8 Top-Rated Day Trips from Milan
Milan's position in Western Lombardy puts it within easy reach of several centers with plenty of tourist attractions. The Alps are so close that you can see them from the roof of the Duomo. Fabled Lake Como is less than an hour by train. The beautiful cities of Verona and Bergamo are easily accessible, as is Lake Garda. And even closer are Monza, Lodi, and Pavia with its immense monastery. Because Milan is the rail hub of northern Italy, getting to any of these places by train is easy, and packaged day tours often make it even easier to explore beyond the city.
1 Lake Como
Direct trains from either Milan's Stazione Nord or Stazione Centrale take about 30 minutes to reach the small city of Como, at the southern shore of Lake Como. From here, boats leave regularly, stopping at one after another of the lakeside towns, each prettier than the last. Within a few minutes' walk of the landings are beautiful gardens and villas, art-filled churches, and narrow lanes of smart shops. One of the prettiest towns on Como is Bellagio, set at the tip of a peninsula that divides southern Lake Como into two long arms.
Como itself is worth some time to see its cathedral; the rare frescoes in the 11th-century Basilica of Sant'Abbondio; and the views from the top of the Brunate funicular, which climbs from the lake shore near the boat landing. You can easily see Como's Roman origins by the neat grid of streets; one impressive Roman gate survives. Once a major center for silk production, Como is still a good place to shop for silk neckties, scarves, and clothing.
2 Verona and Lake Garda
The happy blend of Roman antiquities, medieval streetscapes, and the romance of Shakespeare's tragic (though fictional) heroine Juliet puts Verona near the top of everyone's Italy list. In the center of the historic district stands one of Italy's best-preserved Roman arenas, the site of a major summer opera festival. A few streets away, the riverside castle has been brilliantly repurposed into an art museum, with fine views of the castellated bridge below. At least four of the city's churches are landmarks of Italian architecture and decorative art. There are several Roman gates and subterranean excavations from the same period to explore, but few of Verona's sights get as many visitors as Juliet's house and balcony.
The two-hour train ride from Milan to Verona passes along the southern shore of Lake Garda, Italy's largest lake. The well-kept town of Sirmione, at the tip of a peninsula that extends into the lake, is worth a stop for its moated castle and the extensive remains of Grotte di Catullo, a Roman villa and spa.
3 Bernina Express to St. Moritz
It's a long day, but you can get a taste of the magnificent Alpine scenery north of Milan by making the two-hour train ride to Tirano and boarding the scenic Bernina Express. In two and a half hours, you'll cross 196 bridges, go through 55 tunnels, and cross breathtaking gorges as you climb the Bernina Pass and descend into Switzerland. The "Little Red Train" has wide vista windows for full views and good photography from every seat. The Bernina Express ends in the legendary Swiss ski resort of St. Moritz, overlooking a lake and the Engadin Alps. The train runs year-round, and the views are equally good in summer or winter.
4 Bergamo's Citta Alta
On a steep hill, directly above the tidy street grid of new Bergamo, the old city is a tangle of narrow, stone-paved streets lined by buildings dating to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Reach it by a funicular or by streets that wind upwards to the impressive gates in the 16th-century bastions. Inside this atmospheric walled village lie most of Bergamo's artistic and historic attractions, many of them clustered around the sloping Piazza Vecchia.
The 12th-century Palazzo della Ragione, with its triple-arched loggia and impressive stone staircase, joins with the tall tower, Torre del Comune, to form the upper side of the square, which is bounded on the other sides by noble houses and a Renaissance palazzo. At the top of the city, just behind the Palazzo della Ragione, are the Duomo and Santa Maria Maggiore, a Romanesque basilica begun in the early 1100s. The latter church is sumptuous inside and out, with Gothic entrance porches, Baroque stucco work, and beautiful Renaissance choir stalls. Adjoining it is the Cappella Colleoni, an early Renaissance funeral chapel decorated inside and out with multicolored marble inlay, and a ceiling painted by Tiepolo. Opposite the chapel is an unusual octagonal Baptistery dating from 1340. About 40 kilometers from Milan, Bergamo is on a direct train line.
From its prominence as a major Roman capital, Pavia grew into an important university city, known today for its medieval and Renaissance buildings, and for the remaining examples of its original 100 medieval towers. The impressive 14th-century Castello Visconti retains two of its immense towers and now houses history and art museums. Emperors, including Charlemagne, were crowned in the Romanesque Church of San Michele, and Pavia's cathedral is based on the designs of da Vinci and Bramante. To see the remaining medieval watch towers, head for Piazza di Leonardo di Vinci, where there are several. The Ponte Coperto is an arched covered bridge over the Ticino River, rebuilt after World War II bombing destroyed the 14th-century bridge. That one was itself a reconstruction of the original Roman bridge.
The crowning attraction of Pavia lies eight kilometers to the north, the Certosa di Pavia, whose monastery is one of the finest Renaissance buildings in all Italy, showing the transition from late Gothic to Renaissance styles. The facade is a riot of marble inlay, friezes, delicate columns, and statues of saints. Designed as the mausoleum for Milan's ruling Visconti family (you can see the magnificent tomb of the founder, Gian Galeazzo Visconti), it used many of the same artists and architects that created Milan's Duomo. You can tour the church on your own, but to see the exquisite small cloister and the artistic highlights of the monastic buildings, you must join one of the frequent free tours given by the monks.
In the fertile Po plain, about 19 kilometers southeast of Milan, Lodi is known for its Parmesan cheese and historically for having once been Milan's fiercest rival. Its notable attractions are the 12th-century Romanesque cathedral in Piazza della Vittoria, in the center of town, and the nearby Church of the Incoronata. The cathedral has a beautiful pillared doorway with figures of Adam and Eve and Romanesque reliefs in the crypt, while the Church of the Incoronata, built between 1488 and 1394, has four panels by Bergognone depicting the childhood of Christ on the second side altar to the right and richly carved choir stalls from about 1700. A third, the beautiful 13th-century church of San Francesco, is in Lombard Gothic style, with frescoes on the interior pillars.
Although the town of Monza, northeast of Milan, is synonymous today for Italy's most important auto race, the Monza Formula One that takes place in early September, it was once a place of high political importance. Together with Pavia, Monza was the coronation site of the Lombard kings from the 11th century. In the cathedral's Cappella di Teodolinda, you can see the famous "Iron Crown," said to be the royal crown of the Lombards, with which the German emperors were crowned as kings of Italy. The cathedral was founded in 590 and rebuilt in the 13th and 14th centuries in Lombard Gothic style, with a beautiful facade and a harmonious interior. Under the little cloister on the left side of the cathedral, the Museo Serpero contains the cathedral treasury of beautiful silver and gold work. Nearby, in Piazza Roma, stands the old Town Hall, dating from 1293. The late 18th-century Villa Reale, formerly a royal castle, has a small gallery of paintings and stands beside the Parco Reale, where the race is held.
Sitting at the foot of Mount Campo dei Fiori, Varese is best known for the Sacro Monte di Varese, a series of 17th-century chapels with frescoes and larger-than-life figures depicting Biblical scenes. The tradition of the Sacro Monte is unique to Italy's northern Piedmont and Lombardy, and Varese's joins eight other hillside pilgrimage sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Unlike the others, Varese's is surrounded by a village that climbs the steep hillside, surrounding the chapels with tree-shaded streets and villas in the Art Nouveau style - called Liberty style in Italy. In the center of Varese, Palazzo Estense is the richly decorated former villa of the d'Este family, built in the 1700s below a hillside park and terraced formal gardens.