The Dolomite mountain range, which lies near the corner of three very different European countries, is often overshadowed by its well-loved neighbour: the Swiss Alps. However, these smaller, more untouched mountains separating Italy, Austria and Slovenia, are equally breath-taking as their Swiss counterparts. Dotted with traditional towns and villages, home to hearty cuisine and picture-perfect wooden chalets, the Dolomites are a favourite winter getaway destination for many locals in the Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, but are sadly overlooked by many others. With an entirely unique culture, formed of a blend of these three contrasting nationalities, the Dolomites are a gem in the centre of Europe; they’re a perfect place to escape city life, and immerse yourself in nature.
Starting and ending in the North-Eastern Italian city of Udine, we decided to explore some of this area’s most unbelievable – and most underrated – spots, turning our journey into a 5-day road trip. This guide will lead you through the winding roads of the stunning Dolomites and up into Southern Bavaria, with stops in Italy, Austria, and Germany.
Hiring a car
When preparing for our road trip, we knew that we wanted our car to be comfortable, affordable, and – due to my questionable driving skills – automatic. Of all the car hire companies in Udine, we found a perfect deal with Budget, paying only €30 per day. We even got a free upgrade, and ended up with the most beautiful, sleek Audi to use for our trip. I even managed to return it without a scratch, too – miracles do happen!
Stop 1 | Udine, Italy
Having spent a year living in this quaint little university city, I am a firm believer that Udine should be high up on everyone’s bucket list of places to visit. With its one-of-a-kind history, its roots both Venetian and Austro-Hungarian, Udine is made even more beautiful by its distinct lack of tourists. Although its town centre is compact, its huddle of grand, colourful squares and its Loggia del Lionello make it wildly individual amongst other, larger Italian cities. For top tips on where to stay, and the best food and drink spots in town, check out my guide to Friuli-Venezia Giulia here.
Stop 2 | Laghi di Fusine, Italy
Driving North from Udine and towards the dramatic, mountainous backdrop, will lead you to the town of Tarvisio. Located right in the very corner of the Italian border, only a few short kilometres from both Slovenia and Austria, this traditional town is home to the Laghi di Fusine. A collection of striking turquoise pools, framed by sky-high pines and hazy mountain peaks, these glacial lakes are a must-see destination for anyone in this region. Take some time to wander around the banks, admiring the pastel rowing boats as they float gently in the water. If you’re in need of a little pick-me-up, then stop off at the lakeside Belvedere café for a coffee before the next leg of your journey.
Stop 3 | Villach, Austria
Although only a short drive from the lakes, make sure Villach is the next stop on your tour. After all, you need a lunch break somewhere; and where better than this riverside Austrian pearl? Despite being one of the country’s smaller cities, Villach acts as an important gateway into Southern Austria. Its crisp, pastel buildings and sharp, architecturally-stunning churches (such as the Stadtpfarrkirche St. Jakob) make the perfect backdrop for an afternoon stroll. Head to the pedestrianised Hauptplatz in search of snacks or sandwiches. Weather permitting, take a seat at one of the street’s many outdoor cafés and enjoy the quiet bustle of the town. For dessert, make sure not to miss the Gelateria Italiana by Luis – grab an ice cream to-go and wander down to the crystalline riverside.
Stop 4 | Salzburg, Austria
After a couple of hours driving North through the wonderous Austrian countryside, you’ll reach Salzburg. Nestled into the German border, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its glowing white architecture and intricate musical history. Seeped in Baroque beauty and decadent detailing, you’d expect nothing less from Mozart’s home town.
A perfect introduction to the city, stop for coffee at Café am Kai. With its outdoor terrace overlooking the Salzach river, and its views down to the centre of town, this café is a popular place for sweet treats and homemade cakes.
If you’re happy to splash the cash a little, then book a room at the Hotel Goldgasse; a beautiful boutique hotel housed in a 14th-Century townhouse. Its perfect location, right along the riverside, and its artistic, modern rooms are a great place to rest your weary head after a day of driving. Prices start from around €130 a night for a standard double on Booking.com. But if you’re sticking to a budget, Salzburg has a huge range of hostels to choose from. Try the Meininger Salzburg City Centre, which offers beds in dorms for only €14 per night, and offers a generous breakfast buffet for only €6,90 per person. The rooms are stylish and clean-cut, with ample space for socialising, too.
Stop 5 | Munich, Germany
To come to Bavaria and not experience at least a few hours of its capital, Munich, would be senseless; not least because the city is one of the most beautiful in Germany. Only a short 1.5 hour drive across the Austrian border, Munich is the beating heart of Southern German culture. Its huge, traditional beer halls, buzzing Christmas markets and regal, detailed architecture make it a popular destination for tourists from around the world. Although it would be easy to spend much more than a single day in this city, Munich’s town centre is actually fairly small, making it an ideal place to stop for your first day in Germany.
When exploring the historic old town, make sure to visit the New Town Hall in Marienplatz. Probably the most iconic structure in the city, the intricate 43-bell clockwork of the tower chimes at 11 and 12 o’clock every morning, and at 5 p.m. from March to October. Constructed of 32 different moving figurines, each representing various aspects of Munich’s culture and history, the mechanism of this show is jaw-dropping.
Another must-see building within the city – and luckily only a short walk from Marienplatz – is the Frauenkirche, with its two bulbous towers. If you’re a history buff, with a particular interest in politics, then stop off at Odeonsplatz: a large square which famously saw a number of political speeches and marches.
