Seven months of on location research, thousands of photos taken at unsociable hours, hundreds of kilometres walked and more pasta bowls eaten than I would like to admit. I can finally proudly present to you my independent Italian Dolomites Guide aimed at photographers and outdoor enthusiasts.
I have divided the guide into four sections each of them containing articles about the following topics: photography, via ferrata, hiking & backpacking. Combined they amount to over 60 detailed articles about things to do and places to see in the Italian Dolomites to help you plan a perfect holiday escape.
Scroll down and you will also find answers to the most frequently asked questions regarding travel around the Dolomites including the best time to visit, the best way to get there, the weather, information about freedom camping and loads more. Happy travels! - Marta
If I can offer a more objective view than mine:
"The nine components of The Dolomites World Heritage property protect a series of highly distinctive mountain landscapes that are of exceptional natural beauty. Their dramatic vertical and pale coloured peaks in a variety of distinctive sculptural forms is extraordinary in a global context." - UNESCO World Heritage Centre
Need I say more?
The hiking season starts officially mid June but snow can linger on the northern slopes even as late as mid July making certain route or climbs unnavigable. Most backcountry huts however open in the third week of June.
July and August are hot and tempestuous but very beautiful. August is the month of holidays for many Italians. Road side stops get VERY busy but it's still quiet on less popular trails.
September and October are my favourites. The summer storms have subsided, it is quieter, not too hot and the autumn colours transform the region. Most rifugios close by the 3rd week of September.
When early November comes around, you'll get your first proper snow fall.
Ski season in the Dolomites starts early December and finishes toward the end of April. Extrapolating, this means that at higher elevation in November and May, there'll be plenty of snow.
Some mountain passes might be closed and hiking and climbing will be only available in lower elevation valleys (if at all). If you choose to travel in the spring (until mid June), look for south-facing via ferratas and hikes or valley walks. Being exposed to sun longer, they'll have the highest chance of being snow free.
Let's just get one thing straight, there is no upper limit to this question. I have spent over 7 months in the Dolomites over two hiking seasons and the list of things I want to do is still as long as ever.
A good amount of time to explore is at least 10 days. This will give you a real taste of what the Dolomites are all about.
However, if you can only come here for a few days then I still highly recommend it.
Just don't try to see everything. It's not possible. My recommendation would be to base yourself in one town and explore from there. Just by spending your time driving around and doing a couple of day hikes you'll still get a feel of the place. However it'll be tough to squeeze in any hut to hut hiking or via ferratas thanks to which this region is so famous.
The two closest international airports are Innsbruck (Austria) or Venice, both a little over 2 hour drive away. Strictly speaking Venice Treviso is closer than Venice Marco Polo but it's much of a muchness.
If you're not bringing your own vehicle then flying into one of these airports and renting a car or campervan is your best option with compact car being my recommended choice.
Distances from airports to closest Dolomiti towns:
To get the most out of your time here then I would say yes. The only exception would be if you plan on doing a thru hike for several days that isn't a loop and have no way of relocating your vehicle.
Besides there isn't much point renting a vehicle if you aren't going to use it.
Whilst buses do exist, to get to certain photography spots, hiking trailheads or climbs, going by public transport though possible can be frustrating due to limited times and routes.
Car rental is relatively cheap in the Italian Dolomites compared to Canada, New Zealand or Iceland. A compact rental car will cost you 110-140€ a week. A luxury BMW or Mercedes convertible or an Audi Q7 will cost you 800-1000€ a week.
Generally I prefer cheap and cheerful. I always use Discover Cars for price comparison and bookings when I travel abroad. Their customer service is excellent!
Campers are more expensive to rent but you'll reduce your accommodation costs whilst travelling. A small 2 person camper will set you back around 800€ a week. A luxury 6 person motorhome will cost around 2000€ a week.
Whilst I travel in my own campervan for extended periods of time and spend a lot of time in the mountain huts which for me are more cost effective, I wouldn't say Dolomites are particularly campervan friendly.
Yes there are plenty of campsites, but they tend to be quite expensive and crowded. It's difficult to drive on the curvy and narrow roads with big vehicles and some parking spaces have a height limit. I already lost a mirror once thanks to a speeding local driver who was cutting corners.
