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View of the road to Passo Giau in the Dolomites, with Averau mountain in the background. The ground is covered in green grass.

Driving in the Dolomites – 11 Tips for Navigating Italy’s Mountain Roads

Are you planning a Dolomites road trip?  Or maybe you’re basing yourself in a couple of mountain villages and want to move around the UNESCO World Heritage Site by car.

Get ready for some dramatic mountain scenery, epic roads, and spectacular destinations.  With your own car, you may want to visit:

  • Villages like Ortisei, Castelrotto, Cortina d’Ampezzo, San Cassiano, Colfosco and Corvara in Badia
  • Landmarks like the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Cinque Torri, Seceda, and the Alpe di Siusi
  • Scenic mountain lakes like Lago di Carezza, Lago di Sorapis, Lago di Misurina, and Lago di Braies – aka Lake Carezza, Lake Sorapis, Lake Misurina, and Lake Braies
  • Famous Dolomites mountain passes (Passo Falzarego, Passo Sella, Passo Giau, Passo Gardena – aka Falzarego Pass, Sella Pass, Giau Pass, and Gardena Pass)

Plus, you’ll be able to stop and sample the cuisine of the Dolomites, varied because of the area’s three different cultures – Italian, Austrian, and Ladin.

And you can always pull over to say hello to the world’s happiest cows or just to take in the views of the world’s most beautiful mountains (my opinion, you can tell me what you think).

Roads in the Dolomites vary from excellent condition (most of them) to some with bumps and potholes.  Driving in the Dolomites, you’ll encounter winding roads, narrow sections, and roads that may or may not have a shoulder or guardrail.  Don’t worry though – Dolomites driving is totally doable and will probably seem easy if you’ve come from other parts of Italy.

There is no best time for a drive in the Dolomites, but there are preferable periods depending on what you’re interested in (or want to avoid).  For example:

  • For photographing the changing colors of trees, drive through the Dolomites in October
  • For catching the Dolomites with snowy scenery, visit between December and March (although you may catch snow earlier or later)
  • For avoiding traffic, don’t drive in the Dolomites in July or August
  • For visiting towns during their lively periods, drive through the Dolomites between June and September
  • For taking hikes that utilize chairlifts, visit from June through mid-September
  • For seeing the summer wildflowers, visit in June, July, or August

No matter when you decide to go, or what you want to see, before you get behind the wheel, read these tips, based on my time driving in the Dolomites since 2004.

Check out our Favorite Things to Do in the Dolomites

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Quiet, empty paved road in the Dolomites in Italy.  Gravel path on the right, wire fences on both sides.  Green grass on both sides of the road, and Sasso Piatto and Sasso Lungo mountain ranges in the background.

Rent a Car Before You Arrive

Unless you’re driving your own vehicle, you’ll need to rent one.  While there are car rental locations in the Dolomites, you’re best off renting from larger locations outside of the Dolomites and driving in.

Not only will you find better rates and more selection, but you’ll get to drive into the dramatic Dolomites scenery! 

If you’re flying into Italy and heading straight to the Dolomites, rent a car at the airport and drive to the Dolomites.  Otherwise, make your way to a larger city near the Dolomites and rent a car there.

You may want to rent your car from:

  • Milan
  • Verona
  • Venice

I like to use a search consolidator like DiscoverCars.com or AutoEurope.com.
I recommend checking both DiscoverCars.com or AutoEurope.com and the individual car rental companies for the best prices and vehicle availability. I rent from DiscoverCars.com.

Helpful Tip:  Rent a car with automatic transmission.  And don’t forget your International Driving Permit

You may also want to read about
How to Travel from Venice to Dolomites
Driving in Italy
Driving on the Autostrada in Italy
Parking in Italy
Gas Stations & Getting Gas in Italy

Renting a Car in Italy as an American

Be Realistic with Your Route

Dolomites road that leads to town of Corvara in the valley below in the background.  You can see mountains in the distance and puffy white clouds.  Grass is green and there are trees at middle elevation.

When you look on the map, the distances look short, so you think you can cover a lot of ground during the day.  But, Dolomites roads are narrow and winding, and you also need to think about other factors that may slow you down, like having children with you (potty breaks), carsick passengers (it happens on the curvy passes), and traffic (especially during the summer and on weekends).

For example, if you look at driving from Ortisei to Cortina d’Ampezzo, it’s only 64 km.  You could drive that in less than 30 minutes on the Autostrada.  But, on the mountain roads, it will take you about 1 hr 30 minutes with no traffic, and could take significantly longer on a summer day when the roads are full of cars, RVs, and cyclists.

