The Complete Guide to Visiting the Italian Dolomites

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The sky around me turned a warm shade of orange as the sun started to light the valley around me. I sat there and stared out the window, and my jaw literally dropped as I looked at the peaks before me.  

We had arrived in the Dolomites late in the evening, and waiting for sunrise felt like being a kid again waiting for Christmas morning. 

Dolomites view

A long time mountain lover, I’ve always been in search of the most beautiful peaks to explore and lose myself in.  As John Muir said

“Going to the mountains is going HOME”

I had never been here before, but I instantly felt at home – big mountains tend to have that effect on me. The crisp air, the jagged peaks, the thick forests – I instantly knew that this was a place that would speak to my soul.

The Dolomites are easily the most beautiful mountains that we’ve ever been to, and I don’t say that lightly.  More beautiful than the Alps, than the Rockies, than the Himalayas, and even more beautiful than my beloved Tetons.  

Chances are that you’ve seen photos of the Dolomites popping up all over the place without even knowing what you were seeing.  They’re some of the most iconic and stunning mountains in the world, yet most people are much more familiar with ranges like the Alps and the Rocky Mountains.

hiking with boy in dolomites

Once you visit, they’ll become ingrained in your mind and if you’re anything like us, you’ll start planning your next trip as soon as you leave.

Here’s everything you need to know to plan an amazing trip to the Dolomites!

Where are the Dolomites located?  

The Dolomites are located in northeastern Italy just south of the Austrian border.  The Dolomites are a mountain range within the Alps, but once you visit you will notice that their topography is massively different than the surrounding mountains.  The Dolomites are jagged, sharp and seem to rise out of nowhere, whereas the Alps are broader, more spread out and have an older geologic feel to them.  

Major towns in the Italian Dolomites

In the Dolomites, both German and Italian are widely used, so most towns actually have 2 different names – one for each language. Here are the major towns that you’ll find in the Dolomites:

  • Ortisei/St. Ulrich
  • Merano/Meran
  • Brunico/Bruneck
  • Auronzo di Cadore
  • Corvara
  • Cortina d’Ampezzo
  • Bressanone/Brixen

How to get to the Dolomites?

The best airport to access the Dolomites is the Venice airport.  From Venice, the Dolomites are 170 KM northwest. The drive will take you just under 2.5 hours.  I recommend spending 2 days in Venice before you head up to the Dolomites to help beat jet lag. Make sure to stay a night on the island of Venice since the whole area transforms ones the cruise crowds leave in the later afternoon.

Do I need a car to visit the Dolomites?

While a car is not mandatory to visit the Dolomites, it is certainly helpful.  If you are planning on traveling to several different locations in the Dolomites, I absolutely recommend having a car for your trip.  We found so many side roads and canyons that we decided to explore on a whim, so we were grateful that the car gave us that flexibility.  If you plan to travel during the winter, make sure that you get a car with 4-wheel-drive for snowy conditions. 

It’s important to make note that in order to drive in Italy, you do need an International Drivers Permit (they’re only about $25 and are super easy to get).  

There are buses that travel the area and if you’re feeling adventurous, you can absolutely make it work.
We have some friends who recently went on a backcountry tour through the Dolomites and knew that they would be spending most of their time on the trail, so a car would be an unnecessary expense.  While navigating a foreign bus system in a language that they didn’t speak wasn’t second nature to them, it worked well for their trip.

If you’re taking your time on your trip and don’t need to rush things, I absolutely recommend the Italian bus system.

The roads in the Dolomites are incredibly windy, so no matter what form of transportation you take, make sure to keep that in mind.  I highly recommend packing some motion sickness bands unless you never get motion sick (several of our kids threw up on the drives…).  We really prefer the bands to the medication since they don’t make you drowsy and instantly start working.  

When is the best time of year to visit the Dolomites?

As with most mountain destinations, the best times of year to visit are in the winter and in the summer.  In the Dolomites, winter usually lasts from November through April. Summer in the Dolomites goes from June through September.

We visited during the second week of June and were surprised to learn that many areas are closed until mid to late June, including several lifts, rifguios, and activities.  There was still plenty to do in mid-June, and we also had wonderful weather and fewer crowds. August is the most crowded month to visit the Dolomites.

The worst time to visit the Dolomites is in May, when the snow is still melting and most trails will be very wet and muddy.  The weather in the mountains is also more unpredictable in May than later in the summer.  

