Italy Part 1: Lake Como > Dolomites


Day 116-117: Milan > Lake Como 

After having the time of our lives road tripping through France, we decided to do the same for Italy. We plan to break it up to segments between the major city stops of Venice, Florence, Rome and Sicily.

The first leg of our adventure began in Milan with our next rental car, Franzi the Fiat. Loaded up and ready to go, we headed north out of Milan towards Lake Como. 

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We had heard a lot about this lake and its reputation for being a playground for the rich and famous, and couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about. While starting up the west coast of the lake, we cruised by George Clooney’s villa and quickly found a spot for lunch in one of the small villages. With very few people in sight, we wandered the empty streets, getting lost in the small passageways between mansions.

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As we neared the north end of the lake, the traffic lightened up and the scenery became more dramatic and the villages more quaint.

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As we turned down the east coast of the lake, we found several more spots that we had to stop and take in. 

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After a full day of circling the lake, we ended at the southern tip in the town of Lecco for wine and dinner on the water. The day wrapped up with another hour drive into the remote mountains, where we found a $35/night Airbnb (with free wine and breakfast!) to catch a few hours of sleep before Day 2.

Day 118: Lago d’Iseo > Lake Garda > Trento

We had heard from several people that Lake Garda was a must do on our trip. Some even said it was much better than Lake Como. With this in mind we headed that direction while stopping at a few smaller lakes on the way. 

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Lake Garda is the largest Lake in Italy, and is situated in the north bordering the Alps. It’s scattered with towns and castles, but lesser known than Lake Como. 

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After battling traffic and unsuccessfully trying to stop at the lake’s main attraction, Scaliger Castle, we moved onto a quieter area for a picnic lunch.

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Happy and full, we continued up the coast of the lake looking for the gorgeous views that everyone raved about. It didn’t take long for us to find out as we turned a corner and saw the sheer cliffs of mountains lining the lake that had been hidden from our view previously. We instantly fell in love, and spent the next couple hours driving/stopping to the northern end with the views improving around each bend. 

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With daylight fading, we reluctantly continued east to our next stop. The hesitation quickly turned to amazement as we crossed a bridge to find a ruined castle atop a pointed cliff overlooking the small town of Arco. 

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We’ve seen a lot of castles so far, and this one is near the top of the list. 

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After a quick stop in Arco for a closer look at the castle, we headed north towards our final stop: Lake Toblino. 

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Toblino is a small lake that even locals don’t know about, with a picturesque castle that appears to float above the glass like water.

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With the setting sun and rocky mountains as the background, it was the perfect ending to our day (minus the mosquito bites). 

Day 119: Trento > Merano > St. Magdalena

With two days of lake hopping behind us, it was time to move onto the Alps in search of castles and villages. We left our cheap hotel that morning (it was a last minute booking because our Airbnb fell through) and hit the road in search of adventure.

On our way to the first castle, we spotted one in ruins at the top of the hill and pulled over to investigate.

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A steep hike later and we reached the top, admiring the views of the vineyard covered valley below.

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Then it was onto the next stop—Brunnenberg Castle.

Two things we realized quickly in the past few days: 1) northern Italy is much more populated and less road trip-friendly than most of southern France, and 2) the Alps of northern Italy is basically Austria. We began to see signs in German and chalet style buildings as we climbed in altitude, and had to double check our GPS to make sure we were still in Italy.

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Turns out we were, but the scenery could have been taken from a Switzerland postcard and the primary language is German.

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We parked in the Alpine village of Merano and walked downhill for our first sighting of the castle.

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I’ve found my dream home. The best castle in all the land.

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We stayed a bit longer in the town, enjoying an Austrian lunch in the beer garden before going on our merry way.

There was only one more stop planned for the day, which took longer than expected due to multiple traffic jams, confusing roundabouts and wrong turns. This Italian wilderness isn’t as remote as we thought!

