My ideal vacation revolves around hiking, eating, shopping, and friends so when the opportunity arose for a backpacking trip to the Dolomites in Northern Italy I jumped all over it!
Hiking in the Dolomites:
How to Get There:
Our home base for the backpacking trip was Cortina, about a 2 hour gorgeous drive from the Venice airport. From the airport, I hopped on the Cortina Express bus, a large coach type situation with comfy seats and wi-fi. You can also book a car and driver. Either should be pre-booked (see below). The bus is about $25 each way. A car/driver is about $350.
Cortina is small so walking everywhere is easy. The Cortina vibe is a cross between Gorsuch (the high end alpine clothing/lifestyle catalog) and Patagonia. The streets are full of hikers and bikers in sporty attire, stocking up on provisions at La Cooperativa, a 7 floor hub of activity in the center of town. The outdoor cafes are full of stylish Italians sipping cappuccinos. And, the shopping is most satisfying! With a strong dollar, no sales tax, a 12% refund on goods over 155 euros, and lackluster shopping in Seattle, I had work to do! The pedestrian walking street is chock-a-block full of an inspiring combo of sporting good stores and hi-end luxury goods, from Patagonia to Gucci. I think every cool European sporting goods manufacturer has an outpost in Cortina. I’ve listed my favorite shops below.
For our hiking trip we opted for “hut to hut” (mountain huts are called rifugios) backpacking (we did a portion of the Alta Via 1 but there are many trails to consider) and we booked it through Macs Adventures. It was a self-guided (no guide) trip and we carried our essentials from location to location (about 15 pounds with water). Macs secured our reservations for the rifugios during the hike as well as the Cortina hotels for the nights before and after the hike. They also recommended the structure for the trip. An excellent app with downloadable maps (the trails are super well marked – think of a hiking superhighway with trail numbers and signage) and other helpful information made it easy to navigate. My backpacking packing list is below.
There are many ways to hike in the Dolomites without having to carry a pack or spend the night in a rifugio. You can book a nice hotel in a cute mountain town like Cortina, use it as basecamp, and spend your days doing day hikes in the area. There are options to take gondolas and chair lifts up a hill, have lunch at a rifugio, and hike or get a lift down. Or, you can backpack and hike from rifugio to rifugio. We did a combo, doing day hikes from Cortina prior to starting the hut-to-hut portion of the trip. Full itinerary is below.
Backpacking in the Dolomites is very civilized! Camping is prohibited, unless it’s an emergency. All on-mountain overnight stays are in rifugios, most of which are privately owned and operated, many by families, and passed down from generation to generation. Yes, they were all super clean with wi-fi, full bars, and abundant menu options. Yes, they all had clean bathrooms, hot showers and wait for it – blow dryers! Yes, private rooms are available in some of the rifugios but we slept in bunk rooms. With ear plugs and Ambien we slept as you’d expect when you share a room with 8-12 other adults!! Our rifugios were all half-board – they included dinner, bed, and breakfast. And yes, the food was fabulous!
The hiking was very straightforward with jaw dropping scenery and plenty of steep ups and downs. The network of rifugios made things easy and tasty as there was always a delicious pit-stop along the way! We began our days with a buffet breakfast and lots of cappuccinos. We hit the trail around 8 and stopped a few hours later at a rifugio for snacks, usually hot apple strudel (with or without whipped cream or ice cream) and cappuccinos. Around lunchtime, we’d stop at another rifugio for lunch (often steaming plates of pasta), and a few hours after that we’d settled into our rifugio for the night. We had plenty of time to rest in the afternoon, shower, play cards, meet people from all over the world, and just hang out before a hearty mountain dinner was served, along with cocktails, beer and wine. This is not a bad way to backpack!
See full itinerary and packing list below.
After the hike, I braced myself to brave Venice in July. I was prepared for high temps, humidity, and summer vacation crowds. I found crowds where you’d expect them (St. Marks Square, the main drag to the Rialto) but I mostly stayed away from those places. And the crazy summer worldwide summer weather included Italy, but to my benefit, as the temp in Venice never went above 80. Lucky me!! I’ve been to Venice many times and I spent hours and hours strolling the calles, crossing bridges, visiting museums, shopping, and eating. I spent a half day in the neighboring countryside visiting some architecture (Carlo Scarpa’s Tomba Brion and Palladio’s Villa Emo) and a few small towns (Asolo, Treviso) with my cute driver, Aldo. My notes for Venice are also below. I would attach a pack list for the Venice portion but I took only 2 dresses (the Quince linen dress and this Indyeva shirt dress) and Birkenstocks!