Good To Know:  Traffic on the Autostrada (toll road) can be intense in the summer.  When possible, avoid heading toward the mountains on Fridays or away from the mountains on Sundays, when weekender Italians are traveling.   

Helpful Tip:  Plan your route on Google Maps, but have a paper map with you. 

Choose Your Language

Road sign in the Dolomites with multiple languages.

With three cultures, come three languages – Italian, German, and Ladin.  In most places, you’ll see Italian and German on road signs, but in Ladin Valleys, you’ll see all three!

Keep this in mind, as some maps will only have Italian names, so you’ll need to be aware of multiple names for the same place.  For example:  Ortisei (Italian) = Sankt Ulrich (German) = Urtijei (Ladin).

Take a Look at Important Italian Road Signs

Drive at Least One Classic Route

Yes, you could drive anywhere in the Dolomites and fill your camera roll with stunning shots.  The area is that gorgeous.  But, try to check out one of the Dolomites’ famous driving routes:

Great Dolomites Road – read about the history and see the route
Sella Ronda – head up and down four epic Dolomites passes (Passo Gardena, Passo Campolongo, Passo Pordoi, and Passo Sella)
Passo Giau to Cortina d’Ampezzo – gorgeous scenery (of course) and make your way past the Cinque Torri to the chic Cortina d’Ampezzo.

Know When Major Cycling Races Are

There are quite a few cycling races in the Dolomites in the summer, and roads will be closed to traffic for part or most of the day.  Some of the most famous ones include:

  • Maratona dles Dolomites – first week of July
  • HERO Dolomites – mountain bike race in June
  • Sella Ronda Bike Day – June and possibly another day in the fall
  • Granfondos – numerous grandfondos (long-distance cycling events) take place in the Dolomites.  You can look at this calendar (info on the location can be found by clicking ‘Info’ buttons on the right).

If you do find yourself stuck, you can either turn around and retrace your route or cheer the cyclists on.  Important:  Never enter a road that’s closed for a cycling race – the cyclists will not expect cars and will be riding all over the width of the road. 

Good To Know:  The roads will be full of cyclists in the areas of these races in the week before and after (not just the day of the race).  Good to know for driving on the roads, but also for availability of accommodation).

Avoid Driving in the Dark

I try to avoid driving in the dark in the Dolomites.  It’s usually not a problem, as we’re all so exhausted from hiking and playing in the mountains that we eat early and go to bed early.

Why avoid driving in the dark?  The roads aren’t well-lit.  That, combined with the narrow, winding roads makes it dangerous and stressful.  Plus, you’ll miss the amazing views!

Plan for the Weather

This tip applies mainly to the winter. 

If you’re driving in months with possible snowfall, you’ll need to have the proper road equipment with you.  Your car must have snow chains or winter tires. 

You should also check to see if passes on your route are open or closed. 

Be Ready to Share the Road

Woman cycling on Passo Gardena road in the Dolomites in northern Italy.  You can see the high mountains on the left and green grass on either side of the road.  It's a sunny day with some whispy clouds.

This is one of the most important tips for driving in the Dolomites.  You’ve likely seen photos of the passes and winding roads and… they’re empty. 

Unless you’re up and on the road at the crack of dawn, you’ll be sharing the road with other cars, cyclists, RVs, and motorcycles. 

Helpful Tip:  If you find yourself on a particularly clogged road, find a place to pull over and wait it out.  You could check out a view, get a coffee, or even go for a short walk.

Good To Know:  You can pass cyclists on the road, but make sure it’s safe to do so.  If it’s not, be patient – the moment will come.

Plan to Stop

cows eating grass in a field in the Dolomites, Italy

The Dolomites isn’t the place to hurry from point A to point B. 

You’ll want to save some time in your road trip for stops during the day.  Take photos of mountains, say hello to the cows on the side of the road, admire the wildflowers, take a potty break, and have a sciwasser (refreshing raspberry and lemon drink) or cioccolata calda (hot chocolate) at a roadside stop.

Helpful Tip:  Keep your hiking gear (shoes, clothing, backpack, water, snacks) in your car in case you find a short hike to do while you’re on your drive.  You’ll sometimes see people on short out-and-back hikes that depart from pullouts on the side of the road.

Carry Cash

While you can usually use your credit card in the Dolomites, there may be times cash is needed.  For example, sometimes you need to pay for parking with cash, you’ll want to pay for coffees with small coins, and occasionally gas station self-service machines won’t accept credit cards from the US (I’ve seen it happen). 

