Merano (Meran) is an elegant mountain town in South Tyrol that seduces you at first sight. Its pairing of historic splendor with soaring natural beauty is unrivaled in Italy. In this post, we share the best things to do in Merano so you can get the most out of your visit.
So many poets have sung of the bewitching beauty of Merano (Meran in German) over the centuries that penning new prose of praise on the ancient capital of South Tyrol seems futile. It’s in Merano, perhaps more than any other place in the region, where you witness the staggering power of Alpine and Mediterranean contrasts and mankind’s enchanting embellishment of the Alps in ways that surpass even nature’s own grand design.
Here, snow-capped peaks thunder over palm-studded avenues and arbored vineyards tumble into the valley as if sprung from the gates of mountain-perched castles and chapels. Every step in Merano offers the fascination of antiquity and the elemental wonder of nature. The historic architecture bejeweling the town appears embowered in greenery that is in a perpetual state of blossom.
Merano is where we fell in love with South Tyrol. And after your first visit, we’re certain “Tyrol’s sweet paradise”, as it was called ages ago, will too hold a special place in your heart.
⇒ Start planning your trip to Merano: Access our Travel Resources & Hiking Guides
A Brief History of Merano
Before we elaborate on the things to do in Merano, it’s worth sharing a bit of the town’s history so you can fully appreciate its importance to South Tyrol.
Merano’s roots go deep. The discovery of menhirs (ancient manmade standing stones) and other archaeological unearthings reveal that the Merano area has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. This is no surprise really as Ötzi the Iceman, a man preserved in the ice for 5,300 years, was found by hikers in 1991 in the Ötztal Alps, which is less than 30 miles from Merano.
The next significant historical record of Merano arises nearly 3,000 years later in 15 B.C. when the Roman Empire established a military encampment called Statio Maiensis near the point where South Tyrol’s Passer and Etsch Rivers meet. This camp resided along the Via Claudia Augusta, the ancient Roman road that led legions through the Alps for centuries. It extended for more than 400 miles stretching from the Danube River in Germany past Lago di Resia, the sight of the famous sunken bell tower of Curon, all the way through South Tyrol to the city of Trento where the road forks.
Historical documents from 857 A.D. indicate the town was originally called Mairania and eventually became known as Meran and Merania by the 1300s. By then, Merano emerged as the heart and soul of Tyrol, which was at the time an estate of the Holy Roman Empire. In the 13th century, the powerful Counts of Tyrol declared Merano the capital of the realm for a period of time.
In the 1870s, Empress Elisabeth “Sissi” of Austria, one of the great beauties of 19th-century Europe, expressed fondness for the health virtues of Merano. Soon after, the town began to flourish as a spa resort destination for which it is still famous today — and rightly so.
What Are the Top Things to Do in Merano?
The abundance of things to do in Merano makes it a destination worthy of a lengthy stay while in South Tyrol. Merano lies in Val d’Adige — a wide valley basin blessed with a Mediterranean microclimate that is rare amid Alpine terrain. The valley is sheltered by four different mountain ranges: the Ötztal Alps, the Texel Group, the Sarntal Alps and the Val d’Ultimo Mountains.
This entire area has traditionally been known as Burggrafenamt (Burgraviato), a name born from the Middle Ages when the region was ruled by the burggrafen (castle lords) of Tyrol Castle. The Burggrafenamt district of South Tyrol brims with enthralling sights and activities, which we will also highlight. After all, a visit to Merano should include more than the town itself.
1) Visit Merano’s Medieval Heart
Of all the things to do in Merano, meandering the old-world heart of the town is a must to savor its artwork, history, marketplaces and streetside cafes. You could wander aimlessly over its cobblestones and encounter a cultural treasure to admire at practically every turn.
Upon arriving in town, we recommend beginning your Merano visit by taking a long leisurely walk along the Laubengasse (also known as the Via Portici). This is the oldest street in Merano. It showcases 800 years of architecturally rich history and charms walkers with its undeniable medieval character.
