8 Unforgettable European Road Trips

Charming French châteaux or windswept Irish vistas? Norwegian fjords or Welsh beaches? Europe’s best drives offer it all.

8 Unforgettable European Road Trips

The open(ish) road awaits.

Photo by Mika Korhonen/Unsplash

A vast and varied continent, Europe has some of the finest driving routes in the world. Think quaint Italian towns and bucolic vineyards, dramatic craggy coastlines in Ireland, and glistening Spanish beaches that’ll tempt you from the car and onto the soft sand. From twisting roads among towering mountains to detours into tiny fishing villages, these European road trips promise an unforgettable drive.

Little Skellig is home to a large colony of gannets.

Little Skellig is home to a large colony of gannets.

Photo by Matthi/Shutterstock

Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way Distance: 1,500 miles (2,400 km)

Start: Inishowen, Donegal

End: Kinsale, Cork

Passing through eight counties and following the twists and turns of the jagged Irish coast, the Wild Atlantic Way promises spectacular sea views, fascinating history dating back centuries, and a window onto the unique culture of Ireland. Traveling north to south, you can see the dramatic Cliffs of Moher and spend a day in Galway city tasting the region’s best seafood—including oysters from the Galway Bay. For a memorable stop overnight, book into the 300-year-old Glenlo Abbey Hotel, which has regal interiors and an historic abbey attached.

Don’t miss the boat trip out to the Skellig Islands from County Kerry, where a 6th-century drystone monastic settlement sits atop a precipitous rock and, in spring and summer, puffins come to nest. Be sure to make time for the brilliant beaches, too. Strandhill Beach in Sligo has wild, grassy dunes, while Keem Beach in Mayo has sand so white, it looks imported from the Caribbean.

Read more about the best stops on a road trip along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.

The lighthouse at A Coruña marks the start of Spain’s Death Coast road trip.

The lighthouse at A Coruña marks the start of Spain’s Death Coast road trip.

Photo by Noemi Garcia Reimunde/Unsplash

The Death Coast, Spain Distance: 125 miles (200 km)

Start: A Coruña

End: Fisterra

The name might seem less than auspicious, but a road trip along Spain’s Death Coast—monikered for its high cliffs and hidden rocks that have sunk thousands of ships here over the centuries—is the ultimate Galician adventure. The route begins in the port city of A Coruña, where a Roman-era lighthouse presides over sweeping ocean views, and then the road wends south through the countryside to a cluster of seaside villages.

Traditional fish auctions take place in Malpica de Bergantiño, and in Cabana de Bergantiños, you can sample some of that fresh seafood with a traditional Galician tasting menu at Mar de Ardora restaurant. It’s the beaches here, though, that will really capture your attention. A long curve of white sand lapped by the azure ocean can be found at Laxe Beach, while Carnota is the region’s longest stretch of sand backed by grassy dunes—ideal for lazy days in the sun.

Discover why Spain’s Death Coast is your dream road trip.

Scotland’s epic road trip begins and ends in Inverness.

Scotland’s epic road trip begins and ends in Inverness.

Photo by Kenny Lam/VisitScotland

Scotland’s North Coast 500

Distance: 516 miles (830 km)

Start: Inverness

End: Inverness

This circular route around mainland Scotland’s northernmost peninsula takes in some of the country’s finest beaches and spectacular mountain passes, the best of which is Bealach na Bà. The narrow track is an arresting introduction to driving on Scottish roads, with its twists and turns through the undulating landscape of Wester Ross. If you need somewhere to rest afterwards, the Torridon is a spectacular country estate hotel.

Along the coast, Sinclairs Bay has soft golden sand that’ll tempt you away from the road for a day to swim, surf, or spot orcas and seals out at sea, and Duncansby Head offers views of vast sea stacks, where you can see the layers of rock that have formed and been eroded over millennia. Taste prime Scottish seafood in the village of Ullapool, and don’t forget to spend time in the NC500’s “capital,” Inverness. A 19th-century cathedral dominates the Old Town, and you can cruise nearby Loch Ness to learn about the legend of its eponymous aquatic monster.

Learn more about taking a road trip on Scotland’s North Coast 500.

Eschew the busy tourist loop for an Icelandic road trip without the crowds.

Eschew the busy tourist loop for an Icelandic road trip without the crowds.

Courtesy of Visit North Iceland

The Diamond Circle, Northeastern Iceland

Distance: 162 miles (260 km)

Start: Húsavík

End: Mývatn

If you’re looking for waterfalls and wildlife with a good dose of rugged, classically Icelandic scenery, get yourself to the coastal city of Húsavík (a 45-minute flight from Reykjavík) to begin a tour of northeast Iceland’s “Diamond Circle.” Known as the whale capital of Iceland, Húsavík is a strong starting point, with humpback, minke, bluefin, and fin whales often seen in its bay. On the Tjornes Peninsula, 14 miles from the start, you’ll spot fossils in the cliffs and puffins nesting in the grass.

The landscape up here has a bleak and barren beauty to it—the kind of place that feels as if it’s at the end of the world. A stop in Ásbyrgi Canyon, a vast two-mile-long expanse filled with birch trees, will add to the otherworldly nature of your adventure, and the waterfall at the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon is a thundering sight. Mývatn marks the end of the route with a hive of geothermal activity—perfect for soaking in after a long drive. Spend the night at Hótel Laxá.

