Top 10 European road trip routes to get off the tourist trail
Consider taking the traditional American road trip recipe to Europe the next time you travel there. Traveling by car in Europe is a fantastic way to get off the main route and explore tiny villages, unique food, and friendly inhabitants. And there will undoubtedly be a plethora of roadside attractions (just maybe not a giant ball of twine). Here are some of the finest Europe road trips to whet your appetite for adventure:
1. Romantic Road, Germany
The Romantic Road, also known as the Romantische Strasse in German, is one of Germany’s most well-known roads. This is due to the fact that it provides tourists with a taste of everything that makes the nation idyllic: vineyards and the palace in Wurzburg, ancient villages like Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and the towering Alps and fairytale-like Neuschwanstein Castle near Fussen. Whatever your travel interests are, there is something for you along or just off the Romantic Road, from spa towns to walled villages.
- Length: About 240 miles.
- Best Detour: From the southern-most point of the Romantic Road in Fussen, Germany’s highest peak, Zugspitze, is about an hour away.
- Don’t Forget: Rothenburg ob der Tauber is home to the Kathe Wohlfahrt headquarters. Save room in your luggage for typical German holiday decor, like wooden incense smokers and handmade ornaments.
2. Bordeaux, France to Bilbao, Spain
For foodies, the journey from Biarritz to Bilbao between France and Spain is jam-packed with Michelin-starred restaurants (many of which are on the 2016 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list) and enough cuisine diversity to satisfy even the pickiest visitor.
Begin in the Bordeaux vineyards with a wine tasting session at Maison du Vin de Bordeaux before touring the city center, which is included on the UNESCO World Heritage list. In Biarritz, it’s all about the beaches, such as Cote des Basques, with the backdrop of Villa Belza, a 19th-century castle. Dine at the well regarded Elkano in Getaria, near San Sebastian. Finish the tour with pintxos at Irrintzi in Bilbao.
- Length: About 208 miles.
- Best Detour: Axpe, Spain, is only about 20 minutes south from Durango off the main road between San Sebastian and Bilbao, but it’s worth it for a stop at Asador Etxebarri, where Basque barbeque meets ingredients from the sea in an unassuming village.
- Don’t Forget: Make reservations in advance for restaurant heavy-hitters like Mugaritz in San Sebastian (Spain), or L’Impertinent in Biarritz (France).
3. Normandy, France
For history enthusiasts, the Normandy shore, most known for its involvement in the D-Day landings, is a must-see. Begin your journey at Etretat with a walk along the white chalky cliffs, which provide views of natural sea arches. The seaside villages of Hornfleur and Trouville-sur-Mer, in particular, are worth a visit.
From this direction, Juno Beach is the first of the Operation Overlord beaches you’ll hit. About 50 miles of coastline separate it from Utah Beach. Other sobering points of interest include the artificial quays seen at low tide in Arromanches, the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, and enormous shell craters at Pointe du Hoc.
Continue the trip on a more light-hearted note to Mont St. Michel (beware: tourist crowds are no joke) before heading inland to the tiny town of Camembert to sample its the famed cheese of the same name. Finish the trip in Monet’s Giverny.
- Length: About 430 miles.
- Best Detour: Cross into Brittany from Normandy for a visit to St. Malo, about an hour from Mont St. Michel. The walled-in town was once a port for privateers and is now a short ferry ride from the Channel Islands.
- Don’t Forget: In addition to cheese, the region is known for its cider and calvados, or apple brandy. If you don’t drive by a roadside stand or two, you may be in the wrong place.
4. Trollstigen National Tourist Route, Norway
Also known as the Troll’s Route, this mountain road, designated as one of Norway’s national tourist routes, affords drivers with views of mountains, waterfalls like the Seven Sisters, and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Geirangerfjord.
Like any road trip, this one is best when you get out and explore the areas of the drive between Valldalen and Andalsnes. Get up close to the area’s waterfalls by kayaking Geirangerfjord. There are also several historic fjord farms, including Skagefla and Knivsfla.
- Length: About 65 miles.
- Best Detour: Dovrefjell-Sundalsfjella National Park, a protected alpine area, is home to reindeer, musk ox, and wolverines. Hiking and fishing, particularly for trout, are good reasons to stop.
- Don’t Forget: Consider traveling in summer as you’ll have more daylight, which means more time to explore.
5. High Alpine Road, Austria
The Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse, or High Alpine Road, takes drivers through Hohe Tauren National Park in the eastern Alps with views of Austria’s highest mountain, Grossglockner, as well as Pasterze, the longest glacier in the country at about five miles.
Beyond the 36 hairpin turns, you’ll want to get out of the car for a hike to any of the alpine huts dotting the landscape, or go further into the national park for hikes like the easy five-mile round-trip trail to Stappitzer Lake.
- Length: About 30 miles, or about 185 miles from Salzburg to Carinthia via Grossglockner.
- Best Detour: From Grossglockner, it’s only about 2.5 hours onward to picturesque towns in the Dolomites, like Cortina d’ Ampezzo, or Bled, Slovenia, bordering Triglav National Park.
