The Top 10 Things to Do in Bolzano, Italy

Bolzano aerial panoramic view, Italy
saiko3p / Getty Images

Bolzano is the capital city of the South Tyrol province of Italy—also known as the Südtirol or Alto Adige. The charming, historic city is considered the gateway to the Italian Dolomites, the toothy mountain range that's a mecca for year-round outdoor pursuits. With its Tyrolean-style architecture, medieval castles, and distinct cuisine and culture, Bolzano feels a world away from most of Italy.

Like the surrounding region, Bolzano has a dual personality, thanks to its history as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Italian, German, and regional Ladin are all official languages of Bolzano (which you'll often see written as Bozen). The majority of the population retains strong ties to its Austrian heritage.

Bolzano has plenty to offer, whether you're looking for a base for forays into the Dolomites or just want to spend a few days in the city. Here are our favorite things to do in Bolzano.

01 of 10

Come Face-to-Face with Ötzi the Iceman

A family visits the reconstruction of Otzi at the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum

Südtiroler-Archäologiemuseum / FlipFlop-Collective

The best museum in Bolzano is also one of the best archaeological museums in Europe and the city's most visited attraction. Three-story South Tyrol Archaeology Museum is dedicated to the life and mysterious death of Ötzi the Iceman, the Copper Age glacier mummy. Hikers discovered his remains in 1991, on a receding glacier high in the Tirolean Ötztal Alps, on the Italian-Austrian border. The hikers first thought they'd found a more recently deceased person, but it soon became apparent that Ötzi was much, much older—he died while crossing the Alps about 5,300 years ago.  

The comprehensive and fascinating collections, which include Ötzi's clothing, tools, weapons, and food, attempt to piece together the story of who he was, what he was doing in the mountains, and how he died—presumably a murder victim. The museum's centerpiece is a lifelike scale model of Ötzi and his leathery, mummified remains, kept in a specially designed refrigerated chamber.

The museum is closed on Monday.

02 of 10

Storm Runkelstein Castle

Aerial view of Runkelstein Castle

With its position just to the south of several key Alpine passes. Bolzano has always played an essential role in controlling trade and movement across the Alps. Runkelstein Castle (Castel Roncolo) is a testament to this strategic location. The Romanesque castle was initially built in 1237 by Friedrich and Beral, Lords of Wangen, to control the trade route to and from the north. Over the years, the castle changed hands with essential additions and interior and exterior frescoes added in the late 1300s. It was eventually gifted to the inhabitants of Bolzano in 1893 and remained a strong example of medieval fortifications in the Alps.

Visitors to Runkelstein are met with a massive, imposing fortress that transports them back to the Middle Ages. Most come for the frescoes, which represent one of the most complete and well-preserved secular fresco cycles in Europe.

The castle is closed on Mondays.

03 of 10

Gaze Up at the Duomo di Bolzano

Interior of the Duomo, Bolzano

Hiroki Ogawa / CC 3.0

Bolzano's mighty 14th-century cathedral, or duomo, is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary and stands on the site of earlier Christian basilicas. The duomo is a stellar example of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and its spire, gargoyles, and flying buttresses are reminiscent of Notre Dame in Paris, while its colorful facade reflects the use of local stone. A long central nave features soaring, vaulted ceilings supported by sandstone columns. Throughout the exterior and interior of the church, precious carvings, mosaics, and altars verify this place of worship as one of the most spiritually and historically significant in the region.

04 of 10

Ride the Renon Cable Car to Soprabolzano

Renon/Ritten Cable Car to Soprabolzano

Palickap / CC by SA 4.0

Departing from near the Bolzano train station, the Renon/Ritten cable car whisks riders up about 1000 meters to Soprabolzano (or Oberbozen), about 4.5 kilometers away. During the 12-minute ride, guests are treated to soaring views of the Dolomites and the river valley below. From Soprabolzen, it's possible to set out on year-round hikes or catch a historic train to other high-altitude towns and villages.

Cable cars depart every four minutes and can hold up to 30 riders.

