Europe serves up a feast for hikers – and the menu is dizzyingly extensive and varied.

Sure, there are loftier mountains, deeper canyons, more remote wildernesses to be found elsewhere. But there’s surely no other region that packs this much diversity in such a small area, and with such well-developed infrastructure. Here you can trek around 4,800m-plus peaks or amble for hundreds of kilometres alongside meandering rivers. You can explore highlands snuffled by bears, wolf-prowled woodland, and coasts past which dolphins porpoise. En route you can visit archaeological sites dating back five millennia and more, roam Roman remains, circuit medieval castle walls or trace the remnants of the Iron Curtain. And all set in landscapes ranging from volcanic craters to ancient forests, vine-striped hills to soft-sand shores lapped by the turquoise Mediterranean.

Life’s made easier for hikers here, too, thanks to long-established traditions of walking – or, to put it in local terms, of wandern, randonée, caminando, fotturer and pohodništvo. Europe is criss-crossed by an unrivalled network of trails, many of them well waymarked, and including 12 official E-paths (see below). Excellent maps are available for many countries, along with guidebooks and websites to help you plan and navigate. And in some places, including Norway, Finland, Scotland and Estonia, a longstanding ‘freedom to roam’ principle means that most uncultivated areas are fair game for walkers – you can explore at will, while respecting the land and its owners, of course.

Even in seemingly remote spots you’ll often find a tavern or café where you can refuel on an alphabet of local specialities, from ale to brie to sea bass and more. And at the end of each memorable day, you might bed down in a cheerful mountain refuge, a historic inn, a well-equipped campsite – or, in some areas, pitching your tent wild on a remote hillside, alone but for marmots and memories.

Each country, region, mountain range and season offers a different experience and challenge. Though summer (late June to September) is best for higher mountains, where snow can lie thick on passes for nine months of the year, with a little planning you’ll find somewhere to hike in pretty much every season. So while Alpine foothills are blanketed white, inviting tramps through crisp drifts, it's T-shirt and shorts walking weather in Andalucia and the Canary Islands.

Some routes, of course, are best tackled by those with mountain or wilderness experience, but in all of the regions introduced here you’ll find paths suitable for first-timers, as well as guides or tour operators on hand to help you traverse the trails in safety.

With so much to choose from, trying to pick favourites feels like a fool’s errand. But while acknowledging that no such list can possibly be exhaustive, here are a few of the very best places to hike in Europe.

Europe walking GR route waymarker

Europe's network of Grande Randonées (great hike) footpaths are waymarked with easily-recognisable red and white stripes

What's in a name?

Europe's 12 official "E-paths" are a network of trans-national long-distance paths designated by the European Ramblers Association (www.era-ewv-ferp.com). Some routes span over 10,000km; the E1, for example, stretches from the northern tip of Norway through Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, ending in northern Sicily. Of these E-paths, many sections comprise shorter (but still multi-day) numbered Grande Randonées (great hikes); you’ll see the familiar white and red horizontal stripes of GR routes painted on rocks and trees, mostly in France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands but also elsewhere in Europe.

Europe’s top hiking destinations

Cirque de Gavarnie Pyrenees National Park France

The Cirque de Gavarnie, "the colosseum of nature"

The Pyrenees

The magnificent range separating France from Spain stretches over 400km from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Biscay, where it nudges the Cantabrian mountains. Though its peaks don’t scale the heights reached by the Alps – the tallest is Aneto at 3404m – the massif is a treat for walkers, with numerous waymarked long-distance routes at varying altitudes and levels of challenge, and far fewer feet tramping those trails. It's historically and linguistically diverse – expect to hear not just French and Spanish but also Basque, Catalan, Aragonese, Occitan and Aranese – and bustling with wildlife. Transhumance culture, in which shepherds herd livestock to high meadows for the summer and back down to lower pastures for winter, is alive and well in the region: visit during the migrations in June or October, and you can expect to be serenaded at all hours by clanking cowbells and the bleats of sheep and goats.

