Ever since I moved to Europe a few years ago, I’ve made it a tradition to drive through various parts of Europe during the fall and experience all the wonderful things this season has to offer. Colorful fall leaves, fewer crowds, cheaper accommodation, and cooler temperatures – these are just a few reasons why fall is my favorite season to plan a roadtrip through Europe.
This fall, Volvo Switzerland let me take one of their new Volvo XC40’s on a roadtrip to wherever I wanted for two weeks. That’s why I decided to stick with my tradition and drive through Europe, rediscovering locations I’ve been to in the past and stumbling upon new beautiful locations along the way.
Based on my experiences over the years and my most recent roadtrip, I’ve put together the ultimate 2 week fall European roadtrip itinerary featuring all my favorite fall destinations. Below you can find all the information to help you plan the perfect fall roadtrip through Europe including what to see, where to stay and the best time to see fall colors.
You can also refer to my previous blog post about “The Best Destinations in Europe to See Fall Colors” if you’re looking for additional inspiration to help plan the perfect European fall roadtrip.
A few notes about this itinerary
This itinerary goes through 5 countries: Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Slovenia. I’ve broken this trip up by days so you can easily add on or remove locations based on your desired route and the time you have available.
Based on the route I’ve taken the past two years, this itinerary starts and ends in Zurich, which is a great option if you’re flying to Europe from the states. Both of my friends happened to snag a flight from Seattle to Zurich for under $500 which is an incredible deal if you’re wanting to visit Europe this time of year. Another alternative for this route is flying from Zurich and flying out of Milan or Venice, which is also an affordable airport if you’re flying back to the states.
When is the best time to visit?
We started this roadtrip at the beginning of October which gave us an opportunity to see the fall colors at their peak. The time at which the leaves change always varies from year to year based on the temperatures and location, but we felt like within this timeframe we were able to see the best of the colors in each location. However, we did find that regions that have larches like the Dolomites or Engadin tended to change later than areas like Salzkammergut or Lake Bled which have more Oak and Maple trees.
Getting around Europe
The best way to get around Europe is preferably by car, especially if you’re short on time and want to get around less accessible places like the Dolomites. You can take the train or a Flix bus but since fall is the offseason, public transportation tends to be less reliable and very limited. The weather this time of year can also be unpredictable, with rain or snow likely to happen at any moment, so it’s important to have a warm and safe place to go in case the weather does happen to change. We opted to rent our car from Zurich Airport and return it back to the same location since it can cost quite a bit more for your car rental if you drop it off in a different location than you picked it up from.
Before hitting the road it’s also important to familiarize yourself with the driving rules of each country. Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia require a vignette if you are using the motorways and if you’re caught without it, you’ll have to pay a large fine. Most rental cars already come with one, but make sure to double check before departing. You can also easily purchase a vignette at gas stations or road side stands for a small fee of $10.00 for 10 days. More information about vignettes can be found here.
Throughout Europe, especially Switzerland, Austria, and Italy there are speed cameras that you need to watch out for. If you’re caught speeding, you’ll have to face heavy fines which will be sent to you in the mail a few months later. It’s important to remember that the speed limit in villages is usually 50 km/hr and on the motorways, it is between 120 to 130 km/hr in most countries. Italy and some parts of Austria are notorious for having tolls along the motorways, which you are required to pay. Most of these tolls accept both cash and card, however, I would keep some extra euros on you just in case.
