Travel Guide – The Best Places We Have To Visit In Milan

Ad Blocker Detected

Our website is made possible by displaying online advertisements to our visitors. Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker.

Milan’s Highlight

Leonardo’s Last Supper

One of the largest and most ingenious works created by the ultimate Renaissance Man. It is in an advanced state of deterioration now, but even the shadow that remains of this great work can teach us volumes about Renaissance ideals.

Milan’s Duomo

The world’s largest Gothic cathedral took more than 400 years to complete, a forest of stone pinnacles, flying buttresses, more than 3,500 statues and fantastic panoramas from its roof.

Pinacoteca di Brera

Northern Italy’s greatest painting gallery displays masterpieces by Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Piero della Francesca, Raphael and Caravaggio.

Castello Sforzesco

A sprawling 15thcentury castle, now home to collections of tapestries, archaeological artifacts, paintings by Bellini and Mantegna, and sculptures that include Michelangelo’s final work, the Rondanini Pietà.

Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

This cultural study centre founded in the 17th century contains works by Leonardo, Botticelli, Raphael and Caravaggio.


One of the oldest churches in Milan, it was founded by the city’s bishop and patron saint Ambrose in 379. It’s filled with mosaics and carvings dating back to the 4th century.

Lake Maggiore’s Isole Borromee

Three verdant islands, one still dominated by a fishing village, the other two clad in the sumptuous villas and ornate gardens of the local ruling Borromeo clan.

Certosa di Pavia

The pinnacle of the Lombard Renaissance, a vast monastery and church complex in the Po plains with an ornate marble façade, exquisite carved tombs, and some excellent paintings and frescoes.


The perfect balance of small town charm and sophisticated culture, medieval streets and Renaissance buildings, chic boutiques and hearty home-cooking.


The ancient seat of the Gonzaga dukes – ringed on three sides by shallow lakes – boasts Renaissance palaces designed and decorated by the likes of Mantegna and Giulio Romano.


Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

Lombardy’s most important painting gallery, displaying works by Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Veronese, Coreggio, Lotto, Carpaccio, Tiepolo, El Greco and Rembrandt.

Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan

This formidable mix of Old Masters was started by Cardinal Federico Borromeo as an adjunct to the Ambrosiana Library. Famously, the library is home to the Codex Atlantico, which contains the lion’s share of Leonardo’s drawings and sketches – photocopied pages from it are displayed in the Pinacoteca. Elsewhere, you’ll find paintings by Botticelli, Titian and Caravaggio, as well as Raphael’ s giant preparatory sketch for the School of Athens.

Castello Sforzesco, Milan

The greatest free museum in Italy! There’s a bit of everything: paintings by the likes of Bellini and Mantegna, a cycle of 16th – century tapestries, archaeological collections and, its greatest piece, Michelangelo’s unfinished Rondanini Pietà.

Museo Poldi-Pezzoli, Milan

Poldi-Pezzoli’s mansion is preserved as a monument to his collections, from Persian tapestries, ancient arms and armour to historic jewellery and, above all, art. In one room alone, there are paintings by Piero della Francesca, Giovanni Bellini, Mantegna and Botticelli.

Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia – Leonardo da Vinci, Milan

Had Leonardo possessed more technological ambition, we might have had working versions of his helicopters, water screws, gatling guns, parachutes and siege engines over four centuries ago. As it is, we can make do with the (modern) wooden mock-ups on display at this science and technology museum, alongside instructive exhibits on physics and antique autos and aeroplanes.

Civico Museo Archeologico, Milan

Among the top pieces in this small archaeological collection, which traces Lombard and neighbouring civilizations from prehistory to the end of the Roman era, is the Trivulzio Cup. This precious 4th-century glass cup has a delicate glass netting hovering just above the chalice surface on thin stilts of glass, along with a raised inscription that reads “Drink to Enjoy Long Life”.

Museo Teatrale alla Scala, Milan

If it has to do with the opera in Milan, it’s on display here. It’s an eclectic collection, from costumes worn by Nureyev or Callas to historic musical instruments, and from Verdi’s death mask (and some of his original scores) to Toscanini’s batons.

Galleria d’Arte Moderna – Villa Belgiojoso Bonaparte, Milan

This fine collection of art, housed in the handsome Villa Belgiojoso Bonaparte (see p86), includes Neo-Classicism and Romanticism works from the beginning of the 20th century. Italian 20thcentury works can be seen in the Museo del Novecento.

Galleria dell’Accademia Carrara, Bergamo

Count Giacomo Carrara, a collector and expert on literature and art, left his collection to Bergamo, on his death in 1796. Today the gallery houses over 1,800 paintings, including works by Botticelli, Mantegna, Bellini and Raffaello. There is also a significant collection of prints and sketches, sculpture and china. Above all, though, come to admire the emotion-filled Renaissance paintings of Lorenzo Lotto, a Venetian painter who settled in Bergamo in 1513.