The Laubengasse is distinguished by arcaded shops on both sides of the street. The arcades were built in the middle of the 13th century to house the shops of merchants and craftsmen. One side of the Laubengasse side is known as the Berglauben because its back is to the mountains and the other side is known as Wasserlauben since it lies in the direction of the Passer River. In the 15th century, an imperial ordinance decreed that German-owned and Italian-owned shops must be on opposite sides of the street.
The shops of the Laubengasse sell everything from luxury branded footwear, clothing and jewelry to South Tyrolean delicacies such as speck and of course rows upon rows of delicious local wines and grappa. Also dotted along the Laubengasse are restaurants and cafes inviting you to relax with a drink or meal between shop visits.
The Laubengasse eventually leads to the Piazza Duomo (Pfarrplatz), the main square of Merano’s historic center, where you will find the soaring Church of St. Nicholas (Chiesa di San Nicolo or Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus), the symbol of Merano and the town’s patron saint. Its iconic Gothic steeple commands admiration above the rooftops from many viewpoints in and around Merano.
The first documented mention of the St. Nicholas Church was in 1266; however, it is thought the church dates to as early as 1170. In 1302, the citizens of Merano partially demolished the existing church and began constructing a larger one to take its place. The construction of the church took more than 160 years to complete. It was finally consecrated in 1465.
Erecting the church’s 272 ft. (83 meters) bell and clock tower took even longer. Its construction began in the 15th century and took more than three centuries to finish. Interestingly, the tower possesses a total of seven clockworks and seven bells.
As you approach the southern wall of St. Nicholas, you will see a colorful and vivid mural of St. Christopher that is more than two stories tall. It dates to the late-Gothic period and was repainted in 1896 following the traces of the original strokes.
The St. Nicholas Church is as imposing on the inside as it is from the outside. Ten mammoth pillars support the vaulted rib ceiling and both the nave and choir are illuminated by seven alluring stained-glass windows. After you are done gazing upward, bring your eyes to the floor. It is a dazzling mosaic masterpiece.
Throughout the church are prominent works of Christian art too numerous to list here. Particularly impressive is a statue of St. Nicholas raising his right hand in blessing. It dates to 1340 and can be found on the church’s south wall.
When finished visiting the interior, walk around the exterior of the church to study the hypnotic ancient gravestones and faded frescoes adorning the walls. Beneath the tower is an arched passageway featuring an intriguing mural of St. John Matha and St. Felix of Valois kneeling before a Trinitarian cross, the symbol of the religious order they founded in 1198.
Behind the St. Nicholas Church, you will also encounter the octagon-shaped Chapel of St. Barbara, which is a Gothic-style burial chapel added to the Piazza Duomo in 1450. Inside are two beautiful Baroque altars with glass reliquaries housing a decorated skeleton of a martyr from the catacombs in Rome.
Between these altars is a wood-carved Gothic winged altar of the Madonna that is utterly striking. Looking up you can also admire one of the oldest star-vaulted ceilings in South Tyrol. In the center is a keystone with a portrait of St. Barbara from 1440.
From the Piazza Duomo heading towards the Passer River, you will arrive at another medieval landmark of Merano. The Bozener Tor is one of three medieval gates still standing in the town. Similar to other cities and towns in the Middle Ages, the gates were erected as towers and served as defensive fortifications.
The Bozener Tor (Porta Bolzano) was once part of a stone wall built between the 14th and 17th centuries that surrounded Merano. The gate owes its name to Bolzano as it leads in the direction of the city. On the south face of the tower, you can admire sculpted coats of arms of Merano, Tyrol and Austria. Above this emblem is a fresco depicting the coat of arms of the House of Habsburgs, one of the most dominant dynasties in European history. A room inside the tower is called the “hangman’s room”. Supposedly, the executioner of the valley liked to stay here at one time.
Passing through the gate brings you to the Piazza della Rena (Sandplatz), the next major historic square in Merano. Today, the Piazza della Rena is mostly used to host special events including the Historic Christmas Village, which is a part of Merano’s Christmas Market.
