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THE DOLOMITES: A beginners guide

A guide to visiting this dreamy fairytale land where otherworldly mountains, alpine meadows, turquoise lakes & top-notch hospitality collide.

Wow. I don't know where to begin. We decided to tack on the Dolomites after a family trip in Tuscany and a few days in Cinque Terre. While each of those were incredible in their own way - the Dolomites took the cake.


We we're surprised that this region is in Italy considering it felt much more like Austria (see below for why that is). We we're also surprised this region of Northern Italy seems much lesser known to it's Southern Italy (Amalfi, Rome, etc) counterparts. Given it's rich history, stunning views, delicious wine & food, accessibility and outstanding hospitality - we feel it gives other regions in Italy a run for their money. 



So what are the Dolomites? In the eastern section of the Northern Italian Alps lies this epic mountain range. Each peak more jagged than the last, giving the appearance of a drippy sand castle. Also known as the "pale mountains", they turn a beautiful pale purple / pink color during sunset that will take your breath away. It's unlike any other mountain range you've seen.


They span across the three northern regions of Italy: Veneto, Trentino Alto-Adige/Südtirol, and Friuli Venezia Giulia. We spent our time in the South Tyrol (Südtirol) province during our trip. Specifically, we chose the towns of Ortisei and San Candido as our home bases. 

Italy has always had a complicated history as far as unification as one country, culture, language, etc. During the Third Italian War of Independence, which took place in 1866, Italy took control of Lombardy and Venetia from Austria. The Dolomites were also the front lines of World War I. Via Ferrata, which translates to "iron rung" are these iron ladders literally in the mountains that soldiers used to cross through the mountain range.


You can actually hike a Via Ferrata. We're bummed we didn't get to it and hope to experience one next time. 

Some other blogs suggest there is a bit of an identity crisis within the South Tyrol region. Being an Italian born citizen but speaking and identifying with your Austrian culture (which by the way is a stones throw away from San Candido) has got to be an interesting feeling. 


Most people speak German or Ladin, which is another official language of South Tyrol. When we were there, we hardly heard Italian. Therefore, if you are confused by the name of a town, destination, etc - it is likely that you are reading or hearing the German vs Italian version, or vice versa. Sometimes - you'll even see the English version. It can be confusing but it gives you an idea of how rich in culture & diversity this area is. Example of the same province below:

  • South Tyrol (English)

  • Alto-Adige (Italian)

  • Südtirol (German + Ladin) 


While we drove from Cinque Terre, which took about us about 5 hours - there are plenty of airports nearby to fly into if your main destination is the Dolomites. If you're tacking it on to other areas within Italy, or perhaps Austria or Switzerland, we feel it's a must-see. We even canceled our night in Venice to stay an extra day in San Candido. (more on that later) 


  • Verona (Valerio Catullo Airport) | 2 hour drive to Ortisei, 3 hour drive to San Candido

  • Innsbruck (in Austria) | 90 minutes to Ortisei, 3 hours to San Candido

  • Venice (Marco Polo or Treviso Airports) | 3 hours to Ortisei, 2 hours to San Candido

  • Milan (Malpensa or Bergamo Airport) | 3+ hours to Ortisei, 5 hours to San Candido

We definitely recommend renting a car as it's much easier to get around and explore the region efficiently. The drive itself (from wherever you are coming from) is stunning as you begin to get closer to the Alps and the first of the mountain peaks peak through. If you are nervous about driving, we found the roads to be in extremely pristine shape, especially after the Tuscany roads - LOL. There are some winding roads when driving through town to town, but the highways are much like America, if U.S highways had sound of music views. 


The Dolomites are a haven for hikers, photographers, or really anyone who appreciates the magic of mother nature. There are hundreds and hundreds of hikes to choose from, 9 national parks to explore, turquoise alpine lakes and beauty just around every corner to appreciate.


If sitting and relaxing by a pool is your thing, spa days, or curling up with a good book - this is your place.


If you're a foodie and appreciate high quality farm to table cuisine - this is your place.


