The Italian Dolomites is our go-to destination for sublime hiking in some of the finest scenery in the European Alps. This guide covers all the information you need to plan your first trip to the Dolomites.

By - Paul | Last Updated - 17 Jul 2024 | Go to - Comments & Questions

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On our first visit to the Dolomites, we were staggered at just how beautiful this place is.

Lush alpine valleys, dramatic jagged mountains, picturesque turquoise lakes and rocky wilderness areas make it the ideal playground for some of the best hiking we’ve done anywhere.

Mark and I have visited several times, and we’ve put this guide together based on our experiences exploring the many corners of the Dolomites.

We’ve included a breakdown of the different regions of the Dolomites, the highlights in each of them, plus tips for getting around and where to stay.

western dolomites guide

WHAT ARE THE ITALIAN DOLOMITES?

The Dolomites is a region in northern Italy made up of glaciers, lakes, forests, and mountains. They are known for their distinctive and striking rock formations including spires, pinnacles, and sheer vertical walls.

In 2009, the Dolomites were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their natural beauty and geological significance.

The area is ideal for hiking and cycling. With over 1,200 kilometres of ski slopes and 450 lifts, the Dolomites is also one of the largest ski areas in the world.  

For an overview, read our guide to the top places to visit in the Dolomites.

layout of the italian dolomites

WHERE ARE THE DOLOMITES?

The Dolomites form the eastern section of the northern Italian Alps, and are located in the Italian regions of Veneto, Trentino-Alto/Südtirol, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Covering an area of around 140,000 hectares, the Dolomites are roughly 250 kilometres long and 100 kilometres wide with a total of 18 peaks above 3,000 metres in altitude.

DOLOMITES MAP

The area can be divided into 3 distinct regions, each with its own unique landscape. We have highlighted each area on the map below to help you get your bearings.

EASTERN DOLOMITES

Extremely rugged mountains separated by turquoise lakes

CENTRAL DOLOMITES

Long chains of interestingly shaped mountains and soaring pinnacles.

WESTERN DOLOMITES

Long narrow valleys surrounded by vertical walls and sheer cliffs.

How to use this map / Click on the top left of the map to display the list of locations, then click on the locations to display further information. Click on the top right corner of the map to open a larger version in a new tab or the star to save to your Google Maps.  


MAIN CENTRES IN THE DOLOMITES

It can be difficult to work out where to base yourself for your first visit to the Dolomites. The best approach is to decide what you want to do (we have some suggestions in the next section of this guide), then decide on a base.

However, here are some of the most popular towns in the Dolomites.

Cortina d’Ampezzo – Cortina d’Ampezzo is a great base to hike some of the best trails in the Dolomites. It’s the most popular, but also one of the most expensive towns in the Dolomites. Read more in our guide to Cortina d’Ampezzo.

Selva di Val Gardena (Wolkenstein) – Selva is a well-connected, picturesque village in the Gardena Valley with good transport links and cable cars. Read more in our guide to Val Gardena.

Ortisei (St Ulrich) – Ortisei is also in the Gardena Valley. It has a lively pedestrian area, good nightlife, plenty of facilities and more choices when it comes to accommodation.

Bolzano (Bozan) – Bolzano is often considered the gateway to the Dolomites with one of the few train stations in the area. It’s a lovely town surrounded by vineyards but it would. not be our choice as a base.

Madonna di Campiglio – Madonna is in a more remote part of the Dolomites which is great if you like getting off-the-beaten track. There are some fantastic hikes out here which we recommend, but only after you have seen the more popular locations.

WHAT TO DO IN CORTINA & THE EASTERN DOLOMITES

Cortina d’Ampezzo is an excellent base, especially for first-time visitors to the Dolomites. It has some of the best hiking trails in Italy, stunning cable car viewpoints and beautiful lakes.

We have a full guide on what to do in Cortina, but here is a summary of the highlights in the area:

  • Hike the exceptional Tre Cime di Lavaredo loop.
  • Take the gondola to Cima Tofana for incredible views.
  • Visit Lago di Braies, possibly the most beautiful lake in the Dolomites.
  • Hike to Lago di Sorapis.
  • Drive the Falzarego Pass and Giau Passes.
  • Take the Lagazuoi Cable Car climbs to Rifugio Lagazoui.

