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Thought Italy was all about fresh pizza and imposing architecture? Think again. The intriguing borderland of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is a melting pot of European cultures. Join us for a tour from the sea to the mountains, taking in the best of the region en route.
The word “Italy” is one that, for most, inspires an image of fresh, doughy pizzas, rustic cobbled streets and imposing architecture. Yet one distinctly different region remains largely overlooked. Nestled in the north-easternmost corner of the country, painted onto a backdrop of mountains, lakes and vineyards, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is almost completely unknown to tourists. Bordering Austria, Slovenia and Croatia, it is a melting pot of European cultures in which inhabitants form their own strong sense of identity. In fact, Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s regional dialect is one of just two Italian dialects to be legally recognised as a language in itself, with its roots firmly settled in Slavic linguistics.
With a landscape as varied as the people who live there, the region is never short of beautiful places to explore; just 80km separates the stunning Dolomites mountain range from the rugged Adriatic coastline. Although one of Italy’s smallest regions, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is rich in culture, with each of its enclaves are entirely unique in its cuisine, architectural style and way of life.
In this guide, we will take you on a tour through the region, from the sea to the mountains, stopping off in some of Friuli’s prettiest towns along the way.
Getting there and getting around
Getting to the region is fairly straightforward, thanks to its proximity to so many other areas of Italy and the rest of Europe. Trieste Airport is the only airport within the region itself, and is fairly small, offering a range of domestic flights, along with flights to and from London, Munich, Frankfurt and Valencia. Venice’s two airports, Venice Marco Polo Airport and Treviso Airport are only an hour or so by car from the centre of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and offer a much wider range of international flights.
While the Italian train system is modern, fast and well-connected, hiring a car is the best way to explore the region. Car hire with Budget is available from all three airports, with cars available for under 30€ per day – perfect for a road trip around the region.
Stop 1: Trieste
Where better to kick off your tour around Friuli-Venezia Giulia than its capital: Trieste? Upon arriving in this sparkling-clean, almost Germanic-looking city, you may feel like you’re in a totally different country – and you wouldn’t be far from the truth. Trieste actually formed part of the Austro-Hungarian empire right up until it was united with Italy in 1918. It is this blend of cultures that forms Trieste’s identity even today, with the architecture, food and even language heavily influenced by Slavic, Latin and German styles. A stop at the Piazza Unità d’Italia, a beautiful, sea-facing square in the city’s centre, is the perfect example of this fusion of cultures. Make sure also to take a look at the Gran Canal and sip an Aperol spritz on the waterfront; climb up to the Cattedrale di San Giusto for the best view across the glittering Adriatic.
Trieste, while largely unknown outside of Italy, is famous for a few things: literature, music and – most importantly – coffee. Its coffee-house culture is second-to-none, with each type of coffee specifically named to determine the way you’d like it to be served. If you want your macchiato in an espresso cup, order a “capo” – but if you’d like it served in a glass, order a “capo in b”. You’d expect no less from the home of Illy coffee, right? Antico Caffè Torinese, Eppinger Caffè and Caffè San Marco are three of the city’s best coffee houses, where historical literary figures including James Joyce once gathered to discuss their art.
If thick, sweet hot chocolate is more up your street, then make sure to pay a visit to the aptly-named Chocolat. For chocoholics, this tiny café/ chocolatier will be love at first sight. Perch at its wooden benches, set on the winding, cobbled street outside, and watch the world go by.
Just behind the Piazza Unità is the Hotel Urban Design: a stylish hotel in the heart of Trieste, with a focus on architectural beauty. For one night, rooms start at 100€.
Stop 2: Grado
An hour-long drive along the coast will take you to Grado: a sleepy island town floating in the Adriatic. Connected to the mainland by a bridge that leads you over the lagoon, Grado is known for its fresh fish dishes, quaint cobbled streets and endless sandy beaches. Head to Trattoria de Toni and sample some of the best fish in the region; while it’s one of the most costly evenings out in town, the seafood platter is worth it.
A stay in the Boutique Hotel Oche Selvatiche is a truly unique experience. A sustainable lodge nestled right into the lagoon, it makes guests feel as if million miles from the hustle and bustle of city life. Enjoy the views across the water from the hotel’s rooftop pool and spa, and admire the flocks of nesting pink flamingos.
