If you're looking for a great road trip the French and Italian Alps are a must! Check out my recommendations on the best hiking, climbing, and food.
EuropeFrance, Italy15 days / August 2019
Highs & Lows
Picnic on L'Alpe d'Huez. The vibrant colors in downtown Briançon. Hearty home-cooked meal at the Levi Molinari Refuge.
Accidentally visiting Turin, Italy on a religious holiday. Everything was closed!
In summer 2019, my partner Lucie and I completed our own version of Le Tour de France. After spending two weeks visiting family near Bordeaux, we set our GPS for the Alps.
Our itinerary starts near the mid-sized city of Grenoble before winding through small mountain villages making stops in Brançon, Turin, and Gap. Highlights of the region include a plethora of outdoor activities and scenic alpine views along with French bread, local cheeses, and fresh Italian cuisine.
Choosing to sleep in a tent not only allowed us to travel on an incredibly low budget, but it also gave us the freedom to explore without being tied down to a set location. Our only regret was not crossing up into Switzerland...it's very expensive, and the weather in the Swiss Alps can be unpredictable in the summer!
Sitting roughly an hour from the large towns of Grenoble and Briançon, Bourg d'Oisans is well connected and serves as the perfect access point to the Southern French Alps.
Exploring the village of Bourg d'Oisans
If you enjoy wandering through cobblestone streets looking for hidden treasures, this small village won't disappoint. Boutique shops, cozy cafes, and family-owned stores selling regional products are just a few things you'll find.
When we visited, the town hall had organized a festival for local artisans to bring handmade recreations of games from the Medieval Period. Hopping between the different stands definitely brought out our inner child!
With the famous ski resort and Tour de France finish on Alpe d'Huez just a few miles away, Bourg d'Oisans is also a Mecca for mountain sports enthusiasts. The tourist office has all sorts of information about cycling, mountain biking, hiking trails, via ferratas, and white water adventures. We were bummed the dates didn't work out for an impromptu white water rafting trip...but that gives us a good reason to go back.
Picnic on L'Alpe d'Huez
As a huge fan of the Tour de France, visiting L'Alpe d'Huez has been a dream of mine for many years. Let's just say that watching cyclists pedal their way up the mountain on a television screen does NO justice to the steepness of the 21 switchback curves.
Once we reached the summit, we scoped out a spot for a picnic lunch away from the crowds. As simple as it sounds, this was one of our favorite moments of the entire trip.
If you decide to visit L'Alpe d'Huez, make sure your camera batteries are fully charged. There's no shortage of fun places to stop for photos along the mountain — our personal favorites were the giant bicycles!
Hiking along Lac du Pontet
This alpine lake is a true gem of the Hautes-Alpes and a pristine example of unspoiled nature. From the parking, a well-marked trail leads you gently uphill to the edge of the lake in under half an hour.
Since we wanted to spend the entire afternoon hiking, we continued the trail towards the top of the mountain. The picturesque views while making the trek back to the car at sunset were well worth the sore muscles the next day!
Sitting at the junction of several major valleys in the Southern Alps, Briançon was the logical next stop after leaving Lac du Pontet. By car, we arrived at the city center in just under an hour.
With the Parc National des Ecrins and Vallée de la Clarée serving as backdrops, there is no shortage of breathtaking scenery. Adding to its beauty, Briançon is located at 4,400 feet above sea level, making it one of the highest cities in Europe!
The Old Quarter of Briançon
As you approach Briançon, it's hard to miss the massive 18th-century fortifications. Inside the stone walls is where you'll find the historic Old Quarter.
We spent the afternoon wandering up and down the Grande Rue. Not only are the vibrant colors a treat for the eyes, but there are tons of shops, cafes, and art galleries to keep you busy for hours.
It's also hard to miss the giant storm drain running down the middle of the Grande Rue...especially when children are pouring buckets of water from the local fountain to watch their wooden sailboats float downhill!
The charming mountain village of Vallouise
Don't be fooled by the small population — Vallouise is a thriving example of a traditional Hautes-Alpes village preserved in time. A stroll through its streets will quickly give you a taste of the rich architectural and religious heritage that the locals work so hard to maintain.
Since Vallouise is one of the largest villages in the valley leading to the Parc National des Ecrins, it also serves as a major trading point. Every Thursday morning, the village hosts a market featuring regional products, handmade clothing, souvenirs, and locally grown produce.
Hiking in Ailefroide
Ailefroide is a small village a few miles up the road from Vallouise, with its main point of interest being mountain activities.
Although we spent several days exploring various trails, our favorite by far was hiking up to Le Glacier Blanc. This ancient alpine glacier is over 3.5 miles long, 800 feet deep, and can be seen from miles away. Just trust us when we say that pictures don't do any justice...you'll have to go see for yourself!