Tips to know before you go
- It’s important to always keep some cash on hand since occasionally some cafes and restaurants refuse to take credit cards. You should note that Switzerland uses Swiss Francs and Austria, Slovenia, Germany, and Italy use the Euro so make sure to have both
- Bathrooms are hard to come across in Europe and usually require a small fee to enter. Generally, this fee is around .50 – 1 Euro, but sometimes if you purchase something you can also receive a ticket to enter
- Fall is considered the offseason, so many lifts, restaurants, and mountain huts are closed this time of year. Make sure to check online and even call ahead of time before visiting
- While Europe has some of the best water in the world, most restaurants will charge you for water, even if it comes from the tap. I always keep a refillable water bottle on me and fill it up in bathrooms or ask ahead of time if they charge for tap water
- Most grocery stores and restaurants are closed on Sunday, so make sure to load up on food on Saturday if you need any supplies for Sunday. If you are in a bind though, most gas stations have enough groceries for you to get by
- While most people generally speak enough English to communicate with, make sure to learn a few words out of respect and to have Google Translate downloaded. Aside from Slovenia, most of these countries speak German and/or Italian.
Our 2 Week Roadtrip
Day 1 – Zurich, Switzerland (start) to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland
Day 2 – Grindelwald, Switzerland
Day 3 – Aletsch Glacier, Switzerland
Day 4 – Zermatt, Switzerland
Day 5 – Engadin, Switzerland
Day 6 – Engadin, Switzerland
Day 7 – Berchtesgaden, Germany
Day 8 – Salzkammergut, Austria
Day 9 – Lake Bled, Slovenia
Day 10 – Cortina d’ Ampezzo, Italy
Day 11 – Cortina d’ Ampezzo, Italy
Day 12 – Cortina d’ Ampezzo, Italy
Day 13 – Ortisei, Italy
Day 14 – Ortisei, Italy to Zurich, Switzerland (end)
While this route doesn’t perfectly loop, I’ve created this route in this particular way because of the timing of when the leaves change in certain areas, which only adds an extra hour compared to a loop. You can do this route though in a loop, driving to Ortisei after Engadin and then driving to the following locations in a counterclockwise direction.
Day 1: Drive From Zurich to Lauterbrunnen
Arrive in Zurich Airport, pick up your rental car and drive a little over 2 hours to the village of Lauterbrunnen. I recommend grabbing lunch and a coffee at Airtime Cafe (cash only) in town if you’re looking to burn some extra time before checking into your accommodation. We opted to stay at the beautiful Hotel Silberhorn, which offers incredible views of the valley and several waterfalls. For sunset, head to the train station, just 150m from the hotel and take the train up to idyllic hillside town of Wengen. Here, you’ll find incredible views of the entire valley of Lauterbrunnen and the famous Jungfrau, Eiger, and Monch mountains in the distance.
Day 2: Grindelwald
Spend the morning wandering the streets and pathways of Lauterbrunnen, before heading to Grindelwald. For a scenic train ride, I highly recommend leaving your car in Lauterbrunnen and taking the train to Grindelwald via Kleine Scheidegg. Once you’ve arrived, leave your luggage at your accommodation and head to the First Gondola. Just make sure to check the timetable first here.
First is the perfect starting point for a short and easy 45-minute hike to Lake Bachalpsee, which offers incredible reflections of the Bernese Alps. You can also reserve a mountain cart or a spot on the popular First Glider, if you’re looking for some fun activities to do while you’re here. We chose to continue hiking past the lake and spend the night in the Berghotel Faulhorn, located at the top of the mountain. If you’re feeling adventurous, I’d recommend staying here since the experience of staying in a Swiss mountain hut is unlike any other!
Day 3: Aletsch Glacier
Take the train back to Lauterbrunnen to pick up your car and drive 2 hours towards Aletsch Glacier. Make a quick stop at the Goms suspension bridge in Bellwald before reaching the town of Mörel. If you want to stay close to the glacier, then it’s important to note that all the villages are car-free and require you to take a cable car to reach them. We opted to stay in the village of Riederalp since we wanted to visit the Moosfluh lookout. To get here, you must leave your car in the town of Mörel and then take the cable car to Riederalp. Make sure to check ahead of time which Riederalp cable car is closer to your accommodation. There are also other cable cars you can take in this area which are equally as scenic such as Eggishorn or Bettmerhorn.
