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 mountains 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 the 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. 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.
The town of Como is located on the western side of the upside-down Y-shaped Lago di Como and is just 39 minutes by train from Milano Centrale station (the drive is roughly one hour). The small town and its piazzas are elegant and quaint, but it is the grand villas surrounding the edges of the lake, set against a mountainous backdrop, that are truly stunning. In the port (roughly a five-minute walk from the station) there is a hop-on/hop-off ferry (roughly 8 euros) that takes passengers to the closest villages/towns around the lake: Argegno, Bellagio, Gravedona, Tremezzina. Ride until you fancy stopping for lunch and enjoy the lake’s Mediterranean yet alpine majesty.
Lecco is a small lakeside commune on the eastern branch of the Lago di Como. It offers the same dramatic alpine vistas and charming architecture as Como, but without the crowds and cruise ships. It is equidistant from Milan, just 39 minutes by train from Milano Centrale, or about a one-hour drive. Lecco is also the setting for Alessandro Manzoni’s most celebrated novel The Betrothed (1827). Those who have read the book will enjoy spotting parts of Lecco discussed in the story, such as Chiesa dei Santi Materno e Lucia. Everyone else will certainly leave feeling inspired to read it. The view of the lake from the harbour is breathtaking: look out across small boats to snow-topped mountains and note their reflection caught in the perfectly calm body of water. If you have a car during the summer, definitely head to one of the many lakeside beaches where you can sunbathe and swim in the crystalline water. Exploring the local cuisine is recommended all year long! Lecco belongs to the province of Lombardy, which has a rich culinary heritage drawing on the ingredients of the mountains and lakes. Why not try a food tour and get local advice on the best things to sample?
Lake Orta has been hailed as ‘The Italian lake tourists haven’t discovered yet’ and makes a wonderful trip all year round. During the summer, enjoy its many beaches. In autumn and spring, take a boat trip to the island of San Giulio, or hike the parameter and admire the seasonal changes in the surrounding hills. About 1.25 hours by car; not advisable on public transport.
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, northeast 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 is worth researching some of the smaller producers. Tasting tours typically cost between 20 and 40 euros 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. Alternatively, if you’re feeling flushed, why not indulge in a chauffeur to drive you from Milan to the vineyard and then on to a gourmet lunch in a picturesque setting afterwards?
Visit the romantic setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. This ancient city is located in the Veneto region and has UNESCO World Heritage status; it is the antithesis to modernist Milan. There are many spectacular historic sites, including Arena di Verona, Piazza Erbe and of course, Casa di Giulietta. Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona’s civic museum, has a strong collection of Old Masters and boasts a lovely view over the Adige River. Because of its literary heritage, Verona is notoriously crowded with tourists, so it’s best for a day trip off-season. It’s quickest to take the 1.13-hour train from Milano Centrale station rather than drive, which can take up to two hours. If you really want to maximise your day trip, you can use a tour operator and combine a visit to Verona and nearby Lake Garda on the same day.
Parma is a province of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, famed for producing delicate, salty and sweet prosciutto di Parma and the king of cheeses, Parmeggiano Reggiano. The city of Parma is an ancient town with diverse and beautiful architecture from throughout the centuries. Explore the sites in the morning and then in the afternoon, sample the best of the region’s culinary delights on a half-day food tour. There is a direct 1.5-hour train from Milano Centrale station; by car, it’s roughly the same.
Varese is a small, lakeside city located between Milan and the Swiss border. It is known for its Art Nouveau villas and UNESCO World Heritage-listed Sacro Monte, a holy mountaintop sanctuary. The best way to experience Sacro Monte is with a guide who will take you on the best walking route and provide the history along the way. It costs just 8 euros and you won’t be disappointed with the panoramic views of the lake when you reach the top.
If art is more your thing, then Villa Panza is highly recommended.