Things to Do in Lombardy
Each day, Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper (Il Cenacolo) draws hundreds of art-loving visitors to the unassuming refectory of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie for just 15 minutes with the painting. Arguably Milan's most famous 15th-century wall mural, you must book entrance tickets in advance or sign up for a guided Milan city tour to see it up close.
The most exuberant example of Northern Gothic architecture in Italy, the spiky spires and towers of Milan's Duomo (Duomo di Milano) dominate Piazza del Duomo, the city's beating heart. One of the highlights of a visit to the cathedral is the view from the roof, where you can scope out Milan from the highest terrace surrounded by statues. On a clear day, it’s possible to see the Italian Alps.
In the fashion capital of Italy, the glass-domed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade—one of the oldest in Europe—never goes out of style. Sandwiched by the Milan Duomo on one side and the Piazza di Marino on the other, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a bright and airy 4-story center full of restaurants and shops. Come for the neoclassical architecture; stay for the brands and fresh baked panzerotti.
Sforza Castle (Castello Sforzesco) is a medieval fortress built by the Visconti dynasty that became home to Milan’s ruling Sforza family in 1450. Stark and domineering, the historic brick castle has massive round battlements, an imposing tower overlooking the central courtyard and surrounding Parco Sempione gardens, and defensive walls designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Today the castle houses a number of world-class museums and galleries.
This historic single-track funicular railway has been carrying passengers up and down the steep mountain slope between the lakeside city of Como and the village of Brunate since 1894. The 7-minute ride passes through a scenic stretch of countryside with sweeping views over Italy’s Lake Como as far as the Swiss Alps.
La Scala Opera House (Teatro alla Scala), one of the world’s greatest opera houses, has hosted some of Italy’s most famous opera and other performances. Located in downtown Milan, this 18th-century theater and cultural landmark—magnificently restored in 2004—seats many of its 2,000 spectators in elegant boxes adorned with gold leaf and red velvet.
Milan boasts a number of trendy neighborhoods thick with hip bars, restaurants, and clubs. Of these, the Brera district—a maze of narrow, cobblestone streets lined with boutiques and cafés near the Duomo in the city center—is perhaps the most beautiful thanks to its laid-back pace and old-world charm.
Villa del Balbianello is one of a number of elegant historic villas that sit directly on the water’s edge at Lake Como. On the tip of a small promontory on the lake’s western shore, Balbianello is particularly lovely, with luxurious interiors, scenic loggia, beautiful gardens, and romantic lake views.
The stately Villa Melzi d’Eril sits at the edge of Lake Como in the picturesque town of Bellagio, while the peaceful Villa Melzi Gardens(Giardini di Villa Melzi) stretch out around it, hugging the lake. Both the villa and gardens were built in the early 19th century as the summer home for an Italian duke. The gardens were designed in the English style with statues, and the grounds include a traditional orangery (which today houses a museum) and a small chapel. Inside the museum, you'll find a bust of Napoleon and a set of ceremonial keys to the city of Milan. The small chapel is where the Melzi family is entombed.
While the villa itself is not open to the public, there are lots of walking paths through the gardens, ideal for getting away from the crowds in Bellagio. Some of the paths run right along the lake, with blooming plants on the opposite side and benches placed along the path so you can stop and enjoy the view for awhile. Visit the gardens on a full-day walking and boating tour of Lake Como to explore the nearby city of Varenna, taste local olive oil, and enjoy a boat ride across the lake.
Built by Duke Francesco I Sforza and later reworked by Bramante, the modest 15th-century Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie) is known for housing one of Italy’s most celebrated works of Renaissance art—Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which decorates the refectory wall of the adjoining Dominican convent.
More Things to Do in Lombardy
For centuries, Mantua’s vast Palazzo Ducale was the seat of the Gonzaga dynasty, one of the most powerful during the Renaissance. Explore dozens of the palace’s sumptuous rooms (there are 500 in all), admiring art and lavishly decorated halls such as the whimsically frescoed Camera degli Sposi.
Milan is known for its sophisticated style and unforgiving pace, but that doesn’t mean you can’t slow down and unwind in Italy’s fashion capital. If you need a break, QC Termemilano is an indulgent spa in the heart of the city with thermal baths, steam baths, relaxation rooms, massages, treatments, and more.
Not all visits to Lake Como are about waterfront towns – a trip up into the hills over the lake to Brunate offers spectacular views. The small hilltop town overlooks not just Lake Como, but the town of Como itself. The two are roughly 1,600 feet apart, so while you won't be dipping your toes in the lake from Brunate, you'll be enjoying views that the people in Como can't see.
The Como-Brunate Funicular linking the towns was built in 1894, but you can keep going up even after you reach Brunate – climb the steps to the 1920s lighthouse for an even better view.
Set on the tip of a promontory jutting out into the waters of Lake Garda, and guarded by the fairy-tale-like Scaliger Castle, Sirmione is one of the most picturesque villages in Italy’s northern lake district. Explore the town’s postcard-perfect center and sights such as the nearby Roman Grottoes of Catullus.
