If there’s one thing many of us need now, it’s a holiday. But while we can’t go for a getaway just yet, there’s nothing to stop us dreaming about what we’ll do when the worst of the pandemic is over, and lockdown begins to ease. After months of confinement, the idea of dusting off the cobwebs, getting behind the wheel of a car and taking off on the open road, may be just the sense of freedom we need to look forward to.
While traditionally the USA, Europe or Australia might be more obvious choices for a road trip, with the uncertainty surrounding travel this year, it might be that you decide to stay in the UK for your holiday. The UK may be small, but our scenery is diverse and spectacularly beautiful. Plus, its size means you’re never too far from a decent restaurant, a cosy B&B, or a petrol station – making it pretty perfect for a road trip. But if you’re planning on doing a UK road trip later this year, where should you go?
The beauty of a road trip is that there’s an ideal route out there for everyone. From single-day road trips that take you through idyllic villages, to road trips lasting a week or more taking you past rugged mountains and wild moorland – it’s up to you how far you want to go.
Road trips can be taken with friends and family, but they can also be enjoyed solo, as a chance to experience some quiet reflection. Whatever trip you decide to take, remember that part of the fun is exploring along the way, so it’s always good to leave plenty of time to go for hikes, hit the beach, or visit local villages and towns. Just be sure to pack your walking shoes and a decent map!
To whet the appetite and get you inspired, here are six of the best road trips in the UK.
1. The Atlantic Highway, England
The Atlantic Highway is an ideal road trip for people who only want to drive for a day or two. Also known as the A39 (which doesn’t sound quite so exciting!), the Atlantic Highway is one of the longest roads in the South West, and connects Somerset to Cornwall. The most beautiful stretch of the road, however – where the route gets its name from – takes you from Barnstaple, Devon, to the seaside resort of Newquay, Cornwall, and offers near-constant views of the wild Atlantic Ocean.
If you start from Barnstaple and end in Newquay, you can drive the 77 mile route in one to two days, which leaves plenty of time to explore along the way – though if you’re up for it, you can keep driving into Cornwall until you end up at Land’s End. Driving from Land’s End to St Ives* also makes a great day trip: ideally, you should try to leave time to stop off in the pretty market town of St Just* and wander down to the secluded Cot Valley, where you can enjoy breathtaking views of the ocean.
Even if you stick to driving on the Atlantic Highway, there’s plenty to see and do along this stretch of road. You can take surf lessons in Newquay, go swimming at Bude, kick back on the beach, or hike or cycle along the miles of coastline. If you’re interested in wildlife, you can also take a detour to Dartmoor National Park where, if you’re lucky, you might spot the wild ponies who make their home here. History buffs may also like to stop off at Tintagel Castle to discover the legend of King Arthur, who was said to have been born here in the 12th century.
2. North Coast 500, Scotland
If you’re looking for a real adventure, head up to Scotland to drive the North Coast 500. Regularly voted one of the best road trips in the world, the North Coast 500 is the most Instagrammed route in the UK – and for good reason. This 500-mile round trip takes you through the wild Scottish Highlands and past scenery so beautiful and dramatic you’ll have to keep reminding yourself you’re still in the UK. Drive past fairy-tale castles, windswept beaches, historic ruins, heather-covered moors, and pristine lochs – sometimes in the same day. Whatever you do, don’t forget your camera for this one.
Beginning and ending at Inverness Castle, a week is usually enough to take in all the sights along the way and get plenty of exploring under your belt – although if you want to take some detours, it’s a good idea to add on a couple of days. One of the most popular detours is to Loch Ness; you might not spot the legendary monster, but there’s still plenty of adventure to be found here. You can take a speedboat ride around the loch, or wander through the mysterious ruins of Urquhart Castle.
But you certainly don’t have to deviate from the route to keep busy. The official route passes through scenic towns and villages including Durness, John O’Groats, Dornoch, Ullapool and where you can visit whisky distilleries, go on blustery coastal walks, enjoy a warming pub lunch, and find cosy places to stay. After leaving Ullapool you’ll pass over Kylesku Bridge, which crosses the Loch a’ Chàirn Bhài and provides sensational views of the surrounding mountains and lochs. Nature enthusiasts can spot dolphins and seals at Chanonry Point and depending on the time of year you take your trip, you may even see the Northern Lights. Caithness is one of the best places outside of Scandinavia to spot this natural phenomenon – which is known as the ‘Mirrie Dancers’ in Scotland. You can find out more about spotting the Northern Lights here.
