Ciao, travellers! Do you also have the feeling that Italy has it all? Gorgeous beaches, fascinating history, cute architecture & excellent gastronomy? If yes, it is time for a little Italy Road Trip of yours. Welcome to your ultimate northern Italy road trip guide. What places should you drive to in Northern Italy, what is the best timing, and how much will this stunning trip cost you?
No wonder that Italy is one of the most visited countries in Europe. One can easily choose from picturesque rural villages, astonishing mountains, vibrant costs or fashionable cities with gourmet restaurants. If you are like me, and you don’t want to choose one place only, but want to experience it all – just get a car! Drive through Northern Italy within a week to experience a pleasurable mixture of hiking, beaching, history hunting and fabulous eating.
Why to Choose Northern Italy for Your Road Trip?
This was a road trip from the very beginning. We drove with my brother and his friend from my hometown, Partizánske, in the middle of Slovakia. Therefore, exploring the Northern part was the most practical decision. The second reason was my deepest wish to finally visit the area around Dolomites, and hey, they didn’t disappoint me.
Reason number three was visiting our mama in Lake Garda, which is one of my most favourite places in Italy in general, and reason number four was fulfilling another travel dream of mine: a road trip in Cinque Terre, which turned into a train trip, explained in detail later on.
When is the Best Time for an Italy Road Trip?
I personally believe that driving through Northern Italy must be enjoyable during the entire four seasons. You can visit Xmas markets and ski in Winter, Spring surprises you with all the freshness and blooming flowers, in summer you can confidently swim in the sea or lakes and Autumn, with its all blush colours, is just magical (as I describe in my Lake Garda in Autumn article).
This Northern Italy Road Trip of ours took place in summer, exactly at the beginning of July, during quite a big summer heatwave. Dolomites were hot but still doable with 27 – 30 degrees. However, driving through inland Italy to reach the Ligurian or Italian Riviera on the west was extremely exhausting. The temperatures were reaching above 36 – 40 degrees, and not even our non-stop air conditioning was able to provide us with sufficient refreshment.
We sweated 24/7 after leaving Dolomites. Therefore, if you plan to visit southern and inland parts of Northern Italy, try to aim for colder months (June, September). It is not fun to be in the car driving for hours, and it is not fun to hike through Cinque terre villages during the heatwave. Nothing is fun until 10pm when you still have only a very soft warm breeze and your body is melting.
How Much Time do You Need for a Northern Italy Road Trip
Again, this is very individual. Our driving holiday in Italy took 1 week, and we managed to see many places. However, it was pretty exhausting. If I were to repeat this Northern Italy Road trip again, I would go for 2 weeks, spend more time in each area and of course add more places, probably lakes and coastal towns. Despite the Italian road trip being intense, we enjoyed it greatly, not regretting anything at all. Maybe only driving a long distance to Livorno, not a very pretty city on the Ligurian coast.
Costs for Your Italy Road Trip
You have to count accommodation, which costs differently in every area; food, train or boat tickets, entrance fees, lots of water and of course, gas and tolls. Our Northern Italy Road trip cost us approximately between 1000 and 1200 euros each. However, we tried to save costs on prepping our own food. Yes, we enjoyed some lovely meals in restaurants, but the quality of food in Italian supermarkets is so great, yet it doesn’t cost much. Additionally, trust me, but you won’t have time to eat out three times a day on a road trip.
The driving costs were around 600 euro in total, the tolls and parking included. Tolls and parking is a topic on its own. The price for the tolls depends on the region and the distance. We paid from 4 to 20 euros. The parking fees were somewhat unpredictable. The cheapest one was in Levanto, close to Cinque Terre, where we parked for several hours and the most expensive one was in posh Portofino and popular Venice, where a few hours cost us around 20 euros.
Searching for parking wasn’t always roses, but we always managed to find a nice and safe spot. We used only googling and Google Maps, yet everything went just fine. For the accommodation we booked, parking was always included. Even though it is pretty straightforward, you want to find a place with a parking spot included.
Your Northern Italy Road Trip Itinerary Could Look Like This!
1. Dolomites: to Breathe in Some Fresh Mountain Air
This breathtaking mountain range popular within outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers has been on my bucket list for a while. There is always some internal feeling of satisfaction in being surrounded by tall, spectacular mountains for many of us. It makes me always feel that we humans are part of a bigger plan!
Dolomites completely met our expectations: the nature in the area is captivating. I truly recommend it for anybody into nature walking, hiking, climbing, skiing, snowboarding and even swimming as there are a few fabulous crystal clear lakes around Dolomites.
Where to Stay in Dolomites?
I can’t say it was difficult to find a lovely place in Dolomites during our Italy road trip, but it might have been a challenge to choose from so many different options. Some of the accommodations we scrolled through were pretty basic, or way too old-fashioned and cramped with unnecessary accessories or possibly way too secluded, which didn’t fit our travel intent.
