Merano is completely surrounded by snowy peaks that can reach altitudes of 10,000 feet...
...but the city itself sits in a lush valley only 1,000 feet high – and so we might go as far as to call it "The Italian Shangri-La."
You will enter the old town through three 13th-century gates, about all that remains of the original city walls.
Just inside Porta Venosta is Piazza del Grano, site of a wonderful outdoor market where you can see the luscious fruits and vegetables grown in the valley.
Between the Duomo and Porta Passiria is a tiny neighborhood called Steinach. Here you will find ancient whitewashed houses joined by arches hung above the sidewalk-less streets.
Pretty bas-relief sculptures and colorful flowerboxes are about the only embellishments, so that you can really feel you've stepped back in time when you enter here.
The Duomo (cathedral) has a decidedly northern appearance. Erected between the 13th and 14th centuries, it is clearly Gothic in style and features some great examples of the primitive wall frescoes that are indigenous to alpine churches.
Another alpine tradition is the Christmas market, where you can purchase all sorts of colorful handmade toys and delicious sweets.
The locals' favorite way to enjoy the flowers, the river and the views is to take a stroll along the Merano Promenades. An impressive case of wise urban planning, these are paved sidewalks lined with benches that lead from the heart of the city to the wilderness of its outskirts, in only a few minutes.
The Passeggiata Lungo Passirio splits into two paths, the Summer Promenade and the Winter Promenade (which are both available year-round, by the way!). The former wends its way beneath gigantic shade trees...
...the latter leads past a covered Art Déco portico lined with original paintings and ends up at the feet of an ancient castle, where you can admire a rock garden, waterfalls, ponds and streams.
No visit to Merano would be complete without at least a day spent exploring the environs. Fortified homes in astonishing good shape, such as Castel Tirolo, line the terraced hills that surround the valley, and each of them is near a charming rural chapel.