Italy is justifiably world-famous for its historical, cultural and culinary delights, which have made it one of the world’s most visited countries. However, it also boasts amazing natural attractions, which include the Dolomites, a mighty mountain range in the north that was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 2009. The Dolomites are renowned for being a top ski destination in the winter, and in the warmer months, hikers come out to trek the towering mountain peaks.
I was one of these hikers, making use of quarantine-free travel from Singapore to Italy to travel to the Dolomites in October 2021. I did a week of clambering up and down the mountains and learnt plenty.
Here are some hiking tips and pointers for other aspiring hikers who want to experience the Dolomites’ natural beauty (what they are truly famous for) for themselves!
#Tip 1 – Don’t try to do too much
Something that Singaporeans, including myself, who are used to a lifetime spent at low altitudes may fail to appreciate is that it takes time to get around in the mountains. Places that look close to each other on a map often require a long car or bus journey, as the vehicle navigates the mountain slopes’ bends and ascents.
The Dolomites offers a huge range of hikes for every level of hiker, but these are centred around different regions, and clusters of mountains, in the entire range. If you’re like most travellers and have limited time, I suggest picking one or two towns from which to base yourself, and doing multiple hikes in the surrounding mountains. Constantly moving from town to town in a quest to complete the most well-known hike in each town will only lead to fatigue and much time spent on transportation.
For my trip, I based myself out of Ortisei, in the Val Gardena valley, and Santa Maddalena in Val di Funes. This gave me access to trails in the Alpe de Siusi alpine pasture and the Odle-Geisler mountains respectively. Other iconic Dolomites hikes and sights, like the Tre Cime di Lavaredo and the Lago di Braies, stars of many an Instagram post, will just have to wait for the next trip! When you do visit, I’d suggest packing a handy monopod into your hiking bag so you’re only a few seconds away from a photo-worthy click.
#Tip 2 - Bring a proper camera
Gorgeous scenery awaits you everywhere you turn in the Dolomites, where dramatically jagged spires of rock puncture the sky, while serene villages lie in the valleys below. You’ll want to capture every moment of your visit on camera.
While the cameras on most decent mobile phones have evolved to the point that they’re great for 95% of shots, there are always scenarios where a proper mirrorless or DSLR camera makes a difference. These include long-exposure shots to capture the stars and the Milky Way in light-pollution-free night skies, and high-dynamic-range scenes where you want to preserve the details in both the shadows cast by the mountains and the bright skies.
Furthermore, the beauty of the mountains is such that you’ll definitely want to enlarge and print a few of your photos to decorate your home. In these cases, you’ll definitely appreciate the additional megapixels that a proper camera will offer.
But if you do get a new camera before your trip, be sure to invest the time to learn how to operate it, and the best settings to use in different scenarios. At the end of the day, it is still the photographer that makes the biggest difference, not the equipment.
#Tip 3 – Bring a big appetite
One great aspect about hiking the Italian Dolomites is that you often won’t need to pack a lunch for your hikes! Dotted around the mountains are little huts that serve up simple but hearty meals made from the best Italian produce, as well as a wide array of drinks, to hungry hikers during the hiking season.
With the Dolomites being so near the Austrian border, you can expect a Germanic touch to the menus, with schnitzels, strudels and of course a wide array of beers being common sights. ‘Knodel’ or bread dumplings are also a specialty of the region – they’re often served in a broth, and are more filling than they look!
In the towns, many hotels also offer half-board accommodation, and provide a sumptuous spread for dinner. In my experience, such dinners can be four to five-course affairs, consisting of a salad bar, an appetiser, a carb-focused first course, a second course focused on meat or seafood, and finally dessert.
Such offers are especially fantastic near the end of the hiking season, as many restaurants close and only re-open in winter. A dinner in your hotel means that you won’t need to look high and low for somewhere to eat. And sometimes you don’t even need to head anywhere else for a meal - my half-board booking in Ortisei turned out to be more full-board, as a light lunch buffet and mid-afternoon cakes were also thrown in with the room rate.
#Tip 4 – The Dolomites are more family-friendly than you think
Mountain hiking sounds like the last thing you would bring your elderly parents to do. However, many towns and villages in the region have cable cars and gondolas that whisk you up to higher elevations. Here, fine views of the Dolomites can be enjoyed by everyone, and where the avid hiker can also embark on walks without the arduous climb up.
For example, Ortisei offers three different cable cars to three different areas, including the stunning slopes of Seceda, which you might have seen on your Instagram feed (it’s the sloping field that ends in an abrupt cliff) and the alpine pastures of the Alpe di Siusi.
Do note that many of these cable cars end their summer season and stop operating in October, and only re-open for skiers in the winter. Always check their dates of operation before planning a visit.
Always remember that weather in the mountains can be highly capricious. Even if it’s bright and sunny, bring a waterproof jacket in your backpack in case of a sudden storm, and be prepared to change plans if necessary.
Choose your trip dates wisely – when I visited in the end of October, i.e. in autumn, many hotels were already closed and there were more limited bus services. Snow can also already start falling in October. On the plus side, the leaves on many trees were turning a brilliant yellow-gold, making for very pretty pictures!
A pair of hiking poles to balance with can be life-savers when you’re descending rocky or loose scree slopes. And of course, do bring appropriate footwear to protect your feet and ankles while tackling the mountains.
Brush up on your ‘guten tags’ - this part of Italy is so near the German and Austrian borders that you’re equally as likely to hear German spoken as Italian, and places are known by both their Italian and German names.
So the next time you visit Italy, don’t just stick to the usual Rome-Florence-Venice tourist trail. Head further north and you’ll be rewarded with a unique blend of Italian and German cultures and some of the finest mountain hiking in the world.
Things to note while travelling in Italy
- Italy is open to all travellers from Singapore who are either fully vaccinated or fully recovered from Covid-19. No pre-departure or on-arrival tests are required; all you will need to do is fill up Italy’s Digital Passenger Locator Form before your trip.
- To be eligible, you will need to be fully vaccinated for at least two weeks before your return to Singapore. Unvaccinated children below the age of 12 can travel to Italy if accompanied by a fully vaccinated adult.
- From 16 March 2022, the 7-day travel history requirement will be expanded to include all countries in the European Economic Area. This has big implications for visiting the Dolomites, as they are more easily accessed by train from Munich than from other major Italian air hubs like Milan.
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Many of the bigger towns in the north of Italy are linked to Italy’s train network, making for easy access from cities like Milan and Venice. From the towns, you can often transfer to buses to get to smaller villages and to trailheads.
Italy uses the Euro, and credit cards are widely accepted.