For sunset, we chose to visit the Moosfluh lookout, which can easily be accessed by taking the Moosfluh cable car from Riederalp. Since the cable car closes at 4:30 pm, we decided to hike down in the dark. However, there are a lot of trails up here and it can be quite easy to get lost in the dark if you don’t have a map downloaded with you. We enjoyed a delicious dinner of Rösti and Tortellini at Berghaus Toni, which is also a great hotel if you need accommodation.
Day 4: Zermatt
Take the cable car back down to Mörel and drive towards the town of Täsch. Zermatt is also car-free, so you’ll need to take a train from Täsch to the village of Zermatt ( train info here). Once you’ve arrived in the village, I suggest leaving your bags at your hotel and putting your hiking boots on. One of the best hikes you can do this time of year is the 5 Lakes Hike, which offers stunning views of larches and the Matterhorn in the distance. To get here, you’ll need to take the cogwheel train from Zermatt Village to Sunnegga and then a gondola to Blauherd where you can start the loop. More information about the route can be found here.
Since Zermatt is very touristy, it can be pretty expensive when it comes to accommodation and food. Because it’s the shoulder season, most restaurants are closed this time of year. However, I recommend trying out The Brown Cow Pub since it’s casual and affordable.
Day 5: Engadin
Before departing Zermatt, I recommend taking the Gornergratbahn up to the Rotenboden stop to watch the sunrise at Riffelsee. Once you’re here, wander over to the Gorner Gletscher to witness sweeping views of the second largest glacier in Switzerland. Since Engadin is over a 5-hour drive, you’ll want to leave Zermatt before it gets too late since the drive is very beautiful. Engadin is by far one of the best places to see larches in Switzerland and fall colors in general. I suggest taking a walk or hike alongside Lake Sils to see the larches and their brilliant shades of yellow and orange.
Day 6: Engadin
After enjoying an incredible (and free!) breakfast buffet at our hotel, we headed out to Laj de Staz for sunrise, just a few minutes from our hotel. This lake is very popular with photographers since the lake’s warm water creates a layer of fog just above the surface, making for beautiful photos. The fog this morning was particularly strong so we continued on towards the edge of Lake Sils to see if we could capture some views of the lake and fog above. You can also take a scenic drive down the nearby Maloja Pass, which is one of my favorite mountain passes in Switzerland.
During the day, make sure to drive towards Bernina Pass and check out the roadside viewpoints of the Morteratsch Glacier. If you’re feeling extra adventurous you can also hike out to the glacier and admire its beauty from up close. For sunset, make sure to check out Lago di Saoseo and Lagh da Val Viola. The road to these lakes is closed to locals, so make sure to leave your car at the designated parking place, called Parking Sfazú. To get the lakes you can either hike 1.5 hours up the road or take a small bus that runs a few times in the afternoon. The bus takes you up to the stop Rifugio Saoseo and from there it’s just a short 20-minute hike.
Please note: If you plan to take the bus, you need to call at least one hour ahead of time to schedule it. You can find more information about it here.
Day 7: Berchtesgaden, Germany
Before leaving Engadin, make sure to stop in the town of St. Moritz at the local bakery, Bäckerei-Konditorei Bad, and try an Engadin specialty called the Nusstorten. Then make your way towards Berchtesgaden, which is about a 4-hour drive from Engadin. There are plenty of things to do in the Bavarian Alps of Germany, but I recommend taking a boat ride on Lake Königssee. Here, you can board onto one of the iconic electric wooden boats and listen to the boatman play the trumpet as it echoes against the steep rock faces that surround the lake. Treat yourself to a night in the beautiful, Kempinski Hotel Berchtesgaden, which offers an amazing spa to refresh after a long week on the road. For a more affordable option, stay at the Fewo Watzmann Apartments, which comfortably sleeps 4 people.
