Travel

The Best of Europe: Top Cities for Nature

The Best of Europe: Top Cities for Nature
Jennifer Walker
By: Jennifer Walker
Reading time: 14 min

Cities and nature may feel like contradictory terms. However, if you’re someone who likes to hike or get out in nature while out exploring the best of Europe, it’s easy to merge the two, so check out these best cities for nature to inspire you for your next break.


From cities with large and leafy parks to capitals with abundant nature or mountains on their doorsteps, find out which are the best European cities for nature with a pick of our favorites. So don’t forget to pack a picnic blanket or your hiking boots when exploring the best of Europe!


Budapest: Go Up Into the Buda Hills

Cities for nature - Budapest


The Hungarian capital might be famed for its Danube-side views and hedonistic ruin bars, but within the city limits, you’ll find plenty of hiking spots that will keep any nature loving traveler happy. You can take a bus up into the Buda Hills for a spot of hiking up to Normafa or ride the Children’s Railway, a rail line operated by children, that will take you into the hills away from the city. And if you want to go away from urban life, there are plenty of hiking spots that are easily reached from Budapest for the day, such as Dobogókő or Rámszakadék.


There’s also plenty of parklands to explore, like Margaret Island, an island on the Danube filled with rose gardens and grassy spots, or the famous City Park up towards Heroes’ Square. Even Gellért Hill comes with plenty of hikes up to the Citadella which make you feel like you’ve escaped the downtown chaos of the city.


Ljubljana: From City to The Alps in an Hour

Cities for nature - Ljubljana


Slovenia’s small capital is already worth a visit for its riverside-cafe life and charming architecture, but one of the best things about Ljubljana is its proximity to the Slovenian countryside. Slovenia is a small country, so it only takes an hour by car to reach the Julian Alps in the north. You can base yourself in Ljubljana and go out for a day to Lake Bled and its surroundings. There are plenty of hiking trails around the azure blue lake that run up into the mountains, or around the Triglav gorge.


Or you can head down south towards the Karst mountains, for caves, castles and more hikes. Since Ljubljana is such as a small city, it’s easy to even grab a bike and cycle into the surrounding hills, or just take a walk through Tivoli Park at the center of the city. Slovenia may be on of the best cities for nature in Europe when it comes to spectacular landscapes and green getaways, and the best thing is it’s all accessible from its capital.


Tbilisi: Escape to the Caucasus Mountains

Cities for nature - Tbilisi


There’s plenty to keep any traveler busy in the Georgian capital, but one of the unique aspects of Tbilisi is its proximity to the Caucasus Mountains. While the more remote regions would require a whole day to get up there, you can easily hop on a marshrutka, a mini-bus used as public transportation, and do a day trip up to Kazbegi, one of the most beautiful spots in Georgia.


But the beauty is not just that you can do a day trip to the mountains from Tbilisi, since you can also head south Azeri border towards the steppes and the dusty desert-like mountains around Davit Gareji, or towards the lush green region around Kakheti wine country, or you can even head into the Lower Caucasus mountains around Borjomi and Vardzia. There are so many places you can explore from Tbilisi on hikes and excursions that it makes a great base for those interested in exploring a new city with a few wild tours on the side.


Sofia: Mountains in Reach

Cities for nature - Sofia


Lying on close to the slopes of Mount Vitosha, Sofia is one of Europe’s highest capitals. While the Bulgarian capital itself may be a tapestry of ruins and relics from the Thracians to the Romans and the Ottomans, with monuments left behind from Social Realism, but it’s also the perfect location to explore the Bulgarian countryside.


With more than a third of the country covered by mountains, there’s plenty to check out in Bulgaria when it comes to hiking and nature trails. From Sofia, you can do day trips to the Rila Mountains and the Rila Lakes easily, but you can also stay closer to the capital with hikes up around Mount Vitosha itself.  


Paris: Magical Parks and Gardens

Cities for nature - Paris


Paris has everything you would want from the perfect city break, but if you fancy some nature on your trip, don’t rule Paris out. You’ll find some wonderful parkland in Paris, and if you’re looking for something a bit wilder than a picnic in the Jardin du Luxembourg then you’re in luck.


Parc des Buttes-Chaumont has everything you want from a park, from waterfalls to cliffs and even temples. This former quarry is mostly free from tourists, but it’s one of Paris’s most loved green spots and one of the largest parks in the city. There is also the Bois de Boulogne, a large park founded during Napoleon’s reign, which comes complete with lakes, a zoo and a botanical garden in this large park, and makes the perfect getaway from the chaos of downtown Paris.


