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In the past year or so I started seeing images of incredible, crystal blue lakes pop up in my Instagram feed. I started researching the area, and was immediately determined to plan a visit. When the opportunity arose to take a quick trip, I threw together a last minute plan for a road trip in the Dolomites. With so many choices on what to do and see, I’ve decided to make things a little easier for you. This guide will cover everything you need to know about planning a road trip in the Dolomites. If you already have your route mapped out, then don’t miss my guide to the 7 best spots in the Dolomites here!
The Basics for a Road Trip in the Dolomites
The Dolomites are a mountain range located in northeastern Italy. As of 2009, the Dolomites are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With rolling green hills, curvy mountain roads, and sharp peaks, the Dolomites were practically made for a road trip!
The Dolomites experience two peak tourist seasons, Summer for hiking, climbing, and mountain biking, and Winter for skiing. I was warned by many to avoid the July, as it is the busiest time of the year, but I still felt that we had room to breathe on the trails. If you want to avoid the crowds completely then I recommend visiting in the shoulder season, although expect cooler temperatures.
The Dolomites can be reached by car from Venice in approximately 2 hours. It is also possible to fly into Milan, however the drive is a bit longer.
Both Italian and German are spoken in the Dolomites. In fact, we actually spoke more German than Italian during our stay in the mountains. The dual language can get a bit confusing when planning your trip, as each location has both an Italian and a German name. For example, Ortisei and Urtijëi are the same place. Be sure to watch out for that when planning your route!
Renting a Car
Okay so you don’t actually NEED to have a car to visit the Dolomites. However, as this is a road trip in the Dolomites guide, it makes that I share all of the rental details. Having a car will give you tons more flexibility for your trip, and make your adventure a whole lot easier. I will say, however, that some of the roads are super narrow and windy (and I mean SUPER narrow and SUPER windy). Make sure that you feel comfortable driving on foreign roads.
The first thing to know about renting a car for your road trip in the Dolomites is that most cars for rent in Italy are manual transmission. If you are going to need an automatic car then expect to pay more and rent as far in advance as possible.
The next thing to know is that is is mandatory to purchase car renters insurance and to be in possession of an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) when driving in Italy. You can register for an IDP online for as little as $25 USD. Car renters insurance can be purchased through the rental company. Additionally, some credit cards do offer primary coverage auto insurance (such as the Chase Sapphire cards), however it is important that you double check with your card to make sure.
For a manual standard size car for 4 days we paid $223 USD, without insurance, booked through Expedia.
Food in the Dolomites
While on your road trip in the Dolomites, you’ll find a wide selection of places to dine in the towns. Due to the region’s close proximity to Austria, the cuisine is a bit different than that of traditional Italian. While the cuisine is quite meat heavy, you shouldn’t have any issues finding vegetarian options.
As for hiking you have two options: 1) you can stock up at one of the local grocery stores or 2) you can eat at one of the refugios on the mountain. While the selection can be a bit limited, I found that the refugios tended to be quite reasonably priced.
Where to Stay on a Road Trip in the Dolomites
The hardest part of planning my road trip in the Dolomites was figuring out which towns to stay in. The good news, is that it seems like every inch of the Dolomites is beautiful, so you should be good no matter where you end up staying. We chose our 3 towns based on the hikes we wanted to do and the lakes that we wanted to visit. The two main towns that I would recommend are: Cortina D’Ampezzo and Ortisei (or one of the other nearby towns in Val Gardena).
The other decision to make is if you want to stay at hotels in the towns or stay up at the different refugios in the mountains, or of course a mix of both. Refugios are essentially mountain huts dispersed across the Dolomites region. They are often quite affordable, however many only offer dorm rooms. The accommodations tend to err on the side of basic, however you should find everything that you need. During our 4 night road trip in the Dolomites we unfortunately didn’t get the chance to stay at any of the rifugios, however I definitely recommend it!
I found hotels in the Dolomites to be quite old fashioned and on the pricier end. You won’t be spending all that much time in your hotel room if you’re lodging in the towns, so I wouldn’t recommend spending too much on your room!
Cortina D’Ampezzo is located in the Eastern part of the Dolomites and serves as the perfect base for some of my favorite hikes, such as Lago di Sorapis (15 minutes away) and Tre Cime di Lavaredo (45 minutes away). You can also reach Lago di Braies in under an hour.
