La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy
La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Winding Through Tuscany's Rolling Hills
No trip to Italy is complete without spending time exploring Tuscany's iconic rolling hills. This beautiful region is home to some of Italy's most charming hill towns, like San Gimignano with its medieval towers and Cortona perched high above the Val di Chiana. Driving through Tuscany's gentle countryside is the perfect way to experience the region's natural beauty and sample its world-famous wines and olive oils.
One scenic route not to miss is the Strada Chiantigiana, the road that connects Florence to Siena via the heart of the Chianti wine region. As you drive past vineyards, olive groves, and Cyprus tree-lined roads, you’ll discover charming hill towns and wineries offering tastings of Chianti Classico. Stop in Greve in Chianti to wander its main piazza shaped like a funny “Y” or visit Castellina in Chianti and take in the views from its 14th-century fortress. Don't miss a stop at Badia a Passignano, a stunning 11th century abbey surrounded by vines, for some of Chianti’s finest wines.
Venturing further south, the landscape becomes even more dramatic around Montepulciano and Pienza. Cruising through this area feels like you've stepped into the pages of a Tuscan fairy tale with its picture-perfect valleys and hillsides dotted with stone farmhouses and cypress trees. In Montepulciano, tour its underground wine cellars and taste Vino Nobile, Sangiovese-based reds. Neighboring Pienza is considered the ideal Renaissance town; walk its streets and sample Pecorino cheese.
End your Tuscan road trip by continuing west to enter Val d’Orcia, Tuscany’s most quintessential landscape. Here you’ll find gently rolling hills punctuated by lone cypress trees and sleepy hill towns like Pienza, Radicofani, and Bagni San Filippo. Admire the views of Crete Senesi’s moon-like landscape and make sure to stop in Montalcino, a hub of Brunello wine production. End your drive in San Quirico d’Orcia, where you can wander narrow alleys, sample olive oils, and take in the view of the sun setting over this breathtaking region.
What else is in this post?
- La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Winding Through Tuscany's Rolling Hills
- La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Coastal Cruising Along the Amalfi Coast
- La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Over the Alps to Lake Como's Shores
- La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Into the Heart of Umbria's Hill Towns
- La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Rolling Through Puglia's Patchwork of Farms
- La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Around the Boot to Apulia's Heel
- La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Through the Vineyards of Piedmont
- La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Crossing the Ponte Vecchio in Florence
La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Coastal Cruising Along the Amalfi Coast
The Amalfi Coast is a stretch of rugged coastline along southern Italy's Sorrentine Peninsula that captivates travelers with its picturesque seaside villages, steep cliffs, and sparkling blue waters. Cruising along the winding coastal road here feels like stepping into an Italian Riviera postcard. From Positano's pastel buildings clinging to seaside cliffs to hilltop Ravello's peaceful villas and gardens, the Amalfi Coast impresses at every turn.
Driving the famous SS163 "Amalfitana" road connecting Sorrento to Salerno is an incredible way to take in the region. Be prepared for a thrilling ride – the road boasts scenic vistas around tight curves and steep switchbacks with cliffs dropping hundreds of feet down to the sea. Give yourself plenty of time to stop and soak in the views.
In Positano, find a table at a seaside cafe to enjoy the sight of the town's Moorish-style domes and arches cascading down to the beach. From the pebbly Spiaggia Grande beach, hop on a boat to explore grottos like the Emerald Grotto bathed in an otherworldly green light. Don't leave without browsing the stylish boutiques and ceramic workshops near the beach.
Continue along the coast to Amalfi, which gives the region its name. This historic town is home to the impressive 9th century Amalfi Cathedral with its striped Byzantine facade. Climb the steps up to Ravello next to experience its laidback vibe – meander through romantic gardens like Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone, which both offer stunning panoramas over the coast.
Minori and Maiori are delightful stops between Amalfi and Salerno. In Minori, try freshly-made mozzarella and limoncello or relax under brightly colored umbrellas on the town's black sand beach. Neighboring Maiori is the Amalfi Coast's largest town with a medieval castle and long sandy beach lined with seafood restaurants.
