Wildlife in Europe travel guide

Wildlife vacations in Europe are only as good as their guides – and luckily, our trips are headed up by some of the best. Marine biologists reveal the mysterious lives of blue whales in the Azores, while salty skippers sail to puffin colonies in Scotland. Conservationists explain how they track lynx and record data in the Carpathian Mountains. And in the Norwegian Arctic, nature photographers calmly advise how to compose your shot of a polar bear scratching out an itch on the ice.
Whale watching tours are helping to scupper the whaling industry in Iceland. Seeing polar bears in their shrinking icy realms, meanwhile, is a poignant and motivating call to action.
You’ll see the extraordinary challenges that European wildlife face – and the extraordinary projects that these challenges have inspired. Jeep tours head deep into the last primeval forest in Poland – now home to hundreds of reintroduced bison. Wolves are back in rewilded abandoned land in Portugal. And thanks to reforestation efforts in the Cairngorms, the Scottish Highlands has more forest cover now than it’s had in a century.

Keep reading our guide to wildlife in Europe to find out more.

Types of wildlife vacations in Europe

Small ship cruises

The best way to see marine wildlife in Europe is to hop on a cruise. Small ships are key: they can explore skinny Scottish lochs and dock at tiny Greek turtle bays that big cruise ships can’t reach. That means peace and quiet for you and the animals – after all, the aim of our wildlife watching tours in Europe is always to disturb them as little as possible. The largest ships only carry around 120 passengers, and some have strengthened hulls built for exploring Iceland and the icy Arctic to seek out orcas, polar bears and belugas.

Volunteering

Volunteering is the best way to engage with the varied challenges that European wildlife faces – whether that’s helping out at a bear sanctuary in Romania or going on a turtle conservation vacation in the Peloponnese. Your vacation will work closely with local teams and make sure your skills are being put to the best use, plus it’ll help fund some amazing local projects. These are often family-friendly vacations. Children will have fun learning how to unblock baby turtles’ path towards the sea and older kids may enjoy mucking in with chopping up meat for the bears’ breakfast.

Photography trips

Patience is a virtue on a wildlife photography vacation in Europe. Lie in wait with your finger on the shutter button for bearded vultures in the Spanish Pyrenees or whales and puffins in Iceland and the Faroes. Amid the stillness and with top-rated guides, you’ll immerse yourself in the details of the environment. Curiosity piqued? Find out about our top 10 wildlife photography tours in Europe.

Small group vs tailor made

Most wildlife tours in Europe are small group vacations – all the more eyes for spotting animals with. You’ll follow a set itinerary steered by pro guides, and travel with a group of 6-25 people who are as excited about the polar bear sniffing around your hull or Dalmatian pelican ruffling its feathers as you are. Small ship cruises to the Arctic welcome the greatest passenger numbers – around 120 on an Arctic expedition ship – and inspire instant camaraderie. You’ll break off into smaller groups for Zodiac boat trips and hiking excursions.
Tailor made wildlife tours have a recommended itinerary that can be adapted to your likes, budget, group numbers – and children’s attention spans. They’re also great for wildlife afficionados who have a check-list. While no one can guarantee viewings, your guide will tweak your itinerary to give you the best chance of spying your wish list species.
Accommodation, transfers and some meals will be booked for you on both small group and tailor made vacations. You’ll also be matched with guides who are often conservationists or experts in the animals you’re looking for.
Martin Royle, from our partner Royle Safaris, explains the perks of traveling with a local guide: “A guide will know the recent movements of animals. Sometimes subtle changes in weather and local conditions can affect the movements and habits of wildlife. A local guide will be aware of these changes and adapt the plan accordingly. It is often very hard to keep abreast of these small movements and recent sightings of animals if you are just in the area for a few days.”

Our top Europe wildlife Vacation

Whale watching in the Azores

Whale watching in the Azores

Classic whale watching trip in the Azores archipelago

From £610 7 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This trip can be tailor made to start on any day of the week from March to October
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Europe wildlife or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Quick facts

What is the largest animal in Europe?

The blue whale, which at 26m long and 190,000kg is also the largest animal ever to have existed on our planet. You can see them flip their flukes in the Azores, Canary Islands and Iceland. The biggest land mammals are the 3m-tall European bison, followed by the polar bears of northern Norway and Russia.

What are the Big Five animals of Europe?

Bison, wolf, brown bear, wolverine and lynx are often said to be the European equivalent of the African safari’s “Big Five”. But what about orca and whales? Or polar bears? Or the endangered Mediterranean monk seal and regal eagles? Although it’s useful to have an idea of animals to look out for, we’re not big believers in only aiming for the headliners. Lesser-known animals are often the ones that surprise and charm you the most.

Are there any predators in Europe?

Humans! We’ve impacted European wildlife the most, hunting species like great auks and Pyrenean ibex to extinction. Polar bears are the next most powerful predators in Europe, as well as killer whales, bears, lynx, grey wolves and birds of prey. Whether it’s their keen sense of smell (polar bears can sniff out seals from over 30km away) or hunting together (in the case of grey wolves and orca), they’re all finely tuned to catch their prey.

What animals are only found in Europe?

Over 70 mammals are only found in Europe – or “endemic”. They range from tiny Sardinian long-eared bats that have to be seen to be believed to endangered Iberian lynx and Mediterranean monk seals. Islands are especially prone to endemic bird species, such as the navy chaffinches of the Canaries and Scottish crossbills.
There are around 200 endemic fish species, including Atlantic herring (a favourite of orca and fish and chip shops) and European conger eels that lurk under seaside piers. Around 56 amphibian species are endemic; they’re mostly found sunbathing in Southern Europe. Natterjack toads hunker down in moorlands, toxic fire salamanders warn you off with their neon prints, and a range of region-specific crested newts could pass as mini dinosaurs. The hikers among us at Responsible Travel know to watch out for venomous adders snoozing in our grassy English chalklands in summer too.

Where is the best place in Europe for wildlife?

It all depends on what you’re looking for. Whales feed in the wide Atlantic Ocean of the Azores, Canaries, Iceland, Scotland and Arctic. You’ll also find enormous seabird colonies up north. Like their North American cousins, brown bears and lynx favour mountainous forests and clover meadows found in the Carpathians, Alps and Pyrenees. Bison are also forest dwelling; the biggest herd is in Poland. Polar bears hunt seals and dig dens in deep snow, so you’ll find them in the Norwegian and Russian Arctic. Sea turtles and endangered monk seals, meanwhile, need the warmer waters of the Greek Islands and Peloponnese. Read more about what wildlife you can see where in Europe.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tom Bech] [Small ship cruise: Davide Cantelli] [Small group vs. tailor made: Mathieu Ramus] [Blue whale: Gregory Smith ] [Iberian lynx: Frank Vassen]