If you love wine or a good craft cocktail - this is your place.


If you're traveling with young kids and want flexibility, easy hikes/views with high rewards - this is your place.


If you just retired and want a little bit of all the above - this is your place.  

It truly has something for everyone, which is why we feel it's one of the best destinations Italy, or even Europe has to offer. 


Ideally, we'd recommend staying for 5-7 nights, but if you can only do a few nights, choose one town as your home base.


Don't try and do it all, it will only leave you overwhelmed and unable to be present in the things you choose to do. Remember you can always come back. *Speaking to myself here ;) * 


The main areas you'll want to visit are somewhat split between the eastern & western part of the region (with about a 2 hr drive in between) Not everyone has an unhealthy obsession with google maps, like me, but it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the area on a map if you haven't already.


We recommend choosing one home base on the western side and one home base on the eastern side. Whichever you choose first depends on where you are coming from. For example if you are flying into Venice (eastern) and going to Southern Italy, Switzerland, or Lake Como after, it might make sense to stay on the Eastern side first for a few nights, and end on the Western side before continuing to your next destination. If you're only destination is the Dolomites, don't stress as it's the perfect place for a road trip and can be turned into a loop before heading back to return your rental car wherever you flew in. 


If this is your first time (as it was ours) we recommend choosing Ortisei as one of your home bases on the Western Side and San Candido on the Eastern side. Both of these towns are great home bases for day trips to all of the best hikes and views the Dolomites has to offer. That said, these are the towns we chose and there are 100% other options that you would have an equally amazing time in. This was just our experience and it happened to work out well for us. 

Bolzano (Italian) or Bozen (German) is the biggest city in South Tyrol and another excellent option, but a bit farther from the hikes we wanted to do and things we wanted to see. However, we've heard great things about it. You can visit Ötzi the Iceman, at the Museum of Archaeology Bolzano. He's a 5,300-year-old mummy found high in the Alps with an arrow in his back. 



Ortisei (Italian), also known as Urtijëi (German), is an adorable, modern ski town that feels like an adult summer playground. There are two gondolas at the base of the town that take you to the top of Alpe Di Suisi (Italian) or Seiser Alm (German), and the Secadas Ridgeline. Alpe Di Suisi is a high-altitude alpine meadow. I believe the largest in all of Europe. The Secadas are picturesque peaks and the perfect place to spend half a day.

We are usually airbnb people but we are so glad we decided to stay in hotels for this trip. We stayed at Hotel Hell for 2 nights. The name couldn't be more opposite from the experience. It was an affordable stay. Rooms were clean and cozy with a beautiful balcony view of the town on one end, and tree lined hills on the other.


It had a great bar with unique cocktails, plenty of parking, and was an ideal location in town right in the middle of everything. The hot tub in the back and outdoor shower was the icing on the cake after two longs day of hiking and exploring.


Also, there is a public swimming pool next door called Mar Dolomit. Here's the thing - even the "public" swimming pools in the Dolomites are like little resorts. Worth checking out if you want to unwind after a morning hike. They also had a restaurant, sauna, steam room, hot tub & diving boards! 

Ortisei is also about 30 minutes from the next main place we visited on the eastern side - Val di Funes (Italian) or Villnöss (German). This is the photo at the top of the page. It felt like God or Bob Ross took their time on this one. A valley with an adorable town, Santa Magdalena in the middle, opens up with the most incredible backdrop you'll ever see. I mean it when I say, it's way better in person. 


This is also where the iconic San Giovanni (St. Johann) church is located. After a morning hike of the Secadas, we were able to drive to Santa Magdalena, hike to a beautiful viewpoint, and stop at St Johanns on our way back. This day we squeezed in a lot! More details of our time in Ortisei on the itinerary below. 



After leaving Ortisei and Hotel Hell, we weren't sure how it could get any better. The hospitality, incredible views we had already seen and the food we had eaten had our standards pretty high. But, when we arrived in San Candido, more specifically - Naturhotel Leitlhof, we were in heaven.


