Traveling has always been one of my passions. I love the excitement of seeing new places and the thrill of experiencing different cultures.
When most people think about making a trip to Venice the last thing that probably crosses their minds is taking a trip into the mountains of northern Italy. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most visitors to Venice are totally unaware that a mere two hours away is some of the most dramatic and majestic mountain scenery to be found anywhere. The mighty Dolomites are part of the Italian Alps and are nestled into the north-eastern corner of Italy in the provinces of Belluno, Bolzano and Trento. They stretch for some 125 miles from east to west and contain 18 peaks over 10,000 feet. This region of Italy is a virtual playground for the outdoor enthusiast. Whether it’s skiing, hiking, biking or just enjoying beautiful mountain scenery then a trip into the Dolomites may be just the thing to quench your mountain thirst.
If you are looking to spend some extended time in the Dolomites then there are certainly some wonderful locations from which to choose. Cortina d’Ampezzo, Ortisei, Selva and Corvara in Badia all make for a great base from which to explore the region. But if you’re ultimate destination is Venice, and you would like to get just a taste of the mountains then let me take you through a day trip from Venice that will get you into the heart of the Dolomites and back safely to Venice in one day.
I’ll preface this by telling you that there are numerous tour companies out there ready and willing to take you on a day trip to the Dolomites. They are not cheap, but if you are not into driving yourself then you might consider this option. For me, there is nothing quite like driving through the mountains at your own pace, stopping when and where you want and not being subject to someone else’s schedule. So if you want a little adventure and don’t mind doing some driving then sit back and enjoy this day trip through the Dolomites.
Our day starts in the beautiful city of Venice. While there is obviously no vehicle traffic in Venice you can easily get to Piazzale Roma, which is the terminal for buses and rental car companies on the island. You can rent a vehicle from Macro Polo Airport but this would involve traveling to the airport, which only wastes time, so if possible I would rent the car from Piazzale Roma and be on your way. The only issue you may have with doing this is if you're looking to rent a van. We tried to rent a seven-passenger van from Piazzale Roma and were unsuccessful so we had no choice but to travel to the airport.
Upon exiting Venice you will quickly find yourself on the A27 Autostrada heading north which is an easy road to travel on. Presumably you are traveling with a GPS device, which I highly recommend. For the first part of the journey I would program into your GPS; Belluno, Agordo and then Alleghe. This will take you from the Autostrada through the town of Belluno and then onto route SS203 going north through Agorda and Alleghe. The trip from Venice to Belluno should take a little over an hour. You will notice that the scenery is changing quickly, you are only one hour from Venice and the landscape has changed from a coastal lagoon to mountain scenery. The best is yet to come.
Shortly after leaving Alleghe you will have to make a decision on one of two possible tours to take. If you left early enough and don’t mind a little extra driving then you may want to head for Arabba and a loop around the Sella Ronda. This route will take you around the Sella, the huge plateau shaped massif, and over four mountain passes; Campolongo, Pordoi, Sella and Gardena. The entire loop is only about 35 miles and can be done in either direction from Arabba (clockwise or counter). If you opt for this option be prepared for a long day. Even though it’s just 35 miles to make the circuit you will want to make plenty of stops and I always recommend taking a gondola or lift up for the best views.
Sella Ronda Loop
The other option, and the one that we took due to a delay at the airport in picking up our rental is to head from Alleghe to Passo Falzarego on SS48. The drive takes you up to 2105 meters and to the Lagazuoi gondola lift which I highly recommend. The lift is right off the road and there is plenty of parking right there. There is also a gift shop and a restaurant so it makes for a great spot to take a break. The gondola lift is quite impressive and really goes straight up to the peak of Lagazuoi at 2733 meters. Needless to say the view is magnificent.
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We found this particular spot to be quite interesting as this historical area was the site of some heavy combat during World War I. As you take the lift up you can see some of the caves in the mountain that were used by the Italian troops. At the top you can hike the Austrian troop path that follows the ridge along the top of the mountain. It makes for a very scenic and interesting trek.
From the Falzarego Pass it is a short ride on SS48 into the quaint former Olympic village of Cortina d’Amprezzo. I might add here that SS48 is otherwise known as the Grande Strada delle Dolomiti or Grand Dolomite Highway and is considered one of the most scenic drives in all of Italy. The Grand Dolomite Highway stretches for 65 miles from Bolzano in the west all the way to Cortina d'Amprezzo in the east.
We found it worth the time to stroll through the pedestrian center of Cortina and even stopped for a late lunch at a wonderful café called Pasticceria Bar Domino.
Cortina d'Amprezzo is famous as the host city for the 1956 Winter Olympics and is a beautiful alpine town set in a valley among the Dolomites. From Cortina you have a few options for returning to Venice. If you are short on time you can set your GPS back to Venice and take route SS51 back to the A27 Autostrada and be back in Venice in less than two hours. Or, if time permits you can take a more scenic route back over the Passo Giau, which is what we did.
A trip over the Passo Giau is well worth your time. At 2236 meters the pass here provides for a stunning view of the Dolomites in all directions. You are literally at the base of the Nuvolau (2574 meters) with its striking peak and there is a path that leads you directly to it. This area of the Dolomites is dotted with alpine cows and herds of sheep and we came across numerous deer on the drive up to the pass.