La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Over the Alps to Lake Como's Shores
Glaciers carved out the inverted Y-shaped Lake Como millions of years ago, leaving behind a deep, glacier lake surrounded by the towering peaks of the Alps. While the lake’s picturesque waters dotted with elegant villas are reason enough to visit, the scenic drive over the mountains to reach Lake Como is an exceptional experience. This route gives you a flavor for northern Italy’s Alpine landscapes before arriving at one of Italy’s most spectacular lakes.
Approaching Lake Como from Milan, you’ll pass through valleys surrounded by wooded foothills as you enter the mountains. Soon the landscape changes dramatically as the road begins zigzagging with hairpin curves, each bend opening up to broader vistas across the Alps’ craggy, snow-capped peaks. Parts of the SS36 highway look like they’ve been blasted right out of the mountainsides. The engineering feat it took to build this road becomes obvious as you creep along cliffside lanes with precipitous drop-offs.
The SS36 crosses over the Passo dello Spluga, one of the principal Alpine passes, before descending into the Valchiavenna on the way to Lake Como. Stop to admire the cascading waterfalls near Campodolcino and Madesimo, fed by snowmelt from surrounding glaciers. Check the road conditions between November and May, as snowstorms can close mountain passes during winter.
Arriving in Lake Como feels like entering an Impressionist painting, with the deep blue lake waters reflecting the mountains that loom overhead. The resort towns wrapping the lake shores like Menaggio, Bellagio, and Varenna exude old-world romance with their lakeside promenades, villas, and flower-filled piazzas. Spend time exploring Bellagio’s narrow cobblestone lanes and Varenna’s seaside mansions or hop on a ferry to cruise between villages. Don’t miss the spectacular gardens of Villa Melzi and Villa Balbianello, which capture Lake Como’s beauty.
La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Into the Heart of Umbria's Hill Towns
Venturing into Umbria's heartland rewards travelers with vistas of rolling green hills and valleys dotted with medieval hill towns and castles. Compared to its popular neighbor Tuscany, Umbria feels lost in time with its sleepy villages and peaceful countryside perfect for escaping the crowds. Meandering along winding roads connecting Umbria's hill towns reveals striking panoramas and intimate local experiences that capture the region's essence.
Orvieto, perched high above vineyards producing Orvieto Classico white wines, charms visitors with its cobblestone streets and architectural wonders. The town's awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral impresses with its intricate façade covered in colorful mosaics and statues. Climbing Orvieto's ramparts rewards you with sublime views across Umbria's patchwork of fields. Nearby is Civita di Bagnoregio, dubbed the "dying town" because erosion is slowly causing this hill town to collapse. Cross a narrow footbridge to enter this charming village with houses clinging to crumbling cliffs. The dramatic setting high above the surrounding valley makes braving the crowds worthwhile.
Continuing through Umbria leads to Assisi, birthplace of St. Francis. Despite its pilgrimage popularity, Assisi retains a sacred ambiance with two basilicas and medieval architecture including the Rocca Maggiore fortress. Walking Assisi's peaceful backstreets lined with flower-filled window boxes feels like entering the past. Nearby Spello charms with its Roman-era gates welcoming visitors to winding alleys dotted with colorful homes overflowing with geraniums and olive groves blanketing the surrounding hillsides.
Among Umbria's many dazzling hill towns, Todi stands out for its remarkably preserved medieval core. Ringed by defensive walls with eight gates allowing access, it's easy to imagine arriving in Todi centuries ago. Meander down atmospheric alleys showcasing Roman and medieval vestiges like Piazza del Popolo's 12th-century Palazzo del Capitano. Todi's lofty position provides sublime vistas across olive tree-studded valleys from spots like Piazza Garibaldi.
Off-the-beaten-path Gubbio rewards intrepid explorers with one of Italy's best-kept secrets. Here you can wander atmospheric streets and soak in majestic views without crowds. The mighty Monte Ingino provides a stunning backdrop to Gubbio with the basilica of Sant'Ubaldo crowning its peak. For sweeping vistas, take the funicular up Monte Ingino and follow the path to the Basilica. Gubbio delivers an authentic slice of medieval Umbrian life without the fanfare.
La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Rolling Through Puglia's Patchwork of Farms
Puglia’s rural landscapes captivate with endless olive groves, ancient stone walls demarcating fields, and conical stone trulli dwellings dotting the countryside. Driving along meandering backroads here reveals a timeless agricultural heartland producing Puglia’s renowned olive oils, wines, cheeses, and more. From ancient olive trees to seaside pastures grazed by shaggy Podolica cattle, Puglia’s farms tell an enthralling story.
