Lombardy is an economic powerhouse. And its capital Milan often takes the crown from Rome when it comes to job prospects and quality of life. The industrial hinterlands may not offer much to the traveling aesthete, but head further out and you’ll find glittering lakes, pristine medieval towns, and world-class art. Not to mention breathtaking architecture and delicious gastronomy. This Lombardy travel guide will introduce you to the best things to see and do in and around Milan.
It has been said that Lombardy resembles Germany and France more than its adjacent Italian regions. Lombardy, in fact, was ruled by both the French and Austro-Hungarians. Its name derives from the Scandinavian-Germanic Lombard tribe that ousted the Romans. Today, elegant cities, excellent public transportation, and old-world glamour make Italy’s richest region intimidatingly beautiful and beguiling.
Despite Lake Como and Lake Garda’s huge international fame, much of Lombardy is relatively tourist-free. Many of the smaller towns, hiking trails, and spas are known only to locals. This makes for a delightfully authentic Italian experience.
Lombardy Travel Guide
1. Explore Milan, Italy’s Fashion Capital
Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, is a heady mix of modern-day energy, achingly beautiful art-deco, and neoclassical architecture. Here, life is lived as elegantly as possible. With the Renaissance Santa Maria Della Grazie, the Medieval Duomo, and the 19th-century shopping plaza, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan’s historical highlights are enough to keep visitors busy for a weekend or longer. Add to that the world-class art housed across Pinacoteca di Brera, Palazzo Reale, and the modern masterpieces in Mudec and the Fondazione Prada and you’ve got a cultural offering to rival Rome.
Discover how to spend 48 hours in Milan in our weekend guide. Be sure to finish each day with the city’s legendary aperitivo before dining at some of the country’s best restaurants.
2. Taste Lombard Cuisine
Northern Italian food is surprisingly diverse and worlds away from the pizza and pasta of southern Italy. Typical recipes include polenta, rice dishes, fresh cheese, and red meats. A great place to taste this traditional cuisine is at one of Milan’s heritage restaurants, founded at the end of the city’s art deco era.
The interior of Trattoria Milanese is decked out in dark wood, glowing chandeliers, and vintage bottles that line the walls. Delightfully intimate, the menu features Lombardy’s finest dishes. This includes Cotoletta alla Milanese (breaded veal cutlet), risotto with osso buco, and pasta and vegetables galore. Wash everything down with a full-bodied red from the shelves.
Relatively new to the canal district of Navigli, Nebbia is making waves across the city for its chic interiors and interesting twists on traditional Milanese cuisine. Head down for an early aperitivo on the water before settling in for the night. Regular specialties include duck liver brioche with caramelized onions, roasted pumpkin with goat’s cheese and sesame, and octopus with pork cheek and local greens.
3. Explore Italy’s Great Lakes
The charm of the Italian lakes has captivated travelers for centuries. Smooth, aquamarine water, pastel-colored villas, exquisite gardens with lemon trees, bright pink azaleas, and verdant lawns add to the sensory overload of the lakes. From the expansive Lago Maggiore, the majestic Como, or the glittering Garda, these bodies of water offer a refreshing respite from sweltering days in the towns. And, they match Lombardy’s cities for culture and gastronomy.
Lake Maggiore, Lake Como, and Lake Garda are easily accessible by train from Milan. Once on the lake, it’s easy to get around via boats and water taxis. Additionally, from any of the lakes, it’s possible to stop off in any number of pretty towns to admire medieval churches, and Belle Epoque facades, as well as taste local delicacies. Some favorite towns are:
- Lake Como: Cernobbio and Bellagio
- Lake Garda: Sirmione, Salò and Limone sul Garda
- Lake Maggiore: Stresa and Laveno
For a meal with a view, look no further than Aurora Restaurant, just south of Bellagio. With a shady terrace overlooking tranquil waters and distant mountains, Aurora is the optimal location for a relaxing lunch or dinner. The kitchen specializes in freshly-caught lake fish, but their pasta and pizzas are also hard to beat.
4. Spend a Night on Lake Como
Grand Hotel Tremezzo is a glittering jewel on Lake Como’s eastern shores. Opened in 1910, this great dame has hosted sophisticated travelers for over a century. Today, the hotel remains a destination for Italy’s well-heeled and cultured. Many Milanese head north during the weekends to experience impeccable Italian hospitality and traditions.
