Italy is where I come from and where I keep returning. It’s an always-a-good-time-to-go destination! This became true for me especially since I started living abroad, and I had the chance to visit Italy through the eyes of my non-Italian friends. An itinerary in northern Italy, in particular, was something I had never done before, and that is why I’m happy to share it with you today!
I think the best way to experience cities like Milan, Venice, and Verona as well as relaxing lakes and stunning mountains is, first, to reserve 10 days to complete the trip. Then, decide which wheels you want to use to get around. You may complete the itinerary in the most sustainable way (riding public busses and trains) or you can drive a car. You already know what I would choose, but keep in mind that by car your trip will be a lot easier.
Day 1: Milan
You want to start a 10-day itinerary of northern Italy from its most famous and glamorous city, Milan.
HOW TO GET THERE
Milan is served by three airports, all connected to the city by bus: the Malpensa Airport (1 hour away from Milan downtown by train and where most international airlines stop), the Linate Airport (used for domestic and local air travels), and by the Caravaggio Orio al Serio Airport in nearby Bergamo (low-cost and budget airlines arrive here).
If you aren’t flying, train stations are almost everywhere, starting from the Milano Centrale train station (Piazza Duca d’Aosta 1), known for its beautiful and imposing architecture in addition to its thousands of daily commuters.
In case you are coming to Milan by car, just make sure to have a not too pricey parking lot reserved for you, because parking here is expensive and most importantly, you won’t need to drive during your 1 day+1 night here!
WHAT TO DO IN MILAN
Milan has a lot to offer but an exploration of this Italian metropolis should start from its core, the Duomo Cathedral. As you guessed, this 14th-century church is located at the very center of the city, in Piazza del Duomo. Visits cost between 13€ and 17€ per person, depending on how you’d like to ascend to the rooftop (stairs or elevator), and in busy summer days the lines are as long as the view from the top is worth the wait (so I recommend taking the time…you’ll be rewarded!).
Once you’re back on earth, look to the north side of the square and enter the luxurious and richly decorated Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Italy’s oldest active shopping mall. I promise, it’ll be a much more satisfying visit that any other shopping mall in the world. On the other side, the Galleria looks over the circular Piazza della Scala, where Italy’s most famous opera house, the Scala Theater, sits since 1778. Maybe you’re lucky and you’ll spot some celebrity entering the theater.
From Piazza della Scala, you have several options. You can walk through Milanese streets until the Sforza’s Castle. Built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan, this imposing structure on Piazza Castello can really give you a sense of Italian history. It’s also free entrance!
In addition, all around the Castello there’s the beautiful Sempione Park that welcomes strollers and live events. Another option is to visit the impressive Brera Art Gallery (Via Brera 28), a special place for art lovers and art history aficionados. Meanwhile, if you are looking to stop somewhere on the way for a quick bite, my suggestion is to search for an easygoing eatery, like the Mediterranean quick-but-good cafe Trulli Love (Via dei Bossi 2).
On your first night in Milan, do not let an aperitivo opportunity slide by you and take advantage of the Italian way to have happy hour by ordering a drink while snacking for free (the Campari Spritz drink is a great place where to start). If you’re up for a more formal dinner, keep in mind that Milan has really fresh seafood (so sushi restaurants are something to consider!).
For either scenario, I recommend visiting the area called Navigli, starting from Ticinese Gate and walking by Viale Gorizia or along Alzata Naviglio Pavese. The Milanese nightlife will get lively in front of your eyes, you’ll just need to choose your favorite crowd.
Day 2: Lake Como
I suggest spending your second day of this Italian itinerary by Lake Como. Mark as your specific destination Bellagio, a 4000-people village that sits on the shore of Lake Como. Charming Bellagio offers a breathtaking view of lake itself and the nearby Alps, making you doubt anybody who ever said that romanticism is dead.
HOW TO GET THERE
Bellagio is about 70 km from Milan, so it should take just above 1 hour to complete the trip taking State Highway 36. If you are not travelling by car, take the direct train from Milan to Varenna (train tickets are 7€), another small town on the Lake Como shore. This trip is also a 1 hour long but in Varenna, you’ll have to take a short ferry to Bellagio (rides are every 40 minutes and last 15 minutes one way).