Bavaria is well-loved mainly by beer fanatics; but Munich’s most renowned beer hall, the Hofbräuhaus, is not just for the brew-obsessed. The atmosphere within this high-ceilinged, 16th-Century building is unmissable. With traditional live music floating above the general hubbub of excited visitors, you’ll have to elbow your way through to the bar. Waiters and waitresses buzz around, their trays laden with more beer tankards than physically conceivable. Bag yourself a seat and settle in; this place is particularly popular during the winter, as Bavarians and tourists alike shield themselves from the cold with a glass of home-brewed lager.
Stop 6 | Augsburg, Germany
NIGHTS 2 & 3
Although Munich is understood to be the more ‘mainstream’ heart of Bavaria, the region’s third-largest city, Augsburg, can give you a more local taste of what life is like in this area. Also one of the oldest cities in Southern Germany, it is a university town whose roots are set firmly in tradition. We spent two nights here, giving us an entire day to explore the city, and weren’t disappointed. Its lively, youthful population meant that we were never short on things to do, places to see, or breweries to drink at.
For coffee and pastries, head straight for the city’s Rathausplatz. Home to its Renaissance Town Hall, with its infamous turquoise domes, the square is littered in cafes and restaurants, whose tables spill out onto the cobbled square itself. Small coffee house chain Henry’s Coffee is a favourite among locals, with artisan coffees and breakfast treats to set you up for a day of exploring.
Make sure you don’t miss the Stadtmarkt (or ‘City Market’), loaded with fresh, local produce and bursting with colour; the Katholische Stadtpfarrkirche St. Ulrich und Afra is also worth a trip, with its unusual 16th-Century architecture.
You can’t leave Bavaria without sampling some of their world-famous schnitzel. In Augsburg, the place to do this is the Riegele Brewery, which is situated next to the city’s main train station. And, of course, this should be washed down with a tankard of home-brewed lager.
If you’re looking to work off all that schnitzel, and stay out until the small hours, make your way towards Maximilianstraße, where you’ll find late-night cocktail bars such as Peaches and Jakobus. With live music and an extensive beer list, you’ll be partying like an Augsburg local.
Although we used Airbnb to find an apartment in Augsburg, there are a few hotels and hostels on offer to suit any budget. For something a little more luxurious, try the Domhotel, located just behind the city’s cathedral. The quieter neighbourhood guarantees a relaxing stay in this elegant, historical building. Prices for a standard room start at €84 per night. For tighter budgets, the Jugendherberge Augsburg offers beds for just €21 per night, and is a friendly, sociable hostel right in the heart of the city.
Stop 7 | Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
Neuschwanstein Castle is the stuff fairy tales are made of. If it weren’t for the coachfuls of visitors, you could almost be starring in your very own version of Beauty and the Beast; in fact, the castle was the unsurprising inspiration for Disney’s iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle. One of the most popular destinations in Europe, Neuschwanstein Castle receives around 1.5 million tourists each year. It is worth it, then, to get up early and make sure you see the castle in all its glory. Park at the bottom of the hill, and walk the 45 minutes to the top – alternatively, you could catch a ride in a horse and carriage. If you don’t fancy entering the castle, then make sure to wander around the surrounding forest, taking in every possible angle of this magnificent, glittering palace. Trek to the Marienbrücke for the best view – although, be warned that this is sometimes closed during winter months due to bad weather.
It’s best to reserve your tickets to enter the castle in advance. The cost is €13 each for a ‘regular’ ticket, with pricier options available to anyone who wants a more in-depth tour. Entry for under-18s is free.
Stop 8 | Füssen, Germany
This pocket-sized town is so close to Neuschwanstein that it hardly seems worth getting back in the car; but you won’t be disappointed. Füssen is the perfect place to make a lunch stop! Settled only kilometres from the Austrian border, this cutesy mountain town is perfectly in-keeping with the castle’s Disneyland vibe. Its pink and yellow colour scheme is framed by dark wood chalets and painted into a Sound-of-Music-esque backdrop of trickling streams and hazy mountain peaks. Its tiny little brewery, the aptly-named Brauhaus Füssen, is a great place to fuel up for the next leg of your journey.
Stop 9 | Plansee, Austria
While we had initially planned to spend our fourth night in Innsbruck, bad traffic ended up altering our plans – and I am so glad it did. Stumbling across Austria’s Plansee lake was a highlight of the trip; its beauty is unparalleled, the surrounding nature incredibly still and peaceful. We stayed in Campground Seespitz, which offers camping spots for those with caravans, wooden huts available for hire, and also a small chalet-hotel, with rooms starting from €60 per night.
Strip everything back and bask in the natural beauty of this place. If you get peckish, there is a bar and café on-site which serves dinner and drinks. If you’re brave enough, try going for a night-time swim; there’s no feeling quite like it.
Stop 10 | Bolzano, Italy
With a long journey ahead of you on your last day of the trip, it’s worth rising early and stopping somewhere beautiful for lunch. Located just below the Austrian border, the bilingual German-Italian town of Bolzano ticks this box perfectly. Entirely unique in its equal blend of these two very distinct cultures, almost everyone in this Northern Italian town is actually completely bilingual.
Whatever the time of year, soak in all the Christmassy feels in Bolzano, home of the Christmas Market. For advice about what to see and do, check out my Bolzano guide here.
Stop 11 | Udine, Italy
Back on the road for one final – and extremely long – leg of this journey, which should deposit you back in Udine by early evening. Heading South towards Trento, before veering off through central Veneto means you will pass through picturesque little towns such as Conegliano and Pordenone; if you find yourself in need of a coffee, or just somewhere to stretch your legs, then both of these places are wonderful options as you wave goodbye to your tour around Italy, Austria and Germany.
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