Five Great Bicycle Routes in Europe

Planes, trains, and automobiles certainly provide travelers with an edge when it comes to getting the most mileage out of Europe’s dreamy, castle-flecked landscapes. But there’s a price to pay: We end up being passive observers, rather than participants in the journey itself.

Touring Europe by bicycle, on the other hand, lets travelers set a more ambitious itinerary—one that comes with the freedom to engage as much as one wishes in the life of the land and its people. And, given the calorie-burning, it provides another freedom: to indulge in rich local delicacies without the guilt.

For an intimate travel experience alive with nature and a sense of history, train your sights on these five routes in Europe: 

> Lofoten Islands, Norway: 

Within the Arctic Circle, in the land of the midnight sun, sprawls an archipelago of craggy isles where the vibe is mellow yet drama bursts around every turn. Brimming with postcard-worthy sights, the even-keeled terrain of the Lofoten National Tourist Route offers plenty of opportunities to take in the spectacular scenery.

Reine, a fishing village on the island of Moskenesøya in Norway's Lofoten archipelago (Photograph by melenama, Flickr)
Reine, a fishing village on the island of Moskenesøya in Norway’s Lofoten archipelago (Photograph by melenama, Flickr)

While pedaling across bridges and through underground tunnels that connect the islands, travelers are guaranteed up-close encounters with lobster-red rorbuer (fisherman’s cabins) perched on stilts, granite pinnacles cradling tranquil bays, and the dazzling light and serrated stone walls that have long inspired aesthetes. For proof, visit Lofotens Hus, a Henningsvaer gallery housed in a former fish processing factory that highlights northern Norway’s Golden Age artists.

Other museums along the way offer insight into Lofoten’s long history, including Espolin Gallery in Kabelvåg, which displays paintings by Kaare Espolin Johnson depicting the harsh reality of fishermen’s lives, and the Lofotr Viking Museum in Bøstad. Literally at the end of the road, the oddly named village of Å—appropriately the last letter of the Norwegian alphabet—is a living history museum, complete with a smithy and a working 19th-century bakery.

  • Read it, do it: Explore the 142-mile scenic route at your own pace or join an organized tour from Svolvaer to Å with 50 Degrees North.

> Sardinia, Italy: 

A mix of giant dunes, gleaming white beaches, and mysterious megalithic structures all vie for attention when you’re cycling Italy’s second largest island. Begin in the popular resort town of Alghero and then head south as far as you desire along Sardinia’s west and southwest shores, letting the landscape be your guide.

Just a short ride away from the crowded beaches of Alghero is the Nuraghe di Palmavera, a complex of cone-shaped nuraghi that dates back to the Bronze Age. Pedaling along the often hilly route that winds toward and away from the craggy coast allows for plenty of stops to sample local specialties like wild boar sausage, eucalyptus honey, and wines made from indigenous grapes.

The ancient city of Tharros, a once-mighty port founded by the Phoenicians, commands an impressive site along the Gulf of Oristano, and is now an open-air museum where visitors can experience Corinthian columns, a Carthaginian acropolis, and a Punic temple. These ancient ruins combined with the colorful quartz sands of Is Arutas make this section of the ride especially diverse.

Stone megaliths called nuraghe reveal Sardinia's prehistoric past. (Photograph by terzocchio, Flickr)
Stone megaliths called nuraghe reveal Sardinia’s prehistoric past. (Photograph by terzocchio, Flickr)

Moving south along Sardinia’s western edge, cyclists will encounter the awe-inspiring Costa Verde (Green Coast), a 30-mile stretch where juniper bushes and other foliage drape sand dunes that, at 165 feet, are counted among Europe’s tallest. Another scenic area brimming with history is the unspoiled isle of Sant’Antioco that’s accessible by a thin causeway.

> Dalmatian Coast, Croatia: 

Croatia’s Dalmatian coast is strewn with islands big and small, glitzy and quaint. All the bikeable ones are accessible by ferry, especially from Split on the mainland.

Though bustling Split is visible across the Adriatic Sea, Brač, an island known for its gleaming white limestone, manages to impart a sense of remoteness. The route from Splitska, a former ancient Roman port in the north, to Bol on the opposite coast takes cyclists on a winding journey through hillside villages where men still sit astride donkeys.

Pedaling across the isle of Hvar is a lesson in contrasts. Switchback roads rise and fall in the bare hills where wild sage and oregano grow, and roadside vendors sell lavender goods and cherry liqueur. In Stari Grad, the island’s main town after celebrity-thronged Hvar Town, find Tvrdalj, the 16th-century summer palace of Croatian poet Petar Hektorović, tucked by a narrow bay. From there, numerous route options fan out to seaside villages pierced by church steeples.

The farthest flung of Dalmatia’s inhabited islands, Vis is dominated by a patchwork of tranquil fishing villages, agricultural fields, and vineyards. The island was once frequented by Romans who enjoyed partaking in public thermal baths, evidence of which can be seen to this day. And Stiniva, a cove hemmed in by tall cliffs on Vis, may very well be one of the most charming locales in all of Croatia.

> Peloponnese Peninsula, Greece:

Cycling the northeastern rim of the Peloponnese Peninsula immerses travelers in the real Greece, far removed from the country’s popular image as a mecca for island-hopping from one sun-drenched party to the next.

The loop from Poros to ancient Corinth resembles, at times, the Colorado Rockies, complete with ragged, snow-dappled peaks. At other points, it presents a joyous romp through coastal towns where fishermen still tenderize octopus by beating it on a cement pier.

