Aosta and its surrounding valley get a lot of attention during ski season, but if you’re not a skiier, or if you plan to visit in the summer, pay attention:
1) Visit the town itself. Built as a military base rather than a Roman resort (such as Pompeii), you won’t see Roman mosaics or frescoes decorating the town of Aosta. However it has quite a few well preserved ruins, including a restored Roman Theater, the 2000+ year old Arco d’Augusta, Roman walls, including the gigantic Praetorian Gate seen in the photo below, and a nearby Roman bridge, the Pont D’Ael. Sit and soak up the mountain views or people-watch from the main square, and visit the pretty 11th century cathedral, with its gorgeous stained-glass windows, colorful fresco, and mosaic floors.
Getting there: Aosta is easily accessible from Turin and Milan by train, and is well-connected to the rest of the valley by bus. If you’re visiting the area and not planning to rent a car, Aosta (or Sarre, very close by) is a great place to base yourself. There are no cars in Aosta, so if you arrive by car, you’ll park outside the city and walk in. The walk from the car park, the train station and the bus stop are all short: plan on 10 – 15 minutes.
2) Hikes of literally every difficulty and length can be found near Aosta: start by looking at this great list of hikes in The Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, which has 450 miles of marked trails and mule tracks. For more hard-core hikers, hike up to a rifugio like this one, and stay overnight. If you just have time for a short walk with some great views, stop near Courmayeur for a short walk up Val Ferret to enjoy the views of the Italian side of Mont Blanc.
3) The area is one of the best in Italy for mountain biking, with over 1000 km of country roads, in addition to mule tracks, farm roads and wooded paths. Hire an expert mountain biking guide and go off on your own, or take advantage of the ski infrastructure: both Pila and La Thuile offer summer downhill biking, including a Bike Park in the Baby Gorraz area of Pila.
5) Ride in a balloon or go paragliding – also called parapenting – over the mountains, and gape at the scenery from above. I once counted 22 paragliders floating down into the valley above Courmayeur – quite a sight to see having just emerged from the 7-mile-long Mont Blanc tunnel!
6) Go mountain climbing. If you don’t want to go on your own, here’s some information on hiring a guide licensed to the region.
7) Explore the area on a motorcycle. And if you’re driving, watch out for the motorcycles.
8) Eat Cheese. (You can do this year-round.) You’ve heard of the wine classifications DOC and DOCG, right? Well the locally-made Il Vallee D’Aoste Fromadzo cheese is DOP (yes, really), and is listed right up there with a local grappa as one of the two best products of the Aosta Valley on this website, which lists all the most famous or best food products from each region in Italy.
10) Experience jaw-dropping views from the cable car over Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco. The base of the cable car over Mont Blanc is in La Palud, near Courmayeur. On your way up, enjoy incredible views of the Aosta Valley, then change cable cars (visit a botanic garden here if you want) to get to Punta Helbronner, on the border between Italy and France. When you’ve had your fill, take a 4-person cable car to the Aiguille du Midi, and then another cable car down to Chamonix and a bus back through the tunnel. Tips: Allow a full day, though it’s not a long day. Dress in layers, it can get chilly. Note that the cable cars do not run if the weather is bad; or if it’s windy even if the weather is beautiful; or between 1 and 2 pm. To travel against the traffic, go from Italy to France rather than vice-versa. No need to book a tour for this, just arrive and do it yourself.
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