Draped across the high Alps, where Italy, Austria and Switzerland collide and their cultures blur, Italy’s northernmost region is a major draw for holiday-makers who mostly come for winter skiing, summer hiking and tranquil year-round vistas. However, in past times this region was far from today’s peaceful vacation paradise; a string of castles along the Adige (Etsch) Valley bear witness to the cut and thrust of medieval politics, and World War I saw prolonged and ferocious fighting, with Italian and Austrian troops battling it out in the harsh conditions of the Alpine ridges. Armies of brightly attired skiers and sturdily booted hikers have long since replaced the troops, invading the sunny slopes on ski and board or marching along one of the hundreds of dramatic trails that crisscross the landscape.
As its double-barrelled name suggests, the region is made up of two areas: Trentino, the southern part, is 98 percent Italian-speaking and the cuisine and architecture belong predominantly to the south rather than the Alps. By contrast, the mountainous terrain around Bolzano – known both as the Südtirol (South Tyrol) and Alto Adige – was only annexed to Italy at the end of the World War I. Here, onion-domed churches dot vineyards and forests, street signs are in German and Italian and the landscape is redolent of illustrations from the Brothers Grimm. German is the dominant tongue though immigrants from Italy’s south rarely speak anything other than Italian. Both Trentino and Alto Adige enjoy autonomy from central government, along with one of the highest standards of living in Italy.
The region is dominated by the barren, jagged rock walls of the Dolomites. Some of the most eye-catching peaks in Europe, these vast massifs have been eroded over the last 200 million years into a weird and wonderful array of needles, towers and pinnacles. In 2009 the range was added to the UNESCO World Natural Heritage List for their unique geology – they began life around 250 million years ago as a giant coral reef beneath the ancient Tethys Ocean – and for their diverse ecosystem abundant in rare flora and fauna. Numerous cable cars rise from the region's small resorts enabling you to hike at 2000–3000m, with a web of well-marked trails lasting from a gentle day-hike to a two-week trek. Views of this spectacular landscape can also be savoured from the comfort of luxurious spa hotels, with first-rate regional cuisine and a unique selection of treatments from bathing in thermal water to "dry baths" involving lying swaddled in sheep's wool or mountain hay.
Down in the valleys, Trentino-Alto Adige has a flourishing cultural scene, with cutting-edge galleries and museums, such as Trento's MUSE science museum and Bolzano’s Museion gallery. The regional capital Trento has an atmospheric old centre and an enviable quality of life, while Bolzano, Alto Adige’s chief town, with its star attraction the famous “Ice Man”. Verdant hillsides planted with vineyards can be visited as part of the Strada del Vino wine-tasting route, and the valley floor is carpeted with apple trees which produce the principal ingredient for Südtirol’s delicious strudel.
Both Trento and Bolzano are transport hubs, reachable by train via Verona and Innsbruck, and by bus from Bergamo and other airports. The scenic Great Dolomites Road links Bolzano with Cortina d’Ampezzo. Merano, in the northwest, is another hub, serving the Val Venosta (Vinschgau) and its side valleys which take you deep into the mountains of the Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio, straddling the border with Lombardy.
The South Tyrol (Südtirol) was Italy’s reward for cooperating with the Allies during World War I. But when Mussolini’s Fascists came to power in 1923 the region was renamed Alto Adige after the upper reaches of the Adige River, and despite the fact that German speakers outnumbered Italian speakers by around ten to one, a process of sometimes brutal Italianization was imposed on the area. Cartographers remade maps, substituting Italian place names (often made up) for German; people were forced to adopt Italian names; the teaching of German in schools was banned and stonemasons even chipped away German inscriptions from tombstones. World War II then intervened, and by 1946, Austria and Italy came to an agreement ratified under the Paris Peace Treaty that Austria would give up its claim to the region on condition that Italy took steps to redress some of the cultural damage perpetrated under Fascism.
Successive governments have channelled funds into the area allowing the region more independence than ever before and much greater say in local law. Over the last few years, Italy has moved closer into the European Union, and its central and regional governments have become more tolerant of ethnic diversity and, increasingly, German is the language of preference in Südtirol.
Alto Adige cuisine has Germanic traditions, while Trentino cooking blends mountain influences with Italian flavours. The hearty traditional food is great for refuelling after a day of hiking or skiing and the quality of produce is exceptional, even in the simplest mountain hut. For finer dining, adventurous chefs are reworking old recipes to fashion much lighter dishes, and it is well worth trying out some of the pricier restaurants we list for a new take on local specialities.
