Europe by Road: The 5 Best European Driving Vacation Routes
When Canadians travel in Europe, they often think in terms of trains and package tours. Those are both great ways to see the Old Country, but taking a road trip along the scenic byways of Europe is also a fantastic way to get off the beaten track. With car rentals available and affordable throughout Europe, there’s no reason not to try these routes on your next trip overseas.
The Basque Coastline
Travellers to Spain often focus on the southern areas, imagining dusty castillos and sun-drenched courtyards framed with orange trees. But the northern areas, especially in Pais Vasco, the Basque Country, offer a look at Spain that may surprise and delight road trippers. Starting at the French border, at the Pyrennes, and heading westward along the coast of the Bay of Biscay, stop in local fishing villages or wait until San Sebastian, only 20 km from France, to sample some of the region’s best seafood. San Sebastian’s Beach of La Concha is a smooth crescent of white sand well worth strolling along. Continue westward until you reach Bilbao, a large commercial hub and the home of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, which you won’t want to miss. From there, decide whether to continue west along the top of the Iberian Peninsula to Cantabria or whether to head south to La Rioja or southeast to Navarre, two of the country’s best wine regions.
Geneva, Switzerland, to San Marino
Meander around lakes and over mountain passes as you exit Geneva, the original home of the League of Nations, and cross the French border. Still in the Alps, you’ll drive by the famed skiing mecca of Chamonix on your way to the Italian border via the Mont Blanc tunnel. Once in Italy, choose whether to visit fashion-forward Milan or cultural hotspot Turin — or both — before angling southeast to Parma. Spend some time here sampling the cheese and world-famous Parma ham and taking in the spectacular architecture. After Parma, Bologna is the next big city on your way to San Marino. But many drivers may prefer to skip the cities in favour of the surrounding countryside and villages. Finally, drive in to the city-state of San Marino, about 660 km from where you started.
Bergen to Oslo, Norway
If you’re planning a trip for the warmer months, skirting the North Sea on your way from the port of Bergen to the capital of Oslo is an unforgettable drive. From hilly Bergen, where you might be able to catch a jazz concert, take highway E39 south, heading for Bjornafjorden. Car ferries will take you across this fjord and the others to the south. After about 200 km, you’ll reach Stavanger, Norway’s fourth-largest city. Stop here for a rest and to learn about Norwegian history and the oil industry at local museums. Then, continue on E39 south until Mandal when you’ll start to arc northward again on your way to the capital, about 760 km from where you started.
The Croatian Coastline
The focus of this drive is Croatia, but it’s fun to start this trip in Trieste, Slovenia. Trieste is a charming city with a picturesque Old Town, buildings dating from the Roman times and one of the largest synagogues in Europe. From Trieste, head southeast on highway E61, crossing the border after Starod. The highway will merge onto the Kvarnerska Autocesta and then head south, toward the Croatian coastline. At Rijeka, stop to enjoy Trsat Castle and the ancient port. Farther south, stop at the National Park Sjeverni Velebit for hiking trails and a botanical preserve. From here meander southward on highway E65 exploring villages and taking ferries to islands like picturesque Hvar, until it’s either time for you to go home or you reach Dubrovnik, the country’s southernmost city, about 630 km from where your starting point.
Driving at top speed on the German autobahn is a bucket-list item for many North American travellers. The word “autobahn” itself is equivalent to the English “superhighway,” and can be used to describe any of the main highways connecting German cities. While it’s famous in North America for having no speed limit, in reality, only certain sections can boast restriction-less speeds. For a road trip that takes in one of these sections, drive the 190 km from Frankfurt to Cologne, via Bonn. Between Frankfurt and Bonn you can test your rental’s mettle (better get a German car to complete the experience), and then relax in Cologne in the city’s Old Town while marveling at the iconic cathedral.
About the Author: Shelly Wilson is a travel writer. She’s driven in Europe and Africa and is planning a South American trip soon.