The theater of Epidaurus is thought to have been built circa 340 BCE. (Photograph by erte, Flickr)
The theater of Epidaurus is thought to have been built circa 340 B.C. (Photograph by erte, Flickr)

All along the route, locals go about their chores: selling fresh figs and oranges beside the road or loading just-picked grapes into open truck beds. Epidaurus, home to an incredibly well-preserved 4th-century theater that could seat 13,000 people, is reached via vineyard-lined roads that slice through fertile plains crowded with pomegranate, citrus, fig, and walnut trees.

On the way to Nafplio, one of the most attractive coastal towns in the Peloponnese, only the attentive will spy an ancient Mycenae bridge. Perhaps the most lauded venue on any trip to Greece is the archaeological site of Olympia, once a place for worship of the gods, and where, in the eighth century, athletes first competed in the ancient Games.

> Black Forest, Germany:

Spending up to a week circling the Southern Black Forest Nature Park, situated along the border where Germany, Switzerland, and France meet, exposes cyclists to meadows and mountains, half-timbered villages, impressive castles, and verdant nature reserves. Even novices can happily ride through the fairy-tale world of the Black Forest because the southern route eliminates the heart-pounding ascents that Germany’s sylvan landscape is noted for.

The mostly flat adventure begins in Hinterzarten, which sits at almost 3,000 feet above sea level. A visit to the town’s Ski Museum is a trip back in time to the beginning of the sport in 1890 on the Black Forest’s highest mountain, Feldberg. Farther down the road, 130-foot-deep Lake Titisee is a testament to the Ice Age: It was gouged out by a glacier. Yet, despite this geological wonder, it’s often the vendors selling cuckoo clocks and other souvenirs that take center stage.

The botanically inclined will want to detour for a hike in Wutach Gorge, an intact nature reserve known as “the Grand Canyon of Germany” that’s rich in orchids, daffodils, and other flora. Biking into medieval Waldshut, which retains its two fortified medieval gates and restored gabled houses, you can gaze over the Rhine into Switzerland. The spiritual heart of the Black Forest, Freiburg is renowned for its water-filled canals and a Gothic cathedral distinctive for its impressive 380-foot-high spire (which the brave among you are invited to climb).

Jeanine Barone is a freelance travel and food writer who writes for National Geographic Traveler and other publications. Keep up with her on Twitter @JCreatureTravel and on her blog

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Comments

  1. Yorgo
    Athens,Greece
    September 9, 2015, 5:35 am

    Peloponnese is a great option for cyclists. The climate is ideal and easy to combine it with other forms of tourism like wine tourism, Agritourism, culinary and more
    http://www.travelncycle.com

  2. Tom Radecki
    Clarion, Pennsylvania
    July 19, 2015, 5:35 pm

    For an American to go to Europe would require at least 6000 miles of air travel assuming he/she comes back. Air travel is very polluting with the contrails doubling the impact of the fossil fuel emissions.

    In this era of extremely rapid and destructive global warming, such travel is clearly unethical for almost all of us. Pope Francis gets a pass since his air travel to South America strengthens his campaign against global warming emissions.

    Fortunately, in almost every region of the U.S., we, too, have great bike trails. I just did the 63 mile Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania trail back and forth and hope to do the Pittsburgh to D.C. trail half way and then double back. I do worry if it is irresponsible to drive my car 110-140 miles each way to do these. It get 40 mpg on gasoline but each gallon is 25 pounds of CO2 including the emissions of production.

    I am eager to buy a Nissan Leaf ASAP. Since I buy wind electricity, my carbon footprint will then be very small since my living quarters has no direct heat and I use no AC. I took a course on DIY PV solar last month and hope to put in 15000 watts so I can feed a lot into the grid to offset the footprint of my food, embodied footprints, etc. I’m v egan and don’t shower. I exercise 11 times per week to a vigorous sweat and just dry off. It keeps me very clean with a healthy and naturally protective skin biome.

    Global warming is going to be much more destructive than you think. The estimate is that for every 150 tons of CO2 we emit now, we will be killing one more human later this century and still more after that along with a lot of animal life.

    Europeans have huge carbon footprints with the average European killing one person every 20 years. Their only defense is that they can say we Americans are twice as bad.

  3. Britt Elton
    Lillehammer, Norway
    February 4, 2015, 12:47 pm

    Lofoten You can book fixed tour here: http://www.active-norway.com

  4. jeanine barone
    NYC
    January 26, 2015, 9:50 pm

    Hi Lyana, Glad you liked my recommendations. Yes, the Theater of Epidaurus is absolutely amazing. There are so m any treasures on that ride.

  5. jeanine barone
    NYC
    January 26, 2015, 9:48 pm

    Hi Bev Harris, I’ve never walked in Provence. (Sorry) But I will be walking in Brittany this summer.

  6. jeanine barone
    NYC
    January 26, 2015, 9:47 pm

    Hi Chateau du Petit Thouars, Yes, the Loire Valley always makes it on a list of great places to bicycle. I wanted to choose those routes that are less obvious.

  7. Château du Petit Thouars
    http://www.chateaudptwines.com
    January 26, 2015, 9:12 am

    Maybe it’s too obvious but I’m suprised the Loire Valley wasn’t on your list! It’s such a wonderful region for cyclists!

  8. Bev Harris
    Courtenay, British Columbia
    January 25, 2015, 12:35 pm

    Hello Jeanine,
    Thank you for this informative article. I’m wondering if you’ve ever walked long distance in Provence and is there a particular route of about 150 km you would recommend.
    Bev

  9. Lyana
    http://escapeswithme.blogspot.ca
    January 24, 2015, 5:47 pm

    Great recommendations, the Theatre of Epidaurus looks really cool.