A traditional meal starts with some kind of salami (lucaniche in local dialect), often paper-thin slices of salt beef, or Tyrolean canederli – bread dumplings spiked with speck (smoked ham) often served in broth (brodo). You’ll also see strangolapreti (bread and spinach gnocchi) and schlutzkrapfen (spinach-filled pasta) on the menu. Fresh lake and river fish, game and rabbit are popular as secondi, as are venison goulash or boiled cured pork with sauerkraut. Desserts are often based on apples, pears or plums, readily available from the local orchards. Other sweet treats include apfelstrudel, sachertorte and kaiserschmarren, a scrambled pancake with raisins.
A highlight of the year for food- and wine-lovers is the autumn Törggelen season, when everyone heads for the hills to sample the new vintage and snack on mountain ham and roast chestnuts, followed by a walk.
Vines have been cultivated here since before Roman times, and Trentino-Alto Adige produces more DOC wines than any other region in Italy. Most famous are the Pinot Grigios and Chardonnays, which are bright and aromatic from being grown at high altitudes and in cool conditions. These also provide wine makers with the raw material for some outstanding traditional-method sparkling wines, often marketed under the spumante Trentino Classico label. Despite the excellence of the whites, including the aromatic slightly sweet Gewürztraminer, local wine makers actually make more reds often with local varieties like Teroldego and Schiava (known as Vernatsch in German-speaking areas). Red wines made from Schiava are good when young: look out for the pale red Kalterersee (Caldaro) and the fuller, fruitier St Magdalene (Santa Maddalena); those made from the Lagrein grape variety are more robust, such as the strong, dark Lagrein Dunkel, or the Kretzer rosé from Bolzano’s vineyards at Gries. Also worth seeking out is the rare vino santo (not to be confused with vin santo from Tuscany) from Trentino’s Valle dei Laghi – a luscious dessert wine made from local Nosiola grapes.
Wine-related festivities abound across the region with almost every village celebrating its vintages, harvest or related traditions – ask local tourist offices for details. The biggest wine bash, the Festa in Vino takes place in the sixteen towns along the South Tyrolean Wine Road from mid-May to mid-June, with tours, music, tastings and myriad other events. The month of events comes to a climax with the Night of the Cellars when wine producers throw open their doors on the final night.
There are plenty of summer concerts, but possibly the best event is the Suoni delle Dolomiti series of jazz, folk and world music concerts by artists from all over the world: the concept is an original one – you hike (sometimes with the artists) to the chosen location, which may be a wood, perhaps, or a rocky gully, then listen to the concert. Performances are in the early afternoon and sometimes at dawn. In the best Central European tradition, vast Christmas markets take over the historic centres of Trento and Bolzano, as well as most towns in the region.
This section of the italian Alps offers some exhilarating hiking, often subject to snow, ice and scorching sun in the same day. There are plenty of opportunities for day-walks in stunning scenery that are within average capabilities, and routes are well established and well signposted. Alternatively, consider tackling one of the longer trails known as alte vie (literally “high ways”). Four of these run north–south between the Val pusteria (pustertal) and the Veneto; four from the Val d’isarco (eisacktal) south; and two from Bolzano, with plenty of mountain huts along the way for meals and overnight accommodation. Some of the initial ascents are strenuous, but once you are up on the ridges the paths level out and afford stupendous views across the valleys and glaciers. parts of the trails are exposed, or have snowfields across them, but there are usually detours you can take to avoid these. In Trentino two well-planned circuits provide spectacular views, the Dolomiti Panorama Trek and the Dolomiti Brenta Trek.
Some 20 km to the south of Trento and a mere 13 km from Lago di Garda, Rovereto is a small picturesque town, with stylish palazzi containing university faculties which give the town a youthful, lively atmosphere. Its main attraction is the outstanding mart gallery, though it's also home to the world's largest ringing bell, at Colle di Miravalle, which tolls a hundred times daily to honour those who died in the war. The bell is in a little park, where there are lovely views which you can admire while listening to the bell toll.
Despite Rovereto having a population of only 40,000 this sleepy town still has a surprising amount of things to do. Not to miss spots are Piazza Rosmini, Palazzo Pretorio and Palazzo Sbardellati. The highlight of Rovereto is Rovereto Castle, considered to be the best example of alpine fortification. Built in the 14th Century, the castle has progressed with history and has been used for various purposes throughout time.
The vineyards, as with most places in Italy, are picture-perfect. Bike rides and walks are the best way to immerse yourself, especially if you wish to stop off for tasters along the way. For Mozart fans, visit St. Marks Church, where the young Mozart held his first public concert.
