With miles of coastline, winding mountains roads, and ever-changing scenery, Italy is the perfect road trip country. Travel from the lagoon fishing town of Chioggia, near Venice, in the northeast, down the east coast to Puglia, then up the west coast to the brightly colored villages of Cinque Terre. Stop on the way for Byzantine mosaics, prehistoric caves, hiking routes with magnificent views, and (probably) the best focaccia in Italy. You might think a trip such as this would be costly, but by choosing off the beaten track destinations, and selecting well-equipped campsites and affordable places for food, you can keep the budget in check.

Here are the best places to road trip around Italy, and how to do it for less than 400 euro, or about 500 US dollars.

1. Chioggia

Beginning in the northeast of the country, Chioggia is a fishing town on the Venetian lagoon with Venetian-style gothic architecture lining the canal, an endless beach, and excellent seafood. You can easily spend a day enjoying the contrast between the noise and activity of the main street with traffic akin to Naples, and calm of the canal running parallel lined with little boats.

  • Free activities

There are a remarkable number of churches in Chioggia, including San Domenico, which houses a painting by the famous Venetian Renaissance artist Carpaccio. The fish market not only sells intriguing lagoon fare, but the selling process is a spectacle in itself.

  • Where to stay

Sottomarina Beach has several campsites to offer. Camping Grande Italia offers little colored wooden huts to stay in, a pool, and a private beach.

  • Where to eat

Beachside restaurants offer great quality seafood at reasonable prices. Stop for a primo piatto of the typical spaghetti alle vongole (clams) or a fritto misto, fried mixed seafood.

2. Ferrara and Ravenna

Photo: Demko

Heading south into the region of Emilia-Romagna, one of Italy’s food hotspots, there are two small cities worth spending time in. Ferrara was the dominion of the great Este family who left their legacy in the form of an imposing castle and several palazzi. Ravenna takes you further back to the Byzantine period with its glittering mosaics found in several churches and monuments throughout the city.

  • Free activities

In Ferrara, there are frequently craft or food markets in the main square near the Duomo, which are free to visit. You can walk the medieval walls and through the castle for free, though you need to pay to go into the interior. Ravenna’s mosaics are a unique experience and well worth the 9.50 euro ($12 US) ticket that allows you to visit them all.

  • Where to stay

Halfway between Ferrara and Ravenna you can camp at the Lido di Spina, either at Camping Mare e Pineta or at Spina Camping Village.

  • Where to eat

Make sure you have at least one meal in Ferrara, home of cappellacci di zucca, pasta stuffed with pumpkin. There are several reasonably priced restaurants such as Trattoria da Noemi. For a cheap lunch grab a panino from Pane & Condimenti, considered one of the best in Ferrara. Alternatively, do an aperitivo bar crawl and enjoy the generous free food provided by most bars.

3. Grottammare

Have a beach day in one of Italy’s nominated ‘most beautiful villages’ in the little-appreciated region of Le Marche. While the seafront is decorated with palm trees, the old town with its ancient walls climbs up the hillside providing magnificent views.

  • Free activities

As well as relaxing on its celebrated beach, cycle or walk down the ‘lungomare’, the seafront, and past the marina for a bit of refreshing exercise. Inside the old town, go to Piazza Peretti for a panoramic view.

  • Where to stay

Just a couple of kilometers north, Camping Terrazzo sul Mare offers pretty floral surroundings, a pool, a beach, and a restaurant serving local fish specialties.

  • Where to eat

Head to the popular seaside kiosk Olio Pesce Fritto and get a fritto misto and various other fried treats.

4. Vieste

Vieste is a coastal town of white houses and award-winning beaches. The best beaches, such as Baia di San Felice, are to the south of Vieste and are appreciated not only for the clear waters but also the dramatic rock structures. The white limestone monolith on Scialara beach has become a symbol of Vieste.

  • Free activities

Visit the 11th-century cathedral with a beautiful painted ceiling. Try the local market for typical foods and spices.

  • Where to stay

Right on the seafront, surrounded by the National Park of Gargano, you can find the campsite Campeggio Villaggio Baia e Cala Campi.

  • Where to eat

Skip straight to dessert and visit the popular Tradizionale Cornetteria Chianca Amara, which specializes in giant cornetti, or croissant-like pastries, filled with cream or chocolate or custard.

5. Polignano a Mare

It may be becoming a little touristy now, but Polignano a Mare’s little bay created by two stretches of cliffs crowned by white houses is not to be missed.

  • Where to stay

Just 15 km south of Polignano a Mare you can find the impressive castle of Santo Stefano, and here on the coast, you can stay at Camping Santo Stefano. It offers a beach, free wifi, games, and bike hire.

  • Where to eat

Get a focaccia from La Focacceria Delle Noci, choosing from various toppings like tomatoes and olives, grilled zucchini, or rocket and parmesan, and take it to the beach two minutes away. You’ll see a lot of others doing this too!

6. Matera

Matera is one of the highlights of the often overlooked region of Basilicata. Matera is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited places in the world, but around the middle of the 20th century it was known as ‘Italy’s Shame’. The city seems like an organic growth of the rock itself. Along with dwellings carved into the ravine, stone houses cover the rock face in a lattice of construction where one roof forms the foundation for another house. Many of the caves have been inhabited since prehistoric times, but in the 1950s residents were living in squalor, and were eventually forced to move out. But in more recent years, Matera has become a success story with renovations and restorations.