On the far side of the square is the Mariensäule, the oldest monument in Merano. This stunning white marble statue shows the Virgin Mary atop a snake-coiled globe, demonstrating victory over sin. Above her head is a halo of golden stars and near her feet a golden crescent moon; both common symbols of apocalyptic art. Local residents donated the Baroque statue in 1706 out of gratitude that the town was spared from raids during the battle between Tyrol and Bavaria in 1703.
2) Stroll Merano’s Lush Promenades
Merano is tailor-made for walkers, amblers and hikers. No other town in South Tyrol possesses so many lush and elegant walking trails. Merano boasts six exquisite promenades to explore. These pleasant footpaths were created more than 150 years ago and have lost none of their romantic appeal.
Merano’s promenades wind through and high above the town offering sweeping views of the valley one moment and a lavish encounter with a kaleidoscope of flowers and exotic vegetation the next. They also continue your journey through the area’s magical past. In addition to strolling by age-old villas and palaces, the promenades carry you to a number of historic sights such as the 400-year-old Ponte Romano (Steinerner Steg) stone arched footbridge, the austere Gothic Church of Santo Spirito, and the riveting Evangelical Church of Christ set along the Passer River.
The most popular promenade is the Tappeinerweg. It stretches 3+ miles along the face of Küchelberg mountain to the village of Gratsch, which sits near Tyrol Castle and Brunnenburg Castle. For a momentous view of Merano be sure to climb to the top of the Pulverturm (Powder Tower) located on the promenade. This medieval tower is all that is left of the Ortenstein Castle, a once notable fortress from the 13th century.
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3) Explore the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff
If there is one destination that will leave an enduring impression of Merano’s favored position on the sunny side of the Alps, it’s the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle. The bounty of flora and forest you will eye here is staggering. Plants from all over the world flourish at these spectacular botanical gardens.
Regarded as one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe, the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle unfold beneath a crenelated palace first mentioned in 1327. More than 80 different garden landscapes thrive atop 30 acres, which can be enjoyed via four circuit trails and three panoramic paths. The views paired with sweet floral aromas are intoxicating.
Amid the gardens’ 5,800+ different species you can also wander Italy’s northernmost olive grove, as well as a vineyard showcasing South Tyrol’s traditional pergola training system for grapevines. The vines planted here are dedicated to preserving ancient grape varieties of the region.
A wonderful way to reach the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle is by taking a soul-mending walk along Sissi’s Path. This promenade honors Empress Elisabeth who considered walking among her favorite things to do in Merano. The path begins in the town center and requires about a 45-minute journey. In addition to running through Elisabeth Park where you can admire the snow-white statue of Sissi, it includes eleven points of interest highlighting Merano’s fabled history.
See our complete guide to the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle for details on how and when to visit.
4) Relax at Merano’s Thermal Baths & Pools
You cannot walk Merano without noticing the Terme Merano (Therme Meran). In the heart of the town’s wondrous antiquity lies this ultra-modern oasis of wellbeing. While one might think it is out of place amid the cobblestoned avenues of Merano, it stands as a beautiful testament to South Tyroleans’ keen sense for stylish design.
Designed by Matteo Thun, a renowned architect from South Tyrol, Terme Merano features a grand cube of glass that floods its 15 indoor pools with natural light. In addition to the pools, the wellness complex offers a variety of saunas, steam baths and a spa facility where you can enjoy massages, body treatments and more.
Behind the building are 10 outdoor pools situated in such a manner that you feel as if you have been transported to a remote mountain resort. Between dips in the pools, you can sunbathe beneath palm trees surrounded by meticulously manicured gardens and a lily pond where turtles demonstrate the proper way to sunbathe.
The relaxing ambiance alone is enough to justify a visit; however, what makes Terme Merano truly special are the therapeutic properties of its thermal water. We were fascinated to discover that the facility sources its water from nearby Mt. Vigiljoch. Within the stony depths of the mountain is a spring gifting crystal-clear, mineral-rich water proven to have a calming and pain-relieving effect.
