When was your last ‘wow’ moment? Not the kind when you spot a sweet deal on Amazon, but a true jaw-dropping kind. The kind that stirs a deep sense of wonder and awe inside of you — etching a permanent place in your soul.
If you’re like us, explorers at heart, these are the moments we live for. It’s why we travel. And it’s probably why Italy tops your travel wish list.
If you’re looking for Italy vacation ideas there’s no shortage of breathtaking places and sights to consider. But it’s the Italy you likely don’t know that will draw more “wows” from your breath. And forever change your wanderlust heart.
Meet South Tyrol — Italy’s Best Kept Secret
South Tyrol — also called Südtirol and Alto Adige — is an autonomous province crowning the far northern edge of Italy. It’s a land of astounding contrasts. A mountainous jewel alive with medieval castles, storybook villages, pristine lakes and miles upon miles of adventure by foot, bike or ski.
Here, traditional Austrian charm cascades into classic Italian flair, and soaring snow-kissed Alpine ranges crash into lush Mediterranean valleys punctuated with palm trees, orchards and vineyards for as far as the eye can see. The outcome is striking. And for us, no place does ‘wow’ better. Period.
For centuries South Tyrol was under Austrian rule. After World War I, the region changed hands so to speak when it was annexed by Italy — yielding a gift to travelers. A delicious blend of German and Italian culture now greets you at every corner. If you ever wondered how to enjoy both a German and Italian experience on a single European trip, South Tyrol is the answer.
Whether you crave exhilarating outdoor excursions, wish to unwind in pure poolside bliss or long to embark on a culture-filled adventure, South Tyrol lays it all at your feet. After one visit, you’ll understand why we consider it Italy’s best kept secret. And like us, you may just rip up the rest of your travel wish list.
We put together the following highlights to give you a sense for the sights and adventures waiting for you in South Tyrol.
Journey Into the Medieval Heart of Europe
Few things capture the imagination like an imposing castle towering from an even more imposing mountainside. South Tyrol has no shortage of them. The region swells with 800 castles, ruins and fortresses — more than any other area of Europe. If dragons ever flew surely it was over South Tyrol.
South Tyrol’s ancient strongholds provide a jaw-dropping way to plunge yourself into the Middle Ages. Hiking trails abound to and around many of the castles.
Enjoying them from up close or from afar is equally fascinating. And when it comes to photo opps, you’ll no doubt be tempted put your camera into overdrive.
Touring these monuments from another time always leaves us awestruck. A walk through centuries-old halls where kings, queens and knights once roamed conjures a spellbinding glimpse into the heart of medieval Europe.
One of our favorite stony haunts is the Tirol Castle. Perhaps the most historically-significant fortress in South Tyrol, Tirol Castle rises above a deep ravine in Dorf Tirol. It was once the ruling seat of the Counts of Tyrol whose iron-throned influence gave the entire region its name. Below its ramparts, lies a sweeping panorama of apple orchards, vineyards and the rich greenery of the Etschtal valley.
After your visit, be sure to enjoy a drink or two at Biergarten am Schlossweg — a beer garden perched under a grape canopy where you can view Tirol Castle and Brunnenberg Castle through the vines. On our last visit here, we also devoured a savory plate of South Tyrloean bacon dumplings (Speckknödel) — a hearty medieval dish that goes back to at least the 13th century.
Read More: Claiming the Throne at Trostburg Castle
Transport Yourself to a Simpler Time
Under the watchful eye of many South Tyrolean fortresses, lie quaint villages seemingly lost in time. These precious jewels spring up from fertile valleys and hillsides nearly as much as the area’s vineyards and orchards. Each one provides its own medieval charm within a picturesque setting.
For us, villages in South Tyrol strike the perfect balance between adventure and relaxation. Strolling crooked cobblestone streets unspoiled by the grip of modern life is a welcome break from rigorous hiking. Cozy cafes will encourage you to slow down, take a sit and chat with a local or two. There’s no better way to get a touch for what it’s like to live among truly historic and natural wonders.
If sleepy mountain villages are not your speed, South Tyrol’s capital, Bolzano, offers plenty of vibrancy with lively streets, markets, pubs and shops all wrapped in old world beauty. The city reveals centuries of influences and bears a history rivaling Rome with Ötzi — an ancient man on display who was lost in ice for more than 5,000 years. Read our post about visiting Bolzano to learn more about what there is to see and do in South Tyrol’s most cosmopolitan city.
Alpine Adventure Beyond Measure
If outdoor adventure is your go-to drug, nothing will get you higher than South Tyrol. And we mean that literally. The medley of Alpine and Mediterranean climates creates a wild-hearted playground unlike anywhere else on Earth.