  • Free activities

Get some good exercise walking up and down the roads and staircases that wind between the rocky houses. You can visit several cave churches, some with remnants of faded frescoes, which, although there is a charge, only cost 6 euros ($7.50 US) for all three.

  • Where to stay

The Masseria del Pantaleone, just 2km from Matera, is a traditional farmhouse and agriturismo with plots for caravans, campers, and tents. Its restaurant serves homegrown and home-cooked specialties of the region.

  • Where to eat

For a quick dinner, try Il Rusticone, where you can eat the traditional ‘puccia’, a round bread with various filling options such as pecorino cheese and artichokes or grilled vegetables. Alternatively, L’Antica Credenza does generous platters of cold meats, cheeses, condiments, and bruschetta.

7. Amalfi Coast

This stretch of road is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s certainly exhilarating. Not only does it wind in tight hairpin bends clinging to the rock face, but the regular bus services seem to enjoy terrorizing tourists. I saw a couple in a brand new open top attempt to maneuver past a bus and receive a devastating scratch right down the new bodywork. However, you are naturally well rewarded if you attempt this road. To avoid some of the crowds, try stopping at the tiny town of Furore in a fjord, or at Ravello for the gardens.

  • Free activities

For some magnificent views of the whole coastline, walk the Path of the Gods. It stretches from Bomerano to Nocelle, and you pass vineyards, fjords, aerial views of the famous villages, and glimpses of the island of Capri.

  • Where to stay

Partly occupying the stables of a castle, the campsite and hostel Beato Solitudo provides exactly what the name suggests — blissful solitude.

  • Where to eat

Chiosco Bar San Francesco, a kiosk on the seafront in Maiori, is cheap, cheerful, and has great food from pasta dishes to panini to breakfast, which you can eat while enjoying a view of the sea.

8. Pitigliano and Vitozza

Pitigliano is a village that sits high upon tufo cliff, and bears the epithet ‘Little Jerusalem’. It once had a thriving Jewish community, traces of which can still be found such as the synagogue and a whole network of underground caves which were once butchers, bakers, and ritual baths. In fact, the whole of this zone is peppered with ancient caves dug into the soft tufo rock.

  • Free activities

You can spend several hours walking the Vie Cave, near Pitigliano, which are overgrown paths in the woods regularly dotted with networks of caves. Not far from here is the ‘lost city’ of Vitozza, a medieval town that was abandoned by most of its citizens in the 1400s. Amongst the undergrowth, you can discern ruined castles, a church, and a dovecot.

  • Where to stay

The typical rustic Tuscan agriturismo of il Pantano offers spaces for campers and tents and all necessary facilities. It also has a pool, tennis courts, and game areas.

  • Where to eat

Within the Jewish Ghetto, there is a bakery, il Forno del Ghetto di Francesca, selling traditional kosher foods including tarts, biscuits, and bread.

9. Saturnia and Bagni San Filippo

The surrounding area of Pitigliano is also the land of the terme, or hot springs. While you can pay to visit luxurious spas, the free and completely natural pools make for a more memorable spa day. The Cascate del Mulino, Saturnia, are a terrace of pools fed by a waterfall. They are becoming quite popular so try visiting at sunrise like the locals do. Otherwise Bagni San Filippo, just to the north, sits in a wooded valley and are more extensive. Great white cliffs have been formed by the deposited calcium, with light turquoise pools at the base.

  • Free activities

Both of these natural hot springs are completely free to visit. Spend a few hours soaking up the hot water, giving yourself a mud massage, and exploring the woods of San Filippo. Note that while at Saturnia there are some showers, Bagni San Filippo has no facilities.

10. Montepulciano

Photo: Bischoff49

A classic Tuscan hilltop town, Montepulciano is mainly associated with its homonymous red wine. From the winding central streets, parallel alleys give brief glimpses of the blue-tinted countryside, and the panorama can be enjoyed from the many elegant cafés with terraces.

  • Free activities

Many shops and wine cellars offer free wine tasting, often with a little food thrown in too which can be helpful when you try a matured red wine at 11 AM. You can visit some of the famous cellars with great underground vaults for storing the barrels.

  • Where to stay

Amongst the hills and olive trees of the Tuscan landscape, you can stay in the ‘agricampeggio’ of la Bucavecchia. Camper plots have beautiful views of the countryside and there is a barbeque area for use.

  • Where to eat

Try the Vineria di Montepulciano for a glass of the famous red and a plate of typical Tuscan cold cuts, cheeses, and bruschetta.

11. Cinque Terre

Finish your trip in the poetic seaside towns of Cinque Terre. The five brightly colored villages with little ports are ancient fishing towns. It’s here that the poet Lord Byron lived, and near Portovenere, you can find Byron Grotto, where the poet used to find inspiration for his works.

  • Free activities

The hiking trails here are among the most beautiful in Europe. The most popular network is the Sentiero Azzurro, which links the villages, but it has a fee. More difficult, but perfect for a taste of Cinque Terre’s history, is the Trail of the Sanctuaries. It’s free and passes five famous sanctuaries.

  • Where to stay

Just north of the Cinque Terre, 200 meters from the sea, you can stay at Camping Aqcuadolce in relaxing natural surroundings.

  • Where to eat

Get a focaccia or a “cheese ball” (fried bread ball with cheese inside) from the celebrated il Frantoio in Monterosso.