WHAT TO DO IN VAL GARDENA & THE CENTRAL DOLOMITES?

Val Gardena is a valley in the central Dolomites with 3 main towns: Ortisei (St Ulrich), Santa Cristina (St Cristina), and Selva di Val Gardena (Wolkenstein in Gröden).

The towns are connected by frequent buses, and each has an excellent network of cable cars that head up to the surrounding mountains. As such, Val Gardena is an excellent destination for seeing the Dolomites without a car.

We have a guide to visiting Val Gardena, but here are some highlights:

  • Get the cable car up to the Seceda Ridgeline.
  • Explore Alpe di Siusi.
  • Drive the Gardena and Sella high passes.
  • Hike the incredible Sassolungo Circuit.
  • Explore the beautiful Val di Funes.
  • Take in the amazing views from Sass Pordoi.

WHAT TO DO IN MADONNA DI CAMPIGLIO & THE WESTERN DOLOMITES?

The Western Dolomites are located in the Trentino-Alto Adige region and include the Brenta Dolomites and the Adamello-Presanella group.

Characterized by towering limestone peaks cut with vertical walls and ledges, the distinctive pink rock formations that have given the Dolomites its UNESCO World Heritage Site listing are most evident here.

Here are some things to do around Madonna di Campiglio.

  • Take the Grostè Cable car to the Brenta Peaks.
  • Hike and have lunch at Rifugio Tuckett, Sella or Brentei.
  • Explore Val Genova and Cascate Di Lares.
  • Via Ferrata on Bocchette Centrali.
  • Take the Cinque Laghi cable car and then the short walk to Lago Ritorto.

WHERE TO STAY IN THE DOLOMITES?

We have a suggested itinerary for 1 week in the Dolomites below, which includes recommendations on where to base yourself.

However, the best approach when picking accommodation is to decide on the hikes you want to do, or the sights you want to see, and let that determine where to stay. As you really need a car to see the Dolomites properly, it doesn’t matter too much which town or village you pick.

EASTERN DOLOMITES

The best place to stay in the Eastern Dolomites is Cortina d’Ampezzo. It’s centrally located and has some decent bus services, so it’s not too difficult to get to the main sights. (Although hiring a car will save you time.)

Dobbiaco is also a good option.

  • Cristallo Resort & Spa – A 5-minute walk to the centre, this was the first luxury hotel in town.
  • Hotel Rosegarten – A traditional hotel with excellent views and a great breakfast.
  • Hohe Gaisl – The only hotel on Prato Piazza, it has excellent views and traditional South Tyrol style.

CENTRAL DOLOMITES

The towns of Selva and Ortisei in Val Gardena are great bases in the central Dolomites. From here you can access some of the best walks and views.

Alternatively, Val Di Funes is a delightfully quiet and stunning part of the central Dolomites.

  • Proihof – A charming Alpine hotel with excellent views in the picturesque Val di Funes.
  • Residence Larciunei – Family-run chalet in the centre of Ortisei.
  • Chalet Pra Ronch – Excellently located, ski-to-door hotel in Selva di Val Gardena.
ortisei val gardena
ORTISEI

WESTERN DOLOMITES

The best place to stay to visit the Western Dolomites is Madonna di Campiglio. It’s a lively town with plenty of facilities and several cable cars offer easy access to the best walks, climbs, and rifugios.

As mentioned above, we suggest saving the Western Dolomites after you have seen some of the more popular destinations in the central and eastern sections.

  • Hotel Alpina – A great value hotel just a few minutes walk from the ski lifts.
  • Bio Hotel Hermitage – A beautiful hotel with panoramic views of the Brenta Dolomites.
  • DV Chalet Boutique – A luxurious property with alpine finishes and modern touches.
western dolomites where to stay

BEST TIME TO VISIT THE ITALIAN DOLOMITES

When planning a trip to the Dolomites, it’s important to note that most of the main hiking trails are only open from June to September.

May can be a good time to visit, however, there may be persistent snow on the trails, particularly the higher ones. We tried to do the high pass on the Lago di Sorapis hike in May and had to turn around because there was too much snow.

So in our opinion, mid-June to September is the best time to visit the Dolomites if you want to do some great hiking.

