Monte Lussari, one of the best places to see in northern italy

Best Places to Visit in Northern Italy

Northern Italy’s riches are vast, varied, and yours to discover, from art-packed museums and mosaic-filled cathedrals to Roman ruins and hill towns amid vineyards that produce some of Europe’s best wines. You can dine at refined restaurants that casually flaunt their Michelin star ratings, or chow down with the locals at osterie (small local eateries) that have spent generations perfecting traditional recipes. Like most countries, Italy has its own north south divide with northern Italians boasting that they form the country’s economic backbone and industrial powerhouse. From eye wear to fashion to food, Italy’s  northern regions account for over 50 % of the Italian economy, despite containing less than half of the country’s population.

After the communes gave way to aristocratic or oligarchic rule, trade remained of vital importance to the cities of Northern Italy, most notably Milan, Venice, Bologna and Genoa but also numerous smaller centers, and this accumulation of wealth resulted in a prodigious flowering of the arts. The great artistic patronage of the Renaissance was one of the by-products of the continual antagonism among major European powers, which continually fought to establish areas of strategic influence in the region. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Europe’s best painters, sculptors, writers and poets circulated among the Northern Italian courts, leaving behind masterpieces for the ages. Leonardo da Vinci spent two decades in Milan under the patronage of the Sforza family. The Gonzagas of Mantua sponsored the creation of the splendid frescoes painted by Andrea MantegnaCosmè Tura rose to fame in Ferrara, courtesy of the Este family, and in Venice, the grandeur of the maritime republic was captured brilliantly by the talented Bellini family and later Canaletto. Great musical genius also had its origins here, with composer Claudio Monteverdi and luthier Antonio Stradivari from Cremona, and violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini from Genoa, to name but a few.

Even without its colorful history, Northern Italy’s geography and climate make it unique in comparison to other areas of the country or Europe. The 15,000-foot Alps that form Italy’s border with France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia usually block the colder arctic air from descending on the Northern Italian plains during the winter, while the warm, sunny, moist Mediterranean climate has made the region one of Europe’s most fertile. Northern Italy boasts an incredible variety of landscapes, from the flatlands of the majestic Po River to the celebrated canals of Venice. Deep mountain lakes and the rugged peaks of the Dolomites give way to the gentle hills of the Monferrato and the Langhe, famous for their truffles. Such diversity produces robust wines and culinary specialties not found anywhere else on the planet, so it is no wonder that Northern Italians treasure their home, sharing their secrets more generously with those who are willing to venture off the beaten path.

Northern Italy is the home of fine cashmere and popular “Made in Italy” fashion brands, motorcars like Ferrari, Ducati, and Maserati, Parmigiano Reggiano, San Daniele and Parma prosciutto, Balsamic Vinegar, Prosecco, Murano Glass, and much more. Its regions are among the wealthiest in Italy and Europe.

Northern Italy is:

  • crisscrossed by mighty rivers (among them the river Po – Italy’s largest at 652 km length)
  • dotted with sparkling lakes (among them Italy’s largest – Lago di Garda)
  • studded with some of the most exciting cities you can ever dream to explore

The 8 regions in northern Italy are:

As one post simply cannot cover all that northern Italy has to offer, I have chosen a small selection for this first post on my recommendations of what you should visit in northern Italy. These suggestions, as well as all my other recommendations on other blog posts, come from having lived, worked and studied a lifetime in Europe and consider northern Italy as my home, being married to an Italian born and raised in the region of Friuli.

Aosta and its castles

Aosta Valley is one of the best places to visit in Northern Italy

In the heart of the Aosta valley, framed by the mountains, Aosta encloses many places of cultural and historical interest dating to the Roman period (not by chance it is nicknamed the “Rome of the Alps”), like the Roman Theatre and the Arch of Augustus. The region is also scattered with fascinating castles (more than 130) with interesting museum collections: like the Castle of Saint-Pierre, the Castle of Verrès and the Savoy Castle in Gressoney-Saint-Jean. Without leaving out the Fort Bard, housing ancient and modern art displays and temporary exhibitions.

Courmayeur, Val d’Aosta

the alpine village of Courmayeur is one of the best places to visit in northern Italy

One of northern Italy’s most luxurious small towns, this ski haven is tucked behind Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe. Popular activities include skiing, hiking, shopping, visiting the spa, and enjoying local specialties, like fondue. The town comes alive at aperitivo—whether after a day on the slopes in the winter, or when the sun goes down after a long hike in the summer!

Turin, Piedmont

the royal city of Turin is one of the best places to visit in northern italy

Come here for the Royal history. Stay for the vibrant cultural life, the splendid sightseeing, and the delicious chocolate! Capital of the ancient Duchy of Savoy, today as then, Turin attracts visitors for its elegant squares and buildings, like the Royal Palace, Palazzo del Governo and Palazzo Madama, the major Residences of the Royal House of Savoy declared UNESCO World Heritage sites (together with, among others, the Castle of Valentino and Villa della Regina), the Cathedral dating to the XV century keeping the Holy Shroud, and the museums, like the eminent Egyptian Museum (second only to the Cairo museum) and the National Museum of Cinema, housed inside the Mole Antonelliana.