At the end we stayed at B&B La casa di Loretta in Paderno – a small countryside estate surrounded by a Mountain View and forests. We spent only 2 nights in Dolomites, yet it was worth it! We hiked in the Parco Nazionale delle Dolomiti Bellunesi, around a track called Osteria alla Stua. The most beautiful was the trekking through a gorge (unfortunately can’t find the name of it), filled with hundreds of crystal clear ponds and waterfalls.
From there we drove to Lago del Mis which teal blue water overwhelmed us with its allure. Not all lakes in Dolomites are opened for swimmers, however Lago del Mis is an exception and many people enjoyed swimming and water games over there.
What Are Dolomites?
For those who love not only the fresh breeze of the Dolomite’s nature but also a cute charm of rural villages, I suggest visiting a town of Feltre. If you get hungry, drive to Ristorante Pizzeria San Fermo with a gorgeous view to Felter and surrounding area.
Aren’t you familiar with Dolomites? According to ChatGPT (never ever I thought of citing an AI in my blog), the Dolomites, also known as the “Pale Mountains,” are a mountain range located in northeastern Italy. They are part of the Southern Limestone Alps and extend across the provinces of Belluno, South Tyrol, and Trentino. The Dolomites are renowned for their breathtaking beauty, unique rock formations, and picturesque landscapes. (Well done, GPT!)
2. Venice: to Feel like Struck by a Romance
There is no need to introduce Venice – the unique and picturesque city built on a group of 118 small islands that are separated by canals and linked by bridges. Venice is one of the most visited places in Italy and even though two of our three part ‘Italian road trip’ gang have already been to Venice, we made a quick 1-day visit over there.
Where to Park in Venice?
The city is prepared for millions of visitors annually, and there are several parking spots you can choose from, which are located at the beginning of the town near the station and the port. I truly don’t remember which one we chose, but it cost us 26 euros for around 4 hours of parking.
In this very short time we managed to get a city ride through the canals on one of the boat buses, we took a short walk through the narrow enchanting streets, visit St. Mark’s Square and immerse ourselves in the city’s distinctive atmosphere.
Is Venice Worth Visiting for Less Than a Day?
I believe it is! Especially when you are on a road trip, you can come to visit the city for a half day or so. I personally saw Venice twice, always for a few hours and yes, there are plenty of corners and places my eyes have never seen. Yet, I was able to enjoy the atmosphere.
Venice is usually very crowded which feels overwhelming so if you want to experience the romantic sensation without getting annoyed after a while, a day trip to Venice is definitely enough to dive into the vibe of the city. Moreover, the city is not much of fun in a heatwave.
3. Pisa: for the Historical Chic Vibe
Wait, there wasn’t any stop in between Venice and Pisa? It is nearly a 4-hour ride! You’re sensing it correctly – there was something in between! We supposed to stay 3 nights in Livorno – a coastal city in Tuscany, situated on the western coast of the country, facing the Ligurian Sea.
This city unfortunately didn’t charm us enough and our accommodation didn’t meet even our modest standards. It was dirty, half broken and the town felt strange, not clean, not charming and with not many interesting things to do.
We packed our stuff and cancelled the booking with many relevant arguments (the flat wasn’t basically meeting elementary standards of a holiday home). Afterwards we headed to our new home in Zoagli – a small coastal town located in the Liguria.
My brother – the main driver – wasn’t happy to get to our new holiday house as it was located at the top of a hill with many tiny curvy roads. His anger was swiped away by the picturesque views, heavenly silence and a real Italian holiday atmosphere.
Can You Visit Pisa Within a Few Hours?
Back to Pisa! On our way from Livorno to Zoagli we stopped to see Pisa. Once again, it is a great place to add to your road trip through Italy. It doesn’t require a long stay, we popped in only for 3 hours, had a look at the historical buildings, walked through lovely Italian streets, took some drinks and ice-cream and headed to Zoagli.
The plus of Pisa is that the most important stuff is located at the same square: Leaning Tower of Pisa (Campanile di Pisa), Pisa Cathedral (Cattedrale Metropolitana Primaziale di Santa Maria Assunta) or Baptistry of St. John (Battistero di San Giovanni).
The parking in Pisa was so cheap that we didn’t even list it in our budget Excel sheet. We literally paid around 2 or 3 euros!
4. Cinque Terre: for Amazing Views & Fantastic Vibes
Cinque Terre, a renowned and picturesque coastal area located on the Italian Riviera in the region of Liguria, was my dream nearly forever! The place, translated as “Five Lands,” didn’t disappoint me. The five villages perched on rugged cliffs offer truly unique and astonishing views to the Ligurian Sea, terraced vineyards, scenic hiking trails, and colourful houses that cling to the cliffs.
What Are The Villages of Cinque Terre?
Cinque Terre, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage, consists of five colourful fishing villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. You can easily visit all of them within a day if you wish so.
Each village in Cinque Terre has its distinct character and attractions. Monterosso al Mare is known for its beautiful beaches, Vernazza captivates with its picturesque harbour, Corniglia is perched on a hilltop, Manarola is famous for its charming streets and vineyards, and Riomaggiore is known for its colourful buildings and vibrant atmosphere. I truly can’t decide which one I enjoyed the most!
