Best places to find wildlife in Europe

Svalbard is the best region of Europe for wildlife hands down. You don’t have to look hard for this wildlife – it’s all around you.
– Simon Rowland, from our partner Wildfoot Travel
Europe is the second most densely populated continent in the world, with humans chipping away large swathes of wildlife habitats. But thanks to the diverse landscapes, it’s still easy to see wildlife – if you know where to look. Whales and orca swim in the oceans around the Azores, Canary Islands and Iceland. You can track brown bears and lynx in the Carpathian Mountains, wolves in the French Alps in winter, polar bears in Spitsbergen, and bison in Poland. Bird watching is a European passion, too. Cacophonous seabird colonies hide out in the Faroes, Scotland and Norway, while eagles fly above the Mediterranean mountains. Read our map and highlights to find out where to travel to see European wildlife.

1. Bison

European bison are taller and a little lankier than their famous Yellowstone cousins. They were hunted to extinction by the 1920s, before being swiftly reintroduced with a breeding programme in Bialowieza Forest in Poland. And that’s where they remain: over 600 of them moving slowly through the primeval forest both solo and in huge herds.
Brown bears

2. Brown bears

Eurasian brown bears like deep, dark forests. Over half live in Romania, where the Carpathian Mountains curve through Central and Eastern Europe. You can visit or volunteer at a sanctuary and walk in gothic woods, looking out for bear scat and scratches. You’ll also find small bear populations in the Pyrenees, Alps, Apennines and Pindos Mountains.

3. Dolphins

Dolphins are one of those rare animals that seem to enjoy the company of humans, surfing off the prow of boats in Scotland and approaching swimmers in the Azores. Italy has populations of striped, bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins in the Ligurian Sea between the north-west mainland and Corsica. You can join a research project to help protect the busy marine reserve they live in.
Eagles & vultures

4. Eagles & vultures

White-tailed eagles are the conservation success story of Scotland, reintroduced from extinction in the 1980s. You can also see handsome golden eagles here – you’ll probably hear their eerie cry before seeing their man-sized wingspan glide overhead. Bearded vultures (lammergeier) are making a comeback, too. Head for the Spanish Pyrenees, where 90 percent of pairs in Europe breed.

5. Lynx

Hunting and habitat loss have extinguished lynx in many parts of Europe – but they’ve made a remarkable comeback in recent years. About 50,000 now roam Europe’s forests and mountains, from Finland right down to Turkey. The Iberian lynx is a smaller species that’s faring less well. It’s the world’s most endangered wild cat, secreted away in the forests of Spain and Portugal.
Orca (killer whales)

6. Orca (killer whales)

Orcas slice through the chilly waters of Northern Europe, chasing fish and seals. Although relatively rare when compared with whales, they’re easy to spot thanks to their 1.5m-high dorsal fin. They hunt and swim in close family groups, so we recommend traveling with a guide who can translate their complex behaviours. Sailing with responsible skippers is a must; cruel killer whale “shows” are a must-not.
Polar bears

7. Polar bears

Technically part of Norway, but a surreal world all of its own, the Svalbard archipelago is the realm of the mighty polar bear. The huge seal and seabird colonies here support one of the few stable populations of polar bears in the world, so you have a great chance of seeing them when you go on a cruise from Spitsbergen helmed by captains who can navigate the shifting (and rapidly receding) ice.
Seabird colonies

8. Seabird colonies

Some of the biggest bird colonies in Europe hide away on far-flung islands and steep sea cliffs in northerly seas. The Faroe Islands welcomes millions of migrants in the summer, including Atlantic puffins, European storm petrels, Manx shearwaters, great skuas and black-legged kittiwakes. Across the water, the Scottish Shetland Islands also clamour with spectacular seabird colonies.
Sea turtles

9. Sea turtles

Loggerhead turtles are the symbol of the Greek seas. They glide through the bathtub-warm Mediterranean waters around Greece, nesting on sandy beaches in the Peloponnese, Ionian Islands and Crete. Their hatchlings, when not disoriented by bright lights, make for the sea where a precious few will one day reach adulthood, so protecting these nests and beaches is essential.

10. Whales

Whales feed in the Azores all summer, thanks to the deep, nutrient-rich waters. Blue whales are the first arrivals, but you’ll also get the chance to see fin, humpback and sperm whales, plus pods of frolicking dolphins. Land-based viejos join forces with eagle-eyed boat captains who are passionate about viewing from a respectful distance. Iceland and Svalbard are also great for whale watching.

11. Wolves

There are about 530 wolves in France, mostly found in the south-eastern corner of the French Alps. They’re also one of the most controversial reintroduction projects – conservationists work hard to prevent conflict between wolves and farmers concerned about losing livestock. The best wolf tracking vacations show you both sides of the story. You can also see wolves in Romania and Portugal.

12. Wolverines

You’ll have to get comfy in night hides to catch a glimpse of elusive, nocturnal wolverines. There’s a growing population of about 400 in Finland, and you’ll need to follow an expert guide to see these bear-like animals. Wolverines don’t have retractable claws made of adamantine as per their Marvel namesake, but they are characterful creatures famous for guzzling their food.
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.

