Europe the Active Way

Where on the Continent to Hike, Bike, and Walk

There are myriad choices for stops; basic rule—we'll get you out of the major cities to some more hospitable surroundings for a natural tour of Europe in all its wondrous diversity. Here's a thumbnail sketch on the best destinations. (See our Top Ten lists on hiking and biking for our crème de la crème.)

Loire Valley
Superb for both walking and biking. Blessed with gently rolling countryside, and many huge luxurious chateaux have been converted to hotels. Very expensive, and a bit snooty for some tastes.

A winding river valley with excellent walking and biking and lots of castles, although less grandiose than those in the Loire Valley. Well preserved medieval towns. The terrain is more rugged, with limestone cliffs along the river. (Don't miss the clifftop town of Rocamadour.) And keep in mind, Dordogne is the foie gras capital of France—that is to say, the world.

Excellent walking and biking. Fetching landscape, soft light, and an old-fashioned local culture. The climate and lifestyle is more Mediterranean than northern regions of France. Peter Mayle's popular novels have brought some crowds, but you can still easily get away from them.

Another pastoral region of rolling hills, forests, villages, and castles. (Some parts are quite flat, however.) Recommended for gourmands, this land is a bastion of winemaking and haute cuisine.

Rugged beautiful mountains, small by Alpine standards and mostly lacking the permanent glaciers that make the Alps so dramatic. Bikers will spend a lot of miles in low gear; beginners beware. Hikers will find uncrowded trails and rustic culture.

Mt. Blanc/Chamonix
This is a Mecca for hard-core mountaineers and extreme skiers (even uphill runners!). Biking is for masochists only, but hardy hikers will be in hog-heaven. The two-week, three-country trek around Mt. Blanc is a world classic.

This region offers the perfect marriage of landscape (small but steep hills) and culture (the best of Renaissance art and architecture)—plus great food. The hills make for challenging biking, but you can stop for coffee or wine every few miles and there are footpaths everywhere.

Lake District
A bit upscale-resorty, but the lakes are stunningly beautiful. High-season car traffic makes biking a challenge, but footpaths abound between villages and in the surrounding mountains.

The countryside west and north of Venice is generally flat, with gently rising foothills, so it's suitable for both walking and biking. Highlights include the profusion of Renaissance villas and their flowering gardens, and you can pop into town for high culture.

Cinque Terra
Five cliffside villages along a coastline are too rugged for roads and footpaths not suitable for cycling, but the walking is superb. Great place to meet locals along the trail. Great trips available that feature primo food and lodgings at the end of a long day.

This mountain range adjoins the Alps, but its rock ramparts and spires have an entirely different character. Superb system of trails and huts, or rifugios. Crowded in August. Mountain-biking is catching on, but leave the road bike home; roads are steep and heavily trafficked.

Black Forest
This is classic rural Germany. Hilly, heavily forested, well-maintained footpaths—maybe too well-maintained for some tastes. Definitely not a wilderness area.

Bodensee (Lake Constance)
This "lake" (which is actually formed by the swelling of the Rhine River), Germany's largest, is located in the Alps along the German, Swiss, and Austrian borders. You'll find beautiful mountain vistas, interesting medieval towns, and an excellent network of paths for both biking and hiking.

The Danube
Biking along one of the most famous rivers in Europe is equally beautiful in both Germany and Austria. The terrain is flat, there are excellent cycling paths, and the scenery ranges from pretty to breathtaking. Historical cities such as Regensburg, Passau, and Vienna are all easily accessible.

Austrian Alps
Great hiking, but mediocre biking due to steep hills and summer tourist traffic. An excellent hut system makes this trip especially rewarding.

Bernese Oberland
This is the heart of the classic Alps—snow-capped peaks, quaint villages, meadows, and cowbells. Expect to see Heidi at any moment. Immaculate trail system with huts and even some first-class hotels reachable only by foot or cable car.

This is the quintessential mountain resort town at base of Matterhorn. Year-round ski-lifts give hikers quick access to high country. But be warned, it gets very crowded in summer, particularly August. Biking is impractical except for hill-loving monsters.

Great Britain
Classic rolling English countryside, convenient to London. Villages are touristy and crowded in the summer, but back roads and footpaths provide quick escape from the masses.

Lake District
More wild and rugged than Cotswolds, the Lake District is semi-mountainous and better-suited for long-distance hikers. Weather can be dicey and the crowds descend in August.

Scottish Highlands
Very good biking and walking. Rugged, windswept, uncrowded, coastal flavor, but be sure to bring raingear.

Discover classic Irish countryside—emerald meadows, stone walls, dramatic coastline, all the postcard stuff. Lots of villages and pubs. Superb for both riders and walker/hikers.

More serene and less populated than Kerry. Visual drama comes from the mountains instead of coastline. Attracts more rugged get-away-from-it-all types.

Dead-flat terrain that may not be particularly appealing to hikers but is perfect for beginner/intermediate cyclists. Excellent system of bike paths. Wind can be strong, however; plan routes accordingly.

This is Portugal's old-fashioned winemaking region, with more oxcarts than cars. Few tourists. Moderately hilly with very little traffic on back roads and it's a well-trodded path: the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela has been walked by millions.

Spain's versiuon of Provence: warm climate, Mediterranean culture, flamenco, bullfights, and whitewashed villages. The rolling terrain is ideal for walkers and pedalers.

Atlantic Islands
Madeira offers superb walking along irrigation canals, Azores are good for biking or walking. Both are subtropical and volcanic, with lush flowering vegetation, rarely visited by Americans, perhaps because it's so hard to get to.

Poland/Czech Republic
Compact but beautiful mountain range with good trails and hut system. Excellent hiking, but too steep for biking. Very popular with Poles and Czechs, but few Americans.

Nothing like it anywhere in Europe. Superb but challenging hiking, road-biking dicey due to steep terrain and limited number of roads. Mountain-biking along Oslo-Bergen railway service road is very nice, but also very expensive.

Better for biking, with numerous ferry rides. Typical accommodations are fishermen's huts on stilts in water. Also ridiculously expensive.

Greek Islands
Long season and sun-washed Mediterranean climate make this an attractive option. Cycling is limited on smaller islands due to steep terrain and lack of roads. Excellent walking; perfect combination of old-world European charm and great beaches.

Aegean Coast
Roman and Greek ruins and hidden beaches are the prime attractions. Biking along the coast is tricky, however, due to the few roads and heavy traffic. Long-distance walks are also impractical due to sparse population and lack of walking tradition, but day hikes are quite possible. Trips are best when combined with sailing trips along coast.

This is a surreal, stark, volcanic landscape, with glaciers—truly wild. Long days. Few villages, self-sufficient trekking and serious long-distance bikers only.

Published: 21 Mar 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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