Highlights

Arguably the finest of countless spectacular views is the grand rock amphitheatre called the Cirque de Gavarnie, dubbed the “colosseum of nature” by Victor Hugo. Watch for birds of prey, including rare bearded vultures (or lammergeier), soaring above the crags – the best place to spot these striking raptors is in Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park in Aragon; you might also encounter chamois and marmots. Historic highlights include the medieval Romanesque churches of the Vall de Boí in northern Catalonia.

Need to know

There’s a well-developed network of mountain refuges and, typically in towns, gîtes and small hotels, particularly on the French side. Many offer good-value half-board packages, with beds in dorms or simple rooms. Public transport to trailheads is also reasonable, with buses serving many towns and villages, again more comprehensively in France. International access points include airports at Biarritz, Bilbao at the western end, Lourdes for the central region, and Perpignan, Girona and Barcelona near the eastern terminus. Snow lingers on high trails till well into June.

Notable routes

The GR10, snaking along the French (northern) slopes of the Pyrenees, stretches 866km between Hendaye and Banyuls-sur-Mer; it's deservedly popular, with plenty of well-managed gîtes, refuges and hotels along or near the route – though it's wise to book ahead in high summer. The GR11, which follows the range on the Spanish (southern) flanks, is generally higher and tougher; the Haute Route is more challenging still. Several shorter GR and other other waymarked routes cross or run through the range.

Thethi Valley Albania

Albania's Thethi valley

The Balkans

As a result of political tumult, for extended periods in the 20th century swathes of the Balkan Peninsula were off-limits to international hikers. As a result, hiking infrastructure lagged behind most of Western Europe, in terms of waymarked trails and support – but it also meant that traditions and landscapes have been well preserved, particularly in the mountains that dominate much of the region. Today, thanks to improved political stability, economic development and easy access via low-cost airline flights, hiking is increasingly accessible and popular. Several mountain ranges offer spectacular treks, notably the Dinaric Alps stretching from Croatia to northern Albania via Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, and the Rila and Pirin ranges in Bulgaria.

Highlights

Summit the highest peak in the Balkans, 2925m Mt Musala in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains – an achievable day-hike for most. Take a boat across Lake Koman and hike to timeless villages such as Thethi in the Albanian Alps (or Accursed Mountains), with its historic lock-in tower used to thwart violent blood feuds.

Need to know

Levels of infrastructure and hiking-related services vary widely across the region. In Croatia and Bulgaria, for example, you’ll find good local hotels and mountain refuges, with guides and tour operators on hand to support walks. Waymarked trails are being developed in many countries, though detailed maps aren’t always available. Hiking is best from late spring to autumn; snow may block high trails – such as the route to the summit of Mt Korab on the Albanian-North Macedonian border – till mid-June or later. Shepherds’ dogs can be aggressive in remote areas.

Notable routes

The Via Dinarica, an epic ‘mega-trail’ stretching nearly 2000km through the western Balkans from Slovenia to Albania and North Macedonia, has developed since 2010; now largely waymarked, it's the peninsula’s premier route, designed to showcase the region’s diverse heritage and cultures as well as the dramatic landscapes of the Dinaric Alps. The Peaks of the Balkans (www.peaksofthebalkans.com) is a recently signposted 192km circuit through Kosovo, Montenegro and northern Albania.

Douro Valley Portugal

Portugal's wine-producing Douro Valley

Portugal

Mainland Europe’s westernmost nation state is also among its oldest, and stories from its long history seep into every walk – from prehistoric remains and relics of Roman occupation, through the Moorish era and subsequent Christian conquest, maritime heritage linked to the Age of Exploration and the legacy of the Port wine trade. Unsurprisingly in a country with no really high mountains but a hefty coast-to-area ratio – the mainland shore stretches well over 900km – Portugal is best known for littoral walking, with numerous shoreline trails. Yet inland routes, notably through historic Alentejo, along the meanders of the wine-producing Douro Valley and in the wilder reaches of its national and natural parks, are less trodden and arguably more alluring still. Portugal’s Atlantic islands also offer fine hiking, along the levadas (irrigation channels) of vertiginous Madeira and around the Azores’ volcanic craters.

