A guide to Italian road trips in four acts

Italy is a country that is best driven around – slowly – in the tiniest car you can find! 🚗

4 mins
Written by:
Wade Gravy

There’s nothing in this life quite as pleasing, romantic and fulfilling as piloting a rental car through Italy’s manifold landscapes living la dolce vita. Eating your way through villages and across regional borders; seeing sites and monuments as you desire. Making the decision to take a left into a random village just because, or planning to do so because your friend’s nonna is from there. Enjoying the most sensual of peninsulars without the constraint of bus and train timetables.

The classic Italian road trip is open to all; you simply need an international drivers licence and you’re away. That said, there are better and worse versions of this journey depending on how you execute it. Over the many wheeled sojourns I’ve done through Italy’s countryside, I’ve come up with a set of rules – loose rules, for sure, but when I’ve broken them, I’ve immediately regretted it.

What I present to you now are those loose rules: rules about where, how, when and what to drive around Italy, each represented by the regions and road trips that spawned them. So twist this around your fork and slurp it. In Bocca Al Lupo!

Photo by Ben Black

Rome

When it comes to rental cars, smaller is better

Out of everything that’s ever been said about visiting Rome, the best advice you will ever receive is to not hire a car, because you don’t need a car, as you can easily do most if not all of the hottest spots on foot. That said, Rome is an exceptional place to begin a road trip due to the plethora of flights that land in its two airports, and the supply and demand-fed cheapness of the hire-car industry. You can get to Florence from Rome in a little over three hours of disgustingly aesthetic road tripping; to Naples, it’s more like two.

What I learned about road tripping in and around Rome is valid for driving around any part of Italy – smaller is better. Hire the smallest car that your group and luggage will allow you, and be content with being a little squashed (you never drive too far before stopping to stretch legs, admire monuments and eat gelato anyway). Small cars mean easier navigating of narrow and windy roads in cities, towns and countryside, buttery parking, and taking up diminutive space on the sometimes chaotic Italian roads.

Smallissimo!

Photo by Ilnur Kalimullin

Puglia

Eat off the beaten track

Puglia is molto di moda at the moment, and rightfully so. Gorgeous beaches featuring twinkliing seas, cutie-pie white-splashed villages and little houses wearing conical hats. Then there are all those as-seen-on-the-gram hotspots – Poligano di Mare, Gallipoli, Monopoli and the regional capital Bari. And while these must all be visited and enjoyed, as soon as your stomach starts rumbling, you should have a plan to get ready spaghetti to drive on outta there.

See, these tourist hotspots curate a cynical type of Italian restaurateur, one who has been beaten by the often brutal stick of mass tourism, and who has come to determine that the sun-struck hordes are happy with too-expensive, generic and not-fresh faire. And that’s unfair. So what we do is we visit the touristic hot spot in the morning, then use Google Maps to find a restaurant in a smaller inland village, somewhere up to an hour’s drive away where only locals tread, and we eat there. When chosen well, you’ll eat in places without menus, where the chef comes out and recommends something to you based off whatever was fresh that day, and where everyone working and eating is happy to see you – because they don’t see out-of-towners often and they absolutely adore sharing their produce and cuisine with the world.

Bonus tip: when searching for places to eat, bear in mind the informal naming classifications of Italian food spots (in order of ascending formality): osteria, trattoria, and the most formal ristorantes. We always chose osterias when available, and real pizzerias should only serve pizza at dinner.

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino

Calabria

Where we found the flawless dining formula

When Italy is a boot, Puglia is the heel and Calabria is the toe. Calabria is infamous for the mafia (never seen), but shockingly less famous for its unique cuisine (including spicy ‘Nduja sausage), its remote and mountainous interior, and its gorgeous and far-less-travelled dual coastline. Driving around Calabria in our small car and eating inland (less necessary in Calabria where foreign tourists are thin on the ground), our senses were assaulted by the striking scenery and the hearty, flavoursome food. And it is in Calabria where we learned how to order.

This system is foolproof, and wherever we went in Calabria – and everywhere we’ve been since – we order as such (quantities given for two people, and everything obviously shared as we’re in Mediterranean Europe):

  • One mixed antipasti (di mare near the sea, di terra inland),
  • One primi piatti of pasta, making sure to ask the chef or at least the waiter what the restaurant’s speciality is (and has to be made fresh),
  • One secondi, again of whatever their speciality is (if you’re more than an hour from the sea, go with meat over fish),
  • A shared dolci,
  • Half a litre of house wine (driver abstains),
  • A shot of grappa (driver definitely abstains),
  • Two espressos.

Following this formula, you eat things the way that they’re intended to be eaten, with the mixed antipasti giving you a variety of conserved vegetables, cheese and cured meats or seafood to start and warm up the gut. The pasta dish is always mostly carbohydrate, but the most delicious and al dente that you can get, and the second will leave you unbuttoning your pants. There is NO OTHER WAY TO ORDER. Don’t even @ me. And when you get in a group of four, you can start trying two pastas, two different mains… a whole litre of wine.

Photo by Liubov Ilchuk

Dolomites

Always take the small road

The Dolomites are where the European Alps meet pasta, running from Switzerland towards Slovenia along the Austro-Italian border. They’re a visually arresting range, exemplified by tusk-like cliffs that jut out of otherwise alpine hills to heights of over 3000 metres. Below these impressive bones, the mountains fall down into valleys that are more or less easily traversed through utterly spectacular roads, along streams and rivers, past waterfalls and over passes into new valleys where it all unfolds anew. Driving through these landscapes, we are sustained with wonderful Italian food made from uniquely alpine ingredients: wild mushrooms, deer, boar, trout and so on. An absolute delight on all of the senses, minus maybe feel.

And the lesson learned taking these mountain roads? To take them, of course. As a modern European Union nation, Italy boasts super fast and efficient highways that can get you to any part of the country and beyond with speed and ease, avoiding annoyances like jaw-dropping visages and Europe’s most visually appealing mountain range. So, create itineraries that take the small roads, the winding roads, the roads less travelled. Sure, it takes more time and you go less far, but you will experience so much more. Italy is a country to be travelled slowly, and there’s no better way to do so than off the highways.

Photo by Patrick Baum

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