Breathtaking pinnacles and endless panoramas, The Dolomites are some of the most impressive mountain landscapes in the world. With rough jagged peaks, aqua mountain lakes, alpine meadows and larch forests which change to a fiery yellow in autumn, this region is a nature-lovers paradise.
Pre-WWI, South Tyrol and the Dolomite region was under Austrian rule. When Italy joined the Allies, this region was promised to them upon victory. Though despite the border being now Italian, most of the culture and language still remains as Austrian. You can still see this in the architectural style through towns, menus in restaurants, and on signs where both Italian and German are written.
Apart from getting driving endlessly through the valley floors and mountain peaks, I suggest hiking as much as you can in this region. With paths up to the rocky ridges of many peaks and plenty in the green, lower regions, there are some of the best trails in Italy here.
We spent a week driving through The Dolomites, and it felt like the perfect amount.
We started and finished in Ischia, a tiny town located about 2 hours drive from Ortisei.
Day 1: Ischia > Lago di Carezza > Sella Pass & Gardena Pass
Day 2: Alpe Di Siusi & Alp Tierser hike
Day 3: Seceda
Day 4: Val di Funes
Day 5: Lago di Brais
Day 6: Tre Cime di Lavaredo & Lago di Sorapis
Day 7: Drive back to Ischia
Renting a car in the Dolomites
A learning from our many car hires in Europe is that choosing a larger more well known agency is worth it - they will usually try to give you the best deal without many hidden terms, conditions or costs.
Another thing to note in Italy: an international drivers permit is needed — you can sort this out through AAA if you’re from the US, or through RACQ in Australia.
I’ve done a whole other post about our Italian Road Trip, so if you’ve read that you’ll know how I feel about driving in Italy. You will need to be comfortable with manic road conditions, other cars recklessly passing you, no one doing the speed limit… You may be passing through toll roads too so always have some Euro on hand in case the booth doesn’t like your card. Petrol stations also have a habit of not taking international credit cards, another reason it’s always helpful to carry cash.
Most signage is in Italian or German so it’s helpful to know what a few common signs mean.
Lastly, Italy is infamous for fines; both speeding (in small towns) and if you enter a Limited Traffic Zone including the road to Alpe di Siusi.
Your best bet is to stay out of CBD of big cities and always stick to the speed limits when passing through small towns.
What to know before visiting the Dolomites
Here are a few good things to note:
Italian and German are the two main languages spoken, and it’s also important to know that there are two names for every location; Austrian and Italian. For example, the Italian name is Lago di Brais, but the Austrian name is Pragser Wildsee. Italian name Alpe di Suisi is also called Seiser Alm. It can get very confusing. For this post, I’ll be using just the Italian names.
There are also two locations called Alpe di Suisi in The Dolomites. For the picturesque meadow seen in these pics, you want the one near Compaccio and Ortisei.
There are many Rifugios (Refuge Huts) located high up in the mountains. These make for the perfect place to start or finish your hike, with many serving delicious huge plates of food all day.
Most towns, bus routes, gondolas and some roads shut down entirely from October-December and March-April. The best time to visit is September, when the summer crowds start to disappear.
Be prepared, it is an expensive destination. Try to book accommodation with kitchen facilities and stay outside the bigger towns to save money.
If you’re going hiking, pack plenty of water, food and layers - there isn’t always the option to buy refreshments along the way, and the weather changes fast. Even in September there can sometimes be snow!
Where to stay in the Dolomites
There seems to be two main sides to The Dolomites, the east and the west. On the west side you have the towns of Ortesi and Kaselruth, and sights such as Seceda, Alpe di Suisi, Val di Funes. On the east side you have Lago di Brais, Lago di Sorapiss, Tre Cime di Lavaredo and the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo. So, when choosing where to stay, I recommend splitting your time between each side.
We stayed in Kaselruth for 3 nights, Valle di Cadore for 3 as most sights/hikes are only 45 minutes drive away so these two towns were the perfect base to come back to each night. We also had one night just near Lago di Brais.
In Kastelroth, we stayed at Margit’s Air BnB. This was a perfect spot, very cozy room and had a gorgous view out over the town.
