The main reason we chose to stay in Ortisei, Val Gardena was for the hiking. There are a lot of things to do in Ortisei and most of them involve putting one foot in from of another in a beautiful spot beneath the Dolomites.
We were coming off of a dreamy trek on the Alta Via 2 and were ready to sit tight for a few weeks and this popular tourist town seemed to be the place to do it.
The first thing you need to know when planning a trip to this region of northern Italy is that everything has two or three names. There is the Italian name (Ortisei), the German name (St. Ülrich), and the Laden name (Urtijëi).
Ortisei, together with Santa Cristina Val Gardena (Santa Cristina Gherdëina – Ladin; St. Christina in Gröden – German) and Selva di Val Gardena (Sëlva Gherdëina – Ladin; Wolkenstein in Gröden – German), is one of the three municipalities of the Val Gardena in the South Tyrol area of the Dolomites.
Getting Around Val Gardena
We took a bus to get to Ortisei and then walked, took regional buses, or rode cable cars to get around.
Many of the accommodations (including our apartment) came with bus tickets so we rode for free. It’s really easy to get around on the buses and nice not to have to deal with a vehicle.
If you do drive, there are several parking lots in town. Our apartment had underground parking (with a car elevator!) and many hotels seemed to have parking for guests.
Once you arrive, park your car and walk – it will be much easier.
Shop for Woodcrafts in Ortisei
Because of the abundance of trees and access to the railroad, woodcarving became an important cultural element of Val Gardena. There are families in the area who have been carving for centuries.
There are wood carvings in almost every shop, so you won’t have any trouble finding them. We also enjoyed seeing some of the larger sculptures around town and the older ones in the Ladin Museum.
Ortisei and Val Gardena are especially known for their presepe, or nativity scenes, and nowhere is better to see those than at the huge Dolfi Land on the outskirts of Ortisei. We stopped there en route to Castelrotto / Kastelruth on the bus. There are a lot of religious woodcarvings and a few woodsy/nonreligious ones as well.
Learn About Ladin Culture at the Museum Gherdëina
About 90% of the people in Ortisei speak Ladin as their first language. Ladin is a distinct mountain cultural group found in the Dolomites. Traditionally, they lived in communal groups and divided farmable land equitably among themselves.
The Museum Gherdëina in Ortisei is the place to learn about Ladin culture. There are rooms filled with wood carvings, wooden toys, and wooden religious art – some of the displays are in English. Other rooms explain the geology of the Dolomites (no English) and pay tribute to Ortisei’s favorite son, Luis Trenker (no English). Trenker was an actor and director of many mountain films.
We found it worth a visit, especially on a rainy day, even though we couldn’t read a lot of the displays.
Sip an Apertivo in Ortisei
An apertivo is a pre-meal drink meant to open the stomach and prepare it for a meal. Since it’s an important part of Italian culture, we felt like we needed to take part.
There are a lot of places to sit outside and enjoy a drink in Ortisei. While I love all the outdoor cafes, I did not love how many heavy smokers we shared them with. Be prepared to suck a lot of secondhand smoke.
Once you get past that, it is quite lovely to have a drink and people-watch. We enjoyed the local red wines, Aperol spritz, bombardinos, and my favorite cocktail – the Hugo (a spritzer with fresh mint, lime, elderflower syrup, Prosecco, and sparkling water). I also tried the Jagertee, which I do not recommend. It’s strong!
Our kids drank a lot of hot chocolate and learned to order it “densa” rather than “liquido” to get the most pudding-like consistency.
All of the hüttes we stopped at while hiking also served apertivos, which made hiking that much more relaxing.
Have a Cultural Experience in Val Gardena
The Val Gardena tourism office offers a bunch of different classes and experiences – from guided hikes and mountain biking to wood carving and baking classes.
Finn and I took a baking class and learned how to make three traditional desserts. Our instructor is a pastry chef and spoke English so we were able to ask questions and learn about the significance of the desserts. And we brought home a lot of delicious goodies.
Anders and Henry took a wood carving class that turned out not to be a class so much as time in a room with wood and tools. Their instructor didn’t really instruct them at all, so they felt like it wasn’t worth the time and money.
If you are staying at an “Active” accommodation, all the offerings are pretty affordable and might be worth looking into.
Watch The Almabtrieb (Cow Spectacle)
In late September or early October, the cows are brought down from the summer alpine pasture to their winter quarters. The herders decorate their cows and sheep with bells and artistically plaited garlands and lead them through villages where folks gather for a festival.