Museo di Santa Giulia, Brescia

Though there are Romanesque carvings and detached frescoes galore in the cloisters, chapels and chambers of this medieval monastery, the real focus here is on Brescia’s great era as a Roman colony, and the archaeological works on display are astoundingly beautiful and well preserved.

Lakeside Attractions

Isole Borromee, Lake Maggiore

This trio of islets off Stresa – two clad in gardens and palaces, the third with a fishing village – rank among the top 10 sights in the whole region.

Santa Caterina del Sasso, Lake Maggiore

The façade and interior of this church perched just above the water are covered with decaying frescoes dating from the hermitage’s foundation in the 13th century to its suppression by the Austrians in the 19th; the Dominicans returned in 1986. Be warned: there are many steps down from the car park, and the ferries servicing the ancient dock are infrequent. Look out on the loggia for a winch assembly once used with a basket to raise the daily shopping – and the occasional frail monk – from the boat decks.

Rocca di Angera, Lake Maggiore

This 8th-century Lombard fortress dominates Angera’s headland. Expanded in the late 13th century by the Visconti of Milan, it later became the seat of its own county, and in 1449 passed to the Borromeo clan. Today the glowering fortress preserves delicate medieval frescoes and a Doll Museum.

Bellagio, Lake Como

Perhaps the loveliest town on any of the lakes has it all: a harbourside arcade of cafés, sumptuous gardens surrounding stately villas, steep medieval alleys, and hotels and shops in all price ranges. The Romanesque church of San Giacomo has a 12th-century pulpit with reliefs of the Evangelists.

Como’s Duomo, Lake Como

The exterior of Como’s cathedral, begun in the late 14th century, is a festival of statues and bas-reliefs. Inside are Renaissance altarpieces and tapestries.

Villa Carlotta, Lake Como

Owing its beauty and fame to three owners, the villa itself was begun in 1643 for Giorgio Clerici. In 1801 it passed to lawyer Gian Battista Sommariva, and he filled it with Neo-Classical sculptures and Romantic paintings. The former include Palamede by Canova and Cupid and Psyche by his student Tadolini; the latter a famed Last Kiss of Romeo and Juliet by Francesco Hayez, master of stolen-kiss scenes. In 1847 it passed to the Prussian Princess Carlotta, who lent it her name while her husband, Prince Giorgio di Sassonia-Meiningen, furnished it in Empire style. He also created the magnificent botanical gardens.

Varenna, Lake Como

Varenna is less touristy than Bellagio and almost as rewarding. It has a waterfront promenade, two small churches with medieval frescoes on the main square, two villas-with-gardens to wander, and the half-ruined Castello di Vezio high above town. Just south of Varenna, and only from March until October, the Fiumelatte gushes from the cliff face down about 250 m (800 ft) into the lake, making it the shortest river in Italy.

Il Vittoriale, Lake Garda

An over-the-top Art Nouveau overhaul of this villa owned by the flamboyant poet, adventurer and national hero Gabriele d’Annunzio was financed by none other than Mussolini himself – basically as a bribe to silence d’Annunzio’s criticism of the fascist government.

Sirmione, Lake Garda

Jutting into the lake from the southern shore is a skinny peninsula. At its tip sits the postcard-perfect town of Sirmione, guarded by a striking castle complete with moat and drawbridge. It’s a popular resort, with plenty of hotels and shopping, but also some fine little churches and the ruins of a Roman villa at the promontory’s very tip.

Giardino Botanico Hruska, Lake Garda

Arturo Hruska, Swiss dentist to Europe’s royalty in the early and mid-20th century, laid out these sumptuous botanical gardens between 1940 and 1971.

Villas and Gardens

Borromeo Palace, Lake Maggiore

The Borromeo family’s 1670 palazzo on the lushly landscaped Isola Bella is an incomparable glimpse into the lifestyle of the wealthiest of Lombard families.

Villa Taranto, Lake Maggiore

The villa at Verbania (see p100), built in 1875 by Scotsman Neil MacEacharn, is closed to the public, but you can wander the landscaped gardens filled with exotic plants. Rare species include the world’s largest water lily at 2 m (6 ft) across and the towering Metasequoia, which was believed extinct for 200 million years until found in China in 1941.

Villa Carlotta, Lake Como

Lake Como is famous for its extravagant villas, but while some gardens are open, few of the buildings themselves can be visited. At Villa Carlotta, however, you can visit both the late Baroque villa filled with NeoClassical statues and Romantic paintings, and the extensive, lush gardens.

Villa Serbelloni, Lake Como

The villa’s private gardens cover the entire tip of the Bellagio promontory. The tours stick mainly to the paths, overlooking Italianate, English-style and Mediterranean sections. Stendhal described the vista from the top as “sublime and enchanting” – indeed, it’s the only spot from which you can see down all three arms of Lake Como simultaneously.

