STELVIO PASS, ITALY 🇮🇹
Since 1898, Passo dello Stelvio has been regarded as an excellent driving road — at least for drivers looking for a challenge.
But is the Stelvio the best road in the world? YES (and NO)
THE FAME OF THE STELVIO PASS
The Stelvio Pass is located in the Ortler Alps in Italy with the Swiss Engadine in the north. On a map you will find the Stelvio as Route SS38 inside the municipality of Bormio marking the border with the province of Bolzano.
The Stelvio region is an all year round skiing destination with summer skiing from May to October. On the pass a cable car leads to the ski slopes of Livrio. While some tourists are attracted by the summer skiing adventure, most visitors are coming here to experience the hundred turns following the Bormio-Trafoi Route.
It was in 2008 when the Stelvio started to get widespread international attention thanks to the hugely popular British automotive TV show Top Gear. The presenters declared the Stelvio Pass in Italy one of the best driving roads in Europe. Countless lists name it as one of the best places in the world to lay down rubber. In the episode "In search of driving heaven" the presenters: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May travelled Europe in three supercars:
1) Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera
2) Porsche 911 GT3 RS
3) an Aston Martin V8 Vantage N24
They drove a number of exciting alpine passes and scenic roads, like the Col de Turini in France and one or two scenic alpine passes of the Engadine Valley in Switzerland before they crossed the border into Italy.
Once they reached Italy and drove the Stelvio Pass, things got a little out of control. It followed the famous shoutout from Jeremy Clarkson, who praised the Stelvio as “the greatest driving road in the world” and made the Stelvio famous. Literally over night the formerly insider alpine pass was added to the long list of Italian tourist attractions.
We have no doubt that since the day in 2008 when the episode went on air; the Stelvio is surely “the most famous driving road in the world”. Suddenly the Stelvio Pass was on the bucket-list of millions of viewers. The result is that visitors from all over the planet are now coming here every summer. Motorbikes, bicycles, supercar and even skateboards we've seen it all on the Stelvio.
DRIVING THE STELVIO PASS
It connects the towns: Prato allo Stelvio in the South Tyrol, northeast of the Pass with Bormio in the Sondrio region, southwest of the Pass. Only a stone's throw from the border to Switzerland.
Here a few more stats for you to find the Stelvio on a map and to get a better feeling what you expect:
Elevation: 2757 metres / 9045 feet above sea level, makes it the highest paved mountain road in the Eastern Alps, and the 2nd highest in the Alps (7 m or 23 ft below the Col de I'Iseran in France).
Turns: 60 hairpins, 48 that are numbered on the Northern section, the famous North Face
Length: 35 Kilometres / 21 Miles, assuming a start in Trafoi, and an end in Bormio, though the 20-25km run up to Trafoi is also a pretty decent drive too, so some people count this - either way, it's a lot of mountain road
Location: in the Ortler Alps between Bormio and Prato A. S. in Italy in the Lombardei Region 🇮🇹 close to Swiss Alps 🇨🇭
THE UGLY TRUTH IS: the full 47 kilometres / 29 Miles long alpine pass is not exactly a beauty — but visually, Stelvio Pass Italy is one of the most dramatic passes in the Alps, due to it's incredible wall of switchback turns.
At first you will drive through thick wood before the landscape opens up and you will be mostly surrounded by rocks. Only a few small green bushes and some grass is breaking this slightly unreal landscape.
BUT the alpine pass is a absolute masterpiece of road engineering and often referred to as "Queen of Pass Roads" Probably because with a stunning 2,757 m (9,045 ft) above sea level the road is "among the highest driving roads in the world".
Drama Queen of Pass Roads would make sense as well. The Stelvio numbers out most roads by the sheer endless number of switchbacks.
OKAY, not really endless: its 48 SWITCHBACKS to be exact. Assuming the numbering of the bends is correct. People seem to get to different results and the total number of switchbacks varies between 46 and 48 on the internet. What backs our theory that the Stelvio requires your full attention and there is no room for counting. We didn't bother counting them, we have been far to busy to have fun.
The steepness of the pass means that many of the 90 degree switchback turns needing to be taken at a really slow 30KM/h or less to avoid bottoming out or drifting to the wrong side of the road, taking account of the fact drivers coming in the opposite face a similar challenge, so caution is needed at all times.
HISTORY OF THE STELVIO PASS
The passage between the Alta Valtellina and the Vinschgau has been in use since the Bronze Age.
A connection route from Vienna to Milan is what the Emperor of Austria: Franz Joseph I wanted in the early 19th century. Engineer Carlo Donegani builded the “Passa di Stelvio” and the road finally connected the Austrian province Lombardy (today Italy) with the rest of the empire.