Stop 3: Aquileia
Driving North from Grado leads you right through the centre of the medieval town of Aquileia. Once the largest city in the Roman Empire, with 100,000 inhabitants, Aquileia today is centred around the ruins of the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, making it the perfect stopping point between Grado and Udine. Grab a coffee overlooking the ruins at the Pasticceria Mosaico, once an old stone farmhouse in the cathedral grounds.
Aquileia’s river flows directly into Venice’s lagoon, a peaceful body of water dotted with tiny, colourful houses called “casone”, each sitting on their own individual island. If you’re looking to spend more time exploring this southern area of Friuli, Lagoon Boat Excursions Aquileia will take you on a stunning tour through the lagoon for 25€ per person for a group of 12.
Stop 4: Udine
Often considered the home of Friulian culture – and the birthplace of the “Friulano” language – Udine is found right in the heart of the region. Its Venetian architecture, iconic, hearty cuisine and friendly locals make it the perfect city for a long weekend, with much more to explore than initially meets the eye. If you’re lucky enough to pass through in September, you may be able to experience the renowned Friuli DOC festival, celebrating all things Friuli-Venezia Giulia, but mainly the food and wine. The city centre is based around Piazza San Giacomo, a pretty square lined with colourful bars and restaurants. It’s the perfect spot for lunch, or for your evening aperitivo, with bars such as Italian Secret offering piadina and, of course, Aperol spritz.
Locals argue that the city’s best pizza can be found at Peperino Pizza & Grill, a modern restaurant with delicious Neapolitan-style pizzas. If you’re looking for traditional Friulian food, such as the famous frico (fried Montasio cheese served with polenta) then try Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. Set in a rustic old barn, this restaurant’s chequered tablecloths and huge wine selection will leave you feeling full, satisfied and properly Friulian.
Udine is never short of places to find a post-dinner glass of wine. For a truly local experience, try Osteria PieriMortadele – a tiny bar known for its prosciutto rolls and 1€ glasses of wine. Do like a local and order a “taj de neri”, that being a “glass of red wine” in Friulian. Glass bar is a popular hangout for Udine’s student population, with an outdoor seating area, making it ideal for warm summer nights.
While there are only a few hotels in the city to choose from, the Ambassador Palace Hotel has rooms available for around 90€ per night, and is located only a short walk from the city’s cathedral and the stunning Piazza Libertà.
Stop 5: Cividale del Friuli
Only a 30-minute drive from Udine is the medieval town of Cividale, found only kilometres from the Slovenian border. Famous mainly for its desserts and its beautiful riverside, what Cividale lacks in size it makes up for in character. A wander through the town centre will lead you to the Ponte del Diavolo – Devil’s Bridge – which straddles the Natisone river. The original bridge was destroyed during the battle in Caporetto in 1917, leaving a reconstruction in its place today.
During the summer months, the banks of the Natisone become a stony beach. But be warned: the water flows directly from the mountains, meaning it’s ice cold the year round!
To sample Cividale’s well-known, cinnamon-infused winter dessert called gubana, pop into a pasticceria and grab a slice or two. The Panificio Pasticceria Cattarossi is only a stone’s throw from the cathedral, with a large range of pastries, cakes and desserts.
Stop 6: San Daniele
For most, there is one reason and one reason only for visiting the quiet, pearl-white streets of San Daniele: the prosciutto. This town is the birthplace of everyone’s favourite ham, and it can be found in almost any restaurant around the city. The Enoteca Prosciutteria La Corte di Bacco, with its cosy outdoor area and generous portions of prosciutto, is a favourite among locals and tourists alike.
If you fancy something sweet after all that meat, make time for a quick stop in Adelia di Fant, an artisan chocolatier with every flavour you could possibly imagine.
Stop 7: Laghi di Fusine
An hour and a half from San Daniele, hidden in the north-eastern corner of the region, are the picturesque Laghi di Fusine. A journey north into Carnia will guide you deep into the heart of the Dolomites, before almost reaching the Austrian border. No trip to Friuli-Venezia Giulia is complete without a glimpse of the lakes’ turquoise water, framed by mountains and pine trees. Take a picnic – and some comfy trainers – and settle in for a day of wandering around the banks.
The neighbouring town of Tarvisio, peppered with wooden chalets, is teeming with hotels and lodges for weary travellers making their way in and out of Austria. The Albergo Hotel Valle Verde is every chalet visitor’s dream, with wooden beams and clean-cut décor adorning every room – plus there’s a jacuzzi to soak your feet into after a long week of travelling.
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