With fashionable Milan as its capital, celebrated vineyards and grand lakeside villas, Lombardy is definitely northern Italy’s most glamorous region. But it is also an amazing place for outdoor sports enthusiasts and offers endless destinations for culture vultures. Here is a short list of top attractions across the province.
Bormio is a small commune in the Valtellina area of the Alps close to Switzerland, which is built around ancient hot springs. For centuries people have travelled to Bormio in search of wellness from the thermal spa and fresh mountain air. There are three main points to the resort: Bagni Vecchi (the old baths), Bagni Nuovi (the new baths), and Terme di Bormio (the spa). The charming 1,000-year-old Bagni Vecchi features a pool in an ancient Roman tunnel and provides a spectacular panorama of the snow-capped western Dolomites. The wild spring is situated on the banks of the nearby stream and waters reach around 40°C.
This is Lombardy’s prized national park where stunning panoramas of alpine valleys are peppered with traditional baita (chalets), quaint churches and diverse wildlife. Driving enthusiasts (and crazy cyclists) can tackle the famous Stelvio Pass – a 2km (1.2 miles) road with 60-plus hairpin bends that climb steeply through the mountains. Sane cyclists and hikers can enjoy the many paths within the park’s hills and mountains, which range from 650 metres (2,130ft) to 3,900 metres (12,800 ft) in height. If you enjoy camping, this is also a possibility.
Parco delle Orobie Bergamasche, roughly 45 minutes north of the town of Bergamo, is a protected natural park of 70,000 hectares at the foot of the Alps that border Switzerland. The wider region is referred to as Valtellina, which is famous for its delicious cheeses. It has peaks of over 3,000 metres (9,842ft) and offers over 1,000km (621 miles) of trails with varying difficulty ratings. It is best known for the ‘Flower Trail’, a sort of high-altitude botanical garden, and the ‘Orobie Trail’ (Sentiero delle Orobie), which leads trekkers through the Orobie Prealps that are wild and rugged, and you will most likely encounter steinbocks, marmots and eagles. En route you can find overnight mountain lodges.
On the first Sunday of each month, Navigli Grande is transformed into a thriving antiques market. Amble (or hustle) along the canal side, which is crowded with stalls selling everything from traditional white linen tablecloths with lace embroidery and antique glassware, to mid-century lamps and vintage designer Italian skirt-suits. The level of quality of what is on offer is mostly very high. The canals are also lined with bars and restaurants so you can stop for lunch or coffee at any time. It is open roughly between 8am and 6pm, but some vendors start packing away at about 4pm.
After the Duomo, Castello Sforzesco is the next major ‘symbol of Milan’ and is the best place to learn about the city’s medieval and early modern history (the castle bore witness to Spanish, Habsburg and Napoleonic rule). The imposing fortress was built by Francesco Sforza (the first Duke of Milan) in the 15th century, but underwent several modifications in the following decades. It is worth allotting a large amount of time to visit the castle because it comprises multiple museums and galleries, including the Pinacoteca which is home to paintings by the likes of Bronzino, Tintoretto and Titian.
Every major European city has an iconic architectural site, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Big Ben in London… in Milan it is the majestic Duomo, situated at the very centre of the city in Piazza del Duomo. Built with pink-hued white marble from the quarries of Lake Maggiore, the cathedral is the biggest and arguably the most elaborate Gothic building in Italy. Construction began in 1386 but took over six centuries to complete. Make sure you climb to the rooftop where you can take-in a panoramic view of the city and admire the intricacies of the architecture. To learn about the cathedral’s history visit the adjacent museum, Museo del Duomo.
This UNESCO world heritage site exemplifies Milanese Renaissance splendour and is home to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495–1498). Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie is also renowned for its false apse, an early example of architectural optical illusion attributed to Renaissance heavyweight Donato Bramante. Entry to the church is free but advance booking is required to see The Last Supper –entry is only allowed every 15 minutes with a maximum capacity of 30 people at any given time.
The architecture of Fondazione Prada distinguishes it above all other venues to experience modern and contemporary art in the city. Designed by the OMA architecture studio-led Rem Koolhaas, the site marries existing industrial distillery buildings with esoteric new spaces, including a tower clad in gold leaf. Visit the permanent collection or temporary exhibitions to see art by leading artists of the 20th and 21st century, such as Louise Bourgeois, Dan Flavin and Anish Kapoor. The arts centre also houses a cinema and a kitsch Milanese-American café designed by film director Wes Anderson. Go to the foundation’s website to check out what will be on view during your visit.
