How to Get to the Dolomites: A Guide Including Directions, Car Rental Tips, and More!
Updated: Nov 17, 2022
The Dolomites are a mountain range in northeastern Italy, and they are absolutely stunning. If you're looking for an amazing European vacation spot, look no further than the Dolomites. In this blog post, I will provide you with all the information you need to get there along with some recommendations for things to do and tips that I learned from my recent Italy trip!
What are the Dolomites?
The Dolomites are a mountain range that covers over 140,000 hectares of land in northeastern Italy. They are known for their unique geology and stunning landscapes. The Dolomites are also home to some of the best skiing in Europe! The area was first inhabited by the Celts in the late Iron Age and later became a part of the Roman Republic in the first century BC. Nowadays, the Dolomites are a popular tourist destination for hikers, skiers, and nature lovers from all over the world.
How to get to the Dolomites
The first step is to get to the city of Bozen/Bolzano. The city goes by two different names depending on what language you're speaking. Bozen is the German name and Bolzano is the Italian name. Since it's so close to Austria/Switzerland, you'll see a lot of non-italian signage. Most of the people still speak Italian in the area through, and it was pretty easy getting around just with English. The easiest way to get to Bozen/Bolzano is by taking the train from either Milan or Venice. You can take a train from most major cities in Italy or Europe, and it's relatively cheap and easy. I recommend getting the Trainline app, where you can search for trains in Italy and have your mobile ticket right on your phone. The train system is very efficient in Italy and we had no problems at all getting around.
Once you're in Bolzano, I recommend renting a car so that you can explore the Dolomites at your own pace. Trust me, there is a lot to see and do in the Dolomites and you don't want to be stuck on a tour or waiting for public transportation. We rented a car from Leasys and it was very affordable and easy to use. I would recommend them if you're looking to rent a car in Italy. Their office was right in the Bolzano train station and to get the car, we just had to walk about 5 minutes over to the parking structure, pick up the ticket to exit with the paperwork, and then go up to the 3rd floor and find the car. Most of the cars and car rentals are manual drive, but we were able to reserve an automatic SUV pretty easily through them. It was just a bit pricier than the other cars.
Driving in Italy
Many people warned me that driving in Italy was going to be a nightmare, but I found it to be just fine. The roads are well-marked and the drivers are generally pretty good. Of course, I was only driving around the South Tyrol area are and not within big cities like Florence or Rome, so there was not much traffic. We didn't go very far into the mountains, so Google maps worked just fine for us, but I would just recommend getting a GPS system or renting a car with a GPS if you're looking to explore further in because cell service is not always reliable in the mountains.
Where to Stay by the Dolomites
There are many different places to stay by the Dolomites, but we opted for an Airbnb in the city of Bolzano since it was more affordable and had more amenities than some of the other places in the area. Although it did not have air conditioning, the location was great, and had everything we needed. There were also some hotels in Bolzano and throughout the small towns in the Dolomites, but we preferred to have our own space and kitchen during our stay.
Where to Go to See the Dolomites
Once you have your car, there are a few different options for exploring the Dolomites. You can drive to one of the many small villages within the range or drive up to one of the mountain peaks. We decided to start with driving through some of the small villages because we wanted to see what everyday life was like in the Dolomites, and then spent most of our time at these places:
This is a man-made lake that was created in the 1970s when they built a dam. It's a great place to go for a swim, hike, or just relax by the water. There is a parking lot right across the road, along with a few restaurants and shops, so it's the perfect place to spend a few hours. You can see the mountains right behind the lake, so it's a great place to take some pictures. It's about a 30-minute drive from Bolzano.
This is a mountain pass that takes you from the town of Wolkenstein/Selva Gardena up to the next valley over. The drive itself is beautiful, and there are several places to stop along the way to take in the views. Once you get to the top of the pass, there are a few restaurants with outdoor seating where you can have a drink or something to eat while enjoying the view. It's about a 45-minute drive from Bolzano. Since it's a big ski area, there's tons of ski lodges and hotels, so it would also be a great place to stay if you're looking for somewhere to stay in the Dolomites. This was about an hour and 20 drive from Bolzano, so it was a great day trip for us.
Some other places to check out are:
The Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park
Tre Cime di LavaredoIf
Cascate del Pisciadu
Lake Lago di Braies
What to Do in the Dolomites
There are tons of things to do in the Dolomites, so you'll never be bored. In the winter, it's a popular ski destination with many different resorts to choose from. In the summer, you can go hiking, mountain biking, climbing, or just spend time relaxing in one of the small villages. There are also several museums, churches, and castles to visit, so there's something for everyone. If you're strapped on time, I would recommend just doing a day trip from Bolzano to one of the small villages or to the Gardena Pass. From there, you can do a quick hike to take in some of the views, grab some food, or take one of the cable cars to see the most in a short period of time.
Eating in Bolzano/The Dolomites
There are so many good places to eat in the Dolomites! In Bolzano, we ate at a few different places, but my favorite was Cibus. Since the town is so close to Austria, the food in the area is a bit of a mix of Italian and German food. But Cibus had a big selection of dishes to choose from for a pretty cheap price! If you're looking for something a bit more upscale, I would recommend Restaurant Laurin. The food is amazing and the service is great, but it's a bit more expensive.
In the Dolomites, we ate at a few different places, but my favorite was the cafe in Rifugio Frara in Selva Gardena. The views from the restaurant were breathtaking. I would highly recommend it if you're looking for a nice place to eat while you're in the Dolomites.
When to Visit the Dolomites
The Dolomites are a great place to visit any time of year! In the winter, it's a popular ski destination, so if you're looking to hit the slopes, that would be the best time to go. We went in early September and the weather was perfect - not too hot and not too cold. The leaves were just starting to change color, so it was a great time to see the fall foliage.If you're looking to avoid the crowds, I would recommend visiting in the shoulder season (spring or fall) or mid-week. We went on a Wednesday and Thursday, and the crowds were significantly smaller than on the weekend.
How Long to Spend in the Dolomites
This really depends on what you want to do and how much time you have. We only had two full days, so we didn't get to do everything on our list. If you want to hike and explore the small villages, I would recommend spending at least 5-7 days. If you just want to relax and enjoy the views, you could probably get away with a few days.
Things to Keep in Mind:
There are speed traps everywhere throughout Italy. Most of the ones we noticed were orange boxes, but they can and will issue tickets even if you are going a few kilometers over the limit. Luckily, the car we rented could detect the speed cameras and would warn us to slow down, but not all cars are like that.
Make sure to get a good map (or download an offline map on your phone) before you head into the Dolomites. The roads are windy and narrow, and it's easy to get lost if you're not paying attention.
Although most people speak Italian in the Dolomites, many of the signs are in German. This can be confusing, but just remember that if you see a sign that says "Ausfahrt" it means exit and "Einfahrt" means entrance.