By saying “Northern Italy” Italians usually mean two regions – Trentino and Alto-Adige. They also often say that Northern Italy is... well… not very “italian”, to put it bluntly. But why? Let’s explore why this part of Italy is so different with Olga, who has already become a local there.
Nature of Northern Italy
When thinking of “Italy” one usually imagines pompous Roman architecture, sunny fields and vineyards, glistening sea with beautiful beaches and fashion boutiques. Northern Italy, however, is very far from these stereotypical images. The region covered by Trentino and Alto-Adige (or simply Trentino-Alto-Adige) is a mountainous area in the heart of the stunning Alps. Alto-Adige is where the Dolomites are, the breathtakingly beautiful mountain range which has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
So the typical Northern Italy landscape features imposing mountains, cozy valleys (full of villages called Val di …, meaning “valley of”) and crystal-clear mountain lakes. And scattered across all this beauty are cute little Alpine churches and cows! This is idyllic, but it’s a totally different idyll than the rest of Italy offers.
Sights of Northern Italy
This part of Italy can’t boast any big cities. The two largest ones are Trento, main city of Trentino region, and Bolzano (Bozen in German), center of Alto-Adige. Both of them have quite a small population – 117,3041 and 106,1102 respectively. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to offer!
Trento is famous for its huge castle called Buonconsiglio, which was built in the 13th century to control the road that led from Italy to Germany. Over times it has served as the residence of the Prince-Bishops, barracks and jail. Now it is home for amazing art exhibitions. Another Trento highlight is a recently built science museum called MUSE! It’s a huge modern venue with interactive exhibitions that occupy several floors. Kids (and not only!) can have a lot of fun here learning about the geography of Northern Italy, its natural history, flora and fauna. The museum is very interactive, and every showpiece is touchable! Sounds pretty amazing, right?
Bolzano and Smaller Towns
Bolzano can also offer some interesting stuff – in South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology you can see Ötzi, the Iceman who is one of the world’s best-known and most important mummies. Bolzano historical center, dominated by Duomo di Bolzano cathedral, is also worth spending a couple of hours there. Duomo is beautifully decorated inside and has its own treasury.
The valleys of these regions are full of castles, reminders of former strategical value of this place. All of them are worth visiting if you have time, but my favorites are Avio, Beseno, Runkelstein and Toblino! There is something special about each of them. Avio hosts plenty of tourist events, while Beseno is home to a history museum specializing in knights. Runkelstein is an amazing viewpoint if you want to see Bolzano from above and Toblino… oh, Toblino is totally magical! It stands on a lake and has an air of an old legend about it. Besides, there is a great restaurant inside!
Activities in Northern Italy
If you’re looking for some fun activities to engage in while in Northern Italy, you don’t have to look far! Mountains are never dull! If you come here in winter, go skiing! The best places include Madonna Bianca, Val di Fassa, Val di Femme, Monte Bondone… And pretty much every skiing resort in the Dolomites region! But beware that it might be difficult to find accommodation during the peak season, and if you don’t travel with your own equipment, rental prices might give you a heart attack.
If you come in summer, the secret to having fun is pretty much the same – go to the mountains, on foot or with your bike! Trentino-Alto-Adige is full of breathtaking paths. Most of the trekking routes are very clean and comfortable. Some start with the cable car (funevia), which you can use at the beginning of the journey to skip the most difficult parts and get straight from the valley to the breathtaking views. Of course, if you feel adventurous and sporty, feel free to do the climb by yourself! Some of the trails will amaze you with unique natural wonders on the way, such as, for example, Earth Pyramids near Bolzano.
One of my favorite trekking paths is located in Mezzacorona (which is also famous for its winery). You start with the cable car in the town and then enjoy a relaxed walk up in the mountains for about 2 hours before you reach a nice restaurant where you can have lunch while imbibing gorgeous views. At the end of the path pay a visit to maso – a typical wooden hut where you can try some traditional northern Italian food.
On a Bike
If you’re more a fan of cycling than walking, Northern Italy is an ideal place for you. Here, they love cycling. No, not like that. They LOVE cycling. In any city or village in Northern Italy you will see people going by bike everywhere – supermarket, university, work. And of course they love cycling in the mountains. Trentino-Alto-Adige is full of breathtaking paths. You can either check out the cycle track Val d’Adige which goes between Trento and Bolzano, or, for example, Valsugana cycle track if you prefer something more elevated. On this webpage you can have a closer look at the tracks in the area and choose the one that you like the most.
Food and Drinks in Northern Italy
And now to the most interesting aspect of exploring every region – local cuisine! Don’t expect Northern Italy to be very “Italian” in this regard either. Of course, you will find some very decent pastas, pizzas, and lasagnas here. But starting from Trento, the further you move to the north, the more German/Austrian food you will see on the menu. You’ll be offered all kind of meat, potatoes, mushrooms and sausages here.
My personal top favorites are Goulash and Canederli. Goulash is a meat stew with vegetables often seasoned with paprika and other spice. Canederli is boiled dumplings, often with the addition of speck or cheese. In Alto-Adige they are often served together with goulash as a side dish.
If you are looking for some interesting foods to bring home as a souvenir, then you can go for Schuttelbröt – a round thin tough bread, or speck – dry-cured, lightly smoked ham. Trentino-Alto-Adige is really famous for its speck! In the two main cities, Trento and Bolzano, you will even find shops that specialize in speck and sell dozens of types of it. Another good choice is Parmigiano Reggiano, the local version of the famous Italian cheese.
If you want to taste some local drinks, go for wines and grappas. Northern Italy has some amazing wine brands, which are certainly worth trying. For white wine go for Nosiola, Gewürtztramine or Müller. As for grappas, take any from Marzadro, you won’t make a mistake!
Ah! We’ve nearly forgotten one of the most important things in the Northern Italy – apples! The region is an apple paradise and harvesting apples is a common summer job for youngsters here. Here, you can buy apples anywhere and in any form – whole apples in supermarkets and on small markets in villages, fresh cut apples in individual packages, apple juice, apple puree and of course inside a strudel – layered pastry which is very popular in Trentino-Alto-Adige.