Lombardy is the perfect destination for people who want the full Italian experience: history, culture, food and drink, relaxation, day trips, beautiful scenery and many more things to do. Here’s how one region can give you everything Italy has to offer
With amazing deals from across the US to Milan Malpensa Airport, plus low prices to Milan Bergamo and Milan Linate from other European cities, it’s the perfect time to take that Italian trip you’ve always promised yourself. Fly to the Lombardy region and land in beauty: ancient cities, world-class food and drink, and some of the most incredible landscapes in the country.
Fly to Milano and land in beauty
You’ll start at the mighty Duomo — the cathedral — as almost everyone does. Set back from the piazza, it’s a magical mix of tourists, locals, pigeons and people trying to get the vast building into one photograph. It’s a masterpiece, as is the fresco on the wall of the nearby Santa Maria delle Grazie. This former Dominican convent houses Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, the huge fresco restored and glorious. You have to book well in advance to see it, but when else will you get to see one of the world’s greatest works of art in its original setting?
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Get over your jet lag by relaxing in one of the city’s many parks and gardens, or treat yourself to some retail therapy (or just a spot of window shopping!) in the palatial Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, built in the 19th century, and Italy’s largest shopping gallery. Indulge in some classic Lombardy cuisine (more of which below), or simply sit and people-watch. After all, in one of Europe’s most stylish cities, there’s always something or someone to see!
For more on Milan, check out YesMilano.
Lots of visitors, particularly when visiting from somewhere in Europe, will arrive at Milan Bergamo Airport and head directly from there to Milan. This would be a mistake, as Bergamo, settled high on a hilltop, is a lovely town.
By bus from the airport, you wind your way up towards the Città Alta (the Upper Town), a walled, fortified core of narrow, hilly streets and lop-sided squares. You can look out over the plains below and to the Alps in the middle distance, before exploring its many churches, chapels, museums, and excellent little shops selling bread, cakes, wine and cheese, all made locally.
Bergamo is also home to Atalanta, a soccer team that for the past few seasons has been bloodying the noses of the traditionally successful Italian clubs, with their swashbuckling style attracting new fans; if you fancy experiencing the passion of Italian soccer, you could do a lot worse than catch a game here. Their stadium is a bizarre mix of styles, from the 1920s facade of the west stand, to the futuristic north stand. It fits with the city itself: new and old, separate but together, creating a strong, interesting identity.
From 1328 to 1708, parts of northern Italy were ruled over by the House of Gonzaga, a princely family that had their seat of power in Mantua. Using their money and influence, the Gonzaga dynasty made Mantua into one of the finest cities in Italy.
Architecturally, culturally, and artistically significant, the cityscape is a collection of Renaissance buildings surrounded by three artificial lakes. These were created in the 12th century as defensive measures and, from a distance, give the city an almost haughty look: Mantua knows it’s something special.
Consistently ranked as one of Italy’s top cities for quality of life, wandering its streets you can absolutely see why. The buildings — the Ducal Palace, the Castello San Giorgio, the Cattedrale di San Pietro and so many more — are sturdy, satisfying structures. Leave the city by the Ponte di San Giorgio in the early evening, cross the lake, and watch the sunset over the city, and you’ll see why artists from Monteverdi to Shakespeare were inspired by this gem of Lombardy.
Founded over 3,200 years ago in the foothills of the Alps only a few kilometers from the Garda and Iso lakes, Brescia has the best-preserved Roman structures in northern Italy. The Capitolium of Brixia, dating from 73AD, the surrounding Forum, and the 8th century monastic complex of San Salvatore-Santa Giulia are all Unesco-protected sites, and the latter is considered one of the seven Places of Power of the Longobard (Lombard) Kingdom.
So Brescia is ancient and historically important. It has not one, but two cathedrals, located side-by-side on the Piazza Paolo VI, and the pretty, Venetian-style Piazza della Loggia is exactly that: it dates from 1433, when Brescia asked Venice to protect it from the grasp of the noble — and powerful — Visconti family of Milan.
It’s also home to an excellent museum detailing the history of the Mille Miglia, a 1,618 kilometer (around 1,000 Roman miles) motor race on public roads around Italy, from Brescia to Rome and back. Even this, a museum dedicated to a thoroughly modern sport, is housed in an 11th-century monastery complex!
When you’re done exploring, settle back with a plate of casonsèi (a type of local ravioli), or polenta smothered in bagòss, a cheese from nearby Bagolino, and congratulate yourself on finding yet another amazing place in Lombardy.
For many people, the name Monza means only one thing: motor racing. The historic circuit blasts its way through the woodland in the Royal Villa of Monza park, and is the oldest racetrack in mainland Europe. However, if you’re not here for the cars, then Monza has a lot more going for it as well.
Only 15 kilometers or so from Milan, the center of Monza is marked out by Gothic, red-brick structures such as the Duomo with its striped facade and curious afterthought of a belltower, the ornate archways of the Palazzo dell Arengario, and the 14th-century Chiesa di Santa Maria. Behind the cathedral is the excellent Museum and Treasures of the Duomo, a collection of artworks and relics that also serves as a thorough history of the cathedral.