October and November is a beautiful time to visit the Dolomites for photography when the leaves start turning a golden colour and crowds are reducing. The weather is cool but several of the hiking trails are still open.

HOW TO GET TO THE DOLOMITES

There are no international airports in the Dolomites and only 2 train stations. The best way to get to the Dolomites is to fly to a nearby airport and hire a car.

BY PLANE

The Dolomites is serviced by several international airports, the most convenient are Venice, Innsbruck, and Verona. We recommend starting in Innsbruck if possible. It’s a fantastic base for a few days at the start of your Dolomites trip if you have the time. Read more in our guide to the best things to do in Innsbruck.

Here are the estimated driving times to Cortina d’Ampezzo:

  • Canova di Treviso (Italy) – 136 kilometres (1 hour 45 minutes)
  • Venice Marco Polo (Italy) – 148 kilometres (1 hour 50 minutes)
  • Innsbruck (Austria) – 164 kilometres (2 hours 10 minutes)
  • Verona (Italy) – 265 kilometres (2 hours 55 minutes)

BY TRAIN

The only convenient train station in the Dolomites is at Bolzano. Trenitalia (Italian), ÕBB (Austrian) and DB (German) train services arrive in Bolzano. Check train times on thetrainline.com.

sassolungo dolomites
SASSOLUNGO

DRIVING IN THE DOLOMITES

The most convenient way to get around the Dolomites is to hire a car and drive yourself. The roads are good and although there are lots of windy roads, there is nothing particularly difficult about driving in the Dolomites.

HIRING A CAR

All roads in the Dolomites are paved so a 4×4 is not required. You might enjoy being slightly higher off the ground, but that’s all you’ll need a 4×4 for.

Be aware that if you hire a car in Innsbruck you will need to cross the Austria – Italy border. Most car hire companies allow this with no extra fee. However, if you break down or have an accident, you will need to liaise between the Austrian office and the Italian roadside services.

MOUNTAIN PASSES

To get to some of the best viewpoints in the Dolomites you’ll probably find yourself driving over a mountain pass. This is where you drive up and over a mountain via a series of hairpin turns. You’ll see signs saying “Tornante” with a number. This indicates the number of hairpins remaining before you reach the top of the pass.

The mountain passes are not difficult to drive, however, you will be sharing the road with lots of other cars and motorcycles so it can be slow going.

Mark and I had no trouble driving in the Dolomites and it’s by far the best way to get around.

INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT

For British license holders with a plastic card and photo, an International Driving Permit is not required to drive in Italy, even with Brexit. However, if you have a paper license only, then a 1968 International Driving Permit is required.

Travellers from other countries should check with their local governments. 

An International Driving Permit is validation that you have a license to drive and does not replace your actual license so make sure you bring both.

AUTOSTRADE

Some of the major roads in the Dolomites operate on a toll system called the Autostrade. When you pull up to the toll gates, you’ll receive a paper ticket to keep with you until you arrive at the next toll gate. When you hand over your ticket, the attendant will calculate the charge for you.

Prices for the Autostrade are based on distance. For a journey from Innsbruck to Cortina (180 kilometres), the fee was €7.50.   

DISTANCES

The distances may appear short but driving in the Dolomites can take a long time given the twisty roads, so allow plenty of time to get to your destination.

SIGNAGE

Road signs are in both Italian and German.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN THE DOLOMITES

There are some public bus services which can be useful to get to and from the start of a hike. This is a good option to avoid parking in busy locations, such as Tre Cime, which has time restrictions on when you can park. (See more information in the tips section below).

Other than that, getting around via public transport is not very practical in the Dolomites.

The exception is Val Gardena which has a good bus network connecting the towns of Ortisei (St Ulrich), Santa Cristina (St Cristina), and Selva di Val Gardena (Wolkenstein in Gröden).

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO VISIT THE DOLOMITES?

Compared to many other destinations in the Alps, the Dolomites are relatively cost-effective. You could expect to pay somewhere between €90 – €110 per night for a decent budget hotel. A main course at an inexpensive restaurant is around €15 and a beer is usually €5. Prices will be slightly higher in the rifugios which are often quite remote.

A small/medium hire car will be around €40 per day including fuel.

CABLE CAR COSTS

A significant expense in the Dolomites is the cable cars. As you can see from the below table, none of them are very cheap.

