The charming Old Town, a vestige of Merano's noble past, clusters around the Piazza del Duomo, where the namesake 14th-century cathedral has a crenelated facade and heavy buttresses that make it look almost like a castle. Nearby, just to the west on Via Galilei, is a dollhouse-size castle -- Castello Principesco or Landesfürstliche Burg, built by the counts of Tirol in 1470 and still filled with the austere furnishings they installed, along with a collection of armor and musical instruments. The castle (tel. 0473-250-329) is open Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sunday 10am to 1pm (closed Jan-Feb). Admission is 2€ adults, 1.50€ students and those over 60.
Merano's picturesque main shopping street, Via Portici (leading west from Piazza del Duomo), is lined with Tirolean-style houses whose porticoes extend over the sidewalk. The preferred places to stroll in Merano, though, are along any number of scenic promenades. Two follow the banks of the River Passer: the Passeggiata d'Inverno (Winter Walk, which faces south) and Passeggiata d'Estate (Summer Walk, which faces north).
The top of the Passeggiata is just below Castel Tirolo (tel. 0473-220-221), which you can also reach by car or by walking along Via Monte San Zeno for 5km (3 miles) from Merano. Here, amid stony splendor, you can see the throne room from which the counts of Tirol ruled much of present-day Austria and northern Italy, and a beautifully frescoed Romanesque chapel with a 1330 carved wood crucifix (and enjoy a magnificent view that hasn't changed much since then).The castle is open Easter through November, Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm. Admission is 6€ adults, 3€ students under 28, and 12€ for a family ticket (two adults with kids under 14); there's no admission fee for children under 6. Occasional guided tours are available for a 2€ supplement. To get here without too much hoofing, you can take a half-hourly bus from Merano's train station or center to the village of Tirol, and then finish the beautiful 15-minute walk along a trail amid grapevines and apple groves.
Taking the Cure
With its mild climate and mineral-rich springs bubbling up from beneath the town, Merano has long enjoyed a reputation as a spa town. To this day, one of Merano's most popular pastimes is taking the cure. You can take a complete treatment (mud bath, mineral wrap, hydrotherapy) at the Terme di Merano (tel. 0473-237-724; www.termemerano.com), in the center of town, across the river at Via Piave 9, or just take a dip in the pool of mineral-rich water. There is a wide range of prices for individual treatments such as apple aroma therapy and hay baths, but a 2-hour pass for the pool alone costs 11€, 12€ for 3 hours, and 16€ for the day. Add about 5€ for the sauna (so you're not shocked: no bathing suits allowed in the sauna). A poor man's version of an elaborate spa regimen -- but one you can follow only when grapes from the vineyards surrounding the town ripen in late September and early October -- is Merano's famous cura delle uva (grape cure). One drastic form of the grape cure, which is allegedly beneficial for digestive disorders, requires eating 2 pounds of grapes a day. A more palatable approach calls for drinking several glasses a day of the delicious fresh spremuta di uva fresca/traubensaft (grape juice) that's available in cafes in the early fall.
Festivals & Markets
The Piazza del Duomo is the scene of Merano's civic life. A morning fruit-and-produce market is held here from 8am to 1pm Monday to Saturday. From late November through Christmas, the piazza fills with stalls selling carved ornaments and other seasonal paraphernalia during the town's Christkindlmarkt. From late August through September, the town hosts Settimane Musicali Meranesi in several concert halls and churches around town (tel. 0473-221-447; www.meranofestival.com). On the second Sunday of October, enthusiasts of the grape take over the square for a wine festival, honoring the wines and grape juice yielded by local vineyards.