Europe's 10 Prettiest Drives

Melissa Burdick Harmon

Roam through ruined castles, picnic by secluded lakes,  explore quiet country lanes – add  a bit of history, a bit of art into the mix – here are  10 lovely drives through Europe, for you to experience at your own pace.  

The Amalfi Coast, Italy
Best for Grand Views and Marvelous Music

Ask Europhiles to name the continent’s most beautiful drive, and odds are high that the Amalfi Coast will grab the most votes. This narrow, winding coastal road, which starts in pretty Sorrento, just south of Naples, hugs sheer cliff faces on one side and on the other, offers drop-straight-down-to-the-blue-sea vistas. There is a stone wall, a few feet high, to keep you safe. Even though the road is only 45 miles long, plan to take several days to savor both the scenery and the potent limoncello, a local liqueur that is a lovely follow-up to a dinner of fresh-caught grilled fish. Book a room (in advance) in pretty, cliff-hugging Positano, which spills down the steep cliffs to pebble beaches and the sea. Nearby Ravello is famous for its music festival, with many of the venues outdoors, giving audiences glorious sea views. If you want to explore more (and avoid the drive back up the coast), take a 20-minute hydrofoil or slower  ferry from Sorrento to Capri, to explore the Blue Grotto and sip wine at a bar in the Piccola Marina. From there you can get to Naples.  

King Ludwig’s Castle Drive, Germany
Best for Spotting Fairytale Castles

Snow-capped mountains, deep green forests, and farms so well-kept they look like photos on top of jigsaw puzzle boxes—the Bavarian Alps would be a great drive destination even without its mad, and sad, king, who built all those fairytale castles. Drive south from Munich, then take the German Alpine Road to east to Chiemsee, Bavaria’s largest lake. Perhaps catch a concert on the island of Herrenchiemsee, before visiting King Ludwig II’s unfinished version of Versailles there. Continuing east, drive up to scenic Berchtesgaden, where Adolph Hitler’s famed Eagle’s Nest stood. Swing south into Austria, returning to Germany at Garmisch-Partenkirchen (take the cog railway or cable car up Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze). Drive north via Oberammergau, home to the passion play, and stop at Ettal, a lovely Benedictine abbey. Next door, visit Ludwig’s Linderhof, a jewel box palace   complete with a faux grotto with fake stalactites. Last stop: Füssen, where you will see Ludwig’s great masterpiece, Neuschwanstein, with its whimsical turrets that inspired Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle.

The Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland
Best for Putting Things into Perspective

Driving along the deep green and lovely northeast coast of Northern Ireland, you will begin to spot massive basalt columns rising out of the sea. If you believe the Irish—and why wouldn’t you?—these “steps” were built many million years ago, by a tough Irish giant named Finn MacCool, who walked across his causeway to Scotland to fight a rival giant. When he saw the size of his rival, he ran back to Ireland, with the Scot in hot pursuit. It’s a long story (it involves a giant baby), but the Irish won out and the dueling giants left behind some 40,000 basalt “steps” to enable other big guys to move between Northern Ireland and Scotland. In truth, however, these 40,000 hexagonal pillars of volcanic basalt stretch far into the sea, and were probably created by boiling lava that shot through the ocean floor in pre-historic times. The Causeway Coast drive has even more to offer, including White Park Bay Beach, a lovely crescent between two green headlands; the ruins of pretty Dunluce Castle, romantically perched atop a towering cliff; and Bushmills Distillery (tastings available) and cozy Bushmills Inn with nice rooms.  

The Estoril Coast Drive and Sintra, Portugal
Best for Sea and Mountains Combined

Explore Lisbon, and then drive along the River Tejo Estuary to Estoril, a lovely resort on the Atlantic Ocean that is known as a playground for the rich and royal. Its sandy beach is backed by a two-mile-long promenade, rows of mansions, and one of Europe’s largest casinos. Stop in Cascais, the next beach town, to watch fisherman auctioning their catch on the quayside. Follow the N247-4 road to Cabo da Roca, to photograph the pretty lighthouse marking the westernmost point of the European mainland. After a stroll on the beach and a seafood meal, head inland on the winding N247 road to Sintra, one of Portugal’s most historic places (the entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage site). The National Palace of Sintra, with parts dating back to the 14th century, is superb. Portuguese royalty came there in summer for the cool breezes. Drive higher up the mountain to The Palácio da Pena, as over the top as the National Palace is restrained. Don’t miss the Convento dos Capuchos, a Franciscan monastery built in 1560, damp, and dark, the cells cut from sheer rock. The monks’ earthly rewards were the ocean views below.

The Grand, Middle and Lower Corniches, France and Monaco
Best for Sweeping Views and Chic Settings

Who can forget the image of the young and gorgeous Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, zooming along the cliff-hugging Grand Corniche in a blue cabriolet convertible, with the Mediterranean Sea far below? Actually, there are three Corniche roads, like layers in a cake, all crossing the French Riviera, and all entering the tiny Principality of Monaco. Each deserves a place on the world’s great drives (though the lower road might also qualify for world’s most traffic clogged in high season). The Grand Corniche, the highest, follows a path built by the Romans, and it offers panoramic views, making million-dollar yachts look like bathtub toys. Snap photos of the pretty “village perche,” ancient fortified towns, in settings so steep that they are virtually inaccessible (which was the idea).  The Grand Cornice offers panoramic views of Eze (the Middle Corniche actually takes you there), one of the prettiest towns on this steep coast, perched atop a stone outcropping. Browse Eze’s galleries, stroll through its cactus garden, and splurge on lunch at the Michelin two-star Chevre d’Or. The drive from Eze down to Nice is glorious. 

