Why take a European family road trip?
There’s a lot to be said for short flights and quick transfers for getting you swiftly away from the humdrum of everyday life to your family holiday destination. However, there are so many interesting places to explore between A and B if families are willing to embrace the journey in between. We spent four weeks on our European family road trip with our two boys aged seven and five. It was a luxurious length of time which gave us the chance to really enjoy travelling and spending time together learning about different destinations in Europe.
If you’re looking for route ideas – whether to drive predominantly through France or cut through Switzerland, I’ve written all about the various ways of driving to Italy from the UK.
A European road trip with kids is quite an education. We travelled through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Italy, Austria and Germany. That’s a lot of languages, flags, cuisines, cultures and history to be introduced to. We crossed bridges, explored historic cities, shopped in local markets, slept in a variety of farms, hostels, campsites and hotels. We drove over mountain passes, swam in lakes, rivers, the sea and countless swimming pools. We spent days hiking, climbing and cycling and met some very interesting and hospitable people along the way.
We also argued. We got tired, we got lost and we got very hot. Sometimes we needed a bit of space from one another. We also found plenty of grim service stations and some pretty unremarkable towns and we ate in one or two dubious restaurants. Our road trip wasn’t perfect but it was a refreshing change from airports, car hire firms and luggage restrictions. Interestingly, despite it being the height of the holiday season, we didn’t get stuck in any major traffic jams.
Tips on European road trips with kids
We had a few hiccups along the way but overall our European family road trip was a success. From our first hand experience, here are some tips to make a family road trip in summer time as enjoyable as possible:
- Avoid driving on a weekend. We planned our route so that our big driving days (particularly the drives over the Alps which friends in Switzerland had warned us about) were not on Saturdays or Sundays as we’d heard the roads would be busy. As a result, we didn’t come across any traffic jams. The drive from Calais south through France can be busy with British holidaymakers so combined with the possible threat of Brexit-related hold ups in southern England (which of course didn’t come to pass) we avoided northern France altogether by sailing to the Hook of Holland.
- If your ultimate destination is the Med, try to be creative with your route to avoid very long driving days. We found the Harwich to Hook of Holland ferry crossing worked brilliantly as the departure at 11pm meant my other half was able to go to work on the day we set off on holiday. The ferry docks at about 7am so you can knock off plenty of miles before lunchtime.
- If you’re planning to travel to Calais, consider taking an evening crossing or tunnel and find a cheap place to stay near Calais. By doing this (and depending on where in the UK you’re based), you should hopefully avoid rush hour traffic in the UK. You then have a whole day ahead of you to cover quite a bit of distance on the continent.
- Not everyone has the luxury of taking more than two weeks off work in the summer but if you are able to stretch your time away from work, you can spend more time on the journey and have fewer long days in the car. We only had one really long day of five hours driving, all of the other days were shorter.
- Research interesting stops to ensure the journey really is part of the holiday. The fairy tale villages in the Alsace region of eastern France are perfect for an overnight stop while the lakes of Switzerland are a rewarding break after hours in the car. On our trip, we drove through the Netherlands and Luxembourg: windmills, romantic castles and stunning forest scenery were some of the highlights for us on the first leg of the journey.
- Ensure you have an endless supply of snacks in case you get stuck in traffic at the wrong moment. We enjoyed sampling local biscuits, different country’s seasonal fruits and of course taste-testing crisps in each destination.
What to take on a European family road trip
- Audio books: we didn’t hear a peep out of our seven year old for long stretches of the drive as he was immersed in Roald Dahl and Michael Rosen.
- Top Trumps: these card games are brilliant for road trips and for occupying hungry children before dinnertime. If there’s nowhere to burn off pent up energy, these cards are a great distraction.
- Packing cubes: until I had these I thought they were a bit of a waste of money. However, they are really practical for family holidays: each member of the family has one or two cubes which they can sling into a drawer when you reach your destination. We packed the cubes directly into our car which saved on space and made everything much easier to locate.
- Insulated water bottles: some of my family don’t like drinking warm water which has been sat in a hot car all day so these are essential for fussy drinkers.
- A decent cool box: we did quite a bit of self catering and picnicking so it was useful to have a cool place to store left over food and lunch.
- Plenty of sun hats and sun cream: sometimes it was hard to locate a hat or bottle of cream when we’d been out for a day. They had a habit of ending up in a bag buried deep in the boot of the car so it was helpful to have spare sets of both these items.
Our family road trip itinerary through Europe
We travelled approximately 2,300 miles or 3,700 kilometres (by car and train), slept on four ferries and one train, stayed in two campsites, one youth hostel, four hotels and two farms. And we visited four car museums…
This is the road trip route we took:
The best bits of our European family road trip
Of all the destinations on our driving holiday across Europe, we loved the Swiss Alps and the Italian Dolomites the best along with swimming in the rivers of Corsica. Our most memorable meal was at a tiny restaurant in the village of Caprino Veronese near Lake Garda and our favourite swim was a daily dip in the Solenzara River during our week in Corsica.
