6 epic European road trips for the perfect summer holiday
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The American road trip may be iconic, but the winding, scenic roads of Europe are perfect for adventurous motorists, too.
Because Europe has such a solid transportation network of high-speed trains and low-cost air carriers, driving around the continent is often overlooked by visitors. But travellers who rent a car and hit the road will be rewarded with stunning views and can leisurely pull over to explore tiny villages that don’t have train stops or airports.
Moving around in your own vehicle can also offer additional flexibility you might not have when travelling by train, plane or bus — if you’re looking to explore off the beaten track this is a great reason to consider plotting out a road trip holiday.
Another advantage of the great European road trip? Driving distances between landmarks (and even countries) are generally much shorter than what you’d expect to find in countries such as the United States, Canada or Australia, meaning you can cruise past a variety of landscapes and cross-national borders in no time at all. So, grab your car and get ready to hit the road.
1. Northern Spain
Start off with a day exploring Madrid‘s expansive art triangle followed by an evening of sampling the city’s delicious tapas. Most locals flee the summer heat of the Spanish capital, so you may find the busiest attractions delightfully void of crowds (though hot — so prepare accordingly).
The following morning, head north in your car hire on the A-1 toward Burgos, where you can visit the town’s cathedral (it dates back to the 13th century) before moving on to Santander. Inhale the salty smell of the sea as you meander past the 20th-century Palacio de la Magdalena and enjoy panoramic coastal views.
Continue west through the region of Asturias and take a few days to “pueblo-hop,” stopping overnight at quaint seaside villages like Cudillero and Llanes. Here, explore hidden beaches and indulge in local favourites like sidra (a crisp cider), savoury Asturian cheeses and fabada asturiana (white bean stew). Don’t miss the pink monastery and Enol lakes at Covadonga. You’ll have to navigate steep mountain roads to get there, but it’s worth the white-knuckle driving.
Then, stop and relax at one of Asturias’ most famous beaches, Playa del Silencio. As its name suggests, this is an incredibly tranquil spot to unwind after a day of driving, though it does see more action in the summer months. Plan to park your car and trek down to the beach on foot.
End your drive in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where you can purchase fresh fish at the Mercado de Abastos. Carry the fish over to the adjacent restaurant where they’ll grill up your purchase for just a few euros.
2. The Netherlands
Amsterdam is a city you could spend forever in (don’t forget to eat at Mediamatic Eten, a vegan restaurant with private, socially-distanced greenhouses for diners), but the rest of the Netherlands is sorely underrated. Decorated with windmills, tranquil canals and inviting Dutch villages, a scenic road trip in the Netherlands is best spent visiting a few key cities and taking a series of short day trips.
From Amsterdam, for example, you can drive a half-hour west, to Haarlem, where you can experience 15 to 16 hours of daylight in the summer — lots of time to see the sights (don’t miss the towering St. Bavo Church). And the traditional fishing village of Volendam, with its colourful wooden houses, is a relaxing place to spend a day.
The drive down to Rotterdam, a city that suddenly seems to be on everyone’s radar, takes just over an hour. With a district actually named Cool, new, architecturally stunning buildings and free art galleries seem to be appearing at a dizzying rate. The city is best discovered via bike.
Day trips from Rotterdam include the beaches of Scheveningen (don’t forget to stop in The Hague, too), Leiden — home to the Netherland’s oldest university and where painter Rembrandt was born — Delft, where you can shop for traditional blue-and-white-pottery and Kinderdijk, known for its 18th-century windmills.
Turn around and head northeast to Utrecht to explore the Kasteel de Haar (the country’s largest castle). Continue pushing eastward to De Hoge Veluwe National Park, which has diverse landscapes ranging from thick woods to dusty sand drifts. Travellers can continue as far north as Hunebedden, Amsterdam’s own version of Stonehenge, which features 54 prehistoric stone graves.
