When you decide on a holiday to Italy, it's easy to plump for spending a few days in Rome before hitting the beaches of the Amalfi coast or heading north to sip wine in Tuscany. But northern Italy, often overlooked by visitors, is a whole other world of mountains, lakes and little villages just waiting to be discovered - in fact, there's arguably no better place to explore by car. This North Italy road trip itinerary spends eight days driving from Milan to Bologna, hitting some of the region's most exciting and dynamic cities, cruising down roads that are a dream to drive, exploring the stunning countryside and reaching the secret parts of Lake Como only accessible by car. We'll tell you the sights you need to see (and the ones not to bother with), the roads to follow and the things you need to remember. Sold? Let's get driving.
Our road trip through north Italy will include a menu of the country's best northern cities, a serving of beautiful countryside and a big helping of some amazing driving roads, making this one of our favourite road trips you can do in Europe.
The trip starts with a little time spent in Milan and proposes a one-way albeit very indirect drive from Milan to Bologna. If you are flying into Milan and hiring a car, getting back from Bologna to one of Milan's airports is reasonably quick, so add half a day on top of your itinerary to make that drive and hand in your rental car.
Parking in central Milan is both very expensive and frustrating, so we would recommend getting into town on old fashioned public transport or by taxi from the airport of your choice, as you will not need to drive to see Milan's fantastic sights. Settle into your hotel and spend some time relaxing after your journey. We highly recommend a trip to the square at the very center of the city – the Piazza del Duomo. This square is surrounded by typical Milanese buildings on three sides and the white Gothic Duomo di Milano on the other. Pop into the Duomo to have a look at the exquisite wealth of its interior following a recent renovation, and be sure to go up to the viewing platform at the top where you can see the entire city down below through the gargoyle–topped spires.
Duomo di Milano
How about a drink in one of Europe's most atmospheric cafes? Go inside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II - you can't miss it if you make it to the central square; it is the great covered shopping mall to the north. Inside you will find a spot called Zucco bar. This is Milan classic serves up the city's best coffee, and it's also a very popular meeting place for locals.
Milan spoils for choice of evening restaurants. If we can give any advice, it's to make sure you book somewhere to avoid being turned away at the door. Going for one of the highly rated restaurants slightly further out can return much better dividends, with these places catering to a discerning local public rather than being a tourist trap.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio
After a lie-in, head on out for a bit of sightseeing. First stop on the itinerary is the Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio at the western end of Milan's central zone. Trams and the metro to equivalently named stations are available if the 10–minute walk feels a tad too far.
The Basilica only opens at 10am, so be sure to grab breakfast if you haven't had something to eat in the hotel. If you have, grab another breakfast anyway! Streets leading from the Piazza del Duomo towards the Basilica are lined with restaurants and cafes filled with the smell of morning Italian espresso.
Since suffering heavy damage during the Second World War, the Basilica mainly serves as a museum. Be aware that it still carries out religious services and if you are planning to visit on a Sunday, it's only open for 2 hours from 3pm. Price of the entry ticket includes the audio guide, which is great for getting to learn a little more about this place.
Santa Maria delle Grazie
While you are in this part of town and after you have indulged in the penne of your choosing at a local restaurant, it is time to go see one of the most famous works of art in the world...which just happens to be around the corner! Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper is the famous wall mural hanging in the Refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie. But remember: you can't just turn up! Buy your tickets in advance for the right time slot and smile at the poor uninformed hordes of tourists by the entrance.
Teatro alla Scala
Make sure to book your dinner somewhere in the center or just to the north of the main Piazza. That way you can combine your chianti with a visit to Milan's Teatro alla Scala – the most famous opera theatre in Italy and arguably the whole world. As you are in Milan, try out some of the local food specialities. Our particular favourite is the Cotoletta alla Milanese (breaded & fried calf rib). If you fancy a larger portion, order the Orecchio di elefante or an Ossobuco if you want to try veal. Finish the meal off with a traditional Panettone to complete your Milanese culinary experience. For the visit to La Scala, obviously make sure you have sorted out the tickets in advance to get a chance to witness the Luciano Pavorottis of tomorrow at the centuries–old venue.