Milan hosts two top-division soccer (football) teams at San Siro Stadium, the largest in Italy. Also known as Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, the stadium was built in 1925 for the AC Milan team, and in 1947, the rival FC Internazionale team, known as Inter, also moved in. Today, up to 80,000 fans fill the stadium to watch live games.
The Arch of Peace (Arco della Pace), located at the entrance to Parco Sempione in Milan, is a neoclassical arch begun by Napoleon during the early 19th century to honor his military victories. Made of marble from the Swiss Alps, the triumphal arch marks the beginning of the road that connects Milan and Paris.
Centuries before Piazza del Duomo became Milan’s main square, medieval Piazza Mercanti was the heart of the city. Marking the center of Milan’s historic center, this charming space is lined by porticoed palaces dating from the Middle Ages and offers a picturesque counterpoint to the rest of the city’s stately majesty.
Milan is known as Italy’s fashion capital, and there are several areas in the city known for shopping. One street with a particularly high concentration of clothing stores is Corso Buenos Aires.
The Corso Buenos Aires is a major thoroughfare in central Milan, running from Piazzale Loreto in northeast Milan toward the cathedral in the heart of the city. Closest to the Duomo, the street turns into Corso Venezia.
Unlike the cobblestone lanes of the Quadrilatero d’Oro shopping district, Corso Buenos Aires is a broad street that’s busy with traffic - but it’s also packed with shops. This street is said to have Europe’s densest population of clothing stores. These are primarily ready-to-wear instead of the high-end fashion on display in the Quadrilatero d’Oro.
While mainly known as a shopping destination, Corso Buenos Aires also has several hotel options and is not far from the main train station in the city, Milano Centrale. Where the street becomes Corso Venezia is also one corner of the large park that includes the Museo Civico and a planetarium.
Chic Milan is known for its contemporary elegance and relentless pace, so it may come as a surprise to learn that one of Italy’s loveliest city parks sits at its heart. Sempione Park (Parco Sempione) covers 116 acres (47 hectares) of central Milan, offering a welcome respite from the surrounding urban hustle and bustle.
The Brera Art Gallery (Pinacoteca di Brera), one of Italy’s most important museums, is a highlight of Milan’s fashionable Brera neighborhood. This impressive collection of medieval and Renaissance paintings includes masterpieces by Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Piero della Francesca, and Andrea Mantegna.
Te Palace (Palazzo Te) is a half-hour’s enjoyable walk from the heart of gorgeous Mantua, a wonderfully OTT summer palace built for Federico II Gonzaga between 1525 and 1535. Designed by Renaissance architect Giulio di Piero Pippi de’ Iannuzzi (known as Romano), the palace was Federico’s retreat from royal life, which centered on the Palazzo Ducale in Piazza Sordello. A seemingly endless series of lavishly adorned apartments were decorated by leading artists of the day and reflect his pet obsessions with love, horses and astrology, from statuesque equine portraits in the Hall of the Horses to alarmingly suggestive frescoes by Romano in the Chamber of Amor and Psyche.
The palazzo was also built to remind the great unwashed of Mantua who held political supremacy over them; the vast and fantastically ornate Sala dei Giganti (Room of the Giants) is a metaphor for Gonazga power, which sees Titan overthrown by the gods in a dazzling trompe l’oeil that creates the illusion that the ceiling is collapsing. Tucked away among the upper floors of Palazzo Te is the town’s Museo Civico, where displays include a jumble of armory, medals, coins and Egyptian artifacts along with Gonzaga family portraits by 20th-century artist Armando Spadini.
The extensive formal gardens include loggias, a shell-encrusted grotto, stuccowork cloisters, fish ponds and Federico’s pretty garden retreat.
Soaring over the Bernina Pass and climbing to a dizzying 7,392 feet (2,253 meters) above sea level, the famous Bernina Express is one of Europe’s most beautiful railway routes. Running for 75 miles (122 kilometers) from Chur in Switzerland to Tirano in Italy, it’s the only railway that connects the North and South Alps, and offers dramatic mountain views.
Many churches in Italy are built on older worship sites. What makes the Church of Santa Maria at San Satiro (Chiesa di Santa Maria presso San Satiro) in Milan different is that the old church was incorporated into the new one, both in design and name.
The original church on this site was dedicated to San Sitiro (Saint Satyrus), built in the 9th century. In the late 15th century, the church was also dedicated to Mary. The name "Church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro" indicates that the new church was "staying with" (presso) the old one.
When the church got its additional dedication, it also got a bit of a redesign. The artist Bramante played a role in the renovation. One of the most interesting pieces of artwork at the church is Bramante's wonderful trompe l'oeil behind the altar; it looks like there's a series of columns that recedes into the distance, but it's just paint.
Milan’s best-preserved 16th-century church, the Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore (Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore) features frescoes by Bernardino Luini as well as the oldest pipe organ in the city. It is also home to the Archaeological Museum of Milan (Museo Archeologico di Milano), which displays artifacts from the Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans.
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