Europe is home to some of the most challenging and beautiful cycling in the world. The French climbs of Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux, the Italian giants of the Stelvio and Passo di Gavia and the Hellingen of Flanders attract huge crowds year after year, drawn by the desire to test their mettle on the same hallowed ground ridden by their heroes. But what if you want something a little different? The same challenges, the same majestic mountains and dramatic scenery, but without the crowds.
Why not pack your bags and head east, out of your comfort zone and right into the heart of Eastern Europe? From cloud-topped cols to sprawling forests and sapphire coasts, the east really does have it all.
Here are some of the best cycling destinations in Europe that you’ve probably never heard of. Grab a notepad and pen; it’s time to plan your next adventure…
Crossing the Carpathians: Romania
The Carpathians arch their way through Central and Eastern Europe like a curved spine, providing stunning, mountainous scenery to rival that of both the Alps and Pyrenees. Forests sprawl through clandestine valleys as rocky peaks poke their heads above the dense canopies, providing the perfect backdrop for a pedal-powered adventure.
The Southern Carpathians are home to some of the largest swathes of forest in Europe, as well as dense populations of brown bears, wolves and lynxes. It is here that you’ll find some of Romania’s toughest, but truly rewarding stretches of road.
The Transfagarasan Epic is an aptly named seven-day voyage across some of the hardest climbs this side of Europe, with the Transfagarasan Highway (2,042m) and Urdele Pass (2,145m) both featuring on the route. The countless hairpin bends and heart thumping descents will evoke images of the Tour de France, but the complete isolation will soon reign your imagination in and remind you why we all started riding bicycles in the first place – for the simple thrill and freedom that a two-wheeled adventure brings.
The Transfagarasan King of the Mountain itinerary offers inspiration for a tamer, four-day adventure that teases rather than torments riders with its stunning climbs. The masochists are welcome to their seven-day epic, but for many of us the KOM tour is just perfect, striking the perfect balance between adventuring on two wheels and touring the local towns on foot. We can build you a bespoke tour around this itinerary, so be sure to reference it if this is the one that appeals to you.
Cycling Eastern Europe isn’t all about crushing cols and coming face to face with free-roaming wolves, our Transfagarasan cycling retreat itinerary offers the basis of a slightly different cycling experience. Based close to Sibiu in the region of Transylvania, you’ll meet vampire hunters in Brasov, tour the rolling hills around the valleys, sample delicious local food and sit back and relax in the hotel spa. Cycling holidays abroad don’t get much better than this.
An Alpine alternative: Slovenia
Nestled in the armpit of north eastern Italy and deep within the Julian Alps lies the relatively unknown cycling haven of Slovenia. Boasting the same idyllic mountain scenery as its western cousin, Slovenia offers an Alpine alternative devoid of tourists – an untarnished playground for you and your bicycle to explore.
The best way to tour this paradisiacal country is via the Julian Alps cycling tour, an experience that offers a unique take on Slovenia’s most epic roads and climbs. On this 4-day adventure, based around the alpine town of Kranska Gora, the Mangart Saddle (2,055m) and Vršič Mountain Pass (1,611m) lie in wait, as does the world-renowned paradise of Lake Bled, where restorative waters await to rejuvenate your body after a long day in the saddle.
You arrive and depart from Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital and a green city in motion. This is where city meets nature, a proud bastion of environmental awareness; it’s no wonder this city was awarded the European Green Capital of 2016. This is truly one of the best cycling vacations Europe has to offer.
Cruising the coast: Croatia
Not all of our adventures head for the skies, some head for the shorelines and beaches of Croatia. As experts in Balkan cycling experiences we can put together a bespoke, two-wheeled tour for those riders with a passion for sun, sea and sand.
Lying on the eastern Adriatic Coast, the scenery around coastal Croatia shines with a sapphire hue. Islands litter the horizon and act as fantastic way points for you to forge your own adventure, hugging the clifftop paths as you go.
Start with our Croatia Islands itinerary as motivation for your own adventure. The route explores both the mainland and islands of Croatia, snaking along the Dalmatian Coast as it passes through tiny, quaint villages and bustling, seaside towns. Both Dubrovnik and Makarska are explored on this seven-day tour, as well as the lesser known Pelješac Peninsula – an area that Lonely Planet describe as, “Croatia at its most relaxed.”
A tour on Croatia’s coast is no easy affair, however, and thanks to the rugged landscape you can expect to climb an average of 1,200m every day. It’s this up-and-down landscape that has attracted one of the most important cycling stage races in Central and Eastern Europe to these shores – the Tour of Croatia.
For an altogether sterner test, take a look at the Tour of Croatia route itself, an eight-day expedition that follows in the shadows of the world’s best professional cyclists. Ride the same route as the world’s best among some of the most spectacular scenery the country has to offer.
A snapshot in time: Prague to Budapest
This border-hopping ride starts in the Gothic city of Prague before heading east, freewheeling its way through four different countries as it heads towards the finish in Budapest. Time stands still along this route, with UNESCO World Heritage sites and historic relics blending into the surrounding eastern European architecture.
The Czech Republic soon hands you over to Austria and its capital, Vienna, where you’ll then follow the Danube River east, sampling the rich riverside treasures as you go. As you straddle the feet of the Austrian Alps, take a moment to drink in the views and let out a sigh of relief – you won’t be climbing any Alps on this trip.
The Danube continues to act as your compass as you leave Austria behind and pass through Bratislava, Slovakia, a capital city that sits on the border of three countries, combining the rich and unique cultures of each one. Hungary is soon reached and the finish in Budapest beckons, but not before you leave the comfort of the Danube behind and tackle the final hills that stand between you and the finish line.
This tour showcases the very best of Central Europe, taking you on an adventure that passes by ancient castles, former bastions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the famous wine-making region of Moravia. The melting pot of cultures in each city is sure to make this a cycling holiday that you’ll never forget.
Searching for solitude: Baltics
Perched in the north east corner of Europe are three criminally underrated cycling destinations boasting vast swathes of untouched landscape. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are ideal destinations for those riders averse to super steep climbs and long mountain passes, their flat, unspoiled marshlands providing the perfect playground for leisurely cycle tourists.
Starting from Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, and heading north to the Baltic Sea, you’ll soon swap the fairy-tale architecture of the city for the unbridled beauty of Mother Nature. This untouched haven is utterly devoid of humans, allowing you to revel in complete serenity and solitude.
Latvia’s capital, Riga, soon appears and throws you right back into civilization, plying you with delicious local dishes laden with dill and potatoes. From there the route continues north, following exquisitely tarmacked cycle paths along the Baltic’s most beautiful beaches and hummocky sand dunes.
Once again, you’re thrown back into the welcoming arms of Mother Nature, the sprawling beaches and Baltic sea on one side, and the vast, marshy plains on the other. You’ll pass through yet another national park, Gauja, before crossing the border into Estonia, the final country on your intrepid Baltic tour.
The route finishes in the castled city of Tallinn, Estonia’s cultural hub. The skyline here is dominated by steeples and spires, showing off the city’s stunning 13th-century architecture. It’s the perfect end to a perfect ride and easily one of the best cycling holidays Europe has to offer.