Nestled up against the Alps in the very north of the country, Lombardia is most known for its spectacular lakes. Hemmed in by majestic mountains, they make for a stunning sight what with all the colourful towns hugging their shores.
While Milan and its many lovely lakes dominate most visitors’ itineraries, Lombardy has much, much more to see and do. Asides from sizeable cities like Brescia and Bergamo, the region has plenty of amazing medieval towns and villages to explore. Dotted about amidst its picture-perfect countryside, they are generally less touristy and well-known than those found in Tuscany and Veneto.
It also boasts a whole host of artistic and architectural gems of which Milan’s Duomo, and da Vinci’s Last Supper are definitely the pick of the lot. With fine local foods and sparkling wines to sample, Lombardy is one of Italy’s most rewarding regions to travel around.
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14. Lake Iseo
Lying in between both Brescia and Bergamo is the magnificent Lake Iseo. Far less crowded than those of Garda, Como and Maggiore, it is surrounded by lush green mountains and medieval towns.
The fourth largest lake in Lombardy, its crystal clear waters are fed by the Oglio River. All along its scenic shores are cute historic towns, tucked away at the foot of rolling hills and forests.
Of these, Sarnico and Monte Isola are arguably the most beautiful thanks to their pretty centres full of charming churches and colourful townhouses. The latter is also set in a idyllic spot, on the lake’s largest island overlooked by a mighty mountain.
You can also hike and drive around the whole lake or take boat trips out to see some other isles. Due to its authentic look, feel and untouched nature, we almost preferred Iseo to the region’s other incredible lakes.
For those interested in history, the small, medieval town of Soncino is certain to be a very pleasant surprise. Almost like an open-air museum, its centuries-old castle and churches lie just over an hour’s drive directly east of Milan.
Dominating and defining the small settlement is the enormous old Rocca Sforzesca which was built back in the 1470s. One of the best examples of military architecture in all Lombardy, the tall, sturdy towers of the fortress, its moat and ramparts are fascinating to explore. It was initially erected to protect the region from the invading Hungarians before being used to slow the encroaching Venetians.
Other than checking out the castle, you can also stop by the superb Silk Museum and Museum of Printing. The latter was where the first Hebrew Bible was printed back in 1488 using the rudimentary equipment on display. Its quaint centre and countless fine churches mean Soncino is well worth its inclusion on the official list of the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in Italy’.
Equally arresting is the pretty city of Pavia which is situated about half an hour’s train journey south of Milan. Now most known for its incredible monastery complex on the outskirts of town, it straddles the lower Ticino River.
As it was the capital of numerous kingdoms and courts over the centuries, the city is full of fine buildings like its dramatic Duomo and colossal Visconti Castle. Once called the ‘City of a Hundred Towers’, it also boasts one of the oldest universities in Europe.
Founded in 1361, the prestigious institute’s central piazza is presided over by three tall medieval towers. Some of only a dozen or so still remaining, they make for some fantastic photos and viewing.
Although Pavia is awash with exquisite architecture and excellent museums, you just have to visit Certosa too. One of the largest monastery complexes in Italy, it was built between 1396 and 1495. Renowned for its remarkable Renaissance and Gothic-style architecture, its art-filled church, cloisters and refectory are fascinating to explore.
Famed for both its tasty nougat and revered violin-making traditions, Cremona has a rich history and culture to uncover. Located not far from Piacenza in the neighbouring Emilia-Romagna, its gorgeous center is a treat to stroll around slowly.
At its historic heart, you’ll find its impressive cathedral, baptistery and belltower, all clustered about Piazza del Comune. While the former is known as the ‘Sistine Chapel of the Po Valley’ due to its phenomenal frescoes, the latter’s facade boasts the world’s largest astronomical clock. Towering 111 meters tall, the soaring brick structure offers up some spellbinding views over the city below.