Although our car was pretty full of stuff, we managed to buy lots of bottles of wine from local vineyards which we came across. Our favourite discovery was a little place off a dusty road on our final day in Corsica, the Clos d’Orlea near Aleria.
The best drives on our family road trip through Europe
- The roads through the forests of the Luxembourg Ardennes are beautiful: quiet, traditional and very green despite the heatwave of 2019.
- We loved Corsica’s stunning mountainous interior: empty narrow roads pass gorges and rocky passes, there are tiny settlements in very remote places.
- The roads through the vineyards of Piedmont’s Langhe wine region offer sweeping views of hillsides covered in vines and hilltop medieval villages.
- Driving up and over the mountains in the Parco Nazionale Appennino Tosco Emiliano took us through lovely scenery.
- The drive from the Dolomites down into Austria took us through some lovely villages of timber-framed houses and streets clearly built for horse and cart rather than car…
Here’s an overview of what we got up to on our European family road trip:
Day 1: Stenalink from Harwich to the Hook of Holland
Days 2 – 4: Luxembourg stopover
- Hook of Holland to Wiltz 3.5 hours, 350 kilometres
Days 5 – 8: Switzerland hiking adventure
- Wiltz to Zurich 5.5 hours, 500 kilometres
- Zurich to Bristen 1.5 hours, 100 kilometres
- Bristen to Bellinzona via the Gotthard Pass 2 hours, 120 kilometres
Days 9 – 12: Driving from Switzerland to northern Italy
- Bellinzona to Cellarengo (near Alba) via Lake Lugano and the Alfa Romeo Museum 3.5 hours, 280 kilometres
One of the main places I wanted to incorporate into our European family road trip was the north Italian region of Piedmont. The cuisine is fantastic in this part of Italy and it’s the home of the Slow Food movement. Piedmont is packed with vineyards and there are some lovely little towns to explore as well as a fantastic regional capital: Turin.
The drive from Bellinzona into Piedmont is a great route with plenty of interesting places to stop. We had a morning wander around the village of Morcote on Lake Lugano. We had planned to spend longer at the lake but a combination of factors (running out of Swiss Francs and a fierce thunderstorm) meant we ended up on the motorway to Italy sooner than expected. If the weather had cleared up we would have stopped at Lake Como but as the grey skies continued we found a convenient detour: the Alfa Romeo Museum just north of Milan.
We were spoilt with home cooked food, local wine, a lovely swimming pool and a host of attractions on our doorstep.
During our stay, we visited several wineries, explored the elegant streets of Alba and enjoyed driving through one of Italy’s most picturesque landscapes. We also had a brilliant day out in Turin, exploring the sights of the city which were made famous (for us at least) through the 1969 film the Italian Job.
Days 13 – 19 Corsica with kids
- Cellarengo to Savona / Noli 2 hours, 180 kilometres
- Bastia to Solenzara via Le Pont de l’Enfer 2.5 hours, 125 kilometres
We drove from our agriturismo south to the little seaside town of Noli for an afternoon swim and dinner. This is a great place to wile away a few hours before the overnight Corsica ferry as it’s only 15 minutes from the Savona ferry port.
We used Corsica Ferries for our overnight trip to Bastia. We travelled with them about 10 years ago on the same route and we concluded not a great deal had changed in the intervening years. The boat felt rather old, the cabins were rather tired looking and the queuing and boarding system was typically Italian in its frantic last minute bun fight style. However, there was an outdoor soft play area next to the terminal so the kids were able to burn some energy with a spot of moonlight playing while we waited to board.
When you’ve had a bad night’s sleep on a ferry and your nerves are a little frayed, there’s nothing quite like a refreshing dip in a Corsican mountain river. After breakfast in Bastia, we drove to le Pont de l’Enfer. Despite the ominous name (it translates as Hell’s Bridge), this was a little piece of heaven: a cool shady river with huge rocks for clambering on, deep isolated pools for leaping into and a lovely restaurant hidden away in the woods where we had a delicious meal.
Along with Piedmont, Corsica was my other key destination of the trip. This French island has incredible beaches, a mountainous interior and some beautiful medieval towns to explore. The cuisine is a mix of French and Italian with lots of stewed or grilled meats in the mountains and plenty of seafood on the coast. Due to the incredible heat we experienced during our stay on Corsica, we were quite lazy about finding good places to eat: we often ended up at the first pizzeria we came across so we didn’t experience the best of what Corsica has to offer from a culinary perspective. It’s worth doing a bit of research before you travel if food is a key part of your holiday priorities.
