Saddle up for spring: cycling trips in the UK and Europe

Gentle jaunts and epic adventures for two-wheeled explorers

Saddle up for spring: cycling trips in the UK and Europe Cycling along Eastbourne's promenade - © Eastbourne Tourism Department
By David Clack

Spring has sprung, people. Know what that means? It means the time for blasting through DVD boxsets and scoffing belly-warming comfort food all weekend are well and truly over. There’s a lush, green wilderness out there ripe for the exploring, and right now it’s dotted with clusters of daffodils and quaint little ponds just waiting for you to dip your toes in them. So whether you’re looking to cycle ten miles or a hundred, here are nine ways to stretch your legs and make the most of the gently improving climate.


Gentle jaunts

Kew Bridge to Hampton Court (11 miles)

Ride

Starting from Kew Bridge mainline rail station (fast trains run from Waterloo every 15 minutes or so), the most picturesque version of the route has you heading across Kew Bridge, then following the Thames Path all the way down to Kingston. From here, cross Kingston Bridge and turn left onto Barge Walk, which you can follow all the way to Hampton Court Bridge and the neighbouring train station.

See and do

At a constant, leisurely pace, the trip should take around two hours, but with so much to see en route, there’s no reason not to make a day of it. Right at the start, there’s Kew Bridge Steam Museum as well as the Watermans arts centre – a theatre, cinema and gallery specialising in Asian arts. Once you’re by the river, you’ll see the Royal Botanical Gardens to your left, followed by various sporting grounds and, further still, Richmond Lock – a barrier that dates back to the 1890s and opens up for two hours, twice a day. Once you’ve rolled through the quaint suburban towns of Ham and Teddington, the final leg of your journey delivers some of its finest views. Straight after crossing Kingston Bridge you’ll be within spitting distance (don’t be tempted – you’re in leafy Surrey now) of Hampton Court Park, which sit before the Palace itself – an impressive 16th century English Heritage site that was once home to wife-murdering monarch Henry VIII.

Eat

If it’s pre-ride fuel you’re after, Annie’s on Thames Road – a delightfully cheery spot on the north side of the river specialising in plates of hearty comfort grub – is well worth looking into, with lunchtime fodder priced around £8-£15. At the other end of your trip, avoid the various chain outlets clogging up Bridge Road and head to the Riverside Brasserie at the Carlton Mitre hotel, where mains range from cosy fish pies to Moroccan-style lamb kebabs.

Tower Bridge to Charlton House (12 miles)

Ride

With the Thames on your left, set off from City Hall and follow the river around. You’ll need to venture inland slightly at some points – as you pass the Isle of Dogs, for example – but for the most part designated cycle paths and roads running parallel to the river will provide an obvious route. Turn right once you reach the Thames Barrier onto Eastmoor Street, then right onto Woolwich Road and left onto Charlton Church Lane, at the end of which lies Charlton House.

See and do

While most will manage to complete the course in under two hours without any breaks, there’s so much to see and do en route that packing a sturdy lock and a multi-stop itinerary seems the more obvious option. Early on, you’ve got both the Design Museum and the Brunel Museum – the first a celebration of iconic 20th century products and aesthetics, the other a surprisingly engrossing tribute to Britain’s locomotive history. Surrey Docks City Farm is just around the river bend, before the Cutty Sark and the National Maritime Museum roll into view, providing a fine opportunity to learn more about the nation’s rich seafaring heritage. Heading north up to the Greenwich peninsula, it’s worth dropping into The O2 to check out the British Music Experience – an interactive museum chronicling the birth of pop and London’s role in its development, with more iconic costumes and instruments than you can shake a drumstick at. Finally, though Charlton House itself is not open to visitors, the grounds of this striking Jacobean mansion are well worth exploring, if only to get up close and personal with some of its 17th century features, which remain in remarkably good nick.

Eat

Greenwich is your best bet for decent eats on this trail – you can either stop off for fuel before tackling the final leg or coast back to the riverside once you’ve hit the finish line. Try the Pilot Inn for some gourmet pub grub, or the Anchor & Hope (020 8858 0382) for more traditional stuff.

Finsbury Park circular (13 miles)

Ride

Taking you through three north London Boroughs, this trail includes a mix of busy main roads and quieter park paths. Though the former may seem the more foreboding, it’s the latter, greener sections that provide the bigger physical test; you’ll clock up some serious altitude on Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill, so be prepared to perspire. Starting at the southernmost point of Finsbury Park, head north before taking a left onto Parkland Walk. Follow the road until you reach the junction with Southwood Lane, which takes you into Highgate. Here, turn right onto Hampstead Lane, and onto Hampstead Heath. Your route across the heath is up to you, but we recommend heading south and taking the small path between the men’s and ladies’ swimming ponds, before bearing east and taking a left turn to exit at the junction of Spaniards Road and Heath Street. Follow the road down until you reach Agincourt Road, before turning right onto Queens Crescent, left into Prince of Wales Road and Right into Crogsland Road, which will lead you down to Primrose Hill. Head straight through, before turning left along the edge of Regent’s Park, then heading east, following signs for King’s Cross. On Pentonville Road, take the left onto Upper Street, then at Highbury Corner head straight on through Highbury Fields, along Blackstock Road and back to your starting point. Simple, eh?

