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.
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.
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.
- Read it, do it: Sign on with Dolce Vita Bike Tours for a guided experience that starts in Alghero and ends in Pula, or rent your own ride in Alghero and take it from there.
> 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.
- Read it, do it: Join a tour of Vis and Hvar with Pedal and Sea Adventures or rent a bicycle in Split at Meridien Ten and go your own way.
> 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.
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.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
- Read it, do it: Book a self-guided tour through Cycle Greece or find rentals at Nafplio Bike in Nafplio.
> 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).
- Read it, do it: Join a loop tour that begins and ends in Hinterzarten with Original Schwarzwald or rent a bike with Sport Maurer in Hinterzarten.