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Discover the top 10 European road trip and ferry destinations for families

Make your next family holiday a relaxed ferry, self-drive trip and explore all that Europe has to offer, without limits.

By Louise Baty | Last updated Aug 4, 2023

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If you’re planning a family holiday and want to avoid the hassle of airport queues, flight delays, and baggage restrictions, why not consider a holiday by ferry? Not only do ferry holidays offer flexibility, but they can also be much more cost-effective than purchasing expensive flights. Plus, they offer your family the chance to sit back, unwind and make the most of the onboard facilities, including shops, restaurants, bars, and even spa treatment rooms to really kickstart your holiday in style.

Brittany Ferries, a renowned ferry travel company, was awarded Best Travel Company for Family Holidays at the 2022 British Travel Awards, based on votes from consumers. The company offers a choice of routes from the UK and Ireland to France and Spain. Rather than being crammed into your plane seat, you’ll have space to move around and enjoy the on board service and entertainment including play areas, games rooms, live entertainment, and cinemas. To top it off, one of their ferries, Pont Aven, even features a swimming pool! With these amenities, your holiday truly begins the moment you step onboard.

Opting for a ferry and self-drive trip allows you to bring along all your home comforts in your car or caravan. You won’t have to worry about leaving behind essential equipment, like strollers or highchairs. Furthermore, you can even bring your pets along, as most ferry crossings allow dogs - provided you have the necessary documentation.

Did you know that you can embark on some incredible European journeys by ferry and road, allowing you to take in marvellous sights along the way? Whether it’s France, Spain or  Portugal, here are the top European road trips for families, as recommended by Mumsnetters.

1. St Malo, France

St Malo

Book from Portsmouth to St Malo with Brittany Ferries

Mumsnetters love summer holidays in family-friendly Brittany, which boasts a 700 mile coastline crammed with stunning sandy beaches. This region in northern France is great for foodies; local dishes include crêpes and moules frites, washed down with locally brewed cidre (parents only, obviously).

Catch the ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo and there’s no need to travel much further because there’s so much to do around St Malo itself. As this Mumsnetter says: “I love St Malo. The fortifications along the beach are wonderful.”

Another Brittany fan enthuses: “Anywhere near St Malo is lovely! The beach at St Lunaire is fab. Cancale is so beautiful. Pleurtuit is nice too.”

The stunning beach of Dinard is seven miles from St Malo - it’s famous for its quaint blue and white beach huts. Only a short drive inland from St Malo is the historic town of Dinan. With meandering cobbled streets and thatched cottages, it’s like stepping back in time to the Middle Ages. You can also easily drive to world-famous Mont St Michel for a day trip.

What to know

  • Distance to St Malo from St Malo ferry port: 1.5 miles

  • Distance to Dinan from St Malo ferry port: 20 miles

What Mumsnet users say

“Brittany has many charming towns and villages, rock pools etc…” artisanbread

“We stayed in Cancale which is famous for oysters and had lots of lovely restaurants along the promenade. 15 min drive to St Malo and easy to get to Mont St Michel. If you go to MSM go to the soufflé omelette restaurant!” Twilightstarbright

2. Santander, Spain


Book from Portsmouth to Santander or book from Plymouth to Santander with Brittany Ferries

Take the ferry to Santander from Portsmouth or Plymouth and you arrive straight into the heart of the town - a delightful, coastal city brimming with charm, culture, and exciting activities for all ages.

With Brittany Ferries, reaching Santander has never been easier or more convenient. The city boasts stunning beaches that will captivate every family member. Particularly Playa de la Magdalena. With its golden sands and shallow waters, it’s a great spot for little ones to splash and build sandcastles. There’s also Somo Beach that’s just a short ferry ride away. This surfer’s paradise is a great place for family-friend water activities like paddleboarding and kayaking.

A visit to Santander wouldn’t be complete without exploring the breathtaking Palacio de la Magdalena. This magnificent palace, surrounded by lush gardens, offers a range of family-friendly attractions. Alternatively, fascinate your family with a trip to the Maritime Museum of Cantabria. Located in the historic city centre, this interactive museum provides a captivating insight into the region's maritime heritage.

