As Italy’s home of fashion and design, Milan is one of the most popular city break destinations in the country. People visit for shopping, design and cultural events and to a lesser extent for the food. So, of course, there are many things to do in Milan but it’s also the perfect starting point for a Northern Italy road trip.
Northern Italy Road Trip
I’ve spent a lot of time in Northern Italy and there is so much to see. The big cities are continuously changing and progressing so there’s always something new to see.
I suggest the following route as a 1-week itinerary, or longer you have the privilege of time, starting and finishing in Milan.
A short drive north of Milan is the lakeside city of Como which lies directly on the lake with the same name. Home to Italy’s rich and famous, you’ll see stately homes, manicured gardens and beautiful scenery.
I’ve visited on a day trip from Milan as well as part of a longer Europe road trip but I think staying overnight is essential to get the best experience. Staying two or three nights in Como will allow you to get a hop-on-hop-off ferry pass for the lake. This way you can leave your car at the hotel and visit the many small towns dotted around the lake like Bellagio and Varenna. Try to visit as many of the lakeside towns as possible as they all have a unique feel and if you’re feeling energic, take one of the hilltop hikes for excellent lake views.
Como is very expensive but you can find cheaper hotels if you don’t mind sacrificing views. If you’re willing to walk a bit away from the main tourist strip (and maybe up some steep hills) you can find some great family-run restaurants.
The imposing Upper District or Città Alta, is unmissable as you approach. Bergamo is everything you’d expect from an ancient walled, elevated city; narrow cobblestone streets, a diverse mishmash of architectural styles, dynamic piazzas and delicious food.
Piazza Vecchia is the main hub of the old town and the perfect place to start your visit. Enjoy an espresso as you watch locals pass by the Palazzo della Ragione and the bell tower, Campanone. You can spot Bergamo’s Venetian Walls as you walk around the city and pass through city gates. If you plan to stay a while add the Lower District to your visit, otherwise, continue on to see more of the Italian Lakes.
Each of my visits to Bergamo were fleeting, once stopping for a few hours while changing trains, another driving through, and most recently to catch a flight to Albania. But I think it’s worth a longer visit, especially if you’re travelling slowly. Tourism is important to this region. Bergamo, along with neighbouring Brescia, have been declared Italy’s Culture Capitals for 2023 in response to the devastating impact caused by the pandemic. Consider adding both to your road trip to help rebuild tourism in these historic cities.
Monte Isola and Santuario Madonna della Corona
Next, I’m going to recommend two places I haven’t visited but are on my wish list. I’m not going to lie, I found out about these places on Instagram. Yes, I admit it, I was influenced. But honestly, they look amazing.
Monte Isola is a small, picturesque town on Lake Iseo. You can’t drive to the island but you can take the passenger ferry from Sulzano or Sale Marasino on the eastern side of the lake. From what I hear, it’s a peaceful, relaxing spot to spend the day exploring on foot or hiring a moped. If you have time, stay the night so you can experience the calm of island life first thing in the morning.
The next lake along is Lago di Garda, Lake Garda. Another famous lake with two incredible scenic destinations, Castello di Sirmione (Scaligero Castle), a 13th-century fortress surrounded by water, and Santuario Madonna della Corona, a spectacular hillside church to the east of the lake.
Visiting Monte Isola and Santuario Madonna della Corona is worth it purely for the scenic views and again, I suggest staying overnight to experience these sights at their most peaceful.
If you have time, add a few days to your road trip by heading to the city of Verona, a beautiful, albeit touristy city made famous by Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet. I don’t have much experience myself but can recommend this guide as an introduction to things to see in the city or this more detailed guide.
Northern Italy’s Big Cities
Italy’s famous big cities are always worth visiting. There’s so much to discover and each visit yields something new. At this stage of this northern Italian road trip, you can either continue on to visit some of these big cities or you can loop back via Turin towards Milan.
If you continue east, it would make sense to visit Venice, an unforgettable experience like no other. If you want to go further afield you could continue on to Trieste but I’d only suggest this if you plan to continue on towards Slovenia, Croatia or maybe Hungary.
Otherwise, there is Bologna, the foodie capital of Italy where I’d suggest spending 3 or 4 days to relax and enjoy all the incredible food on offer. You could even pop down to the Cinque Terra for an incredible coastal road trip.
If that’s not on the cards, from Verona, head back to Brescia and on towards Piacenza.
On first impressions, you might think Piacenza is a nondescript city like many others. It’s not particularly well known and it’s definitely not a popular tourist destination. This is possibly one of the reasons I always liked it. It lacks the hectic drama you find in so many Italian cities. Yet there’s still enough going on for a quick stopover.
I had friends who lived in a nearby town so had the chance to visit Piacenza on a number of occasions. In fact, at one point I was thinking of moving there and even looked at a few apartments to rent. But I’ll leave that story for my newsletter.
But here’s why I think you should visit Piacenza. As an old Roman military city, Piacenza is home to grand architecture and beautiful palaces. Palazzo Communale is the most notable but there are many others within walking distance of the centre square. Arcaded buildings line many of the streets, shielding family-run shops and eateries from the heat of the day.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning Piacenza is located in Emilia-Romagna (as is Bologna), the undisputed gourmet region of Italy. The main specialties cater to meat-eaters, specifically salted pork products, with pancetta and salami being the most famous. For cheese lovers, Grana Padano is the highlight.
I wouldn’t think you would need to spend more than a day in Piacenza but it’s a surprisingly nice place to break up the drive from Verona/Brescia to Turin.
Turin is often passed over for Milan, written off as an industrial city with little to offer the casual tourist. Maybe that’s fair to an extent, it’s not exactly teeming with attractions, but personally, I love these big, grand Italian cities. I love the wide, well-planned streets and imposing architecture, the immense squares and green spaces. Turin has a completely different vibe from Milan. It’s more sophisticated, calm and cultured. It’s an affluent city but the display of wealth is more subtle. Turin is classy whereas Milan is brash.
Visit Turin (Torino) for its art galleries, museums, theatres and libraries. Enjoy the monumental architecture and World Heritage-listed palaces and castles. Spend a couple of nights if you can. Experience a different side of northern Italy.
Finally, make your way back to Milan (here’s a quick list of Milan’s main sights), possibly taking a quick detour if you’d like to visit Varese, another pretty hillside city. But for this itinerary, I’d suggest heading back to Milan for some final shopping and sights. Indulge in some delicious Milanese food, see a concert at La Scala, stop by Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle), climb the Duomo and maybe see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper before heading home.