For me, there is no better country to travel around than Italy. It was the first foreign country I visited when I was 3, and the country I most often went back to (without ever living there), and the place that I could spend each holiday exploring.
This time around, a friend and I decided to treat ourselves with an 8-day-long road trip around northern Italy, which took us from Ferrara to Turin, via Siena, San Gimignano, Cinque Terre, Portofino, Parma and Bergamo. I also tried squeezing in a visit to Ravenna, however that proved difficult as there were traffic jams around Bologna, while our idea to go up to Trentino-Alto Adige/Sudtirol was too ambitious and left for future trips.
Overall, I was surprised by how easy the trip was, both in terms of getting around and finding great places to stay on a budget. It is difficult to pick out highlights. We watched the winners of this year’s first Palio throw a party in the heart of Siena, drove around the famed Route 222 through Chianti, wandered around Carrara’s dramatic marble quarries and shopped for food in Parma, so there were plenty of breathtaking moments.
I was surprised by how much I ended up liking Turin, which, at the same time, is the most and least Italian city I visited. It was there, of course the idea of Italy first appeared and that served as the country‘s first capital,but at the same time its street-grid and monumental, baroque city plan, are very different from the medieval cities and towns I visited beforehand and which have come to symbolize Italy for me. I think I will definitely be back there to sample a few more of its wonderful Belle Époque cafes (famous Baratti & Milano was being refurbished and I didn‘t have time to do nearby Mulassano justice), and visit its Cinema Museum and Egyptian museum, which has the largest collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts outside Egypt.
Gastronomically, I was stunned by the great fatty bacon toast and honey combo I tried at the great KM0 café in Cinque Terre‘s least photogenic (but most hipster) town of Corniglia. Then of course, the brief stop in Parma was enough to be sure that the city‘s gastronomic reputation is more than deserved. It‘s central prosciutto and parmigiano food shop basically my vision of heaven, but it also had one of the best gelatos I tried on this trip: Emilia (tied with the one frpm Turin‘s Café Fiorio and San Gimignano‘s Dondoli). Turin‘s chocolate and gianduia/gianduiotto offering were also amazing (not surprising as it is famous in Italy for its chocolate) so make sure you stock up at places like Cafferin.
Although there were barely any let-downs, I would reconsider staying in Sestri Levante and would have instead opted for Levanto, as it is a bit more charming and has one of Italy‘s best pizzerias (La Picea). Similarly, visiting San Gimignano and Cinque Terre can be overwhelming due to the number of tourists, so if you prefer to have a bit more “local” experience, I would opt for giving more time to Volterra and Santa Margherita Ligure/Portofino: you get pretty much the same experience (and shots) but without the tourism. I also would not have stopped at Monteriggioni, a photogenic but basically uninteresting walled town by Siena.
Below are the recommendations for mostly budget places that really took our breath away.
Chianti (Route 222)
One of the world’s most famous wine regions, Chianti is dotted with wineries perched on its undulating hills. Great place to drive (or cycle) around and explore – you can rock up anywhere and have a tasting (which is free if buy some wine).
Villa Gioietta– magical home-stay high up in Tuscan hills overlooking Florence. Probably the best homestay I’ve ever stayed in.
La Dispensa de Andrea e Gregorio– charming little café/shop in Strada in Chianti
Geometria – if you want some lovely ornate Tuscan ceramics, this is the place for you.
There is so much that it’s not worth to list it all. The city hall and its wonderful frescoes were more than worth a visit, and I would suggest exploring bits that are away from the crowds, like the area around Ovile gate.
Hotel Minerva – great location and breakfast for good price
Osteria del Gatto – decent, homely place
La Vecchia Latteria – best local gelato
Consorzio Agrario di Siena – great supermarket stocking local produce
San Gimignano, Volterra, Lucca and Carrara
We stayed in Gan Gimignano but loved driving around the scenic roads. Volterra and Lucca should be on anyone’s itinerary, while Carrara’s marble quarries are breathtaking (although hard to get to). In terms of specific sights, San Gimignano’s tiny contemporary art gallery is really punching above its eight and organizes regular high profile photo exhibitions in the summer. When in Volterra, makes sure you go to Balze to see its dramatic profile from afar. Finally in Lucca, Duomo di San Martino is unmissable.
Dondoli – one of Italy’s best gelaterias. Nuff said.
La bottega del gelato – best artisanal gelateria in Lucca
La Vecchia Lira, Volterra – great for quick, cheap lunch
Great Carrara marble products are best bought in the shops close to the quarries
Cinque Terre and around
The villages are as beautiful as they are overcrowded, so make sure you go early. Some of the hiking paths are still closed, and I suggest doing some hiking between Corniglia and Vernazza. If you are going here, make sure you visit Santa Margherita Ligure and Portofino and hike to San Fruttuoso.
Eat and Drink
La Picea, Levanto – one of Italy best pizzas, apparently
Enoteca da Elsio – chill place to have a drink at Monterosso al mare
KM0 café, Corniglia – Great hipsterish place to have a break. Good craft beer
Panificio Canale, Portofino – Although apparently it is widely hated, I loved the overpriced cheese foccacia here
Il Caffe Del Porto, Santa Margherita – great place for a coffee or beer
Parma and Bergamo
We spent only a few hours in each, but Parma’s romanesque Duomo and Baptristry are truly breathtaking, while Bergmo’s Cita Alta is worth a whole day. Also make sure you stay for aperitivo and sample local specialties with your drink.
Emilia, Parma – fabulous gelateria in the very heart of Parma
Bar Botticelli, Bergamo – chill place for breakfast or coffee
La Prosciutteria – mouth watering foodie heaven, with helpful staff offering various types of Parma’s famed prosciutto, parmigiano and lambrusco.
Great city to visit, especially as there are almost no tourists. There is plenty to see (from the shroud of Turin to the Egyptian Museum), but it’s also great just to walk around this beautiful atmospheric city.
Hotel Antico Distretto – well-priced hotel in the heart of Turin’s main night-life district, with a retro vibe
Eat and Drink
Café Al Bicerin – Inventors of the local favourite coffee with chocolate with a wonderful old-fashioned interior
Pastis – great retro neighbourhood bar restaurant serving Sicilian food
Café Fiorio – wonderful old café with great gelato
Cafferin – traditional chocolate shop