Highlights

Portugal’s only designated national park is Peneda-Gerês, 700 sq km of granite crags, timewarp villages, oak forests and valleys flanking the Spanish border in the far north; its wilder reaches are home to bear, boar, otter and goshawk. The southern coasts of the Algarve and Alentejo regions feature some surprisingly dramatic cliff top walking and delectable seafood – percebes (goose barnacles) are a prized speciality.

Need to know

Portugal is great value for walkers: accommodation, particularly outside Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve’s resorts, is relatively cheap, while food and drink are bargains – you’ll typically pay under a euro for a coffee, not much more for a cold beer, and meals are often huge. Conversely, hiking infrastructure is often less developed than in many other European countries; you’re unlikely to find walkers’ refuges, in part because there’s no real need. With the exception of the islands and the far north, July and August are really too hot for hiking; spring and autumn are better, though northern regions are particularly wet in April.

Notable routes

The Rota Vicentina (rotavicentina.com) comprises twin trails running north from the western Algarve through the Alentejo: the inland Historical Way and – our pick – the 226.5km coastal Fishermen’s Trail, traversing ancient cork-oak woods, wildflower-spangled cliffs and charming fishing villages. Both are blessed with good accommodation en route. Several camino paths head north towards Spain and Santiago; the inland route from Lisbon cuts through the historic Minho region, visiting Porto plus the Roman bridge and magnificent manor houses around Ponte de Lima.

Nationalpark Hohe Tauern Salzburg Austria

Austria's Hohe Tauern National Park

Austrian Tirol

The westernmost finger of Austria, sandwiched between Bavaria and northern Italy, is essentially all mountain – the Tirol (and its westerly neighbour, little Vorarlberg) is a coherent picture of classic Alpine scenery. But not all Alps are the same: the limestone massifs in the north and south provide different experiences from the glacier-clad central mountains, and locals distinguish between 20-odd mini-ranges. One thing they all have in common: they’re laced with well-maintained paths – around 24,000km in total – and feature excellent transport and accommodation, in attractive traditional villages or mountain huts, to make organising multi-day treks a breeze.

Highlights

Austria’s loftiest summit, 3798m Grossglockner, dominates the skyline in Hohe Tauern National Park in far eastern Tirol. The Kaisergebirge (‘Emperor Mountains’) on the Bavarian border northeast of Innsbruck are spectacularly beautiful, with striking rock formations, high forests and postcard-pretty villages.

Need to know

Austria has one of Europe’s most comprehensive networks of mountain huts – 1000 of them – generally very comfortable and with excellent facilities; many are run by the Österreichischer Alpenverein (Austrian Alpine Club; https://alpenverein-austria.at, in German). Innsbruck is the main international transport hub, an attractive city with rail and bus links into the mountains. In summer, ski-lifts carry hikers up to high trails – at a price: costs in Austria are relatively steep.

Notable routes

The Tirol’s flagship long-distance trail is the Adlerweg (Eagle’s Way), a challenging 300km trek between St Anton and St Johann; variant routes allow less-experienced trekkers to bypass the more technical sections. The Stubai Höhenweg is a beautiful 55km, six-day high-level hike between huts perched above the namesake valley south of Innsbruck – not easy, but not technical and accessible to most fit walkers.

Vitsa village Zagoria north western Greece

See old-world Greece in Zagori

Greece

For centuries, walking was an essential aspect of daily life in Greece, linking remote settlements in mountainous regions and islands. Today, ancient kalderimia (cobbled paths) and monopatia (shepherd's or monks' trails) form the basis of many popular trekking routes. Though not especially lofty compared with, say, the Alps – 2,917m Mt Olympus is the country’s highest peak, and a rewarding two- or three-day round hike – much of Greece is beautifully craggy, with many spectacular gorges, and of course rewards walkers with insights into one of Europe’s oldest cultures.

