4 European Road Trips That Should Be On Your Bucket List
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A Guest Post by Jessica from One Girl, Whole World
Because the train system is so good in much of Europe, people often forget about the option of a road trip. But some destinations are much better explored from behind the wheel, with the ability to stop whenever, and to see places a train can’t reach. So here are four totally epic road trips in Europe that should be at the top of your bucket list!
#1 - Southern & Western Ireland
Why: Breathtaking scenery, great pub food and good beer, charming B&Bs, delightful locals, and more under-the-radar Ireland. This itinerary is a little more off-the-beaten-path, and is especially great if you’re going during or on either side of peak season. I’d heard horror stories about tiny one-lane roads congested with tour buses and crowds at places like the Cliffs of Moher. So I planned a different kind of trip, looking for hidden gems and less-known alternatives.
After arriving in Dublin, we immediately got our rental car and hit the road toward Kilkenny. It’s a small medieval city offering tons of beautifully well-preserved medieval architecture, abundant charm, quite a bit of religious history, and the Smithwicks brewery if you’re looking for a pint.
From Kilkenny, head toward the west coast, driving around and exploring the Sheeps Head Peninsula before ending up in Kenmare for the night. Kenmare makes a great base for a few days, as it’s quite central to a number of sights on the western coast. The next day is a full day driving the Beara Peninsula, also called the Ring of Beara—this was one of our favorite parts of the entire trip, and nary a tour bus in sight! The scenery is breathtaking and varied, changing from crashing blue waves to green patchwork fields to hidden waterfalls. If the weather cooperates, make sure you drive up the winding switchbacks of the Healy Pass for a gorgeous view of the whole peninsula.
Still based in Kenmare, the next day we drove the Dingle Peninsula, an amazing Ring of Kerry alternative. It’s become more popular in recent years, and it’s not hard to see why. The coastal drive is amazing, particularly on a sunny day. There’s also tons of history, and the peninsula is one of the areas that’s held tight to the old Gaelic language and ways, so the signs and a lot of what you’ll hear spoken is in the old Gaelic. The sea cliffs and crashing waves are the major draw for here, but make sure to get inside the peninsula and see some of the ruins dating back as far as the 6th century. If the weather cooperates, drive the Conor Pass that cuts through the peninsula---the highest in Ireland, with killer views.
There’s one more stop to make before heading to Dublin, a great Cliffs of Moher alternative. You definitely could do the famous cliffs instead, but we tried out a much lesser-known area called Loop Head. After leaving the Dingle Peninsula, we headed up north toward Tarbert and took the ferry across to Kilkee. It was beautiful and wild and we were literally the only people there. The next morning we headed back toward Dublin, making sure to stop at Clonmacnoise Abbey for a bit, and then returning the rental car at Dublin airport.
Spend your last night and day enjoying the craic of Dublin—such a fun city! Stuff yourself with scones, soak in the atmosphere of Temple Bar, learn about the more recent violent history up on O’Connell Street, and walk up and down the River Liffey. You can learn more about the details of this itinerary, what to see, and where to stay here!
#2 - Northern Croatia
Why: All the charms of Tuscany but with a better exchange rate and fewer crowds, plus stunning waterfalls and beautiful medieval coastal towns. While Dubrovnik and the southern islands get all the hype, don’t overlook the natural beauty, medieval hill towns, and amazing truffles, olive oil, and wine of northern Croatia. Because Croatia isn’t on the euro, it’s also quite affordable as European countries go.
The best place to base yourself is in the Istrian Peninsula, like a less-discovered Tuscany. One must-visit place is Plitvice Lakes National Park, a stunning network of 16 turquoise lakes with countless waterfalls. Due to the diversity of organisms and minerals in the water and the unique ecosystem, the colors of the water constantly shift between different greens and blues. They’ve built awesome wooden walkways right down on the water, so you can walk beside, in front of, and even behind the falls!