Located just a short drive from Santander, Cabarceno Natural Park is a must-visit destination for nature enthusiasts. This unique park spans over 750 hectares and is home to a wide array of animals, including elephants, giraffes, and tigers. Kids will be thrilled by the park's playgrounds, picnic areas, and even the chance to feed some of the animals.

What to know

  • Depart from Plymouth or Portsmouth in the UK to visit Santander with Brittany Ferries

  • Distance to Santander from Santander ferry port: 2 miles

3. Normandy, France

Normandy, France

Book from Portsmouth to Caen or book from Portsmouth to Cherbourg with Brittany Ferries

The coast of Normandy boasts white sandy beaches scattered with rock pools. ideal for water babies. Of course, the beaches are also steeped in a tragic history, thanks to the Second World War Normandy Landings. Visit Utah beach, on the Cotentin Peninsula, and see remnants of the Second World War, including preserved bunkers. At Courseulles-sur-Mer, you’ll find the Juno beach centre, a museum set up by families of Canadian war veterans.

Normandy is ideal for a budget camping trip as there are some wonderful family-friendly campsites within an easy drive of both Caen and Cherbourg ferry ports. And you can go further back in time by seeing the 1000-year-old Bayeaux tapestry, in the town of Bayeaux.

What to know

  • Depart from Portsmouth or Poole with Brittany Ferries

  • Distance to Utah Beach from Caen ferry port is 55 miles and from Cherbourg ferry port is 34 miles

  • Distance to Bayeaux from Caen ferry port is 19 miles and from Cherbourg ferry port is 48 miles

What Mumsnet users say

“I have an army/war obsessed 9 year old so we thought we'd drive over, go to Dunkirk, then Normandy and then Spain. Dh loves driving and I'm not a massive fan of flying, plus we can take what we want without worrying about weight limits etc.” Tiredmum100

4. Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

Book from Portsmouth to Santander or book from Plymouth to Santander with Brittany Ferries

While there’s no direct ferry service from the UK to Porto with Brittany Ferries, families wishing to reach Porto can do so by getting the ferry to Santander.

From Santander, you can drive to Portugal’s second largest city, Porto, taking in some lovely sights along the way in northern Spain and Portugal. León, a city on the Bernesga River in northwest Spain is home to stunning architecture including historic cathedrals and churches. Then there’s Braga -  a city in the far north of Portugal, northeast of Porto, known for its religious heritage and beautiful Santa Barbara Garden.

Porto itself is compact and beautiful, perched beside the vast Duoro river, leading to the Atlantic Ocean. For an aerial view, take a cable car. Back on the ground, explore the cobbled streets, historic buildings and fishing port on foot. Visit the bustling city centre food market, Mercado do Bolhão for fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, cheese and flowers.

Don’t miss the quirky and intriguing Livraria Lello bookshop, with its stunning sweeping red wooden staircase and books lining every wall. Its architecture is said to have inspired former Porto resident, JK Rowling, when she wrote about Harry Potter’s magical Hogwarts school. Don’t forget to try some of the locally made port while you’re in the city either; you can tour the vineyards during your visit.

What to know

  • Depart from Plymouth or Portsmouth in the UK to get to Santander with Brittany Ferries, then drive to Porto in Portugal

  • Distance to Porto from Santander ferry port: 401 miles (approximately a 6 hour drive)

5. Bilbao, Spain

Bilbao, Spain

Book from Portsmouth to Bilbao or book from Rosslare to Bilbao with Brittany Ferries

This captivating city is nestled in the heart of the Basque Country. With its vibrant culture, stunning architecture, and a plethora of family-friendly activities, Spain’s Bilbao promises an unforgettable experience for all.

First of all, a visit to Bilbao wouldn’t be complete without exploring the iconic Guggenheim Museum. This architectural marvel, designed by Frank Gehry, houses an impressive collection of contemporary art. Alternatively, stroll through Bilbao's charming Casco Viejo, the historic old town brimming with narrow streets and charming squares. Discover its rich history as you admire the beautifully preserved mediaeval architecture. The Mercado de la Ribera, one of Europe's largest covered markets, is a must-visit destination, offering an array of local produce and delicious treats.

