Everyone knows any Italy itinerary should include visits Rome, Florence, and Venice. You might even know some of Italy’s “off-the-beaten-path” (that really aren’t so off-the-beaten-path anymore) destinations like San Gimignano, Bologna, and Cinque Terre. But I’d bet that unless you live in the Friuli Venezia Giulia like we did, you’ve probably not heard of or ever considered a visit to Italy’s most north-eastern region. Why should you go, you ask? Well, here are the top things to do in Friuli Venezia Giulia:
1. Walk in the steps of the Romans at Aquileia
The Roman Empire stretched far and wide in its time, so it’s not surprising that Roman ruins can be found even in the Friuli Venezia Giulia. Don’t expect a Colosseum a la Roma, but the ruins of palatial villas, temples and baths provides a reminder of the splendor of the Roman Empire. After all, it was here that Emperor Augustus received Herod the Great in 10 BC and again served as the site where the early Christian church held a council to settle doctrinal issues in 381 AD. Aquileia is merely more than a village these days, but the site of Aquileia is believed to be the largest Roman city yet to be excavated and is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
2. Sip your way along the Strada del Vino
Italy has literally thousands of wine varieties, though most people automatically think of Chianti when thinking of Italian wine. After all, Tuscany was one of the first wine regions in Europe and is Italy’s top wine producing region. The alpine foothills of the Friuli are some of the best white wine producing estates in Italy and though the wine producers’ names – Radikon, Zidarich and Schiopetto – hardly sound Italian, the vineyards and villages the producers are scattered among are undeniably, authentically Italian.
A fantastic way to taste to is to come for Italy’s Cantine Aperte, when many Italian vineyards open up their tasting rooms to the public on the last Sunday in May. If you can’t make it for Cantine Aperte or you don’t want to have to draw straws for who has to be designated drive, book a Friuli wine tour and get picked up from Venice, Trieste or Udine.
3. Ham it up in San Daniele
The hilltop town of San Daniele, in the province of Udine, is world-famous for its prized ham and rivals Parma in the Emilia Romagna. Perhaps I’m a little biased as a resident of the Friuli, but I prefer the less salty and sweeter prosciutto di San Daniele. The salty Adriatic breeze blows in to mix with the cooler alpine air from the mountains and creates the perfect drying conditions, requiring less salting and air-drying time per kilogram of meat than Parma ham.
Up until the 60s, prosciutto di San Daniele was made from black Friulian pigs, but then the pigs nearly went extinct. Even though the Friulian black pigs are no longer used, the prosciutto is produced much the same as it was for centuries. The DOP regulations control production and only certain breeds of Italian pigs at least nine months old and weighing no less than 350 pounds are used.
Visit in June during the Aria di Festa, at which the proscuitto di San Daniele is celebrated for four days and many factories open up their doors for visits and tastings.
4. Hit the hiking trails in the Dolomites
Perhaps why the Friuli Venezia Giulia isn’t on the tourist radar is because it is not home to cities like Rome, Venice or Verona that lure visitors to revel in the days gone by. The Friuli is still very much a region that communes with nature and every bit of it can be explored by hiking its trails. There are 13 nature reserves located within the Friuli Venezia Giulia region alone and a number of varying hiking trails throughout them.
One of the most challenging day hikes is the I Sentieri delle Acque (translated to The Water Paths). It was here that woodsmen transported wood over the water. The trail runs through a deep valley cut by the Chiarso Creek, has many spectacular panoramas and even passes by the famous 170 year old and 115 feet tall white spruce named Palma.
There are even trails that follow the footprints of Antonio, the dinosaur who’s skeleton was found near the village of San Giovanni in Tuba. Though you have to visit the Civic Museum of Natural History in Trieste to see Antonio’s skeleton, the trail pays homage to the fantastical character he has become in these mountains.
Download a Friuli Venezia Giulia trekking guide here.
5. Visit the castle of the Mexican king
Castello di Miramare (or the Castle of Miramare) is a commanding presence on the Gulf of Trieste and is a “new” castle in that it wasn’t built until 1860s. Built by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg for his beautiful wife, Charlotte of Belgium, the castle is believed to be cursed because of the ill fate both Maximilian and Charlotte suffered. They became Emperor Maximilian I and Empress Carlota of Mexico in April of 1864 after Napoleon pressured them to during the French intervention in Mexico.
Despite the curse, it’s safe to make a day trip to Castello di Miramare and visit the 20 or so rooms still furnished with the original furnishing of Maximilian and Charlotte.
6. Descend deep into the earth at Grotta Gigante
The Friuli Venezia Giulia is home to the Guinness Book of World Records holder for the largest tourist cave on Earth, the Grotta Gigante. It is a single cavern that is estimated to be around 10 million years old and stretches an astounding 280 meters long, 65 meters wide and 107 meters high.
Though it is a tourist cave, you do have to navigate down 500 steps to the cave floor at about 80 meters deep. The steps are divided into comfortable ramps, but this particular cave is not best suited for people with difficulty walking or climbing stairs. Visits are only possible with Grotta Gigante’s specialized guides.