On any given day you can breezily roam through vast prairies and forests, trek skyward to stare at the stoic faces of jutting stone giants or smile wildly while hiking under palm-drenched promenades that meld into mountain-born vineyards.
South Tyrol welcomes the wandering spirit with wide open arms. Every turn here reveals your next adrenaline rush or moment of zen. Deciding how to spend your time will be your biggest challenge.
If you prefer to spin through paradise, hop on a mountain bike and break a sweat in the Dolomites. Widely celebrated as Europe’s most beautiful mountains, its jagged peaks could be ripped right from the pages of Tolkien’s most fantastical tales.
The Dolomites comprise 18 peaks spread across 350,000 heavenly acres. Thanks to South Tyrol’s state-of-the-art lift systems, outdoor adventure in the Dolomites is available to every age and experience level. On every outing, we meet travelers in their 70s and 80s vigorously enjoying the hiking trails. Alpine air enlivens the adventurous spirit no matter your age.
Beyond thrills and breathtaking views, the Dolomites offer incredible cultural excursions. You can witness the unrivaled woodcarving craftsmanship of the locals and discover captivating legends such as the witches of Schlern Mountain. For us, this part of South Tyrol is most enchanting when the valleys are ablaze with autumns colors and the peaks stand even bolder.
Read More: Hiking Where Witches Once Roamed
If biking at Alpine altitudes seems a bit too lofty, consider pedaling and sipping your way through 16 wine villages dotted along the South Tyrolean Wine Road. Biking enthusiasts here will not run out of trails. And with 300 days of sunshine each year, you won’t consider South Tyrol scenic, but heart-pounding spectacular. We guarantee it.
A hiking outing every visitor should try is along ancient irrigation canals called Waalwegs. Carved into mountains sides, these ancient pathways ascend easily and wind through miles of meadows, forests, vineyards and orchards. With each step you’ll bounce along to the soothing song of running Alpine water. And you’ll encounter everything from castles to churches to the curious calls of cuckoo birds and the comforting clangs of cowbells.
Food & Drink Fit for a King
Wine lovers, foodies and beer buffs will uncover plenty to savor in South Tyrol. It is Italy after all. But then again it is so much more. The region is considered Italy’s culinary star — boasting more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else.
Thanks to the mixture of northern and southern European cultures, each sip and bite in South Tyrol can launch you on a distinctive journey. Firmly rooted farm-to-table traditions tantalize the taste buds with a fusion of Italian, Tyrolean, German and mountain-born flavors.
If you’re hungry for straight up traditional Italian, you don’t need to venture further south. We’ve enjoyed our fair share of authentic pasta dishes, zesty pizza and and sweet desserts such as gelato. However, your time in South Tyrol would not be complete without devouring hearty Alpine culinary delights like smoked speck and of course apple strudel.
On a recent hike, we stopped at the Schgaguler mountain hut — an inviting rustic gem set off a trail in Seiser Alm (also known as Alpe Di Siusi) in the heart of the Dolomites. Here we ordered a bowl of Speckknödelsuppe. The dish consists of speck-flavored dumplings in a clear broth. It was the perfect companion to a day in the mountains. A serving of a knödel dish promises to satisfy any adventurer’s hunger.
Wine. Wein. Vino. Beer. Bier. Birra!
The wine gods have been blessedly kind to South Tyrol. But that hasn’t come without a lot of work. Over the last 3,000 years South Tyrol’s wine artisans perfected techniques to grow and tend to vines on steep slopes. The result? Scenery that is nothing short of a living, breathing masterpiece. High elevation vineyards flow down sun-kissed mountainsides producing some of the highest regarded wines in the world.
Crisp mineral-dominate whites such as Gewürztraminer, Sauvingnon Blanc and Pinto Grigio are among the region’s most popular wines, but you’ll also discover heavenly reds such as Lagrein and Pinot Noir. In fact, Italy’s top three rated Pinot Noir wines come from Alto Adige (South Tyrol wine estates use the Italian name for the region on their wine labels).
If wine isn’t your beverage of choice when dining or unwinding, do not fret. South Tyrol has a craft brewing tradition that goes back more than 1,000 years. Alpine water fresh from mountain springs serves as the foundation for producing beers with distinct character and flavor. The perfect frosty partner to any meal or thirst-induced adventure.
A popular brewery we like to visit is Forst in Algund / Lagundo. Set in the shadow of a lush mountainside, Forst offers a variety of high-quality beers. You can kick back and sample them in the brewery’s restaurant or beer garden.