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The American road trip may be iconic, but the winding, scenic roads of Europe are perfect for adventurous motorists, too.
Because Europe has such a solid transportation network of high-speed trains and low-cost air carriers, driving around the continent is often overlooked by visitors. But travelers who rent a car and hit the road will be rewarded with stunning views — and have the opportunity to pull over at leisure to wander around tiny villages that don’t have train stops or airports.
Another advantage of the great European road trip? Driving distances between landmarks and pitstops are generally much shorter than what you’d expect to find stateside, meaning you can cruise past a variety of landscapes and cross national borders in no time at all. Late summer and early fall, just as the steamy summer weather gives way to cooler autumn temperatures, are perfect for a dreamy European road trip. So consider one of these five itineraries, and get ready to book your next holiday.
Start off with a day exploring Madrid’s expansive art triangle, and an evening of sampling the city’s delicious tapas. The following morning, head north in your rental car on the A-1 toward Burgos, where you can visit the town’s cathedral (it dates back to the 13th century) before moving on to Santander. Inhale the salty smell of the sea as you meander past the 20th-century Palacio de la Magdalena and enjoy panoramic coastal views.
Continue west through the region of Asturias and take a few days to “pueblo-hop,” stopping overnight at quaint seaside villages like Cudillero and Llanes. Here, explore hidden beaches and indulge in delights like sidra (a crisp cider), savory local cheeses and fabada asturiana (white bean stew). Don’t miss the pink monastery and Enol lakes at Covadonga. You’ll have to navigate steep mountain roads to get there, but it’s worth the white-knuckle driving.
Stop and relax at one of Asturias’ most famous beaches, Playa del Silencio. As its name suggests, this is an impossibly tranquil spot to unwind after a day of driving. Just park your car and trek down to the beach on foot.
End your drive in Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, where you can purchase fresh fish at the Mercado de Abastos. Carry the fish over to the adjacent restaurant, where they’ll grill up your purchase for just a few euros.
TPG tip: Wine lovers should add in an overnight stop in the Rioja region on the way to Santander at the Hotel Marqués de Riscal, an SPG luxury collection property. The Frank Gehry-designed property features a wine spa and is located on a vineyard. When the new award chart is implemented on Aug. 18, rooms here will be available for 60,000 Marriott Rewards points per night. Cash rates start at approximately €419 ($475) per night.
Amsterdam is a city you could spend forever in (don’t forget to eat at the greenhouse, Restaurant De Kas), but the rest of the Netherlands is sorely underrated. Decorated with windmills, tranquil canals and charming Dutch villages, a scenic road trip in the Netherlands is best spent visiting a few key cities and taking a series of short day trips.
From Amsterdam, for example, you should drive a half-hour west, to Haarlem, which is famous for its tulip fields (just note that the tulips reach peak bloom in spring). And the traditional fishing village of Volendam, with its colorful wooden houses, is a great place to spend a day.
The drive down to Rotterdam, a city that suddenly seems to be on everyone’s radar, takes just over an hour. With a district actually named Cool, new, architecturally stunning buildings and free art galleries seem to be appearing at a dizzying rate.
Day trips from Rotterdam include the beaches of Scheveningen (don’t forget to stop in The Hague, too); Leiden, home to the Netherland’s oldest university and where painter Rembrant was born; Delft, where you can shop for traditional blue-and white-pottery; and Kinderdijk, known for its 18th-century windmills.
Turn around and head northeast to Utrecht to explore the Kasteel de Haar (the country’s largest castle). Continue pushing eastward to De Hoge Veluwe National Park, which has diverse landscapes ranging from thick woods to dusty sand drifts. Travelers can continue as far north as Hunebedden, Amsterdam’s own version of Stonehenge, which features 54 prehistoric stone graves.
End your trip where the Dutch take their vacations: the island of Texel, where you’ll likely spot animals including seals and roughly 100 species of birds. When autumn reaches the island of Texel around August, birdwatchers can see warblers, flycatchers, stonechats and pipits begin their migration. You’ll have to ride a ferry to reach this Dutch Wadden island, but you can bring your car along for the ride.
TPG tip: Start your Dutch road trip with a stay at the new Moxy Amsterdam Houthavens. Room rates start at $130 or 25,000 Marriott Rewards points per night (the rate will remain the same when the new award chart is implemented). Book with the Marriott Rewards® Premier Plus Credit Card to earn 6x points per dollar spent on your stay. Oh, and don’t forget to plane spot on the Panorama Terrace when you fly out of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport (AMS).
Southern and western Ireland
Start your Ireland adventure by taking a tour of the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. Then, cruise south to the green, rolling hills of Wicklow for a night or two. (On the agenda: a visit to Wicklow National Park, the monastic settlements in nearby Glendalough and one of Ireland’s largest waterfalls, Powerscourt.)
Next, visit the medieval town of Kilkenny for a night. Visit the eponymous castle and walk the Medieval Mile, an entire mile of historical sites. Another highlight? The surprising stained glass at the Black Abbey.
Cork is the next stop, and once you’ve hit the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle, feed the ducks at The Lough, shop the Old English Market and stargaze at the castle-turned-observatory, Blackrock Castle.
Your road trip continues on the Ring of Kerry, a 111-mile-long drive that takes you through the Irish countryside past castles that look plucked straight from “Game of Thrones” scenes, and rugged Atlantic cliffs.
If you’re tired of seeing things from the car window, get out and bike part of the way. Travelers with extra time can also tack on a visit to the island of Valentia, which is linked to the mainland (you just can’t beat the views here), or continue straight on to Killarney to see the famous Ross Castle and Killarney National Park.
