Bolzano embraces you with a seductive medley of culture and history topped with mountains of soul-mending dolce vita. Here’s your step-by-step guide to an unforgettable time in South Tyrol’s most cosmopolitan city.
With the snow-dappled Dolomites boldly calling beyond its vine-drenched hillsides, you may be tempted to breeze through Bolzano. What a foolhardy mistake that would be.
A visit to Bolzano — or Bozen as it is also known — envelopes you in contrasting wonders on par with the Alpine glory in the wild blue yonder. Its lively streets and squares immerse you in centuries of German, Italian and Austrian influences not to mention a riveting history that surpasses ancient Rome by 3,000 years. Often referred to as “The Gateway to the Dolomites”, this vibrant capital of South Tyrol crystalizes why the region is one of the must-see hidden gems of Europe.
Tucked between Innsbruck to the north and Trento to the south, Bolzano boasts a quality of life that ranks at the top in Italy. No surprise considering it balances all the perks of a youthful city with old-world charm and sensibilities — all amid jaw-dropping natural splendor.
You could arrive in Bolzano without an itinerary and still come away enchanted. Its dolce vita vibe is wholly infectious. But if you like having a plan in your back pocket, we have you covered. Dive into our list of things to see and do in Bolzano. We show you how to go about discovering its treasures, as well as share where to eat and stay.
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How to Spend A Day Visiting Bolzano
#1 Meet Bolzano’s Poetic Heart
Begin your day early by heading to the city’s historic center. Known as the Waltherplatz or Piazza Walther, it has been the “living room” of Bolzano for more than 900 years. This elegant piazza is also home to Italy’s largest Christmas market.
Ease into the morning with a hot chocolate or cappuccino at one of the many sun-kissed cafes bordering the town square. One of our favorites on the piazza is Loacker Café. It is perfectly situated for soaking in the rays as you watch Bolzano bustle to life. Plus, it is a gold mine of deliciousness. As you may have guessed, it is owned by the South Tyrolean wafer and chocolate company of the same name.
If you are in the mood for a sweet, consider ordering freshly-baked krapfen. This Bolzano favorite is a decadent doughnut-like pastry filled with cream or marmalade. Be careful, as one may turn into two.
After your last morning sip, set off to see some of Bolzano’s historic sights. The first one lies just steps away.
At the center of the Waltherplatz is 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. He was the Jim Morrison of the medieval age. Sculpted in 1889 from South Tyrol’s revered Lasser marble, the statue stands on an impressive fountain encircled by flowers.
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.
Crowning the cathedral is an ornately patterned roof matching the vibrancy of the square. The stonework of its steepled bell tower is especially striking.
Two weathered lions guard its main 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 admire frescoes from the 1300s and marvel at the cathedral’s pulpit. It is a masterful work of Gothic art sculpted in 1507. While studying its details, see if you can spot the hunter and fox lingering within its chiseled scene.
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#2 Walk the Via Dei Portici
Leaving the cathedral, head to the Via dei Portici (also called Laubengasse) just north of the square. This street was the first to ever run through Bolzano. A pulsating center of trade for nearly 1,000 years, arcaded shops now greet you on both sides for as far as the eye can see.
You can simply walk along appreciating the many storefronts, but the real gems are inside. You’ll find everything from traditional crafts and attire to artwork and designer clothing. Even if you don’t intend to purchase any goods, be sure to peek into a few shops. Many walls still feature ancient frescoes revealing age-old market scenes.
While the shops are fun to explore, the colorful facades lining the Via dei Portici really bring your imagination to life. They exhibit a variety of architectural styles and are decorated with murals, carvings and other artistic expressions vividly showcasing Bolzano’s harmonic blend of Italian and German heritage.
Along Via dei 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.
#3 Savor an Authentic South Tyrolean Lunch
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’re visiting Bolzano 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!
Another excellent choice for lunch is the Stadt Cafe & Restaurant which sits along the edge of the Waltherplatz. A well-thought-out menu offers the type of lunchtime fare that will please you whether desiring Italian or traditional South Tyrolean dishes. The desserts are extravagant here so pace yourself.
#4 Journey 5000+ Years Back in Time
After lunch, venture west on Via dei 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 an astonishingly well-preserved corpse. Mummified naturally by glacier ice, he’s the oldest intact human body ever found. His discovery by two hikers in 1991 on a mountainside in South Tyrol’s Ötztal Alps shook the world.
Analysis of his body indicates an arrow cut 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.
#5 Amble Along the Piazza delle Erbe
When you’re through visiting Ötzi, you may be craving a mid-afternoon snack. Walk back to the city center to the Piazza delle Erbe, a beaming outdoor marketplace that cannot be missed.
Established in 1295, this colorful corner of Bolzano was a vital center for trade between Northern and Southern Europe during the Middle Ages. Based on the throngs of people you encounter here, you can safely conclude it still is.
Spend time browsing the stalls overflowing with fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and other specialties such as regional meats, cheeses and baked goods. Nearly all of the produce is from local farmers.