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05 of 10

Hike to the Messner Mountain Museum Firmian

Path to the Messner Mountain Museum / Firmian

Foto Fitti / CC by 3.0

Legendary mountaineer Reinhold Messner has transformed several locations in the Dolomites into branches of the Messner Mountain Museum (MMM). Each branch is focused on a different aspect of the history and traditions of mountaineering, both in Italy and around the world. Set in medieval Sigmundskron Castle, MMM Firmian artfully melds the ancient castle setting with high-tech exhibits dedicated to the history of human interaction with the mountains and modern art installations. Visitors are encouraged to hike to the museum. Walking trails fan out from the castle and offer viewing points for quiet contemplation with the spectacular mountain landscape surrounding the site.

The museum is closed on Thursdays.

06 of 10

Stroll Under the Arcades

Covered arcades in Bolzano

Nowhere is the Tyrolean past of Bolzano more clearly felt than under its arcades—the kilometers of covered porticoes, many with intricate ceiling reliefs, designed to protect residents from inclement weather. On top of the arcades is row after row of cheerfully colored pastel townhouses. Once the homes of wealthy merchants—and still some pretty expensive real estate—the buildings are decorated with murals, stucco reliefs, and ornate balconies and wooden shutters. Via Dei Portici is the main drag, but many other streets in the historic center boast these lovely homes. Beneath the arcades, find high-end shopping, cozy Tyrolean taverns, and charming B&Bs.

07 of 10

Contemplate the Franciscan Church and Convent

Cloister at the Franciscan Church and Convent

Bolzano / / CC by SA 3.0

Bolzano's Franciscan church, convent, and cloister date to the early 1300s, though changes were made in the ensuing centuries. Frescoes in the peaceful cloister are attributed to the Giotto school of the 17th century, while in the church, a wooden nativity altar features ornately carved doors that date to the 1500s. There are also modern stained glass windows in the church, which create an interesting but cohesive juxtaposition with the medieval vaulted interiors. The church was supposedly visited by a boyish Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, who would later become known as St.Francis of Assisi and lend his name to the Franciscan Order.

08 of 10

Stop and Smell the Flowers on Walther Square

Waltherplatz, Bolzano

Public domain

Cheerful Piazza Walther is the focal point of Bolzano's old town, a broad, open space that's the site of the town's famous Christmas Market. The current piazza dates to the early 1800s, so it is "young" by Italian standards but had undoubtedly been a market square or meeting point for centuries prior. The spot has changed names several times in its 200-year history. It's now named after Walther von der Vogelweide, a German poet and minstrel—a statue of the poet dominates the square. A flower market is here in the spring, and the piazza is almost always decked out with blooms. Cafes and shops line the area, and the duomo sits on one end.

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09 of 10

Marvel at Frescoes in the Dominican Church

Fresco in the Chapel of St. John, Dominican Church, Bolzano

Mattana / CC 3.0

Another of Bolzano's most antique buildings, the Dominican church and monastery doesn't look like much from the outside. But behind its austere facade sits a pretty cloister and, in the Chapel of St. John (San Giovanni), some of the most important Gothic frescoes in northern Italy. The School of Giotto completed them when the artist's famous fresco cycle in Padua was underway and bears many similarities to that of that city's Scrovegni Chapel. There's also a music conservatory and a civic art gallery in the monastery complex.

10 of 10

Track Down Rationalist Architecture

Casa del Fascio, Bolzano, at night

Bartleby08 / CC by S.A. 4.0

While much of Bolzano belongs to the Middle Ages, this city is full of a few modernist surprises—most prominent among them an extant number of buildings belonging to the Fascist-era Rationalist architecture school. Severe, imposing, and in strong contrast to the fanciful Tyrolean style of the rest of the town, Bolzano's surviving Rationalist buildings are an interesting reminder of Italy's Fascist period. On Piazza del Tribunale, the façade of the former Fascist party headquarters (once called the Casa del Fascio) still bears the largest Fascist-era relief sculpture in existence—look for Mussolini on horseback. Across the piazza, the current Palace of Justice dates to the same era. Closer to the town center, the Bolzano Victory Monument is a controversial triumphal arch erected by Il Duce.