Field Guide: Aosta Valley, Italy

A mecca for lovers of the outdoors, the Aosta Valley is a less-visited Alpine region not to be missed. Hike, bike, climb or ski in sublime mountain surroundings, then soak up ancient Roman heritage and traditional Northern Italian culture in the compact city of Aosta itself.

6th July 2024 | Words by Dave Hamilton

The Aosta Valley, or Valle d'Aosta, is a mountainous region nestled in the northwest corner of Italy, in the heart of the Italian Alps. Bordered by France and Switzerland, it’s a wonderland of dense, fragrant pine woodland, crystal-clear glacial fed lakes, lush wildflower meadows, charming Alpine villages and towering snow-topped mountains.

Although the Aosta Valley offers a warm welcome for tourists, it doesn’t get the same amount of footfall as other parts of Italy in the summer such as the Amalfi coast, Rome or Tuscany. Nor does it get anything like the masses of travellers that flock to other valleys and resorts in the Swiss or French Alps. Instead, Aosta retains a laid back and affordable charm, part Italian chic mixed with the slower pace of life more typical of rural France.

In the winter months it fills with thrill-seeking snowboarders and skiers flocking to its many mountain resorts. Then in the spring and summer, as the snow clears, walkers, cyclists, mountain bikers and holiday makers all flock to the region to take in the fresh mountain air and stunning scenery.

Aosta Town

History and heritage

The valley of Aosta was once a stronghold of the Celtic Salassi tribe until Roman Emperor Augustus recognised the strategic importance of founding a settlement in this high-Alpine mountain pass. The Salassi tribe were defeated in 25 BC, being one of the last Celtic tribes in the Mediterranean region to come under Roman control. The city of Augusta Praetoria was duly founded amidst the ruins of the Celtic town.

Translating as the ‘Valley of Augustus’, the Valle d’Aosta still bears the name of the emperor who founded the city. Echoes of this imperial past can be seen in the city of Aosta, as both its grid system layout and many of its historic buildings are of Roman origin. In fact, such is the level of Roman remains in the city that it is often described as ‘The Rome of the North’ or ‘The little Rome of the Alps’.

The most impressive ruins in the city are the remains of the Roman theatre, standing proudly against a backdrop of white peaked mountains. Constructed in the 1st century CE, a 22m façade with arched windows and doorways is all that is left of this remarkable theatre, which in its heyday would have housed between 3,000 and 4,000 people. The building can be visited on its own or with a multipass, which also enables you to see other historic sites such as the underground Cryptoporticus, a series of catacombs that once served as the basement of a Roman villa.

Aosta Roman Theatre

East of the theatre, close to the banks of the Buthier river, you’ll find the Arco di Augusto, or the Arch of Augustus. Built more than 2,000 years ago in 25 BC, the arch is more than 11m (37ft) high and marks the subjugation of the Salassi.

Aosta Field

Gran Paradiso National Park

With Gran Paradiso at its heart – Italy’s 7th tallest mountain – the Gran Paradiso National Park is a 703 square kilometre area of protected land that lies in the Graian Alps of Piedmont and the Aosta Valley. It was Italy’s first national park, founded in 1922, but has a somewhat questionable origin. Victor Emanuel III, King of Italy until 1946, banned hunting in the region for all but himself. Some have argued he wished to protect the ibex, whose numbers were falling, but others have suggested it was an effort to establish a vast hunting reserve for himself and his aristocratic friends. Victor’s grandson eventually banned hunting altogether here, proclaiming it a national park in 1922. Today, along with the majestic ibex, owls, lynx, marmots, chamois, ermine, grouse and red foxes all thrive within its borders.

Lillaz falls

Hiking in Gran Paradiso

With such a long heritage, the park has many well-established trails, some of them now more than 100 years old. A favourite for families is the easy but steady climb to the spectacular Lillaz waterfalls. Those with older children can extend this to include the more challenging route to Lago Loie, a beautiful crystal-clear lake. Or if you prefer your walks with minimal incline, then check out the Valnontey river trail, which takes in views of glaciers and alpine meadows.

For those looking for something a little more demanding, try the climb to the Col Entrelor Pass. It is a scramble at times and best attempted during the warmer months, when the snowfall is at a minimum. We’d recommend plotting a route to also take in Lago Djouan and Lago Nero, two lovely glacial lakes high in the mountains.


Mountain biking

In the shadow of the French and Swiss Alps, including the world-famous peaks of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, Pila Bikeland is a must for adrenaline junkies. Taking advantage of the infrastructure set up for skiing in the winter, the summer bike park follows many of the downhill ski slopes. Situated at an altitude of 1,800m on Mount Pila, the bike park can be reached via gondola (cable car) in just 18 minutes from the city of Aosta. As you might expect from a mountain that is set up for skiing, these are some of the best downhill rides you’ll likely experience in Europe. You can race through trails to suit all abilities, including the fast downhill course.

Bike hire is available on site during the summer, so you don’t have to drive from the UK with a cumbersome bike rack. Aside from the downhills there is also a pump track for younger riders and cross-country routes all over the side of Pila Mountain.

However, it’s not just Mount Pila which is set up for mountain biking. The whole of the Aosta Valley is criss-crossed with trails suitable for both cyclists and walkers alike. Official tour companies such as Aosta Valley Freeride offer a range of packages from as little as 70 Euros per person for group rides.


Skiing and winter sports

During the colder winter months, the Aosta Valley transforms into a wonderland as snow-loving tourists come from all over the world. There are ski resorts for every ability, from those just starting out to those looking for the most challenging black runs.

