Imagine the wind in your hair, the open road ahead, and the freedom to explore at your own pace. Embark on a road trip through Europe’s diverse landscapes, where adventure awaits at every corner.
In the age of satnav, many travellers miss the best routes. No satnav EVER announces: “Take the longer route because the views are great.”
But a driving experience can often be the best bit of any adventure holiday. Imagine driving over a great mountain pass to see a breathtaking sunny seascape open up on the other side.
That’s why road trips are all the rage in Europe – it’s a chance to enjoy the simple freedom of the road at your own pace.
And road trips can offer some of the continent’s easiest, cheapest and most memorable holiday adventures. We’ve picked a selection of the best.
Atlantic Road, Norway
Norway’s west coast is a fabulous sequence of fiords, islands and mountains linked by a typically Scandinavian money-no-object network of modern bridges, tunnels and ferries.
The best bet is the 350km stretch linking the pretty art-deco seafront town of Alesund with the fiord-side cathedral city of Trondheim.
The highlight is the 8.5km Kristiansund to Bud section – now designated a National Tourist Route. It’s a road that is a travel destination in its own right.
You’ll twist from wild rocky shores to tiny wooden fishing villages on a series of mountainous North Atlantic islands. The star turn, literally, is Storseisundbrua, an amazing bridge that curves in mid-span to allow full-size boats to sail underneath. Dare you drive it in a storm when waves break right over the bridge?
The Wales Coastal Way
Drive past medieval castles towering above the Irish Sea and tiny stone harbours lined by fishermen’s cottages. This great 290km route runs along Wales’ west coast, around the shores of Cardigan Bay from the remote whitewashed village of Aberdaron on the Llyn Peninsula down to the tiny cathedral town of St Davids nestled among trees in Pembrokeshire.
It’s one of Britain’s least-known coastlines and a chance to enjoy long sandy beaches, fascinating relics of mining history and lingering sunrises over mountainous horizons. Highlights include the Italian pastiche village of Portmeirion, Aberaeron’s rows of pastel-painted harbourside houses and the wild windswept rocky headlands of Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.
The Adriatic Highway
Here’s a chance to relive that classic Mediterranean coastal drive from the movies. The film stars are probably in an Alfa Spider or open-top Mercedes, but even if you’re in a hired Hyundai hatchback, it’s a memorable motoring experience.
You’ll drive around parched white cliffs, overhanging figs and oleanders with a sparkling turquoise sea below. It’s part of the rather unromantically named E65, which runs down the east of the Adriatic from Italy to Greece, via Albania, whose “roads” are not recommended for cars with normal suspension.
Recently a European tourism committee decided to christen this marathon route “The Adriatic Highway” to cash in on the craze for road-based tourism. Ignore most of the route but concentrate on the most scenic bit for a holiday (and the best quality road). This central bit is pure scenic joy and runs through Croatia, with a short 20km section through Bosnia with minimal border checks.
From the resort of Rijeka, the road that locals call “Jadranska Magistrala”, twists from about 530km round headlands above beaches with a panorama of islands and glistening sea to end up at the world-class walled waterfront city of Dubrovnik. It’s a perfect Bond/Hepburn finale.
Wild Atlantic Way
From the daunting Cliffs of Moher to the empty sands of Sligo, Ireland’s west coast offers one of Europe’s most inspiring driving adventures. Tourist chiefs are now promoting it as “The Wild Atlantic Way” – a motoring marathon of 2000km.
That’s one of the world’s longest coastal road trip routes – so most visitors choose shorter sections for holidays.
Whether you try the bracing seascapes of the north, with Atlantic breakers crashing on to mountainous cliffs, or lush green shores of the south, where white cottages hug the twisting shoreline, you’re guaranteed a relaxed potter around a coast dotted with friendly bars and glorious views.
The Appian Way
How about driving past crumbling 2000-year-old aqueducts, villas and temples on roads first laid for chariots? Following “the world’s first highway” from Rome to Brindisi is like driving yourself through a history documentary.
