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10 awesome day trips from Milan

Just a ferry or train ride away, these day trips from Milan will take you to medieval cities and lakeside towns

Bologna
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By Emma Harper and Angelica Frey |
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This Italian metropolis might have gotten a major facelift recently – or a total makeover, courtesy of the Expo – but, if you really want to experience the city like a Milanese, you should consider embarking on these awesome day trips from Milan. While there are plenty of things to do in Milan, such as these attractions and restaurants that will guarantee your eating like a local, a real Milanese only looks forward to leaving the city for the weekend, or even for a day. Milan might be landlocked, but short drives will take you close to the nearby mountains and the postcard-worthy lakes to the north, the French-Riviera-like Liguria to the west and the hidden cultural (and culinary) gems just about everywhere else.

Where to go? The Lakes (Lago Maggiore, Lago di Como, Lago di Garda) are dreamlike bodies of water that straddle Italy and Switzerland, just one or two hours away from the city centre. Thanks to George Clooney and his jet-setting friends who enjoy his Villa Oleandra in the village of Laglio, Lake Como is the best known to international tourists but located at the centre of Lake Maggiore are otherworldly islands, the Isole Borromee, whose pristine timelessness makes them look like they’re straight out of a movie set. Culturally and historically significant towns (Cremona, Varese) and cities (Turin, Bologna, Verona) abound, but if you’re craving some small-town, coastal charm, head to the village of Camogli. The majority of the tourists will likely flock to Florence, Venice and Rome (all must visits, of course), so these destinations will provide the quietness you’re craving.

Best day trips from Milan

1
Verona
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Verona

The stomping ground of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet, Verona is so much more than the setting of a Renaissance ill-fated romance. It boasts quaint architectural wonders such as the Castelvecchio fortress, the quintessentially Italianate garden Giardino Giusti (a favourite of Mozart and Goethe), the second-century-AD arena and Piazza delle Erbe, with its town hall (complete with a tower, Torre dei Lamberti), its baroque masterpiece Palazzo Maffei and its baroque fountain, whose statue called Madonna Verona dates to the fourth century AD.

EAT:

Pizza is not a typical Veronese dish but chef Simone Padoan devised a gourmet pizza made with top-quality ingredients and natural yeast that will delight your taste buds. His pizzeria I Tigli, located in the outskirts of Verona, is both a local favourite and a destination eatery.

DRINK:

Verona is nestled in a wine region, so suggesting craft cocktails would be pointless. Instead, go to Enoteca Segreta. As its name suggests (“secret wine bar”), it’s difficult to spot but it offers a curated selection of both local and national wines in addition to some solid food options, too (remember: Italians never drink on an empty stomach).

DO:

Romance might be saccharine, but Juliet’s balcony does deserve a visit, especially because Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love story takes inspiration from a local, historically-documented family rivalry. Nearby is Piazza delle Erbe, the town's forum during the Roman Empire era.

STAY:

Eager to pair your downtime with wine tasting? Massimago Wine Suites offers just that.  

If you do just one thing...

Make sure you visit the Arena di Verona during the summertime opera season, where famous works by the likes of Verdi, Rossini and Puccini are performed en plein air.

2
Lake Garda
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Lake Garda

Lake Garda is the biggest and cleanest of the local lakes, and its crystalline water will make you forget about the fact that you’re actually not on a secluded beach in Sardinia. Lake Garda is not just for beach bums, though. Surrounding the lake are charming towns such as Bardolino, with its two Romanesque churches, Sirmione, home to oh-so-awesome Roman thermal baths dedicated to poet Catullus, and Gardone Riviera, with its over-the-top gardens and villas.

EAT:

Enjoy a menu that combines Mediterranean and continental traditions at Tancredi. Whether you’re seated on the terrace overlooking the lake or in the indoor area with its floor-to-ceiling windows, the superb vista will delight you.

DRINK:

Italian poet, writer, dandy Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) enjoyed lounging on the terrace of what is now Hotel Villa del Sogno, which he defined as “the most beautiful [in] the Garda area.” Its American Bar, complete with a piano and an old-timey atmosphere, offers a wide selection of cocktails, including the house specialty Del Sogno.

