Exploring Europe by Car: Discover Hidden Gems and Rich Histories

Exploring Europe by Car: Discover Hidden Gems and Rich Histories

Posted June 2, 2024

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Taking a road trip through Europe is an adventure like no other. Imagine driving through ancient cities with cobblestone streets or along coastal roads with stunning sea views. People love to drive cross-country, or in this case, cross-continent, because it offers the ultimate sense of freedom and discovery. You can explore at your own pace, take detours to hidden gems, and experience places that you might miss if you were traveling by plane or train. Europe’s mix of cultures, landscapes, and history invites you to explore and create lasting memories. This journey isn’t just about the destinations; it’s about the experiences you have along the way. The open road allows you to stop whenever something catches your eye, be it a scenic overlook, a quaint village, or a local market. Europe’s diverse geography means you can experience everything from the sunny Mediterranean coast to the snowy peaks of the Alps, all in one trip. For American travelers, these journeys can also uncover the cultural roots and influences that have shaped many aspects of life back home, from food and traditions to architecture and festivals.

Discovering Unique Spots and Famous Landmarks

As you drive through Europe, you’ll find surprises around every corner. Medieval castles, ancient ruins, and historic cities tell the tales of Europe’s rich past. For example, the hilltop castles of Germany’s Rhine Valley, like Burg Eltz, date back to the Middle Ages and offer a glimpse into the life of medieval nobility. In France, the Loire Valley is dotted with grand chateaux that were once the playgrounds of kings and queens. Every city, town, and village has its own special charm and history to explore. You might wander the historic streets of Prague, which survived World War II largely intact, or marvel at the Gothic architecture of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, a masterpiece still under construction since 1882 and expected to be completed in 2026. Each location tells its own story, adding depth and context to your journey.

A large castle in Loire Valley sitting on top of a body of water.

Loire Valley castle. Photo by Colin Watts

Enjoying Europe’s Rich Heritage

A road trip in Europe allows you to dive deep into its rich heritage. Each region you visit has its own unique history, culture, and traditions. You’ll taste a variety of foods, each dish reflecting the region’s history and culture. From the hearty stews of northern Europe to the delicate pastries of the south, Europe’s food scene is diverse and delightful. For travelers, especially those from the United States, this can be a fascinating journey of discovery. Many traditions and foods familiar back home have roots in the various European diasporas that have influenced American culture.

In Italy, you can enjoy pizza in its birthplace, Naples, and savor the fresh seafood along the coast. This can give American travelers a new appreciation for the Italian dishes they love. France offers a culinary journey from the wine regions of Bordeaux to the cheese-making traditions of Normandy, providing insights into the origins of many beloved American cheeses and wines.

Besides the food, you’ll experience local festivals, traditional music, and regional crafts that give you a deeper understanding of each place you visit. Participating in these activities provides a direct connection to the local way of life and centuries-old customs. It’s a chance to see firsthand the cultural practices that have crossed the Atlantic and become part of the American mosaic.

The Amalfi Coast, Italy

Starting your journey in Naples, known for its vibrant history and culture, sets the perfect tone for exploring the Amalfi Coast. As you drive along this stunning coastline, you’ll encounter breathtaking views of cliffs plunging into the turquoise waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Amalfi Coast is home to charming towns like Positano, with its colorful hillside houses, Amalfi, with its historic cathedral, and Ravello, famous for its beautiful gardens.

For American travelers, this region offers a deeper understanding of the Italian influences in the United States. Enjoying a pizza in its birthplace, Naples, or tasting fresh, handmade pasta and seafood dishes along the coast can provide a new appreciation for these familiar foods. Exploring local markets, attending festivals, and interacting with locals reveal the cultural traditions that Italian immigrants brought to America, enriching the American cultural tapestry.

The Amalfi Coast offers a beautiful scenic road trip
The Amalfi Coast offers a beautiful scenic road trip

The Ring Road, Iceland

Iceland’s Ring Road, or Route 1, encircles the island, offering a journey through some of the country’s most stunning natural wonders. From vast lava fields and towering waterfalls to black sand beaches and mighty glaciers, the landscapes are both unique and breathtaking. Relax in geothermal hot springs like the Blue Lagoon, and explore attractions such as the Golden Circle, which includes the geysers at Geysir, the powerful Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir National Park.

