A Hiker's Guide to Lombardy, Italy

Rifugio Laghi Gemelli in the Bergamo Alps, Lombardy, Northern Italy
Rifugio Laghi Gemelli in the Bergamo Alps, Lombardy, Northern Italy | © Gherzak / Shutterstock
Raphaele Varley

Whether you are a hardcore trekker or prefer a jolly jaunt with a drink at the end of the walk, Lombardy has hiking trails with breathtaking scenery to suit all abilities. It is also widely enjoyed throughout the seasons because the lakes, mountains and rolling vineyard-covered hills are beautiful all year round. Here is all you need to know before booking your next hiking holiday.

Why Lombardy?

Most of the hiking opportunities in Lombardy are centred around the region’s stunning lakes and the hills of the pre-alps. This makes for breath-taking vistas of verdant valleys dotted with quaint alpine huts, majestic snow-capped peaks and glittering bodies of water. You can also walk through shady alpine forests with babbling streams and the national parks are home to wildlife such as steinbocks and eagles. But arguably one of the best things about hiking in Lombardy is that your active holiday can also become a gastronomic excursion. On both major and minor hiking trails walkers will come across traditional ‘rifugios’ and ‘baitas’ – small, rustic restaurants with basic lodgings for hikers who want to divide their walk with an overnight stop. They typically serve hearty regional recipes and offer the opportunity to try local produce. For example, cheese made at the local ‘malghe’ (alpine cottages) comes from the cows and sheep that graze on the surrounding land. Branzi, Taleggio, Formai du Mut, Strachitunt and Bitto are all produced in the popular hiking region of Valtellina. A classic Lombardian rifugio dish is a rich cheesy polenta served with beef stew, best accompanied with lots of red wine or beer. Lombardy is also a well respected, but low profile, wine producing region, meaning there are several routes that could include a tasting session at a winery.

The terrain

While Lombardy is not a huge region, the topography is diverse. In the foothills of the Alps it is possible to feel truly remote – there is a distinctly alpine feel with evergreen forests, craggy, grey rock formations, and ice-cold streams and lakes. Conversely, in the lower hills around the major lakes, such as Lake Iseo or the west side of Lake Garda, the valleys are covered in vineyards with grand wineries and picturesque villages dotted along the trails.

An old farmhouse on Monte Aralalta, near the Lecco branch of Lake Como

Difficulty

As with most mountainous regions in Europe, the difficulty level depends on the route you choose. Both experienced, fit hikers and novices can find suitable terrain. The trails in the plains around the big lakes tend to be easier with mostly grassy routes, whilst the challenging climbs tend to be higher up in the foothills of the mountains (for example, Valchiavenna, Valtellina and the Camonica Valley) where the landscape becomes rockier. Whatever sub-region you choose, several climbs will feature a cable car, so you can enjoy the lofty views with minimal input. Signposting is fantastic in some areas and abysmal in others, so a local map is always recommended. A guide would only be necessary if you are planning to reach great heights in the Alps.

Example trails

The Dorsalede Triangolo Lariano is a 30 km (18.6 mile) hiking trail that connects the beautiful and glamorous lakeside towns of Como and Belaggio and offers stunning views of Lake Como and beyond. High above the lake at 1,200 metres (4,000 feet) the Ridgeway is mostly made up from old mule and cart tracks. It is a very popular two-day trek and doesn’t require a car. You can arrive at Como by train and take the finiculare to Brunate, the starting point of the trail. Stop overnight in one of the quaint lodges halfway through and continue the following day. Once you reach Bellagio, you can take a scenic ferry boat ride all the way back to Como. Given it’s proximity to Milan this is a highly populated route and is not advised if you seek to be totally immersed in the wild. It is ideal if you want to combine your hike with sipping a Spritz by the lake at the end.

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. It has peaks of over 3,000 metres (9,842 feet) and offers over 1,000 km (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.

A young steinbock resting on the grass in the Orobie Alps, Lombardy, Italy

Best time to go

Like most of central Europe, in Lombardy, spring is a beautiful season full of blossom and new life. It is also an ideal climate for hiking with temperatures still below 20°C (68°F), but if it is has been a rainy April, there is a risk that many trails can be very muddy and too slippery to climb. If you plan on staying at low altitude, summer can be too hot for serious hiking with temperatures in the high 20s (low 80s). Yet routes dominated by forests provide ample shade and you can seek out mountain streams to cool down in. In the mountains, between June and the first week of September, farmers move their herds of cows and sheep from the valley up to 2,000 metres (6,500 feet) for grazing, which adds to the picturesque charm.

Visit in autumn and you can enjoy a landscape of burnt orange and deep reds as the leaves change colour. It is also a very nice temperature and, until the end of October, you can expect crisp blue skies. Winter remains a popular time to go hiking in the region, you just need the correct clothing. This season also offers the opportunity to try snowshoeing in some areas. The dramatic landscape will be mostly white which is stunning on a clear day but can feel bleak if it’s foggy. If you rely heavily on cable cars be sure to check your route in advance because many only operate during the warmer months. Most rifugios are open all year and the cabins with log fires and warm stews are especially welcoming when you have been out in the cold.

Winter trekking in the Alps in Lombardy, Northern Italy
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