There is a region in Italy that has remained a little hidden treasure. Partly because of its remote location, partly because of the quiet nature of its villages, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is one of the perfect Italian regions for a relaxing holiday. But that is not all. This charming area in fact offers the perfect and intense mix of adventure, popular culture and, of course, food and wine.
Here, then, are some routes to discover the best of a region that goes from the Alps to the sea, crossing hills and wine valleys. And here, wine, and artisanal products are indeed taken seriously.
But before we begin, we would like to give you a little background and some advice for embarking on a trip to Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
Where to stay: there are so many options, when possible we recommend trying the experience of the ‘albergo diffuso’: a type of structure characterised by the dislocation of rooms or flats in several nearby buildings, which allows you to really immerse yourself in the charm of small, authentic local realities.
Where to eat: taverns, local shops, small restaurants, mountain huts. Here everything has a relaxed pace, perfect for discovering, bite after bite, the ingredients that epitomise the Friulian table.
Friulian hospitality: Friulians are to be won over. Here, there is no hurry, no ‘fast’ holiday, but one listens. The Friulian people will reward you with fondness and warmth.
Mountain Flavours: Carnic Alps, amidst small villages, cheese and ham
Starting from Tolmezzo (the political and commercial heart of Carnia), the largest town in the area at the foot of Mount Amariana, it is possible to start discovering the Ancient Via Aurelia, dating back to Roman times. It linked Italy with Austria and was the site of World War I battles.
Just a short distance from here (going towards Plöcken Pass) you can walk on the paths of the Great War, see trenches and walkways, and discover life in the early 20th century, which has left traces that are still visible. The routes are marked by the CAI – Club Alpino Italiano, but it is always advisable to be accompanied by a guide to understand and ‘see’ what the mountain may hide from the untrained eye.
The village of Tolmezzo was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1976, but it is still one of the oldest towns in Carnia: its old town centre, the Borgàt, is filled with shops and boutiques, alternating with churches and a museum that is definitely a must-see, dedicated to Popular Arts and Traditions. There is a collection of tools, furnishings, and reconstructions of typical interiors of the Carnic houses. An incredible plunge into the past.
After walking in the mountains, you can go and discover another extremely famous village: Sauris. Or rather, there are two villages, Sauris di sopra and Sauris di sotto, and together they are home to less than 500 people. When you arrive, you immediately notice the Bavarian architectural influence: it seems, in fact, that this community was founded by settlers from Austria. A unique language is still spoken here, Sauran, which echoes an ancient German dialect. Besides, of course, Italian and Friulian.
People come to Sauris mainly for three reasons: to walk in the surroundings, to see the beautiful Lake Sauris and eat the world-famous typical products.
In addition to the pumpkin gnocchi with smoked ricotta, one cannot cross Sauris without tasting the Formadi Frant, the ancient alpine pasture cheese now a Slow Food presidium (produced with raw milk from cows that graze freely in the highlands) and the famous, delicious Sauris PGI ham, smoked with beech wood.
And it is exactly its traditional smoking process that makes it unique and delicious. Especially when paired with a beer from the small local craft brewery (Zahrebeer Ssa Birrificio), which produces really unusual unfermented beers, thanks to the local water, which is extremely rich in mineral salts.
The Karst, through stone, water, and wine
Many legends have been told about this vast rocky area and, all of them, have to do with stones, which in some way ended up covering this land ‘by chance’.
This area, actually, has one feature that stands out above all others: the limestone rock, which defines the plateau stretching from Italy to Croatia via Slovenia.
The locals have learnt to love this difficult land and, since 2020, they have been working to create the Karst Transfrontier Geopark, a system for the enhancement of a unique geological heritage: in the Karst region of Italy alone, over 6,000 “doline” (closed basins) and over 3,000 underground cavities (caves, swallow holes and other peculiar geological phenomena) have been recorded, with an average index of 16 caves per square kilometre. Absolutely incredible.
So, what not to miss?
After a visit to the charming city of Trieste, with the enchanting Piazza Unità d’Italia, Europe’s largest sea-facing square, a visit to Borgo Teresiano, the elegant quarter commissioned by the Austrian Emperor Charles VI, and after checking for the bora (the famous wind that blows through the city) at the Molo Audace, head to the hills above the city to discover the rougher parts of the Karst.
And if you don’t mind going underground, a visit to the Grotta Grande (or Giant Cave), which takes you down to a depth of over 100 metres, is not to be missed: it is the tourist cave with the largest chamber in the world.
If instead you like to stay on the surface, one of the most rewarding experiences is definitely going on an Osmiza hunt: the homes of farmers, agricultural or wine-growing estates that open their doors to offer wine and the products of their work, from cheese to cold cuts.
The term osmiza comes from the Slovenian osem (‘eight’ in Italian), since according to the Habsburg decree of 1784 these houses could only be open to the public eight days a year. So, whoever invented pop-up shops did not create something that didn’t already exist in Friuli!
