With its leafy boulevards, birdsong, oleanders and cacti, Merano feels like you've stumbled into a valley Shangri-La. Long lauded for its sunny microclimate, this poignantly pretty town (and one-time Tyrolean capital) was a Habsburg-era spa and the hot destination of its day, favoured by the Austrian royals, Freud, Kafka and Pound.
Val Badia & Alpe di Fanes
For centuries potent Ladin legends have resonated across this mystical landscape, which inspired the fantasies of JRR Tolkien. Not surprisingly, the Badia valley and the adjoining high plains of Fanes are often touted as one of the most evocative places in the Dolomites. Since 1980 they have been protected as part of the Parco Naturale di Fanes-Sennes-Braies.
Alto Adige’s oldest city, dating to 901, might be the picture of small town calm, but has a grand ecclesiastical past and a lively, cultured side today. Stunning baroque architecture is set against a beguiling Alpine backdrop, a stately piazza leads into a tight medieval core and pretty paths trace the fast-moving Isarco river.
Val di Non
The first thing you notice about Val di Non is the apple trees – their gnarly, trellised branches stretch for miles, and in spring their fragrant blossoms scent the air. Craggy castles dot the surrounding rises, including the stunning Castel Thun. The valley is centred on Cles, whose tourist office is just off the main road through town.
Val Venosta (Vinschgau)
This northwestern valley is prettily pastoral, dotted with orchards, farms and small-scale, often creative, industries including marble quarries and workshops. It may feel remote, nestled as it is within the embrace of towering, snowy peaks, but for much of its history it was a vibrant border zone, long on the road to somewhere.
Val di Rabbi
Narrow, deep green Val di Rabbi is a refreshingly tranquil and picturesquely rustic Alpine valley that provides the best southern entry into Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio. Europeans come here for the supposedly curative Antica Fonte spring waters; the Terme di Rabbi offers a wide range of traditional treatments and is administered by the suitably grand Grand Hotel Rabbi.
Every Alto Adige valley has its speciality: here it's strawberries. Berries aside, Martello is a convenient gateway to Stelvio, with both gentle rambles and hard-core hiking adventures available. Trail No 20 up into the Val di Peder is an easy walk, with picnic spots along the way where chamois and deer might say hello.
Val di Sole
Leaving Cles in the rearview mirror, the apple orchards draw you west into the aptly named Val di Sole (Valley of the Sun) tracing the course of the foaming river Noce, with its charming main town of Malè. This valley is renowned for the full complement of outdoor pursuits and is popular with young Trentini. The Noce offers great rafting and fishing.
At the far end of the Val Pusteria are the Dolomites' Austrian and Veneto borders; the Sesto Dolomites are a vast, mostly wild, territory. The Valle Campo di Dentro, near San Candido, and the Val Fiscalina, near Sesto, are criss-crossed with spectacular walking and cross-country skiing trails; most trails around the Tre Cime are suitable for inexperienced walkers and families.