From gourmet restaurants to some of the best biking and hiking in Europe, Italy’s South Tyrol combines the warmth of the Mediterranean with the charm of the Alps. SquareMeal explores...   

Thinking of spending your summer holiday in Italy? Rome, Venice and Florence probably spring to mind as obvious destinations, or perhaps the rolling hills of Tuscany or the meadows of a famous Alpine resort. Each is very beautiful in its own way – and very crowded. 

But what if there was an Italian region that had the best of all worlds, a crowd-free paradise where you can experience Mediterranean culture combined with the outdoor lifestyle of the Alps? And what if that region was also a gastronomic paradise with more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other province in Italy?

South Tyrol diners outside by mountain view

Welcome to South Tyrol, Italy’s best-kept secret. Never heard of it? Allow us to tell you more.

You’ll find South Tyrol in the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Dolomite Mountains and, despite being Italy’s most northerly region, it boats an impressive 300 days of sunshine a year. It is an area where food and wine are inextricably linked to the majestic mountain landscape and where you can enjoy the distinctive Alpine-Mediterranean cooking that is unique in Italy.

South Tyrol cuisine, much like South Tyrol itself, is the perfect mix of Alpine and Italian influences

No matter which course you are enjoying – an appetite-sharpening aperitif, homemade pasta, or an indispensable caffè macchiato as a finishing touch – southern culinary influences are readily apparent in food and drinks such as hugo (a refreshing mix of white wine, sparkling water and elderflower syrup) and schlutzer (pasta filled with spinach). But so too are unmistakeably Alpine flavours in South Tyrol classics like apple strudel. South Tyrol cuisine, much like South Tyrol itself, is the perfect mix of Alpine and Italian influences.  

This mix of food and landscape comes together most harmoniously of all in the mountain huts of South Tyrol. Whether at higher altitudes or in the valleys, the aromas wafting out of traditional kitchens beckon hikers to drop in for a meal made from fresh local ingredients: locally farmed smoked ham and milk, and herbs and vegetables grown in the mountain pastures.

South Tyrol food plate with view in background

Magnificent views mean that a meal in a mountain hut nourishes the soul as much as the palate. Rifugio Emilio Comici, for instance, is built at the foot of Sasso Lungo / Langfokel mountain in Dolomites Val Gardena and is named after mountaineer Emilio Comici, while you’ll find Sofie right at the top of Seceda mountain at an altitude of 2,410m above sea level.

After an energetic day in the peaks, you can enjoy the delights of Italian cuisine for an elegant or informal evening meal. A highlight of the summer calendar is Dining Under the Stars, which is taking place on 12 July in Badia, at the foot of Mount Santa Croce. A long table will be set up in the historic town centre, opposite the steps of San Leonardo church, and a selection of local and international specialities will be served from a menu showcasing Badia’s restaurants. The clear night sky, twinkling with stars, makes a spectacular backdrop.

There’s more to South Tyrol cuisine than rustic flavours, though. With 26 Michelin stars distributed among 19 local restaurants, South Tyrol features the highest density of top-honoured chefs in Italy and is the country’s most decorated province. South Tyrol’s most famous chef is Norbert Niederkofler, of St Hubertus restaurant at the Hotel Rosa Alpina in Alta Badia. Niederkofler, who was born in South Tyrol, won his first star in the 2000 Michelin Guide to Italy and achieved the ultimate accolade of three stars in the 2018 guide for his intricate and accomplished cooking based on local produce from the Dolomites.

Then there’s Terra, Italy’s highest Michelin-starred restaurant. Diners can feast on the likes of praline smoked pork with truffle on four- to 12-course menus, 1,622 metres above sea level. Or how about trying the cooking of Matteo Metullio, the youngest Michelin-starred Italian chef, at La Siriola?

South Tyrol lady walking through vineyard

After all that eating, it’s a relief to know that South Tyrol welcomes cyclists and hikers. With no end of specialised bike hotels and bike-friendly lifts, there’s a ride for cyclists of all abilities, whether you want a short meander along a river or a challenging day-long tour through mountain passes including the challenging Passo Sella and the iconic Stelvio Pass, with its world-famous hairpin bends.

Cycling events this summer include the Dolomites Bike Day on 17 June, a free, non-competitive event held on the outskirts of the Puez-Odle and Fanes-Sennes-Braies natural parks. Later on in the summer, thousands of cyclists will participate in the Stelvio Bike Day, when the Stelvio Pass is closed to traffic and cyclists can appreciate the impressive panorama of the Stelvio National Park without having to worry about cars.

But cycling doesn’t have to be all hard work, and what better way to break up a leisurely ride than with a few wine tastings on the South Tyrol Wine Road, a truly memorable experience that takes in quaint villages and wineries along the way offering plentiful opportunities to taste the area’s aromatic, spicy reds, and heady vanilla-perfumed whites.

South Tyrol cyclists along mountain road

South Tyrol offers walking and hiking for all levels, from leisurely strolls immersed in seas of flowers to trekking amid glaciers and Alpine lakes

Or, if you’d rather stay on two feet than two wheels, the peaks, valleys and vineyards that make up South Tyrol’s landscape are rife with possibilities for walkers. South Tyrol offers walking and hiking for all levels, from leisurely strolls immersed in seas of flowers to trekking amid glaciers and Alpine lakes, whether in the Dolomites, the Ortler range or in the wine regions.

The region is home to no fewer than eight nature reserves, and there are 13,000km of natural paths to explore. It’s even home to the awe-inspiring Alpe di Siusi / Seiser Alm, a mountain plateau the size of 8,000 football fields and the largest Alpine pasture in Europe. If you want to explore the Dolomites in safety and comfort, a guided tour accompanied by mountain and hiking guides familiar with the surroundings is especially recommended.

And however you choose to spend the day, you can be guaranteed of a delicious meal in the evening. Hearty Alpine fare, or classic cucina Italiana – in South Tyrol, you can enjoy both.

To find our more about South Tyrol, visit suedtirol.info/en