If you are coming with your own campervan then go for it, but if you plan on renting my advice would be to stick to hotels and a compact car. If however you are set on travelling in a camper then Motorhome Republic is a perfect website for price comparison.
When renting any vehicle from outside Italy make sure your rental company allows you to move internationally (particularly insurance wise). This generally isn't a problem within the European Union, but it's always better to be safe than sorry.
The towns in the Dolomites are pretty well connected by local bus networks, but not all trailheads for day hikes or via ferratas are accessible by bus. If you are just after the main attractions though you shouldn't have any problems getting to them with public transport.
For route calculations and schedules I found that Google Maps works best and it's the most user friendly option. Sadly I can't say the same about the two websites of the local bus companies: Sued Tirol Mobil and Dolomiti Bus.
A private company called Cortina Express connects many local towns in the Dolomites and runs a shuttle from Venice to Cortina. Moovit app is another good option and highly rated amongst users.
Just bear in mind that similarly to hotels, gondolas or mountain huts, buses also operate on a seasonal basis which means public transport during the shoulder seasons (October-November, May - mid June) is very limited.
Cities and towns like Bolzano, Bressanone, Bruneck, San Candido or Pieve di Cadore also have train stations. Again use either Google Maps or the Tren Italia website for looking up connections and schedules.
Yes, legally you do if you do not have an EU license. All insurance companies are looking for a way not to pay out and this could be their golden ticket.
And as forums point out, it only takes one anal carabinieri (local police officer) and you can get a hefty fine. Save yourself the trouble and just get one, they are pretty cheap and will give you peace of mind.
If there was no one else on the roads the driving would be awesome. However it's usually the locals, who 'know the roads', who won't be scared to overtake round corners; this always sends shivers down my spine.
This is especially true for those on motorbikes. It's unnerving at first because at times the roads can also be pretty narrow but just take it slowly to begin with and gradually gain confidence.
I've seen multiple accidents involving bikes and cars. Usually the car windshield has a helmet shaped smashed dent and the biker isn't anywhere to be seen......
On a more cheery note, generally it's nicer the smaller the vehicle you have. You'll be able to nip into small parking spaces and find it easier cornering on tight mountain passes.
Historically the Roman Empire spoke Latin, in the mountains the inhabitants developed this into Ladin. I have once heard two locals speaking it at a local cafe and I couldn't work out what language it was until I finally decided to spark a conversation with them.
After the fall of Rome, Latin gradually morphed into what we know today as Italian. Sometimes referred to as 'Modern-Day Latin'.
German, the third language in the Dolomites, mostly came from the First World War where the Austrio-Hungarian Empire moving South collided with the Italian Forces.
In the aftermath of the trench warfare the Dolomites were divided. Some towns kept Italian but many because of their Austrian presence remained German. The German language goes back further than this however as the region of South Tyrol has been contested over between Bavarians and Italians for centuries.
It's generally considered that German and Italian are the main languages. Almost all places have both a German and an Italian pronoun (and sometimes Ladin). For example the German Dreizinnen and the Italian Tre Cime which translate to English as Three Peaks. However places like Cortina D'Ampezzo only have one Italian name.
You'll get used to it once you're here, but it get can confusing when you type into google maps directions for Siusi and end up getting them for Seis am Schlern.
Via Ferrata comes from the Latin root of Via which means "way", "road" or "path" and Ferrata which means "iron".
In English they are referred to as iron paths, iron ways or iron roads but most of the time we just borrow the Italian and refer to them as Via Ferrata. But what are they?
They are routes constructed during the First World War, to help soldiers gain strategic military strongholds in the mountains. As you can imagine a soldier with a 50kg pack on, trying to resupply his team on top of a mountain wouldn't be able to do many technical climbing moves so they drilled into the mountain side and inserted cables, ladders, pegs and stemples to make their life slightly easier.
After the war ended, these routes weren't removed and eventually morphed into tourist attractions. The old, often wooden equipment was replaced with safe modern solutions.
Today via ferratas are a mix between hiking, scrambling and climbing aided by iron objects inserted into the mountain using special equipment.
Almost all of them have restaurants (or at least means of getting some food) and the majority of them have overnight facilities allowing hikers to stay in them for a small fee.