We were fortunate to find an Almabtrieb near Castelrotto on the day we were planning to hike over there. There was a local folk duo and alpenhorn players, food, and general revelry to enjoy while waiting for the cows to come home.
Mar Dolomit – Public Swimming Pool
We were given free pool passes with our accommodation so we decided to check it out. There is a large indoor pool, a hot tub (barely lukewarm), a waterslide, a Turkish sauna, and an outdoor saltwater pool (closed in the fall).
You must wear a swim cap which you can purchase there.
We thought it was ok, but probably would have liked it more if the outdoor pool and waterslide had been open. Or the hot tub was warm.
Hiking Around Ortisei
The main thing to do in Ortisei in summer is hiking. That was the reason we chose to spend three weeks there. There are three cable cars (a funicular, gondola, and tram) that depart from Ortisei and whisk you into the mountains.
We also took the bus to a couple of nearby towns to hike from their cable cars. On every hike we stopped at least one hütte or mountain restaurant for lunch, snacks, or drinks (or all three). We also packed bread, cheese, fruit, and chocolate from the market in Ortisei. There may have been more eating than walking on some of these outings.
You can follow the directions for hiking from Ortisei below or simply grab a map at the cable car station and figure it out once you get there.
Hike to St Jacob’s Church
(Chiesa di San Giacomo – Italian; Dlieja da Sacun -Ladin; St. Jakob Kirche – German)
The oldest church of the Val Gardena is located close to an eponymous hamlet above Ortisei and accessible only by foot. The church is so old that no one knows when it was built, but some historians think it dates back to 1181. The church is built on the “Troi Paian,” a high-altitude trail that connects Venice to South Tyrol.
There are some beautiful frescoes on the outside in the little cemetery and the backdrop of Sassolungo is quite stunning. The inside is intricate and beautiful based on some photos I saw, but it was closed when we were there.
There are several ways to get to St. Jacob’s Church. We followed Google Maps along roads from Ortisei to get there and then followed the signs for Trail 6 through the forest to return. It’s about an hour each way. You could take Trail 6 both ways.
You can take the Seceda tram and hike down to the church using Trail 1, 2, and 6A.
Hiking from Funivia Resciesa / Raschötz
A ride on a funicular is always fun – it’s right there in the name. Take Funicular Resciesa to Alpe Resciesa in Puez-Odle Nature Park and you have a few options.
If you go left from the Resciesa Chalet on Trail 35 you will reach Capela di Crist, a beautiful little chapel. Head uphill to a cross and then loop back along the edge of the Resciesa.
We went right from the top of the funicular on Trail 35 to Brogles Hütte. The setting for this hütte is breathtaking. It’s worth the funicular ride just to eat here. We then took Trail 5 down to the Valle de Anna stopping at the kneipp walk to refresh my feet before wandering back into town.
Hiking from Seceda Funivia
Taking the Seceda cable car is a must-do in Ortisei because the view from up there is one of the best in the area. Even if you just get something to eat at one of the many hüttes and wander up to the panorama viewpoint, it’s worth the ride – actually 2 rides as you switch trams about halfway up.
We started with breakfast at Sofie Hütte /Rifugio Sofie and then wandered up the Seceda ridgeline. There is a panoramic viewpoint with the surrounding mountains labeled in an iron ring.
What was especially fun for us is that we can see several of the rifugi we stayed in on our Alta Via 2 hike and much of the route of the first three days. You can also watch the paragliders take off from a meadow here (and do it yourself – you can sign up at the bottom of the Seceda tram).
There are a lot of options to explore the Alps di Seceda and a rifugio or hütte every ten minutes it seemed.
We continued along the ridgeline and then the base of the Odles and then down to Rifugio Firenze / Regensburger Hütte. From there we walked over to the Col Raiser gondola and rode that down the hill to St Christina where we caught a bus back to Ortisei.
Hike Alpe di Siusi / Mont Sëuc Gondola / Seiser Alm
Our apartment was right next to the station for this red, iconic-looking gondola (Alpe di Siusi Ropeway / Mont Sëuc / Seiser Alm), so we got to watch it glide up and down the mountain every day.
Like most of these hikes, once you get to the top of the gondola, there are a lot of options and no wrong choices. In this case, there are more than 270 miles (440 kilometers) of trails.
Anders and I spent a morning wandering around the Alpe di Siusi, which they claim is the largest alpine pasture in Europe. There are wonderful views of the Sassolungo and the Schlern from there, and of course, several hüttes to refuel at.
