When we found out we would be moving not to China as we originally thought, but back to the US, we knew we wanted to fit is as much last minute traveling as we could. Aaron had two weeks of vacation and the race was on to figure out how to spend it. We ended up deciding on a week in northern Italy driving through Austria to the Dolomites, visiting Venice, staying in Tuscany for a few days, hitting up Milan and back through Switzerland. I didn't think we would be returning to Italy quite so soon after we visited Rome, but I am so so glad we did. Northern Italy is beautiful and I absolutely fell in love with the country - something I was not expecting. And I really think that driving it was the best way to do this trip and see everything.
Looking back on our week, there were things that we were really glad we did, and other things that we kind of wish we had either skipped or spent more time doing. We specifically chose to stay (mostly) out of the major cities and relax in the countryside. With that hindsight, I wanted to put together a 10 day itinerary for you all in case you're visiting the north part of Italy. For this, I will assume you are flying in to the Venice airport. The itinerary could easily be modified if you happen to fly in to Florence or Milan since it starts and ends at the same place.
Day 1 - Fly in to Venice
Head to the center of Venice and take in the main sights - Piazza San Marcos, the Grand Canal, St. Mark's Basilica, and the Rialto Bridge. Make sure you explore the back alleys of Venice too. Be prepared for a lot of walking and climbing of stairs to get over the bridges. If you have a kid in tow, try to avoid a stroller (trust us, we learned this the hard way!).
Day 2 - Explore Venice
Chances are, you didn't get a whole lot of time to explore Venice the day before between arriving, traveling, checking in, and deal with any potential jet lag. So take today to really see everything you want to in Venice, but make sure you start off with an Italian breakfast - espresso with a pastry.
Day 3 - The Prosecco Road
About an hour outside of Venice is this lush little area with rolling hills covered in terraced vineyards and through this area is a windy road called the Prosecco Road. From Conegliano in the east to Valdobbiadene in the west, the road, oftentimes narrow and slightly treacherous, travels through some truly breathtaking scenery. Dotted along the road are wineries that work the fields and make Prosecco. Most of them require a reservation to do a tasting, but are more than happy to accommodate. You might get lucky if you're traveling during the high season and find one that's open. For more information on the Prosecco Road, check out our post on it.
From here, you should head north, to the Dolomites, and spend the night in the mountains. There is no better way that I've found to recover from jet lag than to spend a relaxing night surrounded by nature and silence. We stayed here and would highly recommend it!
Day 4- Drive the Great Dolomite Road
We covered this in detail here, but suffice it to say, this region of Italy, not so popular with tourists outside of Europe, is absolutely stunning! The historic route crossing some of the most beautiful parts of the Dolomites and reaches an altitude in excess of 2000 meters. If you're here in the winter, you can ski, snowboard and snowshoe to your hearts delight, but it's also equally impressive in the summer. The countless switchbacks and bare, rugged peaks are beautiful no matter what time of year you visit. And the food in this part of Italy is very unique - being so close to Switzerland and Austria, there is a decidedly Germanic tilt to the main dishes. Of course it's delicious!
We recommend you wake up early to start your day. A map of the Great Dolomite Road can be found here. It's going to be a long day of driving, but you'll get to see some beautiful sights and you'll end up in fashionable Milan.
Day 5 - Tour of Milan including the Last Supper
We aren't huge fashion people, so going shopping in Milan wasn't high on our list of things to do (plus, I'd rather spend that money on travel than on haute couture clothing). But, if you have a love of Prada, Gucci, and Luis Vuitton, then by all means, shop away! The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the oldest "shopping malls" and is home to some of the most famous designers. It's not far from the Milan Cathedral (also worth a visit) and the Scala Theater (not worth a visit unless you are a theater buff).
One thing you HAVE to see in Milan? The Last Supper. This hundreds of years old painting is slowly but surely fading into time. See it before it's gone for ever with only photographs to remember it. Tickets can be hard to come by, so an organized tour may be your best bet. We wrote a whole post on visiting it here.
Day 6 - Drive to Italian Riveria
While it may not be a huge coast line, the scenery you'll see why driving along it is particularly stunning. The tall hills, lush with forests, give way to steep cliffs that plunge into the Mediterranean sea. The most popular tourist attraction in this area are the five towns of Cinque Terre. Getting to them isn't the easiest since cars aren't allowed in most, but they are well connected by trains. When we were visiting Italy, we opted to bypass these towns after hearing about the hoards of tourists that now clog the streets. We aren't big into crowds, so we opted to experience another town close by: Sestri Levante. Other beautiful towns to consider in the area include Portofino and Chiavari.
Day 7 - Drive to Tuscany, Make a stop at a traditional hill town
Heading out of the Riviera, you'll be driving to Tuscany. This beautiful area of Italy is known for it's wine, food, sunflowers, and sunshine. Throughout the region are farm houses where you can rent a room for a reasonable price. You'll stay out of the major cities, but really get a chance to relax and recharge your batteries. Many of them have pools for cooling off during the hot summers. You can either opt to stay at one place for two night and do day trips, or pick a couple about an hour and a half away from each other and split your time.
One of the most famous towns for visitors is San Gimignano. You must park outside the main city center and walk in, but once there, you'll be rewarded with cobbled streets lined with merchants, maybe a local market taking place, and a dazzling view of the surrounding countryside.
Another option for a stop is Volterra. If you've read Twilight, you've likely heard of this town. In fact, they even offer organized Twilight themed tours (we didn't do this so we can't vouch for it). The town is small, walled, and hundreds of years old. It's touristy, but less so than San Gimignano. No matter which one you choose, I'm sure you'll enjoy their charm.
Day 8 - Tour Chianti Winery, relax in Tuscan countryside
Nestled within the Tuscan region is a sub-region called Chianti, famous for the delicious red wine they produce. There are a couple wineries you can visit (again, they require a call ahead like the Prosecco wineries, but are more than happy to accommodate), but if you can only visit one, make it Ruffino for sure! Their wines are some of the best (in my opinion) and the tour and tasting we had there was top notch! Many of their wines are exported to the US, so if you like red Italian wine, it's a good chance you've heard of them.
Day 9 - Return to Venice
Sadly, this amazing trip has to come to an end sometime, unless you decide to buy a dilapidated Tuscan farmhouse and fix it up, a la Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun. Trust me, the thought did cross my mind for a hot minute. Today, you'll need to head back towards Venice. Depending on the time of your departing flight, you can either make a stop on the way to do a bit more sight seeing, or head straight back to Venice and stay close to the airport for the night.
Day 10 - Depart for Home
Don't worry, I'm sure that after you've had a taste, both literally and figuratively, for this narrow, charming country, you'll want to return. I know we do!
And jut for recap, here is the route! It's a lot of driving, but you won't regret it!