You may not consider this Alpine centre of commerce as an Italian holiday destination but Bolzano's blend of ancient tradition and lively cosmopolitan culture is one not to be missed. Immersed in verdant valleys and snow-capped summits, here 'la dolce vita' is built into every day life.
Bolzano sits pretty in a strategic valley position nestled between high peaks just south of Italy's northern border. Named ' The Gateway to the Dolomites', this particular spot has always been coveted as a point of significance in a place where three rivers meet, the Talfer, Eisack, and Adige. In the Middle Ages, two major Alpine crossings (the Via Claudia Augusta over Reschenpass and the Brenner route over Brenner Pass) intercepted right here, putting this city on the age-old trade and commerce map. Many think of Bolzano as a bridge between southern and northern European countries mainly because three official languages are spoken: German, Italian and Ladin but also because a strong sense of German-Austrian culture is proudly embedded, even if Bolzano (and the region of Alto-Adige) are officially Italian (for now), still, many locals prefer to speak German for historic, cultural and point-of-fact reasons so for 'correttezza' sake, we'll use both Italian and German names like the locals do on street signs, official documents and as a general rule of thumb.
Since 1971, Bolzano-Bozen has been recognised as an autonomous state with power over it's own financial resources and able to retain 90% of its levied taxes. You can feel the security and serenity of well-managed self-sufficiency here. Things work well, streets are spotless, people are respectful and the city is maintained to a high standard of sustainability and cutting-edge development. In 2020, Bolzano-Bozen ranked first alongside Bologna with the highest quality of life in Italy. You can see why; it's well developed, well-connected, well-funded, impeccably maintained and puts well-being first.
But Bolzano-Bozen's past has not always been secure nor serene. As capital of the province of Alto Adige (Südtirol in German), the sought-after city has been tugged between Austria, Bavaria and Italy in a battle since forever, resulting in a mix of cultures and a unique blend of traditions, noted particularly in architecture, culture and food.
Dotted with castles in the lush hills nearby, the land is fertile and famous for apple orchards and wine. Apart from a carefully curated and charming, chocolate-box city centre, the whole surrounding area merits a visit and while Bolzano-Bozen's train station is smack bang in town (and very well-connected), I'd still heartily suggest driving in and out because one of my favourite things to do here is get lost on the Weinstrasse - the Wine Route (but more on that later.)
Bolzano-Bozen City Centre - What to see and do
With so much to see in the city, let's start on sunny Piazza Walther. When in doubt, the main piazza is a very good place to start and this one feels gigantic! Lined with traditional, Alpine cafes and the stunning gothic Duomo (note the quirky tiled roof) the man himself, Walther von der Vogelweide, an avant-garde, local poet from the Middle Ages, stands right here, sculptured from local marble and encircled in flowers. The piazza is the heart of town and hosts all kinds of events like the glorious flower market in spring and historic Christmas Markets in winter. From here wander down Via Portici, the street of porticoes also known as Laubengasse. You're now in the heart of medieval Bolzano-Bozen where millions have walked before you on the first road built through the city. Once bustling with trade, look out for fading affreschi of ancient market scenes and the Mercantile Museum in Palazzo Mercantile, commissioned in1635 by the archduchess Claudia de‘ Medici as a centre for trade and commerce. The only Renaissance building in town and well worth a visit, it's got some Medici glam to it.
Back in the 13th and 14th centuries, fresh food markets were set up to supply travellers passing through town, the tradition continues to this day in Piazza delle Erbe where a daily fruit market (except on Saturday afternoons and Sundays) supplies the city with local specialities in abundance. If you love a food market as much as we do, this is a colourful medley for the senses as well as a favoloso place to pick up all of Südtirol's best.
This is also where you grab a Tyrolean street food special, il Wurstel.
Stop at the Wurstel Stand, bolzanini foodie ritual, where the menu offers you a list of frankfurter options, sauces and what not but we say stick to 'the classic' - fresh Keiser roll, wurstel and senape (mustard) served on a napkin with cold, Bavarian beer - street food at its best, and simplest.
