Italy’s geography is something special. A long peninsula, it has miles and miles of coastline and just happens to be crowned by the Alps. The Apennine Mountains run its length like a spine and in-between you have centuries of ruling city-states that have created totally unique cities.
I always preach that there’s something for everyone in Italy, and that doesn’t stop with culture or entertainment. There’s a landscape for every preference as well and a trip to Italy that tours through each of these landscapes is all the more gratifying.
Want to explore a bit of city, a bit of sea and a bit of the relaxing Italian countryside? You have a ton of options. So for now, let’s start in the North. Stretching across 8 regions: Val d’Aosta, Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige, it’s not easy to narrow it down based on geography, but let’s give it a try:
The big-hitters in the north are obviously Venice and Milan. Venice is the biggest draw for international travelers, but don’t overlook Milan too quickly. It’s easy to navigate, large enough to handle tourists and has a world of art and food and fashion and nightlife. Or, get off the well-trodden path by heading further north to Turin to tour its elegant cafés and museums or the cross-cultural city of Trieste, a town with a huge piazza and a huge history.
If you want to go smaller, absolutely add Mantova to the list. It’s no secret of mine that Mantova one of my favorite places in the north! That said, perhaps the best northern region for middle-sized towns is underneath Lombardy, in Emilia-Romagna. Tour the university (and foodie) town of Bologna, convenient because it’s right at the crossroads of Italy’s high-speed rail. Beyond, eat prosciutto in Parma, tour another ruling family’s hometown in Ferrara then head to the coast to Ravenna, filled with marvelous mosaics, saving popular Rimini for some beach time.
If you live in the north, the sea means Liguria. Unfortunately, it means Liguria for everybody, so crowds abound. Though most international tourists flock to Cinque Terre, I enjoy exploring the rest of the coastline. I really love the overwhelmingly romantic town of Portovenere, just a bit south of the Cinque Terre. But little beats the views of a trip from Portofino to San Fruttuoso, which you can do on foot or by ferry.
That said, Emilia-Romagna also has a nice stretch of coastline that is particularly popular with teens looking to hit the clubs in Rimini and Riccione, but also families who enjoy the sandy beaches (rare in Liguria) and lower cost of the Adriatic coastline in places like Milano Marittima.
Country and nature in northern Italy means the Alps. The small mountain towns have their own unique feel and a sense of life that is slower, simpler and so so enjoyable. Here it’s your pick. If you want the fame, the amenities and the jaw-dropping views of the Dolomites – go there. Though I haven’t seen it all, I really enjoyed the Val di Fassa which seems to be a favorite for many.
If you want the incredible peaks with a bit of French-influence and the decision between luxurious resort towns like Courmayeur as well as more rustic options, head to Val d’Aosta. Home of the Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso, it’s a nature-lover’s paradise.
I personally enjoy hiking and eating my way through Valtellina. (Read more about Valtellina’s delicious food here). Admittedly biased because it’s so close to me, I enjoy the people, the views and the food – and good news for travelers hitting multiple stops, it’s easier to reach than either of the above options.
If instead you’re not into the mountains, consider visiting the Langhe area of Piedmont where you can tour the vineyards and have wine tastings that rival anything in Tuscany.
I’d be remiss if I wrote this entire article and completely overlooked the incredible lakes that abound in northern Italy, but I don’t feel like they fall under any of the above categories. Sure, there are amazing towns around the lakes that are worth visiting, and sure, it is a sort of way to enjoy nature, but I wouldn’t consider it “countryside.” The truth is, the lakes are a landscape all to themselves. The area is so distinct that the microclimate created around northern Italy’s lake allows for special produce such as lemons and lavender around Lake Garda (when otherwise it’s too cold in northern Italy for lemons) and olive trees around Lake Como.
Northern Italy’s lakes have a bit of all three landscapes, if you can stretch the idea of coast to freshwater. Whether it’s Como, Garda, Maggiore, Iseo or Orta, there is so much to explore! Head to Sirmione in Garda, ferry your way across lake Como to Tremezzo, Varenna, Bellagio and more and tour the magnificent gardens of Isola Bella and Isola Madre on Lake Maggiore!
It’s nearly impossible to choose just a few destinations for each landscape – the options are vast! – but luckily it’s not impossible to experience a bit of it all. You can save time by basing your itinerary on the east or west of Northern Italy. For example flying into Venice, touring the countryside of Friuli or heading up into the Dolomites and then relaxing on the Emilia Romagna coastline in the East. Or tour Milan, Valtellina and then Liguria in the west.
Still, travelers with a bit more time can easily crisscross the entire north, taking in the best of the area’s cities, coastlines and countryside.