15 of the best road trips in Ireland and The UK

15 of the best road trips in Ireland and The UK

Want to whizz past postcard horizons, world-beating mountains and dinosaur-era coasts? Get behind the wheel for the drive of a lifetime with our pick of the 15 best road trips in Ireland and the UK.

Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland

Scouring the glassy-calm sea, you see a dolphin pod amid a plankton feeding frenzy. Soon after, the silence on your wildlife-watching boat turns to screams with the emergence of a far more giant creature: besides you is a 25ft-long Minke whale. This visceral overture off the West Cork coast sums up the thrills of the Wild Atlantic Way, the world’s longest uninterrupted coastal drive. From the sandy beaches and sea cliffs of Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula to Kinsale on the Celtic Sea Coast, 1,550 miles of asphalt weaves through time-warp seaside towns and diverse areas of outstanding natural beauty. Don’t rush it.

Duration: seven to ten days.

Car hire: pick up your wheels at Belfast’s two airports. Holiday autos offer starting prices of £123 for a week’s car hire with free cancellation. 

Where to stay along the way: finish off the road trip with a stay at this coastal townhouse in Kinsale.

Look out for friendly pods of dolphins on the Wild Atlantic Way.

The Causeway Coastal Route, Northern Ireland

This imagination-tingling 130-mile road trip is defined by fairytale lanes, clifftop pathways and mysterious basalt columns. It doesn’t get much more magical than the Giant’s Causeway, where the sea kisses the coast. From Belfast to Londonderry, you’ll discover stories, both ancient and modern, as well as landscapes primed with discordant wildness. Stop at the Gobbins Cliff Path, a walkway hewn from volcanic rock, before entering the fantasy world of Game of Thrones at Murlough Bay, Ballintoy Harbour and the Dark Hedges, the ghostly boulevard of beech trees used as the road to King’s Landing. Just as evocative and other-worldly: an aged Bushmills whiskey at trip’s end.

Duration: three to five days.

Where to stay along the way: you’ll find the five-star cottages at Bayview Farm on the North Antrim coast, 2.5 miles from Bushmills, between Giants Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. There’s lots of space, a hot tub and free parking.

North Coast 500, Highlands, Scotland

Talk about epic: this is Scotland going full-throttle. To begin with, the 516-mile road trip heads north out of Inverness, passing beautifully set whisky distilleries that cluster between the Black Isle and Wick before turning at John O’Groats. Next comes glorious Durness, Assynt and Ullapool, and dazzling Loch Maree. You’ll pass storied castles and Scottish Highlands scenery par excellence — this is a slow road, so remember to take your time. Finish with your eyes glued to the windscreen as you tackle the big dipper over the Bealach Na Bà to seafront Applecross. Afterwards, stop at The Torridon Hotel for belly-hugging haute cuisine and a whisky bar for the ages.

Duration: five to seven days

Car hire: pick up your set of wheels from Inverness airport and get a great deal with Europcar.

Where to stay along the way: Fisherman’s Cottage in Ullapool is the perfect resting point. There’s a deer park behind it, so expect a few visitors.

South West Coastal 300, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland

What happens when tourism bigwigs realise Scottish road trips are world-beaters? First, the North Coast 500, then this enviable 300-mile circuit around the country’s southwest. Start in market town Dumfries, following a clockwise route past seaside cities to the Mull of Galloway, before heading inland to the dark sky woods of Galloway Forest Park. With its atmospheric bookshops and famous festival, the whaleback pyramid of Ailsa Craig, golf courses, green hills and gradual bends, you’ll pass Wigtown. One of the joys is time-travelling at Culzean Castle and at Robert Burns’ Birthplace in Alloway — both inspiring enough to have you waxing lyrical about the southwest’s poetic beauty.

Duration: three to four days.

Where to stay along the way: The Orangerie has lots of quirky touches (having been renovated from a bar and restaurant). It’s very private and their lots of walks on your doorstep.

The K66, Argyll, Scotland

Enough to lure even the most committed big-city lover to the wilds of west Scotland, this 66-miler loops around the contoured Kintyre Peninsula, soaking up the Atlantic coastline and ancient woodland. The landscape sometimes feels completely untouched, yet the route passes toothy castles, surf spots, golden sands and fantastic seafood restaurants, where Isle of Gigha halibut is the star turn. Whisky lovers swear by Glen Scotia Distillery in Campbeltown. For music fans, Kintyre is where Sir Paul McCartney and Linda lived — and the ex-Beatle still owns his ‘Mull of Kintyre’ farm overlooking the long and winding road down to Machrihanish Bay.

Duration: three to four days.

Where to stay along the way: Craigard House Hotel is a mansion on the outskirts of Campbeltown and offers terrific views over Campbeltown loch. There’s plenty of free parking.