They are often the most scenically located options of all your accommodation choices so I highly recommend staying in as many as possible.
Italians love to dodge tax. There I said it, I didn't beat around the bush. Sorry, not sorry.
Most places will accept cards but some refuges due to their location have poor, or even no internet connection, so are cash only establishments.
Some small businesses accept cards from Italians and cash from tourists or there is often a spending limit before you can pull out the Mastercard from your wallet. Usually it is 10 Euros.
Whilst you'll predominantly be using your card, carrying cash isn't a bad idea.
As a self employed person who puts travel costs as my business expenses, it was often a nightmare to receive invoices in Italy.
I have some really interesting stories to tell one even involving phoning the police to resolve a dispute!
May is a really beautiful time of the year but just don't expect many hiking trails to be open because there is still a lot of snow at higher elevation.
June is splendid but hold your horses and don't fall into a trap! If you plan your trip for June let it be the second half of the month, otherwise there is no guarantee the trails will be snow free!
July and August are hot. I'm talking above 20 degrees Celsius (68F) almost everyday. Having temperatures above 30 (86F) is not uncommon. As with most mountainous destinations similar weather patterns form, the Dolomites are no exception.
In the summer months the mornings will generally be calm but in the afternoon when the temperature rises, tumultuous clouds build, resulting in impressive downpours and thunderstorms.
The storms generally don't last long, they are quick and intense. If you are hiking or climbing, these storms should be a consideration when planning.
If you planned your trip and the forecast shows storms every day don't cancel it! The storms are part and parcel of the area and generally only affect a short period of the afternoon. You'll still have plenty of time to hike, climb, take photos and explore.
Personally, in the peak summer months of July and August I (try to) wake up super early (around 5 AM). I do my hikes or climbs until around midday, then relax in the afternoon. This way I'm avoiding the harsh sun and the hottest time of the day and I'll be already finished by the time the afternoon storm rolls around.
Eventually the days cool off and the intense summer storms subside. September and October have plenty of blue-bird, brilliantly sunny days with almost half as much rainfall as July and August. They are my favourite times in the mountains and personally I'm flabbergasted that the majority of huts close mid to late September and many towns turn into ghost towns in October. The autumn colours start to show in late September usually with the peak hitting between mid October and early November.
They are named after a sedimentary rock primarily made up of limestone but with extra goodies in there such as magnesium and calcium. I'm not going to pretend I'm a Geologist.
The Dolomites were named after an 18th century French mineralogist Déodat Gratet de Dolomieu. He was the first to describe the mineral.
Because of the rich compound nature of Dolomitic rock, it's said to exacerbate the enrosadira effect seen in the mountains before sunrise or after sunset.
Enrosadira, which comes from the Latin 'turning pink' is more commonly known as Alpenglow. A phenomenon where the sun rays are reflected off atmospheric elements onto the mountains.
Strictly not. The Dolomites have plenty of actual campsites.
If you want to be in the mountains, there are also plenty of mountain huts which you can stay at instead.
If you are going to break the rules, please don't litter, don't destroy any flora and don't light any campfires.
The scorched earth around shoreline of Lago Sorapiss, where hikers often blatantly ignore the no camping restrictions will last decades just for one groups small campfire.
Another nope unfortunately. All places reserved for natural beauty (i.e national & nature parks) restricts the use of drones.
This covers most of the areas that you'll want to fly your drone in, including but not limited to Lago di Braies (Fanes-Sennes-Braies Natural Park, Tre Cime (Tre Cime National Park) and the Seceda Ridgeline (Puez-Odle Nature Park).
Unfortunately despite the regulations there will be 10+ drones flying at any one point in any of those spots.
Outside of national parks drones are not allowed above 70m, to be flown at night or above people or roads.
This website covers the rules and regulations more in depth if you would like to know more.
If you want to take photos on the ground and not from your drone then knock yourself out. There's plenty of places where you can do so.
My favourites are generally a mix between the most scenic passes in the Dolomites and some of the most iconic spots.
As I've got older I've started to appreciate that the more effort you put into a single snap, the more rewarding editing, showcasing and memorable that photo will be.
