Often placing at the top of annual rankings of Italy’s most livable cities, Bolzano is the capital of South Tyrol, that area of northern Italy that was annexed after World War I from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which it had been part for more than 1,000 years. For this reason, Bolzano is an interesting mix of German and Mediterranean culture, palpable both in the lifestyle and in the cuisine.
Bolzano is the gateway to the beautiful mountain areas of South Tyrol and the Dolomites. But before you go hiking, spend at least a day exploring the city. Not to miss are its medieval center, the riverside promenade and two outstanding museums.
What to See in Bolzano in a Day
Start early at Piazza Walther, the city’s main square where the annual Christmas market is held. There are many cafés lining the piazza; one of the most popular is the elegant Stadt Café, ideal to try one of the many traditional cakes, including the famous Sacher. In contrast to the Belle Epoque style of Piazza Walther is the Gothic-style Duomo, the city’s cathedral, flanked by a 65-meter-high campanile.
[Piazza Walther with the Duomo.]
The overlapping of different styles continues in the streets of Bolzano’s historic center, a pleasure to explore on foot. The picturesque Piazza del Grano, once the seat of the wheat market, now graced with fine shops and bars, leads you to Via dei Portici, the center’s main commercial street, your destination for shopping, with a mix of traditional and modern stores. Don’t just walk under the porticos that give the street its name; make sure you step onto the street so you can admire the style of the palaces, a colorful sequence of different architectural styles, with stucco decorations, different pastel hues, ‘erker’ or bay windows. Venture off the side streets to continue admiring this cheerful mix. If you keep walking along Via dei Portici, you’ll reach Piazza delle Erbe, home to a daily market of fresh, local products, including many types of delicious breads, fruit and vegetables, cheeses and cured meats including the ubiquitous speck.
[Via dei Portici.]
Perhaps buy a pretzel (a baked bread shaped into a twisted knot) to refuel your energy and take Via Museo to reach the Archeological Museum of South Tyrol, home to Otzi, or the Iceman, the incredibly well-preserved mummy from the Copper Age, found in 1991 among the glaciers of the nearby Val Senales. The museum, where the actual mummy is kept inside a case reproducing similar climatic conditions to those that had allowed the corpse to preserve for 5,300 years, is an outstanding exhibition of Otzi’s world and story, a window into the life of our ancestors from the Copper Age. It’s quite a thrill to see Otzi; and then to see all the objects that were found with him, including rests of his fur and leather clothes, weapons and tools; to learn about what life was like for him; to read about the different hypothesis regarding his death, still shrouded in mystery.
After your visit to the museum, it will be time for lunch and there are many places to choose from to try the tasty mix of Alpine cuisine and Mediterranean flavors that is typical of South Tyrol. A restaurant I especially enjoyed is Fink, on via della Mostra, a typical South-Tyrolean inn with a modern twist. Among the first courses, I recommend trying two of the local specialties, the canederli (knödel) and the ravioli tirolesi (schlutzkrapfen).
After lunch, head to a recent addition among Bolzano’s museums: the Messner Mountain Museum Firmian, easily reachable by public transportation from the center of Bolzano. The MMM Firmian is one of six museums located in different areas of South Tyrol, made possible by Reinhold Messner, the first man to have climbed all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters; he is considered the greatest climber alive. Messner, who has described the MMM project as “my 15th eight-thousander”, says the museums represent an encounter with the mountains, with the people who live in the mountains, and, ultimately with ourselves.
[Messner Mountain Museum at Castel Firmian.]
MMM Firmian is set on top of a hill among the ancient walls of the Firmian Castle, and the museum itinerary winds in and out of internal and external spaces among towers, rooms, courtyards, with an incredible number of works of art, paintings, memorabilia, and natural finds, which plunge you deep into the mountain world. The itinerary itself is arranged as if you were going on a hike, with uphill and downhill sections, while constantly surrounded by views of the Sciliar (Schlern) group of the Dolomites and the Tessa group (Texelgruppe). An experience that is a must for all mountain lovers and truly fascinating for everybody.
When you return to the city center, head toward the Talvera river, for a tranquil, pre-evening riverside walk with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, vineyards and a few castles dotting the landscape. If you do the entire walk, you’ll reach Castel Roncolo, but that’s a visit for another day. With the full day you've just had, it may be better to just sit on a bench along the promenade for a well-deserved rest break with a view.
Bolzano can be reached via high-speed train. See the Trenitalia website for train schedules.
For more information, visit the Tourist Board Official Website.