Northern Italy is truly a spectacular region, with rich culture, extensive history, outstanding food, and rugged nature. Not only does the feeling change as you go from west to east– or further north– but the entire northern part of Italy itself has a distinctive feeling that is quite different from the south. We took a driving trip here in August 2020, which confirmed that northern Italy is truly one of the best parts of Europe! (Note– I visited Milan and Italy many years ago and we didn’t go back on this trip, in an effort to avoid large crowds. As such, I’ve kept my recommendations for those cities limited to the big-ticket items.)
Milan is a lively city with a bustling university scene and plenty of great restaurants. The last time I visited Milan was in 2003, and while I’m sure it’s changed quite a bit over the years, the classic sites remain in place. First off, if you have the chance (and it’s open), try to go see the famous Leonardo Da Vinci painting The Last Supper. The main cathedral, Duomo di Milano, is stunning, and is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. Milan is also a fashion capital with plenty of high-end shopping options, such as the Valleria Vittorio Emanuele II — which can quickly melt your credit card. Don’t miss the Sempione Park, with it’s own Arc de Triomphe.
Venice is one of those world-class cities that is so famous, one could spend a lifetime blogging / writing about it. As with other cities like this, the upshot is that there is plenty of writing available about it. Anyone going to Venice probably has done their research — so I’ll just flag a few key “not to be missed” sites: 1) St. Mark’s Square and the associated Basilica with its intricate mosaics and museum; 2) Bridge of Sighs (named after the sighs of prisoners in transit); 3) the Doge’s Palace, is quite impressive– featuring classical Venetian architecture and history; 4) the Grand Canal, which cuts through the city center, and forms a water highway to the various parts of town. I never took a Gondola ride, but I hear they’re quite pricey. In any case– they’re plentiful if you’re in the market for one!
Undoubtedly most famous for its food, Parma is a great city to kick back, eat, and relax! Be sure to try the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (a geographic indicator for cheese made in that region), as well as the Parma ham, and anything with truffles in it! It’s possible to visit the farms in the surrounding area to see the cheese-making process, as well as the famous storehouse with hundreds of cheese wheels stacked up in rows. We went to Hombre, which also boasts a very cool Maserati museum. If you go on the first tour of the day in the early morning (appx 8:00 a.m.), you’ll be able to see the workers producing that day’s cheese. They also offer a tasting of various Parmesan cheeses, aged 12, 24, and 30 months. (Note– nearby Modena is famous for its food scene, particularly the Osteria Francescana that everyone knows from the Netflix documentary, Chef’s Table. But you’ll probably have to book ahead for that one).
While in Parma, be sure to visit the Baptistry and surrounding old city. We didn’t have the chance to catch a show at the theater, but it looks amazing! There are plenty of cheese and meat stores around town, as well as several outstanding restaurants and smaller cafes. We ate at Osteria dei Servi and loved it. It’s a cozy spot with a broad array of local dishes– infused with truffles, ham, and parmesan cheese– complete with a thick balsamic dipping sauce. The Ducale Park is a pleasant, open-air park with broad, tree-lined paths… it’s a great way to walk off a few calories!
While Verona might be most famous for being the location of Romeo and Juliette, I was really taken by the charm of this city, which quickly became one of my favorite places in all of Italy. I strongly recommend putting Verona at the top of your list!
We stayed at Casa al Giardino Giusti, which offered parking (a rarity), as well as a great room, a free minibar, breakfast, and a clean room. Best of all, it was an easy walk across the river into the old city. Our first stop in the Old City was the site that was inspired to be Romeo’s House — an understated archway that had a great restaurant next door (Osteria al Duca). I tried some local specialties including Amarone-infused steak and thick Bigoli noodles. (Note that donkey meat is served in this region, so if you want to try to — or avoid it — it’s best to do a bit of advance research!) We made a point of stopping by the house that inspired Shakespeare to deem it Juliette’s house — which has a scenic balcony and is more impressive than Romeo’s dwelling. (For huge fans of the story, you can actually stay at the house!)
The old city of Verona is perfect for exploring on foot and manages a great blend of fancy, modern shops and old-world charm. It has a large Roman amphitheater still used for performances (a symphony was practicing while we were there), as well as several scenic plazas with statues and Venetian architecture. Don’t miss Palazzo Maffei, Piazza delle Erbe (a famous courtyard with shops and cafes), Piazza dei Signori (a courtyard with a statue of Dante), Porta dei Borsari (an arched gate dating from the 1st century), and the Old Market Courtyard. A walk along the river is also very pleasant, with several cafes and restaurants lining the waterway. Crossing the Roman bridge Ponte Pietra, you can take a funicular (or walk) up to the Castel San Pietro, which has great views of the city — especially at sunset. We also took a gelato-making class with Ways Tours. We had Chef Christina Tabbachi, who was a friendly and engaging host. It added another facet to our trip to Verona and inspired us to start making gelato at home!
The nearby Valpolicella region is famous for making some of the world’s best wine, including Amarone, which involves drying grapes to yield rich, potent wine. The rolling hills and small villages give this region a bucolic atmosphere, making true the old adage that the best wine comes from beautiful terrain. We first went to Nicolis Winery, which had great wines and a friendly server who took the time to explain the wine-making process, while providing generous tastings. We then went to Le Bignele which had another great tour and tasting, along with cheese pairings. Finishing off our winery tour, we stopped by Cantina Contramalini, a smaller winery with several unique offerings. There are hundreds more– including big name producers like Masi— but I’ll have to save those for after retirement, I suppose : )
We stayed at the Casa Rosa Farmhouse— a pleasant agritourismo (farm-stay) place tucked in a rural farmlands, offering nice views, as well as locally-produced food, jams, and juices. We ate dinner at Piper Panoramic Restaurant and more — which had great food and a beautiful dining deck with views over the surrounding valley. The “and more” in the restaurant’s name refers to a glitzy nightclub on the premises, which wasn’t operating when we were there, but it seemed like it would be a happening spot in that neck of the woods.
A highlight of northern Italy is the Dolomite Mountain range. While I haven’t been able to go skiing there yet, we thoroughly enjoyed hiking around the scenic mountain lakes and along the cragged ridges of the steep mountain faces.
About 30 minutes east of Bolzano is Lake Carezza, a gorgeous mountain lake with turquoise water, pine trees, and a backdrop of jagged mountains. It’s a photogenic spot and a great base for hiking around the area. It can get crowded in the summertime though. Heading further north, Pragser Wildsee is another great mountain lake with hiking trails and rock climbing opportunities. We also stopped by Lago di Dobbiaco to round out our mountain lake trifecta!
While in the region, we took a day trip up to Seceda via cable car, which was expensive, but worth it. The cable car is about a 20-minute ride to the summit and offers a dramatic view of the surrounding mountains from the peak. There are plenty of hiking trails leading up the Seceda ridge, but at a certain point the trail becomes closed to professional climbers with technical gear. We ate at Baita Sofie, which had outstanding food and equally impressive mountain views from the outer deck. The interior is quite inviting as well (and much warmer!) but we braved the cold outside because the views were too impressive to pass up.
There are plenty of chalets, hotels, and campsites nearby, but it’s a good idea to book in advance if you’re here in the high season, as it does get crowded! We wanted to camp, but the “camp” grounds were so mobbed with people that we actually got a bit more privacy by staying in a chalet. (If anyone knows the process for getting approval to go rural / rustic camping– and good places to go– please let me know in the comments section!)
Cinque Terre is one of those places I’d heard so much about that I felt obliged to visit — and it lived up to the hype! Parking is basically non-existent in the five towns that comprise Cinque Terre, so we stayed in La Spezia and used it as a hub to travel by train to the towns. I found this website to be particularly helpful and I used it when planning my trip: https://fullsuitcase.com/cinque-terre-practical-information/
We stayed at Affittacamere Casa Danè, which was a small, but nice hotel near the train station. (Note: parking isn’t available at most hotels in downtown La Spezia because of ZTL traffic restrictions in the city, so we parked in a huge free lot on the other side of town. We had to schlep our bags a few blocks, but that seemed to be what most visitors were doing).
We took the train to the furthest of the five villages, Monterosso, which had beautiful beaches but was very crowded. After trying to get something to eat (and failing, due to the huge number of people), we snacked on food we brought and hiked to the next town, Vernazza. The hike was quite beautiful, passing through terraced farms and rocky, narrow footpaths, scaling up and down the hillside. It offered several fabulous vantage points to photograph Monterosso and Vernazza– and I’m told it is one of the most scenic hikes. That said, it was very hot! I can’t stress enough the need to bring plenty of water and sunscreen if you’re doing this hike in the summer! Even though the distance isn’t very far (about five kilometers), the up-and-down factor makes it more strenuous in the heat than you’d expect! Vernazza itself is an awesome, compact medieval city with great waterfront cafes. I really enjoyed having a Limoncello spritz after that sweaty hike!
We then went to Corniglia, which was another pleasant town on top of a rocky outcrop which is well worth exploring — and the massive staircase provides an easy trek down to the train station. It might not have been the most picturesque town, but I found it to be more low-key and inviting. It’s the one I would want to go back and stay at for a few days.