It’s a good idea to plan your route in advance and book accommodation before setting off, as options can be limited if you leave it until the last minute. While there are petrol stations along the official route, it can be a long distance between them, especially if you take detours, so it’s always advisable to fill up each time. You can find out more about planning your North Coast 500 road trip over on the official website.
3. The Cambrian Way, Wales
If you’re drawn to exploring Wales, you won’t find a better route than the Cambrian Way, which runs from the south of the country to the north coast. Beginning in Cardiff and ending in the seaside resort of Llandudno, the route takes you past the stunning Brecon Beacons National Park, the Elan Valley, and the awe-inspiring peaks of Snowdonia. Five days is more than enough time to drive the distance and enjoy plenty of stop offs along the way.
Leaving from Cardiff (where you may want to leave some time to explore), you’ll soon be in the South Wales Valleys, where you can uncover the harsh world of mining with a guided underground tour at Rhondda Heritage Park, and learn about the iron industry at Merthyr Tydfil. A little further north are the wide open spaces of the Brecon Beacons, which are perfect for hiking – or, you can hop on the Brecon Mountain Railway to explore this area from the comfort of a train. By day three you should be at the Elan Valley lakes, a picturesque string of reservoirs that are perfect for exploring by foot, or by driving along the scenic mountain roads.
For most people, the jewel in the crown of the Cambrian Way is Snowdonia National Park. Each time you drive around a bend you’ll be greeted by a picture-perfect view, whether it’s craggy mountains, glistening lakes, crumbling ruins, charming villages, or the lush green valleys Wales is most known for. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could even plan to climb Mount Snowdon. Just be sure to set aside a whole day for it, pack and dress for the weather, and do plenty of research. You can find out what to wear and carry to safely walk to the summit of Snowdon here.
By the end of this road trip, you’ll finish up at the crescent bay of Llandudno, where you can explore the medieval castle – or, if you’re tired, treat yourself to chips or an ice cream on the beach.
4. The Norfolk Coast, England
If you want to see wide open spaces, near-empty roads, sandy beaches and gorgeous sea views, you might want to head to the eastern coast of England, to Norfolk. If you begin in King’s Lynn, you’ll hug the coast until the seaside resort of Cromer, at which point you can head south if you want to visit the city of Norwich, with its 11th century cathedral and medieval castle. Alternatively, you can stay on the coastal road and head down to Great Yarmouth. Either way, four days should be enough to explore this region and enjoy plenty of stop offs.
If you’re starting from King’s Lynn, it’s worth taking the time to wander around this historic market town. There’s plenty to do here, from taking a tour of the cobbled streets to hunting for treasures at the town’s two market places. As you travel north you’ll pass through the two seaside towns of Heacham and Hunstanton, which are two of the sunniest resorts in Norfolk. Known for their dramatic sunsets, where you can see the sun setting right into the sea, they’re great places to spend a night.
As you drive, you’ll pass through the best of the Norfolk Coast (which is a designated Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB), and will probably want to make several stops to admire the landscape, which includes huge sand dunes, empty beaches, coastal marshes and dramatic cliffs. The seaside village of Blakeney is worth spending the day at, especially if you’re into nature: it’s known for its nature reserve and seal colony, as well as plenty of sailing and walking. Cromer is one of the UK’s best loved seaside towns, so if you enjoy the merits of a traditional seaside holiday, from walks along the pier to local museums and sandy beaches, you’ll probably want to stop here too.
If you choose to stay by the coast and end up in Great Yarmouth, you’ll pass through the pretty village of Happisburgh, which is known for its iconic red and white lighthouse. Built in 1790, this is the only independently run lighthouse in Great Britain and is definitely worth a visit. In between Norwich and Great Yarmouth you’ll find the Broads National Park, which is an essential detour if you want to admire dreamy landscapes of waterways and windmills, and open skies meeting seemingly endless horizons.
5. The Yorkshire Moors, England
The dramatic moorland of the Yorkshire Moors was made for driving through. Meandering roads take you up and over heather moorlands, past dense forests, and through green fields where sheep graze beside old drystone walls. While most road trips focus on either the North Yorkshire Moors or the Yorkshire Dales, there’s no reason why, with a bit of planning, you can’t visit both. To make all the stops on this route, you should ideally allow for up to a week, though you can do the trip in around four days if you’re happy to skip a few places.
Starting off from the rural village of Reeth, you’ll pass wildflower-filled meadows, scenic waterfalls, and some of the best hiking paths in the country. You’ll then hit the small market town of Hawes, and after that, the lovely village of Grassington, where at each place there will be plenty of opportunities to enjoy a pub lunch, potter around in shops, sample fresh local produce, or find somewhere to stay for the night. If you prefer to stay somewhere more lively, you may want to wait until you reach Harrogate. There’s plenty to do in this historic spa town, so it’s a good idea to leave a day to explore.
