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At first glance, Milan may seem industrial and commercial, but it’s actually filled with cosmopolitan restaurants, fashionable locals, amazing shopping, one of the country’s most magnificent cathedrals and gems like the Navigli canal district.
Once you spend a couple of days in Milan, you can head toward the hills from this easily accessible hub — or take a day trip to explore the history and sample the gastronomy in the old walled city of Bergamo, perched atop a hill beneath the fog in the Lombardy region.
There are a host of places that should be on your radar to add to a trip to this great city in northern Italy, never feel you’re tied to one place! Below are our top picks of where to go and what to see as a “second city” to complement Milan.
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The lakes: Como, Garda, Iseo and Maggiore
Northern Italy is dotted with gorgeous lakes and with so many to choose from it may be difficult to decide where to go. Here’s the lowdown:
If you’re looking for a glamorous getaway, head to Lake Como. This is one of the most expensive lake destinations, but its luxury digs and opulent vibes are perfect for anyone searching for five-star treatment — and perhaps a glance of the rich and famous who also holiday there.
Find a fancy hotel in a lakeside village such as Bellagio or Varenna and make sure to do George’s Tour offered by Taxi Boat Varenna — a boat cruise that takes you past waterfalls, quaint lakeside villages and famous villas including George Clooney’s mansion.
For a low-key, family-friendly break, visit Lake Iseo. Ferry over to Monte Isola, an island in the middle of the lake where you can rent bikes and lap the island, stopping to dive into the cool lake waters or to admire the teeny islet of Loreto, which is home to a private castle towering over Iseo’s crystal blue waters.
Anyone would happily enjoy a break on Italy’s largest lake, Garda, but it’s the ideal spot if you’d like to combine lake fun with wine tasting, as the southeastern banks of Garda are flat and wide, home to vineyards producing varieties like Bardolino. Meanwhile, Riva del Garda at the lake’s northernmost tip is called the Pearl of Lake Garda, home to medieval architecture, sandy beaches, olive groves and a number of picturesque hiking trails.
Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy the biking, hiking and watersports that Lake Maggiore offers — in two different countries, as the lake spans both Italy and Switzerland. After working up a sweat, enjoy a simple picnic, munching on the island’s famous cheese, Ossolano d’Alpe and melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto — or a traditional lakeside Italian dinner of lake trout or risotto.
Getting to the lakes
Each of these lakes is a short road trip or train ride from Milan. Even though you may have to change trains to get to certain villages, most trips should be under the three-hour mark. If you plan to take a rental car between Italy and Switzerland, make sure to tell the rental-car agency first as you may need a vignette sticker to drive on Swiss highways.
Where to stay
The Hilton Lake Como has rooms that overlook the glittering lake starting at about £145 or 52,000 points per night over the next month or so in low season. Key features include a rooftop infinity pool and solarium. The hotel is about a 20-minute walk from the historic town centre of Como.
If you choose to stay along the other lakes, a home rental or boutique hotel such as the Grand Hotel Bristol on Lake Maggiore, which was once a private noble residence may provide more local flavour. Prices start at £115 per night in low season.
Prosecco Road trip
La Strada del Prosecco (Prosecco Road) is a scenic stretch of Italian roads, a region bordered by the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, famous for prosecco production. Although prosecco is actually made all over Italy, some of the best bubbly comes from this particular area.
With more than 35 wineries along the Strada del Prosecco, this adventure is best enjoyed without a big plan in mind. Drive the region at your own pace, stopping to enjoy leisurely Italian lunches, wander cobblestone village streets, explore baroque churches, visit medieval castles and, of course, sample the wine at vineyards like Gregoletto, featuring ancient wine cellars and a library on the property. Visits are currently by appointment only.
If you’d rather have a driver and guide so you can really indulge in prosecco, regional tours at tour agency Prosecco di Marca include transportation.
Rent a car in Milan and start driving east for the three-and-a-half-hour journey. Make a stop on the way at Verona, famous for its perfectly preserved arena, which still houses operas, concerts and other events. The city also includes a home said to have inspired Romeo and Juliet’s legendary love story, complete with what is touted as Juliet’s balcony, which you can hang out of to declare your love to the unsuspecting tourists below.
After driving through the narrow, winding roads of the region, end your trip in Venice, where you can enjoy a romantic couple of days exploring the town’s canals and squares.
Where to stay
The Best Western Canon d’Oro — about £80 per night in low season — isn’t your typical cookie-cutter convention centre hotel. Instead, the 16th-century building is known as a historic hotel featuring a beautifully landscaped courtyard and a library lounge with books and cosy armchairs. Its Conegliano location makes the hotel a perfect base for exploring the region.
The Piedmont is one of Italy’s most underrated regions, but people are starting to wise up. Many are whispering it’s the new Tuscany — and making some serious claims that it’s where the country’s best cuisine and wine can be found. It’s home to the headquarters of Slow Food International.
Bordering France to the west and Switzerland to the north, the region’s main city is Turin. It’s a hidden gem that many tourists mistakenly skip. A fascinating city set against the backdrop of the Italian Alps on the banks of the Po River, Turin is not only Italy’s first capital but also houses one of the most famous artifacts in Christianity, the Shroud of Turin, a piece of fabric that some claim was wrapped around Jesus.
The region is scattered with hilltop villages, expansive vineyards and forests where excited foodies can hunt for truffles. You may even sense a hint of truffle flavour in the region’s famous wine, which is made from the Nebbiolo grape.
If you haven’t yet realised, truffle is one of the most famous ingredients in Piedmont and many of the traditional dishes are also made with farm-fresh egg yolks, like the famous tajarin — long strips of egg-infused pasta. And don’t miss Bra, home of the Slow Food movement. In the winter months, the skiing is some of the best in Italy in spots like the Val di Susa valley.
Although you can reach Turin in just about an hour from Milan by train, it may be best to rent a car and drive so you can explore all that the Piedmont region has to offer.
Where to stay
The AC Hotel Torino, a Marriott hotel built in a former pasta factory, is an affordable points or cash option. Rooms start at £85 or 15,000 points per night for low season.
For something a little more Italian, head out to the countryside and stay in an agriturismo, a farm-style bed and breakfast, like Ma che bel Castello, a castle set upon the vineyards of Maranzana — rooms start at £109 per night — or the boutique La Villa Hotel, dating back to 1600 and attached to a wine-tasting room and stunning gardens with rooms starting at about £209 per night.
Italy is a country that keeps on giving, so never assume you could experience it all in one trip. And while many of us flock to the major players such as Rome, Florence and, of course, Milan, there’s always another adventure on your doorstep — and plenty of food waiting for you.
Featured photo by Umberto Leporini/EyeEm/Getty Images
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