Villa Melzi, Lake Como

Francesco Melzi, the VicePresident of Napoleon’s Cisalpine Republic, had this Neo-Classical villa built on Bellagio’s southern edge. The villa is off-limits, but you can wander the gardens to the water’s edge, visit a small museum (Etruscan, Egyptian and Roman artifacts) and see a mock Moorish temple that inspired a pair of Liszt piano concertos, written during the composer’s stay here.

Villa Monastero, Lake Como

The original structure was not really a monastery, but a Cistercian convent founded in 1208. It was disbanded by Charles Borromeo in the 16th century after he heard lascivious stories about its nuns. After centuries as a noble villa, it’s now owned by a science research centre. You can visit a terrace of palms, cypresses, magnolias and roses, and a greenhouse of citrus trees.

Villa Balbianello, Lake Como

Department store mogul and explorer Guido Monzino gave this 1784 villa and its gorgeous gardens to FAI (the Italian National Trust) in 1988. A museum inside chronicles his adventures from Mount Everest to the North Pole. The property topped the famous Como sights list after appearing in Star Wars: Episode II and Casino Royale.

Villa Cipressi, Lake Como

Fancy spending the night at one of Lake Como’s gorgeous villas? The Cipressi is now a hotel, and guests can wander its cypressshaded gardens, blooming with wisteria, for free.

Il Vittoriale, Lake Garda

This kitschy Art Nouveau villa was created by poet and adventurer Gabriele d’Annunzio, a flamboyant man who once flew a biplane over Vienna in 1918 to prove an invasion was possible, and in 1919 used private troops to take over a border town ceded to Yugoslavia, earning himself acclaim as a national hero and the enmity of those in power. The villa represents his life, loves and philosophy, which are cheerfully explained by guides. The famous plane is preserved in an outbuilding.

Giardino Botanico Hruska, Lake Garda

Swiss dentist and naturalist Arturo Hruska may have had only a single hectare of lake property, but over 30 years he managed to turn it into a microcosm of Dolomite and Alpine flora. Since 1989, Austrian multimedia artist André Heller has kept it open it to the public.

Small Towns and Villages


An entire town planned between 1556 and 1591 to Renaissance ideals, Sabbioneta is the legacy of Vespasiano Gonzaga Borromeo, who, bereft of heirs, put his energies into a complex of palaces and a theatre.


Though originally a fiercely loyal satellite of Milan, Crema’s formative period was under the Venetians (1454–1797). It’s a tidy.


Built in 1158 after Barbarossa razed the original town 5 km (3 miles) to the west, Lodi is celebrated for its Duomo and octagonal church of the Incoronata. The latter is slathered with frescoes, gilded stuccoes and fine paintings by Il Bergognone.


The capital of northern Italy in the Dark Ages is now lost in Milan’s suburban sprawl but retains its historic centre. In addition to the glorious Certosa (see pp24–5), other important churches include San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro and San Michele, both full of Romanesque carvings, and the Duomo, whose architects included Bramante and Leonardo. Pavia also boasts a Renaissance bridge and 14thcentury castle with paintings by Antonella da Messina, Correggio, Bellini, Luini and Tiepolo.

Vigevano Lodovico “Il Moro”

Sforza was born in the castle that dominates this town of silk and shoe factories. The arcaded Piazza Ducale was designed by Bramante; the Baroque Duomo was built in 1680.

Castiglione Olona

In the 14th century Cardinal Branda Castiglione fell in love with the new Gothic painting style he saw in Florence and was determined to import it to his hometown. The ageing painter Masolino did some of his best works in the cardinal’s palace and the Chiesa Collegiata. The Chiesa di Villa nearby is a Brunelleschian church with colossal saints flanking the entrance.


The main town on little Lake Annone was a medieval stop for pilgrims visiting its 8th-century abbey, which was said to house a set of Saint Peter’s Keys to Heaven (longvanished). In the hills above town is the stunning Romanesque retreat of San Pietro al Monte.


This town in the Alpine valley is littered with crotti – caverns used to cure meats and cheeses – some of which have been converted into osterie. An old stone quarry above town is home to a botanical park; and the Parco Marmitte dei Giganti contains prehistoric carvings.

Val Calmonica Villages

The villages of Capo di Ponte and Nadro di Ceto are the best access points for the prehistoric rock carvings found in the valley north of Lake Iseo. The images are at least 3,000 years old and include hunting scenes.


This year-round skiing village high in the Valtellina is equal parts high-class resort and medieval village. It’s also a gateway to a park of glaciers, peaks, trails and gorgeous Alpine vistas.

Festivals and Events


Carnevale in Milan is a combination of religious pomp, fancy-dress parade and Bacchanalian bash. Whereas carnivals elsewhere in the world – everywhere from Rio to Venice – end on Martedì Grasso (“Fat Tuesday”), Archbishop St Ambrose decreed that in Milan the party should go on until the following Saturday. No wonder they made him a saint.

Fashion Week

Milan is invaded by models, buyers, journalists and photographers four times a year. In mid-January and late June they come for menswear collections, while late February and late September are for womenswear. Taxis, hotel vacancies and restaurant tables get scarce, so visitors should plan ahead.