We stayed at Gasthof Neunhausern for one night, to be closer to Lago di Brais when we woke at Sunrise. This hotel was lovely, had a stunning view, great restaurant downstairs, and not very expensive!
We chose Pieve di Cadore for the second half as other towns such as Cortina d’Ampezzo were quite expensive. We stayed in Daniela’s little Air BnB which had it’s own kitchen - very handy!
On our way up and back from the Dolomites we stayed in Ischia at Antonella’s Air BnB I recommend 100%.
What to see and do
Tre Cime di Lavaredo
This is one of the most famous spots in The Dolomites. There’s one road up and down (with a toll of €30 to enter by car) and they only allow a certain number of people up the road at a time. By 9am in summer (especially on weekends) the car park at the top is full which means cars will begin to bank up at the toll booth. Alternatively, you can catch the bus from Misurina however these too fill up very quickly and tickets cost €15 return.
To avoid this, go early. We arrived at the toll booth when it opened at 6am and were one of the first cars up at Rifugio Auronzo. We watched the sun rise and it was one of the most incredible sights of the trip.
Hiking Guide: There are two great hikes to do here, both starting at Rifugio Auronzo. Hiking Guides Coming Soon.
Lago di Braies
Another of the most famous sights in The Dolomites, this lake is beautiful particularly at sunrise. It can get crowded - even when we arrived at 5am there was already about 80 people around) so be sure to arrive early and pay to park in the parking lot closest to the lake (P3). If you enter the lot before 7am and stay for less than 3 hours, it will only cost €2 instead of €6. You can also rent boats from June until late September from 10 AM until 5 PM.
Lago di Sorapis
One of the most challenging but rewarding hikes in the region, allow yourself around 4 hours to hike up to the glacier lake and back. There is a small amount of parking at the trail head and the path is usually quite busy, particularly in the high season.
If you have a huge fear of heights this may not be the hike for you - the trail follows a very steep path on the cliffs edge, sometimes with no railing (though there are cables to hang onto).
Hiking Guide: The only way to reach Lago di Sorapis is to hike. Hiking Guides Coming Soon.
Gardena & Sella Pass
There are a few amazing mountain passes through The Dolomites, some with up to 29 switchbacks to the top! These two passes are great roads to drive on your way to Ortisei, and if the weather is great keep your eyes out for the many paragliders filling the skies above.
Val di Funes
Val di Funes has some incredibly picturesque meadows and churches, including the St Johann in Ranui church and the Santa Maddalena (see it from the famous lookout here).
The church pictured on the right costs to enter, but you can get this view for free from outside the fence. No drones allowed!
Seceda is pretty spectacular. Sitting 2500m above sea level, this mountain formation is out of this world. To get to the top, take the two gondolas from Ortisei town (it’s €32 per person roundtrip and runs from 8:30 - 5:30 from June - October).
Hiking Guide: Hiking Guides Coming Soon.
Alpe di Siusi
This is the largest alpine meadow in Europe and heavily protected - but once you visit you’ll see why. This is exactly what I picture heaven to be like. It can be quite tricky to visit, but my post here shares all of the exact details on how to get there (and not be stung a €112 fine!)
Hiking Guide: You will need to hike to the meadow and back from the parking lot in Compaccio. If you’re also up for another hike in the region, Alpe di Tieres is a beautiful and somewhat challenging climb up to a picturesque refuge hut.
Hiking Guides Coming Soon.
Lago di Carezza
Lago di Carezza makes for a perfect pit stop on your way to or from the region. This lake gets quite busy during the day as it is directly next to the parking lot, but not many people stay for long. Take a walk around the circumference of the lake for a bit of solitude and watch the incredible colours change from blue to green to yellow.
Please remember - you can’t actually walk down to the water’s edge, even though you may see a ton of instagram photos of people down by the water (there’s a fence with plenty of signs telling you this) so please respect the rules so people can enjoy these sights for years to come!!
A few years ago when I came to The Dolomites without a car (virtually impossible, do not recommend btw) I realised the limitations I had without my own transport so I hired a motorised bicycle and circled the 30km road around Monte Cristallo. This road has stunning vistas of the mountain ranges around, plus Lake Misurina is a great stop to enjoy the view across to the grand hotel on the opposite bank. You’ll most likely pass through this town if you are heading up to Tre Cime di Lavaredo.