European Road Trips: The Best Coastal Drives

A tight turn on the Amalfi Coast in Italy David van der Mark / Flickr

Whether you prefer your coastal scenery rugged and windswept or sunny and sandy, you’ll find what you’re looking for on the shores of Europe. And when it comes to taking in as much of the coast as possible—and at your own pace—a road trip can be an eminently appealing option. We’ve compiled a roundup of some of our favorite drives that show off the continent’s dazzling beaches, craggy cliffs, quiet fishing villages, and secluded coves. So hop in and let’s get going! 

And for more ideas for planning an unforgettable road trip, check out our list of the best scenic drives in the United States.

Photo: a tight turn on the Amalfi Coast in Italy

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Monte Carlo, Monaco Pixabay
  • Route: Cannes to Monte Carlo (pictured above)
  • Distance: 34 miles (55 km)
  • Along the way: Europe’s most glamorous coastline—also known as the Côte d’Azur—is almost as famous for its crowds of jet setters as for its golden beaches and bright-blue Mediterranean waters. Starting in Cannes (of film festival renown), you’ll zip alongside a shimmering, yacht-dotted sea fronted by luxury resorts, some of the world’s most acclaimed restaurants, and some of the world’s most well-heeled sunbathers. Who knows? Maybe you could join their ranks by winning big at the roulette tables in Monte Carlo.
  • Stop for art in Nice. Generations of painters and sculptors have been drawn to the region’s vibrant colors and radiant light. Check out their work in public squares and museums dedicated to Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, and their contemporary successors.
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A surfer on a beach in Newquay in Cornwall, England Davide D'Amico / Flickr
  • Route: Barnstaple to Fraddon
  • Distance: 72 miles (116 km)
  • Along the way: The seaside counties of Devon and Cornwall in southwestern England hold a special place in the hearts of Brits because so many of them have spent their summer holidays here. A drive along the portion of the A39 road known as the Atlantic Highway supplies a good explanation for why. Located on the peninsula’s northern coast, the road strings together charming fishing villages, jagged cliffs, and hidden coves once frequented by smugglers and pirates. The seascape gets more spectacular as you go along, balancing dramatic rock formations with sandy beaches for swimming and surfing (the one pictured above is in Newquay).
  • Extend your trip at either end with a visit to hilly, wooded Exmoor National Park in the north or, in the south, England’s stopping point at Land’s End.
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Cape Matapan on Greece's Mani Peninsula Nicolas Hadjidimitriou [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Route: Areopoli to Cape Matapan and back
  • Distance: 57 miles (92 km)
  • Along the way: For a truly remote drive through a region almost entirely devoid of tourists, follow the narrow, winding road from Areopoli down the west coast and back up the eastern side of Greece’s central peninsula. The scenery is more rocky than sandy, with cliffs and mountains only occasionally giving way to coves and pebble-strewn beaches. Signs of past and present human habitation come in the forms of domed churches, castle ruins, the clifftop medieval village of Vathia, and quiet towns that until recently were accessible only by sea vessel. At the midway point of the loop stands the lighthouse at Cape Matapan (also known as Cape Tenaro; pictured above), the southernmost tip of the Greek mainland.
  • Stop for the Diros Caves, just south of Areopoli, where you can board a small boat and drift past colorful stalactites in extensive caverns deep underground.
 