WHAT TO DO IN LAKE COMO
Once in Bellagio, make sure to toddle around the old Borgo, in the northern part of town (if you’re by car, you can park it at Valassina parking lot by the city hall). In the Borgo, you’ll be able to get lost in enchanted alleys and shop in artisanal boutiques. The 12th-century San Giacomo Basilica, by the little harbor, is also worth a visit.
And why not really immersing yourself in Lake Como atmosphere by taking a peak of Villa Melzi, built in early 19th century and surrounded by the most precisely designed and beautiful park (tickets are 6,5€ and the Villa is open from March through November).
Not into self-guided traveling for once? You can book a day tour for 85€ and in one day, you’ll visit Como and the neoclassical Villa Olmo with a guide, you’ll go on a short boat cruise on the lake, and you’ll have free time in Bellagio and Varenna. By nightfall, they will bring you back to Milan on a private bus.
Day 3: Verona
Hit another romantic cord by visiting Verona on your third day.
HOW TO GET THERE
The city is about 170 km from Bellagio and 160 km from Milan, so by car you should take into account at least 2 hours of travelling on the A4 Highway.
By train, make sure to be back in Milan after the trip to Lake Como, so you can take a direct ride on rail to Verona (ticket prices range but usually start from 12,75€ for a 2-hour trip to 26€ for half the time).
WHAT TO DO IN VERONA
Verona’s highlights are Piazza Brà, where Verona’s famous open-air opera theater is also located, Piazza delle Erbe, where local merchants and customers have been conducting their shopping for centuries, and the Lamberti Tower. You’ll find this medieval tower on the eastern side of Piazza delle Erbe (Via della Costa 2) and a trip up its stairs will grant you a wonderful view of the whole city.
But your day in Verona should include, of course, also a trip to Juliet’s house. This is the home where Shakespeare’s most famous tragic character allegedly lived and where she heard Romeo’s loving praises while hiding in her balcony (address is Via Cappello 23).
Throughout the day, I also recommend trying at least a couple of the many typical Veronese dishes. A stop at Osteria Caffé Monte Baldo (Via Rosa 12), for instance, will allow you to taste their wonderful Amarone wine risotto, while at Locanda 4 Cuochi (via Alberto Mario 12) their ever changing menu makes it possible to experience traditional cuisine with a creative spin.
Day 4: Lake Garda
Only 40 km separate Verona from the shores of Lake Garda, your itinerary’s fourth stop and the largest lake in Italy.
HOW TO GET THERE
Depending on your precise destination, you should cover the distance in 30-40 minutes by car on the same A4 Highway or in 20 minutes by train (tickets are between 4,40€ and 15€).
WHAT TO DO IN LAKE GARDA
By all accounts, Lake Garda is a very magical place and hikes all around its perimeter, with marked trails for all levels, are a great option to see its beauty while getting some exercise. A more historical visit can start with a walking tour of the medieval fortress in Peschiera del Garda (a UNESCO site, by the way!), on the lake’s southern side, where you can also depart for a boat tour of the whole lake. If you stay on the boat long enough, you will have the opportunity to visit the northern and eastern parts of Lake Garda and the precious lemon tree houses that grow on its shores. In Tignale, for instance, go ahead and visit an actual lemon-based eco-museum established in a local lemon tree house, Limonaia Pra de la Fam (the precise address is State Highway Gardesana Occidentale).
For a less-maintenance visit, consider the 1-day guided tour of Lake Garda starting from Peschiera del Garda (they also offer tours from other lakeside cities, if Peschiera doesn’t fit your itinerary). All tours cost around 60€ and feature a guided visit to the most famous locations around the lake and an exploration of the local towns and their architectural beauties.
Days 5 & 6: Venice
A northern Italy itinerary cannot be considered complete without a trip to unique, mysterious, and captivating Venice.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Verona or Lake Garda, Venice can be reached by car in a bit more than 1 hour (take the A4/E70 Highway) but because of Venetian topography, you should reserve a parking spot in advance and park your vehicle on the mainland, in Mestre. From there, hourly ferries will easily take you to Venice.
By train the trip is in this case a bit easier, as Venice’s main train station, Santa Lucia, gives you direct access to its famous canals and bridges (train tickets from Verona start at 9,45€).
WHAT TO DO IN VENICE
Just make sure to dedicate 2 full days to Venice because highlights are in abundance here!
Among the city’s many top destinations, you should choose the San Marco Basilica, where you can gaze at mosaic floors and climb the church tower, or the Doge’s Palace, the ornate and lascivious residence of the city’s ruler, also home to the old Venetian prisons. By visiting the Doge Palace you’ll be able to walk on the famous Bridge of Signs as well and you’ll learn that those “sighs” are not calls for love but for escape from prison (sorry to ruin the myth here!).
Other touristy attractions are the Rialto Bridge, Venice’s most famous bridge on the Canal Grande (if you get there in the morning, you’ll find a busy fish market, too), the Gallerie dell’Accademia (another wonderful museum of Italian visual art, if you didn’t get enough in Milan), and almost all the churches on the island. You will find several passes, such as this one, that allow you to book a trip to several churches and see these peculiar art museums hosted in houses of worship.
Throughout your stay, do not forget to munch on the traditional “cicchetti” or small bites in local restaurants such as Ostaria dai zemei in the San Polo neighborhood and the Osteria al Bacareto in the San Marco neighborhood (in Venice, street addresses are a bit special and only include the neighborhood’s name and a number…but no worries, it’s easier that it sounds!).
By night, Venetian nightlife happens around Campo Santa Margherita, next to one of the city’s universities, as well as in bar and restaurants. If you’re down to spend some cash, a night tour on a gondola is also a very valid option (40-minute gondola tours are 80€ by day and 100€ by night for 35 minutes).
Days 7 to 9: The Dolomites
Next to cities and lakes, northern Italy shows its best with its mountains, the Dolomites. Part of the eastern Alps and marking the border between Italy and Austria, these natural beauties are another UNESCO heritage site and thus, a top destination for hikers, mountain bikers, and skiers from all over the world.
ALPE DI SIUSI
From Venice, make a plan to base your trip in Alpe di Siusi (Seiseralm in German), Europe’s highest alpine pasture and the ideal departing place for all explorations regardless of the season.
If you are completing your trip by car, consider at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of driving on the A27 Highway and Provincial Highway 251.
Once you’re set on the Alpe di Siusi at one of the many hotels, b&b, or private apartments (start your search on the official website, and don’t discount making phone calls to book your stay…many places still prefer them to online booking and will welcome you more favorably), consider a hike across the 300 km of marked trails, which will lead you through pastures and mountain peaks. If you don’t feel experienced enough to wander through Italian Alps, local guides are also available through hotels or organizations that operate in the area. In the wintertime, skiing is obviously encouraged and if you’re a beginner, skiing schools for kids and adults abound.
Over your 3-day stay in the Dolomites, and depending on the season, you may be lucky enough to spot traditional celebrations and festivities. In October, for example, you may spot farmers helping their herds migrate to new their stables during the Almatrieb. During Silenzi d’Alpe, on the other hand, local companies bring theater, puppet, and musical performances to the Dolomites.
For travelers coming from Venice and relying only on public transportation, I recommend booking a trip to the “pearl of the Dolomites,” Cortina d’Ampezzo, which you may reach via train and bus (a ticket combination from Venice start from 15€ for a 5-hour and a half trip).
In Cortina, you can sip the best hot chocolate in the world, complete a 1-hour hike while surrounding the nearby Lake Misurina, or catch a bus to arrive on the Dolomites best mountain peaks and practice some skiing. Regardless of your transportation means, the Dolomites won’t fail to amaze you.
Day 10: Back to Milan
Spend your last day of this itinerary heading back to Milan and gathering your memories from this great trip!