While many Italian road trip itineraries focus on the cultural north of the country, there is plenty to do in the southern regions too. The archaeological sites of Sicily, the pizza in Naples, and the stunning Abbey of Monte Cassino, to name but a few. But to truly get off the beaten path, travel to the east coast of Italy where forgotten towns, idyllic nature reserves, and an entirely separate country-within-a-country are waiting to be discovered.
From the border with Slovenia in Friuli-Venezia Giulia all the way down to Italy’s ‘heel’ in Puglia, Italy’s Adriatic coast mirrors Croatia’s celebrated coastline just a few hundred kilometres across the water. Wide open beaches attract Italian holidaymakers in northern towns like Rimini and Ancona, but a little further south, the countryside opens up with vast mountain ranges, wildlife-rich peninsulas, and a warm and authentic hospitality that often involves some of the most authentic food you will ever come across. Take an Italian Adriatic coast road trip and you will discover a whole new side to this top European destination.
With names eponymous to Italy like Cinque Terre, Pisa, Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Pompeii and the Amalfi, the western shore often gets a lot of the tourism limelight. But the eastern coast of Italy has some impressive sights hidden up its sleeve too - like Venice.
Then there’s the mosaic city of Ravenna, the independent country of San Marino, the ancient cave houses of Matera, and the sun-bathed region of Puglia. South of Venice, the traffic jams (and horns) disappear, the tedious queues for historical attractions are noticeably absent, and the food seems to get better and better.
Our suggested two-week itinerary of Italy’s Adriatic Coast includes plenty of options for places to visit depending on the season. You can hit the beaches in the summer, visit historic cities in Autumn, or head up to the mountains in the winter.
This Adriatic Coast itinerary focuses mainly on history, nature, and the landscapes of Italy’s east coast whilst aiming to avoid crowds. Of course, if you have never visited Venice or Bologna you should absolutely add them to your list!
Start your trip in the southeastern region of Puglia in the port of Bari, one of the biggest cities on the east coast of Italy. It's an art and cultural hub for the south and a major transport hub for ferries to Greece and beyond.
From here, the sun-lounger-laden beaches of Monopoli and Polignano a Mare are a great place to start in the summer months. Further south, the whitewashed old town of Ostuni and the unique Trulli houses of Alberobello make for fascinating day trips with a history dating back to the Palaeolithic times.
The city of Lecce is another option in winter; it’s an up-and-coming tourist destination and a growing hub for digital nomads. With a young crowd and a heady nightlife scene, the baroque buildings are increasingly becoming home to trendy cafes and art exhibitions.
While the mountainous region of Basilicata is not strictly on the east coast of Italy, you can’t miss a visit to Matera when you are this close! Visiting the Sassi District, with its tufa limestone cave dwellings, is like exploring a living film set.
The compelling history of Matera has also earned it UNESCO World Heritage status, and it’s a fascinating place to learn about. Spend at least two nights here to really get a feel for the place and to sample some of Basilicata’s best local dishes.
For nature lovers, head north to the Gargano Peninsula. Gargano's Umbra Forest is a protected nature reserve crisscrossed with hiking and mountain biking trails.
A short boat ride away, the Tremiti Archipelago is a good place to try diving or snorkelling as it lies within a marine protected area.
Back on the mainland, the small neighbouring region of Molise sees very few visitors compared to Puglia. Termoli, a fishing town on the Adriatic coast of Italy, is probably the best-known spot in the region.
Further inland, experience unspoiled nature in the Molisano Apennines, with peaks over 2,000 metres - the area is perfect for skiing and winter sports in the winter months.
In neighbouring Abruzzo, stunning mountain drives on empty winding roads make for some of the best driving in Italy. Head up to Campo Imperatore, a highland plain in the shadow of the Apennines' highest peak - the 2912-metre-high Corno Grande.
Nearby the medieval hill town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio is the perfect lunch stop - but pick your timings wisely as the village gives the word 'sleepy' a whole new meaning as much of it is uninhabited. For a guaranteed meal, choose to stay further south in Sulmona, known for their local delicacy of sugar-coated almonds or ‘confetti’
The next region you will encounter on your journey north is Marche. Unspoiled by resorts or international tourist crowds, hilltop towns scatter Marche’s rural landscapes. Small working villages look a lot like those in Tuscany, but you won’t find leather shops or expensive restaurants here.