Just a few metres from the Duomo in Milan, this gallery houses a remarkable collection of 20th-century Italian art. Over 400 works are displayed chronologically, giving visitors a great introduction to modern Italian art history. It begins in 1902 and travels through Futurism, Novecento, Abstraction, Art Informel, leaders of the 1950s and 1960s (including an entire floor dedicated to Lucio Fontana), Arte Povera and finishes with Pop Art. Learn more about the collection here. Its size is not overwhelming and the final floor, the Fontana floor, has stunning floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Piazza del Duomo. The onsite restaurant is no ordinary museum café: Giacomo Arengario is renowned for its seafood (the king crab pasta is a long-standing favourite with regulars) as well as the view from the outdoor terrace. The design, by Laura Sartori Rimini and Roberto Peregalli, is a decadent tribute to Art Deco with intricately-painted wood-panelled walls, aged mirrors and coiffured ceiling.
This grand villa was designed by Piero Portaluppi in the early 1930s for a Lombardian industrial family – the sisters Nedda and Gigina Necchi and Necchi’s husband Angelo Campiglio – but has a completely different atmosphere. The free-standing house is set on leafy grounds with a tennis court and swimming pool; it is opulent and chic. Every design detail speaks to the experimental but refined decorative taste of Portaluppi and also the modernity of the commissioning family – the layout of the villa favours a large reception space for entertaining guests, which went against traditional divisions of noble residences at the time. Recently the villa has come to house some important art collections, featuring works by the likes of Tiepolo, Fontana and Modigliani, but the furniture and decorative objects take centre stage. For example, an exquisite lapis lazuli, agate and coral fish centrepiece by Alfredo Ravasco.
Quite possibly one of the world’s most famous opera houses, Milan’s La Scala was built in 1778 according to designs by Italian neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini and debuted with Antonio Salieri’s two-act opera L’Europa riconosciuta. Over its 250-year history, La Scala has hosted performances by some of the classical music world’s most luminary talents including celebrated conductor Claudio Abbado and opera star Maria Callas. La Scala Museum pays homage to the opera house’s rich history with its exhibitions of costumes, musical instruments, photographs and set designs and the Livia Simoni Library, home to 150,000 volumes of librettos, scores and periodicals.
This beautiful 18th-century villa is home to the former owner’s collection of American art. Each hall is dedicated to a celebrated 20th-century American artist inspired by light and colour. Among the Renaissance furnishings and ornate interior architecture, there are installations by the likes of Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin and James Turrell. The villa also has extensive grounds, where large-scale modern sculptures are set among Romantic temples and grottos. Brunch, lunch and dinner are served at the onsite restaurant, Luce.
Located on the western bank of Lake Como, this estate is one of the finest in the area and encapsulates the grandeur of the region. It can be reached either by boat or via a short hike and it features a wonderful garden with beautiful flowers and plants. These embrace a building dating back to the late 16th century and create a combination of art and nature that is hard to find elsewhere. Hollywood fans may notice that it featured in both Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Casino Royale (2006) from the James Bond franchise.
From Tirano in Lombardy, take a breathtaking train journey through the Swiss Alps and arrive in chic St Moritz. The historic red Bernina Express train has the most beautiful route in Europe, climbing to glacial heights where you can see unparalleled views of Italian and Swiss mountain ranges. Ride over the spiral viaduct of Brusio and along the Bernina Pass to Engadin, watching the scenery change from lush green planes to snow-capped gorges and then kitsch chalets. From Milano Centrale, take a short train to Tirano where the Bernina express begins. The Bernina journey lasts approximately four hours, and then it’s up to you how long you spend in St Moritz visiting bakeries and drinking Swiss beer. Return tickets are roughly 70–80 euros (around US$80–95). For an extra fee, tour operators offer hotel pickup and a coach ride to Tirano, which can take the hassle out of your day trip and comes with the bonus of a guide along the way.
Italy’s best-kept secret is its sparkling wine region, Franciacorta. Franciacorta DOCG is said to rival Champagne, but because it is lesser known internationally, it’s more affordable. The sparkling wine is made with grapes grown on the slopes surrounding Lake Iseo, north-east of Milan. In a two-hour drive, you can find yourself among the rolling vine-covered hills on a tasting tour of one of the many celebrated vineyards. Ca’ del Bosco and Berlucchi are two of the biggest wineries, but if you prefer a more intimate experience it’s worth researching some of the smaller producers. Tasting tours typically cost between 20–40 euros (around US$25–35) and you can book online. Another popular way to experience the region is to combine wine-tasting with a scenic bike ride; check out this bike tour company.