Palio di Legnano

Two years after the Lombard League trounced Barbarossa in 1176 (see p32), the town of Legnano began celebrating the victory. Over 800 years later they’re still at it, putting on a display of pageantry that ends with a horse race between the town’s eight contrade (districts).

Festa dei Navigli

Milan’s trendy Navigli canal district celebrates the start of summer on the first Sunday in June by bursting into a street fair with artisan stalls and live music.


August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, is the day most Italians head to the beach or lakes for a two-week holiday, and life in the city comes to a halt. Mantua has a 15 August celebration of street artists, but Milan virtually shuts down. Only the restaurants and bars of the Navigli stay open.

Settimane Musicali, Stresa

Lake Maggiore’s gateway to the Borromean Islands (see p99) hosts five musical weeks of concerts in venues throughout town and up and down the lake shores.

Grand Prix, Monza

The biggest Formula One race of the year takes place in mid-September. At other times, you can still watch macho men driving cars at mind-boggling speeds from April through to October.

Stringed Instruments Festivals, Cremona

The home of Amati and Stradivarius celebrates luthiers and musicians in a series of festivals, concerts, exhibitions and international competitions.

Milan Furniture Fair

Hotels are fully booked when the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, or Milan Furniture Fair, takes the stage in mid-April. Be sure to book early if you want to be present for the six days when the entire city comes alive with exhibitions and events related to the latest trends in furniture and interior design.

Opera Season

La Scala is the most important opera house in the world, and if you ever doubted opera was art, a night at its 18thcentury home will help you transcend all doubt. The season opens on 7 December – the feast day of Milan’s patron saint, Ambrose – and is a momentous occasion in the Milanese social calendar.

Entertainment Venues in Milan

La Scala

Housed in a glorious 18thcentury theatre, this is Milan’s – indeed, one of the world’s – top opera com panies, where Verdi was once house composer, Callas formerly graced the stage and costumes are designed by top fashion names. The season runs from December until May and tickets are scarce. It is advisable to book early.


Part bar, part restaurant and part jazz club that doesn’t limit itself to jazz. Since 1971, “Monkeys” has been shaking up the Navigli nightlife scene with live music daily until late in the night.

Auditorium di Milano

The “Giuseppe Verdi” Symphony Orchestra of Milan, under the guidance of conductor Riccardo Chailly, has since 1999 played in this re-invented 1930s’ cinema, which stood derelict for decades after World War II. The orchestra boasts a repertoire ranging from Bach to 19thcentury symphonic music and contemporary pieces.


This is high-tech nightclubbing, with TV screens, Internet feeds, concerts broadcast live and a magnetic card that keeps track of your tab (you pay when you leave). The music ranges from modern pop and hip-hop to 1960s and 1970s revival – the owners are a group of Serie A footballers who are often seen here when not on the field.

Magazzini Generali Cavernous

Magazzini Generali is a little bit of everything. It has a stage and auditorium that seats 1,000 for live acts, it can become a huge disco, it has a gallery for exhibitions, and it fits in live poetry readings and more besides.


If you feel it just ain’t a club unless there’s bouncers and velvet ropes keeping the less-than-perfect at bay, then Plastic is the spot for you. Inside, there’s a mix of techno, house and jungle – background to the pick-up scene for all tastes (Thursday is officially gay/lesbian night). There’s also a laid-back billiards room, with jukebox favourites.

Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone is as classic as the magazine after which it is named; a no-excuses, party-hard, rock-music discotheque filling a cavernous ex-cinema with huge crowds drawn to hear the best live rock acts of any venue in town. Past acts include Iron Maiden, Van Morrison, Nick Cave and Oasis.

Blue Note

The first European outpost of the famed New York jazz club serves up dinner and top-line performers Tuesday to Saturday and a jazz brunch on Sundays. The line-up is wide-ranging. Past performers have ranged from Bill Evans and Suzanne Vega to the London Community Gospel Choir. Booking is essential.


This stalwart from the 1980s still offers you the best chance in all of Milan to spot a genuine international supermodel, making Corso Como one of the city’s most fashionable streets. Though a perfectly standard discotheque from 1986, glitzy Hollywood continues to draw the most beautiful people in town, so dress to impress.


Located on a street that features a number of hip nightspots, Milan’s biggest club is housed in a converted industrial space and hosts live music concerts, events and parties. The action begins around 11pm and goes on until about 3am. There is often live music during the week and dancing every Saturday and Sunday. The top bands visiting Milan play here.


Ristorante Cracco, Milan

In 2000–2001, this bastion of fine Milanese cooking was completely overhauled and reopened under the guidance of Carlo Cracco, a pupil of Gualtiero Marchesi. With two Michelin stars, the menu is adventurous and the wine list exceptional. If the stratospheric prices make you cringe, know that around the corner is “Peck”, also managed by Cracco, and one of the finest food emporia in Italy, where raw ingredients and prepared dishes can make up a glorious picnic.

