Things to Do in Lombardy
Milan’s Cathedral, or Duomo, is a much-loved symbol of the city. The most exuberant example of Northern Gothic in Italy, its spiky spires and towers dominate Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s beating heart.
The Duomo’s exterior is an upwardly thrusting collection of pinnacles, elongated statues and buttresses. The central spire is topped by a gilt statue of the Madonna, called the Madonnina.
Inside one of the world’s largest churches, it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to the candle-lit ambiance as you take in the cathedral’s nave, altars, aisles and stained-glass windows.
One of the highlights of a visit to the cathedral is the view from the roof – on a clear day you can see the Italian Alps. Take the steps if you’re fit (or the lift if you’re not) to peer over the city of Milan, surrounded by statues and spiky towers.
The town of Sirmione occupies the tip of a tiny peninsular that protrudes into the southern edge of Lake Garda in northern Italy. Its unique position makes it a popular tourist destination.
Sirmione is known to have been a popular resort town since the 1st century B.C.E., largely because of its thermal hot springs. Much of what you see in Sirmione today is newer, but there are Roman ruins in the historic center, too. The remains of a Roman villa are at the end of the peninsula, and are called the Grottoes of Catullus - the name of a Roman poet whose family lived in Sirmione in the 1st century B.C.E. Another attraction is the Rocca Scaligera, a 13th-century castle. The picturesque and small historic center gets very crowded during the summer months, so if you can spend the night you may enjoy some peace and quiet.
Piazza delle Erbe is one of Mantua’s most popular squares—and certainly one of its most dynamic. Lined with outdoor cafes, restaurants and churches, the piazza is a popular place to enjoy sunshine, company and local flavor. A 15th-century clock tower marks the square’s southern end, adjacent to the city's oldest church, the 11th-century Rotonda di San Lorenzo. While Piazza delle Erbe is great for an afternoon coffee or glass of wine at a sidewalk café, the area is most often visited on walking tours that highlight its top attractions, including the Rotonda di San Lorenzo, nearby Palazo della Ragione and the iconic clock tower.
La Scala is one of the world’s great opera houses. Built in Milan a stone’s throw from the Duomo in the late 1770s, the theater has seen premiers of some extraordinarily well-loved operas, including works by Rossini, Puccini and many by Italy’s beloved Verdi. The word “scala” means “staircase” in Italian, but the theater gets its name because it was built on the site where the church of Santa Maria alla Scala once stood.
The theater at La Scala holds more than 3,000 spectators, and the walls are adorned with gold and the boxes are lined with red velvet.
Although La Scala’s opera season isn’t year-round you can still get a peek inside. Plan to visit La Scala’s museum, which is inside the opera house. If your museum visit doesn’t coincide with a rehearsal on the main stage then you get to walk into one of the theater’s red velvet boxes for a few minutes.
Palazzo Te is a half-hour’s enjoyable walk from the heart of gorgeous Mantua, a wonderfully OTT summer palace built for Federico II Gonzaga between 1525 and 1535. Designed by Renaissance architect Giulio di Piero Pippi de’ Iannuzzi (known as Romano), the palace was Federico’s retreat from royal life, which centered on the Palazzo Ducale in Piazza Sordello. A seemingly endless series of lavishly adorned apartments were decorated by leading artists of the day and reflect his pet obsessions with love, horses and astrology, from statuesque equine portraits in the Hall of the Horses to alarmingly suggestive frescoes by Romano in the Chamber of Amor and Psyche.
More Things to Do in Lombardy
Since 1894 this old-school two-car railway has been operating the 10-minute journey between the city of Como and the village of Brunate, carrying passengers along a scenic stretch of Italian countryside. Once an old-school steam engine, today the popular attraction runs with an electric motor and travels through a lengthy tunnel before emerging upon epic views of breathtaking Lake Cuomo, panoramic landscapes and iconic Milano landmarks like the Villa D’Este grand hotel and the Duomo and Como Football stadium, too.
Milan is home to two major soccer teams and Italy's largest stadium – San Siro Stadium – where both of them play their home games. San Siro was built in 1925, originally home to just the AC Milan team. In 1947, AC Milan's rivals, FC Internazionale, also moved in. In addition to these top-tier teams, the Italian national team also plays games at San Siro, and it's frequently used as a concert venue for big touring bands. As a football stadium, the capacity of San Siro is now just over 80,000, Italy's largest stadium.
There is a museum at the stadium dedicated to both AC Milan and FC Internazaionale, and when you take a guided tour of San Siro you get to visit each team's locker room.