In our opinion, however, they are a necessary expense. Many of the walks in the Dolomites start from the top of a cable car station. Some of them, Seceda for instance, are breathtaking experiences that shouldn’t be missed.

There are family and season tickets that are designed to save money, however, for this itinerary, didn’t find any discount passes they were worth purchasing.

CABLE CAR DETAILS (CLICK TO OPEN)
  • Sass Pordoi: 9 AM to 5 PM (Late May to mid-October) // €27 return (adults)
  • Lagazuoi: 9 AM – 4:40 PM (Late May to mid-October) // €25 return (adults)
  • Seceda: 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM (mid-May to early-November) // €30 one way, €39.50 return (adults)
  • Alpe di Suisi: 8 AM – 6 PM (late May to early-November) // €16 one way, €24 return (adults)
  • Grosté: 8:30 AM – 12:30 PM & 2 PM – 5 PM (mid-June to late September) // €18 one way, €23 return (adults)

TIPS FOR VISITING THE DOLOMITES

If you are planning your first trip to the Dolomites, here are a few things we wish we knew on our first visit.

SOME DESTINATIONS HAVE ARRIVAL RESTRICTIONS

As the dolomites are getting more and more popular, some of the busier places have restricted arrival times. The important ones to know about are below. (Click to open)

ARRIVAL RESTRICTIONS
  • Alpe di Siusi – You can only drive to Alpe di Siusi before 9 am or after 5 pm. Hotels have overnight permits for guests.
  • Tre Cime – The parking at Rifugio Auronzo for Tre Cime is only open from 8 am to 6 pm. As times change, check here before setting off.
  • Lago di Braies – Parking spaces for Lago di Braies must be booked in advance if you are travelling between 10 July and 10 December. Parking is only permitted before 9:30 am.
  • Prato Piazza – You can only drive to Prato Piazza before 10 am unless you are staying at the hotel at the top. More information is on our Lago di Braies guide.

ITALIAN & GERMAN IS USED

Both Italian and German is used throughout the Dolomites and most places have an Italian and German name. We’ve used both where possible in our guides.

mark on the seceda ridge
SECEDA

CHECK THE CABLE CAR TIMES IN ADVANCE

The cable cars in the Dolomites do not run all year. Most have a summer and a winter season and each cable car has its own timetable that can change from year to year. Below are some of the most popular cable cars.

PACK FOR WARM & COLD CONDITIONS

Even on a beautiful sunny day when the conditions are perfect for hiking, the weather can change very quickly in the mountains. The temperature decreases by around 6.5°C for every 1,000 metres you climb. When we hiked to Lago di Sorapis, it was about 5 degrees colder at the top than it was at the bottom.

Make sure you pack layers so you can rug-up or rug-down as the weather changes.

BOOK HOTELS WELL IN ADVANCE

The Dolomites are becoming more and more popular. These days, you need to book your accommodation well in advance, especially in popular centres like Cortina or Ortisei.

Even in less busy areas, like the Brenta Dolomites, there are fewer hotels so they can fill up fast. We recommend booking your accommodation at around 6 months out to increase your chances of finding exactly what you want.

MOST TRAILS OPEN IN JUNE

While it’s possible to hike in May, most of the trails don’t open until June.

guide to visiting the italian dolomites

HOW LONG DO YOU NEED IN THE DOLOMITES?

To get a good taste of what the Dolomites has to offer, we’d suggest a two-centre stay for around 1 week.

We spent 3 days around Val Gardena and 3 days in Cortina d’Ampezzo which felt like just the right amount of time to do some great hikes and see the best of the lakes and mountains.

OUR SUGGESTED ITINERARY

On our last visit, we spent 7 days in the Dolomites which involved 4 days hiking with rest days in-between. This allowed us to recover between the hikes and see some of the other attractions in the area. All the details are on our Dolomites road trip itinerary which we have summarised below:

  • Day 1 – Passo Pardoi & The Great Dolomite Road
  • Day 2 – Tre Cime di Lavaredo
  • Day 3 – Lago di Braies & Val di Funes
  • Day 4 – Alpe di Siusi
  • Day 5 – Sassolungo
  • Day 6 – Trentino
  • Day 7 – Brenta Dolomites

MORE DOLOMITES GUIDES

paul mark 1
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