Looking for the perfect Italian holiday? A road trip through the gorgeous Dolomite Mountains and staying in Bolzano is just what you want! This romantic and charming city has plenty things to do and see, and great restaurants and shopping.
Anyone driving south out of Germany and into Italy has most likely driven through the Brenner pass. The E45 is the longest North-South European Highway linking Norway and Italy and, more importantly for us, it’s the main route between Munich and Verona (and all points south) and has been one of the primary routes through the Alps for nearly two thousand years.
On a previous Italy road trip, heading to Cinque Terre, we were stunned by the natural scenic beauty of the South Tyrol and the Dolomites. If the highway views were this spectacular, we were sure the backroads, villages, and towns of the South Tyrol would be beyond compare. So we vowed to return to spend a few days to discover all the fantastic things to do in Bolzano, or Bozen, in the Alto Adige region, including some of these day hikes in the Dolomites.
When is the Best Time to Visit Bolzano?
This small city, the capital of South Tyrol, has around 100,000 residents and was rated as highest quality of life in Italy in 2014. Judging by the people we met and our own personal perspective, Bolzano might not still hold the official title, but it certainly still ranks high up on the list.
There’s just something about the crisp, clean mountain air, the stunning vistas surrounding the city, the cheerful liveliness of the city center, and the melding of north and south that really touches the spirit of both visitor and resident alike. Visit in the late summer and you’ll be amazed by the vineyards, bursting with plump purple grapes growing right up the hillsides of the city.
In winter, the snow covered peaks and world class skiing will draw you in and captivate your senses. And of course, who could pass up a springtime hike through the wildflower strewn, green alpine meadows? Whatever your reason for visiting, Bolzano–where the Mediterranean meets Central Europe–has it all.
Does this make it on our Top 5 Places to Visit in Italy? (podcast)
Bolzano has so much to do from world class museums, to trekking and hiking, skiing or biking, shopping, and of course eating some fine Italian food. For a small city, there is more than enough to keep even the most jaded tourist busy for several days. You can manage everything on this list if a weekend, but adding a day to either (or both) sides will enhance the visit that much more.
Oetzi – The Iceman of the South Tyrol Archaeology Museum
The famous glacier mummy made waves around the world when he was discovered 1991 by a couple trekking through the Italian Alps. At first they thought they had found the remains of a poor fellow hiker. Little did they know, they had stumbled upon a murder scene!
Scientists discovered, however, that the so-called Iceman had lived and died more than 5,000 years ago. Ötzi, as he became known to the world, was a copper age neolithic man journeying through a high mountain pass when he was shot by an arrow. The wound eventually took his life and he became encased in glacial ice before decomposition set in.
The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy has been his home since 1998 where he has been kept on ice and is viewable by his admiring public. All kidding aside, this is a world class museum full of fascinating artifacts. It is worth making a trip to Bolzano for this one museum alone.
Even if you don’t drink wine, a trip to a Bolzano vineyard should be part of your visit. Wandering along under the canopy of purple, plump bunches of grapes is a magical experience.
Be warned, many of the vines are planted on terraces along the steep slopes surrounding the city so there will be some climbing involved. Still, a little workout before wine tasting is a good thing.
Bolzano wines are mostly red with excellent offerings of Pinot Noir, Lagrein, and Vernatsch (my personal favorite) from small, family owned wineries. The Bolzano Wine Tasting Festival is held in the middle of March every year and is the best opportunity to try out all of the wines in the local area. Although, with over 170 vintners attending, you might not make it through every bottle on offer!
Another opportunity comes in the first week of September with the annual Saint Maddalena Wine Week. Of course, wine tasting is available year round at the various local wineries and wine shops. Just step in and ask for a taste. Check out the Bolzano Official Tourist site for more wine and festival info.
Markets in Bolzano
Who doesn’t love a good market? Strolling past stalls brimming with bright, colorful fruits and vegetables of the season. Immersing yourself in the local flavors, aromas, and sounds of the bustling vendors and shoppers. Bolzano has one of the best traditional markets around.
You can find fresh produce and traditional delicatessen items everyday, except Sunday, along the Piazza delle Erbe right in the center of town. Pick up a few apples, some salami, cheese, and bread and you’ve got the beginning of a good picnic.
The market expands on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays as farmers and clothing merchants bring their wares into town. But if something old is what you seek, check out the Flea Market sprawled out on the left bank of the Talvera every first Saturday of the month.
Bolzano is in the mountains, so get out into the fresh mountain air and experience nature at its best. The Renon cable car leaves every four minutes right form the middle of town. It’s always ready to whisk you away up over the shining tiled rooftops climbing up over the verdant vineyards, and up and up into the mountains.
Continue the alpine experience on the historic, narrow gauge railway from Soprabolzano to Collalbo where you can enjoy that picnic lunch from the market before catching the bus back down the mountain to Bozen. On the other side of the mountain is the first cable car in the world. Passengers have been riding the cable car “Colle” since 1908 when a local innkeeper came up with a way to bring more guests to his mountainside retreat.
The system is still running today, but don’t worry, there has been regular maintenance and upgrades over the years. Make reservations for a delicious lunch with a stunning view at the Michelin recommended Kohlern Inn.
Visit a Dairy
What would a bucolic Alpine scene be without those adorable cows munching the grass and sending their ringing cowbell music across the valley. Magical! And where there’s dairy cows, there must be milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, butter, you name it!
Bolzano is home to the Mila cooperative which collects the milk from the family farms and turns it into all of those delicious products. The Mila shop and cafe is a must for any and all milk lovers out there. They carry a wide variety of local cheeses for tasting, consuming, or packaging up for the long trip home.
