The best road trips in Europe

Kicking our hybrid rental into first gear, we discover the freedom and excitement of Europe’s best open roads, passing rugged Atlantic scenes in both Ireland and Norway or tamer sunny sections of the Mediterranean coast. Renting a car is arguably the best way to travel Europe – wherever you go – allowing the easiest access to Provençal lavender fields, the Scottish Highlands and Andalusian outposts in southern Spain. Allow us at Mr Hudson to help steer the way, with our guide to the best road trips in Europe below.

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Neuschwanstein Castle, Schwangau, Germany | Photo: Jacek Dylag

1. Romantic road, Germany

There are other contenders but the German Romantic Road is easily one of the most beautiful roadways in Germany, traversing a 300-kilometre route from Bavaria to south-central Germany, from Füssen to Würzburg. Ridden on since Roman times (over 2,000 years ago) when it served as a key trade route from Bavaria, the Romantic Road is as historic as it is beautiful, best initiated from Munich Airport where you can rent a car.

Medieval red-roofed villages and towns crop up along the way in fairy-tale stylings, any of which provide welcome relief from winding mountain roads. Of the walled towns, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Dinkelsbühl and Nördlingen are most popular for their Baroque churches, castles and cobbled streets, while Augsburg and Wurzburg cities bring urban life to the fore. Rather than ticking off a list of attractions as fast as possible, slow down to appreciate each town, enjoying walking trails through Tauber valley vineyards or ancient architecture in the quaint villages of Pfaffenwinkel. Extend your journey with our ultimate 14-day gay Germany itinerary, or, alternatively, try the German Alpine Road.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany | Photo: Tobias Reich

Photo: Mitch Kemp

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Like something out of a storybook, Provence’s roads unfurl slowly to reveal limestone cliffs, fragrant vineyards and lavender-covered fields, setting the scene for some of Southern France’s most beloved cities, as well as countless heritage towns and villages in between

2. Provence, Southern France

Like something out of a story book, Provence’s roads unfurl slowly to reveal limestone cliffs, fragrant vineyards and lavender-covered fields, setting the scene for some of Southern France’s most beloved cities, as well as countless heritage towns and villages in between. Wine lovers can start in the charming old town of Montpellier, making their way through Arles, Avignon and Salon-de-Provence, never missing an opportunity to taste the local grapes at any point along. To stop at the port city of Marseille, however – France’s oldest city – you’ll need a clear head, allowing full appreciation of the deep blue Mediterranean landscapes foregrounded by ancient architecture. Throw in a bundle of innovative museums and glam shopping streets and you may never want to leave.

But leave we must as Aix en Provence comes calling with all the more history set near the cliffs of Sainte Victoire and edged by numerous Provençal villages amidst verdant countryside immortalised in paintings by Cezanne, Kandinsky and Picasso. Stay in Aix to make the most of its heritage, art and culture, embarking on a walking tour through the city to see the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral, (built on the site of an ancient Greek temple), wander the markets along Cours Mirabeau thoroughfare, and spot Roman ruins. From there, it’s the 14th century Palais des Papes in Avignon that may appeal, followed by the Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct and the lavender hues of Abbaye de Senanque. Continue your romantic interlude in the south of France with our 5-day Provence itinerary.

Provence | Photo: Sebastien Jermer

3. Northern Spain

The best route through Northern Spain edges the Bay of Biscay coastline from the French border at San Sebastián all the way west to Galicia, through Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias. Besides awesome Atlantic views, road trippers will be rewarded with San Sebastián’s famed seafood and pintxos (a type of tapas), El Castillo’s palaeolithic cave drawings and Santillana del Mar’s preserved medieval sites, climaxing along the Camino de Santiago, Europe’s much-loved pilgrimage route, before winding up at UNESCO-listed Santiago de Compostela to greet the pilgrims on their last leg.