From the Passo Giau you can continue to follow the road off the mountain and then set your GPS to Venice and you should be good to go. The ride to Venice from Passo Giau is a little over two hours. We found both Passo Falzargo and Passo Giau to be beautiful locations with stunning views. If you want a taste of the Dolomites and find yourself in Venice with a day to spare, grab a rental car and head north. And don’t fret too much over the driving. The roads in northern Italy were wider and less travelled than in many other parts of Italy. We took a full size Ford Galaxy Minivan on this route and had no problems. I might even go so far as to say the driving was fun.
Ciao for now.
Questions & Answers
Question: We want to stay in a place in the Dolomites. Where would you suggest? We are going to rent a car in Venice and drive to Cortina d'Amprezzo!
Answer: If you are driving to Cortina d’Amprezzo you can certainly stay there. I’m sure there are plenty of nice B&B’s there. We usually check TripAdvisor to find a place that is reasonable. If you don’t want to stay in Cortina there are a number of wonderful communities to the west of Cortina that are beautiful. Try looking at Ortisei, Corvara in Badia, Arabba or any of the other communities that surround the Sella Massif.
Question: I'm thinking of driving to the Dolomites from Venice in July. Do you know if I can rent a car at Piazza Roma without a booking? Also, is Google Maps reliable as a GPS?
Answer: To be honest, I'm not sure if you can rent from Piazzale Roma without a booking. We tried to rent a van from there without success and had to go to the airport, which cost us some valuable time. You can always try to contact them via email, that's how we found out there were no vans available from Piazzale Roma. You can still advance reserve a vehicle and cancel if you decide not to make the trip.
As far as using Google Maps I think you will be fine. The roads are well marked and in remarkably good condition considering how much snow they get in the winter. We had no issues with driving or directions.
Question: We are planning to travel to Venice, Italy in November. When would the weather be the most ideal?
Answer: I would think that by November you run the risk of inclement weather, but as you know, the weather can be finicky at any time. Maybe leave open the option of going and when you arrive in Venice see how the weather is. It should be fairly easy to get a rental, especially at that time of year.
Question: Do we need to prebook the gondola rides through the Dolomites or can we just buy them on the spot? What is the ticket costs like?
Answer: The Lagazoui Cable car ticket is 16 euro for a roundtrip ticket. You do not prebook them, you simply purchase your ticket when you arrive. The cable car leaves every 15 minutes starting at 9 am. It’s an amazing experience.
Question: Did you have any challenges with ZTLs during your trip? They don’t seem to be as big of an issue as they are in Florence, but I’d like to be prepared.
Answer: Not during our trip up to the Dolomites. Florence and Siena, yes, we had a problem. I think the driving we did in the Dolomites might be the easiest driving I have experienced in Italy. It was actually enjoyable.
Question: We will be traveling to Italy in December and arrive at Milan airport. Is it better to go direct to the Dolomites from Milan? Or should we go to Venice and then go up to the Dolomites from there? Also is it better to take the train or drive ourselves?
Answer: This will depend on where in the Dolomites you plan on going. If you want to go to the eastern end near Cortina I would go to Venice first. If you are planning on going to the western side near Pinzolo or Trento then I would perhaps consider going there first. Also, consider that you are going in December so you may encounter bad weather. If you are going to Venice first the train is an easy way to get there and then from Venice you can rent a car or a driver to get to the Dolomites. If you want to see the western side of the Dolomites you can take the train to Trento and then rent a car. Anyway, you look at it, to get into the heart of the Dolomites to experience all its beauty you will most likely need a car at some point.
Question: I'd love to rent a car and go from Venice to the Dolomites, but I'm scared of the weather during March. Do you have any idea what the road conditions will be like?
Answer: March is still late winter in the Dolomites so it can be cold and you can still get snow. While they do a good job of clearing roads, it will come down to pure luck as to what the weather is like when you are there. Maybe keep it open as an option and see what the weather is like when you get to Venice. If it’s okay, rent a vehicle and go, if not you’re still in Venice, so it’s a win-win.
Question: We've been looking for a review or guide to a road trip from Venice to the Dolomites. Was there a book that you read before your trip? My husband and I have been online comparing travel guides and maps. We would like to purchase one, but thought of asking for recommendations from people who have been there.
Answer: We did not really consult with any single book to plan this. We basically did what you are doing, and that is to consult with some blog posts and maps to plan out the day. We got a late start due to trouble getting our rental car, and we really wanted to drive the Sella Ronda, but did not think we would have time. So instead we opted to see Cortina, and we took the Lagazoui cable car, which was spectacular. Plan for a long day, and definitely start as early as possible. Make sure to schedule time for a hike, and take a cable car ride up somewhere; there are a number of them in the area. The scenery is spectacular; you will love it.
Question: How much gas did you use the whole day trip through the Dolomites from Venice, and how is parking in the small towns?
Answer: I believe with the route that we took we traveled approximately 250 miles. I don’t recall the price of gas at the time but I would estimate with the large minivan that we were driving that we must have used about 50 liters (13 gallons).
As far as parking, we did not have any problems in the small towns. There was plenty of free parking, so we never had to pay to park. Good luck, this is a beautiful region of Italy and definitely worth a visit.
Question: Can you recommend a place to stay one night on the route from Venice through the Dolomites you laid out in this article?
Answer: I can't recommend a specific place to stay as we did this as a day-trip from Venice, but if I were to select a community to overnight in I might try Cortina or Alta Badia or Selva di Val Gardena. They are all nestled in the midst of the Dolomites and offer beautiful scenery and access to scenic drives and hikes. Alta Badia and Selva di Val Gardena are a little west of the route we took, but still doable. Cortina is a beautiful little village and was the host of the 1956 Winter Olympics.
© 2012 Bill De Giulio