Next it’s York, where history enthusiasts may want to take a tour of this ancient city, which has Roman roots and a Viking past. After that, you’ll leave the Yorkshire Dales and head out into the wild North Yorkshire Moors. There are plenty of great spots for walking here, but you may also want to stop off at Dalby Forest, which will be on your right after you pass the vibrant market town of Pickering – which is also a great place to spend the night.
At the village of Goathland you can hike towards Mallyan Spout, which is the tallest waterfall in the Moors, and well worth a visit. After that you’ll finish up in the village of Grosmont, in the Esk Valley – although, if you’re not ready to end your trip, you can head further north to the seaside town of Whitby, where you can browse museums, galleries and boutique shops to your heart’s content. There’s so much to do and see here that you can comfortably spend a few days exploring, so if you want to extend your holiday, it’s a good idea to plan to end up here.
The Yorkshire Dales and Moors are some of the most dog-friendly regions in the country, so if you’re lucky enough to have a dog, this is definitely a road trip they can come along for. Do bear in mind that the wild nature of the moors means that sat-nav isn’t always reliable, so it’s advisable to take a map with you, especially if you plan to do any hiking.
6. Causeway Coastal Route, Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route is a 130 mile route that hugs the Atlantic coast between Belfast and Derry. This area is steeped in myths and legends, and boasts some of the most beautiful scenery in Ireland. It also takes you past some of the country’s best known tourist attractions, like Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, and Dunluce Castle. You can do this trip in about three days, although if you want more time to explore it’s advisable to set aside five days.
Beginning in Belfast, you’ll first head north towards Gobbins Head, where you can stretch your legs on the famous Gobbins Cliff walk – an entirely unique hiking experience that will have walking over bridges above the sea, climbing stairways carved into the rock face, and wandering through secret smuggler caves as the ocean thunders beneath you. The Causeway Coastal Route is perfect for anyone who enjoys exploring caves, as the next stop on the way is the Cushendun Caves – which fans of Game of Thrones may recognise from the show.
You’ll pass through charming villages like Carnlough and Ballycastle, and have plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife on the gorse-covered clifftops – keep an eye out for seals, puffins and hares. When you arrive at Carrick-a-Rede, you’ll have a unique chance to test your nerves – the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge hangs nearly 100ft above the sea, and takes plucky travellers from the mainland to tiny Carrick Island. If you want to sway above the waves and visit the island, you’ll need to book tickets in advance. A little further afield is the awe-inspiring landscape Giant’s Causeway, a geographical wonder that was formed 60 million years ago by an erupting volcano. This magical place is no secret, however, so if you want to escape the crowds it’s a good idea to come here for sunset.
On your last day, you’ll be able to explore the dramatic Dunluce Castle, a crumbling 14th century castle that’s perched precariously above the ocean, where ghosts and banshees are said to wail at night. Fans of whisky will enjoy visiting the Old Bushmills Distillery, where you can enjoy a guided tour and plenty of tastings. After that, you’ll see sandy beaches appear as you approach the seaside villages of Portrush and Portstewart, where you can enjoy a game of golf at one of two famous courses, kick back on Portstewart’s Blue Flag beach, and take advantage of the excellent dining options at Portrush – a wonderfully indulgent end to a wild and intrepid road trip.
Booking accommodation for along the way
If you’re looking to book accommodation for your road trip, you’ll find plenty of options on sites like Airbnb and Booking.com*. Remember to try and get in early to avoid disappointment, as many other people may also be opting for a UK holiday this year. Luckily, lots of places are currently offering free cancellation due to the pandemic, so you won’t have to worry about losing any money.
In the quest for hot weather and guaranteed blue skies, the UK doesn’t always get the credit it deserves as a holiday destination. One of the more positive things that has arisen from the pandemic is a new appreciation for the small things we took for granted – like having a drink in the local pub, or browsing quaint shops in pretty villages.
A UK road trip is the perfect opportunity to find out just what our country has to offer – as well as how dramatically beautiful and diverse it is. We might have had to put some holidays on hold, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy a staycation later on this year that we’ll cherish for years to come. Just be sure to follow government guidelines, call ahead to make sure certain places are open, and book accommodation in advance if you’re heading somewhere busy.
Are you planning to go on any UK road trips this year – or have you been on one in the past? We’d love to hear about your experiences! Join the discussion on the Rest Less community forum, or leave us a comment below.