Highlights

The White Mountains of western Crete comprise gleaming limestone peaks and rocks; the most popular route delves through the 16km-long Samaria Gorge. The Zagori region of the Pindus Mountains is an alluring area of stone-built villages, humpback bridges, rocky valleys and lakes, centred around Vikos-Aoos National Park, and encompassing dramatic Vikos Gorge and the ancient monasteries of Meteora. Andros, northernmost of the Cyclades, has developed an excellent network of waymarked trails, winding between traditional rural landscapes and rewarding with far-reaching coastal views.

Need to know

Many old paths, no longer regularly trodden by shepherds or other walkers, are overgrown. Stick to well-used routes, though even these may not be comprehensively signposted. Avoid high summer (June-August) for hiking the islands and the Pelopponnese – it's just too hot. Spring (April-May) and autumn (September-October) are more comfortable, and often cheaper than summer, while many accommodation and eating options close in winter, particularly on the islands.

Notable routes

The 220km Corfu Trail, waymarked with distinctive yellow signs, leads hikers away from the developed coastal resorts into the timeless heart of the island, through venerable olive groves, rocky gorges and karst outcrops. The Menalon Trail in the historic Peloponnese region is a recently created 75km route winding between historic stone villages, gorges (of course), aromatic pine forests and ancient remains.

Lake Misurina Italian Dolomites

Lake Misurina in the Italian Dolomites

The Italian Dolomites

In Italy’s far northeast, soaring limestone shards pierce the sky in jagged pinnacles and ridges reminiscent of the mountains of Patagonia, set ablaze by the setting sun in the characteristic enrosadira or alpenglow. The Dolomites, arguably the most beautiful section of the Alps, has a character distinct from neighbouring massifs in geological, cultural and linguistic terms. Bunkers, trenches and other military remains encountered on high-level trails such as the Kaiserjäger are reminders of clashes along the Austrian front during the First World War, and while in some valleys German rather than Italian predominates, you’ll also hear Ladin, derived from ancient Latin, spoken here and there. Throughout, well-kept trails access high meadows and passes, limpid Alpine lakes, dense pine forests and lofty villages.

Highlights

Tre Cime de Lavaredo (Three Peaks of Lavaredo) comprise possibly the most-photographed scene in the region, with ‘Queen of the Dolomites’ Marmolada a spectacular second. Food is a treat, blending Austrian and Italian influences – the Alta Badia valley in particular is awash with superb cuisine, and its mountain huts (really more or less rustic restaurants on high plateaux) devise special menus each summer to showcase top dishes at bargain prices.

Need to know

Airports at Venice, Verona, Treviso and Innsbruck provide access to the Dolomites. Trains and buses provide reliable, cheap and regular transport across the region, including up to trailheads on road passes, and mountain refuges – usually open mid-June to mid-September – offer simple but comfortable overnight stays on long-distance trails. Peak holiday season in Italy is mid-August, when accommodation is often booked out.

Notable routes

Six waymarked Alta Via (High Route) trails wind roughly north-south through the Dolomites; 120km Alta Via 1 (AV1) is the easiest and most popular, suitable for beginners to long-distance Alpine treks yet showcasing the diverse scenery of the region. At 160km, AV2 is more technical and strenuous, while the other four are more challenging, with extended sections of via ferrata (climbing routes with permanent cables and ladders).

Spain Cares Gorge

Cares Gorge in the Picos de Europa

Spain

Spanning nearly half a million square kilometres – including the volcanic peaks of the Canary Islands, home to the country’s highest mountain, 3718m Mount Teide – it's unsurprising that Spain offers a diverse range of hiking experiences. Top billing inevitably goes to the hugely popular and, at times, over busy Camino de Santiago (the Camino), the pilgrimage route that since the eighth century has led devotees of St James to his namesake city, Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Yet there’s more spectacular (and much quieter) hiking to be found elsewhere: among the gleaming, jagged summits of the Picos de Europa in the north, the almond-blossom-strewn Sierra Nevada in Andalucia, on sun-soaked Mallorca and Menorca, through the canyons of Catalonia – in short, whether you like your walking cooled by mountain winds or sea breezes, there’s a trail to suit.