Langhe and Alba, Piedmont

the langhe wine area of the region of piedmont is one of the best places to visit in northern italy

In the wine-producing region of Langhe, rolling, vineyard-covered hills give way to views of the snow-covered Alps. Picturesque Piedmont villages form in clusters on small winding roads throughout the region, with striking contemporary architecture and sculptures found on many vineyard estates.

This foodie paradise attracts tourists for its famous white truffle, hazelnuts (it’s home to Ferrero, the makers of Nutella!) and wines like Barbaresco, Barolo and Moscato. But it’s also a must-see for its quaint city center and gorgeous, winding vineyards in the nearby countryside. If you can, visit on a weekend in October and November for the annual white truffle festival, the Fiera internazionale del Tartufo bianco d’Alba

Verona, Veneto

the city of verona is one of the best places to visit in northern italy

It is the quintessential “city of love”, but offers much more than the myth of Romeo and Juliet: starting from its city center overflowing with art and archaeological sites, such as the Arena, the unmistakable symbol of the city, the Roman theatre and the walls, the Scaliger-dynasty squares and palaces. A cultural tour of Verona cannot but have a stop in Vicenza, UNESCO Heritage site thanks to the valued works by Palladio and Mantua, art city linked to the legacy of the Gonzaga family, one of the best examples of Italian Renaissance.

Milan, Lombardy

the city of milan in one of the best places to visit in northern italy

It’s a modern, cosmopolitan city, at the same time rich in historical evidence and places of art: its amazing Duomo (cathedral), the symbol of the city, the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, the Church of Santa Maria delle Graziethat contains The Last Supper, the well-known masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci, and its museums, among which stand out the Brera Art Gallery, the Museum of the XX Century and the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Just one hour by car from downtown Milan, well worth a visit are Pavia, with the Visconti Castle, the Cathedral, the Ponte Coperto and the Certosa, and Bergamo, known as La Città dei Mille (The City of the Thousand), with its medieval center lying on the hills and embraced by the Venetian walls (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

The Cinque Terre, Liguria

the town of vernazza in cinque terre is one of the best places to visit in northern italy

This coastal region in Liguria comprises five fishing and wine-producing villages – Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore – perched dramatically on rocky cliff fronts. Steep terraces of brightly coloured houses teeter over inlets and lively harbours, while olive groves and vineyards traverse inland. Largely inaccessible by car, Cinque Terre is a walker’s haven – and you can enjoy an unforgettable guided hike as part of Culture Trip’s 10-day small-group Northern Italy trip.

Lake Orta, Piedmont

lake orta is one of the best places to visit in northern italy

Lake Orta is smaller and less frequented than its more glamorous counterparts; Como, Maggiore and Garda, which creates a distinct atmosphere. The single island at the centre of the lake is enchanting, as is its principal town Orta San Giulio. The calm and reclusive feeling that people find at Orta has been a pull for writers across the centuries – Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, Honoré de Balzac and Robert Browning all visited. From a hillside vantage point, take in the in its entirety and admire the seasonal changes in the surrounding topography.

Lake Como, Lombardy

the town of varenna on lake como is one of the best places to visit in northern italy

Lake Como is celebrated for outstanding natural beauty, crystalline bays and Renaissance architecture. The area remains popular thanks to a location just an hour from Milan, yet Como is undeniably stunning. The ‘upside-down Y’ shaped lake is set against the foothills of the Alps and spectacular lakeside vistas surround you in every quaint village and town. Bike to a hillside summit and survey the area’s Mediterranean yet alpine majesty. With Culture Trip, you can enjoy a boat cruise on Lake Como as part of our specially curated 10-day Northern Italy tour, led by our local insider.

Lake Garda, Lombardy

the town of malcesine on lake garda is one of the best places to visit in northern italy

Situated at the edge of the Dolomites, this is Italy’s largest lake and its beauty has been eulogized by many writers, including Catullus, Tennyson, DH Lawrence and Ezra Pound. At the northern part of the lake, the Gruppo del Baldos mountains create a dramatic backdrop and at the center you will find small islands home to grand villas. Garda’s many charming lakeside villages and towns drip with lush and fragrant Mediterranean plant life and fishing boats rest in their harbors. Fresh mountain water gently laps at the sand and pebble beaches that dot the lake’s perimeter.

Lake Maggiore, Lombardy and Piedmont

the gardens on isola bella on lake maggiore is one of the best places to visit in northern italy

Often regarded as the most beautiful of Italy’s northern lakes, Lake Maggiore is known for its clear blue waters, mild Mediterranean climate and sloping green clad shoreline. The area has long drawn the imagination of visitors passing through the Simplon Pass from central Europe into Italy for whom the lake was one of their first iconic vistas. The lake itself, acts as a border between the region of Piedmont on the western shore and Lombardy to the east. To the north, it stretches up into Switzerland and the picturesque Locarno area. The jewels in the crown though, are undoubtedly the Borromean Islands, nestled on the western shore between the towns of Stresa and Verbania, within the picturesque Borromean Gulf. This whole section of the lake, so popular with the European aristocracy during the years of the Grand Tour, is lined with beautiful Belle Époque villas and extensive botanical gardens, just waiting to be explored.

