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. 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.