Highlights

The half-day hike through the vertiginous Cares Gorge in the Picos de Europa must rank as the one of the continent’s finest short walks: spy semi-wild goats, sky-piercing crags, and griffon and bearded vultures soaring above. It's very popular, but worth sharing the trail. The Caldera de Taburiente hike on La Palma – northwesternmost of the Canaries, and reputedly the world’s steepest island – is the pick of the routes on this volcanic speck, laced with hundreds of kilometres of trails.

Need to know

Accommodation in hotels and hostals, food and transport are generally good value in Spain; on pilgrimage routes such as the Camino de Santiago, you can bed down in albergues (simple pilgrim hostels) for a few euros, though you’ll generally need a credencial (‘pilgrim passport’) to qualify. Northern Spain, particularly Galicia, is often wet; the south, notably Andalucia and the islands, tends to be drier, but too hot for hiking in high summer.

Notable routes

The Camino is actually not one path but many; best known is the Camino Frances, stretching nearly 800km west from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port across northern Spain to Santiago – long, busy, but not especially tough. Several other caminos reach the city from various points in France, Spain and Portugal, each with its own appeal. The Alpujarras, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada south of Granada, are studded with alluring villages and reminders of the Moorish era; the GR7 trail, Spain’s first marked long-distance path, traverses this region. The GR11 trail along the Pyrenees is covered in that earlier section, above.

Slovakia Placlive peak Tatras

Mt Plačlivé in the Western Tatras, Slovakia

The Carpathian Mountains

Sweeping in a 1450km-long crescent from the Czech Republic and western Slovakia, the Carpathians skirt southern Poland and curve through southwestern Ukraine and across the middle of Romania to the Serbian border. The range really comprise several fairly discrete mountain groups, each with its owns geological characteristics, highlights and challenges. The High Tatra mountains, on the Polish-Slovakian border, have become known for good-value skiing but are also blessed with well-marked hiking trails and mountain refuges, while Romania’s Făgăraș and Retezat Mountains are wilder and far less visited.

Highlights

Predators still prowl the less-inhabited reaches of the Carpathians. Watch for brown bears ambling through the high valleys of the Western Tatras in Slovakia; you’re also likely to see (and hear) chamois. Bears roam the Piatra Craiului mountains of the Transylvanian Alps in Romania, too, where you might glimpse wolves. Romania’s medieval towns, villages and fortifications, such as Brasov and Bran Castle, add historic interest to hiking.

Need to know

The High Tatras are endowed with excellent (and low-priced) facilities for hikers: ski-lifts access high trails, and comfortable mountain huts provide accommodation and food – ideal for long-distance treks. Many trails are open from mid-June to October only. Krakow is the most convenient airport on the Polish side, with good transport to the mountain hub of Zakopane. In Slovenia, Poprad has an international airport and quick transfers to the trails; Košice is also fairly close. Romania is less well set up – many routes will require forward planning and possibly camping.

Notable routes

Tatranská magistrála is the classic three-day traverse of the High Tatras, a waymarked 49.5km route from Podbanské to Skalnaté ticking the main boxes: jagged peaks, mountain lakes, waterfalls, far-reaching views – plus signposts and comfortable mountain huts. The trek along Romania’s Făgăraș Mountains is a more remote and challenging proposition: to complete the full high-level ridge hike of around 100km, you’ll probably need to camp, though there are some huts and simple refuges at lower levels.

Parc National du Mercantour France

France's Mercantour national park

French Alps

Western Europe’s highest peak, 4808m Mont Blanc, is the centrepiece of the Alps’ westernmost terminus in the Haute-Savoie department, and the focus of one of the continent’s most popular trekking circuits. But there are ample hiking trails to explore in the various national and natural parks that stud the range as it stretches south along the French-Italian border towards the Mediterranean. Throughout, walkers are treated to spectacular Alpine scenery – high meadows, glistening lakes, traditional villages – but, particularly in the southerly parks such as Mercantour, Queyras and Écrins, far fewer visitors.

