by Rebecca Holland
Earlier this month I set off on a road trip from Vienna to Milan with my boyfriend Nathan. The first big trip of 2017 included all my favorite things: great company, pretty cities, lots of wandering, spontaneous stops, fantastic food, and views on views on views.
To really take in the charm of small towns and the staggering beauty of the Dolomites, a road trip was the only way to go. Nathan and I inundated each other with ideas of where to stop in the month leading up to departure. Each town looked cuter than the next. There were a few places we wanted to go for sure: Vienna, Hallstatt, Salzburg, and Bolzano. We booked hotels in these cities and left days open in between. I am so glad we did, otherwise we wouldn’t have spent a night in Zell am See, the most picturesque little ski town, or Parma, which was such an unexpected and lovely stop.
If you’re planning a road trip, I strongly suggest you leave some things up in the air. Half the fun is seeing where advice from strangers and random whims take you. If you prefer things to be more planned, follow along.
Itinerary: 10 Days Driving Through Austria and Italy
Day 1 & 2 – Vienna
We flew into Vienna on a Friday and spent the weekend here. You’ll want to spend at least two nights, as there is tons to do. Here’s a more detailed Vienna guide.
Day 3 – Hallstatt
Pick up your rental car and head to Hallstatt. We (meaning Nathan–I was too busy fueling my coffee addiction at the hotel), picked the car up in the morning then drove the Schönbrunn Palace, which I mention as a stop for your last day in the Vienna post. The palace is a bit out of the way, so it’s easier to drive there and get on the road after your visit.
The drive to Hallstatt isn’t too long, about 3.5 hours. Just long enough to stop for road trip snacks, especially as Austria has the most glorious roadside stops you will ever find. We stopped at what we thought was a gas station, but turned out to be a magnificent, mouth watering, perplexing destination in its own right. Landzeit is a chain of roadside restaurants and hotels throughout Austria. From the outside, the industrial sign made it look like Road Ranger or a standard truck stop with a convenience store and maybe a small restaurant serving stale coffee and greasy food. On the inside, it is something else. We were met with a massive buffet of vibrant fruits and vegetables, smoked seafood, glistening rotisserie chicken, an array of pasta dishes, an elaborate cheese board, a full-service counter for meats, potatoes, and other dishes, perfectly frosted pastries, and so much more. We were shocked and made a scene exclaiming over each item.
“Is that pasta handmade?”
“Beef tartare? Are you kidding me?”
“This bread smells amazing.”
“Oh my god – look at the fresh juices!”
It went on and on, to the point of embarrassing ourselves. I took a few Instagram story videos and felt ashamed. We were so excited we bought a loaf of freshly baked bread and a mini bottle of champagne. As we were leaving, a woman pushed a cart of freshly baked chocolate cake out of the kitchen. It smelled amazing.
“They are literally baking cakes!”
We had to get out, but not before exclaiming again over the floor to ceiling windows with mountain views. Best. Rest stop. Ever.
Back on the road, we broke our bread with meat and cheese we’d bought the day before in Austria, and vowed to stop at the next Landzeit we saw (we passed it, by accident, and never saw one again, which was a sad point of the trip). Just thinking about it now is making me incredulous all over again.
Anyway, moving on. If you’re driving this route in the winter, be careful. There are some tiny mountain roads near the end that seem a little sketchy. We happened to be driving in a snowstorm, just as twilight crept in. There were a few scary, slippery moments going downhill. Luckily, Nathan had upgraded to a larger car with 4-wheel drive. You should too, just in case.
Despite the poor driving conditions, I was happy the road was unplowed, especially as we neared the top of a hill and could look out over the evergreens dusted in snow. So pretty! Stopping for photos, I stood there for a second enjoying the snowfall and silence of the woods, while Nathan was probably panicking that another car would come and hit us while I sacrificed our lives for Instagram. #worthit
We stayed at the Heritage Hotel in Hallstatt, which is right on the lake.
We shuffled through the snowy city admiring the gingerbread-like houses and sparkly lights, then had dinner at one of the few open restaurants in town. Winter is not prime time to visit Hallstatt, as many of the shops, hiking trails, salt mines, and other attractions are closed. However, it is gorgeous frosted over and worth a visit just to walk around. Step into the 12th century Catholic Church of Hallstatt perched on a hill and visit its adjoining cemetery.
Day 4 – Salzburg
After exploring Hallstatt again in daylight, we drove on to Salzburg.
I had already done a lot of the more touristy things in the city with my mom and grandma a couple of years ago, including the Sound of Music Tour, which was both awful and amazing.
This time we walked around the city, stopping in churches and wandering down random streets for snacks and shopping (I bought badly needed boots). Eventually, we made it to the Augustiner Beer Hall, where beer has been brewed and served in stone steins since 1621. Because we weren’t going to be in Italy soon enough, we stopped at Bar Italia for wine. It was cozy, but smoky. You’ve been warned.
Day 5 – Badgastein, Zell am See
Today we didn’t have anything planned. We debated between Innsbruck and a few other places, eventually deciding to drive to Badgastein and go from there. Take the scenic route through Hohe Tauern National Park if you can. (Total drive time: about an hour and 45 minutes).
Badgastein is a spa town known for hot springs and beautiful Belle Époque” buildings that look straight out of a Wes Anderson movie.
You could stay the night for skiing and a thermal bath, or stroll through the town and stop for coffee like we did (and more bread – we’re addicts), then drive another 45 minutes to Zell am See for the night.
I wasn’t expecting much from this tiny ski town, but it ended up being one of my favorite stops. It’s nestled between Lake Zell to the east and the Kitzbühel Alps to the west, so it’s picturesque no matter where you look. Like every place we visited, the town was decorated with twinkly lights, which looked even prettier with a fresh dusting of snow.
We walked around (are you sensing a pattern?), determined to check out every single bar before deciding on a ski bar in the center of town.
The main reason to visit Zell am See is to ski. If you’re not doing that, you can eat, drink, and admire the lights and buildings that are the definition of charm.
Day 6 – Cortino d’Ampezzo, Bolzano – Falzarego Pass
Today is a big driving day, so get up early and get on the road. Drive 2.5 hours to cross the Italian border into Cortina d’Ampezzo. I’m not gonna lie–I was reallllly excited to get to Italy. Austria was straight out of a winter ski catalogue and I loved every minute, but Italy is, well, Italy. We had lunch in Cortina and admired the bell tower, then set out on what might have been my favorite part of the entire trip.
The Great Dolomite Road takes you through about 70 miles of steep, windy mountain road, showcasing the main Dolomite peaks along the way. Each hairpin turn brings new, almost unbelieveable views. Sunset hit around our last 15 miles, a spectacular show of pinks and golds descending on the mountains.
Finally arriving in Bolzano after dark, we settled into the Parkhotel Laurin near the center of the city. Check out the Laurin Bar, an old-fashioned, elegant room with a fireplace and art-nouveau murals, and a circular wooden bar.
Day 7 – Bolzano
I found Bolzano, or Bozen as many call it, fascinating. Italy won the Southern Tyrol area from Austria in World War I, so Bolzano remains both Italian and German at once, with both languages spoken, both cuisines represented, and architecture that seems confused but pulls off the mix.
After a day of sitting in the car and a decadent breakfast at the hotel, we took this morning to stretch our legs with a hike. The Guncina walk takes you through magnolias and cypress trees, ending with views over the city.
Back in town we had pretzels and beer at a German beer hall, then prosecco at an Italian lounge. Weird.
We didn’t expect to stay two nights in Bolzano, but the city center was so pretty and there’s more than enough to see, so we moved to a small apartment in the historic center (where you cannot drive, FYI) for another night.
The cathedral in Bolzano is unlike any I’d see in Italy, mainly because of the colorful, tiled roof. The Romanesque and Gothic architecture of the cathedral symbolizes the blend of northern and southern influences. You can also stop at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeolgy to visit Oetzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy that was found by hikers on the Austrian border in 1991.
Day 8 – Modena, Parma
Today was the most spontaneous, and partly because of that one of the most fun, days. We had to be in Milan for flights back home in two days, but had no obligations until then. Craving pasta, we decided on a whim to go to Modena, where we had the most delicious and memorable meal, and finally felt we were truly in Italy.
Aside from eating ecstasy, we visited the cathedral, browsed the covered market, and stopped in a shop for sweets. Maybe it was because it was January, or a Friday, but most things were closed. We decided to move on, but wanted to stop for a balsamic vinegar tasting on the way out of town. Acetaia di Giorgi as the definitive place to taste and buy balsamic in Modena. We showed up and rang the buzzer, to which an old man answered, clearly flustered that we were there. He shuffled back to the door and waved us inside, where we met Giovanna, the owner’s wife. She was so sorry, but her husband wasn’t home to do a tasting. She would like take us upstairs where we could buy vinegar, but not taste it, but she was sick, and therefore could not traverse the stairs, she told us, as we stood awkwardly in her living room and she stood awkwardly bundled in sweaters. Lesson: call ahead.
“Ummm. How about Parma? Keep on the theme of eating all the best local food.”
“Ok great. Done.”
That’s the beauty of no real destination, and of having a car.
Parma is amazing! I am so, so glad we stopped here. The cathedral is pretty from the outside, but I never would have guessed it has one of the most breathtaking interiors I’ve seen, a vibrant fresco by Antonio da Correggio. We visited during a service, where the choir resounded through the chambers and left me with all sorts of feelings. Next door, the Baptistery glowed pink in the moonlight.
Parma was much livelier than Modena. There are so many beautiful boutiques and cute streets to wander. Stop at Enoteca Fontana for cheap local wine and parmesan, and Bread for cocktails and aperitivo. For dinner, we feasted on a plate of the most perfect prosciutto and three pastas (yes, three) at Gallo d’Oro. La Greppia and Osteria dello Zingara are other great options.
Day 9 – Milan
Spend the morning in Parma at the markets and coffee bars near Piazzale Alberto Rondani, then visit Casa del Formaggio, where you can stock up on Parma’s best local products. (Don’t spend the earlier part of your morning like we did, jumping our car battery. Every road trip has its mishaps).
From Parma it’s a quick drive to Milan, the fashion capital of Europe and home to one of Italy’s most iconic cathedrals. A lot of people don’t like Milan, but I think it’s underrated. It’s not as charming as the rest of Italy. It’s a big city, and it feels that way. But there are still ancient buildings springing up seemingly out of nowhere, and large parks.
Then you have the busy shopping areas, not to mention the gorgeous galleria. There are lots of fun, younger areas too, like the Navigli district, where we ended up after seeing some more touristy sights. Here, bars and restaurants (with heat lamps) line the canals, creating a lively scene any time of year. The aperitivo at Spritz is giant. It could replace your dinner. We drank and ate our way down the street, somewhat excessively, reveling in our last night on vacation.
Day 10 – Depart
Drop off your rental car at the airport and depart! All good things must come to an end.
Keep in mind:
- Pack snacks! And make sure to stop at a Landzeit, no matter what. No. Matter. What.
- Drinking rule of thumb: beer in Austria, wine in Italy.
- Food rule of thumb: travel to where it’s made.
- Opt for 4-wheel drive, and bring someone who knows how to drive stick shift. Car rental in Europe is a lot cheaper and you have more options if you can drive a manual.
- Have a basic agenda, but be willing to break it.
- Get off the highways. Longer drives are almost always worth the views. The Great Dolomites Road is no exception, and a must if you’re doing this trip.
- Make a playlist and have it available offline if you use Spotify, or be happy with the same 4-5 songs in English played over and over.
- Walking around every bit of every city totally negates all the sausage, pretzels, pasta, and prosciutto you’ll consume. At least that’s what I’m telling myself…
- Don’t forget to pack these or these.