Best by Road: Spain
Home to the fifth largest highway network in the world (and plenty of pit stops to stock up on picnic produce like Jamón Ibérico, tortilla and manchego cheese), Spain is a top choice for a European road trip. From the Bay of Biscay, take the Basque circuit and wind through craggy mountain passes, rolling foothills and sandy coastline. The loop begins in Bilbao, home to the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, and heads south towards Vitoria and Pamplona. Drive through foodie hot spot San Sebastiàn and stop at Txiki Zelai for home-grown locavore fare before finishing the five-hour jaunt by cruising west along the Cantabrian corniche. To spin through the lush countryside, the route from Santander to Costa del Sol is a peaceful drive across rolling golden hills. Madrid is an ideal halfway point before continuing down to Granada (or avoid the capital and head west through Salamanca and Seville). Most of the roads along the 10-hour trip are toll-free motorways, which makes for a cheap joyride.
Best by Rail: Switzerland
Switzerland’s efficient rail network cuts through rugged Alpine landscapes, steep gorges and misty waterfalls. It also happens to be one of the easiest public transport systems to use: Signage and announcements are in English and the range of good value Swiss travel passes eliminates the need to fuss around with individual tickets. Bonus: most passes offer free admission to museums too. The Golden Pass line from Lucerne to Interlaken chugs around emerald lakes and charming Swiss chalets; board the glass-topped panoramic train for the best views. At 13,642 feet, Jungfrau is aptly dubbed the ‘Top of Europe’ and can be reached by a crowded cog train. In the southern Alps, the Bernina Express from Chur champions over other lines. Crawling at 20 mph, this track navigates close to 200 bridges and weaves through mountains via 55 tunnels, a journey so impressive it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Photo by Chelsea Bengier
Best by Bike: France
Inspired by the Tour de France but keen to leave the punishing inclines to the professionals? Some of the most relaxed routes lie just outside Bordeaux, along the banks of the Dordogne River, through the wineries in Lot and around the sleepy medieval village of Cahors. Companies like European Bike Express make wheeling easy by transporting cyclists to drop-off points in a double-decker coach bus with a tricked out trailer, then picking them up at their chosen end destination. You’ll also find many French companies offering holiday tours and rentals, such as Brittany Borders Bicycling and Breton Bikes. Bikes can also be taken free of charge on most trains in France, particularly on the TER regional express trains.
Best by River: Germany
Although Germany is noted for its pedal-to-the-metal autobahn, the country’s prime gateway is its waterway system, with more than 150 rivers that flow into the Baltic, Black and North seas. The Rhine, Weser, Elbe, Danube and Oder connect the country’s main cities, and tour companies, such as Viking River Cruises, offer a variety of sailings from nightly booze cruises to two-week voyages. The Rhine, which stretches from the Netherlands to southern Germany, showcases a handful of crumbling castles and historic towns; the Upper Middle Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The longest route is down the Danube, from southern Germany through Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and the northern edges of Bulgaria to the Black Sea.
Best on Foot: Italy
Meander markets, climb cliffs and hike the hills in Italy, a country best explored a piedi. Each of the 20 regions has a different landscape to stroll through. Cinque Terre on the Ligurian Coast features a 7-mile trail connecting its five charming seaside towns. Further south on the Amalfi Coast, the Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods) leads through ancient Roman ruins, or for a tougher trek, head to the Dolomites in northern Italy, Europe’s largest high alpine meadow, where trails wind around jagged limestone peaks and wildflower fields dotted with goats and cows. History buffs should trace the Via Francigena, a 6th-century pilgrimage path. Many of Tuscany’s historic hilltop towns such as San Gimignano, Strove and Monteriggioni, are close enough to stroll between on daily walks.
Photo by Chelsea Bengier
Best by Air: U.K.
Take to the skies to see Britain at its best. The country offers more aerial activities than most other European countries, from learning to fly a 1940 vintage biplane and hang-gliding over the Cotswolds to helicopter tours over London. It’s also home to the annual Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, a four-day event in August that attracts roughly 500,000 spectators. Over 150 colorful balloons light up the skies with an impressive nightglow parade, and the RAF Red Arrows, Britain’s famous aerobatic team, perform aerial tricks.