The hiking paths beyond Corniglia were closed to foot traffic due to landslides, so we continued by train to Manarola, home to the cliffside of colorful buildings featured in most of the famous photos you see of Cinque Terre. We walked along the harbor and nearby cliffside just in time for sunset, which offers some great photos!
We finished off our visit with a trip to Riomaggiore, which was pleasant, but we couldn’t find any restaurant with a spot available for two (lesson — make reservations here well in advance!) As a result, we ended up going back and having a very late dinner in La Spezia. Fortuitously, we ate al fresco at a great little restaurant downtown called F.I.CO.
We only spent a day in Bologna– not enough to do justice to such a prominent and historic city. Still, we enjoyed seeing the highlights including the central Piazza Maggiore and nearby Basilica di San Petronio, the Neptune fountain, and the impressive Renaissance-era architecture. The Two Towers are another prominent landmark, dating back to the 12th century. The Palazzo d’Accursio (town hall) is another gem of this city, although we spent much of our time outside, wandering through the arched shopping arcades and enjoying the cafes. I particularly recommend Caffè Zanarini, with its fabulous fruit-filled croissants, chocolates, and coffee variants.
Lake Como is a stunning destination, with gorgeous villas and gardens, set to a mountainous backdrop. We spent our first night there at a farmstay, La Zoca di Strii, which was superb. Our room had a balcony overlooking the mountains and lake Como, and it came with welcome drinks and a nice breakfast on the patio. The nearby village also had local charm and an old church.
Driving around Lake Como can be hair-raising, with some very narrow, winding roads. There are also ZTLs (traffic-restricted areas that will give you a ticket if you drive in them without a special permit), so it’s important to watch out for those.
We drove up to Villa dei Balbianello, a gorgeous estate with palm trees, well-maintained gardens, and a cafe. Once we found parking in the nearby town (no easy feat), we then walked a couple kilometers through the scenic woods before arriving at the villa. (You have to pay to access the woods and another fee for the villa itself).
The next day, we stayed at a B&B on the eastern side of the lake, which had a nice pool and views. The nearby town of Dervio had some low-key restaurants and a good gelateria, as well as a park with a kite-surfing school. We spent most of the down in Varenna, which was picturesque, with plenty of waterfront restaurants with charm and atmosphere– especially near the harbor. The botanical gardens at Giardino Botanico Di Villa Cipressi were truly outstanding — and a high point of our trip to Lake Como. There is also an impressive mountain castle nearby, as well as a famous Lovers’ Walk, with plenty of couples and tour groups jostling for selfies.
One of the nicest lakes in northern Italy, we opted to visit Lake Garda for an afternoon. While the cities of Lazise and Garda looked appealing, we opted for Sirmione, on the tip of a peninsula jutting into the lake from the south. We parked at the base of the peninsula and entered Sirmione on foot over a medieval drawbridge at Scaligero Castle. From there, the city is packed with cafes, gelato shops, restaurants, and walking paths along the lake. Despite the crowds downtown, the city has a laid-back, positive atmosphere. It’s also possible to take boat trips around the lake. Heading further north, there are several parks with flower-lined walking paths, and high-end hotels. At the very tip of the peninsula are the well preserved ruins of a Roman villa.
The Aosta valley has plenty of mountain castles, hillside vineyards, and alpine towns, each with its own character and history. We ate at La Maison de la Pizza, in a village west of Aosta, which was a small neighborhood eatery with friendly service and delicious brick-oven pizza. From the town of Aosta, we took the winding, scenic mountain road up to the Great St. Bernard Pass, on the border with Switzerland. The trip up the mountain took longer than expected, as we kept stopping to go on little hikes, take photos, or buy cheese from local roadside vendors.
At the top of the pass is a statue of St. Bernard and a shop / restaurant on a mountain lake. Across the border on the Swiss side, we visited a hospice, which features a well-maintained museum, as well as a tomb for one of Napoleon’s generals, as the Grand Army passed through here during Napoleon’s Marengo campaign. There’s also a museum on the opposing side of the road.
The rain and wind kicked up when we visited the Gran Paradiso National Park, so we weren’t able to do as much hiking as we wanted, but we were still impressed with the what we saw. We used the parking lot at Albergo Gran Paradiso as our base and wandered around from there. Next time (when the weather cooperates), we’ll aim to hike to Laghi del Nivolet and some trails west of Pont. We were also impressed with the campground just before the Albergo, which features tall, thick pine trees alongside a river.