For travelers from the United States, Iceland can be an eye-opening experience. The natural beauty and geothermal activity are unlike anything back home, yet they also provide context for the Scandinavian heritage present in many parts of America. Visiting sites like Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, where icebergs float serenely, offers a glimpse into the natural environment that influenced the Nordic immigrants who settled in the northern United States.

The Scottish Highlands, Scotland

A road trip through the Scottish Highlands via the North Coast 500 route showcases some of the world’s most dramatic and beautiful landscapes. You’ll drive through rugged coastlines, past ancient castles, and into charming villages. The Highlands are steeped in history, from the battles of the Jacobite risings to the clans that once ruled these lands. Key sites include Loch Ness, the enchanting Isle of Skye, and historical castles like Eilean Donan.

American travelers will find that the Scottish Highlands offer a rich cultural experience, providing context for many Scottish traditions found in the United States. Enjoying local hospitality, sampling traditional Scottish dishes, and perhaps visiting a whisky distillery can deepen your appreciation for the Scottish influence on American culture. The music, dance, and festivals of Scotland have significantly shaped aspects of American heritage, particularly in regions with strong Scottish roots.

Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands

The Romantic Road, Germany

Driving along the Romantic Road in Germany is like stepping into a storybook. This route, stretching from Würzburg to Füssen, takes you through some of the most picturesque towns and landscapes in Bavaria. You’ll encounter charming medieval towns like Rothenburg ob der Tauber, with its well-preserved old town that feels like a journey back in time. Castles like Neuschwanstein, often called the fairy tale castle, offer a glimpse into the opulent lifestyles of Bavarian kings.

Many American traditions have roots in German culture. Enjoying a bratwurst or a pretzel in its place of origin, sipping on local beers, and experiencing the festive atmosphere of Bavarian towns during a traditional fair can deepen your appreciation for the German cultural influences in American festivals and cuisine. The vineyards and countryside along the way add another layer of charm, offering a peaceful retreat and a taste of local wine traditions.

The Atlantic Road, Norway

Norway’s Atlantic Road is a feat of engineering and a showcase of natural beauty. This road connects a series of small islands along the western coast, providing stunning views of the North Atlantic Ocean. As you drive, you’ll navigate sharp bends and bridges that seem to rise out of the sea, creating a thrilling and picturesque journey. The experience is heightened by the dramatic landscape, where the ocean meets rocky coastlines and scattered islands.

This journey highlights the rugged natural beauty that has influenced Scandinavian communities in America. The fresh seafood, such as locally caught fish and crabs, highlights the importance of the ocean in Norwegian cuisine and culture. This route also emphasizes the strong connection to nature that is a hallmark of Scandinavian life, a value shared by many Scandinavian immigrants in the U.S.

An engineering marvel along the Atlantic Road in Norway
An engineering marvel along the Atlantic Road in Norway

The Dalmatian Coast, Croatia

Explore the stunning Dalmatian Coast by driving from Dubrovnik to Split. This coastal road trip offers breathtaking views of the Adriatic Sea, picturesque islands, and charming seaside towns like Hvar and Trogir. The historical sites, such as Dubrovnik’s ancient city walls, provide a rich backdrop to the journey. American travelers will find echoes of Croatian heritage in the architecture and traditions.

Discovering the local cuisine, with its emphasis on seafood and Mediterranean flavors, can enhance your appreciation for the cultural contributions of Croatian immigrants to the United States. Exploring these coastal towns and their markets, tasting local dishes, and interacting with the residents can give you a new perspective on the contributions of Croatian culture to American life.

The Causeway Coastal Route, Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route offers a rugged and dramatic landscape that captures the imagination. Starting in Belfast, this route takes you along the northern coast, past the iconic Giant’s Causeway with its unique basalt columns. The journey includes charming villages, historic castles, and breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean.

Discovering Irish heritage that has significantly shaped American culture, this route can deepen your connection to the past. Many Americans have roots in Ireland, and exploring the sites along this route—whether it’s the stunning natural landscapes or the welcoming small towns—can provide a sense of coming home. Enjoying traditional Irish music in a local pub, tasting hearty Irish dishes, and learning about the history and folklore of the area can enhance your appreciation for the Irish cultural influences that are prevalent in many American communities.

The Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland

The Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland is a coastal route that stretches over 1,500 miles along the rugged western coastline from County Donegal in the north to County Cork in the south. This scenic drive takes you through some of Ireland’s most breathtaking landscapes, including towering cliffs, sandy beaches, and charming fishing villages. As you travel this route, you’ll encounter iconic sites such as the Cliffs of Moher, the Aran Islands, and the Ring of Kerry, each offering a unique glimpse into Ireland’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.

