For years, I had heard tales of friends visiting Italy either by cruise ship or by a tour guide in order to see multiple locations. Not one who likes to travel in large groups and be dictated by others’ schedules, I’ve made it a habit of seeing Italy by car. Renting a car has afforded me the freedom to stop and see places I didn’t originally have on my itinerary, simply because I saw something interesting and decided to stop.
Some destinations require full-on guides to prepare for what you can see and do when you visit, such as (obviously) Rome and Florence. But some places were pit stops that needed just an hour or two to enjoy. If you’re up for a road trip, here are a few places worthy of a pit stop.
Nope. I don’t mean the ruins. Most who visit Pompeii arrive by train or bus and only see the ruins. They miss out on the current town of Pompeii, which is a lovely stop and best-suited for a meal than the touristy area surrounding the ruins. In the heart of Pompeii is even a 9-11 memorial featuring steel from the World Trade Center. So close to Naples, you’ll find melt-in-your-mouth Napoli-style pizza here, as well.
Driving from Rome to Amalfi, we kept seeing signs for Caserta. Why not? we thought. What we discovered was the Royal Palace of Caserta, a Baroque palace built for the king of Naples. He wanted to impress the likes of the French and modeled his home after Versailles, complete with acres of gardens and fountains. In fact, this palace is the largest in the world. And yet, most don’t know about it or stop. Instead of spending an hour in line for Versailles, you can walk right in even in the height of summer.
When traveling through Tuscany, you’ll undoubtedly want to visit Chianti to sample its wines. A great stop is to the Barone Ricasoli winery. This is the oldest winery in Italy, and the second oldest in the world. Tour the home, where descendants still live, and see the bullet holes and damage done during air strikes during World War II, then head to the winery to sample the wines and take some bottles home.
If you love Parmesan cheese and prosciutto, stopping in this college town en route to Venice is a must. This is the home to both, thus the name Parmesan! Stop and visit the center of old town, where you’ll find the pink marbled Battistero di Parma (above), the town’s cathedral with frescoed ceilings, and plenty of restaurants flanking piazzas serving cheese and ham.
As you make your way between Florence and Pisa, make a stop in the very small town of Vinci. As in Leonardo da Vinci, fame. See where Leonardo was baptized and other buildings from his childhood to get a sense of where the great artist and inventor got his start. The town is so small, you can easily see it between stops at larger Tuscan towns you have your heart set on seeing.