Some of the best scenery in Europe, if not the world, can be found in the Alps. Stretching from France in the west to Slovenia in the east, this spectacular mountain range is packed full of quaint villages and flower-strewn meadows.
Unless you plan to take your own car, you’ll need a hire car. To avoid backtracking, you’ll need a one-way rental, but this bumps up your bill so you may find a circular route works out to be better value. Before you sign any contracts, double check any rules and restrictions imposed by the company you wish to use. There can be conditions on the type of car you can rent and the countries you would be allowed to drive in. Typically, the higher the class of vehicle you rent, the fewer countries you can take it into.
You’ll also need to consider the time of year and the type of roads you are likely to be driving on. Snow chains are mandatory in winter in much of continental Europe and away from the major routes, some roads can be problematic. The combination of an inexperienced driver unused to steep gradients driving on loose gravel isn’t a happy one. However, you shouldn’t let such matters put you off. Though public transport is often surprisingly good, there’s nothing like your own set of wheels to induce a sense of freedom.
With only seven days to play with, don’t attempt to cover all of the Alpine countries. Here is a suggested itinerary to get you started if you’re planning a summer trip.
Ljubljana, Slovenia to Zurich, Switzerland
Day 1: Ljubljana
Slovenia often gets overlooked when it comes to Alpine travel but its Julian Alps are amongst the least crowded particularly in peak season. Begin in the capital Ljubljana. The emerald-green Ljubljanica River bisects its historic centre. Tick off its pink marble cathedral, visit its markets and take a detour up the hill to visit the imposing castle. When you’re done, pull up a chair in one of the many riverfront cafés and get to grips with the route you’ve chosen.
Day 2: Bled and Bohinj
Leave the city behind and wind your way through the Slovenian countryside to beautiful Bled. Marooned on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Bled is the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria, with its steep staircase and bell tower. Renting a rowing boat to take a closer look comes highly recommended. Not far from Bled is the less developed Lake Bohinj. Hike around the lake and catch the cable car up to the top of Mount Vogel for the panoramic views. Return to Bled for an overnight stay.
Day 3: The Großglocknerstraße
It’s time for your first border crossing and Austria is your target. Closed in winter, there are few Alpine roads more exciting in green season than the incredible Großglocknerstraße. It begins in Heiligenblut am Großglockner, about a two-hour run from Bled, before it twists and turns its way up the pass. From the viewpoint at the top you can take a hike and may spot ibexes, chamois, marmots, vultures and golden eagles. Take some time to admire Austria’s highest mountain and the 9km long Pasterze glacier that skids down its rocky flanks before descending to Kaprun.
Day 4: The Austrian Tyrol
Explore Kaprun’s 12th century castle before driving over to the town of Kitzbühel. In winter, it plays host to the terrifying Streif, a notorious and dangerous downhill ski race on the Hahnenkamm Mountain. In summer, things are a little more genteel, its mediaeval centre packed with upscale shops and elegant cafés. Drag yourself away and overnight in one of the Tyrol’s adorable villages, such as Sankt Johann or Söll. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch an open air concert or a performance of some of the area’s folk dances such as the thigh-slapping Schuhplattler.
Day 5: Innsbruck
Head west to Innsbruck. Its late mediaeval old town is one of the Alps’ most impressive amidst fierce competition. Take a look at the Golden Roof, constructed in 1500 by the Emperor Maximilian I to mark his wedding. It’s copper, not gold, but no less exquisite for being so. Visit Innsbruck’s glass and steel ski jump, the Zaha Hadid designed Bergisel. While you’re admiring the view, keep your eyes peeled for ski jumpers in training.
Day 6: Liechtenstein and St Gallen
Two hours’ drive west of Innsbruck is the tiny principality of Liechtenstein, which makes a good lunch stopover en route to the Swiss border. Pause at the Prince’s wine collection, walking through its vineyards and purchasing a souvenir bottle to consume once you’ve parked up for the night. Continue on to the UNESCO-listed abbey in St Gallen before driving on to Zurich for tonight’s overnight stop.
Day 7: Zurich to Titlis
Give the car one last outing as you explore a little more of Switzerland’s stunning scenery. It’s an easy run to the lakeside town of Lucerne where you’ll find the wooden Kapellbrücke, with its octagonal water tower and 17th century paintings. Half an hour to the south lies Engelberg, where you’ll find the revolving gondola that will carry you up to the summit of Mount Titlis. At that altitude, even in the height of summer, it’s possible to go snow tubing. Whatever time of year you visit, the views are breathtaking as far as the eye can see.