Bear watching is exhilarating and a popular dream for many nature lovers, and you can do it in Europe. In fact, there are more bears in European countries than in North American wildlife. The European brown bear is native to the continent and is widespread across mountains, forests, and national parks. Polar bears also venture into the northern regions of the European wilderness.
There are an estimated 22,000 wild bears in Europe: at least 17,000 brown bears and 6,000 polar bears. Numbers are increasing across the continent along with wild wolves, lynx, and wolverine populations. A European rewilding initiative has been in place across Europe for several decades. Guillaume Chapron, from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, says the following in regards to this environmental movement:
“The European model shows that people and predators can coexist in the same landscapes… I do not mean that it is a peaceful, loving coexistence; there are always problems. But…it is possible to share the landscape with larger predators.”
So, where can you see bears in Europe? We’ve done the research and picked out the best destinations for bear-watching in the wild. Pack your bags, and your camera, we’re going on an adventure!
Finland, Lakelands and Kainuu
Finland’s wilderness is recognized as the best place in Europe to see wild brown bears, the low Lakeland region in the south in particular. Here you’re almost guaranteed a bear sighting and will be surrounded by the natural, serene beauty of the Lakelands. The summer months are the best time to sight the brown bear as they forage and breed.
The Kainuu forests in the east of Finland are also a honeypot for brown bears, along with other incredible wildlife. This sparsely-populated region has big open skies and snow-dusted landscapes bordering Russian pines and firs.
Brown bears are a solid part of the Finnish world. In fact, the brown bear is Finland’s national animal. So go explore this Narnia world in real life, and discover Finland’s bear population.
Greece’s northern mountainous region is home to at least 500 bears roaming wild and free. The Pindos mountains are a surprising destination for Greece, and home to some of the most dangerous animals in Greece. There are peaks of over 2.000 meters, glacial lakes, pristine alpine meadows, and rare flora and fauna, including bears.
For the best chance of spotting wild bears, you need to head to the wilderness of the greater Kastoria area. There is a fantastic tour with Callisto where you can join experts and conservationists for several days, tracking wild bears and visiting this lesser-visited corner of Greece.
Within these mountains is a bear sanctuary at Nymfaio. This organization is a shelter where orphan wild bears and rescued bears are kept, rehabilitated, and cared for.
Romania, Carpathian Mountains
Romania’s Piatra Craiului National Park, in the picturesque Carpathian Mountains, is a great place to go for bear watching in the wild. The wild Carpathian mountains are a 1,500-kilometre-long arc running through Central and Eastern Europe, stretching from the Czech Republic to the Iron Gates on the River Danube in Romania. Much of the area is covered by virgin forest, a perfect habitat for wild wolves, lynx, and brown bears.
As you hike through the lofty peaks of the Carpathian Mountains and the Transylvania region, you’ll be transfixed by the mysterious landscapes. It’s no surprise where Bram Stoker’s inspiration came from for the iconic Dracula novel. The deep gorges and dense pine forests hide an underworld of animals lurking in the shadows.
Romania offers some of the most accessible bear watching opportunities across Europe. Almost half the European bear population is recorded here. So keep your eyes peeled when exploring the famous Bran Castle, best known as the residence of Count Dracula.
Italy, Abruzzo National Park
There is a small population of the Marsican brown bear in Italy’s Abruzzo National Park. This subspecies of the more populous Eurasian brown bear is in great need of protection as numbers are critically endangered. There are no more than 60 individuals left across a patchwork of national and regional parks, villages, and farmland, with most found in the Abruzzo National Park, in central Italy.
Despite the rarity of these bears in Italy, there are three ways that you could see them:
- Book a bear watching and hiking tour. These typically begin before sunset, the expert guides will take you to the best places within the Abruzzo National Park and the Apennine mountains.
- Visit the Marsican Bear Museum & Colle Veduta Nature Reserve. You can learn about the local landscape history, conservation efforts, and see rescued brown bears in the nature reserve.
- Check out the Visitor Centre Pescasseroli. This center is all about the rehabilitation of wildlife. They have brown bears, wolves, lynx, and other native animals in Italy.
Norway, Svalbard Island
Svalbard is a truly special destination. It may not be the easiest place to get, but if you don’t mind a few connecting flights you’ll find yourself in the true arctic wilderness. This Norwegian archipelago is one of the wildest and most exciting travel locations on Earth, located between mainland Norway and the Arctic, and it also happens to be the best place in the world to view polar bears.
Polar bear sightings in this region are seasonal, so if you are planning a trip make sure you factor this in. The polar bears in Europe move south from the Arctic Circle in the summer months, following the prey. Some also venture into Greenland and Iceland.
There are an estimated 3,000 polar bears in Svalbard. The islands of Kong Karls Land have the largest concentration of these incredible animals, however, there is no public access here. It’s important to remember that polar bears are more aggressive and unpredictable than the shy European brown bear. If you are fortunate enough to see a polar bear (or any other dangerous animals in Norway) in the Norweigan wilderness, be sure to give it plenty of space.
Estonia, Alutaguse Forest
Estonia is a good place to visit if you want to see brown bears in the wild. The stunning woodlands have the highest density of bears anywhere in Europe. So while Estonia might not be the most well-known European travel destination, the 700 bears found within a very small patch of the country could be the reason to come for a trip.
Fall is the best season to spot bears in the wild. The end of the summer sun brings perfectly ripened berries, a bear’s favorite snack in anticipation of winter hibernation. During this time, bears don’t roam as far as they make the final preparations for winter.
One of the most magical times to see bears in Estonia is during “The White Nights“. The long daylight hours in late Spring/early Summer make it possible to sight bears and the cubs into the night. There are several other dangerous animals in Estonia, hiding in the depths of the Alutaguse Forest, such as wolves, lynx, and wild boar.
Spain, Cantabrian Mountains
The Cantabrian Mountains are rough, rugged, and wild – the perfect habitat for bears making a den and living in peace. Fuentes del Narcea Natural Park is the best place to see bears in Spain. This natural park is located in the northern region of Spain and is part of a protected biosphere landscape.
Brown bears used to roam freely across the whole Iberian Peninsula of Spain. However, due to extreme poaching in the early 20th century, the brown bear population decreased drastically and those remaining retreated to the highest peaks, avoiding human activity as best as they can. Population figures from 2007 suggest there are between 120-140 bears across the Northern mountains in Spain.
Fortunately, the Cantabrian brown bears are now recognized as a nearly extinct species by the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. In Spain, there is a maximum fine of €300,000 for killing a bear based on this information and following a ban on hunting of the species in 1973. There are some expert-guided tours in Spain to guide you through the mountains, this is the best way to see bears in Europe.