Europe has a vast and varied coastline, from the raw beauty of the Baltic in the north, the broad sweep of the Atlantic in the west to the shimmering blue waters of the balmy Mediterranean in the south. With so many different countries and regions, each with their own distinct personality and heritage, a road trip is an excellent way to sample the very best this diverse continent has to offer.
Top of the list of European coastal road trips would be a tour of the sun-kissed Mediterranean coastline, an 1100-mile epic journey from Valencia to Rome, via the ancient and picturesque cities of Barcelona, Carcassonne, Avignon, Nice, Genoa and Cinque Terre. The mild climate promises sunshine all the way along the route, which takes the traveler through Spain, France and Italy.
The Dalmatian coast
Almost calling out for a road trip is Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. Croatia has 1200 km of winding coastline, and a coastal road that runs almost top to bottom, hugging almost all of its Adriatic coastline, from the port town of Rijeka to the ancient city of Dubrovnik, with a few miles of Bosnia between Split and Dubrovnik (Neum, a small market town, makes an ideal stop for lunch). The especially bold can venture further, onto Montenegro and Albania and into Greece.
Tour Scandinavia’s Arctic highway, from Norway’s stunning fjords to the Swedish islands. Between the Norwegian towns of Kristiansund and Molde, the Atlantic Road is little more than five miles long, but has been dubbed ‘Norway’s construction of the century’ in 2005 and is a dramatic connection between land and sea where whales and seals can sometimes be seen in calmer weather, with raging storms providing an adrenalin rush at other times.
One of the newest countries to experience tourism is Lithuania, which has secretly been hiding a vast coastline of white, deserted beaches on its Amber Coast. The highlight of this is the Curonian Split, 60 miles of forest-clad sand dunes virtually untouched by modern development, with the Baltic Sea on one side and a freshwater lagoon on the other. The entire area has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
Spain has a Mediterranean coastline stretching from the French border to Tarifa, the southernmost point in Europe, and touring it on your own terms means forgetting everything associated with a typical Costa del Sol vacation. Alternatively, driving from Porto in northern Portugal to its capital Lisbon via the beautiful old towns of Guimaraes and Obidos is a less demanding option that can be completed in a week.
With the Pyrenees on one side and the Bay of Biscay on the other, Spain’s Atlantic coastline is peppered with small cities and a Basque identity that bears little resemblance to the packed beaches and bustling cities of southern Spain. Visit San Sebastian, with more top restaurants than any other Spanish city; Bilbao, home to the Guggenheim Museum; and the majestic cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Extend your Atlantic journey further by including France, taking in the stretch from Bordeaux to Biarritz before hitting Spain.
The Amalfi coast is generally considered to be Italy’s most scenic stretch of coastline, and as such has earned itself a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list. On the south side of the Sorrento Peninsula not far from Naples, start at the bustling port town of Salerno before heading through the romantic resorts of Ravello and Amalfi.
Driving in Europe
While hiring rental cars in Europe is a little more expensive and complicated than in the US, it’s simple enough to book in advance from home. All major rental agencies have offices throughout Europe and deals are available through travel-booking sites such as Expedia. Thieves target tourists, so thief-proof your rental car by making it look as local as possible and avoid leaving anything worth stealing in it overnight.
While the bulk of these roads are modern, well-maintained and well-traveled, many involve dramatic mountain passes and hairpin bends. The views may be breathtaking, but road safety should always be considered, and overtaking should be negotiated with caution. It’s advisable to take a drive along major tourist routes such as the Amalfi coast slightly out of season (September or May is ideal) to avoid tour buses.
All the countries listed are part of the EU and no special visas are required for European travelers. US visitors can spend a total of 90 days in the countries covered by the Schengen Agreement without a visa, though they are advised to get their passports stamped at the point of entry.