At a height of 1,224m, Courmayeur is a great resort for those wanting a bit of luxury. It has more than 100km of runs. The majority of these are best suited to intermediate level skiers, but both beginners and those with more experience should find enough to suit them.

During the winter Pila also transforms back from a bike park to a more regular ski destination. This compact resort may not have much to offer in terms of après ski, but since it is situated so close to the biggest city in the region, it doesn’t have to. The resort gets busy at weekends but midweek it is very quiet, as most skiers will head to the more well-known slopes in the region.

Elsewhere in the valley, you could try La Thuille, close to the French border; Cervinia, overlooking the Matterhorn, or Gressoney, which is part of the Monterosa ski circuit.



The Aosta Valley has been described as rock climbing’s best kept secret. Rather than limestone, as you’d typically expect in the Alps, climbing here is mostly on bolted gneiss. There’s also some superb ice-climbing on frozen waterfalls and on the glaciers themselves.

The Italian side of Mont Blanc, often called its ‘wild side’, offers a chance to scale the mountain’s famous glacier as part of a long, difficult climb to the summit. At the other end of the scale, you’ll find plenty of via ferrata routes in the valley. These are protected climbing and scrambling routes which contain cables and steel pegs, driven into the rock face. You can choose to free climb with the cables or for added safety, clip-in, rather like the ‘Go Ape’ tree top climbs in the UK. Two of the best via ferrata are at Crète Sèche near Lo Vianoz and Rifugio Monzino, with stunning views of waterfalls and glaciers.

Where to stay

Hotels and resorts

The Valle d’Aosta is a relatively compact region, so it is quite easy to stay in the city of Aosta and still make the most of this area.

Within the city walls, Duca d’Aosta Hotel and the Omama Hotel are both highly recommended. For something slightly cheaper on the outskirts of town, try Hotel Miage. It’s worth avoiding the areas closer to the airport unless you are driving, as parts of these are not well served by public transport.

Outside of the city, try Le Massif Eco Resort and Spa in Courmayeur, a five-star resort at the foot of Mont Blanc. Only a few steps away from the ski lift, it’s a perfect spot for those who want to mix luxury and alpine skiing.


Guest houses and self-catering accommodation

You’ll find B&Bs and charming chalets tucked away throughout the valley. We recommend the family-run La Maison de Dolphe close to Lago di Brusson Aosta or the nearby L’Abreny to the east of the valley.

Alongside guest houses there are plenty of Airbnb options too. Northern Italians tend to be warm hearted and conscientious, making them the perfect hosts. You’ll find some really well looked after guest houses, apartments and homes in the region.

Mountain refuges

Much like the youth hostels of the UK, Italy has a network of mountain refuges or rifugi (rifugio singular). These are normally wooden huts with thick blankets and hearty food. They are not free, unlike our mountain bothies, but nor will they break the bank. They’ll often have dormitory and private rooms. However, it is worth booking well in advance as they can fill up during the high season. Visit for more information.

Where to eat and drink

There are two Michelin-starred restaurants in the city of Aosta. The first can be found close to the Roman theatre, called The Paolo Griffa Al Caffè Nazionale. As you might expect of a restaurant of this standard, the evening service is the highlight, but the breakfasts are said to be excellent as well. Next, more centrally located, you’ll find Stefenelli Desk, which offers delicious vegetarian food along with meat and seafood.

Although the region is not traditionally associated with pizza, we actually think some of the best pizza in Italy can be found in the Aosta region. You won’t be disappointed with any of the side street pizzerias or for an authentic wood-fired pizza, head to Ristorante Pizzeria Caesar.

Italy is rightly heralded as one of the great gastronomic centres of the world. If you love Italian food, it is hard to be disappointed here. The region is known for its Fontina cheese, sweet dessert pears and seasonal chestnut dishes, which can be found on menus throughout the region during the autumn. Another tip: head off the beaten track and try your luck in one of the many family-run Tavernas – you won’t be disappointed!


How to get there

It is possible to reach Aosta by public transport from the UK, principally rail and bus. As well as being a more environmentally responsible way to travel, this will also give you a deeper insight into the changing cultures as you cross the continent at a slower pace. First, take the Eurostar to Paris Gare de Nord. Taking a connection from Gare de Lyon, Paris, head to Geneva and from here you can get a bus to take you the remaining distance.

Conversely, it is no longer possible to fly directly to the Aosta Valley. You’ll instead need to look for connections from Turin (Caselle), Milan or Geneva airports. You’ll find both car rentals and bus services or trains from all these airports to Aosta.

Getting around

By train

Being a mountain destination, trains are limited in the region, but Aosta does have a local station, serving some of the towns and villages within the valley. It can also be reached from many of the Northern Italian transport hubs such as Turin (2hrs direct) and Milan (3-4hrs with one change).

By bus

Aosta has a bustling bus station with very affordable luxurious coaches travelling from all over Europe including Switzerland, France and other parts of Italy. The coach from Chamonix is particularly worthwhile as it heads underneath the iconic Mont Blanc.

By car

If you want your own transport, it is best to rent a car before coming to Aosta and driving the remaining distance, as most car rentals are located in Aosta airport, which is on the outskirts of the city. There is plenty of parking in the city itself and the A5 motorway connects the valley to the rest of the country.

On foot

The old Roman grid system makes the city of Aosta very easy to navigate by foot. As noted previously, there are also plenty of mountain hiking and trekking trails, including several that link villages and mountain refugios.

By cable car

Cable cars run up to the Pila (the mountain near Aosta) from behind the train station. They are inexpensive and very regular.

Dave Hamilton is a photographer, forager and explorer of historic sites and natural places. A father of two boys, he writes for BBC Wildlife, Countryfile, and Walk magazines.

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