Italy isn’t short on wine or gardens. For more than 2,000 years elegantly-cultivated gardens have flourished across the land. Gardens were held in such high regard by the ancient Romans that the philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero stated: If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.
Hard to argue with such age-old wisdom.
While the magnificent gardens in Rome or Florence may come to mind when you seek out the lushness of Italy, you really should turn your attention much further north to South Tyrol. Here lies one of the most splendid gardens in all of Europe: the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle in Merano.
Nestled on a mountainside basking under the wooing glow of the Mediterranean sun, the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle are a wanderer’s dream. Trails wind through nearly 30 acres flush with local and exotic flora and woodland from all over the world. The gardens’ ingenious design and layout create a fascinating juxtaposition between natural, historic and modern elements. Practically every inch of earth here is designed to set your senses afire.
Is it a must-see? Without a doubt.
The Gardens of Eternal Bloom
For us, the best gardens tell a story. And the tale these majestic gardens tell could have been spun from the goddess of gardens herself. The Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle immerse you in eternal bloom through four themed garden worlds: The Sun Gardens, Forests of the World, The Water & Terraced Gardens and Landscapes of South Tyrol.
With the Trauttmansdorff Castle as a medieval centerpiece, the gardens feature four circuit trails through 83 garden landscapes. Three panoramic paths also allow you to soak in striking views of the valley below and the surrounding snow-dusted mountains.
Walking through the gardens one wonders if there is a plant on Earth not here. You can go from passing under arcaded grapevines to frolicking through deep chestnut woodlands and olive and lemon groves to strolling around desert succulents and bamboo forests all within 2-3 hours. The immense amount of sights to explore always leaves us wishing we had more time.
Beyond the 5,800+ different flora species and varieties, you can also admire various artist pavilions, experience stations, waterfalls and an array of animals including prancing peacocks, colorful macaws, friendly rabbits, and not-as friendly goats. The castle itself serves as the South Tyrol Museum of Tourism, which presents a captivating history of Alpine tourism spanning 200 years.
The gardens also host open-air concerts featuring entertainers from all over the world. Although we have not been lucky enough to attend a concert yet, the setting looks divine as the stage floats over a water lily pond with palm trees silhouetting the horizon.
The History of the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle
The Trauttmansdorff Castle was first mentioned around 1300. Known then as Neuberg, it is home to a couple of legends. One tells that the castle was built on the site where Saint Valentine lived as a hermit in the 5th century. Another legend proclaims the fortress was part of the fortifications of the Roman settlement in Late Antiquity called “Castrum Maiense”, which became Merano. Walls from the Middle Ages along with crypts are still standing on the southwest side of the castle.
In 1543, Nicholas von Trauttmansdorff took possession of the castle; however, it fell into ruin over a few centuries until another Trauttmansdorff came to its rescue. In 1850, Count Joseph von Trauttmansdorff bought the crumbling stronghold and began renovations in neo-Gothic style.
These architectural updates must have been quite impressive. Empress Elisabeth of Austria (known as Sissi) spent 7 months at the castle beginning in 1870. She had such an affinity for the castle’s beauty a bronze bust was dedicated to her after she was assassinated in 1898.
Today, you can take a pleasant stroll to the castle from the heart of Merano by following Sissi’s Path, which connects to what we consider the most enchanting walk in Italy.
During World War II, the castle was a German military encampment. Due to the ravages of war, almost all of its furnishings were lost and the castle once again began to decay. Fast forward several decades and the castle along with all of its land became the property of the provincial government of Bolzano. In the late 80s, several visionaries and garden enthusiasts came together with a plan to restore the castle and cultivate a botanical garden rivaling the greatest in Europe. They succeeded.
In 2001, The Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle was opened to the public. This South Tyrol treasure has since won multiple awards including the designation as Italy’s Most Beautiful Garden in 2005 and the prestigious International Garden of the Year award in 2013.
Now that you know a bit of history of the castle, let’s dive into some of our favorite highlights from our visits.
Sweeping Panoramas that Steal Your Breath
The mountainside setting of the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle is a gift to those who love epic vistas. Several places throughout the gardens offer breathtaking stretches of land and sky that will make you click happy with your camera. Our suggestion is to snap a few pics and then fully take it in with your eyes. These are views you will not forget.