Anders and I followed Trail 9 past Malga Schgaguler Hütte, past the Sporthotel Sonne, across rolling farmlands and small barns to Hartlweg – a four-way intersection. Turn right on Trail 9/6b until a sign for Compatsch and Trail 3. We then returned the same way, but looped up at Trail 6b to get back to the gondola.
You can’t miss the Sassolungo group when you are in Ortisei. This rock monolith seems to tower over everything. It’s made up of two major peaks – Mt. Sassolungo (Langkofel) and Mt. Sasso Piatto (Plattkofel). Other peaks include Grohmannspitze and Innerkofler Turm.
The trail begins at Passo Sella (Sellajoch) parking lot. We took two buses to get there, but you can also drive.
After getting a breakfast snack in the cafe, we rode the crazy standing Telecabina Forcella del Sassolungo gondola to the saddle between Sassolungo and Sasso Piatto. I call it the “coffin gondola” but it’s more like a phone booth. You get a running start and jump in. Then another person jumps in behind you. It fits two people standing very close to each other. It was a ton of fun.
Lots of people were hiking up a trail beneath the gondola, but trust me, it’s more fun to ride up.
From the top of the gondola, we walked down the very steep and icy trail then veered right to wrap around the mountain and back to the parking lot. The whole walk took about four hours and had stunning views. We saw marmots and got to explore a snow cave.
Walk from Selva to Ortisei
An easy half-day walk starts in Selva di Val Gardena (Sëlva Gherdëina – Ladin; Wolkenstein in Gröden – German) and follows the walk/bike path back to Ortisei. This is also a great bike ride in both directions.
We used our free bus passes to get get to Selva and then followed the bike path to S. da Dorives where we took a side trip up to Castel Gardena Fischburg. Then we went down the hill to Santa Christina where we had lunch.
In Santa Christina, we wandered through the labyrinth / Labirinto pavimentale di Diego Deiana in front of the church (Cimitero di Santa Cristina Valgardena) and then found the Tunnel del Trenino della Val Gardena. The tunnel was built by Russian prisoners of war in 1914 for a train.
It’s now called the Museum Tunnel and has photos from the building era and other historical things. You can walk through it and reconvene with the walk/ bike path on the other end and head into Ortisei.
The path joins the Luis Trenker Pathway in Ortisei and comes to an end at the top of the escalator.
The Witches Benches from Castelrotto
Every hike we took in the Dolomite was exceedingly scenic and special in its own way. The walk up the Witches’ Mountain was no exception.
We used our free bus pass (again!) to get to Castelrotto (Ciastel – Ladin; Kastelruth – German), which is a cute little resort town in its own right. It’s worth a quick circumambulation of the town square and church.
From town, we took the Marinzen Alp Chairlift to get to the starting point for our hike to the Witches’ Benches (Hexenbänke). These are rocks in the shape of benches atop Mount Bellaccia (Puftltsch) on the Alpe di Siusi. No one knows if they are natural features or created by people long ago, but they do know they were used by witches.
There is a lot of lore about witches in the area. Apparently, they’d gather with their coven on the Schlern massif (the benches faces the Schlern) to dance and eat babies. When they were mad, they’d send storms across the Alpe di Siusi.
From the Marinzen Hütte take Trail 8 to Trail 9. Once you turn right onto Trail 9 it gets quite steep until you reach the top of the cliffs – we were really huffing and puffing. Along the way there are a couple of woodcarvings, steps, and intricate railings that lifted our spirits and pushed us onwards.
Once you reach the Alpe di Siusi, I recommend a stop at Rifugio Arnika / Arnika Hütte for hearty Tyrolean cuisine. From there it’s only 15 – 20 minutes on Trail 14 to the Witches Bench.
On the way back, we took Trail 8 all the way down so we could stop at the Witches’ Chairs (Henxenstühle). Much like the benches, it’s unknown if these are natural or carved by ancient hands. Or witches.
The best write-up about this hike and all the witchy lore from the area comes from ThroneandVine.
There are lots of other things to do in Ortisei, of course. Mountain biking, paragliding, and relaxing with the abundant spa services come to mind.
Let me know what you come up with if you stay in this charming town in the Dolomites!
Other Posts to Help You Plan Your Trip to Italy
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- Alta Via 2 – Hiking in the Dolomites
- Things to Do in Ortisei (Val Gardena) Dolomites
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