Europe has an embarrassment of riches, from the incomparable art and architecture to the spectacular scenery and the finest food and wine. And a lot of it is supremely accessible by car, if you know the best routes to take.
Fall is one of the best seasons to take a road trip through this stunning continent with its smaller crowds, mild temperatures and warm beautiful tones transforming the scenery. Here's our pick of the best European road trips you should start planning now.
Editor's note: during COVID-19, be sure to check local travel restrictions before departure and always follow government health advice.
Driving the Romantic Rhine Valley
Where: Düsseldorf, Germany to Mainz, Germany
Route: Düsseldorf – Cologne – Bonn – Remagen – Koblenz – Braubach – Boppard – St Goar – Loreley – Kaub –Bacharach – Rüdesheim – Mainz
Length: 5–7 days, 146 miles/235km
After traversing powerhouse riverside cities Düsseldorf, Cologne and Bonn, watch epic scenery unfold as Germany’s Romantic Rhine Valley carves between towering cliffs clad in forest and capped by castles, to delightful Mainz. History and wine lovers will love getting up close to the Rhine’s mightiest sights, hike through its loftiest vineyards and discover hidden treasures and romantic hideaways.
The idyllic Boppard is one of the Romantic Rhine’s prettiest towns while Rüdesheim, offers the chance to escape the crowds by hiking into the picturesque vineyards. The weather is best April to October, but July and August can be a bit crowded.
Touring the Swiss Alps
Where: Arosa, Switzerland to Zermatt, Switzerland
Route: Arosa – Vals – Disentis Abbey – Andermatt – Engleberg – Giessbachfälle – Grindelwald – Lauterbrunnen – Schilthorn – Kandersteg – Altesch Glacier – Zermatt
Length: 7 days, 380 miles/612km
This zigzagging trip is the A to Z of Switzerland’s astounding alpine scenery, with majestic peaks, formidable panoramas, cable-car rides and local charm. Perfect for families who love the outdoors this trip full of soul-stirring views visits five cantons via hairpin bends, valley highways, tunnels, and passes. In Andermatt, don’t miss hiking to the sparkly Lai da Tuma, the source of the Rhine.
Stop at the Aletsch Glacier, a seemingly never-ending 23km-long swirl of ice with deep crevasses that slice past thundering falls, jagged spires of rock and pine forest. Access the glacier from picture-postcard Fiesch where you can ride a cable car from the village. Finally, take the train to car-free Zermatt and the pop-up-book effect of the one-of-a-kind Matterhorn.
Visiting the graceful Italian Lakes
Where: Stresa, Italy to Bergamo, Italy
Route: Stresa – Verbania – Cannobio – Varese – Como – Bellagio – Tremezzo – Varenna – Bergamo
Length: 5–7 days, 132 miles/213km
Writers from Goethe to Hemingway have lavished praise on the Italian Lakes, dramatically ringed by snow-powdered mountains and garlanded by grand villas and exotic, tropical flora. Formed at the end of the last ice age, and a popular holiday spot since Roman times, the Italian lakes have an enduring natural beauty.
At Lago Maggiore the palaces of the Borromean Islands lie like a fleet of fine vessels in the gulf, their grand ballrooms and shell encrusted grottoes once host to Napoleon and Princess Diana, while the siren call of Lago di Como draws Arabian sheikhs and Hollywood movie stars to its discreet forested slopes.
Crossing the French Riviera
Where: Cannes, France to Èze, France
Route: Cannes – Antibes & Juan-les-Pins – St-Paul de Vence – Nice – La Grande Corniche – Roquebrune-Cap-Martin – Menton – Monaco – Èze
Length: 4 days, 68 miles/110km
French road trips just don’t get more glamorous than this: cinematic views, searing sunshine, art history aplenty and the Mediterranean around every turn. Cruising the Côte d’Azur is a top French road trip. From film town Cannes to down-to-earth Nice, via the corkscrew turns of the Corniches and into millionaires' Monaco, it’s a drive you’ll remember forever.
Filmmakers, writers, celebs and artists have all had their hearts stolen by this glittering stretch of coastline: by the end of this trip, you’ll understand why. Try to avoid the dreadful summer traffic in July and August, but any other time is a dream.
Roving La Rioja wine region
Where: Logoroño, Spain to Laguardia, Spain
Route: Logroño – Nájera – San Millán de Cogolla – Santo Domingo de la Calzada – Haro – Briones – Elciego –Laguardia
Length: 2–4 days, 87 miles/140km
Learn all about the gift of the grape on this quiet road trip through vine-studded countryside. Head out in September or October and along the way you can visit wine museums and bodegas and admire stunning architecture. La Rioja is home to the best wines in Spain and on this short and sweet road trip along unhurried back roads you’ll enjoy gorgeous vine-striped countryside and asleep-at-noon villages of honey-colored stone.
But the real interest is reserved for food and drink. Logroño for example is gaining a culinary reputation to rival anywhere in Spain while in sunset-gold Briones you’ll find Dinastía Vivanco that offers several floors on the history and culture of wine and the various processes that go into production.
Seeing the best chateaux of the Loire
Where: Chinon, France - Chambord, France
Route: Chinon – Lageais – Villandry – Azay-le-Rideau – Chenonceaux – Amboise – Blois – Cheverny – Chambord
Length: 5 days, 118 miles/190km
For centuries, France’s longest river has been a backdrop for royal intrigue and extravagant castles. From warring medieval warlords to the kings and queens of Renaissance France, a parade of powerful men and women have left their mark on the Loire Valley. The result is France’s most magnificent collection of castles.
This trip weaves nine of the Loire Valley’s most spectacular and sublimely beautiful châteaux, ranging from austere medieval fortresses such as the Forteresse Royale de Chinon, where Joan of Arc first met Charles VII, to ostentatious royal pleasure palaces like Château du Chambord, with its double-helix staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The stretch between Chenonceau and Chambord takes in the true classics. Go in May and June for good cycling weather or July for the gardens.
Road tripping along the Danube
Where: From Passau, Germany to Vienna, Austria
Route: Passau – Engelhartszell an der Donau – Linz – St Florian – Mauthausen Memorial – Melk – Dürnstein –Krems an der Donau – Sift Göttweig – Vienna
Length: 2–4 days, 182 miles/293km
If you’re looking for a short but vibrant summer trip, follow the Danube from Passau, Germany to the majestic Austrian capital of Vienna. Immortalized in the stirring Blue Danube waltz by Austrian composer Johann Strauss II, this magnificent river ripples with the reflections of green forests, hilltop castles, and ribbons of vineyards, particularly on its prettiest stretch, the Wachau, between Melk and Krems an der Donau.
Along the river’s course are plenty of surprises too, including the cutting-edge city of Linz and two monasteries – Engelhartszell an der Donau and Stift Göttweig – producing respectively, sublime beer and wine.
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Article first published in February 2020, and last updated in September 2021