Since the beginning of the 20th century the pass remains closed during winters. Before the passage was in use all year round.
In 1898 its first hill-climb event with motor vehicles whose top speeds were under 20 mph was held. World War I then intervened, and the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Italian Kingdom fired at each other from across the hills.
But the Swiss, who had an outpost above the pass, complained about stray bullets coming their way, at which point the Austro-Hungarians and Italians agreed to only fire at each down the valleys, so as not to endanger the neutral Swiss.
Racing returned to the Stelvio Pass after the war, on both two and four wheels. Cyclists also compete along the pass, most famously in the Giro d’Italia, which has crossed the Stelvio Pass on 12 occasions between 1953 and the present day.
Today it combines a high Alpine pass driving adventure of the north with Mediterranean flair of the south.
IS THE STELVIO PASS OPEN?
The "Stilfser Joch" — so its German name is also the only non-winter ski resort in the Alps. Almost guaranteed is some snow on top of the pass, even during hot summers. The road itself is kept clear of snow under normal circumstances during the warmer month from mid to late May, and will remain open until the end of October.
Like most high alpine passes the Stelvio will be closed through the winter season due to snowfall, however there is never an official closing date, as this is largely dependent on weather conditions. However, you should always check the latest status when making drives close to the start and end of season.
If you drive it early or late in the season you might experience winter landscapes at higher altitudes, sometimes even walls of snow framing the road. Keep an eye out for special events such as Stelvio Bike Day and the Stelvio Marathon, during which the pass is closed to traffic.
Constantly updated opening status information on the Stelvio Pass is available online.
FOLLOW THIS ADVICE FOR THE STELVIO PASS DRIVING EXPERIENCE
The Stelvio can become your enemy. Take your time to master the tight road with its many switchbacks. The sharp hairpins of the Stelvio Pass are certainly among the most challenging in the world. We advise that the Stelvio Pass should only be driven by experienced and confident drivers.
The Stelvio can be super exhausting if you never drove in the Alps before. Especially if the first attempt is in a supercar.
We recommend an approach to the Stelvio from the north west to fully experience the famous wall of switchbacks; also referred to as the North Face and have the chance to take an iconic photo on the pass.
Make sure you drive the right car. We've seen an RV trying to turn on the pass after realising it was a bad idea to tackle the tight road in such a monstrous vehicle. It took some time to get the chance to pass the motorhome and caused a major traffic jam in the middle of the pass. People where not too happy. It's not clear if the RV ever made it back.
On the Stelvio Pass you can hit a lot of traffic and that can be an annoying experience especially when you drive a fast car. Let's face it, the Stelvio is pretty popular and almost never you will have the road to yourself.
For that reason we recommend to get up relatively early to hit the road before everyone else. If you can also avoid weekends and bank holidays you have a fair chance for a similar driving experience like the guys at Top Gear. Almost certain they had the road closed for their filming.
Cyclists, motorists and even camper-van drivers are your competitors for the best driving experience over the Stelvio Pass. Getting up early is key. They should still having their breakfast while you hit the road. Watching the sunrise over the Stelvio is of course only for purists, but an experience you will never forget.
OUR VERDICT OF THE STELVIO PASS
The vast majority of international tourists are travelling to experience the Stelvio Pass because of TopGear's 2008 episode announcing the Stelvio Pass to be the best road in the world. Since then the Italian alpine pass is a modern-time driving legend and most likely this is also why you're reading this article today.
The Stelvio Pass also ranks very good on Tripadvisor! Not very surprising if you think about it. Travellers are flocking into the region from all over the world only for this adventure. Most tourists are driving above 2000 metres for the first time ever. And this will almost certain always spark excitement and fascination.
What many people don't realise is that the great part of the road that Top Gear referenced isn't the pass itself, it's the road connecting Italy with Switzerland, the Fuorn Pass in the Swiss Engadine Alps.
And while 48 hairpin turns might sound cool on paper (and look cool in photos), we find guests prefer to drive more sweeping sections of road that inspire confidence when driving a modern, fast supercar.
So our verdict must be: we can't ennoble the Stelvio Pass to be the best driving road in the world. Surprised? The reason is simple: the Swiss next door do it much better and driving the road a real challenge we recommend only to experienced drivers and real enthusiast.
Only a short drive from the Stelvio you will experience a lot less traffic paired with much nicer scenery, wider lanes and better surfaces.
And about TopGear just this: any road like the Stelvio Pass is amazing if you close it down. Thanks for the hype. Part of the truth.. if the planning is done right and you mix the Stelvio with the other scenic roads in the region, the ultra-high Stelvio on 2,757 m (9,045 ft) above sea level is certainly an impressive adventure. Just like Jeremy Clarkson said — "the Stelvio Pass is the cherry on top of a cake".