If that wasn’t enough, rewrite the trip to include Bilbao’s Guggenheim or Comillas’ old centre, while halfway, nature lovers should be sure to head in land into the Picos de Europa mountains, continuing west to Oviedo for a lively city of cider edged by the lesser-known (and older) Camino Primitivo trail. Then, the dynamic port city of A Coruna for its seafood and Tower of Hercules lighthouse before ending at Santiago de Compostela with the best of them. Can’t get enough of the open road? Plan for 10 days with our ultimate road trip itinerary in Northern Spain.

San Sebastian | Photo: Ultrash Ricco

4. Amalfi Coast, Italy

Another roadtrip Europa dream is to drive the rugged 50-kilometre Amalfi Coast road (SS163) with the Tyrrhenian Sea to your west serving as your chief navigational aid. The whole route is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, inclusive of some pretty challenging mountain terrain, but it’s the various towns along the way that make this Europe road trip a joy. The popular starting point of Salerno is just 1 hour from Naples and 3 from Rome, after which, drivers will pass on to Ravello, Amalfi, Positano and Minori & Maiori, before ending in Sorrento.

One of the more popular road trips Europe is known for, drivers are wise to avoid the peak summer months, instead driving in the shoulder seasons (e.g. April to May and October to November) early in the day for the least stressful rides. Note that RVs and motorhomes are banned from the road, giving motorcyclists and car drivers the right of way to arrive in time for lunch in the pastel maze of Positano or the boutique hotels of Amalfi – the coast’s largest resort town – with not a care in the world. Then, with added time in Amalfi, take a walk along the sandy beach of Spiaggia del Fornillo. Other extensions include a round-trip detour to the hilltop village of Ravello, where Villa Rufolo stands as one of the best examples of Amalfi magic, with landscaped gardens that slope down towards epic sea views. Pin attractions along the way with our list of things to do on the Amalfi Coast.

Positano, Italy | Photo: Sander Crombach

5. Dalmatian Coast, Croatia

Coming down off the Dinaric Alps towards the coves and inlets of the Adriatic Sea, Croatia wows us road trippers with Europe’s most underrated coastline. Start in Zagreb or Split just as easily as Dubrovnik, taking no time at all to access the coast from any of these three wonderful cities. For illustrative purposes we rent our car from Dubrovnik Airport, taking time to explore the capital’s medieval attractions before hitting the road. A relatively short route, taking 8 hours in total, the Dalmatian Coast is best savoured, stopping as often as possible to walk the promenade at Makarska, sunbathe on Bol’s beaches and sip rakija in the cities of Split, Trogir and Sibenik.

Croatia may be one of the cheapest countries to visit in Europe but the Dalmatian Coast is a possible exception, particularly in Rovinj (the so-called Saint Tropez of Croatia). Some things do come free, however – as well as the beautiful drive between Rijeka and Opatija – it’s the sunset at Zadar or Nin that’ll have you feeling rich in a different sense. History lovers meanwhile can marvel at Pula’s Roman amphitheatre, also non gratis. Spend 10 leisurely days in the country with our ultimate Croatia itinerary.

Split, Croatia | Photo: Spencer Davis

Dubrovnik, Croatia | Photo: Geio Tischler

6. Atlantic Road, Norway

Driving in Europe just got a whole load chillier on the Norwegian Atlantic Road, a road that showcases Norway’s mountains, forests, glaciers and 10,000-year-old fjords to astounding effect. Really there’s no better way to travel Norway! Start your adventure from Bergen, heading north through the world’s longest tunnel and out into air that’s so pure you’ll feel dizzy. Camp legally anywhere along the 8-kilometre route, arriving in Trondheim via a series of bridges connecting the mainland to Averøy and several small islands. Surrounded by ocean on all sides between Bud and Kristiansund, the Atlantic Road has achieved National Tourist Status for its beauty, allowing visitors to stop at any point to climb hills, circumnavigate pristine lakes and take boat trips out to Håholmen or dive in Strømsholmen. Bored of the road? Discover our guide of things to do in Norway.

