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Ultimate Guide to Driving the Stelvio Pass

Drive the Stelvio Pass alpine range

Planning to drive Italy’s famous Stelvio Pass – the Passo dello Stelvio – through the Italian Alps? Find out what makes this Alpine crossing so special and discover our top tips for completing this unforgettable route.

It was once the star of the show in an episode of BBC’s Top Gear where the team went ‘in search of driving heaven’ so it’s no surprise that the Stelvio Pass through the Italian Alps is a bucket list road trip. Described as the ‘roof of Italy’ the Stelvio Pass is the highest mountain road in Italy. This exhilarating crossing is also known as the Queen of the Alps standing just 7m below the ‘King’ of all mountain passes, the Col D’Iseran, in France. In Italian, the pass is known as the Passo dello Stelvio and it is also named – in German – Stilfser Joch after its near neighbour, the Tyrolean village of Prad am Stilfser Joch.

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The Stelvio Pass


The Top Gear team ranked the Stelvio Pass as among the best driving roads in the world describing it as ‘15 miles of asphalt spaghetti draped on an Alp’ while saluting a magnificent feat of road engineering. There is evidence that people have been crossing the Alps here since the bronze age, but construction of the road began in the early 1800s. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the pass was seen as a strategic communication route between the province of Lombardy and Austria and so the Stelvio Pass road was commissioned by the Government of Lombardy-Venetia.  The road was designed by engineer Carlo Donegani. His vision was created by 2500 builders who took just five years to complete the work. Today there is a Carlo Donegani museum at the summit of the pass.

In the 20th Century, war came to the Stelvio Pass when it became the scene of one of the highest battles in the world during World War One. With an altitude of 3000m the harsh wintry conditions facing the young soldiers saw the conflict in this area of the front named the “White War”.

Getting there

Europe’s second-highest mountain road crossing is a popular Alpine destination where the locals speak both Italian and German, so where exactly is the Stelvio Pass? Sitting on the State Highway – Strada Statale - 38 (SS38), the Stelvio Pass is found in the Ortler Alps in northeastern Italy just within the Province of Sondrio in the Lombardy Region. It neighbours the Province of Bolzano in South Tyrol, the northernmost region of Italy which borders Austria in the north and Switzerland in the northwest. The Stelvio Pass begins and ends in the town of Bolmio to the southwest and Stelvio (Stiffs in German) to the northeast.

As the nearest railway station is in Tirano 62km or just over an hour away, getting to the Stelvio Pass will inevitably involve travelling by road.

If you are driving to Stelvio Pass from Milan, you are in for a treat. This 218km trip takes 3h30min via Lecco and Lake Como on the SS36 to the Fuentes Retail Park where you will join the SS38, which takes you via Bormio all the way to the Stelvio Pass.

To reach the Stelvio Pass from the other direction you start from Bolzano to the northeast and head out of town on the A22 crossing the River Rivellone to join the SS38 road all the way to the top of the pass. This 105km trip will take you 2hr5min. The route follows the Adige Valley to Spondigna where you leave the dual carriageway. After the village of Prad am Stilfser Joch the road narrows and you will start to climb to steadily through steep-sided hillsides dotted with Tyrolean houses.

The Top Gear team travelled to the Stelvio Pass from Davos in Switzerland. If you are travelling from Davos to the northwest of Stelvio Pass, you take the scenic National Route 28 to Santa Maria Val Müstair and from there climb to the border at Passo Umbrail where you will join the Stelvio Pass road.

If you want to fly to the region and hire a car, the nearest airport to Stelvio Pass is Bolzano/Bozen (BZO) Airport which is 66.8 km away. The other airports within easy reach include Milan Bergamo (BGY) (112.2 km), Verona (VRN) (129.9 km), Milan Linate (LIN) (149.4 km) and Venice Treviso (TSF) (166.4 km).

Stelvio Pass Route Planner

When to visit the Stelvio Pass

Due to its high altitude, the Stelvio Pass is a seasonal route and only navigable from June to October. Snow and ice block the route over the winter months and so the Stelvio Pass is closed from around 1 November until mid to late May.

The best time to visit the Stelvio Pass is in June or early July although the pass is quieter in September and October after the peak summer months. Sometimes the route is closed for special events including road racing. Details of annual opening dates together with planned closures during the summer months and up-to-date information on the Stelvio Pass are all available online.

