Until a few years ago, I’d never seen the silvery, luminous Dolomites — a subsection of the Alps located in the northernmost region of Italy known as the South Tyrol. I later discovered that the Dolomites were indeed enchanting, but to my surprise, so were the nearby towns in the valleys below.
Bordering Austria and Switzerland, the 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 World War II, it was agreed that while the South Tyrol would remain officially part of Italy, the German-speaking population would be allowed a high degree of autonomy. 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 loved about Trento, Bolzano, and Merano, the three towns we visited in South Tyrol.
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 laced with colorful buildings, narrow pedestrian streets, passageways, small squares, and outdoor café after café. Trento is surrounded by mountains, offering spectacular views everywhere.
Pro Tip: If you spend a minimum of 2 days in Trento, you’ll receive a Trentino Guest Card, which includes free use of Trento’s buses and access to many tourist attractions.
Here are several to check out:
Perched on a hill just a 15-minute walk from the center, Buonconsiglio Castle dates back to the 13th century. The residence of the Prince Bishops of Trento for over 500 years, its eclectic architecture is a mix of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque. It has a cylinder-shaped tower with frescoes illustrating the months of the year, as well as a museum on the history of Trentino — this region of Italy.
A Science And Natural History Museum
Muse is renowned for its interactive, user-friendly approach to science. Each of the floors represents a chapter in the history of evolution. A 20-minute walk from the city center, it’s located in a large park surrounded by mountains.
At the well-preserved underground Roman site, Tridentum, you can see a section of paved road, house fragments, drains, heating systems, fortification walls, and remnants of courtyards.
Hundreds of miles of dedicated bike paths surround Trento. You can walk or cycle through fruit orchards and vineyards toward Bolzano, or in the opposite direction toward 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 café with an Aperol Spritz, Italy’s famous cocktail.
Pro Tip: Visit Trento and the following cities any time except July and August when it gets very hot.
“Let’s move here!” I said to Barry soon after we arrived in the leafy town of Bolzano. As we wandered around the town’s cobblestoned historical center, 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 quality of life. There are lots of things to do here, both indoors and out.
The Old Town
Walther Square 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 square is the home of the Flower Market (a colorful fruit market) and a Christmas Market that attracts almost a million visitors every December.
A 5,000-Year-Old Mummy
Bolzano is probably best known for Ötzi the Iceman, the mummified body of a man who died some 5,300 years ago. Hikers discovered him near the Austrian border in 1991, half in, half out of melting ice at 10,500 feet. Unlike most mummies, Ötzi is unique; a preserved “wet mummy.” Soon after his death, snow followed by glacial ice entombed him, keeping his body from decomposing.
He is now housed in a cold cell in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, where you can see him through a small viewing window. Peering through a small, double-glazed viewing window at the brown, desiccated body of a man who died 5,300 years ago is a surreal experience. The museum also displays his copper-headed ax, the rest of his clothes, his bow and arrow, and much more, helping us understand how life was lived in the Alps long before the Pyramids were built.
Three cable cars lead to hills above town. The most accessible one, in the middle of town, is the funicular heading to the mountain hamlet of Soprabolzano. At the top, you can take a narrow-gauge railway to other villages, views, and trails.
Parks And Walks
Bolzano has ample green space, including promenades on both sides of the River Talavera and the Guntschna-Promenade trail located in the northern part of the city, starting near the old parish church of Gries. As you hike, you’ll see views of the city and the surrounding mountains.
A river town like Bolzano, Merano is more upscale and still feels like the old-world spa resort it was in the 19th century. Located within a lush basin, it’s surrounded by mountain peaks that reach almost 11,000 feet. You enter the old town through one of three 13th-century gates.
The Passirio River
Many of the old hotels, restaurants, bars, and cafés are lined up along one side of the Passirio River. During the summer, people picnic, wade, and leap from rock to rock at the river. At the end of the row of hotels, you’ll find the thermal baths that brought Merano its fame 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 abound all over town and at different elevations. The Summer and Winter Promenades line either side of the river — the first winding its way beneath shade trees and the second past a covered Art Deco portico with paintings.
A longer walk is the 2.5-mile Tappeiner Trail which leaves the city center and climbs upward. Here, you can stroll along looking down at the rooftops of town and stopping at different spots for a beer or a coffee. The trail is considered one of the legendary high walks in Europe.
Yet another route, Sissi’s Path is named after the popular Empress Elisabeth of Austria who loved to walk when she sojourned in Merano during the late 1800s.
An Expansive Castle And Gardens
Sissi’s Path takes you from the center of Merano up to Sissi’s holiday residence at the Trauttmansdorff Castle, whose 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 known as Merano 2000, feeling very spoiled to glide over the treetops and not have to climb up 3,000 feet to enjoy the mountain scenery. At the top, we found miles of moorland and trails 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!
Some towns I visit once and decide that, charming as they are, I don’t need a second helping. It was not so with the cities in the South Tyrol. Trento, Bolzano, and Merano are so enchanting, I doubt I’d ever tire of them. Not only do they border spectacular nature, but each is beautiful in its own right.