The Stelvio Pass, or Passo dello Stelvio in Italian, is the second-highest paved mountain pass in the Alps. The road zigzags for about 29 miles up and over the Ortler Alps in northern Italy, a stone’s throw from the Swiss border. While not ranked highly among the most scenic passes in the Alps, it is considered one of the most dramatic and challenging to drive thanks to its 48 hairpin bends.
The road was built by the Austrian Empire between 1820 and 1825, to connect the then Austrian province of Lombardy (now in Italy) with the rest of the country. Then as now, it climbs for about 6,140 feet from its base up to the snow-covered mountain pass.
The Stelvio Pass has been regarded as an excellent driving road—at least for drivers looking for a challenge—since August 1898, when it held its first hill-climb event (with motor vehicles whose top speeds were under 20 mph).
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.
The Stelvio Pass began to attract widespread international attention in 2008 when the hugely popular British automotive TV show Top Gear named it the greatest driving road in the world. This was often misquoted, as the title was actually given to the road from Davos (in Switzerland) to Stelvio, not the Stelvio Pass alone. Since then, serious drivers have come to Italy to take on the pass, despite the Top Gear team changing their minds in 2009 and giving the title to the Transfăgărășan Highway in Romania.
Know Before You Go
The Stelvio Pass is located in the far north of Italy, within easy walking distance of the Swiss border. The road that traverses the route is called the Strada Statale 38 (SS38). The pass is closed completely when heavy snow blocks the road. It’s usually open from June to October, and potentially longer, but check the conditions before you visit. The pass has become a popular driving destination and can become crowded, especially at weekends during the peak months of July and August. So if you want to avoid the traffic, go just outside those months and during the middle of the week, and get there nice and early. Also keep an eye out for special events such as Stelvio Bike Day and the Stelvio Marathon, during which the pass is closed to traffic.