Instead, visit endless fields of sunflowers in the summer months (Marche is Italy’s supplier of sunflower oil), and experience the array of wildlife and vast panoramas in Conero Regional Park - just south of Ancona.
An absolute must-visit on the east coast of Italy, San Marino is the third smallest country in Europe. One of just three enclave countries in the entire world, San Marino is entirely surrounded by Italy but has retained its independence since it was founded in 301 AD.
As if that wasn’t enough of a reason to visit, it's also the world’s oldest republic but the democratic country isn’t stuck in the past. In 2022 San Marino voted in the world’s first openly gay head of state; Paolo Rondelli is an LGBT activist and one of two captains regent - the elected leaders of the country. Make sure to visit the fairytale-like three towers of Mount Titano, a symbol of the country that appears on the national flag.
The alluring Emilia-Romagna region is the birthplace of some of the best food in Italy. This includes prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (I learned the hard way not to call it ‘Parmesan’ in Italy), balsamic vinegar of Modena, and tagliatelle alla Bolognese (spaghetti bolognaise).
Another highlight is ‘Motor Valley’ where supercar companies Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati are based. There’s plenty of culture, too with Bologna, home to the oldest university in Europe, the Renaissance palaces and theatres of Parma, and the former Western Roman Empire capital known as ‘The Mosaic City’ of Ravenna.
Of course, Venice needs little introduction, but other lesser-known spots in the Veneto region include the twitchers paradise of Parco del Delta del Po, the colourful Burano, the fishing town of Caorle, and the ‘undiscovered’ Venice - Chioggia. With fewer crowds, winding canals, gelato on tap, and colourful crumbling houses, Chioggia is the perfect place to spend the night.
A little further inland from the coast there’s also Verona, the setting of Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet”, Lake Garda, and the often overlooked ‘City of the Saint’ - Padua. You might be surprised to learn that Padua is 430 years older than Rome, with sights like the Scrovegni Chapel, Palazzo Bo and Galileo Galilei’s podium, and the daily markets of Piazza dei Signori.
The easiest way to see the best of Italy’s east coast beaches and the meandering Adriatic Coast is by hiring a car. There are tolls to pay on most major roads in Italy, and traffic is limited in many historical centres and tourist-heavy cities. You can work out the costs in advance using the Michelin Route Planner, and avoid fines by checking the relevant ZTL website before visiting (you can also search ‘non ZTL car parks’ on Google Maps).
Unfortunately, because ZTL regulations are determined individually by each city there is no standardised approach, but it is generally easy to spot the areas by a sign with a red circle and the words “Zona Traffico Limitato” in the old city centres.
If driving in Italy sends a shiver down your spine, or perhaps you want to travel more sustainably, many of Italy’s Adriatic coastal towns are easily accessible by train. The country has a great network of reliable and affordable trains run by Trenitalia and Italo Treno.
The Frecciabianca Adriatic coastal train from Rimini to Lecce takes in some spectacular scenery with stops at Ancona, Pescara, Foggia, and Bari. Tickets for the entire six-hour journey cost less than 60 Euro.
Of course, if you have more time, you can always linger for longer in any of the above destinations: there's enough to explore. Otherwise, bordering Austria, Slovenia, and the Adriatic Sea, the northeastern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia is best known for the jagged Dolomite Mountains. But its small coastline has some interesting spots to visit too.
The seaside town of Grado on the edges of the Marano Lagoon doesn’t have the sandy beaches of nearby Lignano Sabbiadoro. Still, the cycle paths and walkways make it a relaxing place to explore - even during the crowded summer months.
Trieste is the capital city of the Friuli Venezia Giulia region and is close to Italy’s border with Slovenia. From here, you can easily hop over to what was once declared the ‘World's Most Sustainable Country’ to visit the Venetian coastal town of Piran, the Skocjan Caves, and the rock castle of Predjama.
Last Updated 29 August 2023