However, The views from Vernazza struck me the most. As well, my very first lemon pizza I tasted on the busy plaza. Corniglia also showed us its rough face. We walked down to see the stony beach and an area, which probably used to be a swimming spot with little bunks for getting changed, has turned into a place for homeless people.
It wasn’t anything dangerous in particular, but it felt incredibly change. It is easy to forget about social struggles on your trip, so things like this can really hit you.
Road Trip in Cinque Terre: Is it a good idea?
No, I don’t think that travelling around Cinque terre is a good idea. I can imagine that the road above offers you spectacular views, but it can be extremely time-consuming. The road is curvy, up on the hills and it would require lots of time to come down to the village, drive up back to the road etc.
We drove from our flat in Zoagli to Levante where we purchased 3 one day train tickets for only €54,60 so €18.20 each which is, in my opinion, a great price! With this ticket, you can move from a place to a place for the whole day!
Unfortunately, we didn’t manage any hiking because the weather was unbearable for long walks. It was around 32 or 34 degrees and walking up and down the stairs ate all our energy. Alert: these villages are built on a hill, their visit requires lots of walking up and down!
5. Portofino & San Fruttuoso: for the Bluest Sea You Can Get
Portofino is a small fishing village and resort town located on the Italian Riviera in the Liguria region of Italy. It is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful and exclusive destinations in the Mediterranean. Even though Cinque Terre felt like a dream, Portofino was definitely the highlight of the Northern Italian road trip for me!
The cobalt to midnight blue water in the area is eye-catching and has such a calming effect on your soul. The village is nestled between lush green hills and the stunning waters of the Ligurian Sea, creating a picturesque backdrop.
The waterfront is lined with pastel-coloured buildings, high-end boutiques, and waterfront restaurants. Even though it is considered of one of the most luxurious areas, it still keeps its natural charm – nothing tacky!
One of the main attractions in Portofino is the Piazzetta, a small square that serves as the heart of the village. The Piazzetta is a hub of activity and a popular spot for people-watching. Visitors can enjoy a coffee or gelato while taking in the charming atmosphere.
Best Waters Are in Fruttuoso!
After a short walk around Piazzetta we decided to take a boat trip to Fruttuoso – without any expectations. What a blast swim we took over there! The return boat tickets from Portofino to Fruttuoso cost us €15 each, which is a very fair price for such an exclusive area.
San Fruttuoso is a hidden gem along the Ligurian coastline, known for its historic abbey, stunning natural surroundings, and idyllic beach. It is a destination favoured by those seeking a peaceful retreat but mostly, enjoying the dark blue waters which feel like silk on your skin!
Let me reveal one of my weird phobias – sharks! I have a fear of being killed by sharks in an open sea, that is why I am extremely sensitive to the quality of the water. As soon as I can’t see the bottom or as soon as the colour of the water ‘doesn’t seem’ right, I start feeling uncomfortable.
There are no fears in Fruttuoso waters! It feels just so beautiful. The depth of its colour is incredible: dark blue yet still crystal clear. Entering it just felt so welcoming. I didn’t want to go anywhere else, I wanted to merge with the water and become one!
Portofino and Fruttuoso are must-sees on your Italian road trip, even if you’re considering the south of the country. The Ligurian Sea at this coast was one of the most beautiful seas I have ever seen.
6. Lake Garda: for Its Rural Charm and Nostalgic Vibe
It took my a while to see the main reason behind my Lago di Garda obsession. Yes, it is gorgeous, cute, the mountains are hugging from every corner and the lake shines like a diamond. But the real reason why I love this place is the nostalgic feeling it triggers in me.
The time stops there, the tall shadows hanging from the mountains are tingling my soul, the lemon trees feel like I am Sophia Loren in an old Italian film and that love awaits around every little corner! Oh man, I love that feeling!
Laka Garda was our last stop during our road trip through Northern Italy. We stopped there not only because we are constantly charmed by the place, but mostly as our mum was working over there. We stayed in Pai and visited Malcesine and Limone.
I have written several articles about Lake Garda which you can read listed under Lake Garda tag. It was a wonderful closure of our road trip. Once again, get ready for many steps and hilly roads!
Tips for your Northern Italy Road Trip in July
- The temperatures can be extreme, drink lots of water, take great amount of sun blocker, a hat or a cap, try avoiding doing physical activities during lunchtime when the sun is the strongest.
- Plan the structure of your road trip ahead and possibly stay at the coast where the heatwaves strike softer. Driving through the inland was extremely exhausting.
- The prices of tolls, parking and petrol vary so much that it is better to be prepared for any costs.
- Rent or take a white car if possible. We had a black one, and it was damn hot!
- Take the car and travel insurance seriously. The coastal roads offer amazing views but are also a bit dangerous due to its surface, hilly form – we had a little stone hitting our front window which crashed due to high temperatures.
- Be ready for never-ending tunnels! A big chunk of the coastal roads on the west are craved into hills or rock, and there is a special tunnel ‘schedule’. The tunnels are narrow and operate in both ways, so you may end up waiting for 15 minutes for your turn. The plus is that you can get off the car and have a little stroll around!