There’s something romantic about heading off into the unknown, hitting the open road free from the constraints of schedules, agendas and itineraries. It certainly worked for Jack Kerouac, who made his name with On the Road, the 1957 novel based on his travels from east to west coast in America. A road trip offers the chance to see the world with the added flexibility of pitstops wherever and whenever you want – to grab the perfect picture, or sample local culture, at your leisure. Here are Culture Trip’s top picks of scenic journeys to take at least once in your lifetime.
Everyone’s heard of Route 66, but what makes it so special? On a purely functional level, it takes you cross-country from Chicago to California, but in reality what you experience is a nostalgia-fuelled trip through smalltown America. These pockets of rural life are connected by vast highways surrounded by the best that nature can throw at you. Modernisation is creeping in on every aspect of this route, so this is one road trip you should try to do as soon as you get the chance. And savour every moment.
It’s impossible to pick a single route through the lush hills of this Italian region. For the classic summer road trip, why not start in Rome and head north to Lake Como? The route can be done in seven hours, but there are so many great cities for you to stop off at, including Florence. You could spend a week taking in the art and architecture in this historic Renaissance city, but beware it can get quite crowded. We also recommend Siena, which is full of magnificent buildings. In summer, it holds the famous Palio, the bareback horse race in the town square that goes back to medieval times.
Mention a ring road to most city-dwellers and they will cower at the thought of being stuck in traffic on a soulless motorway circling the long way round an urban sprawl. Not so in Iceland. Most visitors to this island nation tend to congregate in and around the capital, Reykjavik. To really see the best that Iceland has to offer, head to the 1,200km (800mi) ring road that takes you on a lap of the entire island. Driving in winter can be tricky, so be sure to pick a suitable vehicle for all the stunning terrain you will encounter – including lava fields, mountains, glaciers and geysers.
For many seasoned drivers, this is regarded as one of the best, and most remote, road trips in the world. The route runs along the west coast of Ireland, where the roadside cliffs drop off into the Atlantic. Make sure you have regular stops to take in ancient castles and remote rocky outcrops, as well as stunning beaches and dolphin and whale watching. You can also sample a way of life that has remained unchanged for centuries. If you have time, combine this trip with the Causeway Coastal Route in the north.
Scottish cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee tend to attract first-time visitors, but there’s so much more to see beyond. The wilds of the north have an irresistible lure and a near-mythic reputation. The 500mi (805km) coastal route starts and ends at Inverness Castle, doing a lap of what locals call the Black Isle. Head to John O’Groats, the most northerly tip of the UK, and visit pretty Applecross village where you can see across to Skye. There’s superb scenery along the way. Take a detour south of Inverness to Loch Ness at the start or end of your trip, and you might have a chance of sighting the fabled monster.
A drive this spectacular has to feature on our list and displace the legendary Swiss-Italian Stelvio Pass, but we’re sure you agree that the Amalfi Coast is just too special to overlook. Whereas the tight hairpins of the mountains offer a challenge, this coastal route is heartstoppingly narrow and winding, providing its own thrilling ride. With a sheer drop below you down to the Mediterranean, the views are a joy to experience from start to finish. The towns and villages that overlook the coast are beyond picturesque – take Positano, with its 13th-century ruins and tiny houses that cling for dear life to the cliffs. Luckily the coastal road is exceptionally well-maintained, as Italians love their cars as much as they love their football and their food.
Another iconic American road trip, for this one you really need to get yourself a convertible. Also known as Highway One, the route runs from San Francisco in the north to San Diego, but the best stretch to see is Big Sur, where the Santa Lucia Mountains create an intense and dramatic backdrop to the coast. Pretty Carmel and Monterey, made famous by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath, are well worth a visit. The hit HBO series Big Little Lies is set in the area, too, and the opening credits alone have brought fans here on a pilgrimage.
We had to include one alpine route, but the competition is tough. This epic road trip takes in multiple mountain passes, incredible scenery and the end point is the stunning French Riviera. If you tackle it in the opposite direction, which is best done in summer, you arrive at the shores of Lake Geneva. As you can see, whichever way you drive it, this is one of the best road trips in Europe.
Driving the South Island isn’t that well-known to long-haul travellers, probably because getting behind the wheel after a lengthy flight is the last thing you might care to do. However, the open roads can be explored by bus (if you’re playing it extra-cautious), and that will almost certainly give you a hankering to explore the rest of the outback at your leisure.
One of the highest paved roads in the world, this popular tourist route is also known as the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway. It takes you from the Punjab province of Pakistan to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the largest sub-division in China. The highway links to remnants of the ancient Silk Road, but the old trade route is better known today for its glaciers and mountains. The Khunjerab Pass at the border sits an altitude of 4,693m (15,397ft) in the Karakoram mountains; it is shut during winter when it’s covered in snow, so the best time to travel is in late spring (May) or early autumn.
Driving in India isn’t for the faint-hearted. The crowded cities and poorly maintained highways are notorious for causing accidents, but is that reputation still valid? A new network of excellent roads have recently opened up, and one of the best is this relatively short (94km/58mi) stretch that locals use to get away from the busy city centres. This trip takes about three hours to complete but with a number of popular food stops along the way why not make a day of it.
Perhaps one for the more daring road tripper, the Atlas Mountain pass is still a safe and well-looked after route that travel experts swear by. The majority of this trip takes place in Morocco, where you’re sure to get a warm welcome from the locals. This scenic road trip is also suitable for those looking to head out on two wheels, and some companies also offer the chance to rent sidecars if you want to pack some extra luggage.