Just 10 miles north of Milan is Monza, a city with all the fashion and haughtiness of Milan, at a fraction of the size. Monza is the third largest city of Lombardy and the capital of the province of Brianza. The city stretches out like tentacles, reaching its influence well into the surrounding towns.
Maybe because of this, Monza doesn’t have a preserved, open-air museum feel like other Italian towns. It’s a lived city, bustling, with a beautiful backdrop. I lived in Monza for nearly two years and have worked in the city center since I moved to Italy more than four years ago and though everyone has an opinion, I can’t get enough. Just a quick train ride from Milan, it’s just the right size for an easy, relaxing day trip. It has all you need from a city without the urban sprawl (large piazza, beautiful churches, great restaurants, plus the necessary pharmacies, hospital, parks and stores). It’s a working city with a classic cobblestoned centro storico.
Monza isn’t on most Milan itineraries, but it should be. Milan is great, but it’s about as representative of Italy as New York is to the United States.
If you want to experience real-life Italy just outside of Milan, there’s no better place than Monza.
Today Monza is the economic and administrative center of Brianza, but it was once simple countryside. The green hills of Brianza have long served as the vegetable garden of Milan, but it wasn’t until the Queen Theodelinda chose Monza as her summer residence, building a royal palace, that the area was truly founded. Legend has it the queen dreamt a dove descended, telling her modo, Latin for here. The queen answered yes, etiam, effectively naming the city Modoetia, which was eventually morphed into Monza. The meaning of the dove’s message was that a church should be built for St. John the Baptist. Today it’s the city’s cathedral.
Monza’s charm is visible, but its history is hidden. Though the city is filled with working Italians and rich nonni rather than tourists, there’s still plenty to see.
Monza spreads from its compact city center to surrounding suburbs, but the city center is what you want to explore. One long central street cuts through the centro storico like a vein. Start from one end and walk straight until you get to the other end. You’ll pass designer stores, coffee houses and apartment buildings whose original facades are embellished with flower boxes.
What to See
For a secondary city, Monza has an enormous gothic cathedral. Dedicated by Queen Theodelinda to St. John the Baptist, inside is the Chapel of Theodelinda, original church built in 595 that the current cathedral was built up around. Visit the Duomo’s museum to see the Iron Crown of Lombardy, a relic that supposedly includes one of the nails used at Jesus’ Crucifixion. You can also see the heavy crown and gold comb of Theodelinda and other relics from the time. Though a part of Monza’s history, the Duomo is still very much a regular church serving central Monza. It’s wild to regularly attend mass in such an elaborate and ancient cathedral.
Read my musings on the Duomo, and culture shock, during my first months in Italy.
Ponte dei Leoni
The Bridge of Lions, this small bridge crosses the Lambro River, Brianza’s most important river. Flanked by two lion statues, there’s no better meeting place in Monza. “I’ll meet you at the Lions.” Next to the river you can see ruins from a 3rd century bridge built from the Gallo-Celtic tribe that founded the original village along the Lambro that grew into Monza. Try strange ice-cream flavors like parmesan cheese or fruitcake at COOL, the ice cream parlor just over the bridge.
In the center of Monza’s center you’ll find the Arengario, the city’s iconic 13th-century town hall building. Raised up on columns, this brick building has a clock tower on one side and a small balcony on the other, where leaders and politicians attempted to arringare the people. That is, gave a speech trying to move or convince the audience. It’s said that at this particular Arengario, Benito Mussolini, born in Brianza, held many speeches. Today the building holds temporary art exhibits, often for free.
Piazza Trento e Trieste
An enormous piazza built on the site of an enormous meadow of the ancient city, Piazza Trento e Trieste today is rung by bars with outdoor seating, the municipality building, an enormous high school and a hideous 60s-style apartment building that sits as the embarrassment of the city. Right in the middle is a massive monument dedicated to the fallen soldiers of World War I.
The city was once surrounded by walls. Of eight different medieval porte, or doors, into the city, only the Porta d’Agrate has survived. Supposedly, nearby is the same nunnery of the Nun of Monza written about by Alessandro Manzoni (infamous Italian author who’s book, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), is set in this area of Lombardy). Apparently this woman born in Milan “became involved in a scandal which took place in Monza, in northern Italy, at the beginning of the 17th century. It was revealed that she had given birth to two children fathered by a local aristocrat, and had connived in the murder of another nun to cover up the affair.”
The city was founded as a summer residence for the Duke of Milan, and his enormous Royal Villa still rules the town’s main boulevard. His gardens and hunting grounds are now one of Europe’s largest parks and the pride of the Monzese and surrounding towns.
The Villa Reale and the Park of Monza
The crown jewel of Monza is without a doubt the Villa Reale and its adjacent park. Larger and more opulent than Buckingham Palace (at least from the outside), the Villa Reale is a sight to see (at least from the outside). Long-time readers will know I’m not a huge fan of touring rich people houses, the Villa also holds regular art exhibits that are well-worth checking out.
The gardens include a large rose garden to the left of the villa and an enormous, and free, park located behind the villa. Beyond that is the actual Park of Monza. Once the hunting grounds of Napoleon while ruling as King of Italy, it’s now one of the largest parks in all of Europe and the fourth largest walled-in park. Covering approximately 1,700 acres and spanning multiple cities, the entire thing is more than double the size of Central Park in New York City and, oddly enough, surrounded by concrete or iron barred walls. Inside there are restaurants, playgrounds, bike rentals, a petting zoo, picnic tables, a mini-train tour, a country club with swimming pool and golf course and the autodromo, the famous Formula 1 racetrack. On weekends the park fills with people strolling, biking, rolling-blading, running or simply lounging in the enormous park. In June each year there are fireworks held on the first day of summer. The parks fills with thousands of people though, so come early and by public transportation!
The Park of Monza is incredible, and when I first moved here it was my outlet. I spent hours and hours each week running through the park, exploring every field, trail and old hunting house.
Read more about the Park of Monza here.
Like I said, Monza is a lived city. There isn’t so much to see, but plenty to experience. Stroll up and down the lined central street, watch as well-dressed women window shop with small dogs, as adolescents flood the streets when school gets out, as grandmother’s take their daily passeggiata and businessmen haunt their regular spot for a quick business lunch. The center of Monza is as stylized and efficient as a big city, with all the charm of a small Italian town.
How to Get There
Monza is north of Milan and south of Como and literally connected to all of Lombardy by train. As one of the most important stops of Brianza’s railway system, train is one of the easiest ways to arrive. It’s just a ten minute walk from the train station to the centro storico. Train tickets from Milan to Monza cost just 2 euro one-way.
Well marked on the highways and parkways, Monza is easy to get to by car as well, no matter where you’re coming from. Just keep in mind that the actual center of the city is a ZTL and off-limits to traffic. You’ll have to park slightly outside of the city center, often paying, then walk into the center.
It’s no secret I love Monza: