Europe offers a lot of amazing things – classic cities, cultural diversity, famous rivers, Liechtenstein. But many of those who live on the west side of the pond aren’t necessarily aware that Europe also features some of the best hiking in the world.
And maybe the title isn’t entirely clear but these are, in fact, the best long-distance hikes in Europe that we’ve done. Or at least partially done. Of course, we didn’t just choose them randomly. We put a lot of research into finding the best hikes, with the best scenery and the best huts, based on the opinions of all those other avid hikers who’ve come before us.
So, while the great treks of the Nepalese Himalaya, Peruvian Andes and North American Rockies get most of attention when it comes to long-distance hiking, Europe also offers some of the top treks in the world. From the windswept coastal scenery of Portugal to the ancient towns of central Spain to the soaring peaks of the Alps, Europe has the perfect choice for anyone who loves hiking.
There is definitely something to be said for day hiking – having a very attainable goal, smaller backpack, a comfortable night wherever you choose – and some of the best hikes we’ve done started and finished the same day. But there is a completely different mind-frame when tackling a long-distance path.
Mentally, you need both motivation and patience. Physically, you need pacing and endurance. Understanding your personal trekking goals, style and abilities is essential when embarking on one of the world’s great long hikes. But if you manage to find the right balance, choose the right trail and hopefully avoid disastrous weather, your long-distance trek could turn into a life-changing experience.
Of course, choose wrong and it could end up being a painful struggle with you spending much of your time questioning your decisions and cursing those drunken non-refundable mountain hut reservations. It’s the gamble that provides the rush…
The best part of hiking in Europe, though? Almost all of their long-distance treks are either town-to-town or hut-to-hut, meaning a warm meal and comfortable bed every night, plus no need to haul all your food and camping gear on your back. We’ve also done our share of true backpacking (the main option for multi-day hiking in Canada) and certainly have enjoyed it.
But if we have a choice between sleeping in a tent on the hard ground, cooking over a tiny camp stove and shitting in a dank outhouse in the woods (at best) or having a bed, meal, heat and working toilet waiting for us at the end of the day, well, it’s not much of a decision for us.
So, with all the preamble taken care of, here is a list of epic long-distance treks readily accessible in Europe that should be on every hiker’s bucket list.
7 Spectacular Long-Distance Treks in Europe
Tour du Mont Blanc
France / Italy / Switzerland
170 km / 8-12 days / Strenuous
Choosing the world’s best trek is insanely subjective and, frankly, a fool’s game. But no matter the criteria, the “TMB”, as it is typically known, definitely needs to be in the conversation. Sure, the hiking season is short, it gets crazy busy (and seemingly busier every year) and the huts aren’t cheap, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more impressive combination of stunning mountain scenery, beautiful ski towns and classic mountain huts (including Refuge Lac Blanc, where we enjoyed one of the best sunsets we’ve ever seen).
Tracing a neat loop around famous Mont Blanc, the spectacular Tour du Mont Blanc passes through three different countries (France, Italy, Switzerland), a surprising variety of terrains, past both wildlife and livestock, always with incomparable Mont Blanc looming to the side. A true trekking rite of passage.
Walker’s Haute Route
France / Switzerland
200 km / 12-14 days / Very Strenuous
The lesser-known sister of the Tour du Mont Blanc, the Walker’s Haute Route is actually even MORE scenic. Not an easy feat. This is the most recent long-distance European hike we’ve done and probably the most impressive of them all.
We always make ourselves wait awhile before jumping to conclusions and using terms such as “best”, “most beautiful” or “least grimy”. But we’re now around 5 months removed from our time in Switzerland and still looking back in awe (which we typically find much more enjoyable than “in anger”).
Of course, all those gorgeous mountain passes and spectacular viewpoints come at cost. The WHR, as it is often called by those with no time to waste on extra syllables, is tough. Really tough. In fact, it’s probably the hardest trek we’ve ever done.
Sure, hiking at high altitudes in Nepal can be very challenging (and not so comfortable) and some of the ascents and descents on the Alta Via 1 bordered on the absurd, but the Walker’s Haute Route is just way more work.
All those gorgeous mountain passes I mentioned? Yeah, you don’t find them at the end of pleasantly flat valleys. And those spectacular viewpoints? Inevitably the highest spots around. So, yeah, averaging 1,000 metres of elevation gain (and loss, of course), much of it at moderately high altitudes and often on rough, rugged and rocky terrain – turns out it’s pretty hard.
But we’re suckers for amazing scenery so, in the end, lovely WHR, we simply can’t stay mad at you. The huts are pretty amazing, too, especially the unbelievable Cabane de Moiry, boasting an insane ridge-top location right beside an actual glacier.
Alta Via 1
120 km / 8-11 days / Strenuous
Another Alps classic, but one with drastically different terrain and scenery to the TMB and WHR. An exceptional one-way trek through the jaggedly dramatic Dolomites of Northern Italy, the views along the fabulous Alta Via 1 are unlike anywhere else (except maybe Alta Vias 2 through 6). Starting at postcard-pretty Lago di Braies, the Alta Via 1 runs south along the spine of several mountain ranges, passing through, over and around some of the sharpest and most shocking peaks you’ve ever seen.
