The #AdventurePartnerForLife and I have traveled to Italy a few times. I actually lived in Naples as a kid, but really only remember the basics. So, it’s nice to go back. Italy is one of the few countries we’ve been to more than once. For us, returning somewhere means forgoing the opportunity to explore a new place. But for any number of reasons, Italy’s been on our repeat list. And it’s worthy of being on that list. Our last visit, we did a northern Italy road trip. Check out our complete itinerary below!
How To Use This Itinerary
Use our road trip itinerary for wanderlust ideas. Helpful tips are included along the way. Check out our driving tips for Italy, too.
Each time we go back, we’re able to get more and more in-depth and discover new areas. If you’re interested in seeing this region of Italy, use this as a baseline and personalize it as you see fit. Go northwest to Milan instead of northeast to Trento. Replace Verona with another city in the area. (Though I highly recommend hiking in the Dolomites and Verona!)
We’re able to enjoy a little more of the slow travel philosophy on these trips instead of our usual power tourist style. Although, it’s entirely possible this still moves too quickly for most people’s personal tastes. I recommend adding or subtracting days in certain locations.
Whatever you do, just make it yours.
Our Northern Italy Road Trip Route
Now, for the fun part—the complete northern Italy road trip route. The following shows you the complete route of our Italy road trip. Yes, you’ll see we flew into Florence, not Rome. We skipped Venice and passed on Milan.
This is because we’ve already done a lot of this in our prior travels; it’s tailored specifically to us. This is also why I advise using this as a baseline and modifying it to make it yours. Either way, there are some don’t-miss cities here for you and amazing sightseeing suggestions.
|1—Flew into Florence. Overnight stay in Florence.|
2—Day trip to Cinque Terre from Florence.
3—Drove to Bologna.
4—Day trip to San Marino from Bologna.
|5—Drove to Lake Garda. Continued to Verona.|
6—Overnight stay in Verona.
7—Drove to Val di Funes. Continued to Trento.
8—Overnight stay in Trento. Returned to Florence.
Before we officially began our Italy road trip, we spent a couple of days adjusting to the time zone and touring Florence. (We also did a day trip to Cinque Terre.) Read all our deets and top sights.
Getting Downtown From the Airport
The Florence airport is about twenty minutes from central downtown. Not a cheap cab ride, so we opted for the shuttle. It was fairly easy to use and took us right to the main train station downtown, Santa Maria Novella (SMN). From there, we just walked to our hotel. All the details…
- It’s called the Vola In Bus shuttle, and it’s run by BusItalia Sita Nord.
- There are a couple ways you can get tickets, but we found ticket machines right outside the itty bitty Florence airport. 10€ round trip. Takes credit cards.
- You can buy them directly from the bus driver, too, but can only purchase a one-way ticket for 6€.
- Supposedly, they also sell roundtrip tickets at newstands and coffee shops.
- Service runs daily (including Sundays and holidays) and shuttle pick-up is every 30 minutes.
For reference, the Santa Maria Novella train station is literally a 10-minute walk to the Duomo.
So, we got our airport transfer handled. How did we get around the city in general? One of our favorite methods is by hop-on/hop-off bus. We got 48-hour tickets for Florence and basically used it as unlimited public transportation for that timeframe. We specifically used it to take us to the sights that were further away, and just walked to the nearby sights on our other days. (Look at the big brains on Jordan!) I’ve provided a link to the actual bus we used at the bottom of the Florence section. I highly recommend them.
We split our time in Florence on the front and back end of our Italy road trip. Just to make sure we gave ourselves some buffer time for our return flight. All told, we spent 3 days there and felt comfortable with that. I’ll break down my sightseeing favorites for you. Only the favorites, not everything. Everything would be a whole book.
- Why visit: It’s the third-largest cathedral in the world and, for someone who’s seen a bagillion cathedrals, it’s pretty impressive. Both in scale and in beauty. (It’s also green and pink. Like… whut.)
- We usually refer to the Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore as “The Duomo.” But the cathedral and the dome and the baptistry and the bell tower are all separate pieces. And they’re all treated a little separately—separate entrance times and some require tickets, some don’t.
- The cathedral opens at 10, and the dome—if you want to climb it—opens at 8:30. It’s 463 stairs.
- The cathedral is free, but the dome requires reservations. Note: There is no ticket office at the dome.
- You can purchase a ticket to see everything for 18€ (plus a 2€ pre-sale if you book online). I would recommend doing it online, ahead of time, and going first thing in the morning because the line is insane.
- You can opt for a private guide with skip-the-line tickets for a premium. People say it’s worth every penny. Check below with the bus info.