Venice, Veneto

romantic and mysterious venice is one of the best places to visit in northern italy

Venice exceeds expectations of magnificence and magic. Venetian Gothic architecture (heavily influenced by Byzantine and Moorish styles) is almost untouched and the beauty of the majestic palazzos and narrow callettes is mirrored in the turquoise canals. With boats the only mode of transport, it is easy to imagine the island in its 16th-century splendor – packed with exotic trade, artistic brilliance and lustful indulgence. There really is nowhere else in Italy – perhaps the world – like this floating city.

Millennial capital of the Republic of Venice, unanimously recognized as one of the most romantic cities in the world, the “Serenissima” boasts an extraordinary historical center, UNESCO World Heritage site together with its lagoon. Many are the opportunities to feed your hunger for culture, starting from St Mark’s Square with the St Mark’s Basilica, the Bell Tower and the Doge’s Palace, without neglecting the churches of Santa Maria della SaluteSanta Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the synagogues of the Jewish ghetto, the many beautiful palaces overlooking canals, campi (the local squares) and calli (the streets) and the extensive network of the Civic Museums (among which, in addition to the Doge’s Palace, also the Museo Correr, Ca’ Rezzonico, Ca’ Pesaro and Palazzo Mocenigo).

Wine country, Friuli-Venezia Giulia

the collio wine are of friuli venezia giulia is one of the best places to visit in northern italy

Friuli-Venezia Giulia has a unique geographical position, bordering Slovenia, Germany and the Adriatic Sea, all of which make it a much-celebrated wine region. The Collio is a series of picturesque hills nestled between two rivers and the Slovenian border. Mostly small-scale, family-run vineyards sprawl across the valley in every direction, so when the seasons change the entire landscape changes color too – from intense and vivid green to burnt amber, the all encompassing vineyard views are truly stunning.

Monte Lussari Village, Friuli-Venezia Giulia

the village Monte Santo di Lussari in friuli is one of the best places to visit in northern Italy

At the peak of Mount Lussari in the Julian Alps stands a shrine that has been a pilgrimage destination since the 16th-century. The story, which features in both Italian and Slavic folklore, states that in 1360 a shepherd lost his sheep before finding it in a bush of mugo pine alongside a statuette of the Madonna with Child. Climb up through the old world village and admire panoramic views of the Tarvisian basin.

Trieste, Friuli-Venezia Giulia

Trieste and its Piazza della Liberta are some of the best places to visit in northern italy

A border town with a Habsburg past, Trieste is a crossroads of cultures with a strong Middle-European identity. Very elegant its squares – first of which Piazza Unità d’Italia – and refined its buildings, as well as its interesting mixture of catholic, orthodox and Hebraic religious architecture. At the gates of the city are majestic castles, like the well-known Miramare Castle. Just a few kilometers away from the city center, you reach Aquileia, with its Roman ruins, UNESCO Heritage site together with Palmanova, enclosed by walls and with an odd star-shaped plant, and Udine, with its castle and medieval architecture examples.

Aquileia, Friuli-Venezia Giulia

the town of Aquileia with its roman heritage is one of the best places to visit in northern italy

If you love Roman history, add this UNESCO World Heritage site, located right near the Slovenian border, to your list! Aquileia was one of the most important cities of the early ancient Roman empire. You can still get a sense for how beautiful it must have been, thanks to its ruins (including interesting mosaics and a forum). Just be sure to pack comfortable shoes—you’ll want to do a lot of walking to explore the archaeological site!

Bolzano, Trentino-Alto Adige

walking in Bolzano with its market, is one of the best places to visit in northern Italy

Bolzano is a picturesque location in northern Italy and the gateway the dolomites. home to an ice mummy named Otzi. He is a Neolithic mummy found in September of 1991 in the Otzal Alps; he offered an amazing glimpse into what Copper-Age Europeans lived and looked like! You can see him at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. A visit to Bolzano — or Bozen as it is also known — envelopes you in lasting charm. It immerses you in centuries of German, Italian and Austrian influences not to mention a riveting history that surpasses ancient Rome by 3,000 years. Often referred to as “The Gateway to the Dolomites”, this vibrant capital of South Tyrol crystalizes why the region is one of the must-see hidden gems of Europe. Tucked between Innsbruck to the north and Trento to the south, Bolzano boasts a quality of life that ranks at the top in Italy.

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About Audrey De Monte

Born in New York City, to European native parents, and raised in Western Africa, I have studied, lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), and have traveled extensively throughout the world. Travel has shaped my life, who I am, and how I look at the world and travel continues to be my biggest teacher. Together with my native Italian husband, we speak 5 languages (French, Italian, German, Spanish and English of course). I have spent a lifetime in several countries in Western Europe, since early childhood, visiting family, friends, studying, living and working. I grew up with the local customs and traditions of these countries.