An excellent alternative to the Cliffs of Moher on the Wild Atlantic Way is the Slieve League Cliffs in County Donegal pictured here. Two large boulders in the middle of a blue water cove. The boulders are identified as God's table and chair.

An excellent alternative to the Cliffs of Moher on the Wild Atlantic Way is the Slieve League Cliffs in County Donegal. These cliffs are among the highest sea cliffs in Europe, rising nearly 2,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, and offer stunning views and a less crowded experience compared to the more famous Cliffs of Moher. Photo by Jude Mack

For travelers, especially those with Irish ancestry, the Wild Atlantic Way offers a unique opportunity to connect with their roots. I actually met a distant relative by chance when I stopped in a folk village during my road trip along the Wild Atlantic Way. Genealogy travel, or heritage tourism, has become increasingly popular as people seek to explore their family history and trace their lineage. Many Americans with Irish heritage find this journey particularly meaningful, as it allows them to visit the towns and villages where their ancestors once lived. The experience of walking the same streets, visiting the same churches, and even seeing the same landscapes their forebears did can be deeply moving and enlightening.

Along the Wild Atlantic Way, you can delve into traditional Irish culture by visiting local pubs, enjoying live music sessions, and tasting hearty Irish cuisine like seafood chowder and soda bread. The warm hospitality of the Irish people and the rich tapestry of stories and folklore add depth to the journey. Each stop along the way, whether it’s a bustling market in Galway or a quiet village in County Mayo, offers a chance to learn more about Ireland’s history and traditions.

This route also emphasizes the strong connection to nature and the sea that has influenced Irish communities both in Ireland and abroad. For many Americans, this journey offers insights into the Irish way of life that have been passed down through generations, enriching their understanding of the cultural heritage that has been woven into the fabric of American society.

The Transfagarasan Highway, Romania

Experience one of Europe’s most spectacular mountain roads by driving the Transfagarasan Highway in Romania. This winding road cuts through the Carpathian Mountains, offering breathtaking views, stunning alpine landscapes, and access to attractions like Balea Lake and Poienari Castle, often associated with Vlad the Impaler, the historical figure who inspired the legend of Dracula. This route provides an adventurous drive through some of Romania’s most dramatic scenery.

For American travelers, exploring this route provides a deeper understanding of Eastern European heritage. Along the way, you can delve into the rich history and folklore of Romania, including its most famous export, Dracula. Visiting castles like Poienari, which is linked to Vlad the Impaler, adds a historical and mythical dimension to your journey.

Experiencing traditional Romanian dishes, such as sarmale (stuffed cabbage rolls) and mămăligă (cornmeal porridge), while learning about local folklore and history, can give you a new appreciation for the contributions of Romanian immigrants to American society. Witnessing the landscapes and traditions of Romania firsthand offers valuable insights into the cultural influences that have shaped various aspects of American life.

Transfagarasan Highway
Transfagarasan Highway

Ready to Hit the Road?

These European road trips offer more than just beautiful landscapes and historic sites; they provide a journey into the cultural roots that have influenced many traditions in the United States. Planning is key to making the most of your adventure—consider weather conditions, traffic, and local regulations. Pack essentials like a roadmap, travel documents, and necessary equipment. Whether you’re exploring the fairytale charm of Germany’s Romantic Road, the dramatic coastal beauty of Norway’s Atlantic Road, the stunning Dalmatian Coast in Croatia, the rugged Causeway Coastal Route in Northern Ireland, or the spectacular Transfagarasan Highway in Romania, each journey offers a unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty. These experiences will not only leave you with lasting memories but also a deeper connection to the cultural heritage that has shaped the world we live in today.

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  • Tonya Fitzpatrick, Esq., is a co-founder of World Footprints, a social impact travel media company that she runs with her husband, Ian. She is an award-winning journalist, global public speaker, and three-time TEDx presenter who has written for several prominent publications including the Miami Herald, AAA World, The Lens and Island Soul. Recognized as Black Travel Journalists of the Year alongside Ian, Tonya serves on several travel industry boards, including SATW, The Explorers Club (DC chapter), NATJA, and JourneyWoman. She has also been appointed to the Maryland Tourism Development Board by Governor Wes Moore.