See and do

Though it’s slightly off the route laid out above, it’s well worth parking up and checking out Highgate Cemetery, the creepily picturesque resting place of – among others – Karl Marx and Douglas Adams. On sunnier days, a dip in the public swimming ponds of Hampstead Heath makes a refreshing pit-stop, or there’s an excellent opportunity for panoramic picture-taking on top of Parliament Hill. Vistas are just as stunning down the road at Primrose Hill, which you’ll find packed with picnic parties should the sun so much as think about putting his hat on. If it’s an hour or so watching the world go by from a hip café you crave, power on through to Upper Street, where Don Matteo’s (020 7354 5135), Euphorium Bakery and Keston Lodge are all fit for purpose. Right at the end of the route, football nuts should take a detour through Drayton Park and stop a moment to gawp at the 60,000-seater Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal FC.

Eat

Perfectly placed between the route’s two hilly sections, Odette’s on Regent’s Park Road offers a two-course lunchtime and early evening menu for £20, where you can expect to sample dishes such as oxtail hash brown and broccoli and blue cheese risotto. It’s a relatively smart spot, so avoid rocking up with your Lycra on show.


Mid-level expeditions

Edinburgh to Falkirk Wheel (32 miles)

Ride

Setting out from Edinburgh mainline rail station (half-hourly services from King’s Cross take around four and a half hours), head west along Princes Street, then turn left onto Lothian Road. After a minute or so, turn right onto Fountainbridge, where you can then join the canal towpath that will make up the rest of your onward journey to Falkirk. Just before the wheel itself, you’ll need to pass through the 636 metre-long Falkirk Tunnel – given how dark and narrow the path is cycling will be difficult here, so it’s advisable to switch your steed’s lights on and walk it across the finish line. From the wheel, head east along Glasgow Road and onto Camelon Road, which leads you to Falkirk rail station, where Edinburgh-bound trains depart every 10-15 minutes.

See and do

While the 25-odd miles of Scottish countryside that make up the bulk of the route are certainly not to be sniffed at, the main stop-and-gawp moments come at the start and finish. Early on you’ll catch some stunning views as Edinburgh gently fades away behind you, with some of the Scottish capital’s top attractions - Murrayfield and the Corn Exchange among them – just a short detour away. 32 miles down the road, you’ve got one of the most stunning feats of modern engineering in Europe – the Falkirk Wheel. Opened in 2002 at a cost of £17.5 million, this one-of-a-kind rotating boat lift forms a connection between the Union and the Forth and Clyde canals. As well as the fascinating spectacle of the wheel itself in action (which you’re welcome to ride in for £7.95, if you must) there’s also an exhibition centre nearby, chronicling the various stages of the project’s conception and realisation.

Eat

You’d be a damned fool to head out on a four-hour cycle without something substantial in your belly, so check out Spoon on Nicholson Street for a full Scottish breakfast – complete with haggis. Over in Falkirk, Chinese restaurant The Cotton House comes highly rated, and is casual enough that your post-ride scruffiness shouldn’t raise any eyebrows.

Stay

For those demanding a good night’s rest before setting out, the five-star Balmoral Hotel next to the train station is hard to beat. On a tighter budget? Try the Royal British Hotel on Princes Street – it’s clean, comfortable and has free wi-fi. While choice is decidedly more limited in Falkirk, the centrally located Graeme Hotel offers great value should the prospect of a long homeward journey prove too much.

Purley to Brighton (43 miles)

Ride

A straight run from Purley right down to the south coast of England, mixing easy-to-follow ‘B’ roads with quieter lanes and a secret cut through the North Downs. Starting from Purley mainline station (trains run every ten minutes or so from London Bridge) head south on Godstone Road (A22) before forking left onto Woldingham Road after about four miles. After crossing the M25, take Church Lane, then Eastbourne Road, Enterdent Road, Tilburstow Hill Road and then back onto the A22, before switching to the B2028. There’s the option to go either straight through or around Haywards Heath (you won’t miss much by doing the latter), after which you’ll need to join the B2112 and head through Ditchling, onto Ditchling Road, which leads you straight into Brighton.

