10 of the Best Road Trips in Europe to Add to Your Bucket List
Having a car lets you stop where and when you want, letting you find those out-of-the-way spots that make a trip especially memorable. My personal favorite way to do a road trip is to spend time at a destination, and then add a drive to the itinerary for a day or two. Perhaps you would like to focus your entire vacation on the drive, spending a night or two in each place before moving on to the next.
Before you go, there are a few practical things to know. The major car rental companies (Avis, Hertz, and Budget) generally have pickup offices at airports, near train stations, and in some city locations. You can also use Auto Europe for help selecting a rental company. Be sure to reserve the car in advance.
Most European cars have manual transmissions, but automatics are available at a higher cost, which is probably worth it. Unless you’re very comfortable shifting, you don’t need another thing to think about as you navigate unfamiliar roads. This is especially true in the U.K., where cars are right-hand drive and you ride on the opposite side of the road. Adding a manual shift to that mix is too much to handle for most of our brains.
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Be sure to check if you need an International Drivers Permit (IDP) before you leave. You will of course need your state-issued driver’s license and passport, but many countries also require the IDP. It’s also a good idea to double-check your rental car coverage with your insurance and credit card company, and to consider accepting insurance from the rental company at additional cost.
Driving in Europe has gotten easier with the advent of GPS devices and phone apps. You no longer have to depend on unwieldy paper maps, although they are helpful for getting an overview of your route and noting the next big cities along the way.
Google Maps, Waze, Here We Go, and others are useful in guiding you, and maps can be downloaded offline for convenience. If there are concerns about internet availability, data charges, or phone battery life, you can always rent GPS with the car or take along a separate GPS device, making sure the specific country information is downloaded before you leave.
Here are a few ideas to get you started with planning your own European road trip. The itineraries can be extended with a few days at either end (or somewhere in the middle), and several can be done in a day or two from major European cities.
Berlin to Munich, Germany
This is your chance to drive the famous Autobahn, making the one-way trip in about six hours — depending on your speed, of course. Heading south out of Berlin on A-10, you can drive straight through or stop along the way.
Contrary to popular opinion, there are speed limits in certain zones, and they are displayed on electronic signs that can be adjusted based on traffic or weather. In other places, speed limits are just suggestions. Stay to the right — the left lane is mainly for passing. Your signal to get out of the way of a faster car will probably be that car hovering on your rear bumper and flashing headlights.
Leipzig would be a good halfway point and an ideal place to spend the night. Historic and home to art, music, and culture, it’s a blend of old and new with great food as well. Spend at least a day in Munich, Bavaria’s capital, exploring its historic buildings, restaurants, and beer gardens. For your return trip, consider a scenic route heading north along A-13 and A-93 with a stop in Dresden, home to art museums and old town, reconstructed after World War II bombing.
Be sure to spend a few days in Berlin, Germany’s capital, at either end of your trip. A visit to the remains of the infamous Berlin Wall and the 18th-century Brandenburg Gate should be on your itinerary.
Edinburgh to Inverness, Scotland
Spend a few days in Edinburgh absorbing the history, exploring the ancient streets, walking up to the iconic Edinburgh Castle at the top of the Royal Mile, and taking in Holyrood Park and its highest point Arthur’s Seat for a stunning view of the city. When it’s time to set out for your drive across the Scottish Highlands, you’ll be on Route M-9 and A-82 heading northwest across green hills, rocky peaks, enjoying waterfalls and streams on your way to Fort William.
On the way, you’ll pass Helix Park and the Kelpies, the largest horse sculptures in the world, and after about three to four hours, you’ll be in Fort William, looking up at Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. It’s time for lunch and some warm Cullen skink, Scotland’s famous fish soup, at one of the town’s restaurants or cafes.
Next head for Inverness, taking Route A-82 along the eastern edge of Loch Ness. Allow nearly two hours for this part of your trip. You’ll want photos of the picturesque scenery, and you also want to be ready to snap one in case Nessie should show her head.
You’ll want to spend some time in Inverness before heading back to Edinburgh or on to your next adventure in Scotland.
Paris to Strasbourg and the Alsace Wine Route
After a few days in Paris, a drive through the countryside could be a nice change, if you can tear yourself away from the Eiffel Tower views and morning croissants. If you have time for a two or three-day trip, consider spending a night in or near Strasbourg before touring the wine country. The actual drive time between Paris and Strasbourg is around five or six hours, but you’ll want to stop along the way in both directions, especially if you include the Alsace Wine Route.