Meet the locals in the wilds of west Scotland

Road to the Isles, Highlands, Scotland

Pack your sense of adventure for this 46-mile road trip from Fort William to Mallaig for the ferry across to the Isle of Skye. Thomas Telford conceived the A830, offering the greatest hits of Scottish Highlands eye candy. Gawp at the Glenfinnan Monument, where Bonnie Prince Charlie kicked off the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745. Imagine the Hogwarts Express steaming across the West Highland Line railway viaduct. Loch Morar has Morag, a Nessie-like monster to hunt for. Arisaig offers delicious arcs of silver sand, forgotten-by-time islands and snorkelling. In the distance lies the Cuillins and fairy glens of Skye, where your next adventure awaits.

Duration: two to three days.

Car hire: holiday autos offer very competitive prices for car hire in Scotland and come with free cancellation.

Where to stay along the way:  Sligachan Hotel comes with its microbrewery and award-winning whisky if you fancy a few drams on an evening. There’s free private parking.

Snowdonia, Wales

The approach to Snowdonia is unforgettable; such is its beauty, light and shadow. From royal Caernarfon, an anti-clockwise loop of the massif penetrates the unfathomable splendour of its flanks and mind-blowing horseshoe cliffs. Take the road to bewitching Beddgelert, Italian-like Portmeirion and Porthmadog for one of the world’s great mountain train journeys. Stop at Pen-y-Pass for a yomp up Snowdon peak, then continue to national park gateway Betws-y-Coed, where mirror-like mountain lakes and dare-yourself canyons await. You’ll pass the National Slate Museum at Llanberis on the road back to Caernarfon castle, where the Menai Strait gives way to the serenity of Anglesey.

Duration: three to four days.

Car hire: holiday autos offer very competitive prices for car hire in Wales and come with free cancellation.

Where to stay along the way: plump for one of the nine individually designed rooms at Escape in Llandudno. The hotel is within striking distance of Snowdonia National Park. There’s room for five to six cars in the car park and free street parking directly outside.

Brecon Beacons, Wales

There’s no better window on life in South Wales than one on a road trip through this gently undulating national park. Beginning in Llandovery, you’ll boomerang around hairpin bends and over the dragon-humped Black Mountain Pass before tumbling down to Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen. As distances are short, there are plenty of distractions beyond the rising Carmarthen Fans further east, including Dan yr Ogof, a 17km show cave system. A hike to the top of Pen y Fan is a must, as is a detour to Abergavenny, a foodie wonderland with markets and vineyard tastings. Market town Hay-on-Wye is a suitable climax; after all the drama of biking, hiking and horse riding, curling up in the second-hand book capital of the world only seems fitting.

Duration: three to four days.

Car hire: holiday autos offer very competitive prices and free cancellation.

Where to stay along the way: bag a room, or a cottage, at Grove of Narbeth – winner of The Sunday Times Hotel of the Year for Wales 2020. The regal retreat has plenty of country charm, with Folly Farm within walking distance. Free parking is available at the hotel.

Riviera, Devon, England

Everyone likes to be beside the seaside, particularly when tootling southwest from Babbacombe Bay to Brixham past shimmering Torbay. The beautiful coast of South Devon is ripe for leisurely drives, and this road trip skirts history-steeped steam railways, shingly coves and sailing clubs. From the former haunts of Agatha Christie — our favourite spot is the Queen of crime’s former holiday home Greenway House — the coast offers traditional resorts that are now booming with creativity. The evening also delivers on the promise of the seaside’s other name, England’s Seafood Coast: come hungry for Brixham crab, Elberry Cove Mussels and just-landed lemon sole.

Duration: two to three days.

Car hire: holiday autos offer starting prices of £198 for a week’s car hire in Devon with free cancellation.

Where to stay along the way: Salcombe Harbour Hotel & Spa is a waterside stay on yacht-dotted South Devon. The car park is free.

Yorkshire Dales, England

To drive these rural roads is to discover a wistful sense of nostalgia. Hazy light shines on weathered stone walls, and farmsteads roll from moor to dale, illuminating one of the UK’s most beautiful regions. There is history to unearth, from Cisterian haunts like Jervaulx Abbey to the War of the Roses, the struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York. Take the road from Wensleydale to Swaledale, stopping at the Hawes cheesemakers, beloved by Wallace and Gromit. Savour the Yorkshire Dales National Park from Buttertubs Pass. Map a route to market town Grassington. Or stress out your dentist at The Oldest Sweet Shop In The World in Pateley Bridge. God’s Own Country? Yes, indeed.

Duration: three to four days.

Car hire: holiday autos offers starting prices of £150 for a week’s car hire with free cancellation. Pick-up is from Leeds Bradford Airport or Doncaster/Sheffield Airport.

