It’s easy to forget that within an hour in any direction from bustling Milan exists a world of tranquil lakes, rugged mountain ranges, medieval towns and Unesco-listed gems. Tear yourself away from the city's glam events and cosmopolitan settings, and the rewards are both many and varied.
If you’re looking for culture, you'll find it in an 18th-century mansion crammed with art in Varese, or on a stroll through Bergamo's medieval alleys. If you're keen to hit the water, head for Lake Como or cruise around the Borromean Islands. And for those wanting to get the heart pumping, there’s the action-packed Monza racetrack.
Escape the city for some time out at Lake Como © imagesef / Shutterstock
Take a boat ride on Lake Como
Studded with villas and backed by dramatic scenery, the languid y-shaped Lake Como, in the foothills of the Alps, has long been a playground for the rich and famous (well before George Clooney showed up). An intimate way to experience the lake is by renting your own boat (no boat license needed) and idly cruising from one charming town to the next. Highlights include the touristy but beautiful Bellagio along with Varenna, Menaggio and Como. Be sure not to miss imposing villas such as Tremezzo's Villa Carlotta and Villa Balbianiello in Lenno – you might recognise the latter from movies including Star Wars and Casino Royale.
Getting there: Trains leave regularly from the stations Cadorna, Porta Garibaldi and Centrale, stopping at Como Nord Lago. The trip takes from 60 to 90 minutes (depending on whether you have to change trains) and tickets cost around €5 one way.
Cruise around the beautiful Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore © elesi / Shutterstock
Island-hop your way around Lake Maggiore’s jewels
The lesser-known Lake Maggiore is no less beautiful, and is home to the three treasured Borromean Islands. Named for the aristocratic family who acquired the land in the 16th and 17th centuries, each island has its own distinctive beauty. The island Bella has a luxurious baroque palazzo and romantic Italian-style gardens to stroll in, while Madre includes 20 acres of landscaped botanical gardens complete with exotic plants and birds. Finally, Superiore (also known as Isola dei Pescatori for its origins as a fishing town) was largely left to its own ends; it has 25 or so residents today and continues in its simple, traditional way of life.
Getting there: Take a train from stations Porta Garibaldi and Centrale and get off at Stresa, where you can take a boat trip to the islands. The train takes from 60 to 90 minutes and costs between €8 and €13.
Wander the scenic streets and squares of the Città Alta in Bergamo © Alexander Spatari / Lonely Planet
Step back in time in Bergamo’s Città Alta
With the rugged mountain ranges of the Alps in the distance, Bergamo is a town blessed by stunning views. And that’s not all. Divided in two, the lower part shows its modern face while the upper (Città Alta) lies on a hilltop and has a beguiling fairytale-like charm. Nestled inside 5km of 16th-century Venetian walls (Unesco Heritage Listed, no less) is a timeless world of winding medieval alleys and Renaissance buildings. Wander the streets or walk on the walls itself, while soaking in the history. The Piazza Vecchia, lined with elegant palazzi, and baroque gem the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore are both worth a look.
Getting there: Trains for Bergamo leave every hour from stations Porta Garibaldi and Centrale. The trip takes between 50 to 70 minutes and costs at most €5.50 one way.
Enjoy contemporary art in an 18th-century mansion
On a hill overlooking Varese sits the glorious 18th-century Villa Panza with its impressive collection of contemporary American art. Donated in 1996 to the FAI (a not-for-profit similar to the National Trust), the mansion holds a collection that Count Giuseppe Panza began amassing in the 1950s. Elegant rooms decorated with Renaissance furniture provide the contrasting setting for modern works, many of which explore the concepts of light and colour. Dan Flavin’s dazzling neon lights are just some of the works transforming the space. Once you’ve had your fill, a scenic amble through the Italian-style gardens, complete with views and scattered outdoor installations, is a must. There’s also a charming restaurant aptly named Luce (Light), if you’re in the mood for some creative cuisine.
Getting there: From the stations Porta Garibaldi and Cadorna you can take a train that stops at Varese. The ride takes 50 to 75 minutes and costs between €5 to €10. Continue with Bus A from Piazzale Trieste (just outside the station) until it reaches its final stop: Piazza Litta.
Admire the magnificent architecture of Certosa di Pavia, one of the largest monasteries in Italy © Vladimir Korostyshevskiy / Lonely Planet
Explore the lively university town of Pavia
Pavia combines the youthful buzz of a university town with the historic gems of its old centre. A stop at the University of Pavia, one of the oldest universities in Europe, goes without saying. Founded in 1931, illustrious students such as Ugo Foscolo, Alessandro Volta and some say even Christopher Columbus have walked through these halls. The Romanesque Basilica di San Michele, a 14th-century castle and the main cathedral with its massive dome are also worth a gander. Just outside the city the Certosa di Pavia is considered one of the oldest monasteries in Italy. Built in 1396 it’s an impressive sight, with its mix of both Renaissance and Gothic architecture.
Getting there: Trains depart from Centrale and Rogoredo stations and take 20 to 35 minutes to reach Pavia. Tickets cost between €4 and €9.
The Autodromo di Monza hosts the Formula One Italian Grand Prix © Charles Coates / Getty Images
Race around the famous Monza track
The Monza track needs no introduction for racing enthusiasts. Built in 1922 it’s best known for hosting the Formula One Italian Grand Prix practically since the race’s inception. With its long straights, fast corners and reputation as the ‘Temple of Speed’, driving its circuit has been an unachievable dream for many. No longer. Now even non-professionals can realise this dream by cruising the track in a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Gran Turismo or Formula 3. For those less inclined towards adrenaline-pumping activity, you can experience the track driven in a minivan or by bike.
Getting there: Trains depart every 15 minutes from stations Centrale and Porta Garibaldi, and take between 10 to 20 minutes to arrive in Monza. Tickets cost €2.20 one way. From Monza station take Bus Z221 in the direction Carate/Mariano and get off at Vedano al Lambro. From there the Porta Vedano entrance is walking distance.
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