Don Carlos at the Grand Hotel et de Milan

Named after Verdi’s opera, this restaurant offers a bold, impactful and highly memorable experience, serving Italian creative cuisine with oriental touches. The walls feature photographs and drawings of La Scala and the discreet background music is operatic. Open for dinner only, the kitchen closes at 11:30pm, which is late for Milan.

Trattoria da Pino, Milan

Genuine Milanese home cooking is the order of the day here. You’ll be squeezed in with the locals at this simple place but it’s worth it for the delicious daily specials, bargain prices and great atmosphere.

Joia, Milan

Swiss chef-owner Pietro Leeman spent time in the Orient before opening Milan’s temple of vegetarian cuisine, and many of his dishes have a hint of the exotic that put them in a gourmet category. The wine list is joined by a selection of ciders and organic beers.

Nicolin, Lecco

Located 3.5 km (2 miles) from Lecco, this restaurant has been run by the same family for over 30 years. The cuisine is traditional (ravioli stuffed with mushrooms and beef in barolo wine sauce with polenta) but also includes lake fish specialities, and the wine list is good. Tables on the lovely lakeside terrace are a draw during summer.

Aimo e Nadia, Milan

Aimo and Nadia Moroni are acknowledged as being among the top chefs in all Milan. They are fanatical about hunting down the very best ingredients, and it shows in such delectables as risotto with pumpkin flowers and truffles. It’s a bit of a haul from the centre of the city, but it is very much worth it.

Villa Fiordaliso, Lake Garda

The setting is marvellous: beyond the historic Liberty-style villa (now a hotel) where D’Annunzio lived and Mussolini’s mistress spent her final days, the tables are scattered about a shaded terrace lapped by lake waters. The cuisine is inventive and international, if sometimes overly minimalist.

Il Sole di Ranco, Lake Maggiore

For more than 150 years, the Brovelli family has run an inn and osteria in the tiny lakeside village of Ranco. The restaurant – serving high-class creative cuisine and ancient recipes – has summertime seating on shaded terraces. The wine list offers more than 1,200 choices, and they’ll set up a wine tasting to accompany your degustazione (tasting) menu.

Barchetta, Lake Como

Restaurants in such touristy towns as Bellagio rarely rise to the level of quality that this has achieved under chef-owner Armando Valli and his assistant Davide Angelini. The signature dish is the sinfonia degli otto sapori del lago, a “symphony” of eight lake fishes. For dessert, try the traditional paradel – honey ice cream with raisins.

I Due Roccoli, Lake Iseo

Here, when the weather is fine, you can dine on the terracotta terrace high in the hills above Iseo, with a view across a rose-fringed lawn to forested mountains beyond. The cooking is superb, and makes wonderful use of lake fish and other fresh local ingredients.

Northern Milan

Santa Maria delle Grazie

Leonardo’s extraordinary fresco of the Last Supper adorns a wall of the convent refectory and is of course the chief attraction of this church. Other features include a magnificent Renaissance tribune, possibly designed by Bramante, who did the cloister and probably the main portal, too.

Civico Museo Archeologico

A few pieces in an otherwise modest collection make this a worthwhile stop. The best is the Trivulzio Cup (see p41). A boulder from the Val Camonica (see p47), which is adorned with 4,800-yearold Bronze Age carvings, lies in the entrance court. There’s also a stunning silver platter from the mid- 4th century that displays in relief the deities of earth, sky, water and the zodiac – a resounding statement of faith in the old gods at a time of encroaching Christianity. In the 15thcentury cloisters, halfdemolished by bombs during World War II, are a pair of brick towers from the bastions of the Imperial-era city.

Castello Sforzesco

Milan’s vast castle complex squats at the northwest corner of the historic centre, an intriguing combination of oversized courtyards, lithe towers and medieval nooks and crannies.

Parco Sempione

Milan’s largest park started life as the 15th-century ducal gardens, though its layout, laced with pathways, dates from the late 19th century. A fine aquarium is housed in a 1906 Liberty-style structure. There are also fountains (one by Giorgio de Chirico), exhibition halls, a sports arena and the triumphal Arco della Pace.

San Simpliciano

One of four great basilicas built by St Ambrose in the 4th century (and finished by its namesake in 401) is popularly dedicated to the Anaunia Martyrs (see box). The external walls are mostly original; the interior was renovated in the 11th and 12th centuries, and frescoed with a rainbow of angels and a Coronation of the Virgin by Bergognone in 1515. There are also patches of a late 14thcentury fresco in a chapel off the choir.

San Marco

Of the original church, finished in 1254 and dedicated to Venice’s patron St Mark as a tip of the hat for Venice’s help in defeating Barbarossa, all that remains is the main stone doorway, three saints in façade niches and the top of the right bell tower. The rest was overhauled in the 19th century, with care to retain some 16thcentury frescoes. In the right transept, there are earlier frescoes, dating to the 13th century, which were rediscovered only in the 1950s.

