Dolomite Region, Italy (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

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What to do in Dolomite Region

The Dolomites rise from the eastern valleys of the South Tirol (Südtirol/Alto Adige) region, along the Austrian border. After taking in the dramatic landscape framed by the massive limestone peaks of the Dolomites to the east and gentler Alps to the west, you'll notice that the South Tirol appears more Germanic than Italian in every way—culture, language, architecture, and food. Every town has both a German and Italian name and solid Austrian roots because most of the South Tirol, which includes the Trentino and Alto Adige regions, belonged to Austria until being handed over to Italy at the end of World War I. This area appeals to active families, for whom hiking, biking, and riding thrillingly steep cable cars to high alpine valleys dominate a vacation itinerary. But there are also charming cities and alpine villages where strolling the streets and visiting museums and castles provide equally engaging options.

Bolzano/Bozen is the gateway to the Dolomites and a must-stop for families. The exceptional Museo Archeological dell'Alto Adige is home to Ötzi, the 5,000-year-old iceman preserved for centuries in a glacier with his clothing, weapons, and remnants of his last meal until discovered by hikers in 1991. Ötzi is an astonishing scientific find and highlight of the museum encased in his specially cooled display, but other worthwhile exhibits tell the story of the region from Paleolithic times to the Middle Ages. And of course, there are Ötzi souvenirs. Families should also explore Bolzano's central Piazza Walther, and take in the centuries-old fruit and produce market at Piazza dell'Erbe.

The glamorous ski resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo, site of the 1956 winter Olympics, offers upscale shopping and restaurants (and excellent Italian gelato) along its main pedestrian-only street. Summer or winter views from the funiculars that departs right from town are worth the ride, but especially those on the Freccia nel Cielo (Arrow in the Sky). Families can arrange every kind of outdoor adventure here, but those with older kids should check out Adrenalin Park with its platforms, ziplines, and high-in-the-sky traverses on "trails" for different ages and skill levels. In winter, those 16 and older who dare can climb into a bobsled with skilled pilots and hurl at near-competition speeds down the iced track.

There are more cable cars throughout the region than a family could ride in one vacation. Among them is the not-for-the-faint-of-heart nearly-vertical ascent from Passo Falzarego, 16 miles west of Cortina, to Lagazoul. Hikers can explore trails up top, then descend on (sometimes slippery) paths through miles of historic tunnels and "rooms" dug into the mountain by soldiers who endured months here during World War I (bring flashlights).

Wherever you are in the Dolomites, there are hiking trails, from easy strolls to challenging treks. Alpe di Suisi/Seiser Alm is one of the most famous hiking areas and the largest high alpine valley in all of Europe. An excellent base is the village of Castelrotto/Kastelruth; another is Val Gardena with its towns of Selva, Ortisei/St. Ulrich and San Cristina/St. Christina where the Ladin language and culture, unique to five valleys in Northern Italy (and related to the Romansch culture of Switzerland's Engadine Valley), adds a cultural dimension to outdoor fun. A treat of hiking here is stopping at trailside rifugios, huts where families can rest and re-energize with a delicious meal of sausages, cheese, hearty soups, and home-baked bread. Some rifugios have goats and sheep to pet, some accommodate overnight guests. Local guides add depth and culture to alpine walks, but families can follow trail maps on their own, too.

Once a strategic stronghold guarding the mountain passes, the South Tirol is filled with castles that bring fairy tales and history to life. Among them: 17th-century Fischburg Castle in San Cristina was the summer home of the Counts of Wolkenstein. Castel Roncolo in Bolzano is famous for its 13th-century frescoes depicting the tragic medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde (read it first with your kids). Much of the region was once ruled from Castel Tirolo, outside Merano, which includes a new museum on Tirolean history and culture. Reifenstein Castle, near Vipiteno/Sterzing, has its original knights' sleeping quarters intact (perhaps it was the stunning lack of comfort that kept knights grumpy and quarreling) and a resident owner who leads tours.

Recommended Side Trips: Verona, Venice, Lake Como, Innsbruck, Munich

Tip: If staying in Val Gardena, buy the Valgardena Card (at hotels, tourist offices and lifts) that provides for unlimited use of the area's summer lifts and scheduled bus service. 60,00 Euro for adults, 3,00 to 44,00 for children up to age 16.

Also ask about "Big G," the walker's badge for children. Similar to Junior Ranger programs in our national parks, this program has kids searching out child-friendly places and things to receive stamps at different locations. Get the stamps, get the badge.

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