Lombardy is a region unfairly overlooked by international travelers.
I know, I know, Tuscany’s charm is far-reaching, Venice’s (because few go beyond the city) fame international, but Lombardy has cosmopolitan Milan and tiny villages dotting the mountainside. It has Alpine peaks and undulating rice fields. It has university towns, thermal spas, ski resorts and world-class cuisine. Though there’s no coastline to brag about, with Como, Garda, Maggiore and Iseo, Lombardy hosts Italy’s most romantic lakes.
I think the problem is that visitors make a quick stop in Milan then dash.
I think the problem is that nobody knows better.
I’m here to help that.
Top Day Trips From Milan:
Just 10 miles north of Milan, Monza is by far the easiest of these day trips. Once Milan’s granary, Monza is now the third largest city in Lombardy, the capital of the province and a veritable center of commerce and administration. But travelers will be most interested in its small and neat centro storico, its magnificent Villa Reale, its massive park and the Formula 1 racetrack within. Recently restored, the Villa Reale also holds rotating art exhibitions that are usually worth a visit. I‘ve chosen the Villa Reale as one of the best Italian palaces. Read the other options at Italian Palaces and Gardens Better than Versailles.
Monza was once my home and is still where I work and spend most of my time in Brianza. Read more about my favorite city in Brianza with my Guide to Monza
Pavia is located just 27 miles away in the Oltrepò Pavese, the name of the zone south of Milan (the name literally means “the other side of the Po [River]”). It’s an area most known for its acres and acres of rice paddies, delicious sparkling wine and simple country beauty. The city itself is home to one of the oldest universities in all of Italy, the Instituto Universitario di Studi Superior (IUSS), and boasts alumni like Christopher Columbus and Ugo Foscolo. Check out an art exhibit in Castello Visconti, tour the top churches and eat some delicious risotto.
After, head to see the Certosa, an impressive cathedral built by the same architect as Milan’s Duomo. Read more about this small university town. In my previous post on Pavia, I said it wasn’t worth a visit to those short on time and I think that’s probably true. But for those looking to branch out a bit more, explore something new and wander without throngs of tourists, Pavia is a lovely town to visit.
Bergamo Alta is the upper town of Bergamo perched atop a hill. Like a crown placed on a king’s head, towers and steeples poke out above the walls encircling the hilltop, and the view from atop is even better! Plan your visit for mid-afternoon to have time to walk or take the funicular to the top, stroll the tiny centro storico and catch the sunset over Bergamo. Enjoy dinner with a view of the twinkling lights below before heading back to Milan. Learn more about the city with my Guide To Bergamo Alta
The ritzy town of Como is just a 35-minute train ride from Milan. From there, you can take a ferry to the multi-color village of Varenna, to the gorgeous gardens of Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo or to stroll the streets of Bellagio, perhaps the most elegant town along the lake. The lake has a reputation for romance for a reason: the scenery is stupendous. Tiny fishing towns that seem to spill into sparkling water of the massive lake are surrounded by the foothills of the Alps. Fancy boutiques, perfectly balanced cocktails and flowers abound. What more could you want?
Brescia is another one of those cities where the primary activity is to simply stroll and enjoy everyday Italian life. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to see. See the Venetian-style buildings in Piazza della Loggia, enjoy the Baroque frescoes in Chiesa dei Santi Faustino e Giovita, see the Duomo Nuovo and the Duomo Vecchio, a round-church with dozens of names. Brescia is also home to the Capitalium, a temple built in 73 AD dedicated to Jupiter, Minerva and Juno and one of the best preserved Roman relics in Italy. Then, tour the stunning Teatro Grande.
What’s more, three of the nine places in Lombardy that are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites are located in the province of Brescia. Overlooked and underappreciated, Brescia is just a 40-minute train ride from Milan and a great starting point to tour the sparkling wines of Franciacorta, Lago Iseo or even Lago di Garda!
Home of Antonio Stradivari, maker of the infamous (some say best-ever) Stradivarius violins, Cremona is a city of music. In fact, the first stop in the city should definitely be the Violin Museum to see the works-of-art, the home of Stradivari and, most importantly, the workshops where master artisans still work today. This craftwork, passed from generation to generation, has been given UNESCO Immaterial World Heritage Status. Climb to the top of the Torrazzo, the Duomo’s belltower, for a view of the entire city, check out the veggie-inspired artwork of Arcimboldo, cross the peaceful Po River, but no matter what, be sure to get the tortelli di zucca, the pumpkin tortelli native to Cremona.
The most beautiful way to enjoy Lago Maggiore is to visit its islands. The Borromean Isles, Isola Bella and Isola Madre, both have magnificent villas with even better gardens. According to the website, “It took four hundred years and the work of a hundred men to transform Isola Bella from a barren rock in the middle of the lake to a place of delight.” And to think it was all done for just one family! Luckily, the islands are now open to visitors who can take an easy ferry from Stresa (just an hour train ride from Milan) and enjoy the gorgeous scenery in one of Lombardy’s most noted lakes. Note that Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Rocca Borromeo (on the shore) are open from roughly the end of March to the end of October and unvisitable during the winter months.
While not actually a part of Lombardy, Verona in the Veneto region is still only about an 70 minute train ride from Milan and an absolute amazing town to visit. Home of Romeo and Juliet, the absolute incredible Arena di Verona and the one-of-a-kind Piazza delle Erbe, Verona is one of those Italian gems that travelers come from across the Atlantic to see. The summer months are the perfect time to get an easy-going taste of Italian opera with 25-euro tickets to the opera in the Arena. After, explore the most romantic balcony of all time and enjoy Verona’s celebrated happy hour.
Want to extend the trip? Read my guide From Milan to Venice: Mantova, Verona and Padova.
It’s no secret that I absolutely love Mantua (Mantova in Italian). In just one short day trip it absolutely captured me. The city is beautiful, lively, unique. Mantova’s culture runs deep and practically begs to be explored. Learn about the Gonzaga’s, Mantova’s insanely rich ruling family and the art they supported. Come during the International Literature Festival to celebrate the field in the city of Virgil. And of course, eat, eat, eat!
Unfortunately, Mantova is a bit of a longer-haul than the other options on the list: It takes about 2 hours by train from Milan and about the same by car. In this case an overnight stay would be better – adding on nearby Sabbionetta – but I fell in love in a day and you can too.
Sirmione is another long-haul day-trip, but worth a mention to those willing to battle the transit or find a way to stay overnight. Known as the Pearl of Lake Garda, it’s a must-see town along the lake and a beautiful introduction to the massive stretch of fresh water. Located between Brescia and Verona, Venice and Milan, the lake makes for an excellent day trip or a stop-over on a Venice to Milan road trip. Its enormous size puts it into three different provinces – Verona, Brescia and Trentino – and there’s plenty to explore! Day trippers will want to focus on just one location, and there’s no better stop than Sirmione. Stroll the tiny streets, soak in the sun and abundance of flowers, visite the grotte and the thermal spas and enjoy all the freshwater fish you can eat.
Read more about Sirmione, Italy: The Pearl of Lake Garda.