I was never a huge fan of road trips when I lived in Australia, mainly because they were so boring. Since living in Europe I have come to thoroughly enjoy road tripping. To start with, you can be driving along and without much fanfare you are in a whole other country. Secondly, Europe is so damn scenic and interesting. Thirdly, nowhere is that far compared to Australian standards. So this post is about a road trip in Italy that we made one summer a few years ago. Rome and Florence are also thrown in for good measure despite us not visiting these cities during the same road trip.
Some people avoid places like Italy because they perceive it to be too touristic. We would say that is a big mistake!
There are some very good reasons why so many people visit this lively, vibrant country. The food and wine are amazing. It is one of the oldest countries in the world and therefore is filled with history like very few other places. Art and culture are an integral part of its history and therefore who the country is today. The people are super friendly and will go out of their way to help you. Finally, the weather is pretty good all year round, especially compared to many of the countries in northern Europe.
So why road trip in Italy?
If you can afford more than a few days in Italy, which you should make sure you can, we would recommend you rent a car and get driving. You can start at any point in the trip we have outlined below or do the whole thing. Italy is filled with so much beauty it would be a shame to miss it by catching a plane everywhere. Within a few days you are able to see different landscapes, various architecture from diverse points in time, and taste an assortment of local delicacies. Plus, it’s not that big which makes it very accessible to drive.
Driving from Munich, where we live, to Italy you have to pass through Austria and the Alps. The jagged, stark, snow capped mountains are imposing but beautiful at the same time. As you cross the border from Austria to Italy you soon hit the Dolomites which seem more gentle and friendly. They are more like giant rounded mounds covered in greenery, rolling towards the vineyards below which then meet the road.
As you drive through Süd Tirol you will feel the mountains encroaching upon you from either side. You will be mesmerised by the gravity defying houses and vineyards clinging to the sides of steep inclines. It’s hard not to marvel at the fortresses and castles balanced atop the occasional mountain peak.
Since we started our road trip in Italy from Munich, we scheduled our first stop in Trento. When we initially planned our road trip we looked at Trento as purely a place to stay for the night. How misled we were. This charming little northern Italian town is filled with a rich history and makes some damn good wine. First bottle of the trip bought. Check. Another reason to road trip, you have more room to bring back wine :). This turned out not to be completely necessary for us as we didn’t manage to bring much of the stash of wine we bought back to Munich. It was just too delicious to wait to open and the whole Italian, relaxed wine drinking culture rubbed off on us.
The main square, Piazza Duomo, is denominated by the magnificent cathedral, Duomo di Trento. Surrounding the square are colourful, beautifully painted facades. The centrepiece is the grandiose, ornate fountain that sits in the middle of the square and acts as a convenient meeting point for the locals.
You may also choose to visit Castello del Buonconsiglio the 13th century castle, originally built as the seat of Prince-Bishop but over the years has been used as military barracks, a jail and now a museum.
In Trento you are best to wander the pretty streets aimlessly, admiring the decorative buildings and soaking up the general laid back vibe that Italy possesses. We stumbled upon all sorts of little gems, like a shopping arcade that looks like an art gallery. What a great introduction to Italy!
This was the first of our spare of the moment detours and it did not disappoint. Verona is small and anything from half a day to a couple of days would be sufficient to give you a taste of this ancient Roman town.
Verona is known world wide for the setting of Romeo and Juliet but there is so much more than this Shakespearean tale. The wide streets lined with colourful houses create an inviting atmosphere. Once you walk through the main gate you come face to face with the magnificent amphitheater, Verona Arena, which was built in the first century. It still is in use today and regularly holds large scale operas.
There is of course the “Romeo and Juliet house” with the obligatory balcony. This is purely for the tourists. You can buy a lock and write your names on it and padlock it to the fence. Yes it’s kitschy but it is kind of cute.
Wandering around the streets and soaking in the lively atmosphere is the best thing to do. You will undoubtedly end up in the spacious main square, Piazza del Erbe, at some point. Why not rest your weary feet and grab a nice refreshing granitta or some delicious Italian food at one of the many cute restaurants Verona has on offer.
Cinque Terre is made up of five incredibly cute towns that crawl up the hillside like colourful pastel boxes of candy until they meet the terraced vineyards. It forms part of what is known as the Italian Riviera. Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore are all worth a visit and each possess their own character.
In Riomaggiore the houses cling to two sides of an escarpment that seem to defy gravity.
Manarola sits perched atop a cliff above the sea, with the candy coloured orange, yellow and pink houses shining brightly in the midday sun.
Corniglia is built amongst the vineyards with the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean glistening below.
Vernazza is built around a small cove where the blue and red fishing boats bob up and down in the small harbour, waiting to go in search of more delicious fresh seafood.