First things first – get your bags together and go find your car rental. Those who drove to Milan in the first place are lucky to have an extra hour in bed! Most car hire locations are to the south of the main Piazza near the Missori metro station or up by the Stazione Centrale train station.
To get into the groove of our Italy road trip, first make the short journey north towards the Swiss border. Turn off the A9 just before you cross over and follow the shore through a number of stunningly beautiful towns and villages.
We'd recommend going slightly further north away from the city of Como and stopping off at a spot of your choice for some delightful salad and local cured meats, or you can try some of local fish dishes with the alpine peaks of the mountain range behind you. It is spots like this with unbelievable views and unique local food that truly differentiate a road trip from other types of travel. You simply can't get here without a car!
Once you are done with lunch and feel the need to move on, get back into the car and drive back towards Como. Switch off the Satnav and keep on going towards Varese instead of turning back in the direction of Milan. Here you'll find more stunning views as you meander along the Swiss border with lakes aplenty. From Varese, head south towards Sesto Calende where you will enter the province of Piedmont. Look for signs for the A4 (E64), which will take you all the way into the city.
Find out whether your hotel has a car park or do some research on nearby car parking facilities to dump your car for a day and a half. Once you're rid of the metal steed and you've dropped your bags off in the hotel, delve into the night of Turin. This is a bustling and industrious city surrounded by the Alps, which gives it that unforgettable backdrop of snow-covered peaks. Wealth in the city means that there are a lot of amazing restaurants to choose from where you can fully unwind after a long lake-viewing road trip.
The second major city on our north Italy road trip is a sharp contrast to Milan, despite being so close. Turin has a definite local feel in comparison to Milan's grand worldwide hub status for business and fashion. The views are stunning and the best way to get to know Turin is by walking around. The air here is fresh and the architecture throughout the center creates an amazing atmosphere. We recommend a visit to two of Turin's main sights: The Museo Nazionale del Cinema with the Mole Antonelliana and the Turin Cathedral – home to the infamous Shroud of Turin.
The building that houses the Cinema Museum in the heart of old Turin was originally built to be a Synagogue. The 167-meter-tall Mole Antonelliana tower was part of the design and took over a quarter of a century to complete. By the time the building was finished, the original intentions had changed and it never became a place of religious worship, instead housing some of the city's museums. Most recently, the Cinema Museum is the occupant and it really is an interesting place to visit. You can get a lift up to a viewing platform for spectacular views over the entire city and the mountains beyond - but beware if you suffer from fear of heights: the lift is made of glass, making the journey up and down potentially precarious!
After lunch, get yourself to the Turin Cathedral to see one of the world's most revered Christian objects: the Shroud of Turin. This is a piece of linen with stains which appear to show an image of Jesus Christ's face. This relic is claimed to be the very cloth that covered the face of Jesus after his death on the cross. Much debate surrounds this artifact, whose image is much harder to distinguish in real life compared with a photographic negative. Scientific testing suggests that the shroud only came about during the Medieval period, a claim passionately contested by the religious establishment and some historians.
This has got to be our favourite part of the entire road trip. Day 5 brings fantastic sights, a beautiful mountain pass and one of the most picturesque coastlines in the world all in one drive. We are going to cheat a little bit here and suggest popping over to neighbouring France as you weave your way down from Turin. Head south towards Fossano where you need to turn west towards Borgo San Dalmazzo. From here, follow the SS20 up the valley into the mountains. Keep going for half an hour until you see a right turn to Sospel and take it. Sospel is a village at the top of the most famous rally stage in the world - the classic Monaco race. The road leading up and then back down towards Monaco is unbelievably beautiful with waterfalls, pit stops with a view to die for and crazy hairpins.
There are a couple of half–decent restaurants in Sospel which can be pretty useful for a spot of lunch. Treat yourself to a french mountain dish of your choosing seeing as you are visiting the country before heading down towards Monaco. Time permitting, if you really fancy a detour to the Principality, then by all means drive the 5 miles west along the coast, but we'll leave that for another day and point our compass back towards Italy and cross over the border.