We based ourselves for a week at Sole di Sari camping village in Solenzara on the south east coast of Corsica: chalets and safari tents dotted along the banks of the Solenzara river.
Days 20 – 22 Fast cars in Maranello and Modena, Italy
- Solenzara via Corte to Bastia 2.5 hours, 156 kilometres
- Savona via the Parco Nazionale dell’Appennino Tosco Emiliano to Maranello 5 hours, 305 kilometres
Our final day in Corsica involved one last swim and some impromptu wine tasting. We took the scenic route from Solenzara back up to Bastia by winding our way through the mountainous interior to the old capital of Corsica: Corte. I’d love to return to the centre of island in cooler weather and explore some of the hiking trails as the scenery is stunning.
We drove to Bastia in time for dinner at the Old Port and were luck enough to get a table overlooking the harbour at the pizzeria Lavezzi, if you’re looking for a family-friendly restaurant in Bastia, this little place is a good bet. Unfortunately, after that we endured a rather grim ferry crossing with Corsican Ferries: we travelled on a creaking, rattling old ferry which swayed as if in a storm despite the weather looking pretty promising as we set sail. I’ll definitely reconsider using Corsican Ferries in the future if they do not upgrade their ships.
The Enzo Ferrari museum was, predictably, a homage to the great man while the actual Ferrari museum was rather dark and serious, a destination for the die hard Ferrari fan.
Days 23 – 26 Family fun at Lake Garda, Italy
- Maranello via Mantua to Rivoli Veronese, Lake Garda two hours, 150 kilometres
After overdosing on red cars we headed north towards Lake Garda. There are so many towns of note to visit in this part of northern Italy that I found it hard to narrow down a place to break our journey. We opted for Mantua as it’s setting is so impressive, surrounded on three sides by artificial lakes created in the 12th century as a means of defence, the entrance to the city takes some beating.
Days 27 – 29 luxury and hiking in the Dolomites, Italy
- Rivoli Veronese to Obereggen two hours, 160 kilometres
After a morning coffee in San Zeno di Montagna which offers particularly lovely views over Lake Garda, we headed to the final destination of our European family road trip: the Dolomites.
We treated ourselves to a rather luxurious stay at the family-friendly Hotel Maria in the village of Obereggen. Our stay in the Val d’Ega region of the Dolomites was one of the favourite parts of the trip for all of us. We did a brilliant 12 kilometre bike ride from the hotel over to Lake Carezza and enjoyed hiking and rock climbing. The boys had their first taste of doing a via ferrata and they are now keen to spend more time in the mountains after this little taste of adventure.
Although the Val d’Ega region is not as well known as some of the others parts of the Dolomites, I would highly recommend it for families hoping to introduce children to mountain holidays. From Obereggen a chair lift takes you up to some excellent walking trails which even the most reluctant little hiker would enjoy. If you’re considering a summer mountain holiday have a read of my post about visiting the Dolomites with kids.
Day 30 Motorail from Innsbruck to Dusseldorf
- Obereggen to Innsbruck: two hours, 140 kilometres
After our four night stay in Obereggen, we drove to Innsbruck for what we had hoped would be another highlight: an overnight train trip through to Düsseldorf in Germany, cutting out around one thousand kilometres of driving.
With so many details to sort out on a 4 week European road trip with kids, I had been a little bit disorganised with this part of the itinerary. Due to some sort of oversight on my part, we ended up booking the overnight train for the four of us but only booking beds for three of us as our five year old didn’t have to pay.
I have travelled all across China by rail (successfully and comfortably) and I’ve also taken a car to Nice by rail from Calais overnight which was supremely relaxing (sadly this route no longer exists). Our journey from Innsbruck to Dusseldorf however was rather bumpy and the train felt like it was lurching off the tracks. As a result, I had a rather sleepless night as I worried about the boys being tossed from their narrow bunks and also worried about myself being hurled from the vertiginous top bunk.
Days 31 – 32, Industrial Germany, the Netherlands and home
- Düsseldorf via Duisburg and Rotterdam to Hook of Holland 3.5 hours, 270 kilometres
What to do after a bad nights sleep on a train? Visit an industrial leisure park. There are so many interesting places to visit in this part of Europe that we’ll definitely take the Stenalink ferry crossing to the Hook of Holland again. On this occasion, we spent a morning exploring the Duisburg Nord Landscape Park located about half an hour north of Dusseldorf.
Our final stop of the trip was a late afternoon visit to Rotterdam. We loved wandering through the city and taking in the architecutre: the Erasmus Bridge and the Cube Houses. The Market Hall with its foodie stalls was fun to explore and we enjoyed evening drinks by the canal before finding a quick bite to eat in one of the many pavement restaurants. Rotterdam was an enjoyable city to dip into and we’d like to return there for a longer visit.