Designed by Mario Botta, MART (Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea) hosts world-class exhibitions and is one of Trentino's unmissable experiences. The spectacular building, with spacious galleries wrapped around a central circular atrium flooded with light, is impressive enough even before you view the art inside. Skilfully curated, themed exhibitions use works loaned from institutions and individuals around the world as well as drawing on the gallery’s collection of 30,000 paintings, design pieces and sculptures by names including Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Warhol (as well as lesser-known locals such as Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero, Giorgio de Chirico and Giorgio Morandi). A smaller branch nearby, the Casa d'Arte Futurista Depero displays Depero's large cloth collages, tapestries, furniture and other design pieces.
With their saw-toothed peaks and glaciers, the Dolomiti di Brenta, northwest of Trento, have a rougher character than the better-known Dolomitic peaks to the east – and their trails are far less well-trodden. While they are steep, few peaks rise above 3000m, and the paths are easy to follow, though the walking is strenuous. Climbers come here for the towers of Cima Tosa and Cima Brenta, accessible by vie ferrate – iron “ladders” knocked into the rock. If you are looking for easier strolls, Val Genova has a gentler beauty, with a woodland path taking you past a number of waterfalls cascading down the mountainside.
The range is circled by a good but slow and winding road, the southern half of which passes through the quiet lake resort of Molveno. The Trento-to-Madonna di Campiglio road takes you past the frescoed churches and wooded valleys of the Valle Rendena before arriving at Campiglio itself, the best base for skiing in the area, and a transport hub for walkers and climbers. The northern half of the Brenta mountains is bounded by the Val di Non and the Val di Sole, both served by the privately run Trento–Malè railway.
Vie ferrate (literally “iron ways”) are an Italian phenomenon, consisting of fixed metal ladders, pegs and cables that climbers clip onto with karabiners, making otherwise difficult routes accessible. Many vie ferrate began life in the late nineteenth century as mountaineering took off as a sport in Europe; Alpini troops put others in place during World War I to help the climbs that were a matter of survival for the soldiers fighting in the mountains. In the decades since then, volunteers from local Club Alpino Italiano groups have created many more.
Kompass maps show vie ferrate as a line of little black dots or crosses, so you can easily avoid them – they are definitely not for beginners or vertigo-sufferers. To use them, you need to be confident belaying and have the proper equipment (including helmet, ropes, two self-locking karabiners and a chest- or seat-harness). Incidentally, it’s not advisable to climb a via ferrata in a thunderstorm either, as it might just become one long lightning conductor.
Once you’ve done a few straightforward paths up in the mountains you may be inspired to tackle some ferrate, and there are plenty of specialist guides around who can show you the ropes – though you'll need to book at least a week ahead in high season. Guides charge by the hour, so save money by getting a small group together. Many of the rifugi are run by mountain guides, or you can enrol on a mountain skills course: both Trentino and Alto Adige provincial tourist offices keep lists of guides and mountaineering schools. Alternatively, contact the Collegio Guide Alpine del Trentino, an organisation for Alpine guides in Trentino: for Alto Adige, contact Verband der Südtiroler Berg- und Skiführer.
The Catinaccio (or Rosengarten) range is one of the best-known sights in the Dolomites, its unmistakable bare-rock pinnacles appearing on brochures, guides and myriad souvenirs. This immense wall of stone along the edge of the 3000m-high massif takes on a famously rosy glow at sunset, and the mountain plays a lead role in the area’s best-known myths and legends. Trails across this mountain are popular with mainly Italian and German walkers and, although the zigzag paths to the peaks can be crowded in August, once you’re above the cable-car line, there’s plenty of wilderness to lose yourself in.
Access is simple enough from Vigo di Fassa, the main place to stay in the Val di Fassa, which splits off from the Val di Fiemme north of Predazzo at Moena. If you travel these roads and trails, you pass through one of the heartlands of Ladino culture.
At the head of the Val di Fassa, Canazei makes a good springboard for the high plateaux of the Gruppo di Sella, and the gentler trail of the Viel del Pan, which leads down to the tiny resort of Arabba. On the northern side of the Sella group, Corvara is a much larger resort with a sizeable Ladin population.
The Ladins (Ladini in Italian, Ladinisch in German) are a community of around thirty thousand people living in the Gardena, Badia, Fassa, Livinallongo and Ampezzo valleys around the Sella massif. They’re united by their ancient language – Ladin – which was once spoken over a wide area, from Austria down to the River Po (in what’s now Emilia-Romagna). The Dolomitic Ladin language, preserved by the relative remoteness of the territory, is linked to Swiss Romansch (there are 40,000 speakers in the Swiss Engadine) and Friulano (more than forty thousand speakers in the Friuli region of Italy).
The history of the Ladins is recorded in their epics, which recount tales of battles, treachery and reversals of fortune. Around 400 AD, the Ladins were constantly threatened with invasion by Germanic tribes from the north and others from the Po Valley. Christianity later emerged as a major threat, but the Ladins absorbed and transformed the new religion, investing the new saints with the powers of more ancient female divinities.