Day 8: Salzkammergut, Austria
Before departing to Austria, make sure to check out the suspension bridge in Klausbachtal, which is surrounded by a lush forest of fall colors. Then drive a little under 2 hours to Lake Grundlsee, where you’ll check into the beautiful hotel along the lake called, MONDI Resort Grundlsee. We happened to stay in one of their newly built chalets, which even had a built-in sauna and hot tub.
For sunset check out either Gosausee or take an easy 1 hour hike up to Steirersee. While this hike is beautiful and full of larches, you should note that it does cost 12 euros to take the road up to the starting point of the lake. For dinner, we found that most options were closed in the towns so we opted to have dinner at our hotel, which was delicious.
Day 9: Lake Bled, Slovenia
For sunrise check out the charming village of Hallstatt or head to Gosausee if you didn’t have a chance to see it the evening before. If you want to have an easy morning, you can also head directly out of your hotel and take a short stroll around the beautiful Lake Grundlsee. Make sure to enjoy the delicious breakfast buffet at your hotel before making your way towards Lake Bled in Slovenia.
Once you’ve arrived in Slovenia, take a short hike up to the Ojstrica viewpoint that overlooks Lake Bled and the beautiful fall trees that surround it. We found this lookout to be extremely popular during the fall, but that shouldn’t detract you from visiting it. For dinner, grab a pizza from Gostilna In Pizzeria Grajska Preža and try the famous Lake Bled Cream Cake for dessert.
If you’re looking for additional inspiration for things to see and do in Slovenia, then check out this guide I made here.
Day 10: Cortina D’Ampezzo, Dolomites
If there’s one thing you should do in Lake Bled, it’s wake up early and watch the sunrise at the lake. The emerald blue lake is surrounded by towering green mountains in the distance with a “fairy tale” like church nestled on a tiny island in the center of it, all framed by the fall trees that line its shore. It’s by far one of the most iconic (and busy) places in Slovenia, but for good reason!
Next, make your way to the Dolomites, to the charming little town of Cortina d’Ampezzo where you’ll want to base yourself for a few nights. Stop by Lago di Dobbiaco on the way in and enjoy lunch at the lakeside restaurant, Seeschupfe. Once you’ve reached Cortina, head up to the nearby Passo Giau if you have enough time before sunset. There are plenty of great hikes in this area, but the views from the drive alone are worth checking out. We found that most restaurants in the town were closed, but one of our favorites was the restaurant at Hotel Ciasa Lorenzi. To finish off the night, we enjoyed gelato at Rizzati Shop Cortina d’Ampezzo.
Day 11: Cortina D’Ampezzo, Dolomites
Like dinner, breakfast in town is pretty limited, but we happened to stumble upon an adorable cafe called Pasticceria Panificio Alvera. Make sure to grab a croissant and coffee, and one of their focaccia pizzas to go – one of our favorite food finds of the trip! Then drive an hour to Gardena Pass, enjoying the endless sea of golden larches you’ll find along the way. We stopped at the top of the pass and took a short walk along one of the paths leading towards the mountains in the distance. There’s plenty of photo opportunities here, so make sure to take the time to wander around and check out the endless views that surround you.
In the afternoon, leave plenty of time to drive the road up to Tre Cime di Laverado since there are plenty of scenic stops along the way. Some of our favorites were Lago di Antorno and Lago di Misurina, which both offer incredible reflections of the Dolomites. One thing to note is that the Tre Cime road costs 30 Euros to enter, but we were able to split this among our group of 5 friends so it was pretty affordable. Take the road up to Refugio Auronzo, where you can leave your car in the car park before beginning your hike.
There are plenty of trails that you can take in this area, but one of the most popular is the Tre Cime di Laverado loop hike, which winds around the towering Tre Cime mountains. In total, the hike is about 6 miles (10km) and can be completed by almost everyone since there is relatively little uphill and the trail is well maintained. On the hike, make sure to check out the old tunnels from World War II, which you can enter, and the Rifugio Locatelli, for incredible views of the backside of Tre Cime.
