If you've got wheels, wanderlust and a spot of time, start your engines. From the sunny shores of Portugal to the darkest dungeons of Dracula's castle in Transylvania, the following itineraries can be easily combined, shortened or altered to suit your wayfaring tastes. Here are 10 of the best road trips in Europe.
Spend a night in the medieval village of Bacharach in Riesling wine country, before wandering the riverside streets of Heidelberg. Onward to Nuremberg, and then to Leipzig for a strong dose of hot caffeine with your Cold War history, classical music and cake.
Detour to Dresden, restored after ruinous bombing in WWII, before ending in one of Europe’s coolest cities: the creative paradise of Berlin.
Alternatively, try starting your engines in London and taking the ferry to France, transforming this road trip into a pilgrimage between Europe’s holy trinity of artistic hubs.
Best for: Culture vultures looking for bragging rights.
How long: 1–2 weeks.
Insider tip: If you’re driving in France, you’ll legally need to keep safety equipment (a reflective vest and hazard signal). Additionally, keep spare Euros in your wallet to pay the occasional French road toll on the way.
Trier © S-F/Shutterstock
2. Surf and sun in the Basque and beyond
Begin in Bilbao, where the nearby villages boast some of the world’s best surf, and drive along the Atlantic to San Sebastian: watersports wonderland and foodie heaven. Then venture south through the rugged wilderness of the Pyrenees to Pamplona. Ascend onwards to the Roncesvalles Pass before looping back to the coast. Or continue along the Bay of Biscay to the attractive seaside resort of St-Jean-de-Luz.
Travellers with a little extra money lining their pockets will be happy to spend days lingering on boho beaches in Biarritz, while those looking for gargantuan swell can do no better than the surfer hangouts in Hossegor.
Finish the trip northward in Bordeaux, “the Pearl of the Aquitaine”, where café-strewn boulevards and world-class wines are your trophies at the finish line.
Best for: Sun-seeking surfers and foodies.
How long: 1 week.
Insider tip: Check seasonal surf forecasts before you go, and look into coastal campsites if you're on a budget. The Basque roads beg a convertible – or better yet, a colourful camper van with surfboards strapped to the roof.
Biarritz © Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock
Kick off in the city of Bergen, on Norway’s southwest coast, and make way past mighty fjords to Voss and the colossal Tvindefossen waterfall. Then check the world's longest road tunnel off your to-do list, a cavernous 24.5km route under the mountains.
Catch a quick ferry across the Sognefjord and carry on to the Fjaler valleys, a land of glaciers and snowy mountain peaks, to the waterside towns of Stryn or the mountain village Videster.
After the descent, ferry across the Eresfjord to Molde and Kristiansund. For the final stretch, drive the iconic Atlantic Road with its roller-coaster-style bridges, and conclude with some well-deserved downtime upon the still waters and stilted homes of Trondheim.
Best for: Thrill seekers and landscape junkies.
How long: 3–7 days.
Insider tip: If you plan on road tripping during Norway’s winter months, be sure to check online ahead of time for road closures.
Idyllic nature of Stryn in Norway in springtime © mikolajn/Shutterstock
Take the Transfagarasan mountain road, one of the most incredibly beautiful routes in the world, towards the age-old cities and countless castles of Sibu, Brasov and Sighisoara. Then set course to the unexplored architectural gems of Timisoara.
Carry on towards the tranquil baths and hip ruin pubs of bustling Budapest, and be prepared to stay at least a few days. Depart for Bratislava – a capital full of surprises – from where it's only an hour further to the coffeehouses and eclectic architecture of Vienna.
Best for: Anyone looking for a break from the conventional tourism of western Europe.
How long: 7–12 days.
Insider tip: Exercise caution when driving through tunnels. Though the weather outside may be fine, tunnels are often slippery.
Bran (Darcula) castle in Transilvania, Romania © Kanuman/Shutterstock
5. To Portugal and beyond
Start in Braga, before driving south to the medieval town of Guimarães, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Then it’s onward to the breathtaking "second-city" of Porto, though it's nothing less than first-rate.
Drive east to the vineyards and steep valleys of Penafiel and Amarante before hitting the coastal road to the vast white beaches of Figueira da Foz. From here it’s on to Peniche, Ericeira and then Lisbon: the country's vibrant capital that's on course to beat out Berlin for Europe’s coolest city.
