If you've got wheels, wanderlust and a spot of time, a road trip in Europe offers the chance to see the continent at a more relaxed pace. From the sunny shores of Portugal to the dungeons of Dracula's castle in Transylvania, the following itineraries can be easily combined, shortened or altered to suit your wayfaring tastes. And the great news is that there couldn't be a safer way to travel during Covid-19 (though be sure to check all local regulations before setting off). Here are 9 of the best road trips in Europe.
Planning a road trip to Europe
There are a few pesky details to take care of before hitting the open road, including sorting your car hire (if you're not taking your own wheels) and making sure all your documents are in order. Thankfully, there are plenty of car-rental firms to choose from, with a range of different vehicles – from minis to campervans – to suit every taste and budget. You could even consider renting an electric vehicle to travel with a green conscience. When it comes to the paperwork, be sure to bring your full driving license, insurance documents and European breakdown cover policy number. If you're motoring after Brexit, you may also need a GB sticker, international driving permit and an insurance green card. Check all the details with your car-hire firm before you go.
It is also worth checking exactly what driving equipment is legally required in your road-trip destination: most European countries require you to travel with a reflective jacket, warning triangle and GB sticker, for example, while in France, Germany and Austria a first-aid kit is compulsory. If you need more help with how to plan a European road trip, there's a useful checklist on the RAC website.
1. Paris, France to Berlin, Germany
From the glamour of Paris to the glorious grit of Berlin
Best for: Culture vultures looking for bragging rights.
How long: 1–2 weeks.
Overview: Leaving Paris, cruise through the gentle hills of Champagne and Reims to the quaint capital of Luxembourg City, and explore the small country’s many fairy-tale castles. Trier, Germany’s oldest city, is less than an hour’s drive north-east, where ancient Roman baths and basilicas stand marvellously intact. 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 the ruinous bombing in World War II, before ending in one of Europe’s coolest cities: the creative paradise of Berlin. For a longer trip, start in London and take the ferry or channel tunnel to France, transforming this road trip into a pilgrimage between Europe’s holy trinity of artistic hubs.
Where to stay: Our top picks for staying along this route include the chic Motel One Paris-Porte Dorée in Paris; the family-run, half-timbered Altkölnischer Hof in Bacharach; Hostel Multitude in Leipzig, with its own beer garden; and Moxy Berlin Ostbahnhof in Berlin. All have on-site parking.
Insider tip: If you’re driving in France, you’ll legally need to keep safety equipment in your car (a reflective vest and hazard signal). Additionally, be prepared with a cash or credit card to pay the French road tolls on the way.
Panoramic aerial view of Trier featuring the famous Trierer Dom © S-F/Shutterstock
2. Bilbao, Spain to Bordeaux, France
Surf and sun in the Basque Country and beyond
Best for: Sun-seeking surfers and foodies.
How long: 1 week.
Overview: Begin in Bilbao, where the surrounding beaches boast world-class surf then drive along the Atlantic to San Sebastian: watersports wonderland and foodie heaven. Then venture south through the rugged wilderness of the Pyrenees to Pamplona. Climb 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.
Where to stay: In Bilbao, plump for Apartamentos Naiala; Aldamar in San Sebastian; and Hôtel Madison Saint Jean de Luz in St-Jean-de-Luz. Splash out on Le Regina Biarritz Hotel & Spa in Biarritz, or conserve the pennies at charming Le Relais Du Lac in Hossegor. Bordeaux is full of charming accommodation options, including Golden Tulip Bordeaux Euratlantique and Appartements Place Gambetta - YBH.
Insider tip: Check seasonal surf forecasts before you go, and look into coastal campsites if you're on a budget. The Basque roads beg for a convertible – or a colourful camper van with surfboards strapped to the roof. Or improve your skills by taking a private surf lesson in Basque Country.
Biarritz city and its famous beach © Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock
3. Bergen to Trondheim, Norway
The Arctic fjords
Best for: Thrill seekers and landscape junkies.