The moment you cross back into Italy, the road will begin winding its way through the seaside hills and valleys of the Italian riviera. If you left Turin early enough and time is still on your side, get off the A10 motorway at one of the first junctions and take the SS1 road running right along the coast through Bordighera and Sanremo. This part of Italy is not particularly popular with tourists and we really don't understand why – it is stunning. The seaside towns are full of colourful houses, piers and family–owned restaurants. The hills to your left are topped with castles or medieval villages and towns making the cruise along the Mediterranean coast unforgettable.
Rejoin the main road somewhere near Imperia and keep going all the way to Genoa until you hit the ancient city head on. Find your hotel, park up (unlike the previous two places, parking is surprisingly easy here) and enjoy the cool breeze at one of a number of fantastic fish restaurants. Try a true local spot and you will have carafe wine served into small ridge glasses and a menu scribbled on a chalkboard with food to die for.
Use the morning to visit some of the world's most colourful and wonderfully bizarre towns along the Ligurian coast. Take the motorway towards Spezia and shortly before you get there, you will come across a large national park to your right as the road moves further inland. Here is a quintet of villages making up the Cinque Terre. We recommend visiting two of them so put Vernazza and Manarola in the Satnav.
These are seaside spots build on steep cliffs rising from the sea covered in all manner of pastel coloured buildings unlike any place in the world. We hope that by this point you have worked out your car's dimensions – parking here can be pretty tricky. Wander around the streets and help yourself to a delightful sticky gelato which are a particular treat. Remember to bring that camera because you will want to print those photos out to decorate your house!
Once you have appreciated the rocks and the towns, head halfway back to Genoa until you get to Rapallo and turn off towards Portofino onto the Peninsula. The road leading through a few resort towns gets progressively narrower which coupled with crazy Italian bus drivers coming the other way is a guarantee of squeaky bum time in the driver's seat.
Portofino is a small town home to some of Italy's wealthiest families. Well... At least one of their homes in any case! You can see the opulent mansions gracing the hills around the perimeter from the Marina at the bottom. The natural lagoon has a collection of exuberantly expensive yachts casually parked up against the pier to complete the picture. Be prepared to pay top dollar for parking – we are talking around €10 an hour so bring some cash!
Your first decision is the route you want to take towards Parma and Modena. The road you past Spezia is the same road you drove yesterday, but is picturesque and involves a good motorway stretch through the mountains. The alternative is the route up towards Milan and then east past Piacenza which is along bigger roads and hence faster.
As you have probably already figured out our obsession with food, the main objective is getting lunch in the home of parma ham and parmezan cheese. It is against the law to eat anything else at this point in your trip, so please oblige and order a selection of cured meats and local cheeses to go with some traditional breads. The cities of Emilia Romagna are famous for two things: their farm produce (the food here can be exquisite) and fast cars with factories producing most of the world famous italian brands. Pick any of the main towns along the route for a stop or two as all are worthy of a visit. Modena in particular has some amazing Gothic architecture on the main square.
Arriving into Bologna, you will be pleasantly surprised by the city. Generally forgotten by tourists in favour of Venice, Milan or Florence surrounding it, Bologna is right up there in our list of favourite European destinations. Its uncharacteristic medieval architecture gives it a particular charm and the city boasts some of the best restaurants we have come across in Italy - the choice is yours.
All good things come to an end and so does our fantastic north Italy road trip. A last day spent in Bologna is certainly a worthy send off. If you are feeling in the mood for relaxation, we very highly recommend staying at one of the agriturismos in the hills outside the city. For a very reasonable rate, not only will you get a room to rival a good hotel, but an amazing dinner made of local produce and wine from the farm's own vineyard.
Bologna itself is split into four distinct quarters - the business and living parts to the north and east respectively, a shopping district to the south of Piazza Maggiore, and a food zone to the west. Streets to the south have covered arcades full of shops, from the typical high street clothing chains to local vendors. Make sure you find time to visit the wine, cheese and meat stores just off the main square. The locals really do believe in fresh, great quality products.
And just to finish off the road trip on a high, here is a recommendation for a restaurant that will leave you drooling for days on end: Al Sangiovese is a fair bit out to the south of the town, about 20 minutes walk. The local dishes here are positively mouthwatering! Don't forget to ask the owners for a recommendation on a hearty local red wine – you will not leave disappointed!