There's no mistaking the Dolomites upon your arrival: the jagged sawtooth peaks seem to stick straight up into the sky like massive, rugged spires. The mountain chain forms a good portion of the Northern Italian border, and its distinctiveness gives it UNESCO World Heritage status.
The entire area is filled with fascinating history. The Northern Italian mountain towns draw heavily on their Tyrolean origins and share a connection with the Austrian culture we associate with traditional ski culture. Many inhabitants of the Dolomites still speak Ladin, a romance language unique to the area.
The Dolomites were bitterly fought over during World War I, as Italian and Austrian solders scrambled up peaks and down valleys to outmaneuver one another, the terrain dictating the terms on which they fought. The Dolomite front had been so important, that the US military trained extensively for alpine warfare during World War II, giving rise to the 10th Mountain Division and ultimately, most of the modern ski industry we know today.
The best way to take in all the history and modern glamor of the area is in Cortina d'Ampezzo, a modern ski resort town that can rival some of the glitziest in France or Switzerland. Cortina had long been a recurring stop on the FIS tour since the 1930s and had been somewhat popular with British tourists, but the town was put on the map and received worldwide attention thanks to the 1956 Olympics, which were the first to be broadcast internationally. Alpine sport enthusiasts around the world were able to watch greats like Toni Sailer (who swept the gold medals in every event) ski in this unique setting, and it wouldn't be long before visitors flocked to the region.
A few big name Hollywood movies filmed in the town in the coming years (The Pink Panther, For Your Eyes Only and Cliffhanger, to name a few) certainly helped solidify Cortina as an international destination for the jet-set.
Today, there are plenty of activities for the modern alpinist. While Cortina doesn't have the same opportunities to explore off-piste as, say, Chamonix, the slopes offer some steep, technical terrain (hence the longtime presence on the FIS tour) and the unique thrill of skiing next to and in-between massive boulders that dot the slopes.
To retrace the footsteps of those soldiers who fought in the mountains during World War I, consider a hike, ski or snowshoe trip between the various mountain rifugi (huts) that dot the valley. Often very expensive, these beautiful mountain chalets offer hearty meals, thick blankets, outstanding views and a truly unique Dolomiti experience that can take you to places like the neighboring towns of Alta Badia or Val Gardena.
Being in Italy, the food culture of Cortina is not to be missed: you may be there to ski, but the culinary traditions of the region are incredibly unique and will continually draw you in. The dishes are too numerous to list: polenta and cheese, Speck Alto Adige (essentially lightly-smoked prosciutto), and Casunziei - a halfmoon shaped stuffed pasta. The local variety, casunziei all'ampezzana are filled with turnip and served in a sauce of butter, poppy seeds and parmesan. Add in a few Tyrolean specialties like spaetzle and dumplings, and there's enough culinary variety to keep you in Cortina for months on end.
Not that you'd complain.