The Dingle Peninsula, Ireland
Best for Glorious Scenery and Lively Pubs

The Dingle Peninsula was breathtakingly beautiful, in a quiet way, even before film director David Lean decided to build a little faux village there and film the 1970 blockbuster movie Ryan’s Daughter, starring Robert Mitchum and Sara Miles. Today, a drive around the peninsula will take you through pretty woodland to the village of Ventry, home to two wide curved beaches, a pub, and a post office. The Iron Age fort at nearby Dunbeg boasts sturdy 22-foot-thick-wall beehive stone construction dating back to 500 B.C. Stop at Slea Head, where you can see all the way to South Kerry and the Blasket Islands (the last of the Irish-speaking inhabitants of the Blaskets were evacuated in 1955, after most had moved to Springfield, Massachusetts). Visit the islands by catching the ferry at Dύnquin (whenever it happens to be going; no set schedule). Much of Ryan’s Daughter was filmed in Dύnquin. Head inland, to explore Mount Brandon, Ireland’s second highest peak. Go barefoot to explore the vast Sand Dunes of Inch. Reward yourself afterwards with a pint at the pub, where the folks next to you may be speaking Gaelic. 

Bergen to Oslo, Norway
Best for Seeing Nature in the Raw

Norway, with its towering mountains, bluer-than-blue fjords, roaring waterfalls, evergreen-covered mountains and pretty little villages complete with old-fashioned wooden stave churches, demands both the close attention and the seize-the-moment freedom that can only be had by driving (though the trip can also be done by rail and boat).  Start this 350-mile drive in coastal Bergen. Explore the old wharf area, lined with brightly colored medieval Hanseatic League houses, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then head across the country, toward snow-capped mountains, oceans of evergreens, and one dazzling blue fjord that is more spectacular than the next (you will ferry across some of these). Keep your eye out for Norway’s medieval stave churches along the way, some complete with scary masks to help stave off demons. Once in Oslo, check out local artist Edvard Munch’s paintings, including several versions of The Scream, which were stolen and recovered. If you choose, drive back to Bergen along the coast, for panoramic ocean views, stopping in Stavanger (lots of oil rigs there), with its pretty old city.

A Highland Drive, Scotland
Best for Castles and Clans

Fly into Glasgow. Spend a little time exploring this former industrial city, including a visit to The Burrell Collection for fine art, and a walk along the Mackintosh Trail to see buildings created by famed Glasgow architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Then head for the hills.  Drive about 32 miles to the shores of Loch Lomond, the largest inland lake in all of Britain. Climb up 3,000-plus-feet high Ben Lomond, or just take it easy and float in a boat. Next stop: Inveraray on the shores of Loch Fyne. Its castle is home to the Duke of Argyll, and is the seat of Clan Campbell.  Nearby Loch Awe could actually inspire same, with its ruined Kilchurch Castle and green-mountain backdrop. Drive to Oban to catch the car ferry to the Isle of Mull, where you may spot some whales on their summer vacations. Once back on the mainland, drive to Glencoe, site of a major massacre of the MacDonalds in the 17th century, and today a lovely place to hike and picnic. Conclude your journey with a drive east to Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, where the hills are gentler and the banks around Great Britain’s largest lake are bonny indeed.         

Dali-esque Drive through Catalonia, Spain
Best for Dalí Dreamscapes and Rugged Scenery

Wildly beautiful, independence-minded Catalonia greatly influenced surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, who grew up there. Even today the region clings to its ancient language and flies the red-and-gold Catalan flag. Stop in Figueres, to visit Dalí’s childhood home, as well as the excellent Teatre Museu Dalí, which he helped create in the town’s theater (he is buried there). One highlight, an old Cadillac taxi, where rain pelts down on a faux passenger seated inside. The Dalí Jewels, some 37 sparkling creations, are nearby. Drive on to Pύbol Castle (thoroughly Dalí-ized) in a pretty, pocket-sized medieval village. From there, head up the Costa Brava, picking a pretty beach town for some play. Finally arrive in arty Cadaqués, with its luminescent white buildings, small Dalí museum, and outdoor cafes offering fresh fish with a view. Best for last, drive to truly tiny Port Lligat, where Dalí’s off-kilter white home overlooks colorful fishing boats, black rock formations, and a smooth harbor. Dalí and his wife lived there from 1930 until her death in 1982. Book ahead to visit:

Southern Poland, from Krakow through the Tatra Mountains
Best for Great Old World Churches and Grand Mountain Hikes
Fly into Krakow, the historic city that escaped bombing (but not the elimination of its Jews) during World War II. Stroll through Old Town, shop for well-priced amber jewelry, and explore one of the richest, most colorful medieval squares left in the world—teeming with life. Don’t miss Wawel Cathedral, high above the Vistula River, and consecrated in 1364. Poland’s kings were crowned there. Leaving Krakow, drive southwest to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Nazi’s largest death camp, grim, moving, and important to see. Then drive west to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Center Wieliczka Salt Mine, a world of underground lakes and medieval sculptures in salt, including the magnificent Chapel of the Blessed Kings, carved by miners. Continue south to the High Tatra Mountains, where snow caps are dotted with tall evergreens (Pope John Paul II liked to slip away from the Vatican to ski in his beloved Tatras). At Zakopane, a rural village of ornately carved wooden farmhouses, a cable car takes you higher in the Tatras to get the view. These towering mountains share a border with Slovakia, also worth a visit.