DO:

Whether you’re in Desenzano, Salò, Sirmione or Gardone, all area towns, start off your exploration by just taking a stroll on the lungolago (the lakeside promenade).

STAY:

Lake Garda is a favourite family-holiday destination for tourists from all over Europe, but if you want to enjoy a child-free stay, AQVA Boutique Hotel in Sirmione is a great option.

If you do just one thing...

Visit the Vittoriale, a hillside estate in Gardone Riviera, where poet D’Annunzio spent his twilight years. The over-the-top and kitschy décor might not be the quintessence of Italian elegance, but it’s indicative of the aesthetic of fin-de-siècle viveurs.

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3
Bologna
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Bologna

Bologna is the cradle of European higher education, home to the first ever university in Europe (the University of Bologna was established in 1088), and it’s not rare to see the Italian iterations of “Greek” life taking place in the cobblestoned streets of the town. The city is also known as “the fat one” because of its rich and elaborate culinary tradition, so make sure to indulge in one (or two) decadent meals while visiting.

EAT:

All’Osteria Bottega is one of the last authentic “osterie” standing in Bologna, and we highly recommend you visit and eat everything, starting with the pork-heavy selection of local cold cuts and the tortellini.

DRINK:

Head to Boavista if you want an atmosphere that’s both old-timey and lounge-like: the venue is known for its mojitos, its muddled, fruit-based cocktails and for the notable selection of gin.

DO:

Walk off whatever you had for lunch by taking a stroll through Piazza Maggiore, where you will see the odd-shaped Basilica of San Petronio (the bottom is made of marble and the top of bricks).

STAY:

Aemilia Hotel boasts views of the rolling hills outside the city and its roof garden is even home to a jacuzzi.

If you do just one thing...

Sure, you might feel part of a quintessentially medieval city while in Bologna – but a visit to MAMbo will change that. At the contemporary-art museum, jump into an unprecedented array of Italian visual arts dating back to the end of World War II.

4
Varese
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Varese

Located 30 miles north of Milan, Varese is known as “Garden City” given the plethora of public parks and gardens that dot the cityscape. This, coupled with a robust representation of Art Nouveau works and 18th century villas, gives the town a countryside-like feel. In case sightseeing is not on the menu, you can indulge in shopping. Baseblu, a multi-story boutique here, has a vast selection of both major and independent high-end fashion brands.

EAT:

You have to ring a bell to access La Perla, which is an added extravagance to the excellent seafood-forward menu and the room-facing, cloister-like inner courtyard that make a meal here a relaxing and rewarding experience.

DRINK:

End your night in the charming outdoor area of Ultimo, where, on top of a good selection of classic cocktails and beers on tap, the owners also offer their own eclectic creations, such as the very summery, celery-based “Celery Bastard,” and the tea-and-rum-based “Tea Bagging.”

DO:

After the obligatory stroll through the city centre, visit Villa Panza Biumo, an 18th-century mansion housing an impressive collection of American contemporary art, including several installations by Dan Flavin.

STAY:

Art Hotel is a refurbished 18th-century villa located close to the city centre. Its sprawling garden is the ideal location for a post-sightseeing or pre-dinner aperitivo.

If you do just one thing...

Climb Sacro Monte, originally a “holy road” dotted with chapels and sanctuaries that repentants had to climb during Lent to mirror Christ’s passion, but now a great excuse to enjoy a breathtaking view of the surroundings.

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5
Pavia
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Pavia

This picturesque town in south-western Lombardy was a military garrison during the Roman empire and a strategic seat of power during the turbulent medieval times. However, what the town is most known for today is its university, University of Pavia, considered one of the best ones in Italy, which counts notables the likes of Christopher Columbus and Alessandro Volta among its alumni.

EAT:

Situated in a medieval tower, La Torre degli Aquila is a favourite spot among locals who enjoy the creative spin on traditional Italian dishes.

DRINK:

Despite Italy’s reputation as a wine country, locals have gradually fallen in love with craft beers, as seen in Il Birratoio, which took over the space formerly occupied by a longstanding wine bar with a rotation of 10 taps. A selection of cold cuts, panini and piadine (a local variety of flatbreads) rounds out the beer menu.

