April 24, 2024

My 3 Favorite Towns near the Dolomites of Northern Italy

Until a few years ago, I had never seen the silvery, luminous Dolomites – a subsection of the Alps located in the northernmost region of Italy known as South Tyrol. ​​​​​​I found out later that the Dolomites were indeed magical, but I was surprised that the nearby towns in the valleys below were too.

On the border with Austria and Switzerland, South Tyrol is the only part of Italy that is officially bilingual, thanks to its cobbled history belonging at different times to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. After the Second World War, it was agreed that although South Tyrol would remain officially part of Italy, the German community would be allowed a high degree of independence. For this reason, the street signs in the area are all bilingual and the main language you hear is German.

Here’s what Barry, my husband, and I liked about Trento, Bolzano, and Merano, the three towns we visited South Tyrol.

Louisa admiring the view of Trento in Italy

Photo credit: Barry Evans

1. Trento

The charming city of Trento, an hour from Verona, sits on the Adige River halfway between Bolzano and Lake Garda. The town has a compact and walkable medieval and Renaissance historic center with colorful buildings, narrow pedestrian streets, arcades, small squares, and outdoor cafe after cafe. Trento is surrounded by mountains, offering spectacular views everywhere.

Pro Tip: If you spend at least 2 days in Trento, you will get a Trentino Guest Cardincluding free use of Trento buses and access to many tourist attractions.

Here are some to check out:

Buonconsiglio Castle

Situated on a hill just a 15 minute walk from the centre, Buonconsiglio Castle dates back to the 13th century. The residence of the Prince Bishop of Trento for over 500 years, its eclectic architecture is a mix of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque. There is a cylinder-shaped tower with frescoes depicting the months of the year, as well as a museum on the history of Trentino – this region of Italy.

Museum of Science and Natural History

Muse He is known for his interactive, user-friendly approach to science. Each floor represents a chapter in the history of evolution. A 20-minute walk from the city center, it is located in a large park surrounded by mountains.

Roman ruins

At the well-preserved underground Roman site, Tridentyou can see part of a paved road, house fragments, drains, heating systems, fortified walls, and the remains of a yard.

Bike Routes

There are hundreds of miles of dedicated cycle paths around Trento. You can walk or cycle through fruit orchards and vineyards towards Bolzano, or in the opposite direction towards the edge of Lake Garda. The tourist office can help you find a bike rental shop.

But my favorite thing to do was loiter at a cafe with an Aperol Spritz, the famous Italian cocktail.

Pro Tip: Visit Trento and the following cities anytime except July and August when it gets really hot.

Bolzano city center

Bolzano city center

Photo credit: Barry Evans

2. Bulb

“We move here!” I told Barry soon after we arrived in the leafy town of Bolzano. As we wandered around the cobblestoned historic center of town, I kept wondering why I had never heard of it.

With a population of just over 105,000, Bolzano is built at the confluence of three rivers. The capital of South Tyrol, in 2014, it was voted the Italian city with the highest standard of living. There are many things to do here, both indoors and outdoors.

The Old Town

Walther Square it is the heart of the city. From here, you can visit the Duomo (“cathedral”) and wander around the nearby cobblestone shopping streets and elegant arcades. The town square is the Flower Market (its colorful fruit market) and a Christmas market which attracts almost a million visitors every Christmas.

Ötzi the Iceman

Ötzi the Iceman

Photo credit: Barry Evans

A 5,000 year old mummy

Bolzano is probably better known Ötzi the Iceman, the mummified body of a man who died around 5,300 years ago. Hikers found it near the Austrian border in 1991, half in, half out of the melting ice at 10,500 feet. Unlike most mummies, Ötzi is unique; “wet mummy” preserved. Soon after his death, snow and subsequent glacial ice buried his body from decomposition.

It is now housed in a cold cell in the Archaeological Museum of South Tyrol, where you can see it through a small viewing window. Looking through a small double-glazed window at the dried brown body of a man who died 5,300 years ago is a surreal experience. The museum also displays his copper-headed axe, the rest of his clothing, his bow and arrow, and much more, helping us to understand what life was like in the Alps long before the Pyramids were built.

Cable cars

Three cable cars lead to hills above the town. The most accessible, in the center of town, is the funicular heading to the small village of Soprabolzano. At the top, you can take a narrow gauge railway to other villages, sights and trails.

Parks And Walks

Bolzano has a lot of green space, including a promenade on both sides of the Talavera and the Guntschna-Promenade track located in the north of the city, starting near the old parish church of grit. As you walk, you will see views of the city and the surrounding mountains.

Louisa wandering in the Passirio River

Louisa wandering in the Passirio River

Photo credit: Barry Evans

3. Merano

A river town like Bolzano, Merano is more upscale and still feels like the old world resort it was in the 19th century. Located within a lush basin, it is surrounded by mountain peaks that reach almost 11,000 feet. You enter the old town through one of three 13th century gates.

Passirio River

Many of the old hotels, restaurants, bars and cafes are on one side of the Passirio River. During the summer, people picnic, hike, and jump from rock to rock at the river. At the end of the hotel series, you will find the thermal baths which made Merano famous 200 years ago. Terme Merano offers 25 indoor and outdoor pools of different temperatures, saunas, a fitness center, and a bistro.

Walks For All Age Groups

Merano is a mecca for walkers, with paths and promenades abundant throughout the town and at various elevations. The Summer and Winter Promenade line both sides of the river — the former winding under shady trees and the latter past an Art Deco covered portico with paintings.

A longer walk is the 2.5 mile Tappeiner Trail which leaves the city center and climbs upwards. Here, you can stroll as well looking down on the roofs of the town and stopping at various spots for a beer or coffee. The trail is considered one of the legendary high walks in Europe.

Alternatively, the Sissi Path is named after Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was very popular and loved to walk when she traveled in Merano in the late 1800s.

Trautsmansdorff Castle in Merano

Trautsmansdorff Castle in Merano

Photo credit: Barry Evans

Broad Castle and Gardens

The Sissi Trail takes you from the center of Merano up to the Sissi holiday residence at the Trauttmansdorff Castlewhose elaborate gardens offer a mix of alpine and Mediterranean vegetation, combined with panoramic views.

Cable car to Merano 2000

One day, we took the cable car up to the year round mountain area called Merano 2000, feeling very disappointed to be gliding over the treetops and not climbing up to 3,000 feet to enjoy the mountain scenery. At the top, we found miles of moorland and paths ranging from easy to difficult – not to mention pubs and restaurants dotting the landscape. Nothing beats walking for an hour or 2 and then stopping for a well deserved beer!

I visit certain towns once and decide that, as they are, I don’t need a second helping. It was not like that in the cities of the South Country. Trento, Bolzano, and Merano are so magical, I doubt I’ll ever get away from them. Not only are they bordered by stunning nature, but each is beautiful in its own right.

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