Scoping out South Tyrol’s art scene in Bolzano


Scoping out South Tyrol’s art scene in Bolzano

There’s more to South Tyrol than Dolomites and dumplings. Stephanie Gavan visits Bolzano where a new generation of creatives are setting the scene for things to come…

Stephanie Gavan

BY Stephanie Gavan16 April 2024

Indie music fans know that the only thing better than discovering a good record is doing so before everyone else. Perhaps it’s the magic of a chance encounter, or the delicious taste-forwardness of being so in-the-know. Either way, it’s the feeling I found when I first discovered Parkhotel Mondschein, a design-forward stay in the Dolomite-flanked city of Bolzano. But it wasn’t the first feeling the city had offered me. In fact, the curious nature of the South Tyrolean capital first dawned on me long before check-in when, on the train ride here, I found myself seated next to Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach.

It was a short journey, but one I spent quietly lamenting not coming dressed as Toad. Yes, my trip to the South Tyrolean capital got off to a peculiar start; and as I disembarked and started making my way through the city, the stranger things seemed. Snow White was waiting tables in a café while Cruella De Vil removed her red silk gloves to devour a strudel slice. Minnie Mouse rode past on a bike, and a chicken – unironically – crossed the road.

Carnivale,’ a woman in a shop reassured me, clocking my bemusement as a tiny wizard chased a unicorn and a cowboy around outside. Bolzano may not usually be a retirement town for cartoon characters, but it certainly has its quirks. You’ll have no problem sourcing a perfectly al dente pasta dish, for example – it’s Italy, after all – but the city’s mediaeval Alpine architecture, chalet-style pubs and freakishly punctual public transport are decidedly Germanic. 

Since sovereignty was passed from Austria to Italy in 1918, South Tyrol has kept German as its first language. However, Bolzano (or Bozen, for Deutsch speakers) is the anomaly, which Emanuel, the Munich-hailing manager at Parkhotel Mondschein, assures me is the most ‘Italian’ city in the region. Still, for every ‘Buongiorno’ you’ll overhear, there’s a ‘Guten tag’ not far behind. If you’re lucky, you might even receive a ‘Bun dé’ from one of the region’s three per cent of Ladin speakers. 

Linguistic contrast isn’t all that sets Bolzano apart. It’s also a cultural colossus – relatively speaking – for a pint-sized city of just 20 square-miles. ‘Between Milan and Munich, there’s nowhere comparable in terms of art and culture,’ Emanuel continues. I take him at his word, having already visited Spazio CUT, a DIY space above a hairdresser, where the viewing experience is accompanied by a soundtrack of blow-drying and gossip; and Museion, the cubic contemporary art gallery described by locals as an ‘alien’ for its futuristic glass façade. The work is fresh and dynamic. There’s a five-channel video loop of multi-limbed deities following  J-pop dance routines and sculptures that use LED lights to project astrological natal charts. Not your typical municipal collection, but it’s also what makes smaller cities with burgeoning scenes like this one so compelling – in their infancy, they can afford to get a little weird with it.

Similarly, Parkhotel Mondschein’s community-oriented concept aims to introduce new, cosmopolitan ideas to Bolzano, all while maintaining the city’s unique identity. Glance at the hotel’s noticeboard and you’ll get a feel for it, with its artist talks, book clubs, live music, pop-up chefs, film screenings and DJ sets. Ideas are transmitted through design, too: shelves lined with copies of Monocle magazine, funky ceramics and contemporary artworks made by former artists in residence sitting alongside historic markers, such as a nostalgic colour palette, restored stucco and parquet flooring, keeping the building’s 800-year history in play. 

The prerequisite for any kind of arts scene is a nurturing space, and there are certain hideaways with a knack for it – just look at what the Hotel Chelsea did for New York. They foster their own creative economies, incubate and amplify the work of locals and out-of-towners alike, and through doing so, provide a space for connection. That could mean namaste-ing next to a baker at the hotel’s in-house yoga studio, or chatting to an off-duty designer over breakfast. It could also mean – as I discovered at a wine tasting the following evening – getting tipsy with a group of local architects in the hotel’s Luna bar. 

As so often happens in wine tastings, the distance we ordinarily assume in the presence of strangers dissolves by the third glass. Tonight’s session is led by Röck, a brother-sister duo who make natural wines just north of the city and talk about viniculture as if it were a spiritual practice. Their approach seems unconventional and modern, but as they themselves point out, it’s actually a return to something ancient. As the pet nat flows, so too does conversation, and I discover my new architect friends are from Bolzano-based studio, NOA, whose projects, while super-sleek and contemporary, share Röck’s typically Tyrolean reverence for the land. 

The cross-section of young creatives I meet during my brief stay at Parkhotel confirms my suspicions about Bolzano; mainly, that it’s a city on the precipice of its big break. It’s Nirvana in their Bleach era. It’s Lizzy Grant about to re-emerge as Lana del Rey. It’s a place where, after decades of strife and struggle, a new generation is re-defining the future, while keeping the torch of tradition aflame. 

In 2026, a shiny new museum quarter by renowned Scandi architects, Snøhetta, is due to open atop of the city’s Virgil Mountain. It’s a great opportunity for Bolzano, re-establishing access to the mountaintop for the first time in over 40 years, and drawing its fair share of visitors, too. But before Bolzano goes mainstream, it’s important to remember that behind every big development, there are the visionaries who made it feasible: the artists who staged an exhibition on the mezzanine of a hairdressing salon, for example, where entry is via a staircase stacked with shampoo bottles and box dye; the siblings who read Rudolf Steiner and harvest their grapes according to the cycles of the moon; the architects who build gravity-defying huts by day and adopt foreign writers by night. Or, the places like Parkhotel Mondschein, who hold up a mirror to them all.

Our Bolzano culture list

In the city

Don’t miss Fondazione Anotonio Dalle Nogare, an angular, brutalist gallery dedicated to artistic research, architecture and innovation (open on Saturdays only). Foto Forum is the place for camera-based work and high-level happenings, while Museum Eccel Kreuzer is an almost exhaustive collection of modern painting from Tyrol and Trentino. 

In the region

Head to Messner Mountain Museum Corones (the project of noted Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner) for serious architecture by Zaha Hadid, and serious views to boot. To the south, Arte Sella sculpture park stages open-air exhibits in the fir forests of Valsugana; and Swiss architect Mario Botta’s Museum of Contemporary Art Trento is a cultural hub with over 20,000 works from the 19th century.

Best of the rest

Smach, a biennial festival in the art park Val dl’Ert, places art in dialogue with nature. Bolzano Art Week brings together the city’s artists and institutions to present over 150 events across galleries, museums, ateliers and a host of temporary spaces. And cinema lovers should visit in April for the Bolzano film festival.

For yet more cultural awakenings, and pretty-as-a-picture scenery, see our full collection of hotels in South Tyrol.