Aside from admiring its palazzi, make sure to stop by its excellent violin museum. As well as seeing intricately crafted instruments, it also examines how Cremona became a center for the unique artform. If you visit in November, you can try delicious torrone at its annual festival dedicated to the traditional nougat treat.
10. San Benedetto Po
Like Pavia, the small city of San Benedetto Po is best known for its extensive abbey more than anything else. Dominating the center of town, its huge complex includes immaculate grounds, endless cloisters and enormous monastery buildings.
As it was once one of the richest abbeys in northern Italy, master craftsmen worked to improve and enlarge Polirone for many centuries. Initially established by Tedald of Canossa in 1007, it served as an important religious, cultural and political center up until 1797 when Napoleon secularized it.
While ambling about its vast rooms, you can see fabulous floor mosaics, frescos and sculptures. Elaborate altarpieces and paintings also feature while its sizeable church borders one of the largest squares in the country.
Another memorable place to head if you want to travel back in time is the magical Renaissance city of Mantua. Incredibly well-preserved, its elegant squares, palaces, and churches look like they did centuries ago.
Surrounded on three sides by man-made lakes, the city thrived under the rule of the Gonzaga family during the Renaissance. As such, it has a rich but often overlooked history and heritage for you to delve into.
Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, the important, art-minded rulers constructed the absolutely enormous Ducal Palace. Now impressively Italy’s largest architectural museum, its almost endless rooms are packed with priceless artworks and period pieces.
The town also has the big Basilica of Sant’Andrea to explore and the ornate Bibiena Theater where Mozart once performed. We were absolutely blown away by its many artistic and architectural masterpieces – especially considering we’d never heard of it before arriving in Lombardy!
8. Val Camonica
After seeing all the old historic cities and sparkling lakes, the stunning alpine scenery and outdoor activities of Val Camonica makes for a very welcome change. Lying just an hour’s drive northeast of Lake Iseo, it is most famed for its phenomenal prehistoric rock art.
One of the largest valleys in the central Alps, it extends about ninety kilometers with the Oglio River running its entire length. Now recognized as a biosphere reserve, it encompasses flower-filled meadows, narrow gorges and towering mountain peaks.
Asides from basking in the valley’s breathtaking beauty, you can hike and bike about or ski and snowboard in winter. As it contains the most rock drawings in Europe, you also have to see some of its 300,000 ancient petroglyphs. To top it all off, there are charming towns like Bienno and Lovere to stop off at and explore.
7. Castellaro Lagusello
Perched atop a hill overlooking a heart-shaped lake, the fortified town of Castellaro Lagusello is every bit as romantic as its setting implies. Remarkably well-preserved, its winding cobbled lanes and castle walls really are lovely to wander around.
Another of the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in Italy’, it was founded in the twelfth century by the influential Scaliger family. Protecting the strategic hilltop are lots of old stone towers and archways, set in the side of its formidable fortifications. From atop the town’s bell tower, you can drink in delightful views over its terracotta rooftops, lake and surrounding countryside.
Other than strolling about its peaceful streets and seeing all the arresting artworks in the church, you can hike or bike about its nearby vineyards, woods and hills. As the hamlet is set not far from Lake Garda, you can easily include a stop when exploring the area.
6. Lake Maggiore
Quite wide for the most part, its reflective waters stretch almost 65 kilometers in total. Looming above the ginormous lake’s jagged banks and glinting bays are the Pennine and Lepontine Alps while small isles dot its surface below.
Besides taking boat trips to the Borromean and Brissago Islands and strolling about their gorgeous gardens, you can visit some of the idyllic towns studding its shores. Of these, Angera and its imposing castle is arguably the most popular and picturesque to visit in Lombardy.
Although it is the region’s second largest city, Brescia sees a lot less visitors than the lakes, Milan and many of its other nearby neighbours. This is a shame as its endless Roman ruins are among the best preserved in northern Italy.