From the hotel’s 100 windows, you can see across the water to the picturesque Bellagio, the expansive terrace, and the landscaped gardens. “The Grand” has three swimming pools, including one which floats atop the lake. Rent a boat and choose from five restaurants and bars offering the culinary delights of Chef Gualtiero Marchesi.
The hotel is located just next to Villa Carlotta, a lakeside villa with a spectacular botanical garden, winding trails, and parks. If you want to explore, hop on one of the numerous ferries and boats to visit other villages and towns located along the lake.
5. Visit the Medieval Towns of Cremona and Mantua
Lombardy may be full of glamour and pizazz, but much of its charm can also be found in the smaller towns and cities. If you’re looking for a quieter day trip, head southeast to Cremona. This honey-colored medieval town is full of beautiful boutiques, spacious galleries, and pretty restaurants. It is also now a world heritage site, thanks to the Stradivarius Violin Museum, which preserves the violins of Amati, Guarnieri, and Stradivari. Make sure to check out the website for the numerous recitals and concerts in the city throughout the year.
From Cremona, it’s a short drive to the city of Mantua—made famous by Romeo’s banishment here. As you arrive, the city’s domes and towers rise up from the landscape. Once inside the city’s historic center, head to Antica Osteria Leoncino Rosso to eat tortelli with pumpkin, a regional specialty. Stroll through the beautiful Palazzo Ducale to catch a glimpse of what life was like for the Gonzaga family, who ruled the city for over 400 years. The city has plenty of wide-open piazzas and lovely walks along the river, making it the perfect place to relax after a few days in a bigger city.
6. Hike in the Mountains
While Lombardy may often bring to mind the glitz and glamour of Milan and the lakes, some of the most authentic experiences can be found just a short train ride, or even a stroll, from the bustling centers. Hiking in Lombardy often means hiking in the trails of the breathtaking pre-alps. Visitors traversing the Alps can descend from the snowcapped peaks and discover pops of color where the land meets the water. From land to sky, you can see verdant foliage, shimmering lakes, and towering, snow-capped peaks.
A personal favorite is the Cadorna Line hike from Porta Ceresio, an hour on the train from Milan. The trail follows in the footsteps of the partisans who fought against the fascists in World War II. In addition, the trails around Lake Como and Lake Maggiore are equally spectacular, with lake views on one side and huts owned by local Alpini on the other.
7. Relax in a Spa in Bormio
While southern Italians head to the beach, northerners are famous for their love of the mountains. Whether it’s hiking in the Alpine meadows in the summer or skiing in the winter, the alps offer no end of outdoor activities for the energetic traveler. If you find yourself in need of some fresh air and recuperation, make like the Milanese and head to the spa.
Located in the very north of Lombardy, Bormio has been a wellness destination since the Roman era, when well-heeled generals and aristocrats first lauded the benefits of taking the waters. Today there are three main spas to choose from, all offering treatments such as massages and facials as well as infinity pools and terraces that overlook the rolling hills and mountains. Check out the QC Bagni Vecchi and QC Bagni Nuovi for a relaxing weekend at one of Italy’s leading spa hotel brands.
8. Explore Beautiful Bergamo
Often overlooked for its starrier neighbor Milan, we couldn’t leave Bergamo off of our Lombardy Travel Guide. La Città Dei Mille (The City of the Thousand), is divided into two parts. Explore the Città Alta (high city), a labyrinth of medieval alleyways all enclosed within the walkable Venetian wall. Charming baroque and medieval buildings look down over the vineyards below, while gentle mists rise in the autumn and winter, giving the city a gothic, hidden-away appearance. A footpath leads around the fortified walls of Cittá Alta to Porta San Giacomo, continue down this cobbled path to enjoy Cittá Bassa’s (low city) stunning palazzos.
Come for the architecture, but stay for the majestic duomo that’s located just off the main piazza. The gilded ceilings and towering sculptures are a testament to the Venetian wealth that splashed around the city during the 18th century. The cathedral is breathtaking and just a few steps from some of the best restaurants in town. After a morning of culture, make sure to stop at Da Franco or Trattoria Tre Torri for lunch of truffle risotto, wild boar pasta, or stuffed ravioli.