Piazza Walther fills with flowers in a late April/May Flower Market as well as the Autumn Market in October and twinkly Christmas Bancarelle for the period of Advent. Besides these, the city holds weekly clothes, farmers' and even bee markets - here's a great place to see them all listed.
Ancient markets, museums and Medici... but maybe he most significant piece of history Bolzano-Bozen lays claim to (by a hair's breadth it must be said - 92.55 metres to be precise) is Ötzi.
The beautifully preserved body of a travelling merchant was discovered frozen in a 3,208metre high pass between the Italian Val Senales valley and the Austrian Ötztal valley on 19 September in 1991. Why did Austria and Italy battle to lay claim to the find? Because our dear Ötzi died running through the snow 5000 years ago in 3340 B.C. right near the border with a spearhead in his shoulder. After Italy claimed his leathery, frozen body, extensive research and testing brought a wealth of Neolithic detail to our knowledge through the astounding preservation of his clothes, weapons, tools and stomach insides! You can visit beloved Ötzi in his final, temperature and humidity controlled resting place at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, highly-recommended, the museum is thoughtfully well-designed to keep the whole family enthralled, just make sure you get tickets first.
What was I saying about exploring the surroundings?
A lovely way to do this is to gain some height! Of the three cable cars closeby, the one near the old town in Via Renon can whisk you up1221 metres to Renon's High Plateau in 12 minutes for six euros. Branch out to San Genesio and the mountain hamlet of Colle by cable car from here - hike, relax, have lunch or bring your bike!
The best thing about the altitude (besides the scenic trip up) are the views.
Jaw-dropping visuals over the Adige valley, vine-strewn hills and dramatic, snowy peaks make the most incredible panorama and then there's the old "Rittner Bahn" (old Renon train) to rattle you around high green pastures between traditional picturesque villages and gothic churches. For hikers and bikers the trails are immaculate and pretty special. In awe of the scenery, you'll forget you're in Italy - quaint wooden log cabins and lush green forests take you faraway into an Alpine dreamland but guess what? We're only above Bolzano-Bozen.
To get back down to earth, feast on some hearty, local cuisine at the abundant trattorie and gasthaus in town. Here, foraged herbs and Alpine farm-products feature in Südtirolean foods showcasing the best of the land; dairy cows graze freely producing creamy, rich cheeses and meats are flavoured with juniper berries and spices. Cured Speck is one of the most recognisable specialties used widely in cooking as an ingredient in canederli or simply sliced onto a gorgeous tagliere, you'll notice this smoky, cured meat in many dishes of the region. Spätzle are a family favourite of ours - rolled wheat dumplings cooked with spinach, Speck and cream while the popular Bretzel are as typically regional as it gets. I adore the sweet treats here - there's a true love of berries, grains and textures like the delicious Schwarzplententorte, a traditional, local cake made buckwheat flour, almonds and lingonberry jam. Raspberries are picked wild from the sunny slopes, made into a warm sauce and poured over ice-cream and pastries like strudel are sweet but also rich with fruity flavour, with everything smothered in thick, mountain cream - bliss! and don't forget the biscuits! And the breads! A blog post is calling on Alto Adige foods me thinks...
As a tea lover, I've never come across such a range of herbal and fruit infusions as in Bolzano-Bozen - endless varieties of warming brews include Christmas concoctions with spiced orange, apple and cinnamon, cardamon and cloves or fruity berries mixes of every kind - a treasure trove of teas but let's get to the other delicious liquid of the region, the wine, and there's no where to get better acquainted with Alto Adige wines than on the Weinstrasse, this means leaving the city. You could get the bus or even cycle 4 km out of town but weather and flexibility-wise, if you can drive, then do. Then again, if you're an avid hiker or keen and capable cyclist, by all means, these hills are your oyster.