If you walk away without picking up a tasty delight or two, you’ll be insulting a 700+ year tradition on the streets of Bolzano. A welcoming town like Bolzano is not the place to ignore such a lovely custom.
Also located on the Piazza delle Erbe is a famous fountain of Neptune. Stern in demeanor, the bronze God of the Sea brazenly keeps a sharp eye on all the patrons roaming the marketplace.
Erected in 1777, it is considered among the 100 most impressive fountains in Italy. Pigeons seem to agree. We have yet to admire the work of art without the feathered adornments.
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#6 Encounter the Legend of St. Francis…and Dracula
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.
Taking time to decipher the haunting scenes as you walk under the cloisters is a rewarding experience for anyone curious about medieval history.
It is believed Saint Francis partook in Mass in the Chapel while visiting Bolzano with his cloth merchant father who was in town on business.
Another legend also enshrouds the friary albeit one much more nightmarish in nature. The great-grandson of Vlad the Impaler, better known as the inspiration for the legend of Count Dracula, is entombed within its walls.
His name was Petru Schiopul, but he was known as “Peter the Lame”. He died in 1594. His remains are sealed with a stone bearing the carving of a bull’s head, the traditional symbol of Moldavia as well as a carving of the devil.
#7 Explore the Wines & Castles of Bolzano
If your day has not been consumed by the old-world 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 climb up to the ancient ruins of Schloss Rafenstein, which watch over the city. Enjoy some of the South Tyrolean treats you picked up earlier as you take in the views.
Then race 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 is literally illustrated. An abundance of frescoes graces its walls providing an eye-popping window to medieval life.
If you’re feeling inclined to embark on a wine tasting, Bolzano will enchant you with the exquisite Alpine wines of South Tyrol. More than 300 hectares (700+ acres) of vineyards encircle Bolzano. In fact, a saying you might hear while visiting is “Venice may swim on water, but Bolzano swims on wine.”
An unforgettable place to explore this truth is a winery located deep within a mountain on the northern end of town. Intrigued? Read more about our tasting at Kellerei Bozen. Making a trek to this 100+-year-old icon of wine while visiting Bolzano is a must for wine and architecture lovers alike.
#8 Dine & Sip the Evening Away
There is no shortage of exceptional evening dining options in and around Bolzano. Our recommendation is to voyage back to the city center to dine at the much-celebrated Restaurant Laurin located in the Parkhotel Laurin. Here, you can let the culinary magic of head chef Manuel Astuto dazzle your senses in an Art Noveau setting beautified with palm trees.
He is a master of fusing South Tyrol’s Mediterranean heart with the soul of the surrounding mountains. Some of the world’s biggest movie stars have come to crave his South Tyrolean creations. So much so they fly him around the world 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.
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Additional Sights & Activities While Visiting Bolzano
If conquering castles is not your thing, consider acquainting yourself with the natural beauty around Bolzano. One option is to catch the Renon (also known as Ritten) cable car. It whisks you high above Bolzano to the Renon high plateau.
From up here, you can hike a variety of trails and consume 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 steeping the mountainside.
The San Genesio cable car offers a climb to even more hiking paths. This is the ancestral 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.
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Where to Stay in Bolzano
You will not find a sterile, cookie-cutter place to stay in Bolzano. Like the city itself, the accommodations available are captivating and unique in character. Whether you are seeking an opulent old-world gem or an intimate bed and breakfast, there is a hotel to suit your tastes and budget. Here are two we recommend.
Parkhotel Laurin – As we noted above, Parkhotel Laurin is tucked in the heart of Bolzano making it ideal for exploring every lovely corner of the town on foot. Built in 1910 in stunning Art Noveau style, the hotel is a feast for the eyes inside and out. It is surrounded by a gorgeous garden enveloping you in nature and history all at once.
Il Battente 1862 Bed & Breakfast – Il Battente 1862 is an elegant Bed & Breakfast located in an 18th-century building that was a former residence of the Teutonic Order. It is located just minutes away from the Waltherplatz while also allowing you to quickly reach the Renon and San Genesio cable cars to visit the surrounding mountains.
Getting to Bolzano
If you’re holidaying other northern Italy destinations such as Venice or Lake Como, consider visiting Bolzano. The city is easy to fit into your trip plans. 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!
Have you been to this alluring town? Let us know in the comments below if we missed any of the best things to do in Bolzano.
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Book a Private Tour of Bolzano
We embarked on a private tour on our first visit to Bolzano. It was a wonderful way to experience the city. In addition to seeing the sights we highlighted above, a private tour will give you a deeper dive into Bolzano’s riveting history, culture and cuisine from the unique perspective of a local.
In fact, often the best way to truly appreciate a destination is through its culinary traditions. You can embark on such a mouth-pleasing adventure with the Bolzano Street Food Tour. This 3-hour outing begins at 10:00 a.m. and includes multiple stops where you’ll indulge in local specialties such as bread, sausage, sweets, as well as historical nuggets shared by your tour guide.
Book a Tour from Bolzano to the Dolomites
In addition to spending time strolling Bolzano’s cobblestoned avenues, consider booking a tour of the Dolomites.
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The Ötzi photos are provided courtesy of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.