Italy’s northern borders are delineated by an arc of majestic mountain peaks, including some of the tallest peaks in the Alps in the west and the spectacularly beautiful Dolomites in the east.
Winter here often means sun as well as snow, and ski resorts are less about athletic prowess, and more about getting reacquainted with nature, working up your appetite and enjoying mountain life.
Though Italian resorts can no longer be called a bargain, they still offer better value than elsewhere in the Alps. Whatever your budget you can count on outstanding food and wine, inspired by some fascinating cultural mixes: Aosta’s French-tinged traditions, the Tyrolean touch in Südtirol-Alto Adige and Slavic accents in Friuli. Children are welcome in even the chicest resort restaurants and kids’ activities and playgrounds are plentiful. For experienced powder hounds, Italy offers great heli-skiing and some excellent off-piste terrain.
Best off-piste: Courmayeur
The super-hardcore head to Alagna in Piedmont’s Monterosa ski area for off-piste action, but Aosta’s Courmayeur not only offers large patches of off-piste paradise but also challenging, if limited, piste skiing and one of the region’s most charming villages, full of slate-roofed houses, lively bars and good restaurants.
Off-piste descents begin at the top of the resort and offer amazing views over the sunny side of Mont Blanc. Other runs can be accessed from the Point Helbronner station of the Monte Bianco cable car, and there’s easy access to the Valle Blanche, the fabled 20km run that descends over the French border into Chamonix. Heli-skiing is also a huge attraction here, with glacial and non-glacial north-facing terrain.
Best for foodies: Alta Badia
If it wasn’t for the over-dinner talk of the day’s Sella Ronda adventure – a legendary linked network of pistes and lifts encircling the majestic Sella massive – you might be forgiven for thinking the Südtirolean valley of Alta Badia cared more about culinary matters than skiing. Chefs from the valley’s best hotels prepare dishes in mountain-top huts, upmarket delis and cafes fill village streets, and the towns of Corvara and San Cassiano have three Michelin-starred restaurants between them.
Menus here are a sublime mix of hearty mountain game and herbs, combining Tyrolean traditions and Italian flair and finesse, all accompanied by elegant local white wines. And if you did come to ski as well as eat, drink and be very merry, the black slopes of Gran Risa or Vallon-Boè are waiting to be tackled, as well as the huge Dolomiti Superski area’s 1200km of runs.
Best for families: Merano 2000
This small Südtirolean resort is blessed with a particularly mild climate, spectacular views and facilities that have families firmly in mind. A special children’s ski play area has flat wide slopes, a supervised kids club and a ski school. Better still, parents can watch over their charges from a spacious sun terrace, prosecco and elderflower spritz in hand. Merano 2000 has 40km of beginners and intermediate runs, as well as Italy’s longest toboggan track, a safe 1.1km ride.
Down in the valley below, Merano is the region’s second largest city, with an arcaded medieval centre, a pretty riverside promenade, plenty of konditorei (bakeries) and beer halls for strudel and schnitzel stops. Or head down for an afternoon of splashing around the thermal pools at the bright, very family-friendly, Terme Meran.
Best for wilderness: Sella Nevea
Tucked away in Friuli Venezia Giulia’s far north-east on the border with Slovenia and Austria, Sella Nevea is surrounded by the Julian Alps and the dark, brooding woods of Italy’s largest state forest. Thanks to the quirks of its microclimate rather than the altitude, this small resort is one of the coldest and snowiest in Europe; it’s also one of its friendliest, folkiest and least expensive.
There’s 15km of mostly intermediate runs taking you through some breathtaking wild scenery (on particularly clear days it’s even possible to glimpse the coast), along with 60km of cross-country ski-tracks and some amazing moon-like backcountry skiing. Other winter activities include dog sledding and cjaspe – snowshoe – hikes on the Montasio plateau or to the Fusine lakes above the neighbouring resort of Tarvisio.
Best après-ski: Cortina d'Ampezzo
This historic Veneto ski town is a great all round resort, with 66 pistes over 115km, excellent intermediate slopes and stunning Dolomites views. While Cortina might not offer the party-till-dawn scene of its Austrian or French cousins, the après here does hot up in high season.
Central wine bars buzz at aperitivo hour and often kick on till late, restaurants range from pizzerias to Michelin-starred mountain huts, and after 11pm it’s disco time, Italian style: happy house, selfie faces and furs. Cortina also has fabulous shopping – Benetton’s founder was known to say ‘Italian fashion begins in Cortina’, with every major Italian label represented in the town’s cobbled piazzas.
Best for a weekend away: Sauze d’Oulx
If you’re after pretty, Piedmont’s Sauze d’Oulx is not a patch on its Dolomites or Aostan neighbours. What this Milky Way resort offers instead is some of Italy’s best intermediate pistes, plus a car-free village centre, just over an hour from Turin’s Caselle airport.
The slopes above Sauze are long and tree-lined and perfect for snowboarders too, while there are easy links to Sestriere, and the rest of the Via Lattea ski domain’s 440km of runs. The village’s party-hard reputation has dimmed, though bars can get boisterous on weekend nights, with both English skiers and ‘locals’ from Turin.
Best for cross-country skiing: Alpe di Siusi
Dotted with onion-domed village churches and surrounded by the peaks of the Dolomites, the high-altitude plateau of Südtirol’s Alpe di Siusi can seem straight from a fairy-tale. For cross-country skiers, its wide open meadows, gentle forested hills and over 300 days of sunshine a year are indeed the stuff of dreams.
There are over 80km of well-prepared double- or quadruple-lane courses and links into Dolomiti Nordicski, Europe’s largest cross-country circuit, including a 7.5km-long track connecting into neighbouring Val Gardena. Hotel spas offer traditional folk treatments such as herb-strewn hot hay baths – perfect for those aching thighs.