Set among the dramatic peaks of the Dolomites, South Tyrol in northern Italy offers wonderful hiking and mountain biking, cinematic lakes and a spa hotel that’s worth a visit in its own right. Here a few reasons why we think everyone should visit this beautiful region at least once in their lives.
One of the most famous walks in South Tyrol is the Way of St James (Jakobsweg), a 130-kilometre route consisting of six stages that starts at the Austrian border and passes through many of the area’s most stunning valleys. There is also some spectacular trekking to be enjoyed in the Gsies valley, near the charming village of Magdalena, and along the historic Wallwege irrigation channels. Such is this region’s beauty, though, that you could stop your car petty much anywhere, get out, and embark on an unforgettable hike.
South Tyrol offers more than 600 kilometres of clearly-signposted cycle tracks catering to all levels, many set among the jagged beauty of the Dolomites. Head to the Venosta valley for some gnarly off-roading, or for a more chilled (but no less breathtaking) ride, join the Via Claudia Augusta path as it weaves through the Etschtal valley. From the lovely town of San Candido, you can also enjoy the singular experience of cycling into another country, with an undemanding track of about 40 kilometres leading to the Austrian town of Lienz.
This beautiful part of Italy was once a southern chunk of the County of Tyrol, a state of the Holy Roman Empire under Habsburg dominion (hence its present-day name). South Tyrol remained an Austrian-Hungarian princely territory until the end of WWI, when it was occupied by Italian forces; it was finally annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1919. The Austrian character has remained, though, with dozy cows grazing in lush valleys, Alpine chalets studding the undulating countryside, and German as the first language.
Designated as UNESCO World Heritage in 2009, the Three Peaks of Lavaredo (Tre Cimas de Lavaredo) have become a world-famous emblem of the Dolomites. Rearing up out of pale, loose bedrock like colossal molars, they all stand at just under 3,000 metres (the middle is the tallest, at 2,999 metres). To get up close and personal with these giants, take yourself on a three-hour hike that starts at the Auronzo hut (at 2,320 metres), near the village of Misurina.
Lake Braies is the largest natural lake in the Dolomites and was formed when a landslide flooded the river Braies. It is ridiculously beautiful at any time of year: in spring and summer, its clear waters replicate the surrounding mountains, giving you a double-dose of natural beauty, and in winter the lake is covered by pristine ice and snow. Legendarily the gateway to an undergound kingdom called Fanes, it can be admired on an undemanding walk that runs around the perimeter and takes about 90 minutes to complete.
One of South Tyrol’s most notable architectural attractions is the 12th century Novacella Abbey, which nestles in idyllic countryside just outside the medieval town of Brixen. Founded in 1142 as a refuge for pilgrims travelling from northern Europe to Rome, the intriguing structure standing today consists of a mix of architectural styles, resulting from additions and alterations made throughout the centuries, especially during the Renaissance. The abbey also boasts a winery renowned for its crisp, fragrant whites.
It’s hard to imagine a better base from which to explore this unforgettable part of Italy than Hotel Quelle. Founded almost 70 years ago as a seven-room guesthouse, Quelle (German for “spring” or “source”) is now a five-star, 65-bedroom nature spa resort nestling in the tranquil Gsies valley. Run by Manuel, the founder’s charming grandson, it boasts a spa area offering 48 attractions, including no less than seven indoor and outdoor pools and 10 saunas. Snow sauna, anyone?
The hotel also organises year-round activities including e-biking tours of the valley, treks up to its Alpine hut at 2,042 metres and helicopter rides. And when you sink into the crisp comfort of your bed at night, reeling from the beauty of South Tyrol, turn off the light and look up at the ceiling: a final, delightful surprise awaits you.