- Don’t Forget: The road closes in early November and reopens in early May, with gates closing at nighttime during the season. Tickets cost 35 euro for a day pass or 41 euro round-trip per car. Electric vehicles and motorcycles receive a discount.
6. Athens to Olympia, Greece
While Greece’s islands are generally the center of attention when it comes to vacations, the mainland is ideal for countryside cruising. Begin at Athens, where you may visit the ruins (Acropolis, Parthenon, Temple of Hephaestus, etc.) before heading to the Laconia countryside.
Visit Sparta, the current city that is thought to be the location of ancient Sparta, if only to pass through on your route to Mystras. The archeological monument of medieval remains is set in a beautiful environment and is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Before returning to Athens, stop in Olympia to see the temple remains and the ancient Olympic Games.
- Length: About 420 miles.
- Best Detour: To add more seaside to your trip, head south to Cape Matapan (also known as Cape Tainaron), the southernmost point of mainland Greece. The drive is just over 60 miles from either Mystras or Sparta.
- Don’t Forget: The Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil in Sparta is worth a stop for lovers of the Mediterranean fruit.
7. Tuscany, Italy
Begin with a trip to Florence before loading up the car and driving into the Tuscan countryside. Orvieto, a hilltop town famed for its Gothic cathedral, cave network, and Classico wine, is the first stop. Park your car for free at the bottom of the hill and walk up to the old village.
Make a circle of the journey by seeing some of Italy’s less-visited coastal locations, beginning with Talamone, a tiny fishing hamlet with an antique castle towering over it. The beaches at Marina di Grosseto and the Riserva Naturale Scarlino in Follonica are well worth a visit from there. Look for farmhouse lodgings in the region because it is famed for its agriturismo. Return to Florence, stopping at Siena and Castellina in Chianti.
- Length: About 340 miles.
- Best Detour: Rome is less than 80 miles from Orvieto. As they say, when in (almost) Rome …
- Don’t Forget: The unleaded gasoline in Italy is benzina verde. Don’t use gasolio or diesel unless you have a diesel rental car.
8. Ring of Kerry, Ireland
Any time of year, the Irish countryside is a wonderful location for a road trip. The Ring of Kerry, a road that circles the Iveragh Peninsula, offers a range of scenery, including mountains, medieval villages, beaches, and lakes. The chiseled coastline provides stunning vistas, and small taverns along the road are ideal for stopping in for a pint and waiting out any severe weather. (Of course, don’t drink and drive.)
Visit Ross Castle and Rossbeigh Beach while walking along a section of the Kerry Way, a roughly 125-mile walking route. Make your vacation more relaxing by staying an additional night at one of the area’s bed & breakfasts, which are well-known for their friendliness.
- Length: About 110 miles (add 80 miles for the drive from Shannon Airport to Killarney).
- Best Detour: The Cliffs of Moher are about 115 miles north of Killarney. The cliffs stretch five miles and tower more than 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. From here, you can drive more of the Wild Atlantic Way to extend your trip.
- Don’t Forget: Ireland is known for its unpredictable weather. Pack a raincoat and know that while the drive will inevitably be beautiful, you may not get crystal clear views for miles out to sea.
9. Transfagarasan Mountain Road/Highway, Romania
Romania’s national route 7C, or Transfagarasan Mountain Road, was made famous by Top Gear and winds through the Fagaras Mountains, which are part of the Carpathian range. To accommodate for the hairpin curves and steep hills, the top speed is 25 miles per hour.
You’ll pass through the Arges River canyon and through Poenari Castle, which is famed for its link to Vlad the Impaler, as you cross viaducts and drive through tunnels (the supposed inspiration for Count Dracula). Stay on 7C around Vidraru Lake since it is more maintained than the road on the other side. Check road conditions before embarking on your journey, as the route is generally blocked from October to June.
- Length: About 56 miles.
- Best Detour: Bran Castle, commonly called Dracula’s Castle, is just over 60 miles from Cartisoara, at the northern point of the Transfagarasan Mountain Road. Add 10 extra miles if you head to Bran from the southern point of the road in Bascov.
- Don’t Forget: Splurge on a rental car upgrade. Why not?
10. Ring Road, Iceland
Route 1 surrounds the whole nation of Iceland, earning it the moniker “Ring Road.” For most visitors traveling into Iceland, starting and finishing in Reykjavik makes sense. Allow plenty of time to stop and explore the varied alien scenery and stunning fjords, such as Eyjafjordur.
Volcanically active areas with lava fields, geysers, mud pools, and other geothermal phenomena around Lake Myvatn in the north contrast sharply with the Vatnajokull ice cap in the southeast, lending credence to the name Iceland. Thingvellir National Park (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) towards the west, right off Route 1, presents another aspect of the islands, with rugged outcrops and vegetation around Viking traces.
- Length: About 830 miles.
- Best Detour: The so-called Diamond Circle is about a 160-mile loop in the northern part of the country. Some of that overlaps Route 1, but get off it to see the coastal town of Husavik, canyon of Asbyrgi, and Dettifoss waterfall.
- Don’t Forget: Rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle so you can tackle any spontaneous trips off the main road.