A drive through the Itria Valley transports you to a Mediterranean arcadia with its patchwork of olive orchards and vineyards bisected by miles of dry stone walls called specchie. The rocky, hilly terrain required farmers to meticulously clear fields for cultivation, piling the stones into these snaking walls. Beyond dividing properties, the specchie also retain heat and moisture for growing crops. Glimpsing trulli farmhouses between trees and really experiencing rural life is a highlight.
The lands around Alberobello showcase the highest density of Puglia’s iconic trulli, most built from local limestone as family dwellings or storehouses on farms. These beehive-shaped structures with grey cone roofs date back centuries and represent an ancient architectural tradition. Seeing Alberobello’s residential streets lined with trulli is a one-of-a-kind experience that captures the essence of Puglia’s rural heritage, especially when the cone-topped roofs glow golden in the evening light.
Continuing along Puglia’s eastern coast leads to the Salento peninsula, blessed with a temperate climate ideal for cultivating some of Italy’s most prized olive oils. The area around Otranto and Cisternino encompasses endless olive groves, where ancient gnarled trees with twisted trunks bear the tiny olives that make the region’s olive oil so extraordinary. Local varieties like Ogliarola and Cellina di Nardò thrive thanks to the subtropical climate, producing elegant, peppery oils revered by connoisseurs. Seeing where this liquid gold originates heightens the experience of tasting Puglia’s olive oils.
Inland, the Murge plateau around Martinafranca showcases another face of Puglia’s bucolic landscapes. This karst limestone terrain nurtures olive and almond trees, vines, and wheat fields. Trulli farmhouses sit among stone walls enclosing patches of farmland. The pace of life here feels slower, providing glimpses of authentic country living. Keep an eye out for shepherds grazing sheep and Podolica cattle, taking time to appreciate an age-old way of life still thriving in Puglia’s countryside.
La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Around the Boot to Apulia's Heel
Apulia forms the heel of Italy’s boot, extending into the Adriatic and Ionian seas with hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline. A drive around Apulia rewards with captivating seascapes, whitewashed villages, ancient ruins, and delicious rustic cuisine. This route loops around the entire region to discover fishing ports, olive groves, trulli farmhouses, medieval castles, and more of Apulia’s treasures.
Begin the journey in Bari, Apulia’s largest city and busy port. The atmospheric old town still retains its medieval layout of narrow alleyways that thread beneath ancient arches to open onto bustling squares. Follow the coastal road south to Polignano a Mare, a town clinging to limestone cliffs perforated with caves. At sunset, the town glows golden, perfectly complementing the shimmering blue Adriatic. Continuing down the coast leads to clifftop Monopoli guarded by medieval walls and towers encircling its historic center. Its seaside port bustles with fishing boats unloading the day’s catch.
Head inland to explore Alberobello’s fascinating neighborhoods of trulli and the bucolic Itria Valley blanketed in olive groves. The whitewashed town of Ostuni crowns a hilltop surrounded by tiered groves producing Apulia’s prized olive oil. For contrast, journey to the untamed natural beauty of the Gargano peninsula, Apulia’s spur jutting into the Adriatic like a spur. Explore seaside Vieste, walk in mystical forests, and visit cliffside monasteries on this stunning promontory.
Along Apulia’s southern coast, Otranto charms with its medieval core gazing out towards the Ionian Sea. Nearby, Santa Maria di Leuca marks the very tip of Italy’s heel with its iconic lighthouse. From here the jagged coastline turns back north, passing picturesque seaside towns like Castro lined with pastel-hued houses and crow’s nest lookouts. The port city of Gallipoli encircles a tiny island connected by a bridge to the mainland. Its whitewashed terracotta-roofed buildings cascade down to the glittering Ionian Sea.
La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Through the Vineyards of Piedmont
Piedmont’s rolling vineyards produce some of Italy’s most acclaimed wines, including Barolo and Barbaresco made from the Nebbiolo grape. Exploring Piedmont by car offers an immersive experience into this prestigious wine region to understand what makes its vineyards so special. Meandering along quiet country roads lined with vines, stopping at wineries to sample wines paired with local cheeses and hazelnuts, provides memorable insights into Piedmontese wine culture.