Immerse your family in Bilbao's vibrant performing arts scene by visiting the Euskalduna Palace. This state-of-the-art cultural centre hosts a variety of family-friendly shows, including theatre performances, musicals, and concerts. Beyond the city, embrace nature in Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park. This serene urban oasis offers beautifully landscaped gardens, tranquil lakes, and shady picnic spots. Children can roam freely on the playgrounds, rent a paddleboat on the lake, or enjoy a leisurely family stroll amidst the lush greenery.

What to know

  • Depart from Portsmouth in the UK for a direct ferry route to Bilbao

  • Live in Ireland? Depart from Rosslare to travel directly to Bilbao

  • Distance to Bilbao from Bilbao ferry port: 12 miles

6. Rennes, France

Rennes in Brittany, France

Book now with Brittany Ferries

While it isn’t close to beaches, Brittany’s vibrant capital city, Rennes, has loads to offer. It’s a foodie paradise, with its famous Saturday morning food market considered to be one of the best in France. The mediaeval Old Town will thrill history buffs and you can get back to nature in the beautiful Thabor Gardens. The city is renowned for its yearly street performance festival of art and poetry, Les Tombées de la Nuit (Nightfalls). Take the Portsmouth ferry to St Malo and reach Rennes by car in about an hour.

The picturesque town of Fougeres is a short drive from Rennes. The town is home to the Château de Fougères, one of the largest surviving mediaeval fortresses in Europe. Kids will love exploring the magical turrets and towers. Mumsnetter Cazastrophe advises that if you want to make the most of exploring the region, you really do need your own transport: “Brittany, like most holiday destinations in France isn’t really set up for transport links so a car is vital.”

What to know

  • Distance to Rennes from St Malo ferry port : 43 miles

  • Distance to Fougeres from St Malo ferry port: 54 miles

What Mumsnet users say

“The Museum of Brittany, the Jardin du Thabor and a day trip (by bus) to Fougeres were particular highlights, but the city is gorgeous and really interesting to spend time in. We're history nerds though so we enjoyed all the architecture and churches etc.” Greensleeves

7. San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian

Book from Portsmouth to Bilbao or book from Portsmouth to Santander and Plymouth to Santander with Brittany Ferries

You can drive to the Basque Country’s stylish city of San Sebastian from Brittany Ferries’ ports at both Bilbao and Santander. Renowned for its impressive culture, historic architecture and top notch shopping, it also offers gastronomic excellence with more Michelin-star restaurants per square metre than anywhere else in the world.

While your kids may not appreciate award winning haute cuisine, they’re sure to enjoy the pinxtos (Basque tapas) which are sold in bars and restaurants across the city. And then there are the gorgeous beaches.

San Sebastian is built around the shell-shaped Bay of La Concha and there are three easily accessible beaches in town - La Concha, Zurriola and Ondarreta - covered in fine golden sand, perfect for making sandcastles!

What to know

  • Distance to San Sebastian from Bilbao ferry port: 62 miles

  • Distance to San Sebastian from Santander ferry port: 123 miles

What Mumsnet users say

“Fantastic place! The best thing to do is to go into the old town and just wander around till you find a place or places that take your fancy. All the restaurants there do pintxos and the variety is massive!” BIWI

8. The Loire Valley, France

Loire Valley

Book now with Brittany Ferries 

Known as the ‘Garden of France’, the Loire Valley is the ideal location if you’re itching to explore stunning countryside, plus a few vineyards. France’s longest river, The Loire, provides opportunities for watersports and swimming as well as sunbathing on man-made beaches.

The region has played host to historic events, including the Battle of Orléans, when Joan of Arc led her army into battle in 1429. The region’s historical theme park, Puy du Fou - once voted the world’s best theme park - brings Vikings, Romans and mediaeval knights to life.

Get your sightseeing fix in the bustling cities of Orléans and Tours and visit cathedrals and chateaux including the breathtaking Chambord, Chaumont sur Loire. Catch a ferry from Portsmouth to Caen and you can hop straight onto the French motorway’s speedy route to the Loire.