DO:

Churches galore! Indulge in some Catholic regalia by visiting Romanesque churches such as San Michele Maggiore and San Teodoro, Renaissance masterpieces such as Santa Maria di Canepanova and gothic works such as San Francesco D’Assisi and Santa Maria del Carmine.

STAY:

Revel in some old-time opulence by staying at the Arnaboldi Palace: the octogonal shape houses an inner courtyard topped with a glass dome, and the hotel also has a ballroom.

If you do just one thing...

Visit the Certosa di Pavia, a monastic complex originally intended for Carthusian monks. Its highly ornate style, replete with carvings and reliefs, combines both Gothic and Renaissance influences. Don’t miss the cloisters, which are in full bloom in the warmer months.

6
Camogli
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/Michal Osmenda

Camogli

The seaside town of Camogli is the perfect antidote to landlocked Milan. It offers trompe l'oeil palazzi, pine forests and azure water in spades. While nearby Portofino is a popular spot among luxury travelers, this equally pretty town retains a more working-class feel and doesn’t get quite as crowded, which is why in the summer it’s filled with well-heeled Milanese and Turinese who come on their annual holiday for some peace and quiet. (As they always say, the best travel finds come when you go where the locals go.)

EAT:

De Laura serves the best food in the tiny beachside hamlet of San Fruttuoso. Be sure to try whichever pesto pasta dish is on offer – Liguria is Italy’s most famous basil-growing region and the home of pesto. 

DRINK:

Grab an outside table at Pub la Cage Aux Folles, which is located on the main coastal drag in Camogli, and sip an Aperol spritz as you watch the sun go down.

DO:

Hire a private boat or hop on the ferry from Camogli to Portofino. The area’s vertiginous hills and cliffs of the Ligurian coast are even more stunning when seen from the water. 

STAY:

Housed in an impeccably restored 1907 palazzo, the Villa Rosmarino has welcoming staff, an outdoor pool and great views from its perch above the historic centre of Camogli. 

If you do just one thing…

Hike the trail from Camogli to the 10th-century San Fruttuoso. The abbey is in a stunning location, abutting a small pebble beach and with a hillside forest as its backdrop. Only accessible by foot or by boat, San Fruttuoso feels like a hidden paradise.

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7
Turin

Turin

Despite being the fourth largest city in Italy, Turin flies under the radar. The historic centre contains clues to Turin’s royal past (it was a seat of the House of Savoy and the first capital of the Kingdom of Italy): radiating from Palazzo Reale, one of two splendid House of Savoy palaces situated on Piazza Castello, are long porticoed arcades, allegedly instituted by the monarchy to keep the royals dry. It is also home to a world-class soccer team – Juventus – and boasts a distinguished culinary scene due to its location in Piedmont, a region famed for food and wine.  

EAT:

The relatively simple interior of Ristorante Consorzio, reminiscent of an old country house, belies the wow factor of the menu, which pays homage to Piedmont producers. This is a place to be adventurous: try one of the raw meat dishes and order from the impeccable natural wine list.

DRINK:

The bar at Astoria is always a good spot for a drink with friends, but what makes this place special is the basement stage that attracts Turin’s hipsters with various live music and DJ sets.

DO:

Perhaps more exciting than its royal heritage is Turin’s past life as a hotbed of resistance during the World War II. The wonderful Museo Diffuso Torino (Museum of the Resistance) charts the history of the defiant groups that opposed the occupying German forces and the Italian Fascist regime.

STAY:

The excellent staff at Tomato Backpackers Hotel gives this spot, which offers both dorms and private rooms, an inclusive and relaxed feel.

If you do just one thing…

Visit one of the city’s historic cafés, which were revolutionary and literary hotbeds in the 19th century. The refined Baratti & Milano, complete with crystal chandeliers and bow-tied bartenders, is a prime example of Turin’s unique café heritage.

8
Lake Como
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/chensiyuan

Lake Como

Its steep wooded shoreline and pristine sapphire water make Lake Como the most beautiful of the northern Italian lakes. The destination draws in visitors who are seduced by the ample opportunities for villa hopping, lavish lunches and long boat rides – a jaunt in nature has arguably never been so luxurious. A day trip usually means either a day spent in the larger town of Como, located on the southern tip of the lake, or a day that begins in smaller Varenna and involves hopping over to Bellagio on the ferry. Both Como and Varenna are an hour-long train ride from Milan.