Day 1: Transit
Flew to Venice, took the Cortina Express bus to Cortina. Rented trekking poles at Snow Service, across the street from the bus station. Checked into Hotel Pontechiesa – a 3 star bare bones nice hotel a little out of town on a river. Walked to town and hit the Corso Italia (pedestrian street) and had gelato at Lovat. Shopped at La Cooperativa – 7 floors of EVERYTHING including hardware, notions, clothing, camping gear, shoes, housewares, groceries, etc… and wandered to Moncler, Golden Goose, Gucci, Piambo, La Sportiva, and the Mountain Shop. Dinner: Janbo – great piadinas!
Day 2: Day hike
Public bus to Tre Cime (three chimneys) – a UNESCO site – to hike. On Tuesdays in the parking lot next to the bus station is a fabulous market with food, hiking clothes, cashmere sweaters, shoes and more. It opens around 8 and closes just after lunch. Super fun! Tre Cime gets very crowded so it’s best to take a public bus because buses get entry priority, whereas cars have to queue for the limited spaces. We did a great hike around the three chimneys (around 8 miles and 1500’ of up) and returned to town on the bus. It was a great way to get over jet lag and acclimate to the altitude. Once back in Cortina I got gelato at Alvera and walked around. A huge thunderstorm blew through town so I did what I had to do – shopped at Marinotti, a beautiful store that carries a lot of brands that are hard to find in the US like Aspesi and Velvet Mountain (really cute cord pants and skirts). I also took cover in Piambo which is owned by OVS and I liked its array of cheap chic clothing. We had drinks at Hotel Cortina and a large group dinner at Ristorante Il Cirmolo. We all tried the traditional Cortina dish of casunziei: ravioli filled with beets. Surprisingly yummy!
Day 3: Day hike
Moved to Hotel de la Poste – an old world hotel on the main Corso. Very nice and a perfect location! We did a day hike from town (4,000’) up to Rigugio Mietres (5643’) for apple strudel and hiked back down the hill in a thunder and lightning storm, around 9 miles and 1600’ of elevation gain. More gelato at Embassy and more shopping at the many sporting goods stores, looking to add an additional layer to my hiking wardrobe because of the cooler weather and rain: La Cooperativa, La Sportiva, Patagonia, CMP, Dynafit, Millet, K Way, Due e Due, Norrona, and North Face just to name a few. There was another afternoon thunderstorm. Dinner at Croda Cafe.
Day 4: Backpacking starts!
We took taxis to our start point at Lago di Braeis (5000’), about a 45 minute drive. We hiked up up to Rifugio Biella (7,679) for lunch and then on to Rifugio Sennes (7000’) for the night. 7 miles, 3200’ of up, 1000’ of down.
Day 5: Hike
Rifugio Sennes to Rifugio Pederu for coffee and cake and on to Rifugio Lavarella (6,700’) for the night. 7 miles and 1800’ of up, 2000’ of down. Rigugio Lavarella is conveniently Europe’s highest microbrewery. They even had beer ice cream!
Day 6: Hike
Left Rifugio Laverella with sack lunches and hiked to Rifugio Lagazoui (9,028’). This was an epic day with a lot of up and some vertiguous down. 10 miles, up 3800, down 1350. Passed lots of WWI trenches and tunnels. Rifugio Lagazoui is at the top of a chair lift. Some of our group with sore limbs took a detour to avoid the steep up and down and up to get there. From Rifugio Lavarella, they walked to a small town, picked up a bus that took them to the base of the chair lift, and met us at the rifugio!
Day 7: Hike
Rifugio Lagazuoi to Rifugio Dibona (6,709’) for coffee and apple strudel. Walked on to Rifugio Scoiattoli (7,398’) for lunch – very crowded because it is at the top of the 5 torri lift. Short but steep hike from there to Rifugio Averau (7933’) where we were staying the night. We dumped our packs and did a side hike up to Rifugio Nuvolao (8500’) for a drink. 12 miles, 3000’ up.
Day 8: Hike
Instead of heading 6000’ downhill (ouch) back to Cortina we decided to leave our packs at the Rifugio and do a loop around Nuvola based on intel from a man from SLC who said it was the best hike ever. It was about 7 miles with 1500’ of elevation gain and it was beautiful. After the hike (and a snack) we picked up our packs and started downhill toward Cortina via the 5 Torri chair lift, Cortina Skyline gondola, and finally a taxi cab! We checked into the Hotel Ambra and after hot showers, pizza at Ampezzo and gelato at Da Po, we hit the town for some last minute shopping. Scarpa shoes and CMP jackets were trending for our group, along with Cortina t-shirts and hats. We had our final dinner at Hotel Cortina.