Pinacoteca di Brera In Northern Italy

Milan’s painting gallery is second only to Venice’s Accademia (though for sheer variety the Brera wins). Since Napoleon inaugurated the collection, it has been housed in the Jesuits’ Palazzo di Brera. It’s one of the regions’ main Top 10, and for more on the collection – which includes works by Piero della Francesca, Raphael, Bellini, Mantegna and Caravaggio.

Villa Belgiojoso

Bonaparte–Galleria d’Arte Moderna Milan’s Neo-Classical (1790) “Royal Villa” housed Napoleon in 1802 and Marshal Radetzky until 1858. It is now an art gallery, with works by Romantic master Hayez; Neo-Classical sculptor Canova, whose bust of Napoleon sits in the stairwell; Futurist Boccioni; and Tuscan pseudo-Impressionists Macchiaioli, Lega and Fattori. There are also works by Morandi, Corot, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Picasso. The villa is set in lovely English-style gardens.

Cimitero Monumentale

Milan’s vast mid-19th-century cemetery is most popular for a pantheonic monument housing (among others) the remains of Alessandro Manzoni (see p50). The grounds are filled with Art Nouveau tombs of Milan’s top families – a free map shows where such notables as Arturo Toscanini rest in peace. Corners have been set aside for non-Catholic graves, and there’s a monument to Jews deported by the Nazis.

Certosa di Garegnano

The 14th-century Carthusian abbey has largely vanished under Milan’s suburbs, but its church of Santa Maria Assunta survives. It has a fine late Renaissance façade, and the interior was frescoed by Daniele Crespi in 1629 with stories of the Carthusian order.

Southern Milan

Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia – Leonardo da Vinci

The National Science and Technology museum knows what draws the crowds, hence its subtitle, “Leonardo da Vinci,” which refers to the wooden scale models of his inventions, which fill the main hall. Also worth seeing are the telecommunications work of Marconi, displays on physics, cinematography and electricity and the Enrico Toti submarine.


Second only to the Duomo among Milan’s great churches (and to many, rather more beautiful), this 4th-century basilica, with a cloistered entryway, Paleochristian mosaics, medieval carvings and late Renaissance frescoes, counts among the region’s main Top 10.

San Lorenzo Maggiore

A free-standing row of 16 Corinthian columns – once part of a 2nd-century temple – sets San Lorenzo’s frontal piazza off from the road. The vast interior of the church is magnificent and sombre. It was built on a circular plan, with a ringshaped ambulatory and matroneum, or raised women’s gallery, which often marked such early churches. The Chapel of S. Aquilino, to your right as you enter the building, preserves 4th-century mosaics, a 3rd-century sarcophagus and a Romanera portal.

Museo Diocesano

This museum houses important works from the treasuries of churches across Milan and Lombardy. In addition to numerous small panels by the 14th- and early 15th-century post-Giotto Gothic schools of central Italy, it preserves 17th-century Flemish tapestries and some fine altarpieces. Among these are Hayez’s glowing Crucifixion with Mary Magdalene and Tintoretto’s Christ and the Adulturer.


The chapels opening off the right side of this ancient church were added between the 11th and 13th centuries, and frescoed in the 1300s and 1400s – Bergognone provided the triptych in the first one. The immense and impressive Arc of St Peter Martyr in the magnificent Portinari Chapel (see p39) was carved by Balduccio.

I Navigli

A city as grand as Milan needed a port, so in the 12th century, the Naviglio Grande – a 50-km/30-mile canal linking the city to Lake Maggiore – was created; the Naviglio Pavese (that connects Milan to Pavia) was added at the end of the 14th century. Today, the Navigli district is Milan’s most lively, bohemian neighbourhood. Its old warehouses contain fashionable apartments and the towpaths are lined with restaurants, clubs, bars and shops. Its streets teem nightly with foodies out for a fine meal, young folks cruising the bars and street vendors spreading their wares. This part of the city stays open during the dog days of August.

Santa Maria presso San Celso

The name reflecting its proximity to the abutting Roman esque church of San Celso, this Renaissance church shot up with remarkable speed between 1493 and 1506. Its most alluring aspect is the cloister-like court before the entrance, designed by Cesare Cesarino and considered one of the best examples of early 16thcentury architecture in Milan.

Rotonda di Via Besana

Situated just south of Porta Vittoria, this Greek-cross church, dating from 1713, is now used for exhibitions. It is surrounded by a small green park bounded by a lovely rosette-shaped ring of a cloister.

Santa Maria della Passione

Originally a modest Greek-cross church of 1486–1530, it was elongated with a massive nave and deep chapel niches in 1573 to make it the second largest church in Milan. Its interior is dominated by the work of Daniele Crespi: a portrait of San Carlo in the first chapel on the left, most of the Passion series below the cupola at the crossing and the organ doors.