Hiking trails are prevalent all over the Dolomites, I would know, I have walked over a thousand miles here. I almost feel like the third member of The Proclaimers.
I've created a list of the most rewarding day hikes in the Dolomites that I've done to date.
Pssst....If you would like to know a few of my favourites here they are!
Due to the presence of over 1000 mountain huts, multi-day hiking is very popular.
Apart from the famous Alta Vias, which I will get to in a second, there are 4 hut to hut trips that I recommend.
The first is a north to south traverse through Tre Cime National Park, it gives you the opportunity to see the famous Three Peaks from all angles.
The second is a south to north traverse of the Rosengarten Group which has many rewarding via ferrata extensions.
My absolute favourite - Dolomiti Brenta Traverse - the lesser known range in the south west part of the Dolomites with lots of exhilarating via ferratas!
Last but not least, a 4 day traverse of the San Pale di Martino Range, a part of the longer Palaronda route.
Alta, coming from the Latin Altus, meaning "high" and Via meaning "road", "path" or "way". These are high paths through the mountains that take several days. In the Dolomites there are predominantly 6 routes. Alta Via 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
As intimidating as they sound, they are actually pretty achievable, even if you don't have a lot of backpacking experience.
Thanks to hut facilities, you don't have to carry outdoor equipment such as tents, pots, pans, gas or food, just a few clothes, some water and a few snacks (and a few kilos of photography equipment if you're like me).
Some Alta Vias contain via ferratas so depending on which one you pick, you may have to carry via ferrata equipment too. Even if the strict Alta Via route doesn't have any via ferratas, it's usually a good idea to take it anyway because there are always extension climbs that you can add on.
Not particularly. The biggest expense, as with any holiday or travel, will usually be your accommodation. A cheap hotel in Cortina will set you back roughly €100 a night (for two people), a fancy one - roughly between 300€ and 400€.
I often tell people that the best value in the Dolomites are the rifugios. Half board options are roughly 50-60€ per person and include a 3 course dinner and breakfast. Yes you might have to share a dorm but value wise it's unbeatable. Plus you'll have incredible views.
Food and drink will usually be your next biggest expense. Expect to pay around 30-40€ per person for an evening meal with drinks. Coffee is not only cheap but also really good. You are in Italy after all!
Activity-wise, most things in the Dolomites are free: hiking, climbing, or photography. The most expensive activity you'll undertake will probably be gondola rides, most of which are less than 20€ per person return.
From what I understand there isn't really a tipping culture but my experience of the upper end of culinary establishments is extremely limited. I'm more of a takeaway pizza kind of person.
Obviously serving staff won't reject tips but they are generally paid a good wage and tipping is not expected or mandatory. If you're that way inclined though and feel that you have received excellent service, then why not?
The Dolomites are very safe. Petty crime is virtually non-existent but the occasional car break ins do happen. A simple solution, don't leave anything valuable in your car. These events are rare though.
I have hiked solo on a few occasions and never felt unsafe. Phone reception is generally quite good even in the mountains should you need help. Always tell others about your plan though before venturing out on your own!
For a couple coming here for 10 days, renting a small car, staying in a mixture of 3* hotels and refuges, mostly eating in decent (but not fancy) restaurants I would expect them to spend something between 2000-2500 Euros, not including inbound/outbound flights.
For a family of 4 coming here for 10 days, renting a campervan and mostly cooking their own meals, I would expect them to pay between 3000€ and 4000€.
For a couple on a luxury week long honeymoon staying in 5* hotels, renting a high end convertible vehicle and treating themselves to dinners and lunches in fancy restaurants I would expect them to pay around 5000-6000€.
A couple coming for 2 weeks in a small 2 person camper, cooking all their own meals with the occasional pizza would spend around 2000€.
And then there are cheap skates like me who like their money to go as far as possible, rent a small car, bring your own tent, stay in campsites and refuges and try to cook as many meals as possible and you can do it for as cheap as 1000€ for two weeks.
I have tried to cover as much as possible but I understand you still may have some questions when planning your trip. I consider myself an expert when it comes down to knowledge about the Dolomites! If you do have questions post them in the comment section under any of my articles about the Dolomites. I always answer! Just please read the articles first!