With snow-kissed Dolomite peaks boldly calling in the distance and vineyards and castles punctuating every surrounding hillside, Bolzano wraps its arms around you and seductively whispers an indelible blend of German, Austrian and Italian influences deep into your being.
Tucked between Innsbruck to the north and Trento to the south, Bolzano—or Bozen if you prefer the roll of a German tongue—is a must-see for any traveler touring northern Italy. The capital of Italy’s South Tyrol region, the city is an Alpine-Mediterranean jewel amidst one of Europe’s top hidden gems.
Often referred to as “The Gateway to the Dolomites”, the quality of life in Bolzano ranks at the top in Italy. No surprise considering it’s the perfect size, balancing all the perks of a vibrant, youthful city with old world charm and sensibilities. Its inviting cobblestone avenues dotted with cafes, pubs and shops welcome your every step. The city reveals centuries of influences and bears a history rivaling Rome with a man lost in ice for thousands of years and a gravely connection to the real-life Dracula.
Here’s how to make the most of a day in South Tyrol’s most cosmopolitan city…
Easy Like A Mediterranean Morning
Head to the historic center of the city. Start your day with a hot chocolate, cappuccino or tea at one of Bolzano’s cozy street-side cafes. The Mediterranean climate in this part of South Tyrol makes enjoying morning’s light next to divine. Sit back and watch the city come to life. Go full South Tyrolean by ordering up a freshly-baked krapfen. Krapfen is a doughnut-like pastry filled with apricot or jam marmalade. Careful, as one may turn into two.
While relaxing install the BZMobile app — the official guide to the city of Bolzano — on your smartphone. The app lets you flip through a comprehensive list of attractions, restaurants, walks and more. Now take a deep breath. It’s okay. You’re not going to see everything Bolzano offers in one day — this is a dolce vita town made for stopping and smelling the roses.
Now is a good time to plan to stay in the area longer. If that’s doable, consider obtaining the Bolzano Bozen Card. This card is complimentary at participating hotels and provides free access to numerous museums in Bolzano and 90 other museums throughout South Tyrol. Included with the card are English-speaking city tours and guided excursions to the Dolomites National Park, along with free use of all public transportation throughout South Tyrol.
The Poetic Heart of Bolzano
The best way to discover a city is through its culinary traditions. You can embark on such a mouth-pleasing adventure through the Bolzano Street Food Tour. This 2 ½ hour outing begins at 10:00 a.m. and includes 5 stops where you’ll indulge in local specialties such as bread, sausage, sweets, as well as historical nuggets shared by your tour guide.
If you enjoyed one too many krapfens, a morning food tour may not be for you. In that case, set off on your own to see some of Bolzano’s treasured sights. The perfect starting point is the city’s “living room” or Waltherplatz, which is the town square.
At the center looms a remarkable statue of Walther von der Vogelweide, a renowned poet and Minnesinger from the Middle Ages believed to have been born in South Tyrol. Sculpted in 1889 from South Tyrol’s revered Lasser marble, the statue stands on an impressive fountain encircled by flowers.
The Waltherplatz is the ideal spot for lingering and people watching. From late November to early January, it hosts one of Italy’s largest Christmas markets. The square comes alive like a wintry fairy tale with puppet shows, decadent pastries, mulled wine, horse-drawn carriage rides and 80+ stalls of seasonal gifts, treats and crafts. If you’re visiting at this time, we highly recommend taking public transportation instead of driving due to the popularity of this market.
From the square, it’s impossible to miss the Gothic-Romanesque cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, which is the largest Gothic church in South Tyrol. The cathedral was originally constructed in the 12th century and took on its Gothic form in the 14th century. It has an ornately patterned roof to match the vibrancy of the square and a steepled bell tower chiseled skyward. The stonework is striking. Two weathered lions guard its entrance and form the base of two columns supporting an archway. A massively forged door with curious carvings of the Isarco river and the Dolomites welcomes worshipers.
Inside, lovers of medieval art can enjoy frescoes from the 1300s and marvel at the cathedral’s stunningly sculpted pulpit, which was completed in 1507.
Where the Streets Have No Lame
Leaving the cathedral, head to the Via Portici (also called Laubengasse) just north of the square. This was the very first street in Bolzano. A pulsating center of trade for nearly 1,000 years, arcaded shops now greet you on both sides. While the shops are fun to explore, the real treat is admiring the colorful facades. They exhibit a melodic blend of Italian and German architectural influences.
Along Via Portici, you’ll also find the Mercantile Museum and Mercantile Palace founded by Claudia de‘ Medici. This is the only Renaissance-style building in Bolzano. It once served as a court of justice for the Mercantile Court. Today, the museum tells the fascinating story of Bolzano’s economic importance through the centuries.
After consuming so much history, art and architecture it’s only natural to settle in for a long lunch. Experience a true South Tyrolean meal with a glass of the region’s celebrated wine at Wirtshaus Vögele. A cultural gem of Bolzano, the establishment was first mentioned in 1277 and held secret gatherings in World War II. Gaining entrance to these meetings required whispering “Vögele”, which means “little bird”.
Wirsthaus Vögele is a member of Sudtiroler Gasthaus — an organization dedicated to carefully preserving South Tyrolean restaurant culture and quality. The restaurant conjures a cozy atmosphere with a winding assortment of dining rooms each offering its own ambiance.