The Langhe region south of Turin is considered the heart of Piedmont wine country. This hilly terrain along the Tanaro River nurtures Nebbiolo grapes which thrive in the cooler microclimate, benefiting from fog banks that roll in from the nearby Ligurian Sea. The terroir of sandy soils mixed with limestone and clay give Barolo and Barbaresco their elegant, complex flavors with hints of tar and roses.
Consider joining the Strada del Barolo wine route connecting the medieval villages where these wines originate. In La Morra, climb up to the Belvedere gazebo for sublime panoramas over surrounding vineyards. The wine museum here illuminates Barolo’s winemaking history. The charming village of Barolo gives its name to one of Italy’s most esteemed wines. Cellar tours and tastings at historic cantinas like Marchesi di Barolo provide an authentic experience. Food pairings highlight how Barolo’s assertive tannins stand up well to hearty Piedmontese dishes.
Nearby Barbaresco exudes tranquility along its lanes lined with rose bushes. Climb up to the Torre di Barbaresco tower for views of vineyards producing the namesake wine, crafted solely from Nebbiolo grapes. Sample Barbaresco’s elegant, complex wines with violet notes at Produttori del Barbaresco, a cooperative showcasing small-production wines from local growers.
Beyond Barolo and Barbaresco, the Roero region across the Tanaro River offers more delights for wine lovers. Vineyards around Canale produce light, fruity reds from Nebbiolo grapes as well as whites like Arneis and Favorita. The 16th century Ricca Castle with its panoramic terrace is one of Roero’s wine gems.
End your road trip at the Enociante wine museum in Canelli to learn innovative winemaking techniques developed here. Underneath Canelli’s streets lie miles of underground cellars storing sparkling wines. The area’s chalky soils and favorable microclimate nurture the Moscato Bianco grapes that give Asti Spumante its sweet, bubbly charm.
La Dolce Route: 6 Scenic Drives to Discover the Heart of Italy - Crossing the Ponte Vecchio in Florence
Spanning the Arno River in central Florence, the iconic Ponte Vecchio has enchanted visitors for centuries with its medieval architecture and jewelers' shops glittering with gold and gems. Crossing this ancient stone bridge provides an enchanting glimpse into Renaissance-era Florence. Unlike the city's other ancient bridges, the Ponte Vecchio has survived floods and wars intact, making it a profound symbol of Florence.
The Ponte Vecchio's location has always been vital, connecting Florence's central commercial district with the palaces and gardens on the other side of the Arno. The current stone bridge was built in 1345 to replace earlier wooden versions, using an innovative design by Taddeo Gaddi with three segmental arches to resist damage from floods. Over the centuries, shops were built atop the bridge to maximize use of this precious river crossing. In 1565, the Medici decreed that only goldsmiths and jewelers could occupy the bridge's shops, establishing the prestige and beauty we enjoy today.
Strolling across the Ponte Vecchio transports you back through time as you browse diamonds and gold displayed in tiny shop windows, just as generations have done for over 400 years. Look up beyond the sparkling jewels to admire the Vasari Corridor, an elevated passageway built in 1565 for the Medici family to travel privately between the palazzo and government buildings. The views up and down river from the bridge are spectacular, with the Arno's waters flowing peacefully below its graceful arches.
At the south end, the Ponte Vecchio connects to the charming Loggia del Pesce (Fish Market) via the Arches of the Vasari Corridor. This loggia displays a bust of famous Florentine author Carlo Collodi, creator of Pinocchio. The fish market's marble columns, vaulted ceilings, and views over the river capture the romance of Renaissance Florence. Heading north across the Ponte Vecchio leads to the Piazza Santa Trinita and its splendid 14th century church. This lively piazza overlooking the Arno embodies the convivial spirit of Florence with its restaurants and palazzos.
In 1944, the Nazis blew up all of Florence's medieval bridges except the beloved Ponte Vecchio in an attempt to stall the Allied advance during World War II. Locals risked their lives to save the old bridge's stonework and generations of history. This heroic act preserved one of Florence's most iconic landmarks. Restoration efforts after the war reestablished the bridge's 16th century appearance. Today it remains a vivid symbol of Florence's timeless beauty and the Florentine people's perseverance.