The Alta Via 1 is much more popular and, in our opinion, better than the other Alta Via routes because it can be done without traversing any “via ferrata”. These assisted climbing routes involve cables and ladders and typically require special equipment. There are a couple of via ferrata sections on the Alta Via 1 (we tackled one of them ourselves) but they can easily be avoided if you’d rather stick to solid ground.
History buffs will find the bevy of World War 1 history and ruins fascinating, and the Alta Via 1 also boasts some of the most luxurious huts in the most gorgeous locations anywhere in the Alps (yes, we’re talking about you, Rifugio Lagazuoi).
Camino de Santiago
Camino Frances: 800 km / 30-40 days / Moderate
Camino del Norte: 800 km / 30 days / Moderate
Camino Primitivo: 320 km / 12-14 days / Moderate
Camino Portuguese: 270 km / 12-14 days / Moderate (coming to a blog near you in April 2023!)
A series of traditional walking pilgrimages starting in various places around Europe, all converging at the religiously significant Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, the Caminos de Santiago offer something completely different from mountain trekking.
A history borne of 1,000 years of pilgrimages, an unparalleled camaraderie of shared purpose and destination, plus village after fascinating, friendly village. Of course, the scenery is pretty fantastic, too (especially on the Camino del Norte along the northern Spanish coastline). It just doesn’t quite compare to the big peaks of the Alps.
No, a Camino de Santiago should be done for the experience, the friendships, the lifestyle, the symbolism of such a classic and historic pilgrimage. Most people start with the Camino Frances, easily the most popular and well-equipped route, but there are many other choices to fit any schedule or style, from the solitude of the Camino Primitivo to the quirkiness of the Camino Portuguese to the legendary prairie landscapes of the Camino de la Plata, along with many more.
225 km / 14 days / Moderate
What would you say to a 2-week hike that can be done any time of year, following some of the most beautiful rocky coastline in Europe, that isn’t particularly difficult, staying in affordable guesthouses and eating delicious Portuguese seafood along the way? Sign me up, should be the answer.
Criminally underrated, the Rota Vicentina features a variety of different trails that run from the Alentejo region of central Portugal all the way down to the Algarve. In our opinion, the Fishermen’s Trail route that sticks to the coast is the most impressive section, although you can also follow the Historical Way inland through a series of classic villages and towns.
The hike can be done in either direction, is manageable even when the rest of Europe has their hiking boots put away for the winter and the Rota Vicentina is blissfully quiet compared to the more well-known treks further north. I suggest you get there before everyone else figures this out, too.
GR7 – Alpujarras
65 km / 5 days / Moderate
Now, to be clear, the entire GR7 (Gran Recorrido 7) actually runs for 1,900 kilometres from Tarifa, Spain to somewhere in France. And it is also part of the E4 long-distance European trail that is over 10,000 kilometres long. Either of which would be fairly challenging hikes, I’d say.
But in this case I’m only suggesting a tiny fraction of those mammoth trails, a 5-day section passing through the lovely Alpujarras region of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in southern Spain. Featuring scenic hills, lush valleys and views all the way to the Mediterranean on a clear day, this is the perfect bite-sized chunk of the GR7 if you don’t happen to have a spare year or two to hike all the way across the continent.
Now, of course, the hiking is great, the terrain impressive, the trail well-maintained and easy to follow. But what really makes the Alpujarras worthy of this list are all the fascinating Moorish villages you pass through (and stay in) along the way. Remnants of a fierce and violent Middle Ages tug-of-war, they are a captivating mix of cultures and architectural styles. They’re also cheap. Switzerland, this ain’t.
The West Highland Way
150 km / 7-8 days / Easy
There’s nothing like strolling across the Scottish Highlands, enjoying the bleak but enticing scenery, occasionally stopping off at local pubs and marvelling any time the sun makes a brief appearance. Nothing like it, mainly because the B&Bs you spend your nights in somehow think it makes sense to do all this walking on the heels of the most unfathomably enormous, rich and greasy breakfasts you’ve ever laid eyes on. Every morning.
Don’t get me wrong, those bacon/sausage/egg/bread/beans/etc/etc feasts are freaking delicious. The British may get a bad rap around the world for their “cuisine” but, let’s face it, they know how to put together a morning meal that will push every organ in your body to the max. In a good way. However, does a Full Scottish make you feel spry and lively and ready to hike for 4-6 hours straight? No. No, it does not.
Regardless, the West Highland Way is one of the most famous of many long-distance hikes in the UK, and for good reason. The scenery is great, the trails well-maintained and not particularly difficult and those B&B ladies, well, they just couldn’t be more welcoming.
Long-Distance Hiking in Europe: Summary
Yes, these are undoubtedly some great hikes. But guess what? There are plenty more, and every time we return to Europe we learn about a few new trails that simply must be added to “the list”. Such as the Tour du Monte Rosa in France, the Slovenian Mountain Trail which we had to cancel due to bad weather last fall and the, oh, dozen or so Austrian hikes we’re considering for this fall.
But, in case it isn’t obvious, having TOO many amazing long-distance hikes to choose from is actually a good problem to have. I mean, you wouldn’t necessarily think that if you saw the trainwreck of a spreadsheet I use to try to pick one but, yeah, overall, we’re happy to be spoiled for choice.
But I’m feeling considerate and won’t subject you to that particular rabbit-hole at the moment. For now, you’ll just have to trust me when I say you can’t go wrong with any of these epic long-distance European treks.
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