Terme Merano is open year-round and makes it easy to visit by providing towels and bathrobes for rent. If you are wondering about things to do in Merano when it rains, go here. We recommend at least half a day to fully appreciate the Alpine wellness benefits Terme Merano offers.
5) Storm a Mountainside Castle
Few spectacles grip the imagination like a castle enthroning a mountainside. Dozens of such haunts punctuate the slopes in and around Merano, but there are four medieval strongholds we find most captivating.
The first castle you should not miss is the one that furnished the name for the entire region: Tyrol Castle. The ancestral seat of the Counts of Tyrol, it has braved the Alps for nearly 1,000 years.
From whatever side you approach Tyrol Castle, you are at once struck by its commanding position atop a glacial moraine. It looms more than 2,000 ft. (600+ meters) above the valley.
Our favorite way to reach the castle is by hiking along the Tappeiner Promenade highlighted above. This route also allows you to admire another medieval gem tucked just beneath Tyrol Castle.
The Brunnenburg Castle appears plucked from the pages of a storybook. Built nearly 800 years ago, the castle entrances walkers with its ivy-clad walls and romantic pose enveloped by steep vineyards and orchards.
Both Tyrol Castle and Brunnenburg Castle can be toured. See our post about Tyrol Castle and Brunnenburg Castle to learn more about the wonders they hold inside.
A castle in Merano even more romantic in character than Brunnenburg is Castel Rametz. Perched on a hill ripe with grapevines at the edge of Merano’s Obermais district, Castel Rametz looks as if only souls as regal as Empress Elisabeth should set foot inside. Fortunately for commoners like us, the castle is also a winery and welcomes all to sip the fruit of its vines.
If you wish to stay in Merano but still want to experience the enchantment of a castle, you are in luck. The Prince’s Castle is one of the best-preserved castles in South Tyrol and is nestled in Merano’s old town right before the beginning of the Laubengasse.
The Archduke of Austria commissioned the castle’s construction in the 15th century and it became the royal residence of the Prince of Tyrol in 1470. From the outside, the Prince’s Castle is certainly much more modest than that of the castles mentioned above; however, the inside is a captivating time capsule of life in the Middle Ages. Walking through you can study a treasure of medieval artifacts and artwork including everything from musical instruments to weaponry and furniture fit for a future king.
6) Wander a Waalweg
The Waalweg trails of South Tyrol are among our favorite hikes in the region. These panoramic paths run along ancient irrigation channels that were carved into the mountainsides beginning in the 13th century. They continue to vivify many of the vineyards and orchards around Merano to this day.
Beyond the breathtaking scenery you encounter on a Waalweg, what makes them a true joy to walk is the tranquil melody of rushing water by your side. The delightful babble serves as the world’s friendliest hiking guide.
There are several Waalweg trails located around Merano. The three we return to time and time again are the Algunder Waalweg, the Marlinger Waalweg and the Schenner Waalweg. All of these hiking trails are easy to walk and can be rambled throughout the year.
The closest Waalweg to Merano is the Alugunder. It is also the most scenic Waalweg in our opinion. The path sweeps you through an abundance of vineyards and woodland above the village of Algund all the way to Tyrol Castle.
The Marlinger and Schenner Waalwegs are like experiencing a romantic medieval poem by foot. The Marlinger is the longest Waalweg and leads you past the magnificent Lebenberg Castle — a 13th-century fortress that rivets the imagination from its vineyard-vaulted perch. The Schenner Waalweg, located to the north of Merano, winds through forests and fields, past mountain farms to the Church of St. George — one of the oldest in the Alps.
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7) Enliven Your Festive Spirit
Merano is alive with celebrations throughout the year. Whether you are into concerts, art and craft fairs, wine festivals and culinary feasts, or prefer the thrill of a live sporting event, odds are you can find a fun outing during your visit to Merano.