On your way back to Cortina, grab a bite to eat along Lago di Misurina at either Quinz -Ristorante Della Locanda, which had endless pizza options, or Pizzeria Edelweiss, where we enjoyed a delicious gnocchi dish with smoked cheese.
Day 12: Ortisei, Dolomites
For sunrise, be sure to check out the famous Lago di Braies, which is just a 50-minute drive from Cortina. While this lake gets incredibly busy, I recommend you to see it at least once in your life since the emerald blue waters and golden larches that surround the shore are simply breathtaking. If you’re looking to get away from the crowds you can wander around the lake on one of the trails and get lost in the forest of larches. After 10 am, You can also rent a boat here for 18 Euros per 30 minutes, which is a great way to experience the lake and see it from a different perspective.
Next, check out of your accommodation and make your way to the town of Ortisei or feel free to explore any other destinations you might have missed in the area. Some other options include Lago di Federa or Lago di Sorapis.
For additional Dolimites inspiration, check out another guide I’ve made here.
Check into your hotel in Ortisei before heading back out. We opted to stay in a large apartment called Apartmenthotel Residence Elvis, which could have easily slept over 6 people. In the afternoon drive to the town of Val di Funes, where you should stop for photos at the iconic Chiesetta di San Giovanni (Church of St. Johann). There’s a platform here designated for photos, so make sure to respect the farmer’s land and not enter the pastures here. Afterwards, leave your car somewhere in town and walk up to the road to get a vantage point of the St. Magdalena Church underneath the soaring spires of the Puez-Odle massif. Trust me, it’s a spot you won’t want to miss out on for sunset! For dinner, head back to the town of Ortisei and eat at Restaurant Pizzeria Cascade, one of the very few options open in town.
Day 13: Ortisei, Dolomites
While it requires you to wake up quite early, I suggest hiking up to Seceda to watch the sunrise over the mountains. The hike itself is quite steep since most of the time you’re walking up a hill that functions as a ski slope in the winter, but I promise it’s worth it. It’s also important to note that this time of year, the cable car from Ortisei to Seceda is not running so your only option will be to hike. The hike takes about 2.5 hours to complete and should only be done if the weather is good since it can be quite easy to get lost. Make sure to do plenty of research and know your route before doing this hike, especially if you attempt it in the dark. Once you’ve watched the sunrise, head back to your car, making sure to stop and check out some of the little wooden cabins on the way.
Take the afternoon easy and rest up since the next day requires quite a bit of driving to get back to Zurich. For sunset, check out St. Valentin Church in the nearby town of Suisi, which is set beneath the dramatic Sciliar Massif. It’s important to note that you can’t park next to the church since it’s private property, so make sure to leave your car in the town and walk up to the church.
Day 14: Drive from Ortisei to Zurich
The last day of your trip requires you to also wake up early to reach the idyllic meadows of Alpe di Suisi. To get here, drive 30 minutes from the town of Ortisei and leave your car in the Compatsch parking lot. Since the meadows are protected and access is limited to locals and hotel guests, make sure to leave your car here or else you’ll have to pay hefty fines if caught. By foot, you can reach the ideal photo spots in a little under an hour, following the footpath as far as you’d like. Take your time to wander the fields and admire the charming little cabins that are dotted amongst the meadow, while taking in the amazing mountain views.
Then make your way back to your car, check out of your hotel and start the drive back to Zurich or the airport you’ll be flying out of. If you’d like to extend your trip, on your way back to Zurich you can check out Eibsee in Germany, or Innsbruck and Plansee in Austria.
I hope you found this road trip itinerary helpful to plan your very own fall roadtrip to Europe. If you have any fall destinations in Europe that you loved and would like to share, let me know in the comments below!
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Disclaimer: I wanted to give you a big thank you to Volvo Switzerland for partnering with me and making this trip possible with their XC40. All opinions, thoughts, and experiences I share are completely honest and my own. Thanks for reading!