If you haven’t been able to shop at the local farmer’s market in town you can find many other traditional food items here as well. Local honey, jams and marmalade, salamis, and other treats round out the shopping.
Shopping, Or Window Shopping On The Laubengasse
Aside form the many open air markets around the town center, Bolzano also offers the opportunity for the intrepid shopper to pick up some of the latest Italian fashions. The gorgeous arches of the Laubengasse open into a variety of treasure troves for those looking for a new style to add to their wardrobe.
And remember all of the dairy cows? That’s right, Italian leather goods are renowned and Bolzano is at the heart of the industry. This is the place for custom designer leather bags. What will you keep in your bags, fellow travelers?
Bolzano Gothic Cathedral and Treasure Museum
Bolzano’s main landmark, the cathedral and towering spire, is recognizable from all around town. Flying buttresses, sneering gargoyles, and colorful frescoes; Bozen’s Our Lady of Assumption Cathedral has everything you could want from 15th century architecture.
Add to that one of the finest collections of religious treasures in the South Tyrol and you can easily spend a good hour here. Step outside of the serene interior and into the beautiful main piazza, the Walther Square, and relax in the sunshine while the church bells sing there merry song.
What to Eat- Bolzano’s Amazing Food
I’m not sure why Bolzano didn’t make this list for best cities in Italy for food, but maybe because Bolzano culinary traditions are a perfect marriage of Tyrolian heartiness and Mediterranean flavors. Fresh pastas, delicate sauces, delicious cheese fused with German traditional items such as pillowy beetroot dumplings with a creamy gorgonzola sauce.
There are, of course, the usuals from both cuisines, spaghetti, pizza, antipasto, saltimbocca, schnitzel, knoedel, and on and on. For a light evening snack with some good people watching, book an outside table at Walthers on the main piazza.
For the best pizza in town, it has to be the Nussbaumer with its wood burning oven, if something more elegant is called for, reserve your table at the fabulous Restaurant Laurin and be sure to try the local beef tartar.
A Dolomite One Day Road Trip
Bolzano is the gateway to the Dolomites, so get out of the city and into the mountains. The first time you see the craggy spires and columns of the Rosengarten / Catinaccio massif you’ll be blown away.
Take the SS12 out of Bolzano heading northeast toward Brenner, then follow the signs to Tiers/Tires and continue up into the mountains. Stop in at the visitor’s center to learn more about the Dolomites and plan a hike. Continue out of Tiers in the direction of San Cipirano.
This beautiful mountain road winds its way along the base of one of the most beautiful mountains in the world (yes, in the world!). There are plenty parking and picnic areas where you can pull off, get out of the car and explore.
Continue on to Carezza. Here you can continue exploring the region by car or turn towards Bolzano. This entire route takes about two hours of driving time. Plan for more, however, as you won’t be able to resist the temptation to stop the car and get out for pictures and to take in the incredible landscapes.
Bolzano has been guarding the Italian entrance to the Brenner pass since the time of the Roman armies advance into the German territories. In fact, it started as an army station and regional headquarters around 54 BC.
While you won’t find much in the way of Roman ruins around Bolzano today, there are other fortifications and castles still dotting the surounding hills and mountains, each one more picturesque then the next.
Our favorite, just outside of Bolzano on the Serrano road (another great drive, btw) is Castel Roncolo, aka Runkelstein Castle. This impressive structure was built in the middle ages and is covered in medieval frescoes depicting scenes from the daily life of the nobility.
Bolzano is perfectly situated for a classic road trip through the South Tyrol and the Dolomites. Stay for a day or two, or a whole week, you’ll find plenty to do and new adventures and explorations waiting for you each and every day. Some important facts and figures:
- With strong ties to both Germany and Italy, Bolzano is bilingual with place names and street names in both languages. Bolzano in Italian, Bozen in German
- Population over 100,000, Bolzano or Bozen is the capital of the South Tyrol region in Italy
- Agriculture dominates the local economy with grapes and apples being the primary produce. Yes, the wine is excellent!
- Known as the Gateway to the Dolomites, Bolzano is perfectly situated for world class skiing and mountain sports
- Visit the official Bolzano Bozen tourist office for more information
How to Get to Bolzano
Driving south through Austria through the Brenner pass you will need a vignette and cash for special tolls in the pass. In Italy, the autostrada A22 is also a toll road with tickets and booths at intervals along the route (again, have cash on hand). Your credit may work for these tolls, but it is best to be prepared.
The driving is glorious through the Alps, but can be very crowded on Fridays and days before holiday weekends. Still, having your own car gives you the most options. Parking in Bolzano is inexpensive and can be found close to the center. Try to get a space near the Park hotel Laurin for the easiest access to the center.
Bolzano Train Station is also right in the middle of town with rail links to Rome, Venice, Milan, Munich, and Innsbruck. Visit the Deutsche Bahn web site for travel originating in Germany and Austria, and use Trenitalia for Italian rail tickets.
Hotels in Bolzano
Our number one pick with excellent value and comfort and the best location, would have to be Parkhotel Laurin, and yes, the restaurant is amazing as well. Parkhotel Laurin Via Laurino, 4 39100 Bolzano BZ, Italy.
From the murder mystery at the Archaeological Museum to the delectable dishes we tried, we love the city of Bolzano. Then to make the trip even better, we took a scenic ride into the Dolomites for the day. The views were nothing less than spectacular. We are planning our next trip to Bolzano, and we think you should go too!
Have you been to Bozen? What are your recommendations for the best things to see in Bolzano, Italy?
Author Bio: Jim Vail, is a travel, food, and video creator and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 15 years. For many years he lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands, and he’s visited over 90 countries.