End your road trip in Shannon — hopefully with enough time for a day trip to see the famous Cliffs of Moher. Aviation enthusiasts can pay a visit to the Atlantic AirVenture, which has an interactive flight simulator and an aviation museum.
TPG tip: If you don’t want to return to Dublin by car, you can organize a multi-city trip, flying from a US hub to Dublin (DUB) and then returning back from Shannon (SNN) nonstop to New York (JFK) or Boston (BOS), all on Aer Lingus — a plus now that the airline is a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner.
Northern Italy and Switzerland
Start by spending an afternoon exploring Milan’s Duomo and Navigli canal district, before driving to Venice the following morning. Stop in Verona, the famed home of Romeo and Juliet, for lunch and a stroll to the 1st-century Arena di Verona: basically a better-preserved version of Rome’s Colosseum. So well-preserved, in fact, you can actually see concerts and plays inside, weather permitting. (Shakespeare is a favorite, for obvious reasons.)
While cars aren’t allowed in Venice’s city center, you can park your car outside the city and take a water taxi into town, spending a night or two exploring this romantic destination. Avoid the typical tourist circuit and head to the Cannaregio area instead of San Marco.
A self-guided tour of Italy’s Prosecco region is easy. From Venice, head north to Conegliano. The villages between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene are carpeted with wineries and vineyards, and the stretch is actually known as Strada del Vino di Prosecco, or Prosecco Road.
When you’ve had your fill of the bubbly drink (and slept it off, of course), visit the small town of Bassano di Grappa, where you can order drinks from a cool takeout window at CuCù bar and chat with locals al fresco. Then it’s time to hit the lakes. Start with Riva di Garda, climbing the Torre Apponale for memorable views of the square below and the shimmering lake.
After checking out the medieval castle in Brescia, continue on to Sulzano, where you can explore the local Lake Iseo and enjoy a true taste of lakeside Italian living. (September, when the peak summer crowds have thinned, is an especially nice time to tour Italy’s lake towns.)
Once you’ve taken the cable car up to the citta alta, the hilltop city of Bergamo, explore Lake Como from the lakeside town of Laglio, or another village along the west side of the lake. From here, it’s a relatively short and easy drive to Switzerland.
Cross the border into Switzerland and plan to spend a night in Lugano, hiking along the San Salvatore Mountain for incredible views of the Lugano Lake. If you’re feeling brave enough to make the drive, weave through the Swiss Alps to the picturesque village of Grindelwald. Outdoor enthusiasts can hike the Gletscherschlucht, a glacier gorge outside the town, before driving back to Italy.
TPG tip: It is possible for US citizens to rent a car in Italy and take it over the border to the non-EU country of Switzerland — just make sure to tell your rental car company about your plans ahead of time to ensure there won’t be any issues.
The south of France
Time your road trip through the south of France for harvest season, which peaks in September and early October. Start by sampling the famed wines of Bordeaux at the riverside La Cité du Vin wine museum, complete with an outdoor picnic area, tasting rooms, a wine store and interactive experiences.
From Bordeaux, drive eastward to the picturesque wine town of Saint-Émilion. Here, you can walk to several wine chateaux for tastings and tours. It’s easy to wander around the quaint city center on foot — it’s an especially lovely area.
France has plenty of natural wonders, and the Parc Naturel Régional des Causses du Quercy may be one of the most impressive. Explore the forests and hills of this area by bike or on horseback, and don’t miss the Pech Merle cave. Stay overnight in the medieval village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, which clings to limestone cliffs and overlooks the Vallée du Lot (consider the village-view Hotel Le St. Cirq or a private guesthouse).
After you check out, head south and stop for lunch in Toulouse, and drive until you reach the walled city of Carcassonne. The city walls alone have 52 towers, so plan to spend a couple nights here — there’s quite a bit to discover. Rent bikes and ride along the Canal du Midi, taking along a picnic lunch. Plan an afternoon visit by car to the village of Lastours, just a short drive north of Carcassonne, where you can walk up the hill to explore the quartet of castles (the Belvédère viewpoint is exceptional).
Driving east and then north will take you to Avignon (remember the Picasso painting?), a beautiful city perched on the Rhône. The ruins of its most famous bridge span half the river.
End your trip along the French Riviera in a sophisticated beach town like Nice or St. Tropez. The beaches of Cavalaire-sur-Mer or the fishing village of Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer are slightly less intimidating than the fancier, more well-known spots.
TPG tip: First fly to Paris on a new route like Indianapolis (IND) to Paris (CDG) with Delta aboard the 767-300ER, which launched on May 24. Or, fly Norwegian nonstop from Denver (DEN) to Paris (CDG) on their 787-9, a route that began this past April.
5 European car rental tips
- Apply for an international driving permit (IDP). This document, which translates your domestic driver’s license into 10 different languages, is something you don’t want to get caught without if you get pulled over.
- Use a credit card for your car rental that offers primary rental coverage, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. However, make sure to read the fine print because some of these benefits are not available in certain countries, such as Ireland.
- Sign up for your car rental agency’s loyalty program before reserving your vehicle.
- Before pulling out of the lot, ask the rental agency for information about the country’s toll system (and how to pay) and for information about any unusual signage.
- Watch for speeding cameras. Some TPG staff members and readers have reported exorbitant tickets in countries such as Spain and France.
Feature image by Dougal Waters / Getty Images.
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