Find out more about driving Northeastern Iceland’s Diamond Circle.

Italy’s Great Dolomites Road is 68 miles of spectacular scenery.

Italy’s Great Dolomites Road is 68 miles of spectacular scenery.

Photo by Michal Kmet/Unsplash

The Great Dolomites Road, Italy

Distance: 68 miles (110 km)

Start: Bolzano

End: Cortina d’Ampezzo

If you’re after jagged mountain peaks and sweeping valley views, this road trip comes with great rewards. One of Italy’s most exhilarating drives, the Great Dolomites Road passes almost all of the main sawtooth peaks in this dramatic mountain range. Starting in pretty Bolzano, where painted houses are set against grassy hills and a smattering of appealing museums will tempt you to pause for a day or two, the route wends east to Ponte Nova where the majestic granite peaks make themselves known. You’ll drive through the glorious Valle di Fassa with yet more mountain views, and then hit the Passo Pordoi—a mountain pass at 7,345 feet high (2,239 meters).

It’s hairpin bends all the way down from here, but the views are genuinely awe-inspiring. The epic peaks loom large over Val Badia, and the route ends in the chic mountain resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo, where you should take some time to hit the trails on foot or, in winter, ski the powdery slopes. Stay at the elegant Cristallo hotel for the best views in town.

Norway offers numerous scenic routes, but a road trip through the Lofoten Islands is hard to beat.

Norway offers numerous scenic routes, but a road trip through the Lofoten Islands is hard to beat.

Photo by Kym Ellis/Unsplash

Norway’s Lofoten Islands

Distance: 143 miles (230 km)

Start: Å

End: Raftsundet

The remote, rugged beauty of Norway’s Lofoten Islands will be etched in your memory for years to come after this road trip. One of Norway’s many official scenic routes, it takes in glassy fjords, precipitous peaks, and pretty waterside towns and villages. Nusfjord, one of the oldest fishing villages in Norway, is the first stop on this itinerary, and it’s worth staying overnight in one of the old fishing huts that now serves as accommodation.

Don’t miss the sensational views of the mountains at Reinehalsen, and try your hand at cod fishing—the industry this region is famous for—at the likes of Svolvær or Henningsvær. There are a variety of things to do on the trip—thrilling RIB boat tours to enjoy, sea kayaks to rent, or for the brave, snorkeling excursions in the chilly Arctic waters.

A road trip through the Loire Valley passes many châteaux, including the Château de Chambord.

A road trip through the Loire Valley passes many châteaux, including the Château de Chambord.

Photo by Dorian Mongel/Unsplash

The Loire Valley, France

Distance: 120 miles (190 km)

Start: Chinon

End: Chambord

This is one road trip you’ll want to splash out on, as the Loire Valley has some of the best vineyards in France and a host of historic castles (châteaux), many of which now serve as luxurious hotels. Start your journey in Chinon and slowly make your way northeast to Chambord, exploring the region’s ancient towns and villages, such as wine-centric Bourgueil and riverside Amboise, and learn about its dramatic history from medieval warlords to Renaissance royalty. Of course, you shouldn’t miss sampling some of the Loire’s best wines en route, too. Taste raspberry hinting reds at family-run Domaine de la Chevalerie, and head to Domaine Marc Bredif on the edge of Tours to enjoy a glass of chilled vouvray in the sun.

There are countless châteaux to explore, but make time for overnight stops at Domaine de la Tortinière, a 300-year-old castle on a leafy estate, and the Belle Époque Château d’Artigny, which was built by a famous French perfumer in the early 20th century.

Pembrokeshire’s singular charms include the cathedral in St. Davids.

Pembrokeshire’s singular charms include the cathedral in St. Davids.

Courtesy of Hawlfraint y Goron/Crown Copyright Cymru Wales

The Pembrokeshire coast, Wales, U.K.

Distance: 71 miles (115 km)

Start: Tenby

End: St. Davids

Cornwall without the crowds is the best way to describe Pembrokeshire, a rural region in south Wales where a coastal path links sandy beach after sandy beach. A road trip here is not to be rushed—largely because you’ll likely find yourself driving behind the odd tractor or trundling RV, but also because it’s a truly beautiful destination where you’ll want to linger for wildflowers in summer and empty beaches in spring or simply soak up the sea views.

Start in Tenby, where painted Victorian townhouses offer a splash of color above the soft, sugar-like sand of its main beach. Heading westward along the winding coastal roads, you can stop at Stackpole to take a short walk to the remote, often empty, Barafundle Bay. Stroll around the Lily Ponds at Bosherston ending at Broad Haven South beach, and stop for a seafood lunch at Freshwater West where the Cafe Môr food truck serves fresh lobster rolls and fish sandwiches. There are more spectacular stretches of sand in Broad Haven and Marloes Sands, and the route ends in St. Davids, the United Kingdom’s smallest city (with a population of 1,600), where you can explore its handsome cathedral and ruined medieval palace.

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Lottie Gross is an NCTJ-trained journalist and travel writer based in the U.K.
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