Monterosso possesses the longest stretch of sandy beach out of all of the five villages. The sand is lined with orange or blue striped umbrellas, protecting beach goers from the fierce heat of the sun.
We stayed in Vernazza and loved immersing ourselves within this tiny hamlet. Despite being the middle of summer and surrounded by fellow tourists, there were still enough locals around for it not to feel like the soul of the village had been ripped out and thrown into the Mediterranean Sea. If you are lucky, your accommodation may have a terrace that clings to the hilltop and allows you spectacular views of the Mediterranean as you sip your daily morning dose of caffeine.
In theory there are walking trails that join all five villages, Sentiero Azzurro, but there are often parts of the trail that are closed. Unfortunately this is the toll of tourism. Not to worry, you can catch a train between the villages. The parts that we walked were not too difficult but it was quite exposed in some sections and lacking shade.
I would also recommend taking a boat from one village to another, perhaps at the end of the day after hiking in the sweltering heat of the summer sun. From the boat you gain a different perspective of these stunningly vibrant fishing hamlets.
Don’t try and see all five villages in one day. Take your time to meander around the steep, narrow streets, relishing the coolness of the stone buildings. The walk amongst the precipitous terraced vineyards is a case of where the journey is as good as the destination.
No road trip in Italy is complete without visiting Florence. It is a city with so much to offer BUT there are sooooooo many tourists. Unfortunately, it has fallen into the tourist trap and is overrun with street vendors selling Pinocchio souvenirs and hawkers trying to coax you into their restaurant.
Florence was the epicentre of culture for so long in the past, it is hard to bypass this historic city. You will enjoy visiting some of the most impressive collections of art and be in awe of the duomo that lies in the heart of the city. I would recommend going up the Duomo tower for breathtaking views of Florence and The Arno river.
Even if you are not really an art buff you really should suck it up and go with the hordes to see Michelangelo’s statue of “David” at The Galleria dell’Accademia. Also, The Uffizi Gallery contains an amazing collection of artwork, including Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and da Vinci’s “Annunciation”. If you haven’t had your culture fix by this stage visit Palazzo Pitti. Whatever you do, book tickets online, if you can, to avoid standing in line for hours.
A visit to Florence wouldn’t be complete without a stroll along the stone bridge, Ponte Vecchio. It was common for bridges to have shops along them and they still exist on this one. Albeit, the jewellery and souvenir shops are a bit of a change from the butchers that once inhabited them.
If you get tired of visiting art galleries then a walk to the other side of the river to the viewpoint called Piazzale Michelangiolo. You will enjoy Florence in all its glory from here, a particularly lovely spot to come and watch the sun set over this centre of Italian Renaissance.
Siena ended up being one of those spare of the moment stops on our road trip in Italy. We were happily cruising along the highway when out of the blue David suggested we make a detour. Always up for an unexpected adventure, of course I agreed. David was driving so I didn’t have much choice to be honest.
The narrow streets that were lined by the cool brick buildings provided respite from the searing summer heat. The expansive, unusually fan-shaped main square, Piazzo del Campo, suddenly surprised us as we emerged from slender lanes that led from the carpark. During the summer horse races are held in this square. They have been held since medieval times. As we continued to stroll aimlessly, we couldn’t help but stumble upon the majestic green and white striped cathedral, Duomo di Siena.
This romantic medieval little town is a lovely place to stop for an afternoon to sample some local wine or enjoy a delicious Aperol Spritz or a refreshing granitta. Don’t forget to stop in one of the old-fashioned grocery stores and grab yourself some rich, creamy regional cheese. Goes perfectly with the local wine, trust us. If you are feeling energetic you can climb the Torre del Mangia for gorgeous views of the city and its surrounding countryside, comprising of beautiful rambling hills and vineyards.
Oh Tuscany! How I love you! A place that I could go back to again and again. The light. The wine. The cute little medieval towns. Maybe I have watched too many movies that have exploited the stunning Tuscan landscape. The same movies that have romanticised everything that happens in this alluring Italian province.
During summer, rolling fields look like a patchwork quilt of greens, browns and yellows. Luscious green vines are bulging with ripening grapes. The odd field is aglow with bright yellow sunflowers dancing in the breeze. And atop every second mound lies a quiet medieval village that is steeped in history.
We stayed in Monticchiello but also visited Montalcino and Montepulciano. Monticchiello being the smallest of the three towns. We like to affectionately call them the three “Montes”. This is the heart of Tuscany. This is wine and cheese country baby! Two of my favourite things in the whole world.