Backing up. The drive from Ortisei to San Candido can be done in 1 of 2 ways. You can essentially take the highway, which is what we did to save time. Or you can take the scenic route through Val Gardena. Our original plan was to take this route and stop in Cortina d’Ampezzo (a popular town to stay in) for lunch before continuing up to San Candido. However, we were pretty tired and just wanted to get to Leitlhof ASAP so we could relax before dinner.


San Candido is another adorable mountain town with beautiful churches and rich history. 

It was hard to leave Naturhotel Leitlhof because it truly was a little slice of heaven. If you stay here - absolutely must add the "half board" option. The food was the highlight of the hotel. Along with the sauna, the steam room, the outdoor pool overlooking the Dolomites, the hot tub, the indoor pool, hmmmm what else. Oh the daily lunch time snack, or the mountain e-bikes that allowed us to ride miles of the surrounding area without breaking a sweat. 

It was also a great home base for the Tre Cime National Park and visiting Lago di Braies. Two places we definitely recommend visiting. 

I'm sharing our itinerary below so you can get an idea of how much we were able to fit in in 6 nights / 7 days.



DAY 1 - Karersee Lake + Arrive in Ortisei + Dinner in town 

  • ​Pick up rental car from the airport or get on the road early from your previous location. In our case we left Manarola in Cinque Terre at 7am. 

  • Stop at Karersee Lake (Lago di Carezza) A stunning alpine lake that you can park at, and stop for an hour or so. This was the best first stop we could have asked for. It truly takes your breath away. Greg ran around the lake a few times, while I sat on a bench and journaled.

  • Head to Ortisei to check into Hotel Hell. Grab a drink at their bar and unwind in the hot tub if you have time.

  • Walk around town and have dinner at Mauriz Keller. A great pizza spot right in town. Extensive menu. Bonus: limoncello shots for after dinner. ​​​


DAY 2 - Secada Hike + Val di Funes Panoramic Hike + St John's Church + Dinner in town  

  • This happened to be my birthday! We woke up early to get a head start on hiking. But first, we had breakfast at the hotel. I believe we added this on for 15 euro or so per person. Absolutely worth it so you can fuel up before your day.

  • Head to the Seceda Cable Car  to make your way up to the Seceda Ridgeline. We were able to walk there from our hotel. Around 30 euro for round trip per person. The Secedas are within the Puez Odle Nature Park. There are many different huts which are restaurants where you can grab a quick bite or a drink. You can actually even stay overnight in them! Pro tip: Download "alltrails" app to choose a hike/route to take. It lists route, challenge level, and time commitment. But, honestly once you're up there it's so fun to just go wherever the wind takes you. We stopped so many times to take photos that admittedly, we only made it through half of our planned route before we were getting tight on time.

  • Take the Gondola back down to town. 

  • Hop in your car and drive to Santa Magdalena. (40 mins) Plenty of places to park nearby for 4 euro.

  • Begin walking towards the trailhead.

  • Follow the panoramic path to the viewpoint.

  • Continue on to the Church of Santa Maddalena, if you have time.

  • Put St John's ​​​(St Johanns) church in google maps and stop on your way back. We stopped here for a quick photo. We essentially pulled over, checked it out over the fence, and left. I wish we had time to visit up closer, but we decided to head back to relax before dinner. If you do want to get closer, you can continue up the road from the parking lot for a few minutes before reaching the entrance to get closer access. You'll pay  €4 in cash at the turnstile. This gives you the opportunity to see the church from closer. Note, that the inside of the church is not accessible.

  • We got back to the hotel around 6pm and decided to head to Mal Dolomiti for some apps, glass of wine, and a swim. 

  • We had a late dinner at Tubladel. Wonderful, cozy, and delicious food. Only a stones throw away from Hotel Hell.