“Via Appia” was built by imperial magistrate Appius Claudius in 300BC to cover the 560km from the capital of the Roman Empire to the vital port link to Greece and the Middle East. This is the road that was once famously lined with 6000 crucified followers of the escaped slave Spartacus.
Drive it with a good history guide to hand, a simple carved roadside milestone often turns out to be thousands of years old.
One stretch is still Europe’s longest straight - it runs like a compass needle for 62km to the coastal resort of Terracina. When you get there, drivers find this busy little seaside town has an unlikely claim to fame. Terracina has the world’s first bypass – you can still drive the loop outside the town built so charioteers could avoid the busy market square. Of course, the ancient bypass has now been bypassed itself – by a modern dual-carriageway.
The Via offers a fascinating sunny drive through rural Italy largely unknown by tourists and punctuated by ancient ruins, sleepy towns (always with great pizzerias) and dusty olive farms stretching to the horizon.
At Brindisi, an imposing 20m Roman column officially marks the end of Via Appia. You’d have to be pretty daft not to realise it’s the end - if you went any further you’d topple off the harbour into the Adriatic.
North Coast 500
Following the wiggling inlets and headlands of the north Scotland coast is a strangely hypnotic way to spend a holiday. It winds on and on, round green moors, under Highland peaks and round gorgeous misty lochs for an epic 500 miles (805km). You’ll discover everything from deserted fiord-like scenery to kilt-wearing bagpipe players entertaining the visitors at an old clan castle.
The marathon circuit starts and ends in Inverness and has quickly become Scotland’s most popular road trip. The map shows it following A-roads all the way – but note that in this part of the UK, A-roads mean single-carriageway winding roads with occasional passing places. Don’t expect to travel hundreds of miles a day.
Never mind, there will be wonderful slow-travel views of scenery and seascapes, the romantic outlines of Hebridean and Orkney Islands on the horizon, and, if you fancy a wee dram, a chance to pop into some of the world’s most acclaimed whisky distilleries.
Millau Viaduct Route
Wherever you drive through rural France you are almost guaranteed an amazing experience. It just goes on forever and you realise how big France is. But this one stretch makes a scenic highlight of any drive, say, from Paris to the Riviera.
The A75 motorway crosses the Tarn Valley via the world’s tallest road bridge. Millau is a dizzying 343m high and its support pillars are taller than the Eiffel Tower. Often you drive above the clouds.
From the roadway, it’s hard to fully appreciate. So take a circuit from the picturesque town of Millau. Cross the bridge, then drive a scenic loop through charming villages like Saint-Rome-de-Cernon, passing back under the bridge. It’s even more impressive from below.
Amalfi Coast Road
One of Europe’s best-known and most Instagrammed stretches of road clings to the jagged cliffs between Naples and Salerno in southwest Italy. Officials call it the SS163 - everyone else calls it the Amalfi Coast Road.
It’s around 100km of pure Italia, from the chaotic traffic and peeling Renaissance palaces of Naples, via the foothills of the smouldering Vesuvius volcano and the ruins of Pompeii. You’ll see Emperor Tiberius’ retreat on Capri just offshore and potter through the flower-bedecked town of Sorrento.
Then twist carefully on a road clinging to cliffs around headlands with olive and almond trees clinging to rocks above and the sun-sparkled Mediterranean below. Villages like Amalfi, Positano and Ravello are ridiculously attractive pastel-painted visions, tumbling down clefts in the cliffs to tiny harbours.
The only problem with the gasp-worthy views is they’re so distracting. Don’t let the driver stare – it’s a precipitous sequence of hairpin bends with sheer drops to the sea below.
Mourne Coastal Road
Let’s finish with one that’s definitely not one of Europe’s glamorous film-star drives. Instead, the Mourne Coastal Road is a new creation to bring travellers to a little-known area of eastern Northern Ireland.
You have to follow special brown road signs from the capital Belfast into the wild Ards Peninsula and then on to the old country market town of Newry.
The best part of the 160km route is definitely around the green teeth of the Mourne Mountains. These enigmatic misty peaks have a romantic appeal that has attracted poets, painters and ballad writers for centuries. It’s inspiring for drivers too – the winding shore road is so close to the waves it often leaves sea spray across your windscreen.