If you choose to visit in October, come prepared for the chance of an early winter storm.  However, September and October are wonderful months for photographing the Dolomites since the days are shorter and the lighting is a bit better to capture the peaks.

How long should you spend in the Dolomites?

If you are traveling all the way to the Dolomites, make sure that you plan enough time there to really enjoy the beauty of the mountains.  While you could certainly drive all over the area in a day or two, the real beauty of the Dolomites is found off the road and on the trail.  

At a minimum, I recommend spending 4 days in the Dolomites.  This will give you time to stay in a few different places and to go on several hikes.  If you don’t want to feel rushed, I recommend staying 6-7 days in the Dolomites. This will give you enough time to do several hikes, a few longer drives, and to enjoy some of the high alpine restaurants and even stay in a Rifugio (a backcountry hut/lodge where you can eat and spend the night).

If you’re wanting to do some backcountry trekking that includes some overnight hikes, I recommend spending 10 days in the Dolomites.  

The most beautiful places in the Dolomites that you must visit

There are a few places that you MUST SEE when you visit the Dolomites.  This area is so stunningly beautiful that you will probably find your jaw dropping around every turn you make.  Truthfully, you can’t really go wrong with any itinerary in the Dolomites, but here are a few of our FAVORITES.

Note: All of the major attractions in the Dolomites can get quite crowded, so plan on getting up early.

Tre Cime De Lavaredo

The Three peaks of Lavaredo is a stunning area and to truly appreciate it, you absolutely must hike it.  The hike will take you in a full loop around the base of the peaks so that you can appreciate the views from all 360 degrees.  This is a perfect high alpine hike where you’ll be right up against the rocks. There are really no trees to speak of along the hike and since you’re at a high altitude, make sure to cover up with a great hat like these ones, as well as some sun-protective clothing.  

Lago Di Braies

This is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the Dolomites, but with good reason.  The water is stunningly beautiful and the backdrop is even better. There are few places in the world that feel as picture perfect as this.  However, if you want your visit to Lago Di Braies to feel idyllic and not like you’re just part of the masses of people, get there early or go late in the afternoon. 

Traffic can get pretty crazy here, so a mid-day visit will not only leave you without a parking spot, but will probably create a good deal of stress. Like most popular photo stops, there are lots of crowds right as you get to the lake.  If you keep walking ¼ mile in either direction you’ll be able to escape the crowds and soak up the beauty with a bit of solitude!

Santa Maddalena

My all-time favorite view in the Dolomites comes from up on a hill in the little village of Santa Maddalena.  This village is much less built-up than the surrounding areas and feels quite sleepy. There isn’t much to do in the area, but a walk through the hillside, admiring this view was enough for us! 

Our only company were the cows grazing in the nearby fields with their jingling bells. This is a perfect stop for a day when you need some down time or perhaps when the weather isn’t cooperating for your other plans.  You can either drive through the valley, or take some time to stop in the village and grab some lunch as you soak up the views!

What are the best activities to do in the Dolomites?

The first thing that you need to know is that the Dolomites is an ACTIVE TRAVEL destination.  It’s not a place where you want to just sit back and relax while you soak in the view (even though it’s guaranteed to be stunning). 
To really experience the Dolomites, you need to get into the mountains, and onto the trails.

Best adventure activities in the Dolomites

Road biking in the Dolomites

road biking dolomites

If you want to test your fitness, strength and determination, then road biking in the Italian Dolomites just might be perfect for you.  Expect steep climbs, racing decents, and not a whole lot of flat road anywhere.

If you’re planning on doing a lot of road biking in the Dolomites, Alta Badia and Cortina are both great locations for a home base.  Most routes cover between 50-125 km, and finding climbs with a total vertical of 2,000-3,000m is not uncommon. For specific road biking routes out of Cortina, read this biking guide.  

Mountain biking in the Dolomites

It’s no wonder that with all the stunning mountains and well-built trail networks, that the Dolomites is a hot spot for mountain biking.  We saw bikers of all ages as we were out on our hikes and the entire area focuses on active travel. Even among older riders, we noticed that ebikes were very popular and most shops were renting them as well.  While we didn’t mountain bike on our trip since we had young kids and a baby with us, we are planning a trip back to mountain bike in the Dolomites with our kids once they get a little bit older.  

dolomites mountain biking

One of the best things about mountain biking in the Dolomites is that you can eliminate a lot of your climbs by using lifts and cable cars which are all over the different valleys.

Top mountain bike trails in the Dolomites

Here are the top mountain bike trails that we are excited to go and ride in the Dolomites when we go back:

Val Venegia
This 32km ride is rated for intermediate riders and takes you right alongside the glacier Pale di San Martino.