The Museo Ladin de Fascia, Strada la Pieif 7 (wistladin.net), between San Giovanni and Vigo di Fassa, is devoted to traditional Ladin working life and provides a fascinating introduction to Ladin culture, with intriguing exhibits on the language and history. It also has exhibits scattered throughout the territory, including a restored nineteenth-century cooperage (Botega da Pinter) at Via Dolomiti 3 in Moena; a restored watermill (Molin de Pezol) at Via Jumela 6 in Pera di Fassa; and a working, antique sawmill (La Sia) at Via Pian Trevisan in Penia, just outside Canazei. Tourist offices throughout the area have details of festivals, exhibitions and events.
The grasslands of the Alpe di Siusi (Seiser Alm), to the east of Bolzano, are Europe’s largest Alpine plateau, extending over sixty square kilometres above the rest of the valley bordered by Sciliar (Schlern), a flat-topped, sheer mountain which splits off at one end into two peaks. The lush summer pastures 2000m above sea level are superb for mountain biking and hiking, especially now that the area, protected by the Parco Naturale dello Sciliar, is closed to road traffic (except for guests of hotels on the Alpe) between 9am and 5pm.
If you are travelling by bus to Siusi (Seis) from Bolzano you can stash mountain bikes in the luggage compartment of the bus. The service passes through FIÈ AM SCILIAR (Völs am Schlern), famous for inventing the curative “hay bath”.
Dubbed the “Pearl of the Dolomites”, Cortina d’Ampezzo is well and truly part of the mountains of Trentino-Alto Adige, even though it officially belongs to the Veneto region next door. An upmarket ski resort – think an Italian St Moritz – Cortina boasts a gorgeous setting, surrounded by a great circle of mountains, and it’s had a starring role in many films, including The Pink Panther and For Your Eyes Only.
After hosting the Winter Olympics in 1956, Cortina swiftly became the resort to be seen in and in the 1960s you were just as likely to spot movie stars such as Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren sauntering down the Corso Italia as people in ski boots. Nowadays, the VIPs it attracts tend to be titans of Italian industry – the Agnellis, Benettons, Barillas and the president of Ferrari all frequent the resort – and the population swells from seven thousand to around forty thousand during the ski season (roughly Christmas to Easter).
An hour north by train from Bolzano, Merano (Meran) lies in an attractive, broad stretch of the Adige (Etsch) Valley. Neatly tended apple orchards and vineyards cover almost every square inch of the lower slopes and valley floor, but when you look upwards the scale changes due to the two great mountain ranges – the Ortles (Ortler) and the Giogaia di Tessa (Texelgruppe) encircling the town. Closer geographically and in looks to the Swiss and Austrian Alps than the Dolomites, the grandeur of the landscape turns up a notch here – and a simple event like a summer storm becomes a drama, with the whole valley reverberating to the rumble of thunder.
A well-heeled spa town, relaxed, stylish and packed with affluent shoppers and spa-goers, Merano has a mild climate that attracted Central Europeans at the beginning of the last century after Empress Elizabeth of Austria – known as Sissi – chose the town for her winter cure. The époque bequeathed a resort of fin-de-siècle hotels, gardens and elegant promenades.
The Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio (or the Stilfser National Park) is one of Italy’s major national parks: it extends north to the Swiss Engadine and southwest into Lombardy and covers the whole Ortles (Ortler) mountain range. The park is topped by one of Europe’s largest glaciers (the Ghiacciaio dei Forni) and crossed by the Passo dello Stelvio (2758m), which misses being the highest pass in the Alps by just 12m.
Ski tourism has made its mark, and the park is as crisscrossed by lifts as anywhere in the Alps, but it’s still a remarkable place. People come here for the high trails and glacier skiing in summer, or for the chance of seeing wildlife such as the red and roe deer, elk, chamois, golden eagle and ibex. A railway line running from Merano to Malles and connecting buses from stations along the way into the side valleys makes all places of interest below easily accessible.
The white-knuckle drive across the Ortles mountains over the Passo dello Stelvio (Stelvio Pass) to Bormio follows a convoluted route consisting of 48 switchbacks and turns. Motorbikers love the thrills and the views while cyclists see the climb as the ultimate challenge – it’s often an important stage of the Girò d’Italia. It's one of the last Alpine passes to open to traffic each year, sometimes staying closed until July if there's been a late fall of snow. You can access the pass by bus from Malles, one early morning, the other mid-afternoon.
The end point of the route, Bormio, is a rather snooty resort with a sprawl of hotels in its cobblestoned core. The visitor centre at Via Roma 131/B can advise on accommodation as well as nature trails in the southern reaches of the Stelvio national park.