4 epic gap year journeys in Europe

Author
Daniel Mason, Senior editor
Posted
July, 2016

Whether you want to travel for days, weeks or months, there are great journeys in Europe to suit all tastes. Here are some ideas to get you started…

1. Grand Tour of Europe

The Grand Tour began as an educational rite of passage for wealthy young Englishmen in the 17th and 18th centuries. They would travel with a tutor and take in Europe's classical highlights, viewing art, architecture and opera along the way. You can immerse yourself in the continent's history and culture by following in their footsteps (although you may prefer to leave your university professor behind).

The traditional itinerary would start in England and typically include Paris, Geneva, Venice, Florence and Rome, with the return leg often taking the traveller north through Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. You can choose your own route, but to call it a Grand Tour you should probably ensure that Rome features prominently, along with trips to at least a couple of art galleries.

The only real restriction is how much money you have on your hands, as this journey can last weeks (or even months) if you want it to. High speed railways, Interrail tickets and cheap flights make it easy to get between the major cities, so your biggest decision will be how long to stay in each place. If you decide to go on your own, be sure to read about the highs and lows of solo travel.

2. Camino de Santiago

The journey to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain (reputedly the burial place of James the Greater, one of the Twelve Disciples) is a famous Christian pilgrimage that has been followed for more than a thousand years. More recently it has become popular among non-religious travellers - so if you're excited by the idea of carrying a heavy rucksack from one side of Spain to the other, this is the adventure for you.

Known in English as the Way of St James, it's actually a network of paths and there are many different routes. However, the most common and best marked is the Camino Francés, starting at the French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Walking nearly 500 miles across northern Spain to Santiago takes around a month, so you'll need to be reasonably fit to attempt it. On the plus side, you'll meet and get to know plenty of fellow pilgrims as you travel.

When it comes to packing, a comfortable and sturdy pair of walking boots should be top of your list, while the cheapest accommodation is found in the dormitory-style 'albergues' that line the route and cost between €5 and €15 per night. There are countless guidebooks and websites to help you plan how to get there, where to stay and how much it all costs.

3. Road trip around Iceland

Road-tripping is most often associated with the USA, but Europe has its fair share of spectacular drives. Among the best is Iceland's Route 1. This 832-mile track, a ring road around the whole country, is a fantastic way to experience Iceland's astonishing landscape of volcanoes, waterfalls, geothermal springs, glaciers and picturesque villages.

While there are tours available, the best option for a gap year adventure is to hire a car (ideally a 4x4) and share driving duties with your friends. This gives you the freedom to travel at your own pace, stop whenever you like and take as many detours from the main road as you want. Travel in summer and you’ll get nearly 24 hours of daylight, maximising your time for exploration.

In terms of practicalities, pack with Iceland's unpredictable weather in mind and book your accommodation in advance. When you first arrive in the country, be sure to stock up on groceries before you leave the capital, Reykjavik; then, once you're on the road, fill the car's tank whenever you come across a petrol station. You'll need a minimum of a week to make the trip worthwhile.

The road is two lanes for the most part, so navigating it shouldn't cause too many problems for confident drivers. If getting away from the crowds and spending time with a small group of friends is your thing, this drive through the wilderness could be the ideal getaway.

4. Backpacking in Eastern Europe

Less well-trodden and more cost-effective than the west of the continent, Eastern Europe is a prime location for a spot of budget backpacking. Stunning scenery, lively cities and lots of historic landmarks make these countries a worthwhile diversion from the better known holiday hotspots such as Spain, France and Italy.

It's possible to get cheap flights to most of the capitals in the region so you can take your pick of starting point, with affordable buses and trains available once you're on the ground. Follow one of the many routes suggested online by fellow travellers - a quick web search will throw up lots of options - or plan your own itinerary from scratch.

You could focus on a particular region, for example the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the north, or the Balkans in the south. Alternatively, you might attempt a more ambitious long-distance route through the entire region, perhaps through Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Whether it's spectacular beaches, medieval walled cities or mountain hikes you're looking for, Eastern Europe has it all.

Just remember to pack light, as you'll be restricted by the dimensions and weight that airlines allow for hand baggage. For more information on what to take with you and other useful advice, see 7 steps to the ultimate gap year.