How long: 5–7 days.
Overview: Simply put, this Arctic fjords route is one of the best road trips in Europe. 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. Work your way northward to the well-touristed towns of Geiranger, down the death-defying hairpin turns of Trollstigen (literally “The Troll Path”). 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.
Where to stay: Rest your head at Quality Hotel Edvard Grieg or Barfot Apartments in Bergen; cosy and compact Stryn Kaffebar & Vertshus in Stryn or the nearby lakeside villa of Vollsnes Feriehus; and Scandic Solsiden or Sandmoen Bed & Breakfast (with free parking) in Trondheim.
Insider tip: This route is best tackled from late spring to early autumn. If you plan on road tripping during Norway’s winter months, be sure to check online ahead of time for road closures due to snow and ice.
The idyllic surroundings of Stryn in Norway © Mikolajn/Shutterstock
4. Bucharest, Romania to Vienna, Austria
The unexplored east
Best for: Anyone looking for a break from the conventional tourism of western Europe.
How long: 7–12 days.
Overview: Start from Bucharest, travelling northward through the Carpathian mountains to Transylvania, and make a mandatory stop at Bran Castle (claimed to be the old stomping grounds of Dracula himself). Take the Transfagarasan mountain road, one of the most scenic 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 hot springs 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.
Find out why we picked Austria as one of our best places to travel in 2020
Where to stay: As you'd expect from this trio of capitals along one of the stand-out Europe road trip routes, there are heaps of fantastic places to stay in Bucharest, Budapest and Vienna. In Bucharest, there's a clutch of cool boutique hotels: try Novum Aparthotel. In Budapest, splash out (literally, as there's a fantastic spa and wellness centre) at the The Aquincum Hotel Budapest or – if you're watching your cash – book a bright and colourful apartment in the form of Amber Gardenview Studios. When you reach Vienna settle into leafy Boutiquehotel Stadthalle. Naturally, all have parking.
Insider tip: Exercise caution when driving through tunnels. Though the weather outside may be fine, tunnels are often slippery.
Bran (Dracula) castle in Transylvania, Romania © Zamfiroiu Dragos Marian/Shutterstock
5. Braga, Portugal to Merzouga, Morocco
From port to the desert
Best for: Beach bums and oenophiles.
How long: At least 10–14 days.
Overview: 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. Drive south to Sagres, Arrifana and Carrapateira. After soaking up the sun on the picturesque shores of the Algarve, wrap this road trip up in the Mediterranean dreamland otherwise known as Faro. If you’ve still got itchy feet when you reach Faro, take the ferry from nearby 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.
Where to stay: In Porto, bed down at InPatio Guest House for good-value cosy vibes; in Lisbon, check into affordable Residencial Florescente. Try Sunlight House in Faro and Kanz Erremal or, for a real experience, Berber Camp in Merzouga.
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. Take a look at The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, which is filled with information that can help you keep your spending in check.
Saint Tiago Square (Praca Sao Tiago), the main square of Guimaraes, Portugal © zebra0209/Shutterstock
6. Lindau to Munich, Germany
High-altitude adventure on Germany's Alpine Road
Best for: Outdoorsy types.
How long: 5–8 days.
Overview: 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 for 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 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.
Where to stay: If you've got the money, shell out for all-out luxury and serious spa treatments at Allgäu Sonne in Oberstaufen. For something a little bit different, stay at the characterful Hotel Fantasia in Füssen, and when you reach Munich make for the mountain-themed Cocoon Hauptbahnhof, all decked out in stylish woodwork.
Insider tip: Give your road trip an extra purpose and pack your skis or snowboard. Garmisch-Partenkirchen ski season starts early December and ends early May. In the summer months, you can go hiking or climbing instead. Or visit Germany's highest peak - Zugspitze.