Atlantic Road, Norway | Photo: Leonardo Venturoli

Photo: Peter Plashkin

7. Loire Valley, France

Bringing the fancy man out in all of us, the Loire Valley has us whipping through the French countryside in search of luxury hotels, age-old castles and vintage wines by the barrelful. Better yet, some of these historic châteaux now operate as hotels, allowing for authentic getaways on Bourgueil’s vineyards or Amboise’s riverside to name but two. Start in Chinon and travel northeast towards Chambord for a tried-and-tested route, stopping at various towns in between to learn of medieval warlords and Renaissance kings and queens who once made the Loire Valley their home.

This particular route through the valley aims to cover as many as nine of the region’s best castles and estates, from Forteresse Royale de Chinon (where Joan of Arc first laid eyes on Charles VII) to the Château du Chambord (with its mesmerising Leonardo da Vinci staircase). Then, the section from Chenonceau onwards hosts the best of the rest. Take your time on the road, catching sight of the crenelated towers and opulent domed roofs of cities such as Orléans, Blois, Tours and Angers long before arriving. Come in May to June for mild summer temperatures made for cycling, or later around July for the most colourful garden landscapes. Educate yourself on all the best castles of Loire Valley before you leave!

Loire Valley | Photo: Thomas Sabatier

Photo: Mitch Kemp

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While Palermo is Sicily’s wild historic centre, it’s the road east along the Tyrrhenian coast that will hold allure, broken up by the beaches of Cefalù and its slow-moving medieval centre

8. Sicily, Italy

Sicily – the name on the lips of every Europe trip planner – is our second road trip in Italy, this time taking place off of Italy’s toe. The aim here is to get to know the entire Mediterranean island of Sicily in just a few weeks (or a few months depending on your energy levels and work flexibility!), going from the vibrant capital of Palermo to Syracuse and Catania, the gateway to Mount Etna. While Palermo is Sicily’s wild historic centre, it’s the road east along the Tyrrhenian coast that will hold allure, broken up by the beaches of Cefalù and its slow-moving medieval centre. From there, venture inland to the ancient city of Enna, a Game of Thrones-type hilltop settlement encircled by cliffs, which also serves as a picturesque shortcut to Syracuse, a city of ancient Greek heritage on the Ionian Sea.

From Syracuse, it’s an easy trip to Catania, home of Europe’s tallest active volcano, Mount Etna, a popular climbing spot when volcanic activity permits. If that’s not possible, Messina and the friendly mountain villages of Calabria can end your vacation in style, or, alternatively sunbathe in solitude on the beaches of Tropea and Pizzo. Being so far south, Sicily does indeed get very hot, especially from July to August. If travelling during this time, plan your driving around early morning or evening, breaking for a long lunch when the heat gets too much. Discover more with our guide of things to do in Syracuse and southeast Sicily.

Tonnara di Scopello, Sicily | Photo: Samuel Ferrara

9. North Coast 500, Scotland

A newly paved passage through the Scottish Highlands, North Coast 500 is one of the UK’s most stunning road trips. Stretching some 800 kilometres around mainland Scotland’s most northernmost peninsula, this road trip is not for the faint of heart, covering narrow mountain passes such as that of Bealach na Bà into Wester Ross, said to be the nation’s most dangerous. Brave the roads and the drizzle and you’re in for a treat, however, passing windswept beaches, sand dunes and undulating grasslands that lead to Scotland’s most famous freshwater lochs (and their mythical monsters).

Start and end in Inverness (3.5 hours from both Glasgow and Edinburgh), going coastal with stops at Sinclair’s Bay (west) or Gairloch (north) for whale watching and seal spotting, followed by the millennia-old sea stacks at Duncansby Head, gateway to the Orkney Islands. From there, refuel in any one of the seaside towns and villages – notably Ullapool – saving a day for hiking down to Sandwood Bay Beach to see the Am Buachaille sea stack, once linking the Highlands to North America millions of years ago. There really is no end of places to stop on the North Coast 500 but at the end of it all, take time to see the Old Town of Inverness, dominated by its 19th century cathedral, not so far from Loch Ness. See our ultimate gay Scotland itinerary to help you plan the rest of your trip.