Abbazia di Chiaravalle

A countryside abbey now surrounded by the roar of suburban Milan, Chiaravalle has survived the centuries since its construction (between 1172 and 1221) remarkably well. Its lovely Romanesque architecture is enhanced by 15th- and 16th-century murals and a Luini Madonna with Child in the right transept.

Lake Maggiore


This sprawling modern town was once a stronghold of the Borromeo family, but its fortress was razed by Napoleon. The only lasting monument to the great family is a disconcertingly enormous 17th-century bronze statue of San Carlo Borromeo. Clamber up a ladder-like stair to the head of the 23-m (75-ft) colossus to peek out through his pupils at the 17th-century church below. The road leading to this shrine was meant to be lined with 15 devotional chapels, but only two were finished.

Rocca di Angera

This medieval castle, a Borromeo fortress since 1449, preserves a hall of crude frescoes (1342–54), which count among the oldest surviving LombardGothic works on a non-religious subject. Wooden staircases lead to the tower and lake views. Most of the rooms now house a Doll Museum, with its splendid collection of Japanese figures and 18th- and 19th-century European examples.


The gateway to the Isole Borromee (see p100) is a pretty lakeside town that offers hotels, a grid of trattoria-lined pedestrian streets and quite a good summer music festival Just south of town, the Villa Pallavicino has a botanical garden and small zoo.

Santa Caterina del Sasso

In thanks for being saved from a shipwreck in the 13th century, a local merchant built a chapel into the cliff face above the treacherous, deepest part of the lake. There are some frescoes, but the greatest attraction is the setting itself.

Isole Borromee

From the 1650s to today, the trio of tiny islands in the middle of Lake Maggiore has drawn admirers for the gracious palaces and ornate gardens built by the Borromeo family, who still own everything but the fishing village on Isola Superiore. The islands are among Lombardy’s top attractions.


In 1939 Mussolini gave the ancient Roman name “Verbania” to a group of villages here that include little Suna, industrialized Intra and Pallanza, an important town in the Middle Ages. Pallanza’s main sight is the landscaped garden of Villa Taranto (see p44), while its Palazzo Viani-Dugnani houses a collection of landscape paintings.

Cannero Riviera

Despite its northern locale, this sheltered promontory has a truly Mediterranean clime, enabling citrus trees and camellias to flourish. The lake vistas, steep medieval streets and 18th-century houses give it a pleasant feel. Most striking are the scraps of islands just offshore, sprouting glowering castles built by lake pirates in the 1400s (see box) and used by the Borromeo clan as a defensive line against the Swiss.


By the Swiss border at the base of a rushing mountain stream near the pretty Orrido di Santa Anna gorge, Cannobio dates back more than 3,000 years, though its steep, crooked pebble lanes and old plastered buildings are mainly medieval. The harbour is filled with restaurant tables in summertime.


Locarno’s neighbouring town on the Swiss end of the lake has been a favourite haunt of such cultural giants as Kandinsky, Freud and Thomas Mann. It has a split personality: there’s a Harley rally and Jazz festival in July, and a Rolls Royce gathering and classical music concerts in September. The streets are lined with topend boutiques and sights such as the 16th-century church Santi Pietro e Paolo. Up on the mountainside is Monte Verità. From the late 1800s to the 1940s this was a utopian community that housed artists, vegetarians and nudists.


Sadly, most of this Swiss city at the northern end of the lake was rebuilt along modern Swiss lines of concrete, glass and steel. What remains of the medieval city, however, is worth crossing the border for. The 14th-century Castello Visconteo is a highlight, as is the Santuario della Madonna del Sasso (1497), which preserves paintings by Bramantino and Ciseri (avoid the long climb by taking the cable car). The Arps (20th-century artists Jean, Hans and Margherita) donated many works to a modern art gallery installed in the 17thcentury Casa Rusca.

Lake Como

Duomo, Como

Como’s statue-clad cathedral was begun in 1396, but not capped with its Juvara-designed dome until 1740. On the façade, the pilasters are lined with saints and the main door is flanked by the seated figures of two local ancient scholars, Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger. The interior preserves an intricately carved and painted wooden altarpiece of 1492 and nine fabulous 16th-century tapestries, produced in Flemish, Florentine and Ferrarese workshops.

Basilica di Sant’Abbondio, Como

Standing forlorn in Como’s industrial suburbs, this stony Romanesque church retains a pair of bell towers and an extended choir that links it, architecturally, to the Westwerk style of medieval Germany. The apse is gorgeously frescoed with a series of Biblical scenes.

Brunate Funicular, Como

The classic journey to this hillside village is to take a short walk from Como’s harbour to the funicular station, then ride the funicular up to Brunate. You’re rewarded with vistas over Como and the lake, and the starting point of many trails into the surrounding hills.

Villa Balbianello, Lenno

The statue-lined balustrades fringed with flowers that outline the terraced gardens of this 1784 villa have caught the eye of many a film director. It is best to approach the villa by boat from Lenno and then proceed on foot. To tour the villa itself (pricey) you must book in advance.