- Helpful hint: Bring something to cover your shoulders and don’t wear shorts or skirts above the knee.
- Fun fact: There’s a totally random bull gargoyle on the cathedral. See if you can’t find it!
- Why visit: It’s a world-class art collection. Some might say thee world-class art collection. And, even if you’re not an art buff, you’ll see a few things you recognize. Just think—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli…
- Purchase tickets online for 18€, plus a 4€ entrance reservation. (Again, I recommend getting a reservation for first thing in the morning. We got in super fast.)
- They offer free entrance for kids, students, journalists, etc. and they offer a 2€ for young EU citizens.
- It’s closed on Mondays and a couple holidays, but otherwise open daily 8:15 am–6:50 pm.
- Helpful hint: The #AdventurePartnerForLife and I had reservations first thing in the morning and got there early. We wandered over to Ponte Vecchio, which is right around the corner, and were able to take photos of the sun over the Arno river with next to no people around. It was awesome.
- Why visit: Take in an amazing view. Have some gelato, coffee, or a tasty beverage while you’re there.
- It’s free. And it’s open all the time.
- It’s on the far side of the river and on top of a massive hill. Take the hop-on/hop-off bus there.
- Helpful hint: Since you took the bus up, take a walk down. Stop by the San Miniato al Monte on the way to the Pitti Gallery and Boboli Gardens. The whole thing is about a 30-minute walk.
- Why visit: It’s a super cute little town on the outskirts of Florence with ancient ruins. A bit of a hidden gem while everyone is ogling downtown.
- Also offers a great view of the city.
- In addition to the Etruscan ruins, you can see some caves and stop by a monastery.
- I enjoyed walking through the market in the main square. We stopped for lunch up there, too.
- Helpful hint: It’s a really pretty drive up there and lots of people take bikes or hike there.
- Why visit: Stop in for one of the most creative and fun drinks you’ll ever have in your life.
- People call the owner “Einstein” because of his hair and mustache, but he is actually Eby.
- He decides what shot you’ll drink and you’ll drink it standing in front of him. (Don’t worry; just trust the process.)
- They’re extraordinarily elaborate and Eby will tell you a story that accompanies the shot as he makes it.
- You’ll usually sing a song or do a special toast.
- The only fancy shot person is Eby, and he doesn’t show up until later. Like 8 pm or so.
- Helpful hint(s): It’s cash only. The address is Via Dell’ Oriuolo, 5 (in the Santa Croce neighborhood).
Yes, of the few times I’ve been to Italy, I had yet to visit Cinque Terre. So, it was one thousand percent on the list for this visit. We did an all-day trip straight out of Florence through Viator, so there was very little need for any planning on our parts. While I can’t advise on all the logistics of Cinque Terre for an itinerary, I can give you my notes and tell you some available options that struck my fancy. Also, see some tour options below.
- It’s a long tour day out of Florence, upwards of twelve hours, so be prepared.
- There are tours that stop by the Tower of Pisa, too, if you’re interested.
- Bring water and a swimsuit. Bring sensible walking shoes. Not shoes that are comfortable for a few hours and look cute. Real walking shoes or sneakers or hiking boots.
- You can actually hike the length of Cinque Terre. I honestly wish I had the extra vacation and was in good enough shape then, because I would’ve done it.
- If tours aren’t your thing, and hiking long distances isn’t your thing, there’s a train that goes between towns there.
After a couple of days in Florence and a Cinque Terre day trip, we rented a Sixt car at the Florence train station and officially began our Italy road trip. I’d always wanted to explore the area between Florence and Venice, but was waffling between Bologna, Ravenna, and Rimini. Very different places, I know. Ultimately, we decided on Bologna. We mainly toured the historic downtown area, but there was a lot more to the city that we didn’t get to.
Bologna is very famous for a few different things: its porticoes; its tortellini (and tagliatelle and lasagna); its parmigiano; and, its cars. So, while the historic area of Bologna is small relative to Florence or Venice, I think some of the beauty of this city lies in cultural appreciation—learn how to make pasta, taste the cheese, have some wine. The #AdventurePartnerForLife and I rarely slow down enough to partake in more immersive experiences like this, but I would encourage anyone reading this to take that additional step if you have a couple days in Bologna, especially.
That being said, our favorite sights (what we did see) and a few tips are outlines below…
The central historic district of Bologna is small and super walkable. Cars are off-limits in a lot of the downtown areas, so when booking a hotel, make sure you check for one with parking.
