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Things to do in Lombardy, Italy: day trips from Milan

Updated: 8th August 2019

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With Milan as its capital, it’s no surprise that visitors flock in their millions to Lombardy each year. But beyond the fashion favourite, plenty more must-visit places in the Lombardy region of Italy that you should discover. As with everything in Italy, it’s best to soak it up slowly, but these could also work as day trips from Milan.

There are countless things to do in this region; admiring sunken castles in picturesque lakes, visiting violin workshops in historic city’s, being amazed at the art and architecture of Mantua – Lombardy really packs a punch for visitors, and I’ve packed a visual overview into the video below.

I’ll readily admit on my first visit to Milan, and around Lombardy, I thought it was a destination a bit too focused on art and architecture alone for me. But, as I discovered and realised the diversity of the region, I learnt there is an abundance to do in Lombardy for any kind of visitor.

Whether you are looking for day trips from Milan or planning a road trip through the Lombardy region, I hope this list of spots helps you make the most of your trip to Italy.

Milano Duomo with a lion statue in the foreground
The iconic Milan Duomo

Milan

The fashion capital of Italy is a lot of things to a lot of people, and not surprisingly, therefore, comes in as the top things to do in Lombardy on this list.

It’s also a city with plenty to offer, so much so that it will actually surprise you. I’ve been to Milan six times now, and every time I visit, I discover something new to do or explore in the capital city of Lombardy.

Of course, the classics like Milano Duomo (be sure to go on the roof) and the Vittorio Emanuele Galleria next door are some of the most visited attractions in Milan but branch out to both modern Milan, and the classic masterpieces to really make the most from your visit.

Highlights include aperitivo in Navigli, the old canal district of Milan, marvelling at the forest towers, two new plant coated apartment blocks in the redesigned modern park, and visiting countless churches and Cathedrals.

Milan, in fact, is the only city in the world I haven’t got bored of visiting religious buildings in, as each one has such unique art and architecture; my favourite being San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore for the 16th-century frescos.

Bergamo

For many visitors to Bergamo, they pass through the Milan Bergamo airport and don’t even see the city. Big mistake!

I was guilty of this many years ago when I took my £2 return flight to Bergamo (yep, you read that right!) but I’ve rightly fixed it, and made amends with this lovely city, on my return visit. First as a day trip from Milan, and then returning for a longer stay a few years later.

While the lower and more modern part of Bergamo isn’t something to write home about, the higher fortified part, Città Alta, is a must-visit in Lombardy. It’s beautiful up here, so much so I’ve visited twice now.

For some of the most spectacular views and photo opportunities head to the main square in Bergamo, or one of the other numerous vantage points. The stunning Santa Maria Maggiore and Cappella Colleoni look spectacular from the top of the Campanone tower, and a second funicular will take you even higher above for a look down onto Città Alta.

You could likely visit Bergamo in a half-day, although it’s a lovely spot to spend an evening and enjoy a dinner in the Città Alta, either before flying back out from the airport or when you first arrive.

Make it a day trip from Milan: The drive is under an hour, and the fastest train from Milano Centrale will bring you to Bergamo can be slightly quicker, especially considering traffic during peak hours.

The castle of Sirmione as seen from above with the island behind it
The castle is a star attraction on Lake Garda

Sirmione, Lake Garda

While Lake Garda, which is split between three regions of Italy, is one of the countries most iconic tourist destinations, the commune of Sirmione offers such a unique attraction its a no-brainer on any things to do in Lombardy list.

The obvious highlight of Sirmione is the Scaligero Castle, dating back to the medieval ages. With a moat and part of the castle submerged in the water, it makes a truly unique attraction which can be explored inside, or for a great vantage point consider taking a boat ride around Sirmione.

A lot of visitors to Sirmione, which is the commune both before the castle and beyond it to the end of the peninsula, make the mistake of not venturing to the very end of the land and thus miss doing a tour of the impressive Grotte di Catullo.