Little Franzie the Fiat used all her strength to pull us up the steep and windy switchbacks (most of the roads are only big enough for one car—driving here is not for the faint of heart) but it paid off, with views like this:

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We passed countless ski lifts and climbed until we entered the clouds, inching toward the Dolomite mountains. The views had been getting better each day since we’d started, and by now I was rendered speechless. Inaudible sounds were all I could muster as the ever changing scenery appeared through the windshield.

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This is the most extreme case of “photos do not do it justice.” Trust me.

We had one spot in particular chosen to see before sunset—the tiny village of St. Magdalena.

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We arrived just in time for the sun to shed its final rays onto the peaks of the Dolomites. There we stood in awe, witnessing a scene that didn’t feel real.

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This is what we came for. This makes the hundreds of miles of traffic and tiny roads and steep inclines worth it.

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There weren’t any AirBnb’s in the area and we didn’t feel like splurging for a hotel, so that night we found a river alongside the road, pulled over and slept in the car. Not the most comfortable sleeping situation, but you can’t beat the view…

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Day 120: Lago di Braies > Cortina d’Ampezzo > Lago di Santa Croce

Groggy and stiff, we woke up with the sunlight streaming into the car and stretched our bones from the restless night in the car.

A quick coffee stop later and we were refreshed and on our way to Lago di Braies, or as I explained to Lucas, “the most instagrammed location on earth.”

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We made it there at 9am, when there were just a handful of other folks, and the Tiffany blue water was as smooth as glass.

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Within minutes, wooden boats began to release in the water as folks lined up to paddle around the lake. Our perfectly reflective water was now blanked with ripples, but that didn’t stop us from snapping a couple shots from the famous dock (taken with an iphone, thank you very much).

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By the time we left over an hour later, hundreds of tourists were funneling through the entrance. This was definitely the most popular attraction on our route!

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If we had to do it over again, we’d arrive as early as possible to enjoy the beauty of the setting in solitude.

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While Lago di Braies was worth the drive, there are plenty of other gems in the Dolomites equally as breathtaking. This lake with a view came out of nowhere as we continued on our way, and we had it nearly to ourselves.

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And then there’s the most picturesque towns you can imagine, like Cortina d’Ampezzo, where we spent a few hours exploring:

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And this lake we came across in San Vito di Cadore…

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Complete with the sweetest family of swans:

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And then this village by the name of Valle di Cadore…

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I slammed on the brakes and pulled into a no parking zone when I saw this one. Still an iphone photo, and it looked even more magnificent in person.

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Our last stop for the night was at a bed & breakfast an hour north of Venice, in Lago di Santa Croce. Another empty town we had all to ourselves:

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The four days and nights spent winding our way around the northeast of Italy were quite different than the relaxed, back country road trip through France. There were lots of highways, traffic, and steep, narrow roads which took away some of the freedom and spur of the moment detours—but the scenery? Some of the most breathtaking sights we’ve ever witnessed. We will never forget these moments of awe.

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As we head further south into the heart of Italy, we expect to take more of a laid back, less planned path through the Tuscany region down to Rome. And now after a couple days in Venice, we are ready to return to our tiny villages off the tourist path—and of course, looking forward to sharing what we come across! Watch the latest 24 hours on my instagram stories & snapchat @jennasuedesign, and check back here next week for our recap of Venice to Florence!

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23 thoughts on “Italy Part 1: Lake Como > Dolomites

  1. How will you ever go back to reality after experiencing such beauty in our world? Each post/video is amazing!!This extended journey you are living is bringing us to parts of the world we be will never see first hand…thank you!!

  2. I WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE FOOD IN ALL THE DIFFERENT PLACES IN ITALY… HOW EACH IS DIFFERENT ETC…!!! GORGEOUS PHOTOS BTW!!

    1. i second this…. coffee on hand. ohhh, the beautiful and magnificent pictures will transport me to those little towns in no time.

      thank you for this incredible journey and cant wait to see much more!

  3. Jenna Sue thank you for sharing this with us. I had never heard of the Dolomites but that snap of you there just took my breath away. And the other one of you in the field looks like it came straight out of “The Sound of Music”. Thanks for all your photos. Glad to see that you are having such a great time.

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