The Sanctuary of the Madonna Di San Luca
- Why visit? Remember how I said Bologna is famous for its porticoes? Well, this is the mother load of porticoes. All in all, Bologna has just under 25 miles of arches. The Madonna Di San Luca has just under 2.4 miles of it. 666 arches. Yup, you read correctly. 666. The longest portico in the world.
- They go all the way up to the top of a steep hill where the sanctuary sits. We saw a lot of struggling people.
- The sanctuary is free, but the times are wonky, so check “Opening Time” towards the bottom of the page.
- Helpful hint: Drive up there. We had zero issues parking. Or take the little express train.
- Why visit? It’s the site of the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world. And it’s noticeably leaning.
- There are two towers, obviously. (“Due” in Italian means “two.”) They’re called the Asinelli and Garisenda Towers.
- Climb 498 stairs to the top of the leaning, Asinelli tower if you dare.
- The regular entry price is 5€. Entry is free with the Bologna Welcome Card (25€). Just confirm that purchasing a card makes mathematical sense for you.
- There are lots of neat streets to wander in the immediate area, so there’s more to see than just the towers.
- Helpful hint: Tickets are for reserved time slots only, so purchase in advance.
- Fun Fact: One of the formal tower rules is no smoking or eating inside… which just seems so very Italian to me.
The Santo Stefano Complex
- Why visit? It’s not super common to come across a plaza with seven churches. In Italian, Santo Stefano is known as “sette chiese,” or “seven churches.”
- The piazza there is a bustling social center for the city of Bologna.
- There aren’t seven churches anymore. Just four.
- The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is my personal favorite.
- The different areas have different opening and closing times, however, from 9:30am–12:30pm and 2:30–6:00pm all of the spaces are open.
- Free entry, but donations requested.
- Helpful hint: The complex is closed every Monday, heads up.
It goes without saying that I just had to tick San Marino off the list, right? After multiple visits to Italy, it would seem silly to miss this entire other country in the middle of it. So, it’s really a San Marino and Italy road trip.
For those of you that don’t know, San Marino is one of three countries in the world that’s entirely surrounded by another country. (The other two being the Vatican and Lesotho.) It’s the fifth smallest country in the world and sits towards the east coast of [north-central-ish] Italy. Just check my map above to see exactly where it is.
It actually turned out to be one of the #AdventurePartnerForLife’s favorite stops this trip. We just did a quick day trip there and back out of Bologna, and it was all we needed.
- Why visit? Visit one of the world’s smallest countries and tour a castle at the tip top of a mountain!
- While there are plenty of things to do in San Marino, you really won’t need more than a day.
- I wouldn’t suggest paying for a tour of San Marino. The ones I’ve seen are fairly expensive and the place is honestly so tiny, I can’t imagine why you’d need a guide.
- I highly recommend driving, but if you have to take public transportation, there’s a regularly scheduled bus out of Rimini. (Scroll down to “Get In.”)
- Helpful hint: You’ll find a bunch of parking levels leading up the mountain to the castle. Park on Level 2, and take the funicular (or “funivia”) up. It’ll save you uphill walking.
From Bologna, we drove to Lake Garda for a quick drive-by before heading to Verona for the evening. We just wanted to see it, period. So, I can’t recommend the best of the best things to do on the whole lake, but I can recommend both stops we made. I will say Lake Garda was sort of a perfect add-on to our Italy road trip since it’s such a pretty drive.
From an initial observation, it does seem like a car gives you the freedom to move around from town to town around the lake. And the towns aren’t always that close together. Parking, however, is tricky. Once there, consider the ferry or water taxi services.
Lake Garda Must-Sees
- Why visit? Stop here for a waterfront lunch while driving through picturesque lake towns.
- I could see staying on Lake Garda for a few days to relax. Definitely a slower pace kind of destination.
- Allow more driving time than expected. We got caught in traffic on the small, winding roads in September.
- Take a ferry ride out to Isola del Garda from here.
- Helpful hint: I would definitely recommend driving here over other types of transportation, but parking was tight. We found the tiniest parking lot ever with the most available parking we saw for miles directly across the street from the Grand Hotel. There’s a stop sign on the street in the middle of the hotel. A very strange and out-of-place stop sign, but it’s actually on Google Maps Street View. You can take a left at the sign up this small hill. There’s a hidden parking lot there with stairs right down to the main street, and the promenade.
- Why visit? Sirmione is definitely a cool little spot. It’s got a castle right on the lake with a baby shopping area.
- Visit Scaligero Castle and three churches—Sant’Anna della Rocca, San Pietro and Santa Maria Maggiore.
