From Alpine mountains and glacial lakes to the sunny shorelines of the Riviera and Adriatic, the geographical diversity of Northern Italy is its most striking characteristic. Nestled within the cities and landscapes of the region are a host of culinary pleasures and cultural treasures as well, including Leonardo de Vinci’s masterpiece, “The Last Supper.” Encompassing Italy’s wealthiest provinces, Northern Italy is a premier destination when it comes to luxury resorts and upscale shopping too. Whether sampling fine wine and dining on world-class cuisine or exploring ancient castles, cathedrals and churches, the region offers all the memorable travel experiences visitors want from a holiday in Italy.
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Called “La Rossa” for its red brick buildings and tile roofs, Bologna is the capital and largest city in Northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. It’s also an architecture lover’s dream. Although Bologna is best known for its medieval towers and extensive porticoes, thanks to extensive restoration, Bologna’s architecture includes Etruscan and Roman structures as well. Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna also demands a visit. It’s the world’s oldest institution of higher learning and still enrolls thousands of students each year. No trip to Bologna is complete without a visit to Piazza Maggiore where the still-unfinished façade of the Basilica of San Petronio makes its beautiful interiors appear all the more remarkable.
One of Europe’s largest and best preserved wilderness areas, Gran Paradiso National Park is named for Italy’s highest peak, Gran Paradiso, the only mountain in the Alps that lies entirely within the country’s boundaries. The area was designated Italy’s first national park in 1920, in part to protect the dwindling population of ibex, a mountain goat best known for horns that can grow up to 3 feet long. The park is a hiker’s paradise in late spring and summer when the flowers are in bloom, and it’s a great holiday destination for cross-country skiing and snowshoe hikes during the winter.
Nestled against the foothills of the towering Bergamese Alps, Bergamo is comprised of two distinct cities. The Città Alta, or upper city, is a medieval town surrounded by 16th-century walls while the lower section known as Città Bassa is a relatively modern city. Most visitors head straight to the old town to explore the beautifully preserved Medieval and Renaissance architecture and picturesque piazzas, including the ornate Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the final resting place of the composer Gaetano Donizetti. With its extensive collection of paintings by Raphael, Botticelli and Canaletto, the Accademia Carrara is a can’t-miss attraction too.
Best known as the setting for Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet,” Verona is a picturesque city filled with Roman ruins, Renaissance palaces and medieval buildings. Located between Milan and Venice, the city receives a bit less attention from travelers than its more celebrated neighbors but not for lack of attractions. Verona offers visitors the chance to enjoy all of the charms of an ancient Italian city without constantly battling crowds. Although the first stop for many visitors is “Juliet’s House” with its recently added balcony, it’s important to remember that Romeo and Juliet were characters from fiction, not reality.
Read more: Top Verona Attractions
Sometimes overshadowed by the popularity of other Italian cities like Rome and Venice, Genoa nevertheless is one of Italy’s true hidden gems. As the capital city of the Liguria region on the northwest coast of Italy, Genoa is most associated as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. The city’s shining crown is its historic center, which features narrow, winding streets that reveal surprising gems at every turn like marvelous architecture and artistic treasures. At the base of the city center is the historic seaport. Docked with cruise liners, yachts and fishing boats, Genoa’s seaport today sports a trendy renovation of new features such as a bustling marina, waterfront bars and the Aquarium of Genoa.
Nearly destroyed from heavy bombing during WWII, Milan has since reconstructed and now shines as the country’s financial and fashion capital. Milan’s most famous site is the Santa Maria della Grazie where da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is on display. The 14th-century Sforzesco Castle houses the exhibits of the Museo d’Arte Antica, which includes Michelangelo’s “Pietà Rondanini.” Decked out in sumptuous red and gold, the 18th-century La Scala opera house is a must-see attraction too, as is the Duomo, known as one of the world’s largest Gothic cathedrals. When it comes to shopping, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is the place to go for the best of Italy’s haute couture designs.
Read more: Top Milan Attractions
With its picture-perfect harbor, verdant scenery and haphazard rows of hilltop and waterfront homes, Portofino is one of the prettiest towns on the Italian Riviera. Located just a short drive south of Genoa, the little village has been a popular day-trip destination for centuries. It’s a favorite stopping point for cruises along the Italian Riviera too, and the cluster of yachts floating in the harbor only adds to Portofino’s visual appeal. Short climbs up the hillside to the medieval Castello Brown, the historic Church of San Giorgio or the lighthouse at Punta Portofino offer photographic views of the charming city.
The largest of the glacial lakes of the Lombardy province, Lake Garda is bordered by Alpine peaks to the north and flat plains to the south. Gardens, orchards and forests rim the shore, providing a scenic backdrop for visitors seeking rest and recreation. The southernmost town of Sirmione features natural hot springs, a small castle and the Grotte di Catullo, the largest collection of Roman ruins in Northern Italy. On the northern shore of lake lies Riva del Garda, which is the destination of choice for visitors interested in outdoor activities, including sailing, windsurfing, kayaking and swimming.
Cinque Terre is undeniably one of the most beautiful areas of Italy. A visit to just one of the five villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza, Monterosso and Corniglia will confirm this. Made to grace picture postcards, the towns are built on steep hills and atop high cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. It doesn’t get much more scenic than this. Most towns are reachable only by train. Comfortable walking shoes are a must since cars aren’t allowed in the older sections of these towns.
Read more: Cinque Terre Villages
The perfect destination for a romantic getaway, Venice is a city where canals replace roads and buildings rise up out of the Adriatic Sea as if by magic. There’s a timeless quality to Venice that has attracted and engaged travelers for hundreds of years. When not enjoying the enchanting experience of being serenaded while gliding down a canal on a gondola, visitors flock to the sidewalk cafés of St. Mark’s Square. Inside the Basilica of San Marco lies a treasure trove of jewel-encrusted altarpieces, icons and holy relics, including the marble-canopied tomb of St. Mark.
Read more: Top Venice Attractions