Europe: The Ultimative Northern & Central Italy Vanlife Roadtrip for Alternative Travelers
The Ultimative Nothern & Central Italy Roadtrip for Sustainable Travelers
Italy, a country everyone has certain pictures in their head as soon as they hear the name. Most are about food, a very loud and energetic language, fast cars, Vespas and picturesque antique cities. Well, let me tell you, it`s all true but so much better! The third country I road tripped through this summer turned out to be my favorite and may even made me come back just four months later
Lago di Braies
Salerno / Amalfi
Naples / Pompeij
Wildcamping in Italy is prohibited and can be fined by the police. In reality this is a bit different as officials and people tolerate it as long as you don´t obviously camp or in very touristic places. The key to stay away from campsites in Italy is similar to everywhere else: try not to stay with too many other, be discreet, either in the middle of nowhere or if in town, just park and stay inside the car. There are free campsites that allow up to 48h free parking if you don`t show an obvious camping behaviour, and apps like Park4Night work very well. If you do have an encounter with the police, always be nice and ask them where you can go.
Roads, Rules and Tolls
In northern Italy, the roads are in great condition but as soon as you get into the south, this changes fast. Tarmac roads have huge potholes, in some parts they suddenly turn into dirt roads and are generally a bit difficult. Also be aware that alleys are very narrow if you are in a bigger vehicle. I drove through the whole country in a 40-year-old van, so let me say that it's completely doable, but turning around if it gets too narrow is sometimes the smarter decision. Something else to be aware of is the fact that there are height limits in many regions: no matter if it's to get to the beach, at grocery stores or bridges. Normally they vary between 1.9m and 2.3m, which means that most vans and motorhomes can`t go through.
Again, in the south, the road rules don`t really work and sometimes it feels more of a chaos than in India, so being aware of your surroundings is crucial. Italians like to beep, to use gestures, and scream around, so just stay calm if that happens. In the north, everything is way more structured and central European, so it really depends where you are.
Highways in Italy are tolled, but it`s totally possible to avoid them. Make sure to check it beforehand if you`re on a budget. Personally, I didn`t take one toll road on my whole journey, except on a day when there was a strike and it was for free.
Language and Culture
Where to start! Yes, people are loud and the language is very emotional, people stay up late and they got some of the best wine you will ever taste. Don`t get offended if someone seems to shout at you, most of the time they are just telling you something and don`t intend to be mean in any way. The country has so much to offer culture-wise and you will find remains of the Roman Empire around every corner, same with the catholic influence as no matter how tiny the village, there is one huge epic church in every single one. You would need years to discover it all, so the more time you have, the better. The very south is again something different, but we will talk about that another time. And yes, the food is as amazing as they say - Focaccia and Pizza Marinara are also always vegan!
First, the famous Mafia is mostly active in the south and you don`t have to be scared of it as a normal tourist. Naples is a very Mafia controlled city and a big mess, so if you are driving be especially careful here as road safety is a bit of a difficult term here. How helpful and nice the police is, can vary from officer to officer, so always be nice if you get stopped or are in contact with them in any way, sometimes a smile can take you very far. I mean, once they high-fived me at the Amalfi coast as they were so excited to see me driving this narrow road with a big van! Always research the cities you`re staying, because broken windows happen very often, but checking your parking spot beforehand can help you to avoid that. There are also reports of whole vans being stolen - so again, make sure to check reviews about where you are staying and rather park a bit outside or pay for safe parking than risking a break-in. The touristic spots are known for pick pocketing like any other major city, so always have your valuables with you. As a woman solo you may get some weird looks the more south you go, but most men are rather scared of you than anything else as this region is still very conservative and even seeing women driving becomes an oddity at some point.
The first city after Slovenia is Trieste. It's situated at the Mediterranean with a harbour that is famous for its crazy wind, and a pretty old town that invites you to stroll through. There is an airport, so this may be the starting point of your journey, as especially in summer it's the perfect introduction to Italy's famous `dolce vita`.
What to do
Faro della Vittoria
With a height of over 68m, this is one of the highest lighthouses in the world. It has been finished in 1927 to honour the men that died at sea in WWI and was on purpose-built higher than the Berlin Victory Column. It's situated close to the city and can be visited, both the top and the bottom.
Risiera di San Sabba
If you`re into Urbexing, this is an absolute must. It used to be a rice mill, but in 1943 the Nazis turned it into a concentration camp for Italian prisoners, before they were deported to Auschwitz. After the war, it became a refugee camp for Italians fleeing Yugoslawia.
Entry is free and it's open from 9am to 6pm daily.