Know What a ZTL Is

If you’ve driven in Italy, you’ve probably heard of the ZTL – zona traffico limitato (limited traffic zone). You may not enter these zones (if they’re active/on), which are typically the centers of cities, towns, or villages, unless you have permission.

Read all about them in my complete guide to ZTLs in Italy.

Good To Know: If you’re visiting the Dolomites, you may have permission to enter the ZTL if you’re staying in a hotel or apartment in the zone. Contact your accommodation to find out if you have permission, and if so, how to get on the lista bianca (white list) so you don’t receive a fine.

Alternatives to Driving in The Dolomites

Not convinced you should drive around the Dolomites?  Don’t worry, you’ve got other options:

Taking the Bus in the Dolomites

The buses in the Dolomites are on-time, frequent, and reach pretty much everywhere you’d want to go. Check out the journey planner on Südtirol Mobil.

Our family uses the bus on our trips to the Dolomites, even if we have a car. For example, we take the bus from Fiè allo Sciliar to the base of the Alpe di Siusi (Seiser Alm) cable car. And, we take the bus to and from Bolzano if we need a dose of city life.

Good To Know: Many areas in the Dolomites offer local bus passes with accommodation. Check with your hotel or apartment to see if one is included with your reservation.

Hiring a Private Driver in the Dolomites

While this is a pricier option, it leaves all of your group free to look out the window and enjoy the scenery and not worry about traffic or driving up and down mountain passes.

I work with and recommend:

Take a Tour around the Dolomites

You can also leave the trip planning and execution up to someone else. There are tours for all interests, including hiking, cycling, hut-to-hut, and cultural tours.  

Driving in the Dolomites with Kids

Three boys on a cable car in the Dolomites, Italy.  You can see grassy alpine plateau and mountains in the background.  There are puffy white clouds and a blue sky.
Always have something fun for the kids at your destination!

I’ve been driving in the Dolomites with kids since 2004 (both other families and my own).  Here are my best tips:

  • Get a big enough car.  I usually preach to get a car that’s just big enough for your family and luggage (including strollers and baby equipment), but not bigger.  In this case, you’ll want to have some space in the car if possible.
  • Avoid traveling over many mountain passes if you have children that get carsick.  One of my sons is prone to carsickness but loves the scenery from the car in the Dolomites.  We stick to trips that aren’t more than an hour (each way), keep the windows down, and stop whenever necessary. 
  • Have something kid-friendly at your destination.  This probably goes without saying, but make sure there’s something for your little ones to do – like swim in a lake, see the Ice Man, climb to a castle, play at a playground, explore WW1 bunkers, or take a cable car.
  • Save the games and books for later.  Because the roads are curvy, I recommend keeping kids focused on the road in order to avoid getting queasy.
  • Have a portable diaper changing mat. You’ll want it for side-of-the-road diaper changes.
  • Remember to reserve a car seat or bring your own. Read more about Car Seats in Italy.

Driving in the Dolomites FAQ

Do I need to drive a car in the Dolomites? 

No, you don’t need a car in the Dolomites.  This is the one area in Italy I’m totally fine traveling in without a car (besides traveling between major cities by train).  The public transport system (trains and buses) is dependable and well-run.  However, having your own car gives you a little more flexibility with stops, timing, etc.

Is it hard to drive in the Dolomites?

I think it’s easier to drive in the Dolomites than in other parts of Italy.  In general, drivers are more cautious and they do things like stop for pedestrians at crosswalks(!).  You’ll need to be watching for others on the road – especially cyclists, RVs, and motorcyles. 

What’s the most scenic drive in the Dolomites?

I love the Sella Ronda. My jaw still drops when I drive or cycle on it – after over two decades of visits!  I especially love driving Passo Garden from the south to the north.

Is the Dolomites a nice place for a road trip?

Yes, I love road trips in the Dolomites?  I do, however, recommend booking your accommodation if you’re visiting during the summer (vs. playing it by ear).

Can I drive up the Stelvio Pass (Passo dello Stelvio)?

Yes, you can drive up the Stelvio Pass (it’s gorgeous and I highly recommend it by bicycle too!), but know that it’s not technically in the Dolomites.  Know that if you go down the Umbrail Pass, you’ll be entering Switzerland (make sure that’s ok in your rental car contract).

Where are the Dolomites in Italy?

The Dolomites are in Northern Italy.  You’ll find them in the Italian regions of Trentino Alto-Adige/South Tyrol, Fruili Venezia Giulia, and the Veneto.

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