Days 9-12: Venice
I took the bus back to the Venice airport and began a three day stay in Venice. See notes below on activities/restaurants/shopping.
Cortina Express: bus Venice airport to Cortina: https://www.cortinaexpress.it/en/
Car Service: Pantarei Chauffeur Service. email@example.com
Car Service *39 3356396083 firstname.lastname@example.org
Car Service: +39 349 6638454 email@example.com
Hotel Pontechiesa: 3 star, a short walk out of town. http://hotelpontechiesa.it.
Hotel de la Poste: 4 star, old-world, center of town. https://www.delaposte.it/en/index
Hotel Ambra: 4 star, more modern, near center of town. https://www.hotelambracortina.it/en/
To find the best gelato, look for the longest line and get in it.
Da Po – conveniently located across the street from the bus station and next door to the trekking pole rental shop! This place is known as the best and had the longest lines to prove it.
Embassy – on the main pedestrian walkway, next to La Cooperativa
Lovat – off the Corso ½ block
Alvera – at west end of Corso
The Mountain Shop (Dynafit)
Due e Due
Rock and Ice Mountain Store – Scarpa distributors
Sotto Sopra – great housewares and cashmere socks and slippers!
Hotel Flora & Novecento: Owned by the same family, near one another, and I’ve stayed at both through the years. I prefer the Novecento – it is smaller, only 11 rooms. It is under construction now so I stayed at the Hotel Flora and really liked it. Both are centrally located between St. Mark’s Square and the Accademia bridge.
I took a water taxi to and from the airport to town. It is pricey but it’s quick and quite a way to arrive and depart! I just walked to the dock from the airport and hopped on. It is about 140 euros each way (ouch). You can book through a taxi company beforehand but I found that to be more expensive.
For my driving trip to the Veneto, I met a driver at Piazzale Roma (across the canal from the train station) and booked it through Belt Connect. T + 39 041 926303. firstname.lastname@example.org
- End of season summer shopping with lots of sales!
- Venice has all the major luxury brands (except Goyard). Again, there are deals to be had with no sales tax, a strong dollar, and 12% back on goods over 155 euros. I had good luck at Herno for down jackets, all on sale for 30% off. Moncler items are always cheaper in Italy, as are Gucci, Prada, Hermes, YSL, Tods, Valentino, etc . . . And, they often have more and different items than in the US so it’s fun to take a look see.
- There is a newer department store in town called T Fondaco del Tedeschi by DFS (Duty Free Shoppers). It is a beautiful store near the Rialto with gorgeous views. The architecture and views are worth a visit. It doesn’t have an enormous selection but it has different items than some of the stand alone retailers so it’s worth a look if you are on the hunt for something. They have a new La Double J department (dresses on Fablist.co dress section) that opened just a few days after I left – I will have to go back!
- Al Duca d’Aosta: a small Italian chain of luxury boutiques. The Venice outpost has shrunk through the years and hasn’t been great the last few visits but I always stop in.
- Foot Locker: I love stopping at Foot Locker in Europe. They always have different styles than in the US and I always find a new sneaker!
- Fortuny: The Italian silk fabric manufacturer has a small outpost right in town. They have gorgeous silk scarves and pillow covers.
- Potpourri: Stand alone women’s clothing store that carries Herno, Aspesi, and lots of other great brands. The tricky part is that it is terribly merchandised and requires assistance to find anything as the clothing is stacked and packed inside armoires. This is further complicated by the unfriendly women who run the store! It’s worth the trouble though because they carry beautiful classic clothing. There is a smaller outpost in Asolo but it doesn’t have nearly the inventory (but still poorly merchandised with the same surly help!)
- Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella – the famous Florentine pharmacy with roots back to 1221 has a store in Venice near the Accademia bridge. Their soaps make great gifts.
- Chiarastella Cattana. Near S. Maria Novella above, this store features timeless home textiles and pieces combining traditional Italian craftsmanship with modern inspiration. It carried beautiful linens and clothing – I especially liked the scalloped linen placemats and cotton slacks.
- Peggy Guggenheim Museum. The best. Across the Accademia bridge in the Dorsoduro on the Grand Canal. Fab modern art (most of it collected by Peggy herself) featured in the villa owned and lived in by the eccentric Peggy. It’s a delightful outing – sit in the garden for a coffee and take your time looking at Peggy’s grave as well as those of her beloved dogs, who are buried beside her. There is also a patio on the Grand Canal side and this is a great sit spot to watch the world float by.
- Punta della Dogana – near the Guggenheim and owned by Francois-Henri Pinault, the wealthy French businessman (and married to Salma Hayak) who owns many nice luxury brands such as Gucci, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen. He has amassed an incredible art collection and needed space to exhibit it! This is a newer museum in one of Venice’s old customs building, renovated by Tadao Ando, and located at a cool intersection of Venice where the Grand Canal meets the Giudecca Canal. Check for exhibitions.
- Palazzo Grassi: another one of Pinault’s museums housed in a beautiful old canal front villa and also refurbished by Tadao Ando. The Pinault Collection recently acquired the Conde Nast archives and 407 of the works are featured on the walls now. It was an incredible display of 150 international artists including Steichen, Abbot, Horst, Arbus, Penn, and Helmut Newton. It is open until 7/1/2024 and I highly recommend this photographic extravaganza!
- Carlo Scarpa works: I love this architect/professor and Venice is home to many favorites: Olivetti typewriter showroom on the edge of Piazza San Marco, the Quernini Stampalia, the Italian Pavilion at the Biennale Giardini,the IUAV University doorway facade, and on this trip I finally ventured around an hour west of Venice to see his iconic Tomba Brion.
- San Giorgio Maggiore: It was crowded in Venice and I hopped on the vaporetto #2 from San Zaccaria and went out to this little island, a 5 minute ride and a world away. You can’t miss the Basilica – it is right in front of the vaporetto stop – beautifully designed by Palladio. Of course there are various paintings inside by Tintoretto, including his Last Supper, and a convenient elevator to take you to the top of the Basilica’s Campanile which is almost as high as the Campanile across the water in St. Mark’s Square. The 360 degree views are incredible and it is fun to look back at Venice from across the water. Also on the island are 10 chapels first exhibited by the Vatican at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018. These can only be visited with a guided ticket and are in a very forested park of the Cini Foundation on the island. Bring bug spray – I was eaten alive by pesky mosquitoes.
Venice is known for its seafood and I’m not a huge seafood fan so I’ve always struggled a little bit here. Some favorites:
- Osteria Enoteca Ai Artisi – small and charming across the Accademia bridge.
- Trattoria da Fiore – not the famous da Fiore. This one is on a side street near Campo San Stefano and serves classic pasta and lasagna dishes.There is a lively bar attached that seems popular with the younger crowd!
- Da Ivo: Popular with celebs and cute canalside location. Across from Potpourri, the woman’s retail store listed above.
- You can make a meal of the Cicchetti (little bites) around the Rialto bridge: Do Spade, Do More, and Bar All’Arco. I also really like Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi for some small bites while perched outside on a canal.
- Le Cafe – on Campo Santo Stefano and good if you want a simple chicken salad!
For lunch, I love Rosticceria Gislon tucked away near the Rialto bridge. Some shop girls at Al Duca d’Aosta told us about it 20 years ago and I went everyday for lunch on this trip. It is a no frills spot popular with locals with food displayed on the countertop that is warmed up and served to you. The roast chicken and veggies definitely hit the spot!
Backpacking Packing List:
- Backpack (30L) w/ bladder, liner (I use trash compactor bag), rain cover
- Silk sleeping sack (some rifugios didn’t require but some did)
- Trekking poles (I rented in Cortina – I didn’t want to check luggage and TSA may or may not let you carry on poles).
- Fanny pack: easy access to phone/camera, lip balm, glasses, snacks
Clothing for hiking:
- Underwear, sports bra (I like Patagonia or exofficio)
- Toe liners (Injinji), socks (Darn Tough), and gaiters (Altra)
- Hiking Shoes: Altra Lone Peak
- Hooded, long sleeve shirt (Patagonia cool daily)
- Convertible pants: REI – can zip off if you want shorts
- Sun hat (Tilly), sun gloves (Outdoor Research), and buff
Other packed clothing:
- Fleece jacket (North Face), down jacket (Mountain Hardware)
- Rain jacket (Patagonia), rain pants (Marmot)
- Long underwear bottoms (North Face) and long sleeve base layer (Patagonia) – use for PJ’s and extra layer
- Wool hat, gloves
- Xtra liners, socks, underwear
- Xtra base layer (Patagonia mid-weight ¾ zip)
- Crocs (camp shoes)
- Sarong – i use as towel
Foot Repair/First Aid:
- Leuko tape, gauze, band-aids, tape
- Swiss army knife with scissors
- Shampoo, brush, hair ties, camp suds
- Bug spray, sun screen (didn’t use bug spray)
- Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
- Qtips, nail clippers
- Face/body lotion
- Ear Plugs
- Advil, aleve, aspirin
- Pepto, immodium
- Antibiotic course
- Phone, charger
- Earphones (I take corded so don’t have to charge)
- Battery brick, plug
- Adapter plug
- Kindle, plug (can also read on phone if you want to save weight!)