If you need a place for overnight parking in town, the big car park at the harbour is quite cheap and allows you to stay for longer. Be aware of the very strong winds that can occur though!
A little bit off the coastline, but more than just worth the detour. Coming from Trieste, it’s around a 2h drive up to the Dolomites in a normal car, with an old-timer it always takes longer though. If you fancy some mountains, epic hikes and alpine lakes before a trip through Italian history, art, culture and beaches, make sure to plan some extra days up here.
What to do
Around midway, there is a little town called Venzone. It is one of the most beautiful mountain villages I have ever seen, with a wall around and a unique medieval feel to it. You can park everywhere around town if you just go for a visit, as it's perfect for a stroll. There also is a very special highlight, so if you like creepy stuff, make sure to visit the town's mummies that are on display next to the church! They have been examined when the place was rebuilt after an earthquake in the last century.
Probably the most famous destination in the Dolomites - the Tre Cime! An impressive mountain range that can be reached by a toll road, which also allows you to stay up overnight and it's probably the most stunning view you will ever get. The hike itself takes around 3h if done slowly and is doable for most levels, it takes you around the three pikes and you will end up back at the parking. It can get quite cold during the night, so be aware if you`re planning to stay up.
Lago di Braies
Another breath-taking alpine lake that can only be reached by a multi-hour hike. It's one of the most beautiful ones in the Dolomites, so if you got time and are physically fit, don`t miss out on this one.
A quick stop before Venice is Padova, a city with a gorgeous town square decorated with countless statues and little alleys to stroll through. There are also several churches you can visit, or simply sit on the plaza with a glass of wine.
A small, fully vegan restaurant I accidentally came by while looking for some food. The food is absolutely amazing, and even though they didn`t have an English menu the waitress did her absolute best to translate everything. Such a gorgeous little find!
Via S. Gregorio Barbarigo 87
35141 Padova PD
Wednesday to Monday 11.30 - 15.00, 19.30 - 23.00
Tuesday 11.30 - 15.00
Probably Italy’s most famous city after Rome. Venice has a lot to offer but is also well known for its hordes of tourists. The best time to visit will always be off season, and it is worth a day trip if you`ve never been. Getting lost in the city on the water is a whole new level of romantic: even by yourself and getting an overpriced glass of Vino or Aperol while watching the sunset is worth the once in your lifetime experience. While you can always find the most popular spots by looking them up, I wanna show you some extraordinary ones you may haven`t heard of.
What to do
Ponte delle Tente
A bridge that has a history of being the centre of the cities red-light district. Sex workers weren`t allowed to leave the area except on Saturdays and even then they had to be marked. The bridge is surrounded by buildings where the women were encouraged to show their breasts to advertise their services.
Liberia Acqua Alta
A well-known place and usually pretty crowded, but worth a visit. A bookstore that has everything piled up to the roof into bathtubs and buckets cause of Venices constant floodings. It calls itself the world’s most beautiful bookstore and it can definitely keep up with that. They got several stray cats in the store and one room opens up to a canal where a book gondola is waiting to be explored.
The church itself is already a tourist attraction, but for the ones that seek an extra thrill - the crypt is the true attraction. The tombs are all half flooded and make the columns look at least double as big as their actual size, creating a mystic atmosphere.
Where to eat
Right next to one of the countless canals, you can find Sulla Luna, a bookstore and bistro in one. The interior is incredible, with a lot of love for every detail and they got several vegan dishes on the menu. We tried the falafel and puccia, they both tasted so good and were soaked in Italian olive oil to complete the experience. They are also dog friendly and you can sit outside next to the water - the perfect spot for lunch or an afternoon tea while exploring the city.
There are several big parking areas right in front of the bridge that takes you into town. One of them is free, you simply have to pass by all the paid ones, and you can also stay here overnight. The buses into town depart right in front and will let you out 10 minutes later right at the beginning of Venice itself.
The next spot on your way south is the city of Ravenna. It is famous for its churches, mosaics and historic buildings but also its traditional Italian old town. Even if you don`t wanna pay entrance to any of those, they also look stunning from the outside. I will list the most impressive ones, so you can choose which ones you wanna visit. And there is the option to get a 7-day ticket for all the sights in central Ravenna which is pretty cool! It’s perfect for a day trip, or two.
What to do
Flooded Crypt of San Francesco
A flooded crypt that became one due to the instable ground it was built on, now offers a unique sight with goldfish and even ducks living down there! Technically, it is still a grave, but people tend to throw coins in like in wishing wells.