Geneva: Lake Geneva and Alpine Scenery

Cities for nature - Geneva


Perched on Lake Geneva, one of the largest lakes in Europe, and surrounded by the Swiss and French Alps, Geneva is the perfect alpine city break destination. You can take a boat across the lake or head up into the Alps for a mountain hike before heading back to the city for some fondue and a spot of culture. You can also explore some of the Swiss and French countryside towns nestled up in the mountains, like Gruyeres or Chamonix to really immerse yourself in the wonderful European countryside.


Lisbon: The Magic of Sintra

Cities for nature - Lisbon


Lisbon undulates over various hills located on the coast line, but while the tiled facades of its downtown houses or the sound of Fado coming out of its taverns are charming in themselves, Lisbon is also the perfect point to escape from the urban world. Only a 40-minute train ride, the town of Sintra lies within easy reach from Rossio Station. Sintra might be famous for its fairy tale castles, like the technicolored Palacio da Pena, which resembles something you’d find in a Disney movie or the Quinta da Regaleira, with its garden full of mysteries, like the inverted tower which descends into an underground labyrinth.


Sintra lies on a leafy network of hills, filled with pine trees and hiking trails. It’s a place where nature and man-made magic come together, and it may even seduce you away from Lisbon for days on end.


Dubrovnik: Croatia’s Magical Islands and Peninsula

Cities for nature - Dubrovnik


Over the years, Dubrovnik has become a popular destination for a city break. It’s easy to see why when you look at the charming terracotta rooftops enclosed inside the historic city walls the come with views of the Adriatic Sea. Not to mention Dubrovnik’s role as a Game of Thrones location has certainly helped the small Croatian city gain popularity in recent years.


There are hundreds of islands off the Croatian coast, and around Dubrovnik, there’s plenty to explore. The isle of Lokrum is the closest to the historic city, about a 15-minute boat ride, and comes populated with trees and parkland. But nearby, you can also pay a visit to the tiny and remote Elafiti Islands loved for their unspoiled nature and untouched beaches.


You can also explore the rugged coastline at Peljesac peninsula, with its vineyards and sleepy villages or the hidden bays of Korcula island. To really get off the beaten track, you can explore the national park of Mljet Island.


Kotor: The Bay of Kotor

Cities for nature - Kotor


Kotor might be a small, historic town that may seem like a dwarf when compared to other European cities like Paris and Rome, or even cities located more nearby, like Dubrovnik and Mostar, or the capital Podgorica. To call Kotor a city is a stretch, but it makes a wonderful escape for a city break, especially for those who love nature. The town lies at the heart of the spectacular Bay of Kotor, where mountains meet the sea. Above the town, a hike will take you up to an old fortress with sweeping views across the stunning Montenegro landscape. Of course, Kotor’s proximity to the sea and mountains makes it an ideal escape for a break where nature takes center stage.


Reykjavik: The Land of Ice and Volcanoes

Cities for nature - Reykjavik


Iceland may live up to its name with icy landscapes, but there is plenty of nature to be found close to the Icelandic capital. If you want to get out of the city and explore the geysers and glaciers of this arctic island, there is plenty to do on a day trip away from this northern Scandinavian city.


Explore the Golden Circle, a looping road running into the southern uplands of the country and back to the capital, home to the Gullfoss Waterfall, the thermal pools and Strokkur waterspout at Geysir, and the tectonic ridge at the Thingvellir National Park. But beyond this stretch, there’s plenty more to explore around Iceland on a city break to Reykjavik. There are also icebergs, lava fields and glaciers and their lakes to explore on a trip to the island.


San Sebastian: Gateway to Spain’s Green North

Cities for nature - San Sebastian


San Sebastian may be one of the best cities in Europe for foodies, but there is more to this Basque city than its culinary scene. Being located up on Spain’s northern coast, you’re worlds away from the arid regions of Central Spain and Andalucia. The northern Spanish coastline is rich in green landscapes, from rocky cliffs to dramatic mountain peaks, and the best thing about San Sebastian is that this lush countryside is only a short drive away from the city.


Get a taste for the Camino de Santiago by walking from San Sebastian to Pasajes de San Juan, a hiking route that takes you along the coast along the Ulía Mountain, through the lush green landscape of the region. Or you can go further afield and hike up to Mount Ernio or explore the Parque Natural de Gorbeia.


Bergen: Fjords and Beyond

Cities for nature - Bergen


If you’re interested in getting out in Nordic nature, then skip Oslo and head over to Bergen for a city break in Norway that brings you closer to nature. The Norwegian countryside is a nature lover's dream, from cascading waterfalls, stunning lakes and mountains and, of course, the unique fjords.


