Dolomites summer holidays

The scenic Dolomites are big and conspicuous – and not exactly under the radar.
“The photos do not do it justice,” says Paula Farmer, from our cycling and hiking specialists Headwater, about walking in the Alta Badia region of the Dolomites. “Valparola Pass in particular blew us away with the geological landscapes and the history of how it was used in World War I.”

These outstanding landscapes – fairways of pasture below cathedrals of rock – are why people come to the Dolomites in the first place. But, as a teenager visiting on a summer walking trip, my own prevailing memory of the Dolomites is of going up a chairlift and seeing dozens of little marmots grazing directly underneath. Clearly, beautiful scenery is wasted on me.

Marmots are everywhere here in summer. There’s something else that’s everywhere in the Dolomites in summer – visitors.

From transhumance to tourism

In winter, visitor numbers are limited to ski areas – but once the snow melts, the wider area is accessible and four million people visit a region with a population of less than half a million permanent residents.

Beauty spots in the valleys become overcrowded. Lake Braies and Tre Cime di Lavaredo have become unwitting Instagram celebrities. Lake Braies was getting up to 18,000 visitors a day in 2020, and there were huge queues for lifts and shuttles to reach the Alpe di Siusi, Europe’s largest alpine pasture.

Until the 20th century, transhumance – seasonal grazing on the mountainside – created these stunning alpine pastures. It’s now rare to see traditional Dolomite sheep herders, and transhumance has been replaced by trampling. Crowds create friction, eroding the paths and eroding relationships between local people and visitors. They also put pressure on local water supplies – Italy suffered from its worst drought in 20 years in 2022.

How to avoid summer crowds in the Dolomites

The best way to avoid crowds in summer is knowing about peak times in the Dolomites, such as the Ferragosto bank holiday in August. Lots of Italian businesses shut up shop in mid-August for a couple of weeks, and lots of people go on holiday in this time.

Going outside June-September means that you’ll find the area less busy, but you have to watch for closures. If you’re counting on using chairlifts, these stop in October until the skiing season begins. Some accommodation closes, and some small group trips only run from May to October.

What else? Try not to bring a car up.

“Buses are easily accessible and good value,” says Paula.

Local transport authorities have restricted car numbers in over-touristed areas. In 2022, the local authorities trialled asking cars to pre-book their trip to the Lake Braies online between June and September to reduce traffic. Similar permits have been used for the Sella Pass.

If you can walk a little further afield, or cycle, you can get further away from the crowds.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Dolomites or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

What to do in the Dolomites in summer

Explore the mountain paths (& take the chairlift back down)

Dolomites walking tours explore well-worn tracks. Rifugios ¬– wooden huts – mark the old routes up into the mountains. Cattle and sheep herders used these routes for centuries, and then, for a brief period, they were used by World War I soldiers. Though the peaks themselves are steep, hikers don’t have to make vertiginous climbs to enjoy the scenery. And we have something that past generations didn’t – chairlifts, gondolas and buses bringing people back.

Cycle the valleys

Though the route of Italy’s Giro d’Italia changes every year, it usually includes a punishingly long climb in the Dolomites. For the rest of us, the Dolomites make a natural take-off point for a long distance cycle to Venice, or valley cycling trips, which might take you on gentle routes between Cortina, Dobbiaco and Trentino. From here, you could follow the Eisack Valley down from Bolzano, the region’s capital, and the Caldaro wine region, which is centred around a beautiful lake, and maybe leave the trek up Marmolada – the highest mountain in the Dolomites – for another time.

Climb the via ferrata

Best done in the driest and most settled weather of the year – July, August and September – the iron climbing frames stapled into the mountains look terrifying, but are very doable with a guide, so long as you have a head for heights. Some of the famous routes were installed during the World War I by troops, and can still be climbed today, in less perilous conditions.

Be inspired by big scenery

One of these mountains would be view enough – but the mountains come on all sides in the Dolomites. They served as inspiration for the composer Gustav Mahler, who came to stay in Dobbiaco in the summers to compose some of his symphonies – on one occasion, being rowed across a lake, where the rhythm of the oars helped him compose a tricky section of his seventh. A word of warning about those beautiful lakes: even in the height of summer, they make for very chilly swims!

Search for wildflowers… and go hay bathing

The Dolomites are the sunniest range in the Alps, and the wildflowers in the alpine meadows drink this up. Look out for campanula, orchids and bright blue gentians – gentian root being an ingredient in your Aperol spritz. Flowers and herbs were once cut down as part of hay making, and with this, the curious practice of hay bathing was born. Local people would bury themselves in hay up to their necks to relieve joint pain. The practice has since moved out of shepherding barns and into fancy spas.

A spot of photography

Where to begin? Photography holidays in the Dolomites involve swapping between lenses as you play with the different scales – macro images of trembling wildflowers, then white churches against green pastures, the pitched roofs of mountain huts dwarfed by surrounding peaks. Go even bigger – the clear, dark nights present great opportunities for epic astral photography, where dizzying views of the galaxy dwarf even the mountains.

Dig into the culture & cuisine of the Dolomites

South Tyrol, where part of the Dolomite range sits, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, becoming an Italian spoil of war after being annexed in 1919. These days, one end of a street will still speak Italian and the other German, and place names are often written in both (for example, Dobbiaco/Toblach). Ladin, the language of the Ladin ethnic group who live here, also prevails (try saying bun dé!).

Correspondingly, you’ll get food from Ladin, Italian and Austrian traditions, and you’ll also find a progressive organic movement. South Tyrolean cuisine leans heavily on locally grown ingredients – there are valleys blanketed with orchards, and apples eventually make their way from here into strudel and cake. Even in summer, you’ll find very hearty dishes – but these can be balanced out with a jolt of fizz from the nearby prosecco hills.

Consider more sustainable travels

South Tyrol has great potential to attract eco-conscious tourists. It’s a very wealthy area of Italy and there has been a lot of public investment in sustainability, from generating green electricity to constructing energy-efficient homes. The area is sunny and mountainous, making it an ideal candidate for solar and hydroelectric power. There’s good infrastructure for electric cars and electric buses have been trialled – no mean feat on twisty mountain roads. They’re quieter too – so you don’t startle the marmots.

Where to stay in the Dolomites in summer

Family-run hotels are your friends in the Dolomites, especially if they have a cavernous wine cellar. Since this region has been a tourist region since the 19th century, you’ll find hotels that have been in the family for generations, displaying their heirlooms – milking stools, ridiculously long old skis, in the corridors and mounted on the walls.

Popular towns include Dobbiaco and the nearby village of Villabassa, the Alta Badia region – a ski resort in the Badia Valley, and Moena, located in the famous Fassa Valley – both famous for skiers in winter, but transformed to walking destinations by the summer warmth.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: jyl4032] [Intro: Ales Krivec] [Explore the mountain paths: Valdemaras D] [A spot of photography: Jan Valecka]