As the name already says, this is the grave of the poet Dante. His bones have been moved many times between here and Florence until they were forgotten and found again. So now he is resting in this unspectacular tomb in a side street of his hometown Ravenna -open for visitors.
Baptistery of Neon
Probably the most famous one of the mosaic-filled buildings. This was the one that gave psychoanalyst Carl Jung a paranormal experience. The place is covered in stunning, handmade mosaics and is the one place you cannot miss when visiting the city.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Another Basilica decorated with one of the world’s most breath-taking mosaics, even honoured by UNESCO, and includes a starry sky as the key element. It is said to be the burial site of Galla Placidia, the daughter of a Roman emperor that later became an empress.
Basicila of San Vitale
The Basilica is one of the most impressive ones in town, and huge in size. It has a big mosaic collection and so is best visited on a sunny day, as they are best displayed in this way.
Michelangelo da Vinci
For all Urbex lovers, this a place you won`t find again that soon. I never publish exact coordinates of those places, so if you wanna go you have to do your own research. This used to be a restaurant owned by an extravagant millionaire who brought the airplanes, a helicopter and countless relicts to the property that he used as a restaurant. In 2014, it was closed down and has been abandoned since then, giving the main building with its homage to Michelangelo and the two planes, back to nature.
San Marino is a tiny state in the middle of Italy, not far from touristic Rimini. It doesn`t belong to the EU, which makes gas and food slightly cheaper. You can explore it as a day trip and either walk up to the main town or take the cable car up.
What to do
Most people visit the main town, which is up high on a mountain, surrounded by a few villages. It’s the perfect place for a stroll and to get lost, explore the small alleys and towers that are dominating the town. There are three towers in total, you can either get one ticket to visit them all or only two of them. But the best view is for free and is actually the spectacular path that connects the towers. It can get very touristic in summer, but as it's a bit like a maze you will always find a place for yourself.
There are several paid parking high up, but if you wanna stay for free, make sure to check for the one beneath the cable car. It's huge and you can stay overnight, with an incredible view on the mountains and even the ocean!
Gargano is one of the breath-taking national parks Puglia has to offer, and even if you don`t have time to go further down, this region is the least you have to see. While many Italians come here for their summer holidays, which means loads of typical overrun camping grounds and countless Lidos (paid beaches with umbrella after umbrella), hidden wild camping spots around every corner make up for this. There are countless hiking routes, so if you`re into it, you should check for itineraries!
The Grotto Church of Saint Michael
Not well-known by the public, this incredible church inside a mountain is situated near Lake Varano. It is dedicated to the archangel Michael and even has a little basin collecting rainwater behind the altar, that is said to be holy. It has been used for worshiping for thousands of years and gives you this special spiritual vibe as soon as you enter.
This small town used to be a fishers’ village, but nowadays mostly runs on tourism. It is situated above the nearby beaches and cliffs, is held in white, and perfect for strolls through small alleys. Make sure to try the local Foccachia, they are to die for and vegan! Parking can be a bit tricky, but for a few hours you should be able to find something.
There are countless wild camping spots all over the half-island, just check the usual apps like Park4Night to find them. To be honest, you may find the best ones in all of Italy here. Otherwise, the roads can get pretty narrow, so check before you enter a small alley!
Salerno / Amalfi
Most of us know the famous Amalfi Coast, and it’s the place to be! But it's also well known for its narrow roads and crazy traffic, so if you`re in a van, you may wanna be careful. It's not allowed to enter the road with an RV, but if you got a van that is under 2.8m high and 2.20m wide, are an experienced driver and know your vehicle - go for it! I did it, it was all good. Even though sometimes it becomes very narrow, when a bus comes your way, but they know how to navigate, so it’s totally doable - just nothing for scary drivers. Also be aware that if you are in a larger vehicle, there may not be a place to stop until you`re past Positano, as parking is extremely rare, and the spots are tiny. If you want to visit the picturesque little villages along the way, it's probably best to either go by boat or scooter and park the van in Salerno, as there really isn`t much space to stop.
What to do
Salerno Medieval Aqueduct
Salerno is the last big city before you enter the coastal road and worth a stop by. Just a short walk from the city centre there is an Aqueduct that is built into the modern structures. It is said that you meet the devil if you pass through during dawn or dusk.
Amalfi, Maori, Positano
There are many small towns along the Amalfi coast, but those are the ones you should stop in, if you can. They are mainly reached by boat, but if you are on a scooter you can also stop and visit them. You probably know the famous beach photos from Positano; it’s definitely a romantic destination but also be prepared for the crowds here as tourism is the main thing here.