See and do

It’s more about the experience of cycling between two of England’s greatest cities, this one, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun along the way. We’d recommend The Crown pub in Turners Hill as a sensible stopping point (soft drinks only, of course), while slightly further on the White Hart – more restaurant than pub – is another good filling station. Once in Brighton, the options for post-ride revelry are endless. Having come this far, you may as well wheel your trusty steed down to the pebbled beach and gaze dreamily at Brighton Pier – and of course there’s the option to chain her to some railings and get stuck into the various fairground rides, should you find your adrenaline dipping. If you’re staying over, a post-shower trip to The Lanes – home to Brighton’s quirkier shops and bars – should also be on your to-do list.

Eat

Recent years have seen Brighton shift up through the nation’s culinary echelons, meaning you needn’t resort to fish ‘n’ chips and soulless seaside diners. Try Bill’s Produce Store for plates of home-style comfort food, or Iydea for a cheap and tasty vegetarian lunch.

Stay

With many of Brighton’s central B&B’s somewhat lacking in character, head along to Snooze in Kemptown for bagfuls of the stuff. Each of the six rooms (and two premium suites) are decked out with thrift store knick-knacks of varying themes, covering everything from ‘70s glamour to Japanorama.

Amsterdam loop (41 miles)

Ride

Starting out from Amsterdam Centraal station (you can transport your own bike on the Eurostar and Thalys trains that’ll take you there, or there are numerous cycle hire spots in the city centre), head south along the Amstel river, following it all the way to Ouderkerk de Amstel, where the river forks into two smaller canals. Take Rondehoep Oost (the left fork) before turning right onto Waver down to Stokkelaarsbrug. Here, branch left and head down through Winkel, Angstel, Baambrugge and Loenersloot. Keep left and you’ll end up riding alongside the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal. Take the short ferry crossing and once back on dry land, start heading north-east along the eastern bank of the Vecht canal, before switching sides just ahead of the kink at Vreeland and following the water all the way to Weesp. Here, bear north-west along Leeuwenveldseweg up to the Uterecht Canal, which leads you back to the city centre and your finishing point at Amsterdam Centraal.

See and do

If there’s one city that begs to be explored on two wheels, it’s Amsterdam. It’s estimated that there are around half a million bikes roaming the streets on the Dutch capital, so expect to be jostling for position with fellow cyclists along the route’s busier bits. For first-timers in the Dutch capital, it’d be foolhardy not to drop by some of the big attractions, especially given that the route sits so close to so many of them. Just opposite Centraal station you’ve got the infamous Sexmuseum, crammed with all manner of saucy artefacts related to the history of mankind’s favourite past-time, while veering left down Stadhouderskade will take you to the old Heineken brewery (now a fairly predictable interactive museum) and the Van Gogh Museum – home to hundreds of works by the self-harming post-impressionist. Later on, it’s all about rural charm – you’ll pass numerous idyllic picnic spots as you approach the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal, Loenersloot boasts a still-inhabited medieval castle, and the Vecht is dotted with numerous working windmills. Dutch enough for you?

Eat

A popular lunch spot near Centraal, De Bakkerswinkel specialises in hefty sandwiches, soups and excellent slabs of quiche – all ideal pre-ride fuel. Just around the corner is Latei, a vegetarian café with kitsch décor and a good line in healthy juices.

Stay

For value lodgings near the route’s start and finish point, try the three-star Hotel CC. For something a little more premium, the Renaissance by Dam Square comes with all the luxury amenities you’d expect, plus some that you probably wouldn’t.


Epic adventures

Bolzano to Verona (98 miles)

Ride

Starting out in one of Italy’s northernmost cities, this south-bound tour takes you through some breath-taking Italian countryside, with mountains and lakes surrounding largely incline-free roads and cycle paths. The cosy towns of Ora, Trento and Rovereto are the most obvious waypoints, while a minor westerly detour towards Lake Garda two-thirds in is an absolute must. The average rider should be able to finish the course in six days, while the sturdier-thighed among you should aim for four.

See and do

Forget everything you know about Italy when you arrive in Bolzano – many of the locals speak German, for a start. And while the south is all gleaming marble and imperial artefacts, up here the sights are less about history and more about science, the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology – home to five thousand year old Ötzi the ice man – being the major crowd-puller. From here, it’s on to the picturesque, orchard-flanked villages of St Pauls and Eppan, through the Dolomites and the cobbly streets of Trento before eventually arriving at Lake Garda. Those who feel they’ve earned a break can catch a ferry ride along the lake’s length (at 370km2, it’s Italy’s biggest) though bike paths do exist. In contrast to the Gothic spires and umlauts of Bolzano, Verona much closer resembles the idyllic image of Italy relentlessly flogged by the tourist board, taking the terracotta tiles from Florence and the imposing amphitheatres from ancient Rome. Once settled, most guidebooks will point you towards Juliet’s Balcony – a rather anticlimactic lump of 14th century masonry tenuously linked to Shakespeare’s tragic heroine. Instead, take a gentle uphill walk to Castel San Peitro, an old Austrian fortress affording fantastic panoramic views over the town centre.