Bergen is surrounded by seven mountains which make it easier for you to escape the city and embark on a walk up into the surrounding forests to reconnect with nature. The most popular are Mount Fløyen, which is easily accessed from the city itself via a funicular railway, or Mount Ulriken, accessible by bus and cable car. The hike up to the top is worth it for sweeping panoramas over the city and the surrounding islands and fjords. The best thing about Bergen is the hiking trails are all easily accessible and suitable for all members of the family, making Bergen one of the best cities for nature!


Cracow: Zakopane and the Tatras

Cities for nature - Zakopane


The historic city of Cracow is worth the visit if you love history and picturesque European towns, but if you’re interested in finding a base that allows you to explore the surrounding countryside, then Cracow is a good choice for you.


It’s easy to get out of Cracow and escape into the Tatra Mountains nearby. Zakopane is popular with locals and visitors alike for nature and landscape. You’ll find charming villages, mountain walks and in the winter it’s also a hub for ski lovers. This mountainous area is perhaps just as popular in the winter as it is in the summer.


However, beyond Zakopane, you can also find six of Polish national parks close to Cracow, where two of them, the Tatry National Park and Babia Gora National Park, are part of the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserves. You can explore the limestone formations in Ojcowski national park or take a walk in the primeval forests in the northern edge of the Carpathian mountains in the Gorce range.


One thing’s for sure is you won’t lack for nature around Krakow on your next city break!


Rome: The Pines of Rome

Cities for nature - Rome


Rome may be one of the best cities in Europe for history, but it’s also a city where you’ll also find lush parkland and green spaces. If you want to merge history with nature, head out into the city’s suburbs towards the Appian Way, one of Rome’s ancient roads. While you’ll find historic relics, such as the catacombs along the way, if you head further out you’ll find it’s a pleasant walk lined with cypress trees and pines that take you away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Rome.


But if you want to stay closer to the city center, then the gardens of the Villa Borghese are ideal for a picnic in the city center. You’ll find a lake and plenty of trees and green spots to relax in. Or you can take a day trip to Hadrian’s Villa or Villa d’Este in Tivoli, just outside Rome for wonderful Italian gardens.


Munich: On the Doorstep of the Alps

Cities for nature - Munich


There is more to Munich than Oktoberfest, especially when this Bavarian city lies on the doorsteps of the German Alps. You can see the mountains surrounding the city, which are easily accessible for a day trip into the alps for a hike or just to enjoy nature. For a day trip further afield for culture and sightseeing, the iconic Neuschwanstein castle can be easily visited. This castle that inspired Disney lies nestled in the Alps even comes with a spectacular waterfall running under Mary’s Bridge opposite King Ludwig II’s fairy tale-esque castle.


Or you can head out to Berchtesgaden, the former retreat for kings, travelers and monks and a place of natural beauty with its alpine landscape and its famous lake, the Königssee, one of Germany’s most beautiful natural spots.


Yerevan: Lake Sevan and Mountain Views

Cities for nature - Yerevan


Armenia’s capital might be a haven of grand Soviet Buildings and quirky modern architecture, but one of the best things about Yerevan is its proximity to Armenia’s most beautiful spots. While you can see Mount Ararat in Turkey from Yerevan, there are other mountains to explore within the country. The region around Lake Sevan is a place of beauty and only an hour away from the city and is a popular day trip. It’s also easy to visit some of the surrounding mountains - take a hike up to Mount Aragats, Armenia’s highest mountain, or head to the rust red gorges around the Noravank Monastery, or north to the lush green Debed Canyon.


Cluj-Napoca: the Heart of Transylvania 

Cities for nature - Cluj Napoca


Romania’s second city is home to some stunning medieval architecture, but it’s also located in the heart of Transylvania, close to various hikes in the mountains and the surrounding countryside. You can explore and take a hike around the Turda gorge or the Tarnita lake. The great thing about Cluj-Napoca is you only need to throw a stone and you’ll find trails, walks and sites out of doors to take advantage of for your next European city breaks.

Cities and nature may feel like contradictory terms. However, if you’re someone who likes to hike or get out in nature while out exploring the best of Europe, it’s easy to merge the two, so check out these best cities for nature to inspire you for your next break.


From cities with large and leafy parks to capitals with abundant nature or mountains on their doorsteps, find out which are the best European cities for nature with a pick of our favorites. So don’t forget to pack a picnic blanket or your hiking boots when exploring the best of Europe!


Jennifer Walker

Created by: Jennifer Walker

Jennifer is a Budapest-based writer with bylines in Condé Nast Traveler, Lonely Planet, The Guardian, The Independent, among others. You can read her work and get in touch at jenniferdeborahwalker.com

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