Many festivities in Merano and the surrounding towns and villages showcase the vibrant culture and traditions of South Tyrol. For example, in autumn, consider partaking in a night of Törggelen at one of the many rustic wine taverns in the area. This centuries-old tradition celebrates the season’s new wine with a hearty feast that will have you loosening your belt a couple of notches.
Another joyful wine celebration taking place in autumn is the Merano Grape Festival. A multi-day event, the Merano Grape Festival is the oldest harvest festival in South Tyrol. Over the course of a weekend, festival revelers can enjoy a variety of activities including traditional music concerts at Merano’s famous Kurhaus, a lavish Art Nouveau event hall built along the Passer River in 1847. The festival culminates with a grand parade featuring ornate floats, marching bands and locals from all around Merano sporting colorful Tyrolean folk costumes that dazzle the eyes.
Speaking of dazzling the eyes, if you are keen on visiting South Tyrol during the holidays, be sure to etch Merano’s Christmas Market on your itinerary. It runs from the end of November to the first week of January and is a heart-warming winter experience no matter your age. To discover what you can expect, check out our post highlighting South Tyrol’s Christmas Markets.
If you want help finding festivals and other things to do in Merano, during your stay, connect with us through our South Tyrol Trip Planning Services.
Where to Stay in Merano
As a historic spa resort town, it’s no surprise the hotels in Merano cater to wellness and luxury. If you are looking to spoil yourself with 5-star amenities, superb gourmet cuisine and soothing alpine wellness treatments, you will find some of the best spa hotels in Europe located in Merano.
⇒ Want to experience Alpine-Mediterranean splendor? Search for spa hotels in Merano.
In addition to luxury spa getaways, you can also book quaint apartments and villas to stay in while visiting Merano. Some are located near the town center while others are on the outskirts of Merano where you can experience more peace and quiet yet be in the heart of town in a matter of minutes by car or bus.
We recently stayed at a gorgeous property called Villa by Merano, which is located less than 10 minutes from Merano in the medieval wine village of Marlengo (Marling). Marlengo is situated on the slope of Larchbüchel Mountain and looks across the Val d’Adige towards the Sarntal Alps. The village is a hiker’s mecca as it places you near the trailheads for the Marlinger Waalweg, Algunder Waalweg as well as the lift station for the mighty Mt. Vigiljoch.
The Villa by Merano is ideal for couples. Its poetic setting makes you feel as if spring never leaves the villa. It is tucked neatly in a manicured neighborhood rich with song-happy birds, palm trees and other blossoming greenery you’ll wish you could cultivate at home.
The apartment itself is spacious and possesses an elegant alpine character. At once cozy and refined. Warm wood ceilings crown tastefully decorated rooms flooded by natural light. We adored the villa’s balcony which made welcoming the sun a must every morning. Watching the day dawn over the peaks awakens every uplifting emotion in your body.
The Villa by Merano is equipped with a cute kitchen allowing you to take off a night or two from dining out if you wish. During our stay, we picked up a few local specialties such as alpine cheeses, speck and apples at a small grocer located two minutes from the apartment. After a couple of long days of hiking, we were thankful for the opportunity to relax the night away with homemade charcuterie and a bottle of wine. We also nabbed some delicious Tyrolean pastries from a nearby bakery to sweeten the sunrises.
When you do feel like dining out, a wealth of charming options is available in Marlengo. Several restaurants are favorably located near the Villa by Merano including the Haidenhof, a mountain-hugging wine tavern offering an outdoor seating area that will make your heart flutter with its canopy of fragrant grapevines and majestic views of the Lebenberg Castle mentioned above.
One of the best things to do in Merano is to embark on a wine tasting. The Villa by Merano makes it easy. Kellerei Meran, a major winemaker of Val d’Adige, is only a two-minute walk from the villa. They have been producing award-winning wines for more than 120 years, In fact, as you’re hiking in Merano, you’ll notice many signs highlighting its vineyards.
⇒ Ready to book? Explore availability at the Villa by Merano