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Norway's Atlantic Ocean Road Ajith Kumar / Flickr
  • Route: The island of Averøy to the mainland at Eide
  • Distance: 5 miles (8 km)
  • Along the way: Thrill seekers should find plenty to like on this collection of bridges with snaking turns, dips, and inclines that have prompted many to compare the overwater route to a roller coaster. Those who aren’t white-knuckling it at the steering wheel are treated to stunning views of stark isles and crashing waves. The scene is even more impressive—and sometimes downright scary—in a storm. Drivers might prefer a calm day, when you can stop at observation areas to watch for seals, birds, and orcas.
  • Extend your trip south to take on the zigzagging Troll Path mountain road and, further along, the world’s longest road tunnel, which connects Laerdal and Aurland—a distance of 15 miles (25 km) that takes 20 minutes to traverse. 
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Positano on Italy's Amalfi Coast Pixabay
  • Route: Sorrento to Ravello
  • Distance: 24 miles (39 km)
  • Along the way: For those in search of coastal beauty, this stretch of southern Italy is a no-brainer. Steep and twisty, the drive isn’t exactly easy, but it’s worth it for gorgeous views of cliffs plunging into a sparkling sea. Now and then you’ll arrive at picturesque towns clinging to the hillsides as if they sprang from them. Highlights include glitzy Positano (pictured above), historic Amalfi with its lively waterfront and medieval streets, and vista-rich Ravello, which overlooks the coast from a perch high in the mountains.
  • Stop for food at every chance you get, whether that means snacking on gelato or digging into fresh pasta brightened up with lemons grown in the region’s terraced gardens.   
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Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge on the Antrim Coast in Northern Ireland portengaround / Flickr
  • Route: Carrickfergus to Portrush
  • Distance: 60 miles (96 km)
  • Along the way: The astonishing Giant’s Causeway—a seaside cluster of towering basalt columns formed by either volcanic activity or industrious giants, depending on whom you ask—is the showstopper on this Northern Ireland route. But getting to that natural marvel provides some impressive sights, too; you pass intensely green hillsides, beaches, bays, and villages with whitewashed cottages and inviting pubs and tea shops. It’s a relatively short drive, but you probably won’t mind if it expands to fill an entire day.
  • Stop for the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge (pictured above) and take a wobbly walk across a 59-foot wide, 79-foot-deep chasm connecting the mainland to a small island. Or if that sounds a little too hair-raising, linger on the beach amid the verdant farms and stone cottages of nearby Ballintoy.
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Villa Belza in Biarritz, France Gadjo_Niglo
  • Route: Bilbao to Biarritz
  • Distance: 92 miles (148 km)
  • Along the way: Great beaches and even better food are the primary draws for visitors to the Basque region straddling the border between Spain and France along the Atlantic Ocean. San Sebastián on the Spanish side features arguably the best of what the coast has to offer, with its sun-soaked crescent of sand facing the Bay of Biscay (a favorite of surfers) and its incredibly dense concentration of top-notch restaurants, from Michelin-starred headliners to pintxos bars cooking up Basque country’s answer to tapas. Of course, several centuries‘ worth of royalty would argue that the sparkling beaches of Biarritz, over in France, aren’t too shabby either.
  • Extend your trip northward to Bordeaux, where you can continue your gastronomic explorations in one of the world’s great centers of wine production.
Pictured above: the Villa Belza in Biarritz
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A grass-roofed church in the Faroe Islands Pixabay
  • Route: Gasadalur to Saksun to Torshavn
  • Distance: 70 miles (113 km)
  • Along the way: You’ll discover otherworldly scenery—and likely have it all to yourself—in this remote, 18-isle archipelago floating in the North Atlantic amid Iceland to the west, Norway to the east, and Scotland to the south. Though the Danish territory is made up of tiny islands, many of them are connected by bridges and underwater tunnels, allowing cars easy access to land- and seascapes of timeless beauty. From the village of Gásadalur, where a waterfall tumbles down a steep cliff and directly into the ocean, make your way to Saksun (population: 14), where a tidal lagoon is encircled by a smattering of homes, a grass-roofed church, and a herd of sheep. End your day on the harborfront of Torshavn, the territory’s capital.
  • Stop for dinner at Koks in Torshavn. Specializing in Nordic cuisine such as fermented lamb, sea urchin, and fresh fish, the restaurant garnered the Faroe Islands‘ first Michelin star in 2017.   
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A beach on the Algarve in southern Portugal Pixabay
  • Route: Faro to Cape St. Vincent
  • Distance: 76 miles (122 km)
  • Along the way: When it comes to coastlines, Portugal belongs in Europe’s upper ranks, whether the measurement is quality or quantity (altogether, the country has more than 1,100 miles of oceanfront real estate). Nowhere is this more apparent than on the country’s southern coast. Driving east, with Spain behind you, you’ll pass scores of sandy beaches, from crowded spots near high-rise hotels and golf courses, to pristine stunners like Marinha Beach, where stony cliffs loom over crystal-clear waters. The end of the line is Cape St. Vincent, where a lighthouse marks the continent’s most southwestern point. Try to make it in time for sunset.
  • Extend your trip by turning north and heading up the Atlantic coast toward Lisbon, vineyards, and further adventures.
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Dubrovnik, Croatia Pixabay
  • Route: Split to Dubrovnik
  • Distance: 143 miles (230 km)
  • Along the way: The Adriatic Sea is so blue along the Dalmatian Coast that the boats bobbing in the water sometimes appear to be suspended in an upside-down summer sky. That mesmerizing view is accompanied by a serpentine drive that climbs up and slides down limestone cliffs. The route extends toward Slovenia in one direction and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the other, but wherever you get on the highway, you’ll want to make sure you see the red-roofed cities of Split, famous for its Roman ruins and sunny beaches, and Dubrovnik, where stone walls surround a waterside Old Town (pictured above) filled with beautifully preserved medieval and Renaissance architecture. 
  • Stop for ferry rides to nearby islands like Vis and Lokrum to explore historical buildings and secluded beaches. 

 

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