Famed for its sprawling, diverse scenery, Northern Italy is home to elegant lakes, colourful clifftop fishing villages, and quiet cities tucked between mountains.
There’s nothing quite like the startling diversity of landscapes in Northern Italy. With the Ligurian coastal delights of Cinque Terre and Portofino in the south, the treasured canal city of Venice in the east, and then in the northernmost part, the Dolomites and the Great Lakes, with the fashion hub of Milan nestled just below.
And those are just the most well-known northern destinations. There are truly so many places to visit in Northern Italy. Sprinkled throughout region is the wine-lovers delight that is the Piedmont region, the fabled home of Romeo and Juliet, Verona, and of course, Italy’s Yellowstone, Gran Paradiso National Park, which lies in the far northwest of the country.
A holiday in Northern Italy holds the promise of spectacular scenery - that’s a given! - but also delicious food and wine, opportunities to be immersed in Italian culture, and cities all across the spectrum, from cosmopolitan centres to more historic, quaint quarters.
Whether you are familiar with Italy, and you couldn’t resist returning, or you have never had the pleasure of exploring the northern gems of this boot-shaped nation, our guide will help you understand how to make the most of your northern Italian holiday.
Northern Italy is famous for its vast and varied scenery. From the sparkling bodies of water that are Lake Como and Lake Garda to the summer playground of colourful Portofino on the rocky Ligurian coast, to the “mountain home” that is the city of Bergamo, the region caters to a range of traveller tastes. A huge reason to visit Northern Italy is to soak up the picturesque natural surroundings and engage with the rich history of the towns, which includes maritime canals, Venetian walls, towering cathedrals, and even clifftop churches.
There are 11 airports scattered throughout Northern Italy, but the two major airports are Venice and Milan. Both are serviced by many UK and European airlines. To see more of the region, you might like to fly into one airport, and out the other. Of course, if you are heading from Southern Italy, it’s very easy to reach the north via train. It’s over a three-hour train journey from Rome to Milan, and just under a four-hour journey from Rome to Venice.
Due to the diversity of scenic landscapes in this region, it’s recommended to see as much of it as possible via rail journeys or road trips. In terms of the most scenic rail journeys to take, you can’t go past the Bernina Express and the little trains which operate throughout the Dolomites.
As for taking a short road trip that covers some bucket-list locations in the north, it’s a great idea to fly into Venice, hire a car, and make your way to Milan. If you do venture north into The Dolomites, be aware that there are a few large mountains, which as you might have predicted equals occasionally tight and winding roads. So, to take the stress out, we would recommend booking an escorted tour. This way, driving can be taken care of for you, and you can be left to soak up the scenery (and the finest produce of the wine regions!).
As Northern Italy encompasses a region of some 46,600 square miles, we’re going to break it down by the best places to visit.
Whether you are looking for a charming winter getaway, or a splash in the warmer months, the Italian Lakes are a must-visit Northern Italian destination. Lake Garda is a hub for outdoor activities like swimming, boating, and hiking. Lake Maggiore is characterised by its Borromean Islands, three small isles with idyllic gardens and palaces. Lake Como is popular with couples - particularly honeymooners - and is the most stylish and sophisticated of the three major Italian lakes.
Milan is the country’s largest city, and it thrives with its offerings of design, fashion and good Italian coffee! In the metropolis, you will come across a fascinating combination of old and new - from the breathtaking Duomo to more modern constructions, as well as some upscale coffee bars. Milan is partially rooted in its traditions, while still being forward-facing.
While many head to Venice and stay on the main island, it’s worth venturing out to the other neighbouring islands of Murano and Burano via a short public boat ride. Here, you will find a history rich in craft, with talented glass blowers and lace makers. To top it all off, the buildings are extraordinarily colourful.
Northern Italy is the kind of place that is enchanting across all its seasons. If you are wondering what to do in Northern Italy, it boils down to two things: eating and exploring.
Northern Italian cuisine is unlike the food of the south in that it relies less on pasta and red sauce, instead focusing on polenta and cheese. Squash risotto, or risotto con la zucca in Italian, is a traditional risotto served throughout northern Italy. The squash lends a particularly mealy feel and a sweetness, plus it gives a fantastic pop of colour. Other regional dishes to sample include fonduta, an indulgent hot cheese dip comprising eggs, milk, and, wait for it, white truffles! Panettone is also definitely worth a try. This traditional Christmas cake (which you might have tried before) features orange peel and an irresistible airiness and buttery flavour.
One of the most impressive parts of Italy, not even just Northern Italy, is The Dolomites. This mountainous region is best explored on foot, to get up close and personal with the exquisite sapphire lakes, forests, and mountain rifugios which offer food and drink during your walk.
Even if you consider yourself to be more of an ambler rather than a mountain climber, there is an extraordinary range of Dolomite trails that will allow you to feel immersed in the environment without feeling overly challenged. So get ready to inhale that fresh mountain air!
If you have had enough of the canals, the lakes, the cities, and the mountains – you’ve got to get yourself to the coast! Take your time on the Ligurian coast, exploring the whole five-town stretch. There are plenty of things to do between the seaside resort town of Levanto and the port city of La Spezia, which isn’t too far from Pisa.
This coastal region is known as Cinque Terre, and it is famed for its charming, historic villages which are magnificently tucked into tiny coves. This unique design gives the effect of colourful, postcard-worthy vistas, rather than crammed chaos. This region is perfect for sampling local gelato after a paddle around the rocks, or for tucking into Michelin-star cuisine at one of the ancient fishing harbours, like Riomaggiore.
Northern Italy is indeed very safe to travel, and it is also safe to travel alone. With its range of hostels in the larger cities like Milan and Bologna, plus the eco-hostels scattered throughout the mountains and the lakes, solo travellers won't have to fork out a fortune to enjoy their solo venture. Northern Italy is also safe for solo female travellers, but it helps to always inform loved ones of your location and itinerary, particularly on remote walks in the remote national parks - just to be safe.
As Northern Italy is full of lakes fringed by stunning alpine landscapes, small historic towns, and incredible coastal dining - many find that this part of the Mediterranean offers quite a calming ambience. As such, it is the perfect holiday destination for over 50s travellers. Northern Italy offers a slower pace of life than the south, with bustling Rome and the endlessly popular Amalfi Coast, but still offers plenty of things to do and see.
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