Where to stay along the way: Yorebridge House in Wensleydale has rooms with roll-top baths and private hot tubs. There’s a free car park with 25 spaces on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Peak District, England

For several reasons, the UK’s first national park is worth your time at the wheel. Think about limestone plateaux, deep caverns, fully coloured-in heather moorlands and cosy pubs connected by screw-shaped roads that offer every sort of car rally thrill. Buxton, with its spa history and graceful heritage buildings, is the ideal starter before you head east to Bakewell for puddings and tarts. Once full to the brim, pushing north to ogle the underground jewels at Peak Cavern and Blue John Cavern. Bring a daypack for a hike – try Mam Tor for lung-emptying views – then tighten your seatbelt for the heartstring-plucking ride over the thrilling Snake Pass to Glossop.

Duration: three to four days.

Car hire: holiday autos offers starting prices of £140 for a week’s car hire with free cancellation. Pick up is from Manchester Airport.

Where to stay along the way: the cosy Peacock at Rowsley is where the cast of Pride and Prejudice stayed while filming. There’s a free car park which includes accessible parking spaces if needed.

Cotswolds, England

The honey-hued heart of England is swamped with time-stopped villages, castles, palaces, Roman remains, and enough swathes of outstanding natural beauty to make your head spin. There are 800 square miles to explore, but Chipping Campden is an excellent curtain-raiser on the 70-mile journey to Georgian-era Bath. The boutiques of Broadway are browse-worthy, while Sudeley Castle, Cheltenham and Gloucester make definitive English history better than most. Further south, the Cotswolds of Laurie Lee is in the Slad valley near Stroud — literary lovers should visit his childhood home and his favourite pub, The Woolpack Inn.

Duration: three to four days.

Car hire: holiday autos offers starting prices of £187 for a week’s car hire with free cancellation. Pick up is from Bath.

Where to stay along the way: Dormy House in Broadway has a candle-lit infinity pool for long soaks after a long day of exploring. There’s a free car park with 25 spaces on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Norfolk, England

A slow pace is the ultimate way to see Norfolk’s beautiful beaches and tidal salt marshes. All roads south of Norwich lead to near-deserted touring roads that meander through historically rich market towns such as Wymondham, Diss and Harleston. Heading east, you’ll shift into the Norfolk Broads, where transferring onto a boat to explore its wonderland of sinewy backwaters is a prerequisite. The road curves north from Great Yarmouth towards Cromer and the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where the feeling is of eternal spring. West from here, piers, candy-striped beach huts, cliffs and lighthouses fill the windscreen, almost right to the gates of Sandringham — the Queen’s beloved country retreat with its best-in-show black beauties.

Duration: Four to five days.

Where to stay along the way: The Chequers Inn dates back to 1499. Expect crackling fires, lovely views and hearty meals rustled up by a brilliant chef. Free parking is available.

Jurassic Coast, Dorset, England

First comes an unexpected roadside encounter — the sight of a 185-million-year-old dinosaur fossil. Then the scenic coast ahead brightens, silhouetting zoomorphic pinnacles and limestone stacks. England’s only natural World Heritage Site, the Jurassic Coast, lives up to its name and unravels for 96 miles from Swanage to Exmouth. Outstanding natural beauty is guaranteed at Chesil Beach and Durdle Door’s stone arch. At the same time, you’ll need your sunglasses for Beer’s chalky cliffs and all the sugar-white sands in between. Finally, you’ll discover palaeontological history in Lyme Regis and a fossil hunter’s ground zero in idyllic Charmouth.

Duration: three days.

Where to stay along the way: The Pig on the Beach is the fanciest hotel in the hamlet and overlooks Studland Bay. There’s a free on-site car park for hotel guests.

The Atlantic Highway, Devon and Cornwall, England

Only 70 miles long, this road trip has everything you’re looking for from England’s southwest. Seafront cottages and bobbing boats. Turquoise sea backed by squeaky sands. Seaside towns with less than lifetime-best fish and chips are a call to arms. Begin in Barnstaple before continuing southwest to delve into the Arthurian legends of Tintagel. While Padstow and Newquay, just 17 miles apart, are synonymous with surfing, salt-tanged seafood and Rick Stein, there is just as much to discover inland — particularly at Bodmin Moor, with its wealth of granite tors. This road trip experiments with space and time; the object is to keep going to finish up at Land’s End, where the road can take you no further.

Duration: three to four days.

Car hire: holiday autos offers starting prices of £198 for a week’s car hire with free cancellation.

Where to stay along the way: strike lucky with the weather, and you’ll love swimming in Padstow Harbour Hotel’s outdoor heated pool. Free parking is available.