Villa Serbelloni, Bellagi

Bellagio’s promontory has been prime real estate for millennia. Pliny the Younger had a villa named “Tragedy” here (it matched a “Comedy” home on the far shore), replaced by a castle in the Middle Ages, then a Stagna family villa in the 15th century. The last Stagna left it to his best friend Serbelloni in 1788. Serbelloni proceded to rebuild the villa as a summer residence to the main house down in the village (now Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, see p113). In 1959, the summer home passed to the Rockefeller Foundation, and now visiting scholars can live and study here for short periods. It is not open to the public, but you can tour the gardens.

Villa Melzi, Bellagio

The meticulous gardens surrounding the Neo-Classical home of Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Napoleon’s man in Italy, are now open to the public.

Villa Carlotta, Tremezzo

One of the most sumptuous villas on the lake, with exquisitely landscaped gardens. Unusually, you can tour the art-strewn villa here, as well as its wonderful surrounds.

Villa Monastero, Varenna

This blissful villa – a former convent – has gardens that stretch right down to the banks of the lake, wonderfully shaded throughout by the canopies of cypresses and palms.

Villa Cipressi, Varenna

The Cipressi villa has been altered throughout its 600-year life, though what you see today is largely 19th century. Its gardens are modest compared to others (including neighbour Villa Monastero) but, unlike most other villas on the lake, you can make this one your home – temporarily – since it’s now a hotel.

Abbazia di Piona

At the tip of the Ogliasca peninsula sits this Benedictine abbey, cloaked in silence. The abbey was founded in the 9th century, and the little church has Romanesque carvings decorating the water stoups and the capitals and bases of the columns in the quiet cloister. The monks distil – and sell – some potent liqueurs too.

Lake Garda

Giardino Sigurtà

Carlo Sigurtà spent 40 years irrigating and planting this barren hillside in order to turn it into one of Italy’s great gardens, with manicured lawns and pathways amid vibrant flower beds and reflecting pools. Hidden along the far western edge are some large enclosures where deer and goats run free. The gardens are a 20-minute drive south of the lake side.


Under the icon of a goofy green dragon named Prezzemolo (“Parsley”), the park boasts roller coasters and carnival rides, a water park, jungle safari, ice shows, dolphin tricks and medieval spectacles. Italy’s greatest theme park isn’t quite Disneyland, but it’s a hoot for the kids.

Grotte di Catullo, Sirmione

Though the ancient Roman poet Catullus did take his holidays at Sirmione, there’s no evidence to suggest that this vast, ancient house at the very tip of Sirmione’s peninsula was actually his villa – in fact, it was probably built after Catullus’s death, sometime in the 1st century BC. It is the best surviving example of a Roman private home in northern Italy, but this didn’t stop it being misnamed a “grotto”, the result of the romantically overgrown and cave-like state it had assumed by the Middle Ages.

Rocca Scaligera, Sirmione

The 13th-century keep is at the narrowest point of Sirmione’s long, thin peninsula. The striking, angular pale grey stone citadel, in use as a fortress until the 19th century, still dominates and protects the town – the only way to enter Sirmione is over the moat on one of the castle drawbridges, then under one of its squat gate towers. It’s worth climbing the 30-m (95-ft) tower for the grand panorama.

Villa Romana, Desenzano

The most important late Imperial villa remaining in Northern Italy was built in the 1st century vBC, but the excellent polychrome floor mosaics are mostly of the 4th and 5th centuries. By that time, the local Romans were Christianized, which explains the late 4th-century glass bowl engraved with an image of Christ.

Isola del Garda

Garda’s largest island once supported a monastery that attracted the great medieval saints: Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua and Bernardino of Siena. The monastery was destroyed by Napoleon and replaced in 1890–1903 with a Neo-Gothic Venetianstyle villa and luxuriant gardens. Two-hour guided tours are available and, though expensive, do include a boat ride and a snack.

Il Vittoriale, Gardone

Riviera This over-the-top villa was built by poet, solider and adventurer Gabriele d’Annunzio, one of Italy’s most flamboyant characters from the turn of the 20th century.

Giardino Botanico Hruska, Gardone

Riviera This small but lovely set of botanical gardens features more than 2,000 species on a terraced hillside.

Torri del Benaco

This little town was once the capital of Lake Garda and important enough in the 14th century for Verona’s Scaligeri family (who controlled much of Lake Garda) to build one of their castles. This one contains a modest museum on local history including the prehistoric rock carvings found on the nearby mountainsides. To see some of these 8,000-year-old etchings, follow signs off the main road up to Crer then walk up the trail about 15 minutes to a spot where the rock face shows through the undergrowth.

Castello di Arco, near Riva

Perched above town, this 12th-century castle is in a state of near-total ruin. Only one wall remains of the central keep, and the sole room in the complex to survive intact was filled with debris until 1986. When it was cleared, several excellent late 14th-century frescoes were found, depicting nobles playing at board games and war.

Leave a Reply