At the tip of the peninsula is plenty of archaeological treasures in for form of the 1st-century Roman villa ruins. Beyond this, it’s just an all-round stunning spot to enjoy a huge icecream, meal, or taking the world in with a coffee.

Beware though, prices in Sirmione do not come cheap and it’s one of the most popular day trips from Milan, so in the summer months expect crowds and a premium price tag.

Make it a day trip from Milan: By car the journey will take around two hours. From Milano Centrale train station head to Desenzano del Garda, which can be as quick as 50-minutes, and then change onto a local bus or a short ferry. You can also arrive via Brescia.

Manerba del Garda, Lake Garda

Lake Garda has a lot more to offer than Sirmione though, so make sure you leave time to explore it all.

Another top thing to do in Lombardy is to take a hike around Manerba del Garda, along the western shores of Garda.

Manerba del Gara provides some of the most stunning views across the lake, including beaches and some private islands, home to expensive and grand castle houses. Take a short and easy hike here to enjoy the views, and then climb down onto the rocky or sandy beaches along the lakeside for the perfect temperature dip in summer. Millemonti is a local hiking guide group which can help you make plans.

For those who love their water-sports, the beaches around here offer kayak and SUP rental.

Make it a day trip from Milan: By car the journey will take around two hours. By public transport, the best connections with just one train, then a bus, are via Brescia.

Desenzano del Garda, Lake Garda

This adorable little town was where I stayed when I first visit Lake Garda last year, and it makes for an ideal base to explore the Lombardy part of Garda as it’s a short drive to both Manerba and Sirmione, but the prices aren’t as high as on the peninsula.

In the peak season, you can take a ferry from here across to Sirmione, which is an excellent way to arrive and provides great photo opportunities.

There isn’t an abundance of things to do here, so slip into the lazy lake life, enjoy Gelato, and try and eat in as many of the delicious restaurants here as you can.

Make it a day trip from Milan: By car the journey will take around two hours. The fast train takes around 50-minutes.

Lugana

Lugana is closer to Sirmione and is a well known wine-producing region in Lombardy.

Here I visited one of the small wineries, Cascina Maddalena, and also indulged in a cooking class followed by a family-style dinner.

Our tour started around the vineyard and picking fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden for the cooking class. Local produce is always at the forefront of cooking in Italy, and this was about as close as we could get.

We enjoyed a wine-tasting of the crisp DOC whites that are produced here in Lugana (both in Lombardy and Verona regions) before creating a handful of delicious eats and then sitting down with the family of the winery and our teacher to dine together.

The perfect off the beaten path Italy experience, yet so close to some of the countries most famous attractions.

Make it a day trip from Milan: By car the journey will take around 90-minutes. From Milano Centrale train station head to Desenzano del Garda, which can be as quick as 50-minutes, and then change onto a local bus.

Brescia

It’s worth mentioning Brescia, as this is the province Lake Garda sits in.

But Brescia is also a city in its own right and deserving of a visit as with a day trip from Milan, or for a deeper dive into the Roman history. The impressive San Salvatore Santa Giulia is a former monastery and is by far the most popular visitors’ attraction in the city.

Overall, it’s just a rather pretty city, with your standard impressive Lombardy squares and cathedrals, but in February, for the Festival of Lights, is when it really shines – quite literally.

Make it a day trip from Milan: By car the journey will take around 70-minutes, while the high-speed trains from Milan can be as quick as 35-minutes.

A grand theatre, looking out from the stage to the stools and boxes in Mantua
The stunning inside of Teatro Bibiena

Mantua (Mantova)

Wow! What a city, and to be honest I’m surprised this incredible place is not on every must-visit list of Italy. If you are in a rush, this could be a fast-paced day trip from Milan, but it would be better to spend at least two days here.

Home to the largest residential building in Europe, after the Vatican, Mantua is packed with art and architectural gems, with most of the highlights dating back to the 14th and 17th-centuries.