But if you’ve still got itchy feet when you reach Faro, take the ferry from Algeciras in Spain to Morocco. Imagine the satisfaction of parking your ride in the desert village of Merzouga, before exploring the Sahara – that's right, it would feel awesome.
Best for: Beach bums and oenophiles.
How long: At least 10–14 days.
Insider tip: As Portugal is among the more affordable destinations in Western Europe, this can be an especially great trip for travellers on a budget.
Oliveira Square, Guimarães © Patricia Henriques Barros/Shutterstock
6. High-altitude adventure on Germany's Alpine Road
The Alpenstrasse, or Alpine Road, is your ticket to a bonafide Bavarian odyssey: a safe route through the unforgettable vistas of Germany’s high-altitude meadows, mountains, crystal-clear lakes and cosy village restaurants. Start lakeside at Lindau and head to Oberstaufen if you fancy a therapeutic beauty treatment in the country’s “capital of wellness”.
Venture eastwards to the Breitachklamm gorge, where the river Breitach cuts through verdant cliffs and colossal boulders. Carry on to the town of Füssen – famous for its unparalleled violin makers – stopping along the way at any quaint Alpine villages you please. The iconic Neuschwanstein Castle, the same structure that inspired Walt Disney to build his own version for Cinderella, isn’t far off either.
Hit the slopes of Garmisch-Partenkirchen if the season’s right. Stop at Benediktbeuern on your way to the medieval town of Bad Tölz, then up through the stunning wilderness scenes of the Chiemgau Alps before ending in the regional capital of Munich. If you’re missing the mountain roads already, carry on to Salzburg and stop in the ice caves of Werfen on the way.
Best for: Outdoorsy types.
How long: 3–8 days.
Church in Benediktbeuern © FooTToo/Shutterstock
7. Godly beaches and ancient highways in Greece
Start in Athens and take the coastal roads south through the Athenian Riviera to Sounion, situated at the tip the Attic peninsula. Watch a sunset at the Temple of Posseidon, then drive northward through mythic mountains to the fortress of Kórinthos before posting up in the legendary city of Mycenae (home of Homeric heroes).
If you’re craving a luxurious seaside stay, look no further than the resort town of Náfplio. If not, carry onwards through the unforgiving landscapes to Mystra, the cultural and political capital of Byzantium.
Best for: Sun-worshipers, and anyone who’s ever read Homer or watched overly action-packed flicks such as Troy and 300.
How long: 5–10 days, though it’s easy to trim a version of this road trip down to a long weekend.
Nafplio © Olga Kot Photo/Shutterstock
8. London to Edinburgh and the Highlands
Leave the hectic pace of England’s capital behind. Make for Oxford, home of the world’s oldest English-language university, and a place of storied pubs where the likes of J.R.R Tolkien and Lewis Carrol regularly wrote and wet their whistles.
Take the two-and-a-half-hour drive north to Manchester for a city fix and watch a football match, then head to the quirky medieval lanes of York, walled-in by the ancient romans nearly 2000 years ago.
Press on to the Lake District National Park. Drink in the scenery that inspired England’s finest romantics, before making your way past tiny villages to the majestic wonders of Edinburgh. If you’re craving the rugged comforts of the highlands go to Stirling, Inverness, or the Western Isles – worth the drive indeed.
Best for: Locals that want to feel like foreigners, and foreigners that want to feel like locals.
How long: 5–10 days.
View from Catbells looking towards Skiddaw in The Lake District © Michael Conrad/Shutterstock
9. The secret shores of Sicily and Calabria
Get to the island’s heartland and the ancient city of Enna. Surrounded by cliffs on all sides, and built atop a massive hill, you'll feel as though you've walked on the set of Game of Thrones. Head southeast to the shores of the Ionian Sea and dock in Siracusa, once the most important in the western world while under ancient Greek rule with much of its historic architecture intact.
Finish the trip in Messina, or ferry across into the Italian province of Calabria where rustic mountain villages, friendly locals and the idyllic sands of Tropea and Pizzo await – refreshingly void of foreigners.
Best for: Anyone looking for a truly authentic Italian experience, and of course, hardcore foodies.
How long: 6–12 days.
Cefalu © Cezary Wojtkowski/Shutterstock
Top image: Bieszczady mountains, Poland © Milosz_G/Shutterstock
For more information about travelling through Europe, check out The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget.