I was 19 years old when I took my first road trip around the United States. Starting from Chicago, we headed to Florida, then to New York, and eventually back to Chicago. Knowing little about the states, towns and cities we were driving through added to the awe and mystery of the adventure. The trip was a defining travel moment for me: passing through large areas of land, and experiencing ‘life on the road’.

Italy was one place where I’d always wanted to repeat my US road trip adventure. A long-time fascination of exploring the ‘boot-shaped’ country became a reality as I finally made the trip.

 

Italy road trip: Taormina centre, Sicily

Taormina centre, Sicily

 

 

Italy road trip – starting point: Sicily

Sicily is an interesting island for so many reasons. Though close to the Italian mainland, being on the island can sometimes feel like another country. On the surface, it’s the typical Mediterranean island – good weather, food, beaches etc. There are however notable differences from their northern counterparts. Sicilians have their own dialect, as well as a more relaxed attitude – to pretty much everything. Locals are welcoming, but their seemingly tougher outer exterior makes it harder to befriend them. If truth be told, I found that traveling with an Italian, better yet a Sicilian, made my experience far easier.

Santa Teresa di Riva

I stayed on the north-east coast of the island, in a residential coastal town called Santa Teresa di Riva. Located in the province of Messina, it’s smaller and more personal than its province’s namesake larger city.

Many of Sicily’s shores are stony rather than sandy, but don’t let that put you off. High temperatures in August (28°C/82°F to 32°C/90°F) make a few stones a small price to pay for the warm and clean waters. The majority of tourists I met in the town were other holidaying Sicilians, many from Palermo.

What to eat in Sicily

While Italy in general, has a reputation for its delicious cuisine, for me, Sicily holds the title for food utopia. Fruits packed full of flavor, perfectly ripe vegetables thanks to the climate, and not forgetting the abundance of fresh fish and seafood available daily. Homemade gelato in a fluffy buttery brioche bun is a must, as is the traditional Granita typically eaten at breakfast.

Italy road trip: gelato in a brioche bun

Italy road trip: gelato in a brioche bun

 

The icy dessert is available in several flavors (strawberry, coffee, lemon etc) and usually served with fresh cream on top. If the sound of fresh cream is too heavy to start your day, you can ask for one ‘senza panna’ (without). Having tried several places in the area for Granita, I can say that Bar Mimmo is the best. They also sell other desserts, eg giant profiteroles, so I advise wearing something loose!

 

Road trip: Aloha Mare: the freshest seafood I've tasted

Aloha Mare: the freshest seafood I’ve tasted

 

To sample some of the freshest seafood around, get yourself to Aloha Mare. This seafood haunt always has long queues in summer, given its range of mouthwatering dishes.

I recommend Santa Teresa di Riva if you’re looking for a more local experience, and prefer to stay clear of tourists. If, however, you want to follow the crowds, there’s one place you have to visit.

 

 

 

Tourists in Taormina

The hilltop historic town of Taormina is extremely popular – and for good reason. Taormina has great views overlooking the Ionian Sea, plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants, and the Greek amphitheatre. I didn’t enter the theatre but instead took enjoyment in a much simpler, and not to mention cheaper activities

Small sorbeto in hand, I spent time taking in the Greco-Roman architecture found in many historic churches and on shop fronts. Other points of interest on the way to Taormina include Isola Bella; an enchanting isolated island with a narrow path that connects to the beach.

 

Italy road trip: The quietest part of Taormina

Italy road trip: The side streets of Taormina

 

Traveler tip: Isola Bella gets very busy, so arrive earlier rather than later, particularly if you want to get a parking space.

Quick stop: Catania

If the name Catania rings a bell, it may have something to do with its renowned mafia presence. Having said this, the Sicilian city’s absolutely worth a visit – if only a short one. During my stay, the visible police presence (with guns on show), didn’t detract from the fact that Catania is an incredibly beautiful city.

When you hit the main piazza, one of the first buildings you see is La Cattedrale di Sant’Agata (Catania Cathedral). The Catholic Church was rebuilt in a grand Baroque style after several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions from Mount Etna. It’s one of many historic churches to see in Catania, and I’d suggest spending a little longer if your itinerary allows. Above all, Catania is a key stop on this Italy road trip itinerary.

 

Road trip: Seeing is believing: La Cattedrale di Sant’Agata

Seeing is believing: La Cattedrale di Sant’Agata

 

Catania is also home to the original and incredibly moreish Arancini, a.k.a. stuffed rice balls. Etoile D’Or serves up the best Ragu-filled Arancini as well as the popular sweet ricotta-filled mini Canolo. Small in size, it leaves plenty of room to try other flavours.

Italy road trip – Car rental in Catania

Renting a car is usually a pain-free process. You book (and pay) online, and turn up at the collection point on the day of travel. This isn’t the case however in Sicily. We turned up at Catania Airport to find that our car hadn’t arrived, despite booking online 5 days before. Traveling with an Italian carries some weight, but the experience was just as arduous. Lesson learned? Don’t expect too much – anything good that happens will be a welcome surprise.

Boarding the ferry at Messina

There’s only one way to reach the mainland of Italy by car, and continue your Italy road trip, and that’s by ferry. Messina is the 3rd largest city on the island, but is far different from the houses and buildings you see in other coastal towns.

Be prepared for long waiting times and queues on entering the port. If you don’t have a ticket, you’ll need to jump out of the car and scramble along with everyone else to get one. If there’s one thing I learned from being in the south, it’s to do as the southerners do. This means spotting gaps in the queue and jumping ahead of others. This applys to buying tickets for the ferry as well as for the bathroom!

 

Italy road trip – first stop: Lecce

Approximately 6 hours later after arriving in Reggio Calabria, we arrived in the historical town of Lecce. Lecce to Sicily is a lengthy one, but very scenic. Situated in the southern region of Puglia, the city was buzzing with life, despite being past midnight when we arrived.

 

Italy road trip: lit up in Lecce

Road trip Italy: Lit up in Lecce

 

Old buildings and churches built in Baroque architectural style seem to be around every corner in this small, yet impressive city. At night, the lights from the bars and restaurants act like a beacon to help people find their way around.

History meets modernity with the many eateries lining the main roads and smaller side streets. Devouring a platter of local ham, homemade bread and a glass of wine at 12.30am is highly encouraged.

 

Italy road trip: ham eating in Lecce

Happy ham eating in Lecce

 

Italy road trip – port lunch at Trani

The next day and a couple of hours drive later, we stopped for lunch at the seaport town of Trani. Also located in Puglia, the August summer sunshine created the perfect backdrop for some leisurely al fresco dining. One of the highlights of Trani is the old fort overlooking the sea, which has been restored for the public.

The manicured gardens and pebble paths leading to the seafront are a peaceful prelude before hitting the road. For lunch, we ate a local dish called Riso Patate e Cozze (rice and potatoes with fresh mussels). While tasty, it was still no match for the delectable plumper mussels I’d eaten in Sicily.

 

Italy road trip: the seaport at Trani

Italy road trip: The seaport at Trani

 

Map me: all the stops on our Italy road trip

 

Italy road trip: overnight in Perugia

We drove into Umbria late afternoon/early evening with a glorious golden sunset descending upon the green hills. Driving into the heart of Italy, like a child, I counted the number of castles we passed along the way. I was most impressed by, though a very distant view, of the grand, medieval castle of Rocca Maggiore. A strong evocation of Italy’s past, the scenery made the long car journey more enjoyable.

We arrived in Perugia at night, and to a far different scene from our arrival in Lecce. The city’s a traditional university town, meaning that come August, there’s noticeably fewer people. The main hub of activity, created by the thousands of students, resumes when the new term begins in September/October. August is also noticeably cooler at night time than in the south (higher altitude), so take a light jacket/sweater for evenings out.

What to see in Perugia

Signs of medieval architecture are everywhere. At the heart of the city is the wonderful 13th century constructed Palazzo del Priori. Previously the old civic palace, it’s now home to the city’s administrative headquarters. If driving, note that there is no parking inside Perugia’s narrow street city centre. Head instead to the main underground car park. From there you can easily access the city’s hilltop town centre via the escalators.

Italy road trip: 2 for the price of 1: Palazzo del Priori and Fontana Maggiore

Italy road trip: Palazzo del Priori and Fontana Maggiore

Once you step off the escalators, you enter the main square, Piazza IV Novembre. You’d be hard pressed to miss the main attraction of the grand fountain, Fontana Maggiore, and the stone sculptures on the basin.

With or without the presence of the students, Perugia’s charm is alluring on its own merit. An abundance of Baroque Roman architecture, intertwining streets and Perugina Baci chocolates, this city truly is a must see.

Continue to part two of our Italy road trip where we continue the journey from Siena to Veneto.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that I’ve recommended. Thank you for your support.

Like this post? Pin it!

Lisa Rivera

Lisa Rivera

Founder

 

Welcome to my site! I'm Lisa, founder of Following the Rivera. I write primarily for a ‘flashpacker’ audience; a demographic (late 20s onwards) that enjoys glamping over camping, staying at boutique/luxury boutique hotels, sampling the local food and wine, cultural activities, and indulging in a spot of wellness on their travels. Read more here…

       

 

90 Comments

  1. Medha Verma

    You had me at Gelato in a Brioche bun 😀 Even the fresh seafood looks so delectable ! Taormina’s steps remind me a lot of Hvar island in Croatia, very charming!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Haha, thanks Medha, it’s even more delicious in real life 🙂 Yes, Taormina is a must visit, though it gets very busy in the summer!

  2. Clare

    I haven’t made it to Sicily yet but I have explored other parts of Italy. It looks so beautiful though I am not sure I would want to drive in Italy, I have heard the drivers are crazy!! I would love to visit all the little towns and villages though, they look stunning from your pics 🙂

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thanks Clare! It’s beautiful and yes, everything you’ve heard about driving in Italy is correct…it’s nuts and not for the softly softly approach! Thanks for reading!

  3. Shaun

    I love a good road trip and Sicily looks perfect for just that. Hope you enjoyed all that ham!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thanks Shaun, yes I did! Sicily has some of the best food in the country, especially in summer, you gotta go for yourself 🙂

  4. Justine

    Ahh yes Italian cuisine is definitely exceptional. I would say it is definitely in my top 5 favourite cuisines in the world. Btw, you made those hams look super tasty. And yes! Food and architecture in Italy are enough to make one fall in love with this country! I’m glad you finally made your dream come true this summer! <3

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thanks Justine! Glad you enjoyed the post, yes Italian food is always good, honestly have never tried a bad dish!

  5. Danielle Desir

    One of my favorite parts of your road trip is reading about all of the delicious foods to try including fresh seafood which is my favorite! Noted to wear something loose! I also didn’t know that Sicilians have their own dialect, I wonder how similar it is to Italian.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      The seafood in Sicily is to die for Danielle! And yes, it’s so hot there, especially in summer. Hope you get to see it for yourself in person one day!

  6. Delaine

    The Mr. and I love taking roadtrips but we’re always scared of the condition of the roads and the kind of drivers we’ll encounter on the way. Your post has given me more confidence to go on a road trip in Italy. The first one we did was 2 months ago in Mexico and it turned out great. I believe that during a road trip you get to see a lot of things that you can’t see from a plane or a train. You got to see some amazing cities and eat some amazing food ( that Ham platter tho!). Definitely planning one now when I visit Italy.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thank you, I’m glad I’ve inspired you to take an adventure! I hope you have as much fun on this trip as in Mexico!

  7. Mariella

    Italy is such a majestic country! It has literally everything: gelato, amazing food, delightful desserts, beaches, and rich in culture & history. Someday I would like to explore the entire country for a long period of time. Looks like you had a blast on your road trip 🙂 Safe travels! – Mariella

    Reply
    • Lisa

      It really does have everything, and I feel very lucky I experienced this trip. Thank you! Safe travels to you too.

  8. Jennifer

    I made the mistake of reading this before eating breakfast. Now I want ice cream and pastries! I would love to see Sicily and Southern Italy as I’ve only been more north and it’s supposed to be quite different.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Apologies, I should have put a warning at the beginning of this post! Yes, the north is very different, not in a bad way, just different 🙂

  9. Nicole Anderson | Camping for Women

    What a delightful experience this must have been. I really enjoyed reading this post and must also compliment you on the lovely photos you have taken. Italy is such a picturesque place with so much to see and experience. I now find myself looking forward to reading the next installment.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thanks Nicole! It was so great and I have such great memories of every place I visited. Part 2 is already out, so please do give it a glance 🙂

  10. Rachelle

    I love road trips and think it would be a DREAM to drive around Italy! Oh, the places to stop and eat…and eat more…and then drive to another city to eat again…okay, stopping now. What a fun trip and I can’t wait to hear about the next leg of your journey!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 It’s one of those road trips that everyone needs to try once in their life! Part 2 is out so please to check it out.

  11. yukti

    I have seen mostly all parts of Italy but due to lack of time I missed Sicily. Sicily looks beautiful and full of history due to medieval architecture. I would like to walk around Taormina to have the beautiful views of Ionian Sea.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Taormina is really pretty, but avoid August if possible. It gets so busy and is full of tourists, not just Italians!

  12. Sonja

    Loved reading this! I’m going to Italy in September and I can’t wait. This has some great suggestions of places to see and I can’t wait for all of the food of course! Beautiful photos too 🙂

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thanks Sonja, happy I could advise on some places to visit 🙂 Have a wonderful time when you go!

  13. Katie

    That seafood looks amazing! I desperately want to visit Italy and your post makes me want to go even more! Love your suggests of where to go and what to eat – a fantastic guide!!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Aw thank you Katie! It was such a great trip, and I’m glad I was able to share it with others 😀

  14. Archana Singh

    Wow Lisa! At the age of 19, you did a road trip in the US. That’s amazing. That country is made for road trips. I had been to Italy and covered the same places like you did. It was a road trip too but with a bus full of people. We had great fun but I would wanna go back and do a trip like you did. You r pictures are very enticing and your suggestions have incited my wanderlust even more.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thank you Archana, I’m always happy to inspire others and encourage wanderlust! I hope you get to make the same trip one day 🙂

  15. Lois Alter Mark

    What a great trip you had! I love Italy but have never driven through it myself. I do think you get to see so much more when you do it that way but I’m always nervous about driving in other countries. Your beautiful photos make me want to try, though!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      It’s wonderful, and a trip with so much to see, and eat, along the way!

    • Amandeep Kaur

      Italy is on my list of countries to visit and your post and beautiful pictures have really added to that desire. Hope to visit soon! ??

    • Lisa

      I hope so too! It’s a great country to travel

  16. Abigail Sinsona

    An Italian road trip is always a good idea! I love all of the food you’ve tried too – especially the seafood. I am such a foodie when I travel and Italy has a great cuisine, so it is the ideal destination for me!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Oh it’s so tasty, and you can’t go wrong with Italian food. I hope you get to do a road trip one day!

  17. James

    It amazes me how these Italian girls (and guys!) stay so slim with the food they eat! If I visited Sicily I would have to do it as a road trip as my Flixbus doesn’t cover that part of Italy. Comparing the Italian road trip to the US one, if your car wasn’t ready in the US I’m sure you would have been upgraded within seconds of them realizing. I was thinking about the mafia and where are they from in Italy, you answered my question with Catania.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      I know exactly what you mean, they tend to eat a lot too in Sicily! You’re welcome about the mafia trivia…so now you know!

  18. Sarah

    Granita sounds super interesting! I’m a huge ice-cream and gelato fan, but not sure about putting it in a bun. I guess it would taste similar to a soft ice-cream cone though. How long was your full road-trip?

    Reply
    • Lisa

      We were on the road for 6 nights with stops in between of course. Part 2 is also published if you want to take a look 😀

  19. Shaily

    Wow! Sicily looks like a beautiful city with all those historical buildings. Road trip to such a picturesque place is definitely a great idea. I would love to try the lip smacking Italian flavours, especially that gelato bun. The Catholic church in Catania looks so majestic. Hope to visit this place someday. Quite fascinating post! 🙂

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Aw I hope you get to visit too! The gelato bun is amazing, and you can forget about the diet here haha!

  20. Soumya Nambiar

    Even though I have been to Italy before, I haven’t been to Sicily yet. Maybe that is why I would totally love to have Gelato inside a Brioche bun. I had Gelato every day when I was in Italy the last time. Didn’t know renting a car in Catania was so difficult. But glad to see that you got it sorted out.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      We did, and had a wonderful trip! The gelato in the bun is so good, and you’ll want to try a new flavour each day!

  21. Ami Bhat

    Keeping the food aside, there is so much to see along the way. Lecca seems gorgeous as does Catania. I like the sound of Taormina. Seems like a quiet and quaint town with hidden stories. Well captured Lisa.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thanks Ami, that’s kind of you to write! It’s a stunning place, and I’m glad to share it with you all 🙂

  22. YUKTI

    Road trips are also amazing and that too more wonderful if it is from Sicily to Perugia. As you said car rentals are pain free and can be booked online then really suitable for me. Taormina centre of Sicily looks lively and suitable for walking around. Gelato inside a bun sounds unique and I will try it surely.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      It’s a wonderful road trip with so many sights to see along the way! The gelato in a bun is delish 😀

  23. Kim

    I did the same thing when I was 19 and it was pretty life changing! I love that you got to do such a fun adventure in Italy this time!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      It’s an amazing country to do a road trip and very life-changing!

  24. Mayuri

    Such a great and an informative post! I have pinned it for later as well!
    It’s my dream to explore Europe on road like a car or a van!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      I’m so happy to read that, thank you! I hope you have as great a time as I did.

  25. Marquita

    This is so cool! What a road trip! And I really need to get to Sicily!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      You must, it’s a wonderful island.

  26. Daniel

    What an amazing idea for a road trip! I did this a few years ago and it still is one of the top 20 road trips I ever took. I loved the Taormina’s steps it always reminded me a lot of Hvar in Croatia! Thanks for sharing this, it brings back a lot of nice memories!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      We loved it too! I’ve not yet been to Hvar, but have heard many fun things about it 🙂

  27. Kate Flores

    Hi Lisa! Good to see you here! I wanted to visit the Baroque Church personally – Catania could also be an option. I’m sure there are a lot of interesting small towns you saw from your trip! Photos could be a lot, lot more. Do you like Italy’s hams?

    Reply
    • Lisa

      I’m in Italy a lot, and yes, love everything there, especially the food! It’s full of baroque and baroque Gothic churches there; I hope you visit soon, it’s beautiful!

  28. amar singh

    I love doing road trips and if it is Italy or Spain these are my favourites . I have travelled from Naples to the amalfi cost last year and loved it. This is certainly food for thought and one I would love to try . So many beautiful places to stop by like the coastal town of Santa Teresa di Riva and a quick stop at Catania will surely feature on the list for me. Thanks for sharing a great post

    Reply
    • Lisa

      You’re welcome. We’re there often, so I really enjoy sharing my tips and experiences 🙂

  29. Annick

    A road trip is always a great way to see and experience a country and this one in Italy is no exception. I’d never heard of having gelato in a brioche topped with heavy cream but it sounds amazing – a mix of sweet and salty. What amazing food though – from the fresh seafood in Sicily to the plate of hams in Lecce.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      It’s really one of my favourite things to eat! And so sinful but a must too 😀 Sicily’s a foodie paradise

  30. Kavita Favelle

    Italy is great for self-drives, your post has inspired me to try and do more European driving holidays in upcoming years, we used to do more but have somehow veered away from them in recent years. And, although I visited Sicily as a child, my husband hasn’t been, so it’s well overdue! Bookmarking your itinerary.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Wonderful! You definitely have to go, especially as you write about food. There’s so many delicious things to eat here, and always fresh too

  31. Kate werth

    So jealous! I’ve never done a real road trip and you’ve done so much!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thank you

  32. Chloé Arnold

    My husband and I were in Italy in June and literally talked about how amazing a road trip would be! I’ve always wanted to visit Sicily and love the idea of renting a car. Thanks for the warning about car rentals- it’s normally so easy. Trani sounds like the perfect little spot! Seaport towns are always my favorite!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      It’s a sweet spot, and definitely not a touristy place either. A road trip’s really a good idea in Italy; you won’t be disappointed!

  33. Umiko

    I think I will stay in Sicily until I get tired eating seafood at Aloha Mare. Lol. They look so delicious! Buildings and churches are always fascinated me, especially the Catania Cathedral.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      I feel so lucky to be there every year. And yes, the food’s incredible!

  34. ANITA

    I love to travel to Italy for food and architecture. They are so lucky to have so much history and beautiful places! Your photos of food made me hungry to taste it again. As for the places, I didn’t know about Lecce before and this sounds very interesting to me and I actually surprised that I havent heard about it as it looks like an amazing city. Thanks for inspiration.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Lecce is so wonderful and you have to return and visit, you’ll love it 🙂

  35. Campbell Kerr

    LOVED our time in Italy. So much culture, friendly people and delicious food. This is an awesome road trip!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Aw I’m so glad! It’s an incredible country to do a road trip 😀

  36. Caro

    This looks amazing! I’m definitely saving it for my Bucketlist. The gelato on the brioche bun has my mouth watering!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      It’s my favourite dessert when we’re back in Sicily!

  37. Erik the Hungry Traveller

    This is a very detailed blog about Italy and when i visit there im sure ill make this as my reference. Cant wait to try some gellato

    Reply
    • Lisa

      You’ll love the gelato, there are some amazing places to eat 😀

  38. Brett

    Your road trip plan looks amazing. I am heading there in Sept and maybe I will rent a car for some adventure. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      You’re welcome, hope you enjoy it!

  39. Bianca

    This is so on time, I am about to plan a trip to Sicily but have been looking at other road trips in the surrounding area too. Will check out your other posts on Italy too.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Great Bianca, let me know if you need anymore tips 🙂

  40. Elizabeth

    I pinned this! A road trip through Italy is a dream of mine- thanks for a great itinerary!! Looks AMAZING!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thank you! I hope you do this trip one day, it’s a dream 🙂

  41. Cath

    Sounds like a great start to your Italian road trip. My hubby and I spent a week on Sicily many years ago and loved it. I’m eager to return!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      It’s an incredible island, with plenty to see and eat too 🙂

  42. The Blogger Philippines

    This is full of informations.. Thank you for sharing this blog article to the world.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Welcome!

  43. Renata - www.byemyself.com

    Wow – this is such an epic roadtrip! I’ve travelled Italy a couple of times, covering various cities, but mostly by train which is even more relaxing. Going back next month but, alas, only to Venice for the Biennial.

    Reply
    • Lisa

      Thank you! We did it, and I’d love to try the other side of the country on our next trip

  44. Amandeep Kaur @Light Travel Action

    Your beautiful narrative and of course the pictures made me feel like heading for this road trip too ? Italy is my dream vacation that I have been planning about for long since I came to know about its existence. Your road trip experience and information you shared here would definitely help. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Lisa

      You’re welcome! I hope you visit one day, it’s beautiful in Italy

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Flemings Mayfair hotel review London - Lisa bed

Flashpack the right way

Never spam, only quality flashpacker travel content and exclusive hotel and flight offers directly to your inbox.

Nice to meet you fellow flashpacker!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share this post with your friends!