As I already mentioned before, the parking situation is pretty much non-existent. The cars that are parked at the side of the road are all damaged; the spots are tiny so only fit small cars and definitely no vans. After Positano though, there are multiple parking bays where you can stay overnight with a gorgeous view on the picturesque villages. It's around a 2-3h drive until here from Salerno though, so be ready to drive for a while.
Naples / Pompeii
Right after the Amalfi coast, the next big city that shows up is Naples. Known for its pizza, chaos, alternative scene and trash - a day visit definitely pays off. It is very chaotic and driving is pretty much a mess, the pictures of mountains of trash sadly are still present everywhere around town and some roads are extremely narrow. There are several very cute buildings you can visit in the city centre and there are tons of vintage shops with cheap finds that reminded me of Manchester. If you`re interested in history and culture, make sure to stop by in Pompeii, the ancient city that tragically got buried under the Vesuv`s ashes.
What to do
These days, Pompeii is a small town built next to the old one. If you plan to visit the archaeological site, I would recommend you to stay here instead of in the city. There is also the possibility to go up Vesuv for the night, there are several free car parks in walking distance of the entrance. Personally, this was an absolute childhood dream to visit, even though it's definitely overrun. As there are not many info signs, if you really want to get the information, you need an audio guide which cost extra. The area is pretty big, so make sure you got water and food with you and are wearing good shoes. The cafe inside has vegan food, if you want to treat yourself!
Naples has countless tunnels lying beneath it. They can be visited these days with a guide or in non-corona times on your own. There are aqueducts, sewer tunnels, caverns and catacombs to explore - if you got time this is a number one experience.
Where to eat
In Portici, right in front of Naples, there is a little cat cafe that offers incredible vegan food and is owned by a very lovely lady who speaks English. They have several cats in the cafe that are free to roam around, all with their own personalities and some will happily accompany you. The food is amazing, don`t miss out on the hummus trio and the desserts, they are to die for!
Monday, Wednesday to Friday 12.30 - 18.00
Saturday & Sunday 10:00 - 18:00
Viale Privato L. D'Amore 29
Awarded the best pizza in the world and famous due to the movie Eat Pray Love, Pizzeria da Michele is truly the place to go if you`re looking for authentic Italian pizza. The only got two kinds, Marinara and Margherita so all vegans can die happy after a visit here. They cost 5 Euros and you can either get it to take away or eat in a very simple restaurant, that is far away from fancy but awarded with a Micheline star.
Via Cesare Sersale 1
Daily 11.30 - 15.30 , 18.00 - 22.30
Italy's capital and the most visited place in the country - Rome! I had absolutely no expectations, but I instantly fell in love with this city: there is history around every corner and the vibe is absolutely incredible. While there is a lot to do, I´ve listed my favourites down below!
What to do
On the outskirts of Rome, there is an old, abandoned hunting lodge that is very well persevered but has been out of use for over 300 years. The main building has over four stories, including two cellars where the food was stored.
An ancient building that is used as a church these days, situated in the middle of town and famous for its impressive columns. It was finished in 128 A.C. and can still be visited today. During all those years it went through major restorations and survived nearly 2000 years of Rome's history. There is big plaza with a fountain in front where you can sit and look at this impressive piece of art.
Probably Europe’s most crowded attraction, the Trevi Fountain is actually hidden between side alleys in a pretty small plaza. It is built of white stone, which gives a unique image with the blue water and is especially impressive during the night. If you wanna visit, either get there during the night and after 11pm, or very early in the morning to avoid crowds.
The Forum Romanum is the oldest roman forum and covers a big area in the city centre. You can walk around and explore the ruins, that have been extracted piece by piece, or look at it from above. Over the centuries, there have been countless different forums here and nearly every Roman emperor had one at some point. If you are interested in history, this is undoubtedly a must.
The famous Colosseum, which actually is way smaller than many think, is close to all the other historical sights. If you wanna go in, check if there are other attractions you want to visit to save money, otherwise come by in the evening as that's when it looks the prettiest.
Museo Storico Nazional Dell`Arte Sanitaria
A small, hidden but nonetheless absolutely worth a visit museum close to the Vatican. It is based in an anatomical theatre and used to be a teaching hospital, but sadly is only open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning so check before you go.
Another tiny state, but this time completely different than San Marino. The Vatican is where the catholic church is based, and officially the world's smallest country. You can pay to visit the museum and the church, or just check out the big plaza in front.
Where to eat
A fully vegan restaurant that offers all the traditional Italian dishes in a vegan version. The carbonara is incredibly, they got a charging station for your phone and have English speaking staff that will help you order if you ask for it. One of the best places to eat vegan in Rome, but may require a reservation due to the high demand that is definitely deserved!