Church in Benediktbeuern © FooTToo/Shutterstock
7. Athens to Delphi, Greece
Godly beaches and ancient highways
Best for: Sun-worshippers, 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.
Overview: 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 Poseidon, 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 Mystras, the cultural and political capital of Byzantium. Want more? Then it’s on to Olympia, sporting grounds of the ancients, and the mystic ruins of Delphi. Loop back towards Athens, approaching the city from the north.
Where to stay: There's plenty of fine spots to bed down in Athens – our picks include stylish 18 Micon Str. and InnAthens, with a gorgeous central courtyard (both have private parking). In Náfplio, try Marianna, with exposed stone walls and bags of character; in Mystras, the gorgeous Mazaraki Guesthouse. Near Delphi, plump for the family-run Pan Hotel.
Insider tip: If you’re parking in central Athens keep an eye out for coloured parking spaces – these are reserved for locals, so if you park here you’ll get a ticket.
Aerial view of Nafplio in the summer © Olga Kot Photo/Shutterstock
8. London to Inverness, UK
London, Edinburgh and the Highlands
Best for: Locals that want to feel like foreigners, and foreigners that want to feel like locals.
How long: 5–10 days.
Overview: 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 wet their whistles. If you’ve got the time, it’s a quick drive to the cottages of the Cotswolds. If not, cruise up to Stratford-Upon-Avon, birthplace of Shakespeare. Take the two-and-a-half-hour drive north to Manchester for a city fix and watch a football match. Carry on north to the Lake District National Park. Drink in the scenery that inspired England’s finest romantics, then head across the Yorkshire dales to the quirky medieval lanes of York, founded by the Romans nearly 2000 years ago. From there it's north again 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.
Where to stay: Before your long drive, rest your head in The Hoxton, Shoreditch in London. If you're overnighting in Stratford-Upon-Avon, The Three Gables is a charming half-timbered affair offering apartment accommodation. In Manchester, make for the Mitre Hotel, dating back to 1815; in York, the Churchill Hotel. Edinburgh has a multitude of options in handsome historic buildings – our recommendation is the Grassmarket Hotel. In Inverness, meanwhile, try the Old North Inn Hotel.
Insider tip: Destinations like Stratford-Upon-Avon and York (not to mention London) are true tourist hotspots in the summer. Plan your road trip for spring or autumn and you’ll enjoy the beautiful scenery along with fewer crowds.
Oxford University © Spiroview Inc/Shutterstock
9. Palermo to Messina, Italy
The secret shores of Sicily and Calabria
Best for: Anyone looking for a truly authentic Italian experience, and of course, hardcore foodies.
How long: 6–12 days.
Overview: Hit the gas in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, the biggest historic centre in Italy after Rome and arguably the country’s most chaotic metropolis. Adventure onwards along the Tyrrhenian coast to the golden sands of Cefalù – a great holiday spot for families, with a mellow medieval town centre to boot. 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. Then it’s up to Catania for a trip to molten Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano on the entire European continent. 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 devoid of foreigners.
Where to stay: Start your revs in the city of Palermo, where our top picks are B&B Sant'Agostino, gorgeously decorated with exposed beams and a leafy terrace, and Family Affair, where accommodation is in elegant rooms, many with exposed stonework. In Enna, we suggest Bianko EcoChic; in Siracusa, the sea-view Hotel Posta. Once you've reached Messina, check into the slick Elysium B&B.
Insider tip: Remember that southern Italy can get very hot in July and August. Avoid the heat of the day with a leisurely lunch (go easy on the wine if you’re driving!) and travel in the early morning or evening instead.
Cefalù on a beautiful day with clear skies © Cezary Wojtkowski/Shutterstock
If after reading this article you've been inspired by our road trips in Europe, then please do get in touch. Through our Tailor-Made Trips service, we can create a personal itinerary for the ultimate self-drive trip around Europe.
Top image: Cefalù on a beautiful day with clear skies © Cezary Wojtkowski/Shutterstock