Founded over 3,200 years ago, its center is literally littered with impressive churches, squares and palazzi wherever you look. Just like with Rome, every corner seems to reveal ‘new’ millennia-old monuments and ruins for you to take in.
Our favourites included its amazing Roman amphitheatre, sanctuary and temple and the Monastic Complex of San Salvatore-Santa Giulia. While the former has fantastic frescos to examine, the latter houses more than 11,000 artworks and archaeological findings.
It’s new and old cathedrals were also special to see as was the enormous Castle of Brescia which affords guests stupendous views over the city. If you couldn’t already tell, we loved Brescia and could definitely recommend spending a few days exploring its old streets.
Another overlooked gem is the historic hilltop city of Bergamo which lies aroundabout a forty-five minute train ride from Milan. As it was ruled for centuries by the Lombard Duchy and then the Republic of Venice, it exhibits a unique mix of architectural styles and culture influences.
Clustered atop the crest of its prominent hill is a warren of wonderful old baroque and renaissance buildings. Outside the Citta’Alta’s protective ring of Venetian walls is the more modern lower town that spreads across the plain below. Connecting the two is a short, steep funicular ride that whisks you between them in no time at all.
Highlights include the refined Piazza Vecchia and richly decorated Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. In addition to ambling about taking in all its arresting architecture, you can visit some of the numerous art galleries and museums that explain all about the city’s captivating past.
3. Lake Garda
The largest lake in Italy, Garda offers up all kinds of exciting outdoor activities, water sports, and sightseeing opportunities. Located in between both Brescia and Verona in Veneto, it too is one of Lombardy’s top holiday destinations.
Formed by giant glaciers during the last ice age, Lake Garda vast basin lies amidst the Alps to the north and Po plain to the south. Scattered about beneath all its craggy cliffs and dramatic mountain ranges are colourful towns and villages to visit.
As it is surrounded by water on three sides, Sirmione, its very narrow promontory and centuries-old castle is the most popular to explore. Aside from snapping some pics of its cool crenellations against the bright blue sky, we also liked lounging on its beach.
From Desenzano del Garda, the lake’s largest town, you can also take ferries across its shimmering surface. Some fun jet skiing, sailing, and windsurfing can also be had with its mighty mounts rising up in the background.
A busy, bustling metropolis, Milan is Italy’s wealthiest city and both its financial and industrial heart. While it is a bit less visually striking than many of the nation’s other main cities, it is still feted for its fashion, art and architecture.
The capital of Lombardy, it now covers an absolutely enormous part of the Po Valley. Although only a few reminders of its Roman past still remain, it does boast one of the most beautiful buildings in the world: the Duomo. Erected between 1386 and 1877, the gigantic Gothic cathedral’s ostentatious facade is sure to shock any visitor with its artistry. We also enjoyed walking about its roof where you can examine its impressive architectural flourishes from closer up.
See also: Where to Stay in Milan
After shopping at the grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II and admiring its cast iron, glass roof, make your way to Navagli as night falls. Amidst all the hip neighborhood’s ancient canals, you can dine at trendy restaurants and try some splendid wine bars.
1. Lake Como
One of the prettiest parts of Italy (and that’s really saying something!), Lake Como has been a popular destination since Roman times. As well as spectacular scenery, nature and views, it has lots of gorgeous lakeside villas and towns to explore.
The third largest lake in all of Italy after Garda and Maggiore, its distinctive ‘Y’ shaped waters are lined by marvellous mountains and sweeping valleys. Dotted all along its scenic shores are elaborate gardens and attractive estates like Villa Carlotta and Villa d’Este. Besides lovely landscaped lawns and colourful flowerbeds, these offer divine views out over the lake.
The main town everyone heads is the chic and sophisticated Bellagio which has long been a favourite haunt of the rich and famous. Although it is not quite as elegant, the lively Como at its southern end also attracts tons of tourists. Wherever you go around the lake though, you’re guaranteed unforgettable views, food and holiday snaps.