Rock Climbing, Abseiling & Canyoning

Iron Roads | The Best Via Ferrata Routes In Europe

From via ferrata in the Dolomites to via ferrata on the Spanish coast, when it comes to the "iron way" Europe has so many good routes to choose from

Europe, or more specifically, Italy, is the homeland of the via ferrata. The idea of bolting steel ladders and safety cables to the rock was developed in the Dolomites during the First World War. As Austrian and Italian troops battled for the high ground, via ferratas* were used to help move troops and weapons around safely. The term via ferrata, now used worldwide, comes from the Italian, meaning “Iron Road” or “Iron Way”. (You might still see Germanic countries using Klettersteig, but almost everyone else uses the Italian terminology.)

These days you can find via ferratas throughout Europe from the highest peaks of the Julian Alps iN Slovenia to the Costa Brava in Spain. There are even quite a few via ferratas in the UK. With over a thousand routes to choose from, we had a hard time picking out our favourites. Rest assured that there are plenty more than we could possibly list in this article.

If you’ve got your heart set on a particular mountain range or area, you’re very likely to find a cheeky little via ferrata route there too.

Via Ferratas in Italy

Credit: Trentino Marketing

Italy is a big country and you can find via ferratas everywhere from Süd-Tirol to Tuscany. For this one though, we had to focus on the via ferratas in the Dolomites. They’re simply spectacular. Plus, it’s the Dolomites that people consider the spiritual home of the via ferrata.

Because of this, via ferratas in the Dolomites are all about getting somewhere. You can use the routes to traverse knife edge ridges or connect up two bits of hiking trail that would otherwise be un-connectable. Famous long distance routes like the Alta Via 2 do just that, over several days.

For day trips, there are plenty of good options for towns to base yourself in. Cortina, on the east side of the Dolomites, has a good twenty routes you can do in the area. As well as classic scrambles and ledges, there’s also at least one that takes you behind a waterfall… 

On the other side of the Dolomites, the area of Trentino has a good selection of towns. Personally, I have stayed in Madonna di Campiglio to do day routes in the Brenta Dolomites. From here you can also do the 3-5 day via ferrata and trekking route Via delle Bocchette. It’s been on my to-do list for years: incredible rock, incredible panoramic views and fantastical ladder ascents of sheer cliff faces. 

Via Ferratas in Spain

Credit: Ajuntament de Sant Feliu de Guixols

Spain: the land of sun and sandy beaches and, as it happens, via ferratas. You might not think of Spain for its mountains, although it does share the Pyrenees with France. However, there are some via ferrata routes near the coast and in the rocky spires of Andalucia that are genuinely amazing.

For example, the Via Ferrata Cerro Virgen de Gracia is a straightforward climb to a 14th century sanctuary at over 900m above sea level. It’s great for beginners and there’s almost no walk in – you can basically step out of a hotel and onto the via ferrata if you want.

For something a little different, Catalonia’s Costa Brava boasts the only via ferrata by the sea in Europe. The Cala del Molí via ferrata climbs right along the coast – you’ll be hanging out over turquoise waves and get to cross between inlets and islands on long wire bridges.

Via Ferratas in Switzerland

Credit: Switzerland Tourism

Switzerland is an alpine country through and through. It’s defined by its mountains (okay and occasionally by its cheese) so it’s no surprise that there are plenty of via ferratas to try. In the high mountains there are many routes that are simply the way between A and B – albeit an exciting one. You might even stray into neighbouring Italy or Austria on a multi-day mountain tour. 

Speaking of cheese, there is an excellent via ferrata close to the town of Gruyères. However, it’s not one for beginners. The ascent of Moléson via ferrata involves several overhanging sections, vertical ascent and traverses on the North Wall of Moleson. The rock face catches the afternoon sun in summer – but don’t miss the last cable car back down to civilisation. There is a small charge which goes towards the upkeep of the route.

Another hot spot is the area around Interlaken, where the via ferratas of the Jungfrau region are justifiably famous.

Via Ferratas in France

Pictured: Bastille at Grenoble, Isere

From my personal experience, the via ferrata in France is often about steep climbs and dizzying exposure. I did the Baus de la Frema in the Maritime Alps that involved a huge pinnacle-spanning bridge and shimmying along two slack metal cables above a stomach turning drop. Madness.

There are plenty more via ferratas in France though. The Pyrenees have tons – although not quite so many as the Alps. And we might sneak in a mention for the tiny mountainous country of Andorra here as well, wedged between France and Spain in the Pyrenees. With peaks on all sides, there are plenty of free-to-access via ferratas in all directions. 

Pictured: Via Ferrata In Andorra

For less mountainous areas that still have via ferrata options, how about Normandy? In the centre of “Norman Switzerland”, the Clecy via ferrata means you can traverse the cliffs above the River Orne on beams, rope bridges and cables towards the great viaduct. 

Or in the actual city of Grenoble itself, you can climb up the front of the Bastille: the ancient fortress that overlooks the city. While most tourists take the cable car or drive, you can feel smug topping out after 220m of ascent, monkey bridges and climbing the actual fort walls. 

Even More Via Ferratas throughout Europe

Well we’ve waxed lyrical and only managed to cover four countries… oops. Don’t worry. Here’s a sneaky few more places on the continent to try.

The Julian Alps, which make up a large proportion of Slovenia, have great via ferrata routes. They’re free and open to use just as part of the hiking trails – you’ll see them clearly marked on local maps. The most well known is the ascent of Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain, but there are plenty more that are just as exciting.

And one more before we grab our harness and run to the mountains: Austria. Like Italy, you’re spoilt for choice for via ferratas in Austria. If you’re looking for a base town for day trips, you could do well with Innsbruck. In fact, the mountain ridge that dominates the Innsbruck skyline is a via ferrata route itself, with a cable car that takes you directly to the start. Ideal.

Featured Image Credit: Trentino Marketing

*Technically, the Italian plural form of via ferrata should be vie ferrate. But no-one calls them that in English, so we’ve just used via ferratas – the anglicised version of the plural – throughout this article.

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