Each of “the Montes” are balanced on top of a hill, with the brick buildings topped with red terracotta roofs. All three medieval towns are incredibly charming and are surrounded by vineyards that produce delectable wines. Yes we bought quite a few bottles while in Tuscany. They each contain the obligatory cute church and a hodge podge of houses that create a mish mash of laneways, perfect for getting lost in.
This part of Tuscany provides a great place to slow down, unwind and enjoy some amazing food and wine. A road trip can be exhausting so it is definitely important to factor in some relaxation time and small towns like “the Montes” are perfect places to do so.
Rome is just awesome. There are so many adjectives I could use to describe this magnificent centre of culture and innovation. The pure number of Roman ruins that have survived thousands of years is mind blowing. That along with the ingenious minds of those said Romans puts today’s societies to shame.
I should point out now that Audrey Hepburn is one of my all time favourite actors, and Roman Holiday one my favourite films in which she performed. Needless to say, when I went to Rome, I wanted to visit all of the key locations from Roman Holiday. Yes I wanted to pretend I was Audrey Hepburn on the Spanish steps :).
I don’t even know where to begin in terms of sites to visit while in Rome, there are too many places to mention in this post. Of course, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Circus Maximus, Palatine Hill, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, St Peter’s Basilica, Castel Sant d’Angelo are all a must see.
Then there is Piazza Nuvona and Piazza del Popolo, Campo de Fiori, Santa Maria Maggiore, Villa Borghese and the Spanish steps that are stunning landmarks. There are also countless museums, galleries and churches, stunning piazzas, bridges that were architectural masterpieces at the time of construction and various other ruins and buildings of significance. In reality you could spend a month in Rome and not see all that she has to offer.
Of course we mustn’t forget the scene from Roman Holiday where Audrey Hepburn is dared by Gregory Peck to put her hand in The Mouth of Truth (Santa Maria in Cosmedin church, at Piazza della Bocca della Verità). Legend has it that if you tell a lie you will lose your hand.
Would you be game enough to try?
Most importantly, don’t forget to buy ice-cream. I think you will need to try more than one just to confirm that the best ice-cream in the world is made in Rome. Also, wander the narrow streets and get lost. You don’t have to deviate far from the major attractions to find yourself burrowing your way through the rabbit warren of streets, dodging vespas.
The Amalfi Coast is about fifty kilometres of coastline bounded by death defying sheer cliffs. Ridiculously cute, pastel coloured fishing villages lie in each of the secluded coves with pebbled beaches and steep, winding narrow streets creeping up the hillside. Terraced vineyards and lemon orchards spread across the clifftops.
Given that the villages are at the bottom of the precipitous cliffs, the drive down to Amalfi was hair raising to say the least. Throw in the fact that many Italian drivers are crazy. They don’t seem to possess any fear of single lane (each way), serpentine roads weaving their way down the mountain. There were a number of times that David and I held our breaths hoping for the best as buses and trucks overtook on hair pin bends. Thankfully David got us to Amalfi in one piece without incident.
In this part of Italy you will find every imaginable product made with lemons. Everything from the delicious bitter sweet limoncello to soap. I came to appreciate the freshness of limoncello during my time in Amalfi. The perfect antidote after a long day of wandering the streets or just as a digestif after a scrumptious seafood meal.
On one of the days we took a short boat ride along the shoreline to Positano. This is the fancier, more upmarket version of Amalfi. The streets are steep and narrow and are lined with deluxe shops selling everything from homewares to footwear. After window shopping a quick dip in the Mediterranean was called for. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon.
So there you have it, a road trip going from north to south-ish in Italy. Of course this is not an exhaustive list of places to visit, just one that makes for a reasonably direct route from one end of the country to the other.
Haven’t got enough of Italy? Why don’t you check out our tips for visiting Venice.
A Quick Driving Tip
A tip when driving in Austria, even if just passing through. You must buy a vignette (a permit or a toll to use the freeways). If you don’t you will feel the wrath of the law and will receive a nasty fine. A vignette valid for a week will only cost €8.90 (at time of writing).
Side note, you need a different vignette if you drive in/through Switzerland. Beware. There is a very high chance that you will get caught if you do not have a vignette. I think pretty much all of our friends who tried to beat the law ended up paying the substantial fine. Yes it’s frustrating. Yes it is purely a money making operation. However, you can’t fight it so you’re better off just paying it.
Another tip when driving through Austria to Italy, petrol is much cheaper in Austria. Plan your trip around that fact when it comes to filling up. At the time of writing it was €0.20/L cheaper in Austria. There’s an extra Aperol Spritz or two that could be bought while in Italy!
As you can see, this road trip allows you to see and experience so much of the wonderful Italian culture and countryside. It can take you as long or as little as your heart desires.
Let us know about other places that would be worth visiting along the way by leaving a comment below.
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