Monday to Saturday 12.00 - 15.00, 20.00 - 23.00
Via Euclide Turba 6/8
It’s quite hard to find overnight parking in Rome, but if you head towards the Giuseppe Garibaldi Monument, there are tons of cheap parking spots that allow overnight stays. It’s not silent at all, but due to all the people relatively safe and as close to the city centre as you can get.
The dreamy region between Rome and Florence has inspired countless painters around the world. Some of the world's best wines are from here and I would highly recommend doing a wine tour, even if it's just to get a closer look at the amazing stone buildings that can be found here. The sunsets are out of this world, a lot of nature and cute villages after another. Wildcamping is very easy, if you are discreet and don`t put your camping gear you won`t run into any problems.
What to do
Do you remember Ezio's hometown in Assassin’s Creed II? It exists and is called Monteriggioni, sitting on top of a hill and can be explored in a few hours. Even if you only got time for one village, make it this one as it was my absolute highlight! There is a huge parking in front, you can also stay there overnight for a fee and there is one single hotel in town. It's tiny, but with a charm that is hard to find these days.
More famous than Monteriggioni, the town of Montepulciano also sits on top of a hill and is well known for its cute alleys and sunsets. It basically is the definition of Tuscany, there are several places you can stay for free for a night or two. Every week there is a market and you can also use it as a starting point for exploring the region.
Therme de Saturina
There are several hot springs all over Tuscany, but the Saturina one is the most popular one due to social media. Entrance is free, but parking is paid, and you need to go on a separate one if you arrive in a bigger vehicle. Very blue pools that have been used for health reasons for thousands of years invite visitors from all over the world, so except it to be crowded but the experience is worth it with this one.
Another one of Italy's beautiful and impressive cities, Florence holds a lot of history, art and culture. I would say, it's Italy at its best and I would recommend at least a few days here.
What to do
Cathedral of Florence
Hard not to see and one of the most beautiful churches in the world, the Cathedral should be visited both during the day and at night. The outside is incredibly detailed, with tons of little mosaics and unique architecture that differs from other Italian churches. You can also visit the inside for an entry fee, which I would highly recommend.
The world's oldest segment bridge goes over the Arno and holds several little market stalls that have been there for centuries. These days it's easy to spot with its special architecture that looks like several houses function as a bridge, colourful and full of history.
The Boboli Gardens are always worth a visit but there is more than meets the eye. There are three grottos who were decorated in the 1500s, huge structures and statues are now placed in them. In the beginning, there used to be a fish pot and flowing water structures, while nowadays a fountain and a hole in the roof provide light to present the artwork.
La Specola Anatomical Collection
Part of the National Museum of Florence, this is Europe’s oldest museum and held some favourite visitors like Goethe and Emperor Leopold. They got rare wax models of women and their anatomy, called a venus, and there are only three places in the world where you can see this kind of fragile wax models. Call ahead if you plan a visit, as it’s not always open to the public.
Sadly, the parking situation in Florence is pretty unsafe, with many break-ins and not much available to begin with. I rarely advice you to go on a paid parking, but here I highly do; there are several quite close to the centre so you can just walk there or take the bike.
What to do
The tilted tower of Pisa is the main attraction in the city, and most visitors only come by to see it. There is free parking close by, on a sunny day it's a nice walk and the whole plaza where the tower is situated is actually pretty impressive. The tower itself is quite small, but the building behind it deserves some attention too, as its architecture is very detailed and fits perfectly into the scene.
Five villages along the coast, connected through another narrow coastal road. During the summer months, it gets very crowded here and there is the possibility to visit the region via train, but again the best way is via boat. There are countless little cafes from where you can overlook the sea, get on a boat trip, or simply stroll through town. There are several parking areas along the road - some are free while others are not. But arriving early is always advised due to the crowds that come by during the day.
The northern coast of Italy is home to one of its biggest ports, from where ferries to Sardinia, Corsica and Sicily depart. If your journey takes you to one of those destinations, this is the place to leave the mainland, if you continue west towards France there are several little towns with a Mediterranean touristic flair along the way. I won`t go into detail here as this is most likely where your journey will end, but if you need overnight parking, the IKEA has a huge one that allows overnight stays and is right next to a Decathlon if you need to stock up on camping gas.
Make sure to check out my YT video about Italy, you may will see some hidden treasure I didn`t mention here.
Hope to see you next week, for a stunning road trip through the Cote d`Azur and southern France!