If you visit during asparagus season in April or May, be sure to try a dish with “spargel”. Our asparagus risotto was as good as a sweetly sung melody from Walther von der Vogelweide himself!
An Afternoon with the Ancient
After lunch, head west on Via Portici. You’re about to go back in time…way back. You’ll eventually come to the home of Bolzano’s most famous resident at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. At the age of 5,300 years old, Ötzi the Iceman is a remarkably well-preserved corpse. Mummified naturally by glacier ice, he’s the oldest intact human body ever found. He was discovered by two hikers in 1991 on a mountainside in South Tyrol’s Ötztal Alps.
Analysis of his body indicates an arrow cut ole Ötzi’s life short. Fortunately, that type of hospitality has long left South Tyrol. If Ötzi were alive today no doubt he would be the leader of a biker gang. Scientists discovered 61 tattoos across his body. We highly recommend buying your tickets online before you go. Check out Europe Up Close’s Guide on visiting Otzi.
Head back to the city center to the Piazza delle Erbe, a lively marketplace since 1295. Spend some time browsing the stalls overflowing with fresh fruits, vegetables and other specialties. If you walk away without picking up some delicious snacks you’ll be insulting a 700+ year tradition!
From the market, wander north along the Franziskanergasse to the Franciscan Friary. Founded in 1221, the friary contains a Gothic church, chapel and cloisters with frescoes dating back to the 14th century.
It is believed Saint Francis attended mass in the Chapel while accompanying his cloth merchant father on a business trip to Bolzano. Another legend also enshrouds the friary albeit one much more nightmarish. The funeral stone and tomb of the real-life Dracula’s grandson forever marks its hallowed walls.
Beyond Old Town Bolzano
If your day has not been consumed by the old town charms of Bolzano, you can either hop back in your car or rent a bike for a 25-minute ride to the Messner Mountain Museum Firmian located within Sigmundskron Castle. Just 4 miles southeast of Bolzano’s city center, this museum explores the relationship between man and mountain as inspired by the legendary climber Reinhold Messner (check out this piece about why Messner is the world’s great living man).
Next, you can venture up to the ancient ruins of Schloss Rafenstein, which watch over the city of Bolzano. Enjoy some of the South Tyrolean treats you picked up earlier as you admire the views. Then head over to Castel Roncolo (Schloss Runkelstein), also known as the Painted Castle (note: the castle is also accessible from the Talvera-Promenade in the city center or the line 12 shuttle bus from Waltherplatz). This well-preserved 12th-century castle showcases frescoes inside and out lending a colorful window back to life in medieval times.
After touring its museum, you can grab dinner at the restaurant within the castle. But our recommendation is to head back to the city center to dine at the much celebrated Parkhotel Laurin Restaurant. Here, you can let the culinary magic of head chef Manuel Astuto dazzle your senses. Some of the world’s biggest movie stars have come to crave his South Tyrolean creations — flying him to prepare meals at their private parties.
No matter where you choose to eat, be sure to order a glass of Lagrein as you’re in the home of this robustly flavored, but smooth wine.
If castles are not your thing, another option in the afternoon is to catch the Ritten/Renon cable car. It whisks you high above Bolzano to the Ritten / Renon high plateau. From up here, you can hike a variety of trails and soak in wide open views of the Dolomites’ Rosengarten and Schlern massifs. You can also trek to the surreal 25,000-year-old Earth pyramids. These odd natural formations look like stone thorns piercing the mountainside. An almost eerie sight you will not forget.
The San Genesio cable car offers a climb to even more hiking paths. This is home to the Haflinger horse which is a blonde horse breed born in the mountains of South Tyrol. Visit nearby stables and book a horseback ride or let someone else take the reins and enjoy the views from a horse-drawn carriage. Numerous alpine huts dot the trails allowing you to stop for a meal and a drink.
Getting to Bolzano
If you’re visiting other northern Italy destinations such as Venice or Lake Como, Bolzano is an easy trip add-on. It’s just 2 to 3 hours away by car, bus or train. Arriving by car is utterly gorgeous. Check out our guide on driving in Italy to ensure you’re ready.
We recommend parking on the outskirts of the city center. The Parcheggio Mareccio is a convenient lot located off Via Claudia de’ Medici with the 13th-century Maretsch Castle as its backdrop. The castle is now an event center, but tourists can visit when events are not taking place. Its tower boasts one of the best views of Bolzano.
From this lot, you can easily be in the center of Bolzano within a 10-minute walk. On your way back to your car, opt for a scenic stroll along the “Meadows of Talvera”, a beautiful park set along the river Talvera.
Our first exposure to Bolzano left us craving more and we’re certain yours will too. The perfect harmonization of centuries-old charm with a stylish eye toward tomorrow makes the city a cultural treasure that calls to you long after you’ve left. If you’re like us, you may just want to make Bolzano, Italy your new home!
We’d like to give special thanks to IDM Südtirol for arranging our lovely tour with our guide Luciano Rech. We highly recommend him. Learn more about tour options here.
Have you been to Bolzano? Let us know what you enjoyed the most in the comments below.
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The Ötzi photos provided courtesy of South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.