- The castle is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8:30 am–7:30 pm. Entry is 5€.
- Helpful hint: We got lucky with parking and found a spot in the very front parking lot next to the castle, but we didn’t see any other spots until then. Suggest parking in a lakefront town elsewhere and taking a water taxi.
Ah, Verona. Verona was my favorite stop on our Italy road trip. It’s smaller, very walkable, and super authentic. It sort of has everything you’d expect a small Italian city to have—a castle right in the middle, a baby arena, a famous bridge… I would one thousand percent recommend Verona to anyone traveling in that area of Italy. It was such a pleasure to visit this pretty little city, even if just for a day.
Oof. So… it wasn’t that traffic downtown was terrible; that was fine. It was that our GPS directions didn’t match downtown. There were tons and tons of one-way streets that didn’t line up, and a lot of the streets were insanely narrow. We basically ended up using GPS to get in the general area of our hotel and then mapped it out ourselves from there. A note that much of downtown Verona is off-limits to vehicles, so make sure your hotel has parking. And make sure you know how to get to it.
The upside is that, as I mentioned before, it’s super walkable. Not at all a big area and lots and lots to see.
- Why visit? It’s the oldest bridge in Verona and the perfect place to take a bagillion great photos. It’s also one of the film locations for “Letters to Juliet,” if you’ve seen it!
- Located in the northeast part of Verona on the Adige River, up past Piazza delle Erbe.
- Open 24 hours a day and completely free, of course.
- Helpful hint: My hint for this sight is less logistical and more… for your enjoyment. I’d suggest hitting the bridge during a golden hour. We went first thing in the morning and there really weren’t that many people around, which was great. What would’ve made it better? A sunrise or a sunset.
- Why visit? Castelvecchio is basically the centerpiece of Verona.
- The bridge is always open and free.
- The museum is open Mondays 1:30 pm–7:30 pm, and Tuesdays–Sundays 8:30 am–7:30 pm. Tickets are 6€.
- Helpful hint: Go at night. We got to explore and climb the walls and photograph the river to our hearts’ content.
- Why visit? Literally the most beautiful garden I’ve seen. Ever. I could’ve spent half the day wandering around.
- Open year-round (minus Christmas) from 9 am–7pm.
- Tickets are 10€ each and worth every “penny.”
- Helpful hint: For some reason, finding the entrance was a little weird for us, though I can’t remember exactly why. There’s an entire road called Via Giardino Giusti, but the doorway itself is really unassuming. I think the main entrance was closed when we went and we had to go around the corner on Via S. Zeno in Monte to a little gate. I doubt that’s typical, but keep an eye out and just be aware.
Val di Funes
Our Italy road trip continued from Verona north to Val di Funes for a stop. Then, we came back down south to stay in Trento for the evening.
The main reason for driving this far north was for us to get a taste of the Dolomites, an insanely impressive mountain range in northeast Italy. You could easily spend several days driving or hiking in the Dolomites, but again, we just wanted to see it at all. If you venture out this way, careful of the altitude in certain parts of the Dolomites.
You’ll definitely need a car to get to Val di Funes. It is nowhere near any public transportation.
A side note that, while we didn’t do much there, Trento seemed really easy to get around. It’s a very small town, easily walkable. Parking was not difficult to find outside of the main pedestrian areas. There’s a centrally-located main bus station, too.
Val di Funes Must-See
Saint Johann Church
- Why visit? I really haven’t seen anything like it. For all the churches I’ve been to, this was probably the smallest, yet still extraordinarily gorgeous.
- This region is on the Austrian border. We mostly overheard German. Hardly any Italian, if at all.
- We had to pay a couple euro for access to the field where the church sits, though there’s very little information about this online. It’s a coin machine, so make sure you have change.
- Enjoy the fresh air and the creek and have lunch at the restaurant right there.
- Helpful hint: There are actually two churches in fields up this way, but St. Johann is the famous one all by itself in a field. The other is Saint Magdalena. Just make sure you’re going to the one you want to go to.
Our Italy Road Trip Concludes
We walked around for an hour or so in Trento the next morning, but nothing much was open. For anyone who’s interested, there’s [another] castle and [another] cathedral there. There’s a nice downtown area with shops and cafes, and there’s a mausoleum way high above the town on a mountaintop that you can take a funicular to.
After our morning stroll, we drove back to Florence and spent another day there before flying home. The drive from Trento back to Florence was just under four hours. And, thus, concludes our epic Italy road trip.
So, what’s next, you ask? A road trip through the south of Italy, of course. Have you explored this part of Italy much? Any great sights to add? Comment away, friends.