The 150 km Weinstrasse - Wine Route twists past 70 wineries through hilly Appiano just out of town framed in terraced vines, castles and apple orchards. The roads are generally narrow plus the area is popular with cyclists and hikers so everybody drives at snail's pace. We don't mind because it's so drop-dead gorgeous around here that honestly, the slower, the better! Dedicate a lazy afternoon to stopping along the way wherever your heart desires, or use the Alto Adige Wine Route website which is incidentally an excellent source of local information. Our bestie, Marika lives right here in Missiano so we know this bit of the Weinstrasse pretty well and always make a stop at the San Paolo Cantina - their Lagrein and Gewürztraminer is simply sublime.
The castles of Bolzano are many and worth exploring with Appiano as a good option to start from. Marika's tiny hamlet of Missiano has three castles and they're all within walking distance of each-other - another good place to start. Check out the weinstrasse website for the 'Three Castles Walk'
Castel Roncolo (AKA Runkelstein Castle) is called 'The Painted Castle' and quite easy to reach from the city - it has some decidedly sensual affreschi, hence the name.
Castel Mareccio is close to the city's oldest part of town and used as a venue for events and festivals. Lovely to walk around.
Where and when to stay
Accommodation is notoriously pricy in this area especially in ski season and over Christmas. Summer tends to be busy as well. Your best bet? Spring and autumn. That way you can catch the flower market or the autumn market and the gorgeous changing of the leaves. Staying in town is delightful if you're into history or are bringing your bike and plan to cycle around and up on the high plains. Easily spend a weekend in Bolzano-Bozen while on a Dolomites tour or stay even longer! 5 days is a good length of time and most of the city is within walking distance so if you can't find space in the old town, fear not, anywhere in town will suffice.
Out of town options are endless but we'd suggest Appiano any day, no, not just because of the wine route... The tiny hamlet of Marika's Missiano only has a mini market and a chemist but does have a handful of fabulous gasthauses! So pack your hiking boots and spend your days discovering castles, lunching under the vines, enjoying the lakes and getting lost in that wine route.
Another place we love is quaint, sleepy San Paolo with its sumptuous cantina at hand, lots of history and an incredible bakery. From these hilly bases you can catch buses into the city or drive into town (park near the station), it's only 10 minutes away.
By Train - regular trains connect Bolzano-Bozen to Rome, Florence, Bologna, Verona and Trento with stunning scenery on the way. Timetables and prices are found on the Trenitalia website.
By bus - Altoadigebus.com has all the information and routes from major airports nearby.
By plane - The city has an airport 15 minutes away, connected to European destinations via SkyAlps. Otherwise, Munich, Verona, Bergamo and Milan Malpensa are the closest larger airports with flights to the UK and beyond.
1. Use the well-informed and friendly tourist information centre in Via Alto Adige as well as the official Bolzano-Bozen website for all your travel needs. Also check the website page for events during your stay.
2. The Bolzano-Bozen Guestcard is offered to guests at certain hotels throughout the area. Validating the card wherever you go permits you free public transport around town and free entry to museums, here's a list of all the partner hotels who offer it.
3. Remember to add Tourist Tax on to your stay - charged from € 0,85 to € 2,50 per person per night up to ten days stay.
4. And remember also that strict tourist legislation means every adult guest must present their passport at reception for a photocopy to be made and kept on record.
5. The suedtiroltransfer shuttle service is an excellent way to get from public transport stations to your accommodation. It's super handy!
6. Spritz Hugo is a refreshing aperitivo of elderflower syrup, mint and prosecco originating from here and calls to be sampled during Aperitivo Time.
7. And lastly, when in doubt always ask a friendly local for help - everybody masticates English here and will eagerly point you in the right direction. Proud of their glorious territory and keen to show you around.
Oh and bring your hiking boots!
Enjoy the best Bolzano-Bozen has to offer, there's so much! From dreamy castles to green rolling hills, fine dining to street food, mountain tops, cable cars, artisan markets and oodles of history, go see what you think...
buon viaggio amici.
Photos courtesy of lovely Marika.