Sitting on wooden benches, often at shared tables, one can enjoy dry-cured ham, Jamar cheese (matured for at least four months at the bottom of a Karst cave), cooked ham in a crust, hand-cut and accompanied by horseradish, hard-boiled eggs, Karst cheese often accompanied by Marasca honey and home-made pickles, cheeses made from sheep’s milk or donkey sausages, which are definitely out of the ordinary.
And to drink? Terrano wine (typical of the Karst region, with an intense flavour) or a glass of Malvasia. And if you come in September, you can also enjoy the joy of the newly produced wines, which taste fresh and drinkable.
But if this were it, it wouldn’t be Friuli.
Go in search of Monte Re (Nanos in Slovenian) cheese, of Austro-Hungarian tradition, today produced in just one dairy. Top it all with Tergeste extra virgin olive oil (PDO), made from the autochthonous Bianchera cultivation (which survived the 1929 frost thanks to the will of Karst farmers). Finally, try the jota, the traditional bean and sauerkraut soup.
All while perhaps looking at the view of the Gulf of Trieste, which will make you definitely fall in love with the Karst.
The rolling hills: wine, wine and more wine (and San Daniele ham)
If you decide to visit this part of Friuli, then prepare your palate, because it will be hard not to taste all the top wines that this area has to offer.
Starting from Gorizia, with the Torre and Natisone Valleys, and continuing to Cividale del Friuli, the famous San Daniele and Cormons, you will be completely surrounded by what is the heart of Friuli’s gastronomic and wine-making excellence.
Here you will be spoilt for choice with the DOC zones: Friuli Grave, Friuli Colli orientali, Collio and Friuli Isonzo, and DOCG areas (Picolit, Ramandolo, Rosazzo). The wines are all of a very high average level and the offer is indeed for all palates, even the most demanding.
They can work magic with the different grapes, also thanks to the properties of the soil (you will hear many times how, here, ‘wine is produced in the vineyard’). Taste the Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Friulano, Sauvignon, Ribolla Gialla, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Collio (a DOC blend). Choose the wine cellars (some are incredible, including those inside Spessa Castle, in the heart of Collio, or Gravner, famous for its amphora wines) and enjoy this journey through history and flavours.
And if you have more than one day, you can start in Collio, this small strip of land in the province of Gorizia that ‘leans’ against Slovenia. An experience worth trying is undoubtedly that of the bicycle touring routes (for example, from Capriva, passing through Spessa Castle, Cormons, Brazzano San Rocco, la Subida, Russiz Superiore, and then returning to the starting point), with mouth-watering stops for wine tastings and local delicacies.
But if you are around here to sample prosciutto, before going straight for the classic and prized San Daniele del Friuli, be sure to make a stop in Cormons and seek out someone who will slice for you a prosciutto crudo d’Osvaldo, an almost unobtainable smoked prosciutto of simply incredible taste and quality.
And for those who prefer vegetable alternatives, there is a speciality from the vegetable garden that stands out among cured meats and cheeses: the Rosa di Gorizia, a radicchio with a deep red colour that veers towards pink, and a bitter and crunchy flavour.
The choice of wineries is really difficult, so you just have to try as many as possible!
Overlooking the sea: the coast between Grado and Lignano Sabbiadoro
After all the mountains, it is only right to also give space to those who prefer a seaside holiday, because Friuli-Venezia Giulia can offer this too, as well as a completely different menu.
First, if you are leaving from Trieste, before reaching Grado, make a stop at the Spiaggia di Canovella de Zoppoli, a small beach hidden by clear waters that can be reached after a brief walk.
Spending some time in Grado and its lagoon is a must: a small Venice with narrow alleys and ancient churches (the Basilica della Corte and the Basilica di Santa Eufemia are really classic stops, as is the ancient Baptistery), before sitting down at a table and enjoying the local specialities.
Boreto, a typical Grado dish, is a must-try here: a kind of fish soup accompanied by white polenta that, despite modern variants, originated as a poor dish of fishermen’s cuisine, flavoured with salt, pepper, vinegar and garlic. And if you want to try your hand at a classic fish soup, try our filleted fish soup.
Heading west again, you will come across the famous archaeological site of Aquileia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, especially for the beauty of its floor mosaics: Roman and early Christian traces are visible and narrate stories of a very ancient Italy. And if after all this you no longer want to do anything except lie in the sun and enjoy the wide beaches along the coast, all you have to do is reach Lignano Sabbiadoro, an undisputed destination for relaxation and fun, and enjoy the seafood cuisine and wines from the rest of the region.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia is this, an incredible mosaic of history, gastronomy, beaches, and mountains, which can really offer something to do for all tastes and all ages.
Our small selection of not-to-miss places and wines:
Osteria di Mare alla Voliga – Trieste
Al Ponte – Gradisca d’Isonzo
Lokanda Detetak – San Michele del Carso
Wineries and hospitality
Spessa Castle (available for accomodation)
Gradis’ciutta (with the possibility of spending the night in Borgo Gradis’ciutta, a complex of buildings dating back to the 1500s)
Marco Felluga/Russiz superiore (here, too, you can spend the night at Relais Russiz Superiore)
Cantina Ronco delle Betulle