After soaking in all those waterfalls, prepare yourself for the amazing food and wine of Istria. It’s an easy couple-hour drive from Plitvice to the towns of the Istrian Peninsula. The charming seaside town of Rovinj is my favorite base in this area, a colorful and cute location. Spend a couple days exploring the dozens of hill towns that dot the peninsula. Some of my all-time favorites (besides Rovinj) are Motovun, Groznjnan, and Hum. Take your time and wander from town to town, try the local olive oil, discover adorable alleyways, find a lovely handcrafted ceramic mug, eat the most amazing truffle risotto and wash it down with local Teran red wine. It’s like Tuscany but with far fewer tourists!
Catch Zagreb on either end of your trip, if you fly in or out of there. It’s got great history and fun, colorful architecture, and is worth a day! And now that I’ve convinced you to book a ticket to northern Croatia, might I suggest you pair it with #3?
#3 – Slovenia
Why: It combines the best elements of Austria and Italy, with its own unique flair. Marrying stunning natural beauty with adorable cities and bucolic charm, it’s an easy add to many European itineraries! Slovenia is finally starting to get the love it deserves. The former Yugoslavian country has a very different feel from some of the other Balkan countries. It pairs easily with many other itineraries, including northern Italy, northern Croatia, or anywhere in that general area. You can do so much in just a few days!
One of the absolute must-visit areas is the vividly-turquoise Lake Bled, with its little island and church sitting like a jewel in the center. Walk around the lake on a pretty day, and make sure to also stop at nearby Lake Bohinj for some even less-crowded views. Then take in some wilder beauty in nearby Triglav National Park with the rushing river and waterfalls of Vintgar Gorge. It’s only about 10 minutes from Lake Bled, and will only take an hour or two of your time. You can walk along narrow wooden pathways bolted to the cliffs and watch the blue water rush along.
Craving some sun and sea?? Slovenia only got 47 total kilometers of coastline when Yugoslavia broke up (somehow Croatia got, like...all of it), but it sure makes use of what it has. Piran is incredibly charming, full of pastel colors, fresh seafood, sparkling teal water, and the sea salt that makes the region famous! And just up into the hills you can go wine tasting, as Slovenia’s history in wine making is rich and interesting.
Make sure you reserve a day or two to meander through the absolutely gorgeous Julian Alps. Somehow these fly totally under the radar in Europe, but they are massive and magnificent. They’re also packed with rich and very sad World War I history. You can see deserted barracks and lots of different countries’ memorials dotted throughout the Alps. Learn more about building a Slovenian itinerary here!
#4 - Scotland’s Highlands & Islands
Why: Wild, dramatic scenery that will take your breath away, ancient history, local culture...all away from tourist crowds. The charms of Scotland are many and varied, but so many tourists (particularly American tourists) tend to stay in the Edinburgh area, maybe making it up to Inverness, but not much further. And you miss out on SO much if you do that! So rent that car and book your B&Bs, and head for the Highlands.
Either Edinburgh or Glasgow is a good entry point, and then you should head right up into the Highlands immediately. The Glen Torridon area is a nice starting point for really exploring the Highlands, giving you a beautiful drive through pastoral Applecross and over the famous dramatic Bealach na Ba pass. And then it’s on to Skye!
The Isle of Skye is the main Scottish island that many tourists do get to, and it definitely has a ton to offer. Skye is perfect for an active trip, and the amazing Quiraing and Old Man of Storr hikes are a must if you’re up for it. One thing you can do on Skye that’s more off-the-beaten-path is a boat trip over to moody Loch Coruisk, a more isolated area that is absolutely gorgeous.
Beyond Skye, the world is your oyster on islands. Take a ferry way up to the Isle of Harris and Lewis for a day or two and marvel at the mystical standing stones and oddly tropical-looking beaches. Spend a couple idyllic day on peaceful Iona, with it’s ancient abbey and 360-degree views, and make sure to take a boat trip out to non-inhabited Staffa to see the puffins and famous Cave of Melodies.
And before you go, watch the Jacobite train (Hogwarts Express!) puff its way over the Glenfinnan Viaduct and then spend a day wandering through the streets of Edinburgh.