About two hours east of Paris on Route A-4, you’ll get to Reims, known for its magnificent Gothic cathedral as well as for its role as the center of France’s Champagne region. After another two hours or so of driving, you’ll arrive in the city of Metz, also home to a stunning cathedral, Saint-Etienne, one of the tallest Gothic buildings in Europe. Strasbourg is still around three hours away, so if you’ve driven enough for one day, you have your choice of lodging in this lovely city situated along the Moselle and Seille Rivers. A relaxing dinner and a walk along the river would be perfect after a day on the road.
On to Strasbourg the next day and a trip down all or part of the winery route. Explore vineyards, medieval chateaux, and quaint villages. Before heading back to Paris, especially after a day in wine country, you may want to continue your Alsace experience with a restful night in historic and charming Colmar. With an early start the next morning, you can be back in Paris after five to six hours of drive time.
Barcelona to Malaga, Spain
From Barcelona, the plan here is to head south along the coast. After an hour or two of enjoying views of the Mediterranean and stopping to take a photo or two, you’ll get to the port city of Tarragona. Roman ruins are among the attractions, including a second century amphitheater, Roman tombs, and the remains of the Forum. It’s also a great stop for its beaches, seafood restaurants, and medieval Old Town.
From there, continue south on AP-7, passing through medieval towns that will beckon you to stop, look, take in the sights, and of course take plenty of photos. Peniscola is known for its 13th-century castle which played an important role in Christianity for many years. The walled city offers steep streets and stunning coastal views from its high point above the beaches.
Your next stop will probably be Valencia, the perfect halfway point and a fascinating place to spend the night. After a day of medieval towns, Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences with its futuristic buildings and displays will be an amazing contrast. There’s a lot to explore, both old and new, and Valencia is the place to dine on its famous paella.
From Valencia, A-92 takes you inland from the coast and on to beautiful Granada, known for its medieval and Moorish architecture, including the stunning Alhambra. It’s just a few more miles to Malaga, with its beaches and blend of Renaissance, Moorish, and modern architecture.
Palermo to Siracusa, Sicily, Italy
After enjoying Palermo’s cuisine, art, architecture, history, and people, you’ll want to head eastward along the northern coast of Sicily on Route A-20 towards Messina, the closest point to the mainland of Italy. On the way, stop in the beach town of Cefalu, just an hour away. If the weather is warm, it’s a great place for a dip in the Mediterranean, and if you’re hungry, you’ll find pizza, pasta, and more at one of the cafes overlooking the beach.
From Cefalu, you’ll enjoy unsurpassed views of the Mediterranean, and you’ll arrive in Messina after about two hours of driving. Take some time to explore the ancient city, and note its cathedral and unique bell tower, said to be the largest astronomical clock in the world. Seafood is the specialty in this city bordered by the Mediterranean and Ionian seas, so if it’s mealtime, enjoy some fresh fish.
One more hour of driving will take you to Taormina, hilltop city with views of the sea, cobblestone streets, and a welcoming place to rest for the night. Stop for cannoli or gelato and then stroll along the Corso with the locals on their evening passeggiatta and watch Mt. Etna sending smoke into the sky. In the morning, explore the ancient Greek theater, still used for concerts and events.
From Taormina, head south on A-18 for an hour to the city of Catania, location of the area’s main airport. The ancient port city has much to see, and it’s worth exploring if there’s time. Another drive of about an hour will take you to Siracusa, with thousands of years of history, Greek ruins, medieval buildings, and the lovely island of Ortygia, where I suggest you stay. This will allow you to experience its magnificent Piazza Duomo at night, sip a prosecco, and relax after a day on the road.
A few reminders… You’ll undoubtedly encounter drivers who want to go faster than you. Move to the right to let them pass when you see them approaching or get their signal. Also, parking in these towns is difficult or impossible, but most have parking garages on their outskirts where you can leave your car and taxi to your destination.
Amsterdam, Netherlands to Brugge, Belgium
This could be a day trip from Amsterdam after you’ve strolled along the canals, feasted on cheese, stroopwafels, and poffertjes, and managed to avoid getting run over by a bicycle. Or you might want to go on from Brugge to explore other cities in Belgium. The three and a half hour drive along the coastal route takes about an hour longer than the inland route which I would suggest for the return trip, if your plan is to end up back in Amsterdam.
From Amsterdam, take A-4 South towards Den Haag, The Hague, home of the Dutch Parliament, the United Nations’ International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Court. Set on the North Sea, the city offers several museums and landmarks dating to the 11th century.
The next main city along the way is Middelburg, founded in about the 9th century and once an important trading port. The city has been restored to its original style after bombing during World War II.
