sintra or Lisbon and looking to get away from it all.
Islas Cies, Spain
Islas Cies seems to be a really well kept secret. I mean, I barely ever see people talk about this idyllic series of islands off the coast of Galicia in Spain. Even when they’re often said to have some of the best beaches in Spain. When I landed on the ferry from the city of Vigo in August, there only seemed to be locals basking in the sun and in the surf. More’s the pity, because aside from beaches, Islas Cies has some spectacular views out over the Atlantic Ocean, the Galician coastline and its islands and beaches from its hilltop viewpoints.
What I really enjoyed about Islas Cies was that you could combine a day trip (or longer stay at the local campsite) to the beach with nature walks that led along the islands and up to the precarious viewpoints. It also helped that the islands gave me an unlikely familiar feeling; as I walked through the dense eucalyptus forest past white sand beaches, I felt like I was back in Australia 6 months after leaving its shores.
So a morning of walking through familiar woods was followed by an afternoon lying on the beach, soaking up the milder summer weather that Galicia has to offer. After spending a few days exploring the city of Vigo, having the opportunity to jaunt off to somewhere so wild and peaceful was welcomed. Maybe somewhere to consider for those looking to unwind after finishing their nearby Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Regardless, it’s a beautiful spot in a quiet corner of Spain.
Mt Uetliberg, Switzerland
For those coming to the city of Zurich in Switzerland, hiking hillside trails is probably not what comes to mind. People come to Zurich for its history, its flashy wealth, maybe a spot of fondue and a chance to experience Swiss city life. What people may not know is that embracing the outdoors is a big part of the Swiss lifestyle. On weekends, you’re bound to see couples / families / groups out and about, sucking in the fresh alpine air. And so there Mount Uetliberg lies, at the end of a range of hills running south of the city along Lake Zurich, beckoning those keen to be in the great outdoors.
What makes Uetliberg so perfect is that is so easily accessible from the city centre. A relatively short train ride from Zurich’s main station will bring you right up to the top of Uetliberg. From there, a series of walking trails lead you along the ridge line through forest and past farmland, with paths varying in difficulty and distance. As I’ve stayed with family friends when I’ve visited Zurich, I’ve actually started the trails further south, from the Felsenegg gondola and then proceeded to Mt Uetliberg. I mention this because the gondola is not far from the Adliswil train station and so it’s just as useful as a starting point for a hike along the ridge line.
Apart from getting you out in the fresh air amongst the trees and countryside, what’s great about Mount Uetliberg are the glorious views you find of the city of Zurich, the lake and the Alps in the distance. There are also some nice little restaurants just down the hill, serving up traditional swiss cuisine. Uetliberg offers a great little outing for those trying to escape the city for a little while.
Lovcen National Park, Montenegro
Coming to Montenegro, visitors tend to make their way for Kotor and who could blame them. A gorgeous old town full of Venetian architecture at the end of a bay that feels more like a fjord, surrounded by mountains. Little do they know, there’s more amazing sights to be found on the far side of that mountain ridge. And I mean I get it. Montenegro’s coastline is its star attraction. I’ve even written previously about the different choices of where to stay on the coast here. But it’s sad to see people so close to Lovcen National Park and missing out.
Lovcen National Park is a craggy, hilly wilderness full of pine forest and the occasional small village. It’s accessible from Kotor (via steep and long hike) or after a drive from the town of Cetinje, which I’ve harped on about here (yes, I really like Montenegro). For the ideal hiking distance, you can start from the “town” of Ivanova Korita and follow the road to Njegos’ Mausoleum atop Jezerski Peak. Walking this route will take you up through the rocky, rolling hills and occasional forest, past the massive Mount Lovcen and to the spectacle of the mausoleum.
Njego’s Mausoleum cuts a striking image, a somber tomb sitting high above the rest of the world. While the oddly located mausoleum houses interesting and lavish designs, it’s the views from the top that will take your breath away. To the east you’ll be granted sweeping views of the park’s expanse; to the west you will look out towards the coastline and on a particularly clear day you’ll actually be able to make out the Bay of Kotor. Even with the looming Mount Lovcen nearby, you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world. Certainly a worthy reward for a couple of hours of nature walking.
Meteora translates as “suspended in the air” and you will soon come to realise exactly what they mean when visiting this site in Greece. Here in central Thessaly, you come across not-quite mountains, but giant rocky formations that jut almost unnaturally skyward. To make it even more impressive, atop many of these rocks are ornate Greek Orthodox monasteries accessible by long, winding staircases. Meteora has to be one of the most visually spectacular, awe-inducing sights I’ve come across in my travels.
The Monasteries of Meteora consist primarily of six historic monasteries in an incredible state, with dozens more ruins about. The monasteries are accessible from the nearby city of Kalabaka and neighbouring Kastraki by roads that snake their way up and around this unusual landscape. This is the primary means of access for visitors, whether self-driving or visiting with the plethora of tour companies. But it’s not the only way. For those hoping for a more outdoor experience there’s always the alternative of taking the hiking trails and exploring the landscape of Meteora at a walking pace.
Now there are tour companies that offer hiking tours of the monasteries. They tend to claim that hiking around by yourself can be a little tricky, but I definitely didn’t find that the case. With one of the free maps available everywhere in Kastraki, navigating the area is quite straightforward, particularly with such obvious landmarks. The trails are all labeled on the maps and obvious from the road, so as long as you’re even semi-confident in your ability to navigate you should be fine. Be forewarned though, it’s all uphill getting there and I was pretty damn puffed by the time I reached my second monastery. Totally worth it, particularly with the autumnal leaves. Hiking Meteora is a wonderful way to explore this mystical region while also getting in your cardio. For more photos from Meteora, have a look at this article.
I feel compelled to mention that I would have liked to include the trails that lead through the Cinque Terre in Italy, but unfortunately they were closed due to landslides when I visited in 2013. So while I haven’t experienced it personally, it would be another great alternative for combining sightseeing with hiking.
Have you enjoyed the balance of sightseeing and nature in any of the above? Where else in Europe do you think works this balance well?