End your trip where the Dutch take their holidays — the island of Texel, where you’ll likely spot animals including seals and roughly 100 species of birds. You’ll have to ride a ferry to reach this Dutch Wadden island, but you can bring your car along for the ride.
3. Southern and Western Ireland
Start your Ireland adventure by taking a tour of the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. Then, cruise south to the green, rolling hills of Wicklow for a night or two. (On the agenda: a visit to Wicklow National Park, the monastic settlements in nearby Glendalough and one of Ireland’s largest waterfalls, Powerscourt.)
Next, visit the medieval town of Kilkenny for a night. Visit the eponymous castle and walk the Medieval Mile, an entire mile of historical sites. Another highlight? The surprising stained glass at the Black Abbey.
Cork is the next stop, and once you’ve kissed the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle, feed the ducks at The Lough, shop the Old English Market and stargaze at the castle-turned-observatory, Blackrock Castle.
Continue on along the Ring of Kerry, a 111-mile-long drive that takes you through the Irish countryside’s ancient castles that look like they’re plucked straight from “Game of Thrones”, and rugged Atlantic cliffs.
If you’re tired of seeing things from the car window, get out and bike part of the way. Travellers with extra time can also tack on a visit to the island of Valentia in Kerry, which is linked to the mainland (you can’t beat the views here), or continue straight on to Killarney to see the famous Ross Castle and Killarney National Park.
End your road trip in Shannon — hopefully with enough time for a day trip to see the famous Cliffs of Moher. Aviation enthusiasts can pay a visit to the Atlantic AirVenture, which has an interactive flight simulator and an aviation museum.
Related: 9 of the best beaches in Ireland
4. Eastern and Southern Sicily
Fly into Catania, pick up your rental car and head south (don’t worry, you’ll get to Taormina later). Start by visiting the tiny peninsula of Ortigia, a mini-island off of Syracuse. The island’s Medieval charm with the sparkling Ionian Sea as a backdrop is a photographer’s dream. Pay a visit to the Maniace castle and citadel that dates back to 1232. Don’t forget to stop at the market to admire all the Sicilian produce (make sure to pick up some fresh pistachios).
Your next stop should be the famous Baroque towns in the Val di Noto: Noto, Ragusa, Modica and Scicli. Deemed UNESCO World Heritage sites for their Baroque architecture, these towns are exceptionally beautiful, with buildings carved into cliffsides or perched on hilltops. Noto has the most to do, so it’s best to stay there, and use day trips to explore the other villages. Don’t forget to visit Caffe Sicilia in Noto — you may recognise the bakery’s cannolis and renowned granita from the Netflix foodie show Chef’s Table. Sampling the chocolate in Modica is also a must — it’s said to be made from an ancient recipe.
Then, backtrack up north of Catania to visit the famed volcano Mount Etna. Hikers should have the best weather conditions between March and September. If possible, head up in the morning before the afternoon clouds roll in. Wine tasting on the island of Sicily should go without saying. Make sure to sample Nero D’Avola, Sicilian Nebbiolo and Marsala (a fortified wine) varieties.
Finish out your Sicily adventure with a trip to Taormina. Make sure to see the ancient Teatro Antico and ride the cable car up for impressive views of the city and sea. A visit to the pebbled beach of Isola Bella, a tiny nearby island, should also be ticked off before heading back to Catania.
5. The South of France
Start by sampling the famed wines of Bordeaux at the riverside La Cité du Vin wine museum, complete with an outdoor picnic area, tasting rooms, a wine store and interactive experiences. The area, which is usually busy with tourists during harvest season in autumn, may feel a little calmer during summer.
From Bordeaux, drive eastward to the picturesque wine town of Saint-Émilion. Here, you can walk to several wine chateaux for tastings and tours. It’s easy to wander around the quaint city centre on foot.
France has plenty of natural wonders, and the Parc Naturel Régional des Causses du Quercy may be one of the most impressive. Explore the forests and hills of this area by bike or on horseback, and don’t miss the Pech Merle cave. Stay overnight in the medieval village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, which clings to limestone cliffs and overlooks the Vallée du Lot (consider the village-view Hotel Le St Cirq or a private guesthouse).