Stelvio Pass weather

Due the mountain climate, the Stelvio Pass weather forecast can be difficult to predict. The weather on the pass during the summer months is generally cooler than further down the mountain with an average maximum temperature of 14°C and a minimum of around 7°C at night in July. Rainfall during July and August is higher than in other months of the year at an average of around 18 days.

How long is the Stelvio Pass?

The Stelvio Pass route from Bormio to Prad am Stilsfer Joch is 47km or 29 miles and takes an average of between 1hr15min-1hr30min to complete.

What makes the Stelvio Pass so challenging?

At 2757m or 9045 feet, the Stelvio Pass is a challenging drive. It numbers 60 hairpin bends, 48 of which are on the northeast side of the mountain approached from Prad am Stilfser Joch. Travelling from this direction, the road is extremely narrow in places as you set off up the climb. Coming up from the west side, there are a succession of tunnels to negotiate. Whichever way you approach it, you are in for a dramatic, switchback ride. Each turn is numbered so you can keep a tally of your progress. On the start of the ascent through wooded sections, visibility is more difficult but improves as you reach the more open, barren mountainside. The steepness of the climb and tight angles of the bends are technically challenging and demand skill and full concentration.

Advice for driving the Stelvio Pass

For anyone thinking of planning a trip with the aim of driving the Stelvio Pass, the winter closure of the pass means that the summer months are popular with motorists and the best advice is to stay as close as possible so that you can get on the road early – by 8am or in the summer months, take to the road in the evening after 7pm. The nearest town to the Stelvio Pass offering a range of accommodation from hotels to campsites is Bormio just 30km away on the southeastern side of the pass. To avoid the crowds, the road is quieter in September and October but if you do head there in the summer months, midweek will be quieter than weekends when the route is especially popular with bikers and cyclists.

Purists say starting the ascent from the northeast side, so you drive up (rather than down) through the succession of 48 hairpin bends is more satisfying.

Although the pass is only opened up when the winter snow has been cleared, it is worth remembering that even in summer months snow can lie on the ground at high altitude in the Alps and you may need winter tyres for your trip. It is worth checking the weather forecast before you leave and if you are hiring a car, ask for advice on any extras you’ll need.

If you want to take things at your own pace and admire the view that’s okay, to increase capacity on the mountain the road has been upgraded with pull-in areas to enable slower traffic to allow other motorists to pass safely.

Every day during the open season, a huge range of vehicles from road sports cars to supercars to premium luxury cars and limousines head up the SS38 highway but any car from the smallest Fiat 500 upwards will give drivers tackling the breathtaking Stelvio Pass an adrenaline rush.

Local highlights

There are plenty of other sights and activities in the Stelvio Pass Alpine range area to make your road trip adventure here complete.

Cycling – the Stelvio Pass is a legendary climb in road race cycling and frequently appears on the route of the Giro D’Italia.

Snow sports – skiing and snowboarding are popular in local resorts such as Livigno which are quieter and offer budget alternatives to some of the larger and more well known ski centres.

Stelvio National Park – as well as horse-drawn sleighrides in the Stelvio National Park, horse riding is popular in the nearby Venosta Valley. There are also hiking trails for all abilities in the national park.

Natural hot springs – the thermal baths at Bormio are renowned and popular for wellness breaks.

Tre Cascate – the Three Waterfalls is a popular local attraction a short hike from Trafoi a few km to the north of the pass.

Get ready for your Stelvio Pass adventure

So there you have it, your ultimate guide to the Stelvio Pass in Italy. If this has inspired you to plan a road trip to drive the highest mountain pass in Italy and you want to hire a car to get you there, our Avis rental team is here to help you. You’ll find our Milan car rental desks at the city’s major airports, as well as its railway station. If you want to be closer to the action, Milan-Bergamo Airport is a 60km drive to the north of Milan offering quick access to the Alps.

If you’ve not driven in Italy for a while or would like the latest updates on driving there take a look at our Italian road rules page. This has everything from speed limits to traffic signs, providing all you need to know to make driving in Italy as easy and pleasurable as possible.

If this guide has given you a taste for travelling around Milan or more widely in Italy, check out our great Italian drives guide. We’ve compiled some of the very best excursions to enjoy, from day trips to multi-stop adventures from the Amalfi Coast, to Tuscany.