The city is surrounded by three artificial lakes, one coated in lily pads, and a sunset cruise across the flat waters is a really lovely thing to do before heading for dinner.

Tortelli di zucca, a pumpkin ravioli like pasta, is Mantuas’ local dish which is a match made in heaven in its sage butter, and, if you ask me, should be eaten at every opportunity.

The real magic of Mantua though hides behind closed doors, in numerous grand halls and impressive buildings.

We have to thank the Gonzaga rulers for most of the grand architecture in Mantua, whose Ducal Palace presents some 900 odd rooms. While only some are open to the public, they are an architectural feast, with grand frescos and beautiful art.

Also impressive and worth a visit is the Palazzo Te (which has nothing to do with the drink) which boasts some grand halls and artwork just outside the city-centre.

Perhaps my favourite spot in Mantua though was Teatro Bibiena, a real Italy hidden gem if ever there was one. This theatre is just an architectural masterpiece; I only wish I could have seen a show there!

Make it a day trip from Milan: By car and high-speed rail the journey takes around two hours.

Como, Lake Como

Lake Como is one of the most popular draws to the Lombardy region, made famous over and over again by movies, and the fact George Clooney has a home here.

Como is the main city on Lake Como, and a great starting off point as you can take a ferry from here out to many of the nearby villages. If you’re doing Lake Como as a day trip from Milan though, take into consideration that the lake is huge, and you’ll need to account for those ferry journey times to make the most of your day. Ultimately, if you have the time, spend a couple of days on Lake Como.

That’s not to say you should skip through Como, as the town itself is beautiful, and makes for a great base. Be sure to visit the Como Duomo, which has a rather unique shape, and take the funicular up to Brunate for some absolutely stunning views over the lake and city. In the winter months, Brunate is a popular skiing destination.

Make it a day trip from Milan: By car journey to Como takes around 50-minutes, with the fastest trains shaving about 10-minutes off the journey time.

Lake Como in Lombardy with the colourful village reflecting in the ocean
The beautiful town of Varenna reflected

Varenna, Lake Como

My favourite spot on Lake Como is Varenna, and arriving here on one of the small ferries that hop between the lakeside towns on a crisp November afternoon was just beautiful.

The colourful reflections of the town illuminated the water, snow-capped mountains sat in the background, and the cute-cafes along the promenade were perfect for sitting in and letting time lap away.

It reminded me somewhat of a Cinque Terre type of village, but on a lake, not the ocean, and I can only imagine in the summer months it becomes just as crowded as the other towns around the lake, but in the off-season, it felt like the perfect private retreat.

Make it a day trip from Milan: By car expect the drive to be around 70-minutes. Trains, with a change in Lecco, will take around two hours. The best way to arrive though is to head to Como, and then take a ferry across Lake Como to the village – it’s a beauty.

Bellagio, Lake Como

Bellagio is always touted as the absolute gem on Lake Como, but I personally found Varenna far more enchanting.

That’s not to say Bellagio shouldn’t be on your Lombardy must-visit list, but keep in mind being one of the most premium destinations in the region, accommodation will likely be rather expensive here.

During November when I visited, I assumed the costs of accommodation would be much lower, and it was, but a lot of the smaller villages around the lake essentially close down during these months, as they are much more summer holiday destinations.

As such, if you do travel here during winter, you might prefer to stay in Como and hire a car to visit some of the smaller villages such as Bellagio, as the ferries aren’t always running, or only run shorter distances.

That said, Como is beautiful all year round, with spectacular castles and grand houses in the mountains above, and the little coffee shops with their lakeside views at water level, Lake Como is the perfect place for a long weekend of rejuvenation.

Make it a day trip from Milan: The drive takes around 90-minutes. Public transport means a train to Como, and then changing to a bus or ferry to reach Bellagio. If you’re doing this as a day trip, start early and plan for a long day.

Cremona Cathedral framed by a Portico
Cremona Cathedral

Cremona

Cremona is a city in the Lombardy region, but being so close to the Emilia Romagna border you can see many similarities such as the Porticos. This also means it’s both a good day trip from Milan – given it’s not a huge city – but also an ideal stop en route to the likes of

While Violins are the name of the game here, thanks to Cremona’s long and successful history of producing premium versions of the stringed instruments, it’s also an ideal day trip from Milan or Venice.

As well as a Violin museum, you can also visit workshops to see how much effort goes into there production, this was something I found much more interesting as a non-player than touring the actual museum.

Meanwhile, the architecture provides a stunning example of Romanesque art, such as the Cathedral which nearly didn’t get off the ground. While construction started in the 1100s, an earthquake came along and severely damaged the Cathedral shortly after. Eventually, some 60 years later construction was completed, but with various extensions and additions, you’ll notice the array of styles both inside and outside the Cathedral.

It’s a grand city to walk around, and take in slowly, thanks to the small sized and colourful streets. Take a show at the theatre, sample the local delicies of mustard fruit – better than it sounds – and nougart, and enjoy as a stop on the way to Emilia Romagna, or a day trip from Milan.

Make it a day trip from Milan: The drive takes around 80-minutes. If you travel on the high-speed rail, the journey time will be slightly quicker.

Lake Maggiore

The third of the grand lakes in Lombardy, which include Garda and Como, Lake Maggiore in the alps is actually split between Italy and Switzerland.

On one side is the Piedmont region of Italy, and the other is here in Lombardy. If you fly in or out of Malpensa airport, you are really near to stop off on the lake for a bite to eat, as we did before our flight home.

My favourite thing about Lake Maggiore is that it actually has some islands on it, which hold some grand architecture and you can visit. The colourful villages on the edges are also a draw. I haven’t personally explored Maggiore that well, but my friend Vicky spent a week there and wrote a guide to Lake Maggiore with some more information.

Make it a day trip from Milan: The drive to Porto Valtravaglia takes 90-minutes, while trains (with a connection in Gallarate) take closer to two hours.

Lake Iseo

Between Como and Garda is Lake Iseo, the fourth largest lake in the Lombardy region, and most notable for the Monte Isola, a town and some small villages which sit in the middle of the lake on an island.

But it’s not just a little island like in Maggiore, it’s actually the largest lake-island in Europe. If you want to really get away from it all in Lombardy, then come here and embrace the car-free world, the peace and quiet of nature, and enjoy the relaxation of being surrounded by water.

Make it a day trip from Milan: The drive takes around 80-minutes, and trains a little longer, including a connection in Brescia.

Head to the mountains

Lombardy’s location in Northern Italy means it’s surrounded by mountains, offering a multitude of outside activities for those who want a slice of nature.

Mountain biking is a big deal here, so much so that there is even a bike museum dedicated to the sport, with a bicycle church thrown in just for good measure!

How to get to Lombardy: If visiting by air, the three airports around Milan usually off the best flight connections, both long-haul and shorthaul. Milan Malpensa offers the easiest access to Lake Maggiore, Milan Bergamo to Bergamo and Bergamo and the northern mountains, and Linate is the closest to the city centre. Most budget flights go into Bergamo, and also the easyJet terminal at Malpense.

More information on Puglia can be found on the Lombardy tourism website.

11 replies
  1. RateMyCamera says:

    Hi Dan. I hope your enjoying Tajikistan. My partner and I had a brief tour of Italy a couple of years ago, with a brief visit to Lake Garda after Venice before traveling south. Your guide and imagery certainly makes me want to revisit and explore all we missed. Since then I have been developing a camera review website and hoping you may pop over to RateMyCamera.com and leave a review for your Canon camera and any others you have. I can’t offer a great deal in return but you can put a link to this site within the review to help seo. Enjoy your travels and I hope to read about your Tajikistan journey when your finished!

  2. Alexandra Luella says:

    Amazing post, Dan. I’d missed Lake Garda during my trip there, so it’ll be a must for the next visit. Reading this article takes me back to Milan and definitely makes me want to go again! x

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