The previously mentioned Royal Villa is worth your time as well: a grand, 18th-century palace with landscaped gardens and an air of Hapsburg finery. It’s a change from the typical architecture of the region, and marks Monza out as a refined and serene place to spend a day.
What to eat and drink
Italian food is rightly famous as one of the most popular cuisines in the world: fresh, simple recipes made with love and care, satisfying and full of flavor. You can get typical Italian fare, of course — pizza, pasta, bruschetta, ice cream and so forth — but Lombardy also has its own delights to try.
The classic risotto alla Milanese is a must-eat. Earthy and rich, saffron adds a yellow color and a deep flavor, while beef stock and white wine add depth, and parmesan gives the dish a pungent thump. Either as a starter, or topped with ossobuco (veal shank braised with vegetables), it’s utterly delicious.
Other local specialities include mondeghili (Milanese meatballs), cotoletta alla Milanese (veal schnitzel), tortelli di zucca (pasta stuffed with pumpkin) gorgonzola cheese (from the town of Gorgonzola, just east of Milan), and everything can be washed down with a glass of Franciacorta Brut, a Chardonnay/Pinot blanc mix that’s dry, fruity and refreshing.
It might be seasonal, but Lombardy is also the home of panettone, the sweet bread enjoyed around the world across Christmas and New Year. Winter or not, many cafes and bakeries across the region will serve panettone with coffee or sparkling wine.
For a real local treat, see if you can get to an agriturismo. These are small, normally family-run farms designed to take in guests. Many of these will offer wine tasting events, with delicious vintages accompanied by local cheeses, meats and bread. Mantua’s legendary Bar Caravatti also has its own, specific drink of choice: simply known as the Caravatti, it’s a secret recipe house vermouth (white, rosé or red) with ice and seltzer, served with anchovies on buttered bread.
Slow the pace
A lovely way to see the countryside in all its verdant glory is to rent a bicycle and follow one of the many well-marked cycle trails that criss-cross the region.
The Mincio Cycleway, for example, connects the two towns of Peschiera del Garda and Mantua. At 43.5 kilometers and with barely a hill in sight, you can follow the river Mincio as it winds its way past the castle of Valeggio sul Mincio, the historic water mills of Borghetto sul Mincio, and along the canals of the Mantuan Plain.
You could also choose to set out from the center of Milan, and take the route along the Martesana Canal, joining the River Adda to Milan itself. This 32-kilometer trail takes you past farms and homesteads and on towards grand manor houses, the beautiful gardens of the 18th-century Villa Alari Visconti, and along trails lined with hedgerows blooming with life.
The Ticino Cycleway begins in Pavia, to the southwest of Milan, and riding south to north along the Ticino River, gives wonderful views as the Alps loom ever closer in the background. Linking Pavia on the river Po and the town of Sesto Calende on Lake Maggiore, it can also provide a cycle connection to Malpensa Airport!
There are longer trails that take in the western lakes — Orta, Mergozzo, Maggiore, Lugano and Como — and include such delights as a couple of ferry crossings, meaning you can see some of the grand lakeside villas that were designed to be seen from the water, and a climb up to the chapel of the Madonna del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cyclists.
If you’re looking for a tougher challenge, you could follow the route of the Tour of Lombardy, considered one of the most prestigious one-day events in world cycling. The 94.3-kilometer route climbs a total of 2,245 meters, meaning it’s not one for the faint-hearted, but you don’t have to do the whole route in one go. There are plenty of places to stop overnight such as the lakeside towns of Lecco, Sorico and Como itself, all with glorious views over Lake Como.
Head to the water
With all the rivers and lakes mentioned above, it would be a shame to visit Lombardy and not spend a few days living the good life on the waterfront.
Over the years the lakes (Como in particular) have attracted A-listers such as George Clooney, Madonna, Richard Branson and Gianni Versace, all of whom have owned property on the lake at one time or another. Traveling by boat over the clear, blue waters of the lake, you can see some of the grandest properties in all of Italy, including Clooney’s 22-room villa in the small village of Laglio.
Stop by the town of Bellagio — the Pearl of Lake Como — and feel like a star yourself as you sip a coffee or a glass of local wine on one of the stunning piazzas. The town is divided in two, the dazzling lakefront backed by the old town on the hill behind, its labyrinth of cobbled streets just ready to explore. You could also walk from Bellagio to Punta Spartivento for spectacular views to other towns across the lake, stopping awhile to watch the colorful boats lazily come and go.
East of Bergamo, Lake Iseo is home to Monte Isola, the largest lake island in Europe. The villages of Monte Isola are often said to be some of the most beautiful in the country, and the island doesn’t allow cars, with mopeds and bicycles the only forms of transport. It’s the perfect way to finish your trip to Lombardy: surrounded by peace and quiet, a glass of something local in your hand, the water lapping at the shore, and a feeling that you might never want to leave.
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