It is possible to reach Tre Cime di Lavaredo in time for sunrise, as the park is open at all hours, however it will be a very early morning. If you have the time then consider staying at Rifugio Auronzo. This rifugio offers double and triple rooms, as well as 6 bed dorms. This requires arriving the evening before, which could limit you time visiting other areas.
Where to Stay in Cortina D’Ampezzo
Budget: Hotel Olimpia
Mid-Range: Hotel Cristallino d’Ampezzo
What Not to Miss in Cortina D’Ampezzo
Lago di Sorapis
Just 15 minutes down the road from Cortina d’Ampezzo, Lago di Sorapis was easily one of my favorite hikes in the area! It is the perfect moderate hike for a quick road trip in the Dolomites.
Originating at Passo Tre Croci, the round trip hike to Lago di Sorapiss takes 4-5 hours. From here you follow the PATH 215. This is a moderate hike with some incline and a few narrow ledges (not great for those with a few of heights).
The lake itself is well worth the hike though, some of the bluest waters that I’ve ever seen! You’ll come to a refugio just before the lake. You can stop here for the restroom or to order some lunch. Those with more time may want to consider overnighting here for perfect sunset and sunrise views.
The easiest way to get to the trailhead is by car, however here are buses that run a few times a day between Cortina and the trailhead during the high season. It is important to consult a timetable for your dates.
Lago di Braies
Quite possibly the most photographed lake in the Dolomites, Lago di Braies is a key stop on a road trip in the Dolomites. Many people choose to stay in the town next to the lake, or at the lodge at the lake itself, however you can reach Lago di Braies by car from Cortina D’Ampezzo in under an hour.
Lago di Braies is easily accessible by car, with a number of parking lots just down the road. It is also possible to reach by public transportation, taking a train to Niederdorf and then taking a bus to the lake entrance.
This insta-famous lake is just as beautiful in person as it is in photos. Blue waters with a striking mountain backdrop, it’s hard not to fall in love.
Once you arrive at the lake it is possible to rent a boat for either 30 minutes (18 euros) or 1 hour (28 euros). There are a number of hikes that originate from the lake as well, or you can opt for a quick walk around the lake.
Tre Cime di Lavaredo
Tre Cime di Lavaredo is one of the most popular hikes in the Dolomites, and one of the most common reasons stay in the Cortina D’Ampezzo area. The trailhead can be reached in approximately 45 minutes from Cortina D’Ampezzo. Once you enter the parking area you will need to pay 30 euros for parking.
This hike gets incredibly crowded, so I recommend a sunrise hike to beat the crowds. Watching the sun rise over the peaks was a truly incredible experience. I would definitely recommend getting an early start or staying at Dreizinnen Hut to wake up to the panoramic peak views.
Where to Eat in Cortina D’Ampezzo
Head over to Il Ponte for a delicious meal, with a traditional aperol spritz of course! The service is incredible, the pizza out of this world!
Lovat Bar Pasticceria
Every meal (and hike) should be followed up with a local gelato, because when in Rome right? By far the best nocciola (hazelnut) gelato that I tried in Italy, and I did quite a bit of “research”.
Ortisei (Val Gardena)
Ortisei is located in Val Gardena, which is comprised of three villages: Ortisei, Selva Val Gardena, and Santa Christina. One of the best features of staying in Ortisei is the chairlift access to Seceda and Alpe di Suisi. Within minutes you can reach either of these spots from the main town, without a car!
If you want to experience Seceda for sunset or sunrise then you will need to spend a night at one of the rifugios up top. I did not do this and definitely regret it, although it is just a reason to plan another trip. The chairlift only operates between the hours of 8:30am and 6pm, which doesn’t allow for sunrise or sunset views unless you overnight. If you’re planning on spending the night then make sure to call ahead to reserve your spot. There are a number of options available to choose from.
While I think that Ortisei is an incredible base for the average traveler, if you are looking to shoot content in the early hours or at sunset, then I would recommend 1 night at a rifugio on Seceda and 1-2 nights at a hotel on Alpe di Suisi.