Scotland | Photo: Connor Mollison

10. Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland

Another Celtic beauty, the Wild Atlantic Way showcases the best of Ireland’s wild coastal terrain, starting in Inishowen (Donegal County) and ending in Kinsale (Cork). Almost double the length of our Scottish road, this route takes us 2,400 kilometres through eight counties to soak up sights such as the Cliffs of Moher and the Skellig Islands’ 6th century monastery perched atop a crag (shared with a colony of puffins in spring and summer). Go down the west coast, passing through the city of Galway for folk music, supreme seafood and heritage hotels (the 300-year-old Glenlo Abbey Hotel, a prime example), making sure to stop at Malin Head, Killarney National Park and the Ring of Kerry too. The Dingle Peninsula might sound cute but don’t patronise it because the views from Dunmore Head and the top of Mount Brandon are out of this world.

With three weeks to complete this journey, you shouldn’t be too rushed, though obviously the longer the better. If time is not on your side, opt to tackle one specific region, such as the Bay Coast from Erris to Galway Bay which covers the wilderness of Connemara, the islets of Clew Bay and the city of Galway in one succinct tour. Alternatively, the road from Dublin to Galway covers the southern section of the Wild Atlantic Way, passing Waterford, Dingle and Cork. Or, make your way with our 7-day Ireland itinerary.

Photo: Thom Holmes

11. Tuscany, Italy

An easy addition to our list is a Tuscany road trip, a cypress-lined journey through wheat fields and vineyards from Florence to Umbria, all ripening under the dazzling Mediterranean sun. While Florence is sure to sidetrack you for a few days, the road ahead holds Pisa, Lucca and San Gimignano, the latter a medieval maze of towers and duomos south of Florence you’ll surely want to savour. Siena, the capital of the province will also entice with its Piazza del Campo, one of Europe’s greatest public squares. The list goes on, spanning Arezzo, Cortona, Pienza and beyond, but be sure to slow it down on the drive-through Val d’Orcia, appreciating the rolling views along SP146’s curvaceous roadway towards Montepulciano.

Those who continue can do a little circular number around Lake Trasimeno, continuing southeast to Assisi, an Umbrian highlight, above which the Basilica of St. Francis stands proud on the hillside. Spoleto with its monuments, churches and heritage builds could be your finale but the clifftop commune of Bagnoregio might also entice. Figure out your route for 10 days in Tuscany with our ultimate Tuscany itinerary.

Tuscany, Italy | Photo: Karl Muscat

Tuscany | Photo: Patrick Schneider

12. Andalucía, Spain

An epic finish sees us tour Andalucía to taste the vibrant and distinct Arabic flavours of southern Spain by way of its major cities and smaller beauty spots. With three weeks to spend down south, plus extra beach days, you’ll be able to start in Málaga, orienting yourselves along the Costa del Sol come afternoon. From Málaga, the more upscale resorts of Marbella come calling, though Ronda and the trails of Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park will help keep you down to earth.

If the coast retains its allure, the road to Cádiz is sure to keep you smiling, though for many the journey continues inland to the region’s biggest cities. Seville is the capital and a firm favourite in the region, though Cordoba comes a close second thanks to Moorish architecture exemplified by its gorgeous Mezquita (mosque-cathedral) finished by reconquistadors in the 16th century. For more Islamic landmarks, Antequera and its Alcazaba (fortress-palace) are perfect, followed by the untamed ranges of the Sierra Nevada before winding up in Granada, Andalusia’s grittier provincial capital with a sprawling hilltop fortress to call its own.

Granada, Spain | Photo: Cayetano Gros

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Norway | Photo: Robert Bye

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