EAT:

Located in the backstreets of Como, Ristorante Sociale offers the best bang for your buck in this pricey region, with its home-cooked meals attracting a large crowd of locals. The restaurant’s interiors, not least its massive stone fireplace, more than make up for the fact that it’s not lakeside.

DRINK:

The outside terrace at Bar Il Molo in Varenna is the most sought-after spot come aperitivo hour, as it affords incredible views of the lake. 

DO:

Como has been Italy’s silk capital since the 16th century and, while the spun thread is now imported from China, the fabrics woven by Como’s artisans are still coveted. Stop by A Picci in Como, one of the last remaining silk shops in town, to get your own silk tie or scarf.

STAY:

A lakeside hotel not far from Como, Villa d’Este was originally built as a summer palace in the 16th century and turned into a hotel in the late 19th century. It’s understandably pricey, but a perfect spot for a romantic getaway. 

If you do just one thing…

Spend some time on the lake. This can be done on the chea – riding one of the ferries between towns – or in a more upscale setting, like on one of the mahogany cigarette boats operated by Barindelli in Bellagio.

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9
Lake Maggiore
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/Markus Bernet

Lake Maggiore

The main draw of Lake Maggiore are its three distinct islands: Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Isola Superiore. The centrepiece of Isola Bella is the baroque Palazzo Borromeo: while the interiors are sumptuous, the 10-tiered garden is a true masterpiece of baroque garden design that has miraculously remained intact. Isola Madre is also home to a fabulous palace and gardens, while Isola Superiore harbours a quaint fishing village. The islands are a short ferry ride from the lakeside town of Stresa, which is one hour by train from Milan.

EAT:

Isola Superiore is home to some excellent seafood restaurants, of which Restaurant Casabella is the best of the bunch.

DRINK:

The swanky Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees in Stresa was the backdrop for part of Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms, making it a well-known name all over the world. Room prices are astronomical, but you can always get a drink on the terraces that overlook the lake.

DO:

Take the Funivia Stresa-Alpino-Mottarone, a cable car that runs between Stresa and Monte Mottarone with a stop at Alpino midway. The 20-minute journey affords some incredible views of the lakes region. 

STAY:

La Palma Hotel, a lakeside property, has an old-school façade but modern interiors. Amenities like the Sky Bar and the panoramic spa will have you feeling like you’re in the lap of luxury.

If you do just one thing…

Go on a search for the Borromeo family’s flock of white peacocks that are roaming the grounds on Isola Bella. It’s not every day that you can peep a white peacock, is it?

10
Cremona
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/trolvag

Cremona

In the Middle Ages, musical activities in the town revolved around the 12th-century Cremona Cathedral, which contributed to its rise as a musical centre in the 16th century – it was here that the modern instrument was invented and Antonio Stradivari made his world-famous violins, making Cremona a must-visit for music lovers. Just over an hour south of Milan by train, the town boasts one of the most beautiful piazzas in northern Italy – the Piazza del Comune – and is mostly off tourists’ radar. So even if you don’t have a passion for stringed instruments, Cremona is worth a visit for its quiet scene, all-around impressive architecture and vibrant food scene.

EAT:

Cremona has several local specialties, such as marubini (stuffed pasta) and gnocchi vecchia Cremona (giant, sausage-stuffed gnocchi). The best place to get all things local is Osteria La Sosta.

DRINK:

Centrally located on the Piazza Della Pace, Hobos Cocktail Bar whips up a mean pisco sour and its outdoor terrace is popular in the warmer months. 

DO:

Museo Civico “Ala Ponzone” is the town’s best art gallery with a fine collection of excellent paintings dating from the 15th to the 19th century. If your interest in stringed instruments lies beyond the violin, the collection of guitars and mandolins is sure to delight. 

STAY:

Cremona Hotels Impero is located very close to the historic centre of Cremona and within easy walking distance of many of the town’s sites. The rooms are spacious and simple, but it can get noisy on weekend nights.

If you do just one thing…

Visit the Museo del Violino. Opened in 2013, this high-tech museum allows visitors to get up close and personal some gorgeous Cremona-made violins. Be sure to ask about recital dates and concerts in the auditorium.

Take in some more sights

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