Sellaronda Loop
This trail passes through 4 different mountain valleys in the Dolomites that you can get between with lifts, unless you have legs of steel.  The entire loop is 39 miles, but is one of the best rides in the area. The Sellarona Loop is rated for intermediate riders, though because of the length, you will need to be in fairly good shape to ride it.  

Paneveggio Nature Park 
This 21 km look through the nature park is a great beginner ride, and we’ve got our eyes on it because it’s easy enough to do with young kids.  You ride along some beautiful trails and along a lake as well, which make it a great relaxing place to spend the day.  

Via Ferrata in the Dolomites

The Dolomites have over 700 via ferrata routes alongside their cliffs, so if you’re looking for an extreme adventure, this is for you. 

via ferrata dolomites

Most of these via ferrata routes were created during World War I when the Dolomites was a major crossing ground for moving troops. Today, these routes are mostly used by mountaineers and adventurers, and have gained worldwide popularity.  

While there are several via ferrata routes in the Dolomites that are for experts only, there are several via ferrata routes that are great for beginners.  

Best hikes in the Dolomites

If you love to hike, there are few places in the world with better hiking than the Dolomites.  Whether you’re looking for multi-day trekking options or just a short day hike, there really is something for everyone in the Dolomites.  Here are the top day hikes that we recommend in the Dolomites.

Lago Di Braies

You’ve undoubtedly seen photos of Lago Di Braies with its turquoise waters,  wooden rowboats, and stunning mountain backdrop. It’s a photographers heaven, and once you get there you’ll be greeted by tons of tourists there to take their own picture of the boathouse scene. 

lago di braies boats with kids

While the boathouse is quite crowded, keep making your way around the lake and you’ll escape the crowds and get some great scenery as your reward.
Along the shores, there are several beaches that are great for taking a dip, or even just relaxing while the kids toss rocks into the water.  A couple of our kids went for a swim, but the waters are pretty icy, so it’s best done on a hot day.  

Tre Cime Di Lavaredo

This is probably the most iconic hike in all of the Dolomites with its towering three peaks.  If you’re looking for a great high alpine hike with unobstructed views, then this is the hike for you. 

Hiking around the base of the 3 peaks, this is a pretty rocky hike without much vegetation, which is typical for high alpine hikes.  Instead of fields full of wildflowers, you’ll be getting an up close look at some of the most stunning geological formations in the area.  

Along the base of the peaks, there are several alpine lakes that are just a bit off the trail and make a great spot to take a break or have a picnic lunch.  Our kids enjoyed taking their shoes off an soaking their tired feet in the water as a bit of a break from the day of hiking.  

Seceda to Pieralongia

This was my favorite hike in all of the Dolomites and one of the best easy day hikes that I’ve ever done in the world.  As you get off the cable car at the top of the Seceda station in Ortesei prepare for some of the most stunning scenery in all of the Dolomites. 

Seceda looms just down the hill from you and from every side, you are surrounded by jagged peaks and on a clear day, the views are pretty unreal. 

Hike along the mountainside for your own iconic photo and then keep hiking down to Pieralongia for more great views along this simple trail. 

sceeda rifugio

Make sure to stop at Refugio Troier to get a treat or some lunch, and that’s a great way to break up the hike (the apple strudel was amazing there).  Right outside is a great playground for the kids as well as lots of lounge chairs for you to sit back, relax, and enjoy the scenery.

What to do in the Dolomites with kids

When we visited the Dolomites, we took our five kids with us ages 10, 7, 5, 3, and 2 months. It was incredibly kid-friendly and everyone had a great time.

The Dolomites has incredible playgrounds scattered all throughout the mountains, the massive chairlift system makes hiking with kids much easier, and of course you’ll find lots of gelato to keep everyone happy. Make sure to read our article on planning a perfect vacation to the Dolomites with kids.

Best places to stay in the Dolomites

When you visit the Dolomites, there is one thing that you absolutely CAN’T DO…Don’t stay in a chain hotel like you would on another holiday.  Make sure that when you visit the Dolomites, you stay somewhere unique.

When we were there we stayed on a farm, in an Airbnb with giant picture windows, and on the top of a mountain in a Refugio.  All of them offered something unique to our trip and we loved them all for different reasons. Check out our guide on where to stay in the Dolomites for all the details!

Best Places to Stay in the Dolomites

Find the best unique accomodations in the Dolomites!

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