Eat

Given that you’ll be cycling around 25 miles per day, chances are you’ll soon settle for anything hot and carby. But of course, to visit Italy without sampling some fine food would be a crime, so leave your final evening in Verona free for a well-earned feed. Osteria da Ugo near the university should fit the bill, serving up a selection of creative dishes alongside hearty Italian classics.

Stay

With multiple hotels to think about, you may be inclined to let someone else do the hard work for you. Book with cyclebreaks.com and they’ll set you up with a series of evenly-spaced, hand-picked rest-stops at three and four star hotels. Tour prices start at £682 per person.

Reims wine tour (116 miles)

Ride

Just over a hundred miles of gorgeous French countryside, broken up with numerous stops in some of the Champagne region’s finest vineyards. Setting out from Reims, the week-long trail heads first to Tours-sur-Marne, then Epernay, Vertus, Châtillon-sur-Marne and finally back to Reims. Terrain is mostly flat, with the odd hilly section thrown in to make sure you really earn that cold, crisp glass of bubbly.

See and do

While it’s unquestionably a good place to start, there’s a lot more to Reims than Champagne, and with plenty of drinking in store during the days ahead, we’d recommend spending your time there checking out its more sobering features. Few are as spectacular as the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral, which, though not as large as its Parisian cousin, is just as old and sports a gothic façade that’s every bit as impressive. The nearby Palace of Tau is older still, acting as the official residence of French monarchs as far back as 990. Elsewhere on the itinerary, the Verzy Forest just outside of Epernay ought to prove a highlight, thanks to the colossal, deformed-looking trees that grow there. As for the all-important whistle-wetting, the Vertus to Châtillon-sur-Marne leg of the trip is the one to look forward to, since it passes by numerous highly regarded Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir vineyards. It’s enough to get any wine buff’s pulse racing, but just remember that cycling while sozzled isn’t as easy as you think it is.

Eat

For modern French dining (complete with the ferocious price tag) check out Michelin-starred L'assiette Champenoise in Tinqueux, best known for its six-course black truffle tasting menu, where the treasured fungus is applied to everything from scallops to pork. For cheaper eats, Les 3 Brasseurs near the main train station delivers some decent pub grub and home-brewed beers.

Stay

Book through freedomtreks.com and they’ll organise six nights worth of stays at two-star hotels and B&Bs, with breakfast included. Tour prices start at £626 per person.

Northern Ireland’s Causeway coast (117 miles)

Ride

Eight days and seven nights exploring the rugged but rewarding Antrim countryside, with some stunning sights and testing terrain. The route starts in the quaint inland village of Broughshane, before heading north-east to the coastal villages of Glenarm and Carnlough. From here, it’s a simple case of following the coastal road north, stopping in Cushendall, Ballycastle, Bushmills and its famous Giant’s Causeway, before heading back inland to drop by the valleys of Glendun, Cushendun and Glenaan on the way back to Broughshane.

See and do

Though the best views of this trip are definitely found along the coastal sections, there are sights to be seen en route to the country’s edge for those willing to put in a little extra legwork. Slemish Mountain – just a short detour from the road to Carnlough – is believed to have been the first home of Saint Patrick, the extinct volcano serving as the Irish patron’s turf after he was brought to the country as a slave aged 16. Marking the journey’s mid-point, Ballycastle features plenty of noisy craic dens and a blue flag beach, making it the ideal spot for a rest day. From here on in, the photo opportunities come thick and fast; the ruins of Kenbane, Dunseverick and Dunluce castles coming just before the Giant’s Causeway – a fascinating arrangement of thousands of basalt columns, believed to have been formed millions of years ago by a volcanic eruption. After this, rocky roads are swapped for lush, green glens and gentle downhill roads – look out for the towering conifers of Slieveanorra Forest on the final leg of the tour.

Eat

Beyond a few small cafes and decent fish ‘n’ chip shops, you won’t find much in the way of eats in Broughshane, so save your dinner money until you get to Ballycastle, where options are better. Boyles is among the town’s best rated spots, where dinner for two clocks in at around the £50 mark.

Stay

With numerous B&Bs dotted along the route, the choice of when and where you stop is really up to you. If you’d rather plan ahead and let someone else do the hard work for you, irishcycletours.com will arrange seven nights in family-run hotels and B&Bs for the duration of your trip, with prices starting at £623.

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