Piedmont is the first region you encounter after crossing the French-Italian border. From Briançon, it's a quick 20-minute drive to the border and another hour to the city of Turin.
Sacra di San Michele
If you spend enough time in Europe, you'll start to realize that EVERY town seems to have a palace, cathedral, or monastery. But even if you're a seasoned veteran, the Sacra di San Michele (Saint Micheal's Abbey) is not to be missed!
Sitting on Mount Pirchiriano with spectacular views of Val di Susa and Turin, this working monastery is a proud symbol of the Piedmont region. The history of Sacra di San Michele dates back to the 10th century and is a stopping point for pilgrims on their journey from Saint-Michel to the Vatican City.
We chose to do the self-guided tour and couldn't believe that tickets only cost €8.00/person! This gave us the perfect amount of freedom to explore the maze of stairways, artwork, religious artifacts, and statues.
Hiking & hearty dinner at the Levi Molinari Mountain Refuge
Apart from the world-class hiking, the star from this part of our Italy trip was the Rifugio Levi Molinari itself. This refuge is a small family-run alpine hostel located in the heart of Val di Susa, offering both inexpensive lodging and hearty home-cooked food.
We couldn't get enough of their polenta, beef in wine sauce, sausage stew, and pies...but maybe it was just us being hungry after a long day of activity! Either way, make sure to call ahead as they only prepare two main dishes and need to know how many guests to serve.
Adding to the magic of its location, dozens of hand-carved statues including gnomes, animals, and fairies make their home outside of the refuge.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to spend as much time as we had hoped in downtown Turin due to everything being closed for a religious holiday. However, we did enjoy admiring the architecture as we walked between the various town squares and important buildings mentioned on the tourist map. Turin has a completely different vibe than what we are used to in Spain!
This will be one to repeat in the future for sure..
Our final leg of the journey brought us to the mid-sized town of Gap. Once you cross back over the French-Italian border, Guillestre is a short 45-minute drive from Briançon, then another hour to Gap.
A five-star meal in Guillestre
If your budget allows, a meal at La Bolée in Guillestre is an absolute must. This restaurant serves typical food from the Alpes-Côte d'Azur province, and it didn't take us long to realize why our family friends had recommended we make a stop.
We couldn't resist ordering the roast duck and a tartiflette (fresh local cheese, potatoes, bacon, and onions baked together in the oven). To top things off, their food is as good as it looks!
Hiking on Montagne de Céüse
By this point, it shouldn't be much of a surprise when I say we love searching for any excuse to get outside. Luckily, we didn't have to venture far to get our fix.
The massive limestone cliff face of Céüse stretches well over a mile and sits quietly overlooking Gap itself. With trails of varying difficulties crisscrossing the mountain, it was hard to decide where to start. We ended up choosing a short (but VERY steep) trail that took us directly to the cliff in about an hour. The views of the valley below quickly helped us forget our tired legs!
Since we finished with some sunlight to spare, heading back over to the historic center of Gap for a cool drink was the perfect way to end the day.
Q & A
Anything go wrong during the trip?Accidentally visiting Turin, Italy on a religious holiday. Almost everything outside the touristic city center was closed! After walking around downtown, we hopped in the car and drove a few miles to eat dinner at a highly reviewed family-owned restaurant. Unfortunately, we found a giant 'closed for the ENTIRE month of August for vacations' sign hanging in the window. As we were scrambling to find anything open to eat dinner (it was already 9pm), the restaurant owner just happened to walk by! He realized what had happened and immediately called his favorite pizza place to make sure it was open. Talk about good luck!
Restaurant recommendations?Our favorite meal in France was at La Bolée in Guillestre. This restaurant serves food typical from the province of Alpes-Côte d'Azur. In Italy, the Levi Molinari Mountain Refuge definitely took the award for best meal! After a long day of hiking, they served us a hearty dinner of polenta, sausage stew, beef in wine sauce, and homemade fruit and chocolate pie for dessert. It was no surprise the food was so good when they told us all of the ingredients were local! By far one of our most memorable moments of the entire trip!
Tips you would give a friend?Don't forget to bring a rain jacket. Summer storms can roll in with little warning in the high mountains!
Packing tips?When in doubt, pack light! After cramming our car full of climbing gear, camping gear, clothes, food, cooking supplies, and work essentials, there was barely enough room left for us...Talk about a headache when you have to play 'Tetris' every morning before heading off and every night before bed.
Transportation Tips?If you rent a car, make sure you get an automatic if you aren't 110% comfortable driving with a stick shift. Even some of the roads connecting larger towns can have steep inclines and aggressive curves!
Any surprises?We got caught in a summer thunderstorm just after reaching the cliffs on the Montagne de Céüse. Talk about a muddy hike down after spending over an hour hiding under a giant rock. Thank goodness we had packed rain jackets that day!