What to know

  • Distance to Orléans from Caen’s ferry port: 212 miles

  • Distance to Tour from Caen’s ferry port: 132 miles

9. Cantabria, Spain

Cantabria, Spain

Book now from Portsmouth to Santander or from Plymouth to Santander with Brittany Ferries

The region of Cantabria offers 130 miles of beautiful Atlantic coastline, with stunning family-friendly beaches and fishing ports to explore.

This area is also famous for its prehistoric caves. Less than 20 miles west from Brittany Ferries’ port at Santander is the Cave of Altamira. The cave was discovered in 1868 by a local hunter and, like most caves in Spain, is accessible to the public; it’s a treasure trove for any history fanatic. Estimated to be 14,000 years old, it contains Spain’s most important examples of prehistoric cave art and drawings.

A great place to stay is the quaint mediaeval town of Santillana Del Mar, less than a mile away from Altamira. There are plenty of traditional hotels along with sites for camping and caravanning in the area. You can also explore Oyambre National Park and the Picos de Europa mountains.

What to know

  • Distance to Santillana Del Mar from Santander ferry port: 21 miles

10. La Rochelle, France

La Rochelle, France

Book from Portsmouth to St Malo with Brittany Ferries

This picturesque coastal city nestled in the heart of western France is a favourite amongst Mumsnetters. With its rich history, charming architecture, and family-friendly attractions, La Rochelle offers an enchanting experience for all ages. And with Brittany Ferries, reaching La Rochelle with your own vehicle has never been easier or more convenient.

Just over a three hour drive from the St. Malo ferry port, La Rochelle is in easy reach once you’re in France. When there, begin your family adventure with a visit to one of the largest aquariums in Europe. The La Rochelle Aquarium is home to a fascinating array of marine life, including sharks, tropical fish, sea turtles, and penguins.

Stroll along the picturesque Old Port of La Rochelle, a bustling hub of activity with colourful boats, charming cafés, and lively street performers. Marvel at the iconic towers that guard the harbour entrance, such as the Tour Saint-Nicolas and the Tour de la Chaîne. For a beach day, head to one of La Rochelle’s beautiful beaches. The Plage des Minimes offers a family-friendly atmosphere with calm waters, sandy shores, and a range of water sports activities. For a more natural experience, head to the nearby Île de Ré, accessible via a bridge, and discover its pristine beaches, dunes, and charming villages.

For a day trip, don’t miss a chance to visit Bordeaux. It’s a two hour drive there, but this vibrant city is worth a visit as it offers a wealth of family-friendly activities and attractions.

What to know

  • Distance to La Rochelle from St Malo ferry port: 203 miles

Why book with Brittany Ferries in 2023?

  • Enjoy on board entertainment to keep you and the kids occupied, including play areas, games rooms, live entertainment and cinemas

  • Flexible booking options with ticket types to let you choose the level of flexibility needed when planning future travel

  • Low deposits so you can manage your spend

  • Unique holiday destinations in easy reach

  • Great value dining across restaurants and self-service restaurants

  • …and you can take your furry friends!

Plus, for information on driving in France, Spain and Portugal see here for information for all the essential facts you need to know.

About Brittany Ferries

Brittany Ferries is a renowned ferry travel company offering excellent services for travel to France and Spain. With a range of routes from the UK and Ireland, they provide a convenient and cost-effective alternative to flying. Passengers can enjoy spacious accommodations, onboard entertainment, and amenities like play areas and cinemas. Brittany Ferries' fleet includes the impressive Pont Aven ferry, which features a swimming pool. With their award-winning reputation and dedication to customer satisfaction, Brittany Ferries ensures a memorable and enjoyable journey to popular destinations in France and Spain.

Main image credit: James Lovick-Designate

About the Author

Mum-of-two Louise Baty has been a journalist for almost 20 years and covers parenting, health, travel and lifestyle for consumer print and online publications. She has authored four books on parenting (and grandparenting) and is also an expert online shopper and bargain hunter, which comes in very handy when she researches and writes travel reviews and recommendations for Mumsnet.