DAY 3 - Alpe di Suisi (Seiser Alm) + Drive to San Candido 

  • Head to the Seiser Alm Cable Car. 24 euro up & down 

  • Once at the top, follow along the panoramic trail. Again, choose you adventure on alltrails. We wanted something shorter and easier as we knew we wanted to take it slow and enjoy the views for a few hours before heading to San Candido. We spent about 3 hours up here. It's breathtaking. It's the largest alpine meadow in Europe. Backed by monstrous pale jagged peaks. Roaming cows and horses. I can still hear the sound of their bells, and smell the wildflowers. I feel so grateful to have experienced this. It's the largest alpine meadow in Europe - meaning you could spend the entire day up here and not scratch the surface. 

  • Cry as you head back down to reality, as it really does feel like Heaven. 

  • Check out of hotel and head to San Candido. We packed up the car before we left for the hike so we could easily head out. 

  • The drive (via highway) is 90 minutes. If you take the scenic route it's closer to 2 1/2. 

  • Check into Naturhotel Leitlhof. Grab a glass of wine, take in the views of this incredible hotel and town. 

  • As mentioned, the wellness and restaurant stand out the most. We knew dinner was included in our rate, but when we arrived to the restaurant to our own table (with our name on place cards - it's the small things) that we would have for the next 4 nights, an extensive salad and antipasto buffet, 5 course meal, and views of the Sexten Dolomites - we couldn't believe the value received for what we paid. 

  • We ate well, slept well, and enjoyed every second of Leitlhof - so much so that we canceled our night in Venice and stayed an extra night in Leitlhof so we could really max out on the wellness it had to offer.


DAY 5 - Tre Cime Laverdo 

  • The Tre Cime are three distinct peaks. One of the most famous viewpoints in the Dolomites. It's worth going if you are staying on the Eastern side of the Dolomites. The route is moderate and about a 3 mile loop. 

  • Drive about 40 min to the trailhead. Park here.

  • The route begins at Rifugio Auronzo. The route will lead you to the Forcella Lavaredo where you'll get the best view of the Tre Cime's!

  • It was a bit more crowded than we expected. We went in the afternoon, the earlier you go I'd imagine it's a bit better.

  • It was SO cool - felt like Mars. You round the corner and see these three peaks sticking out from the ground.


DAY 6 - Lago di Braies (Pragser Wildsee)  

  • Wake up early. You'll want to get to Lago di Braies as early as they open to beat the crowds. It was definitely one of the most touristy places in the Dolomites. Apparently it's called Lago di Instagram, and you'll see why. BUT it's still worth the visit. It truly is spectacular. AND you can swim in it which we took advantage of. It was cold, but not unbearable and we were able to stay in for 5-10 minutes. 

  • Reserve a parking spot in advance here. It's required after June. 

  • Relax and enjoy! You can loop around the lake which is abut 2 miles. Start the hike off looping to the right to avoid the incline on the left side. That way on the back you have the decline. 

  • We ended with another amazing afternoon by the pool and dinner at the hotel. 

  • The next morning, we woke up and headed out to Venice airport to return the car and were on our way to Barcelona! 



I think about the Dolomites at least once a week, that should sum up my thoughts on whether or not you should go. But, I wanted to provide some specific takeaways if you chose to follow our itinerary:


  1. In hindsight we would have spent 3 nights in Ortisei and 3 nights in San Candido. Actually I could have stayed forever in both. But, I would have preferred having a full day for each of the places we chose to visit in Ortisei (Val di Funes, Secadas Hike, Alpe di Suisi) It probably would have allowed us more time to relax in the afternoon before Dinner. So if you can swing a week, it might make sense to split your time on each side.

  2. It would have been nice to hike a via ferrata. If you can do this - you should! Although maybe not if you're scared of heights. 

  3. Bolzano is the largest city in South Tyrol - if you end up staying here a night I'm sure it's awesome and rich in history. 

  4. We had beautiful weather, but be sure to pack some layers for night time.

  5. Don't forget sunscreen & a hat! I got really sunburnt because I wasn't layered up, and the high-altitudes will get ya. 

  6. Sign up for that Delta Skymiles Amex card today (or AA citi) spend the minimum ASAP and book on award miles ;) 


On that note - what are ya waiting for?!

Experience their magic for yourself! 

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