Whether you’re admiring the room-with-a-view romance of the Tuscan countryside or the Alpine drama of the northern lakes, the Italian landscape is surprisingly diverse. To explore the aesthetic and edible bounty of Italy’s great regions, pack yourself into a Fiat Cinquecento and tour the bel paese (beautiful country) by car.
Here are five classic Italian road trips, all best travelled in a week to ten days…
Pisa – Lucca – Montecatini Terme – Florence – Arezzo – Siena – Castellina in Chianti – San Gimignano – Pisa
This classic route circles Tuscany’s green, sweeping Chianti region. Follow cypress-clad roads through undulating vineyards and hill towns with a stop in the Renaissance mothership of Florence. From Pisa, head northeast to the medieval town of Lucca (birthplace of Puccini) and Montecatini Terme to take a dip in the thermal baths. Set aside a few days to explore Florence before looping around to Arezzo and its impressive antique market, and the medieval city of Siena with its stunning 12th-century Piazza del Duomo. The small town of Castellina in Chianti is a perfect stop between Siena and San Gimignano, which is known as the Manhattan of Italy for its 14 soaring towers. From here, it’s a short and scenic drive back to Pisa.
Brindisi – Polignano a Mare – Alberobello – Cisternino – Ostuni – Gallipoli – Otranto – Lecce – Brindisi
This route follows a ‘D’ shape through the region of Puglia: up the bright turquoise coast and back down through the olive groves of the Itria Valley before looping around the heel of the boot.
Drive northwards from Brindisi to the cove of Polignano a Mare before dipping inland to Alberobello – famous for its trulli and rampant production of kitschy souvenirs. Stop for lunch at one of the butchers’ restaurants in nearby Cisternino (where your choice of meat is roasted over an open fire) en route to the dazzling white town of Ostuni. Cut across the heel to Gallipoli on the opposite coast. From here, take the coastal road around the perimeter of the rocky Salento Peninsula, stopping in Otranto before arriving in the Baroque city of Lecce – a 30-minute drive back to Brindisi.
The Amalfi Coast
Naples – Pompeii – Capri – Sorrento – Positano – Amalfi – Ravello – Salerno
The most famous and well trodden of these routes is the Amalfi coast. There may be a tour bus or ten obstructing your view ahead, and the sheer drop off the sides are hair-raising, but don’t let it dampen your spirits: you are driving Italy’s most iconic and spectacular coastline. From Naples, visit the Roman ruins of Pompeii before continuing to Sorrento. Leave the car behind and hop on a ferry to Capri (sit on the left for the best view). Back in Sorrento, follow signs for Positano and wind inland until you reach the upmarket resort. The coastal drive from Positano to Amalfi follows narrow, tight roads with vistas over the shimmering Gulf of Salerno. High in the hills above Amalfi, soak up the breathtaking views from the luxuriant gardens of Ravello before heading for the endpoint of Salerno, 20km down the coast.
Milan, The Lakes and Verona
Milan – Lake Maggiore – Lake Como – Bergamo – Lake Garda – Verona
This drive curls upwards from Milan and across the northern lakes of Maggiore, Como and Garda, which punctuate the Alpine peaks in a line towards Verona. The mountainous backdrop, sumptuous palaces and lush gardens of the lakes have attracted the royal and wealthy since the 17th century.
Drive northwards out of Milan to Stresa on the banks of Lake Maggiore – the second largest and most westerly of the three lakes. Continue through the foothills of the Alps to Lake Como and discover its lakeside resorts of Bellagio and Varenna by boat. Spend a couple of hours wandering the city of Bergamo en route to Lake Garda, where Sirmione is a good base for exploring. It’s 45 minutes from Sirmione to Verona. Return the car and head into the centro storico, where it’s best to explore by bicycle – you can rent one in Piazza Brà.
Parma – Modena – Bologna – Ravenna – Rimini
Emilia-Romagna is home to Italy’s most celebrated produce and cuisine. For the most part, this route follows Roman road Via Aemilia (now the A1 and A14) from Rimini to Ravenna. Begin in Parma; a town synonymous with the likes of prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. An hour drive down the Via Aemilia brings you the quietly prosperous town of Modena – the area’s balsamic vinegar is another kitschy food link to our modest British kitchens. Bologna is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, known for its russet architecture, left-wing politics, ancient university and of course, its food. Spend a few days here before heading to Ravenna – capital of the Roman Empire and home to some of Europe’s finest Byzantine mosaics. The nightlife and beaches of Rimini lie 51km south of Ravenna for a sun-soaked and hedonistic end to your trip.