After you check out, head south and stop for lunch in Toulouse, then drive until you reach the walled city of Carcassonne. The city walls alone have 52 towers, so plan to spend a couple of nights here — there’s quite a bit to discover.
Rent bikes and ride along the Canal du Midi, taking along a picnic lunch. Plan an afternoon visit by car to the village of Lastours, just a short drive north of Carcassonne, where you can walk up the hill to explore the quartet of castles (the Belvédère viewpoint is exceptional).
Driving east and then north will take you to Avignon (remember the Picasso painting?), a beautiful city perched on the Rhône. The ruins of its most famous bridge span half the river.
End your trip along the French Riviera in a sophisticated beach town like Nice or St Tropez. The beaches of Cavalaire-sur-Mer or the fishing village of Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer are slightly less intimidating than the fancier, more well-known French beaches.
6. West Portugal
Start by spending the day in the underrated city of Porto, wandering the crumbling, tiled buildings and weaving, hilly streets. Cross the famous Dom Luís I Bridge from Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia to sample wine at some of the city’s most famous Port wineries like Sandeman and Cálem. There’s also a cable car on this side of the river for those that want to rest their legs or enjoy panoramic riverside views.
The next day, drive south to Aveiro, a town known for its Art Nouveau and famed canals. Visitors can enjoy these quaint bodies of water in peace without the crowds and high prices of other canal cities like Venice or Amsterdam. Make sure to hop a ride in a moliceiro, a colourful boat that cruises down the canals.
Next, head inland to visit Coimbra, a town known for its baroque library and medieval history that sits upon the Mondego River. Make sure to stroll through the town’s ornate Botanical Gardens.
Slightly further southwest, enjoy a bit of nature by hiking, walking and biking through the Serra da Lousã, a wooded, hilly area with natural highlights like waterfalls and stone villages known as schist villages. These one-of-a-kind tiny towns are built into mountainsides and on hilltops using a special kind of rock (schist).
Finally, head down to the country’s capital of Lisbon, where you can return your car and explore the city on foot, metro and of course, via the famous 28 tram. It’s best to take the tram up to the Sao Jorge castle to skip the uphill walk and then walk back down, stopping for those famous Portuguese tarts or a refreshing glass of Vinho Verde along the way. And don’t miss a visit to the Torre de Belem, a stone tower that overlooks the ocean known as the gateway to Lisbon.
European car hire tips before booking
- Book and pay for your car hire with a credit card that offers car hire insurance such as The Platinum Card from American Express which offers theft, damage and liability insurance. However, read all the fine print before booking to make sure you fully understand the rules and any exclusions in regard to the coverage. The Amex Platinum card also offers elite status in a few car rental loyalty programmes such as Avis and Hertz, which leads to the next point.
- Sign up for your car rental agency’s loyalty programme before reserving your vehicle in order to earn points and additional rewards.
- Consider using a credit card that offers additional points for car hire. The British Airways American Express Premium Plus Credit Card will earn you 1.5 British Airways Avios £1 spent on car hire — the highest of any card available in the U.K.
European car hire tips before driving
- Before pulling out of the car park, ask the rental agency for information about the country’s toll system (and how to pay) and for information about any unusual signage.
- Make sure you’re driving on the correct side of the road and brush up on roundabout rules.
- Watch for speeding cameras. Some TPG staff members and readers have reported exorbitant tickets in countries such as Spain and France.
If you’re on the hunt for an adventurous, socially distanced summer holiday, consider a European road trip. Cruising through the South of France’s vineyards, Ireland’s rolling hills or northern Spain’s villages make for memorable holidays. Plus, the beauty of a road trip is that you can stop whenever you want, making spontaneous summer memories along the way.
(Featured image by Dougal Waters/Getty Images)
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