The Matteo Thun Viewing Platform is an especially surreal experience. It “floats” over the gardens allowing your eyes to feast on the vast grandeur unfolding before you. At these heights, it’s easy to spot other South Tyrolean landmarks in the distance.
Awash in Oceans of Petals
If the Earth laughs in flowers as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote then the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle is perhaps the happiest place on the planet. Flower buffs will have a field day a here. No pun intended.
On each of our visits, we have encountered everything from endless rows of tulips to fields of daffodils to roses in vivid bloom along with countless other flower species. The vast amount of colors that dance across your eyes is bedazzling. And the flowery fragrance you inhale as you roam about is intoxicating.
Trees from Around the World
The only thing more abundant than flowers at the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle is trees. The gardens showcase woodland varieties from all over the world. We really admire the cypress trees that spring skyward from the Sun Gardens World. They bring about an even more regal presence to the castle backdrop.
Equally enchanting are the gardens’ olive and lemon groves. It has been said the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Lucky for us some medieval visionary planted an olive tree 700 years ago that now thrives below the castle. This ancient tree stands among Italy’s northernmost olive grove. Its old, twisted form greets you from a path as if it’s about to impart some sage wisdom.
The bamboo forest is also fascinating especially if you’ve never been to the Far East. Experiencing the bamboo area provides a peek into how Asian cultures harness the trees for materials. And let’s not forget the towering palm trees. They are massive. We almost wanted to slip on beach sandals the first time we saw the gardens’ Mediterranean giants.
Experience Nature in Remarkable New Ways
One of the things we love most about the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle is that it fully immerses you in natural wonders in new ways. From a multimedia Grotto to a Garden of Love, Botanical Underworld and much more, the gardens creatively capture your imagination and elevate your senses beyond expectations.
At the gardens, you can even summon a mountain spirit to experience a healing massage through a sounding stone. This involves surrendering your head to the mountain through a cavity and humming. The sounding stone reveals when you have hummed the right tone by sending soothing vibrations throughout your body. Such stones were used in ancient cultures to support healing and wellness.
Make sure to also trek to the Aviary high above the castle. Here, you admire ever chatty parrots in an environment that feels as if you wandered into a jungle.
When to Explore the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle
Bringing the gardens to life and maintaining their beauty each year is no easy feat. More than 100 employees work through spring, summer and fall to ensure the promise of natural grandeur for every visitor. Good luck finding a weed.
The Trauttmansdorff team keeps the gardens open from the end of March to the middle of November. We have been to the gardens in the spring and fall. Both seasons here are equally magical. The sweet aromas of bloom and harvest follow your every step.
For us, we find the spring season the most enjoyable time to visit. Few things enliven you like the awakening of flora after a long winter slumber.
While you can cover the gardens in 2-3 hours, plan to spend a morning or afternoon exploring its glory. Each time we visit we dine afterward at the Schlossgarten Restaurant, which is located at the castle and offers lovely views of the gardens below. The restaurant features local specialties and pasta dishes.
Perhaps it’s the Mediterranean ambiance, but we’ve always craved pasta after visiting. The Italian cuisine we’ve dined on at the Schlossgarten has always been wonderful. It’s also a good place to rest your legs and sip a Veneziano, a favorite cocktail of the region.
How to Visit the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle
Reaching the gardens is easy by foot, car or bus. As mentioned previously, you can walk the well-marked Sissi’s Path. It begins in downtown Merano and winds through the lovely Maia Alta neighborhood, which is dotted with castles, villas and other stately residences. The walk takes roughly 45 minutes. Plan for an hour if you like to meander like us!
If you have a rental car and are staying outside of Merano’s city center, parking is available for €3.50/day across from the gardens. Once you’ve parked you will take a footbridge over the highway to reach the ticket center.
To visit the gardens by bus you will take Line 1 or Line 1B depending on the day of the week you choose to come. We suggest confirming which line and checking the times by visiting the SASA bus service site.
The Gardens of Trauttmansdorff is open 7 days a week. The hours vary by season. You can look up the times by visiting their official website. Ticket prices are quite reasonable at €13.00. Kids 6 and under are free. Seniors receive a discounted price of €10.50.
As you can see the Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle are a botanical and architectural masterpiece. A true jewel of Europe. If you are planning a visit to South Tyrol you need to add them to your itinerary. You will not regret making time to wander here.