Called the gateway to the majestic Dolomites of the Italian Alps, Bolzano is a city of breathtaking sights with a rich medieval history.
If you’re looking for things to do in Bolzano, you’ll be delighted to know it’s strategic location in the hills of the South Tyrol region, evident in the fortresses and castles dotting the surrounding lands, points to its importance as a capital city.
Settlements there date back to prehistoric times and history shows it’s been ruled by Bavarians, the early Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. Now Bolzano is the largest city in South Tyrol with a strong allure for visitors who come to tour the numerous castles and ancient churches.
A gorgeous alpine destination, the city of 105,000 residents offers jaw-dropping scenery, excellent Northern Italian cuisine and wines, and exquisite handicrafts. Many of the sights have both an Italian and a German name, owing to its location.
But what are the true highlights of this mountain jewel? Here are the 15 best things to do in Bolzano, Italy.
1. See the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology
Our list of top things to do in Bolazano starts with an interesting museum. And the most famous item on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology is Otzi the Iceman.
The Iceman first took up residence in the museum in 1998, and since then has offered a fascinating look at regional prehistoric life. Dating from the Copper Age, Otzi was near perfectly preserved by the benefit of his special environmental conditions.
Hikers discovered him, as well as his clothing and gear, on the Schnalstal/Val Senales Valley glacier in 1991. Over the decades, his mummified remains have given researchers great insight into the lifestyle of the area’s prehistoric mountain dwellers.
2. Hiking and Walking Bolzano
One of the best things to do in Bolzano is spending as much time as possible outdoors hiking or walking. Bolzano is an extraordinarily scenic alpine town.
Promenades with Mediterranean style gardens are peppered throughout. Beyond the city limits are beautiful lakes and mountain trails perfect for exploring by visitors of all fitness levels.
Pack some food and wear suitable shoes and you’ll have the perfect alpine afternoon of hiking and soaking up the scenery. Try a flat, easy walk around Lago di Caldaro, the warmest swimming lake in the Alps as well as a part of the Tyrolean Wine Route.
Enjoy regional culinary treats along the way. If you’re up to the challenge, there are climbs into the Dolomites and beyond. For the more adventurous, you can plan multi-day hikes using Bolzano as your base.
3. Experience the Wine Region
Many of the wineries offer fascinating cellars for touring, tasting and buying.
The South Tyrolean Wine Route is a great place to start. It’s walkable, so you can get close to the wineries, vineyards, estates and restaurants that make the region famous.
Or, rent an e-bike and ride, in leisure, the route lush with grapes dripping from pergolas and crisp apples maturing in the orchards. Be sure to make stops at the charming bars and restaurants.
Also enjoy the views of the sparkling lake, dramatic mountain peaks and spontaneous conversations with the growers. The region is a treat for sightseeing and culinary exploration.
4. Ride the Funivia del Renon
Some of Bolzano attractions are actually quite modern. The Funivia del Renon cable car is a thrilling way to see the city from on high.
Start your 12-minute journey to the top from the city center of Bolzano and soar over the surrounding forests, meadows and vineyards.
From Soprabolzano, situated at an altitude of 1,221 meters, take an alpine train to several mountain villages, including Renon.
The cable cars leave every four minutes, so there’s no need for planning. Bikes and strollers are permitted as there’s plenty of space and seating. Best of all, this mode of transportation is environmentally clean.
This is a great way to make the fantastic views of the Rosengarten/Catinaccio and Schlern/Sciliar, of Bolzano and the Überetsch/Oltradige area one of the highlights of your visit.
5. Visit Piazza Walther
Back in town, the Bolzano activities don’t stop. In the medieval middle of the city, lies one of the most important squares in Bolzano. It was built by Bavarians in 1808 and dedicated to King Maximilian Joseph I.
In 1889, Heinrich Natter from the Val Venosta Valley erected a monument of Walther von der Vogelweide, a German poet and composer who died in 1230. Since then, it’s been known as Piazza Walther.
While many armies, emperors and even Mussolini have made political appearances here, It’s now thought of as a popular meeting spot for townspeople. It’s also the location of the Bolzano’s hugely popular Christmas market and spring Flower Market.
Other events take place here throughout the year. Otherwise, enjoy some coffee and people-watching at this historic square.
6. Tour Bolzano Cathedral
On your list of things to do in Bolzano, make time to see the centerpiece of Piazza Walther, which is the part Romanesque-part Gothic Bolzano Cathedral, otherwise known as Assumption of Our Lady Cathedral.
Originally planned in early Christian times, the Romanesque building was officially consecrated in 1180.
In the 14th-century, Augsburg architects, the Schiche brothers, added the Gothic hallmarks, using construction materials such as red and yellow sandstone and adding Notre Dame-inspired gargoyles.
The Gothic steeple was added in 1517 by Swabian architect and sculptor Hans Lutz von Schussenried.
Next to an entrance, famously known as Leitacher Törl and named after an important vineyard owner, is a fresco from 1400, painted by a student of Giotto. The entire cathedral is a treasure trove of portraits and architecture.
Even the pulpit is a sculpture by Hans Lutz von Schussenried and is a composition of lizards, cherubs and early Church evangelists.
7. Explore the Parks of the Dolomites
The first natural park in the Dolomites was established in 1974. Since then, Sciliar-Catinaccio Nature Park, and others, have delighted visitors with peaks covered with heavenly mountain flora and diverse wildlife.
The Fanes-Sennes-Prags Nature Park, offering pristine alpine meadows and blue-crystal Italian lakes, sits in the middle of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Dolomites. It covers more than 60-acres and is a favorite for hikers.
Rock hounds will love the Puez – Geisler Nature Park. This preserve is a geological look at the past as it holds all the typical rock samples of the region.
The Adamello-Brenta Nature Park boasts several major mountain peaks, all more than 9,000 feet tall, as well as Lake Molveno and Lake Tovel.
No matter which park you choose to explore, you’ll come away with an unforgettable day full of fresh mountain air, flowers and water.
8. Take in Runkelstein Castle
For more things to do in Bolzano look for the castles surrounding the city. Lords and brothers Friedrich and Beral of Wangen had the Romanesque castle built 1237 so they could control the area’s trade route.
In 1385, members of an established and wealthy Bolzano family, Franz and Niklaus Vintler, bought the castle and added elements of Gothic architecture.
They also added a summer house to the northern part of the castle and held events there which showcased their wealth and importance. The castle is particularly famous for its medieval frescoes and murals, with many of them exhibiting what daily life was like for the nobility.
The jousting frescoes show knights high on their horses ready for fierce competition. Literary-themed frescoes decorate the summer house with portrayals of knights of King Arthur’s round table and the tragedy of lovers Tristan and Isolde.
9. Step into the Messner Mountain Museum
One of the top things to do in Bolzano can be found south of town where an important museum celebrates man’s connection to the mountains.
The Messner Mountain Museum can be found at another of Bolzano’s medieval sites, the Castle Sigmundskron, Firmian. The ruins that are now the museum were restored and opened for the public by famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner in 2006.
The musuem holds art installations and relics. Visitors can take tours and there are several restaurants on site.
10. Drop by the Franciscan Friary
Some of the best things to do in Bolzano involve learning the area’s rich history. Since the 14th-century, the Gothic structures of the Franciscan monastery, church, cloister and convent in the Via dei Francescani, have served the religious as a place of worship.
Dedicated to St. Francis, it’s rumored that the young Francis went to Mass in the St. Erhard’s chapel along with his father. While he was there, the church bells rang out.
The chapel is famous for its 14th-century Gothic frescoes. Gothic frescoes and 18th-century paintings are also found in the bell tower and cloister that date back to the 14th-century.
The church has three large stained-glass windows with various scenes depicting St. Francis, St. Louis and St. Elizabeth of Hungary. There is also an elaborate carved Gothic altar made by Hans Klocker, 1500.
The complex is located in the central Boden-Rentsch quarter.
11. Contemplate the Art at the Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art
Like many places to visit in Northern Italy, not everything in Bolzano is from the middle ages. Bolzano’s Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art, or Museion, serves as the steel and glass house for provocative contemporary art.
Founded in 1987, it stands in contrast to the Gothic and Romanesque buildings surrounding it and the natural beauty of the Alps in the background.
Temporary exhibits, shows and a public library bring people together for discussions and education on art and the cultural issues of the day.
The several thousand pieces of art on display are from both international and local artists. The museum enjoys a close relationship with creators and many of the exhibitions are curated by artists.
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12. Discover Maretsch Castle
Many Bolzano activities tend toward the regal and this event and meeting center is no exception. It’s an actual castle located close to the middle of the city.
Although near the bustle of town, the Renaissance style Maretsch Castle is surrounded by vineyards and dates back to the early 13th-century. The walls of the castle are large stones from the nearby river laid horizontally in layers.
Even if you haven’t been invited to a wedding or conference there, you can still walk over and take in the interesting frescoes, such as a rare horned Moses, and the panoramic view from the tower.
13. See the Monumento della Vittoria
Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini ordered the erection of this controversial Bolzano attraction in 1928 to honor the soldiers fallen during World War I.
Made of white stone and marble and surrounded by neat gardens, the triumphal arch has been the subject of public debate for decades.
A Latin inscription reads, “HIC PATRIAE FINES SISTE SIGNA / HINC CETEROS EXCOVIMVS LINGVA LEGIBVS ARTIBVS,” which means “Here at the border of the fatherland set down the banner. From this point on we educated the others with language, law and culture.”
The inscription never did sit well with the German-speaking residents of Bolzano. On the day King Victor Emmanuelle III and other major fascist figures inaugurated the monument, July 12, 1928, 10,000 people marched in protest in Innsbruck.
14. Walk the Muri-Gries Abbey
One of the things to do in Bolzano is located on Gries Square. Muri-Gries Abbey is a tranquil, walled monastery, church and winery. It was first settled with Augustinian monks in 1406.
But subsequent pillaging and wars forced the monks out, and in1845, it was given to Benedictine priests by the Austrian emperor. The oldest building on the grounds is the castle and bell tower, which was built in the 12th-century.
The Baroque style Church of St. Augustine was built 1769-1771. The acclaimed Tyrolean painter, Martin Knoller painted the incredible frescoes that decorate the nave, cupola and altar.
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15. Learn at the Bolzano School Museum
It’s a small museum but steeped in Dolomites and Bolzano history. The Bolzano School Museum is located in the historic Rencio District.
The building is from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and is in the Oltradige style. Once it served as the center of South Tyrol education, but now it’s a history lesson on the area’s development of school curriculum.
A classroom from 1885 gives visitors a glimpse of school life with reading boards and textbooks. But modern touches round out the story with interactive exhibits and videos. It’s a unique look at how German and Italian children learned together. Admission is free.
From the glorious peaks of the Alps to the charm of the city center, Bolzano is the mountain gem of Italy.
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