If your final destination is Brugge, you’ll want to spend a few days exploring the city of canals, history, and medieval buildings. Its background includes evidence ancient Roman settlements and Viking invasions before its settlement in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Stay and explore or head back to Amsterdam on A-27 and E-19, about a three-hour drive.
London to Cape Cornwall, England
This straight through drive should take about six hours, so it’s not a turn-around day trip. With stops for photos, meals, and enjoying the scenery, it will be a full day of driving, so plan to spend at least a day or two in the Cornwall area.
Besides, there’s a lot to see on what has been called the Cornish Riviera. Heading southwest on A-303 and then A-30, you’ll end on the tip of the peninsula with hundreds of beaches, quaint villages, and towns with appealing names like St. Ives, Mousehole, Penzance, Lands End, Porthgwarra, said to be even more attractive than their names.
Decide where you want to stay, and then settle in to explore this historic part of Britain. Walk part of the 630 mile long South West Coast Path, England’s longest footpath, bordering the coast of Devon and Cornwall. See a show at the open air Minack Theater, high on the cliffs above the Atlantic. Visit the castles that include Pendennis Castle, built by King Henry VIII to protect Cornwall. Enjoy fresh seafood at one of the many fishing villages, and explore the history of the area dating back to the Stone Age.
Lisbon to Estoril, Portugal
Increasingly popular with good reason, Lisbon is the starting point for this day trip to another coastal city. After you’ve visited Lisbon’s museums, walked its hills, explored its Roman and Moorish history, and listened to its traditional fado music, you’ll want to see more of Portugal with Lisbon as your home base.
This road trip takes you inland on A-5, paralleling Portugal’s southern coast until it reaches Estoril. The drive is less than an hour, but you’ll probably stop as you pass through towns along the way. In Estoril, you’ll find picturesque beaches, restaurants, bars, and the Estoril Casino, one of the largest in Europe.
Nearby is the fishing town of Cascais, also a popular tourist destination with beaches, historic buildings, and elegant 19th-century architecture. Both Estoril and Cascais can be explored during your day trip visit.
For the drive back to Lisbon, consider taking a different route for a bit of variety. This one takes you inland a little further but adds only about fifteen minutes to the trip. Drive north on A-5 and then east on IC-19 for a circular drive to Lisbon in time for dinner and another entertaining evening in Portugal’s capital.
Killarney to Dingle, Ireland
The lovely town of Killarney is the perfect blend of history, city, and nature, with lodging that ranges from quaint guesthouses to luxury five-star hotels. Killarney National Park, Ireland’s oldest and a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is lush, green, and enchanting. You’ll want to spend a few days exploring Killarney’s historic castles and museums.
From there, it’s about a two-hour drive west to the coastal town of Dingle on R-563 and R-561. This small port town offers rugged scenery, friendly pubs, fresh seafood, and the starting point for one of Ireland’s most interesting and beautiful drives — the Dingle Peninsula.
Parts of the Star Wars movie “The Last Jedi” were filmed there, and the drive is lined with historic monuments, partial stone houses, and remnants of Bronze Age settlers and medieval buildings. The drive is about thirty miles, and after the trip from Killarney and the Dingle Peninsula drive, you’ll want to relax with a night in one of the charming town’s hotels or guesthouses. And perhaps enjoy a pint at a local pub.
Heading back to Killarney, if that’s your plan, could be done on a slightly different route, taking N-86 north towards Tralee (definitely worth a stop for lunch and a look around) and then south to Killarney on N-22. The trip should take less than two hours driving time. (Keep in mind the right-hand-drive cars and driving on the opposite side of the road.)
Vienna to Graz, Austria
This day trip will take less than three hours of drive time, and there are a few routes to choose from with Vienna as your starting point. There’s so much to do in Austria’s capital with its legacy of music and art. Palaces, museums, concerts, Wiener schnitzel, wine, and pastries will keep you immersed in the city for several days.
When you’re ready to see more of Austria, a pleasant road trip to Graz will let you see the countryside and a new destination. The most direct route is on A-2, for about two hours of drive time. The medieval town of Graz, with its Renaissance and Baroque architecture, invites browsing and strolling through its streets. For a view from above the city, take a funicular to the top of Schlossberg, the forested mountain overlooking Graz.
Nearby wine country features rolling hills, vineyards, restaurants, and ancient castles, so you may decide to extend your visit with some wine tasting and an overnight in Graz. You’ll find many lodging options, and you’ll be fresh and ready for the return drive to Vienna the next day. Take the longer scenic route on B-72 and A-2 which adds about an hour to the trip.