Highlights

Summiting Mont Blanc involves some technical climbing, but numerous surrounding trails in France, Italy and Switzerland provide dramatic views of the massif and its glaciers and cols. Similarly, a circuit of Mont Viso, beginning in Parc Naturel Régional de Queyras, offers spectacular vistas without the need to tackle its 3841m peak. Farther north, walks in the Parc National de Vanoise, France’s oldest national park, reward with varied perspectives of the namesake glaciers and, if you’re lucky, a big-horned bouquetin (Alpine ibex).

Need to know

Chamonix is the hub for the Mont Blanc region, usually bustling with walkers, climbers and, in winter, skiers. Geneva is the usual access airport for both Chamonix (with good bus links) and Parc National de Vanoise, which can also be reached from Turin. Nice is the gateway to Mercantour. As elsewhere in France, routes are generally marked with white-and-red stripes painted on rocks, and well served with gîtes and refuges; it pays to book accommodation, particularly along the Tour du Mont Blanc, well in advance in summer (when high paths are free from snow), and allow a healthy budget – these areas are relatively expensive.

Notable routes

The 170km Tour du Mont Blanc circuit is by far the region’s most popular route – and with good reason: beginning at Les Houches near Chamonix, and looping through Italy and Switzerland, it provides both spectacular Alpine views and moderately demanding trekking, with plenty of accommodation and fine food en route. Numerous tour operators offer guided or supported trips. The tougher Walker’s Haute Route to Zermatt also begins at Chamonix. Less-tramped alternatives include the five-day, 59km tour of the Vanoise Glaciers in that national park, and the GR58 Tour du Queyras, a 120km circuit in a notably sunny region.

Germany Eisenach thuringia forest

Eisenach, in Germany's Thuringian Forest

The Black Forest

Stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Alps, and with some 200,000km of waymarked trails, ranging from easy strolls alongside rivers – long-distance routes follow both the Moselle and Rhine – to Alpine treks, Germany offers something for walkers of all levels. It has real hiking history, too: the 170km Rennsteig through the Thuringian Forest in central Germany is at least 700 years old. For a rich variety of routes and landscapes, and fewer international visitors than neighbouring Bavaria, head to the southwesternmost state, Baden-Württemberg. The Schwarzwald (Black Forest) is the dense woodland of fairytales, laced with footpaths, but you’ll also find trails around Lake Constance (known in German as Bodensee), and through the craggy karst of the Swabian Jura.

Highlights

Germany’s historic towns and cities add cultural zest to any hiking holiday. Heidelberg is popular for its Baroque 18th-century architecture and romantically ruined castle. Stuttgart, centre of the country’s car industry, is an extraordinarily green city renowned for its wine – between October and March, hopping from one Besenwirtschaft (pop-up wine tavern) to another is a treat. Freiburg, ‘capital’ of the Black Forest, has an Altstadt (Old Town) studded with medieval and baroque architecture. And Baden-Baden’s the place for a post-hike soak in one of its famous spas.

Need to know

The Black Forest in particular is extremely popular with domestic visitors – for summer visits especially, book accommodation (typically hotels, inns, campsites and B&Bs rather than hiking refuges) in advance. Spring, when wildflowers bloom, and autumn, when deciduous and mixed woodlands glow in fall finery, are good alternatives. Basel is the most convenient international hub for the Black Forest, Stuttgart for northern and central regions.

Notable routes

The Westweg, which crosses the Black Forest from Pforzheim in the north to Basel over the southern border in Switzerland, is a relatively gentle 285km trail taking in dramatic gorges, castles, lakes and the region’s highest mountain, the Feldberg. The Albschäferweg (albschaeferweg.de) is another accessible waymarked path, a 157km circuit through the Swabian Jura.

Best places to hike in Europe

Paul Bloomfield

From his base in England's West Country, award-winning writer Paul hikes his local hills in the Cotswolds and Mendips. He's trekked, cycled, run and kayaked on six continents, writing about his adventures for the likes of the Telegraph, The Times, Wanderlust, Lonely Planet, BBC Wildlife and National Geographic Traveller.

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