7. Bike the Alpe Adria
Crowned as the best bike path in Europe at the Fiets en Wandelbeurs travel fair in 2015, the Alpe Adria leads cyclists from the Salzburg to the Friuli Venezia Giulia in about one week. Beginning in the city of Mozart, the bike path takes cyclists through the valleys and mountains of Austria, passing towns like Bockstein, Villach and Arnoldstein before crossing the Austrian-Italian border and meandering through the mountains and quaint villages of Tarvisio, the vineyards of Gemona and Udine, and finally finishing at the Adriatic Sea in Grado.
8. Go cross-border skiing
The highest ski resort in Slovenia is also linked to the Friulian ski resort Sella Nevea, offering a cross-border ski (or snowboard) experience. The two resorts operate with a single ski pass and have access from both the Slovenian (Bovec) and Italian (Sella Nevea) sides of the mountain. Not only that, Bovec Kanin-Sella Nevea’s season runs until the beginning of May – long after the Friuli’s other ski resorts have closed up for the season.
9. Speed up to 40 KPH on Tarvisio’s alpine bob coaster
Tarvisio’s new alpine bob coaster is fun for the whole family. Descending over 1000 meters through the forest, the alpine bob coaster zigs and zags as you race down the track. Seat belts keep you glued to the seat as the coaster bounces along at any speed you’re comfortable with, since you control the “gas” and brake. For the true daredevils, you can get up to 40 kph on the track.
Apline bob is open Saturdays and Sundays from 1pm – 4:30pm and is €4 per ride or €11 per 3 rides. Kids under 8 are free and the coaster does accommodate an adult and child. Reach the alpine bob from the Snow & Fun Park.
10. Learn to mush a dog sled
You don’t have to go all the way to the Arctic to learn to drive a dog sled; the International Mushing Sleddog School in Tarvisio offers tours and in-depth courses for your chance to drive your very own dog sled. And I can guarantee that it will be much, much warmer than a dog sledding tour in Lapland. There are even summer programs offered for those that really, really don’t like the cold.
11. Play a round of golf
The Friuli Venezia Giulia is home to seven 18-hole golf courses, many set beautifully amongst the vineyards with panoramas of the snow-capped mountains. In the heart of the Collio, the Golf & Country Club Castle di Spessa is popular for the modern fairways set amongst a castle that dates back to 1200. Or head to the seaside Grado Golf Club for a challenging game with hazards and bunkers. The club even has a spa and is located close to lovely beaches.
12. Watch the world’s largest sailing regatta
On the second Sunday of October, be sure not to miss the spectacle that is the world’s largest sailing regatta. Over 2000 boats of all sizes gather each year for Trieste’s Barcolana. The “festival of the sea” becomes a stage for friendly competition, music, food and entertainment – truly an Italian festival for the entire family to enjoy.
13. Soar above Aviano
For the truly adventurous, take a flying leap of faith off of Castaldia at 1108 meters. This area of Piancavallo is ideal for easy take-offs due to the topography of the mountain and is a great place for your first tandem paragliding or gliding experience. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see from the mountains all the way to the sea. Adventure Sports in Porcia offers tandem paragliding experiences.
14. Take a Selfie With a Dinosaur Footprint
On the morning of September 30, 1994, a group of students visiting the Parco Naturale Regionale delle Dolomiti Friulane discovered the first fossil footprints of the “Dinosaur of the Park” on accident. The dinosaur footprints were imprinted on a Dolomitic boulder dating back to the Triassic period that is more than 200 million years ago.
It was always thought that dinosaurs inhabited what is now the Italian peninsula, but this discovery confirmed that without a doubt and proved that dinosaurs lived here, not just traveled through on occasion.
You can see the footprints in Casera Casavento on a boulder situated in the nearby stream called Ciol de Ciasavent by making the short hike up to the boulder. The road to the trail head is a windy mountain road and will most likely be covered in snow and impassable from late fall to early spring. Follow this map.
15. Marvel at Ancient Instruments at the Castel of Gorizia
The Castle of Gorizia was first mentioned in a document dated April 28, 1001, in which the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III donated the castle and the village of Gorizia to the Patriarch of Aquileia John II and to Count Verihen Eppenstein of Friuli. The castle passed to Austrian Habsburg rule in the year 1500. The Habsburgs, under Emperor Maximilian I, reinforced the castle’s defenses but were not able to fend off the Venetians, under the rule of Bartolomeo d’ Alviano. The Republic of Venice occupied the castle briefly in 1508 and 1509. The Venetian coat of arms still hangs proudly over the entrance to the castle. The castle once again returned to the Habsburg rule in 1509 and would change hands many times between the French, Austrians, Italians, and even the Germans.
During World War I, the Castle of Gorizia suffered its first major damage in over nine centuries when it was bombed. At the end of WWI the castle was nothing more than a ruin. It was rebuilt in 1934-37 after its own 16th century design. In 1943 the castle was occupied by German troops and its north east garden was used for executions.
These days a visit to the castle affords stunning views over the town of Gorizia with the Alps as a backdrop.
The interior of the castle can also be visited, and the Sala della Musica (Music Room) has a collection of reproductions of ancient instruments. Through modern technology, listen to the instruments of days gone by. Other rooms of the castle stage exhibitions and a Museum of the Middle Ages with knights’ suits of armor and reproductions of weapons used in the Middle Ages.
The Castle and Museum of the Middle Ages is open Tuesday – Sunday from 10am – 7pm. Admission is €3.