Where to Stay in Ortisei
Budget: Appartmenthotel Residence Elvis
Mid-Range: Albergo Pontives
Luxury: Hotel Platz
What Not to Miss in Ortisei (on your road trip in the Dolomites)
When you step off the gondola on to Seceda, I swear you won’t believe your eyes. The rolling green hills and stunning mountain face are almost too beautiful to be real. As a big skier myself, it is such a fun experience to visit the resorts when they aren’t covered in snow!
On Seceda you’ll have a number of paths that you can follow. You can reach the main view point in under 15 minutes, a view that will take your breath away. From there you can set off exploring for countless hours. I recommend the loop hike, stopping at Refugio Firenze for lunch. It passes the Pieralongia where you’ll find another refugio to stop for a snack or drink. Often times there are a number of wild donkeys in this area, and trust me baby donkeys are the cutest. Continue around the loop to Refugio Firenze, where you’ll find panoramic mountain views and plenty of wildlife, with horses and cows roaming. If you choose to eat here you’ll find a range of affordable lunch options. Both cards and cash are accepted. From here it is just another 1.5 hours back to the Seceda chairlift.
Getting to Seceda
Seceda is super easy to get to from Ortisei, with a gondola and chairlift taking you to the top of the mountain in under 15 minutes (30 Euro round trip per person). There is a parking lot directly next to the chairlift for those arriving by car, or you can walk from the town in under 10 minutes.
The chairlift starts running at 8:30am so if you want to be on the mountain for sunrise you will need to head up the day before and stay at one of the refugios. While Seceda is gorgeous at all hours, I do regret not spending at least one night up on the mountain. But that is what next time is for! 😉
Val di Funes
Located approximately 35 minutes from Ortisei, you’ll find the beautiful valley of Val di Funes. Unfortunately due to limited time and poor weather, I was only able to experience the area from the car. It is definitely a place that deserves a half day to explore on foot!
The two main sights in Val di Funes are the Church of St. Magdalena and the Church of St. Johann. They are by far the most photographed churches in South Tyrol, and one of the main reasons to visit the area.
You will need 2-3 hours to explore the area, as most of the sights can only be properly seen by foot. You can walk between the two churches in approximately 40 minutes.
Unfortunately there are not a ton of options food in Val di Funes so make sure to pack food or plan accordingly.
Alpe di Suisi
I’ll be the first to admit that unless you are staying in Alpe di Suisi, getting there can be a bit mind boggling.This is because the road to Alpe di Suisi is actually closed between 9am and 5pm for cars, unless you are staying at one of the hotels in the area. I would have loved to spend a night in the area, however everything was booked out. If I were to visit again (which I will), I will definitely book at least one night in this beautiful area.
If you aren’t able to drive in before 9am by car, then I recommend taking the gondola. For 17 Euro round trip you can reach the elevated area in just a few minutes. This is a great option for anyone staying in Ortisei. Once you reach the top you could wander for hours in different directions, exploring the magical rolling hills.
If you are staying in Alpe di Suisi (and have the budget) then I recommend checking out Seiser Alm Urthaler!
Where to Eat in Ortisei
Located just a few minutes outside of the city center, you can always expect a good, hearty meal at Albergo Pontives. The dining room is open to the public, so you can stop by for a meal, regardless of where you are staying.
A great, central restaurant for traditional food. Delicious pasta dishes!
While it is not necessary to stay in Nova Levante, we had such a pleasant experience that I couldn’t not include it! We chose to stay in Nova Levante on our final evening as it is located just 10 minutes down the road from Lago di Carezza. Since we wanted to visit for sunrise before proceeding to the airport for our flight, this option made the most sense for us. Lago di Carezza can also be reached from Ortisei in approximately 1 hour.
If you decide to stay in Nova Levante then I definitely recommend booking a room at Mounthotel Niggl. The staff are beyond welcoming and the location was perfect. We arrived just after dinner and they still provided us with a complimentary cheese and meat platter that was enough to feed a family of six! The room is one of the more modern rooms that we stayed in the Dolomites, with beautiful sunset views from the room’s private balcony.
Lago di Carezza
While this lake is a little far away from the rest of the spots on the list, but it is truly a gem. In my opinion, Lago di Carezza is a place that should definitely be on your road trip in the Dolomites itinerary.
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