A favorite destination of nature lovers, the Dolomites, or Dolomiti in Italian, is a mountainous region that is part of the Northern Italian Alps. Dominated by 18 majestic peaks, its diverse landscape consists of more than 350,000 acres of jagged pinnacles, sheer rock faces, icy glaciers, deep gorges, lush forests, and verdant valleys. Because of its stunning beauty and well-preserved Mesozoic carbonate platform system that was formed 250 million years ago, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009.
Throughout the Dolomites, towns and villages dot the countryside, each part of a fascinating smorgasbord of unique customs and languages. In fact, prior to the end of WWI, South Tyrol and Trentino were part of Austria, which explains why 75 percent of the region's population speaks German as their first language.
The Dolomites trace the northeastern border between Italy and Austria, running through the Italian provinces of Belluno, Alto Adige (also called South Tyrol), and Trentino. The highest point of the mountain rises nearly 11,000 feet above sea level.
The journey from Milan to Bolzano takes a little over 3 hours by car or train. While it's possible to see a lot of the Dolomites by train or regional bus, many travelers prefer to rent a car for exploring small towns and natural areas not on public transportation routes.
Weather in the Dolomites
Weather can change abruptly in the Dolomites, so be prepared for anything. Autumn generally comes early with frost present as early as late August. People flock to the region to see the explosion of color that the fall foliage, before winter blankets the landscape with snow that may not melt until late spring. Summers are short but beautifully lush and green.
What to Do in The Dolomites
Replete with dramatic crests and unspoiled lakes, rivers, woodlands, and meadows, the region draws visitors year-round, with most coming for summer or winter sports.
Here's a list of some things of the great things to do in the Dolomites.
- Ski and Snowboard Spectacular Slopes: Its clean air, pristine surroundings, and lofty summits make the Dolomites an ideal place for all manner of outdoor winter sports. Depending on annual snowfall, slopes at the highest elevations may open by early fall and remain open until late spring.
- Tackle a Via Ferrata Climbing Route: A via ferrata (sometimes referred to in the plural as vie ferrate) is a protected climbing route outfitted with steel cables affixed to the rock face, that climbers can use to secure themselves. Each via ferrata is ranked by difficulty — determined by the steepness and the length between the holds. The most sought-after vie ferrate are found near Cortina, Alta Badia, and Val di Fassa.
- Take a Breathtaking Drive on the Great Dolomites Road: One way to see the Dolomites up close is to plan a car trip along the breathtaking Great Dolomites Road (Grande Strada delle Dolomiti). An engineering feat, the highway cuts through the mountains beginning outside Bolzano and ending in Cortina d'Ampezzo.
- Barrel Downhill on a Mountain Bike: Mountain biking is a popular pastime in the mild climate during the summer months. Whether you join a private biking tour or strike out on your own, you'll enjoy stunning views along winding trails and bumpy cycling paths.
- Soar Over Snow Capped Peaks in a Hot Air Balloon: In early-to-mid January, the skies over Dobbiaco are filled with hundreds of hot air balloons participating in the annual Balloon Week festival. Book a private balloon tour that takes you up, up and away for a bird's eye view of the Dolomites' Alta Pusteria valley.
Dolomites Towns & Cities to Visit
- Belluno: The alpine town of Belluno is considered the gateway to the Dolomites. Nestled between the Piave and Ardo rivers, this charming city is surrounded by meadows and rolling hills, making it the perfect home base for mountain biking, and trekking.
- Bolzano-Bozen: The capital of South Tyrol, Bolzano, has lovely parks, flower-lined promenades, and a cog railway and cable-car that ferry passengers up to ski areas and plateaus with stunning views of the surrounding peaks. Must-sees include the Duomo di Bolzano and the Archaeological Museum where you can meet Ötzi the Iceman, an incredibly well-preserved glacial mummy dating back to the Copper Age.
- Brunico-Bruneck: Brunico was founded in the 13th-century and is the largest town in the South Tyrol holiday area of Kronplatz. Adjacent to the ritzy Plan de Corones ski resort, other popular attractions in town includes Brunico Castle and the Messner Mountain Museum.
- Cortina d'Ampezzo: Cortina d'Ampezzo is a fashionable village in the province of Belluno. Not only does Cortina have an abundance of scenery, but it also boasts museums, art galleries, fine-dining restaurants, luxury hotels, plus one of the most famous ski resorts in the world. In the summertime, mountain climbers flock to the area to try their hand at the challenging via ferrata hiking trails nearby.
- Merano: Merano is a pretty spa town best known for attracting literary figures as Franz Kafka and Ezra Pound. Its main thoroughfare of smart shops and fancy hotels ranks second only to its beautiful gardens that line the River Passirio.
Where to Ski
- Val Gardena Ski Resort: High in the Dolomites, Val Gardena in South Tyrol is an international holiday spot frequented by winter sports enthusiasts. Part of the Sella Ronda circuit, Val Gardena sports 80 lifts and more than 300 miles of connected slopes. The village of Selva Gardena offers visitors plenty of opportunities for cultural events and leisure activities.
- Cortina d'Ampezzo Ski Resort: One of the world's most lavish ski resorts, the slopes at Cortina d'Ampezzo are ideal for beginning-to-intermediate skiers. It has 47 lifts and offers an array of fun activities for families such as tobogganing, bobsledding, ice skating, and even hockey.
- Ortisei Ski Resort: Best known for its outstanding cross-country skiing, Ortisei Ski Resort is located in the Val Gardena valley. After exploring the quaint little town, you can take the narrow-gauge railway up to the 8,000-foot summit to see one of the most beautiful alpine pastures in all of Italy.
Where to Hike, Bike & Climb
- Hiking: A must for enthusiastic hikers and climbers, the Belluno Dolomites National Park is a nature reserve with glaciers, waterfalls, forests, and archaeology museums. Renon-Ritten is another hiker's paradise, perched on a plateau that overlooks the city of Bolzano.
- Mountain Biking: For the more daring cyclist, the Herrensteigh in the Kronplatz area offers a variety of challenging downhill and freeride trails.
- Mountaineering: Monte Cristallo is located in the center of the Dolomites and has four peaks, making up the Cristallo group. The highest reaches an elevation of over 10,000 feet and can be explored by cable car or by scaling one of its three via ferrata routes. The 1993 movie "Cliffhanger," with Sylvester Stallone was filmed there.
Where to Stay
- Luxury Hotels: Stay in storybook alpine mountain lodges or rustic-chic wooden chalets with Michelin-star restaurants, world-class wine sommeliers, and panoramic indoor and outdoor infinity pools. An adults-only option near Bolzano, Preidlhof Luxury DolceVita Resort was recently named one of the world's top spa hotels.
- Wellness Hotels: Indulge in pampering treatments and unwind in thermal spas at a Dolomites wellness hotel. Facilities and services available include swimming pools, hot tubs, saunas, aromatic baths and soothing body massages. In Ortisei, Adler Spa Resort Dolomiti offers a high-end experience. Hotel Quelle Nature Spa Resort is a luxury wellness hotel with a family atmosphere northeast of Bruneck.
- Mountain & Alpine Huts: Also referred to as refuges, mountain or alpine huts are sprinkled all over the Dolomites. They serve as a rest stop where hikers and mountain climbers can grab a hearty meal before heading back out on the trail again. Some huts offer overnight stays, but booking ahead is highly recommended.
The official website of the South Tyrol has loads of information on things to do and places to stay in the Dolomites.