Europe wildlife travel tips

Julie Dubois Marshall is Managing Director of our Scotland wildlife cruise specialists St Hilda Sea Adventures. She recommends sailing the Inner Hebrides.

Sail to see wildlife

“My favourite cruise is our complete circumnavigation of the Isle of Mull. It’s beautiful and the wildlife is fantastic. You’ll see basking sharks, dolphins, porpoises, eagles, seals and even minke whales, if you’re lucky. We head around the top of Mull to Lunga, where there’s a puffin colony.”

For peace seekers

“Even in peak tourism season it’s very quiet here. You’ll be alone in the loch at anchor with nobody else around. It gets dark very late here and there are fantastic starry nights. And the sunsets and sunrises – if you can get up that early! – are spectacular.”

What to pack

“I’d recommend that guests bring lots of layers. These are such fantastic trips and really enjoyable if you’re well-equipped. We can get all four seasons in one day, even in the middle of summer, so lots of layers that you can remove as you warm up or replace as you get cold is perfect. I’d also recommend a good pair of binoculars for the wildlife.”
Simon Rowland, Managing Director of our Arctic adventure partner Wildfoot Travel, tells us how to approach Svalbard – his favourite place to see wildlife in Europe.

See Svalbard

“Svalbard is the best region of Europe for wildlife hands down. You don’t have to go far to see wildlife. We came out of the port, and straight away there was a massive feeding frenzy – whales, dolphins, birds… Even when you stay in Longyearbyen, it’s not unusual to see Arctic foxes and some really good birdlife. You don’t have to look hard for this wildlife – it’s all around you.”

Take your time

“Those who are really interested in the wildlife and polar bears will want a little bit more time on board, in which case 11 days is absolutely ideal… On the longer trips, you get up to the far north-east of Spitsbergen – a great opportunity.”

Go for summer

“You’ll see colony birds like guillemots and little auks right the way through. But if you go early on – say, up until mid-July – there’s a very good chance you’ll see all the migratory birds, as well as seeing everything else… The season usually starts in May, but the season for the polar bear runs from June to August.”
Chantel Kyriakopoulou-Beuvink and Dimitra Christidi from our partner Natural Greece share their wildlife highlights of Greece.

Volunteer with turtles

“It’s exciting… Everything you do as a volunteer can contain surprises. It could be that you don’t see much one morning – especially on early morning shifts – or you can see something that you never expected… Maybe you have to move obstacles or a dog has been digging nests and you have to repair and protect the nests again.”

Birding crossroads

“Greece is so important bird-wise, because we’re at the crossroads of three continents – right in the middle of the migratory passage of all the birds that travel from Africa to Europe. And we also get some rarities, because some African species end up in Greece by chance or on purpose.”

Track bears in the Pindos

“The experts who lead these expeditions know where the bears go, their habits, their behaviour, their customs and traditions, and what they do in this environment… It’s responsible wildlife viewing. We are not baiting; we are not harassing the animals in any way. And that means, of course, that nature is unpredictable.”
Captain Charles Wara steers our whale watching and Northern Lights trips in Norway. He shares his tips on what you’ll see in winter.

Which whales?

“You see orca and humpbacks and sometimes fin whales – the second largest whale. The orcas and humpbacks hunt together on some occasions. We can have 15-20 humpbacks, and then twice as many orcas around the boat in shallow areas… We just look for the spouts then we head for where they are, follow a pod for an hour or two until they leave, and then look for the next spouts.”

Hang around for the herring

“It all depends on the herring. If the herring don’t arrive, neither do the whales… Based on last year, there are plenty of whales [from early November] and they leave mid-January. You stay on-board for five days. On 20 November the sun disappears. In December there are perfectly good whale sightings, but because the days are short we don’t run this trip as you’ll spend too much time below deck.”
Lucy and Simon Woollons run our wildlife and walking trips in the Spanish Pyrenees, which you can explore in sun or snow.

Go with guides

“They’re full of enthusiasm and fantastic local knowledge – they know the plants, the wildlife, the geology, the local history. They’ve always got anecdotes to tell. They’ve got all this, and they get it across; people find it fascinating. They’re the kinds of things that you’d never find in the guidebooks.”

Don’t forget winter

“You can’t help but bump into wildlife living where we do. Bearded vultures are a stunning bird. When you’re up high snowshoeing and they glide over you, you can really be quite close to them. And often, the first thing you’re aware of is a huge shadow on the snow and then you look up, and it’s either going to be a griffin vulture or a bearded vulture.”
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tom Bech] [Bison: Francesco Veronesi] [Brown bears: NH53] [Dolphins: caroline legg] [Inner Hebrides: Mike Davison] [Lynx: Zdenek Machacek] [Orca: Bart van meele] [Polar bears: NPS Climate Change Response] [Seabird colonies: David Stewart] [Sea turtles: Tony Hisgett] [Azores: Navin75] [Wolves: Tambako The Jaguar] [Wolverines: Hans Veth] [Julie Marshall tips: Antony Stanley] [Simon Rowland tips: Rob Oo] [Captain Charles Wara tips: Bart van meele]