Most visitors seek out the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie to pay their respects to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The famous mural is housed in the refectory of the adjoining Dominican convent.
Visitors who take the time to explore the convent’s church, however, will be rewarded with a stroll through an impressive Renaissance building.
The church was built in Gothic and Romanesque styles by Sforza duke in 1490, and is believed to have been partially designed by Bramante.
The exterior is decorated in a restrained pattern of pilasters and circles, and the design features a lovely, tranquil cloister. Inside, the Gothic nave is decorated with beautifully restrained patterned details.
In a city of many trendy neighborhoods, the Brera district in Milan is one of the most charming. Located very close to the Duomo in the historic center, this is the part of Milan that might make you forget about the city’s hustle-bustle reputation.
The Brera neighborhood is a maze of narrow, cobblestoned streets lined with boutiques and cafes - during nice weather, cafe life spills onto the sidewalks and makes for an excellent place to do some serious people-watching. The designer shopping district called the Quadrilatero d’Oro is nearby, so you can get a peek at some of Milan’s shopping class making their rounds, too.
Aside from just wandering through the Brera and enjoying the scene, the main attraction in the neighborhood is the Pinacoteca di Brera, a fantastic art museum with works by Botticelli, Raphael, Hayez, Titian, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Rembrandt, and Rubens.
Lying on the western flank of thin, wispy Lake Maggiore, Stresa is an elegant resort backed by the Alpine foothills of Monte Mottarone and beloved of travellers for the grandiose hotels spread along its tree-lined promenade. Summer sees lidos bordering the lake and visitor-thronged craft markets on Thursday afternoons; come the balmy evenings the cobbled streets of the town are equally packed with locals and tourists alike enjoying a passeggiata (nightly stroll) before they settle down to dine al fresco in leafy Piazza Cadorna.
Once the hang out of literary stars Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway, the jewels in Stresa’s crown are undoubtedly the three miniature Isole Borromee (Borromean Islands) just minutes away across Lake Maggiore by ferry. Owned by the all-powerful Borromeo clan since the 12th century, today they exist in a Baroque time warp; while Isola Bella and Isola Madre both boast extraordinary 17th-century palazzi.
The QC Terme company (founded by the Quadrio Curzio brothers) operates a chain of wellness spas in Italy, including QC Termemilano. Milan isn't known as a relaxing place, but right in the heart of the city QC Termemilano offers a place to escape the city. The day spa occupies a 19th-century former tram station, when the trams were led by horses. The QC Terme chain continues the belief that thermal baths offer unique therapy for ailments, and they are also a place for community to gather.
The facilities at QC Termemilano include saunas, whirlpools, steam baths, water massages, mud baths, and more. The healthy atmosphere extends to the buffet, which features fresh fruit, yogurt, and pastries. There's also an aperitivo buffet every day at 5:30pm.
Milan is a busy, modern city that - when you’re really yearning for Italian medieval hilltop towns - can feel a little hard to love. At those times, it’s important to do as the Milanese do and escape the city (even for just a little while) in one of the big green spaces. One of the most popular is Parco Sempione in central Milan.Parco Sempione covers 116 acres in the city center, just behind the Castello Sforzesco. It was laid out in the late 1800s, and received a major facelift in 1996. The grounds include gravel paths for walking or jogging, a triumphal arch at the far end of the park, a lake, and even a small arena used for concerts and some sporting events. There’s also a tower in the park - the Torre Branca - built in 1933 and offering views over the entire city.
Step inside Pinacoteca di Brera, a historic 17th century palace, to see one of Italy’s most impressive collections of medieval and Renaissance artworks.
The Pinacoteca di Brera's star is The Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna, a Renaissance/Mannerist excursion into weird perspective. You’ll also see works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Van Dyke. The baroque Palazzo di Brera has a lovely neoclassical cloister lined with arches, and a suitably grand interior.
Not all visits to Lake Como are about waterfront towns – a trip up into the hills over the lake to Brunate offers spectacular views. The small hilltop town overlooks not just Lake Como, but the town of Como itself. The two are roughly 1,600 feet apart, so while you won't be dipping your toes in the lake from Brunate, you'll be enjoying views that the people in Como can't see.
The Como-Brunate Funicular linking the towns was built in 1894, but you can keep going up even after you reach Brunate – climb the steps to the 1920s lighthouse for an even better view.
The Romanesque Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio is dedicated to Milan's patron saint, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who founded the church in the 4th century. Dressed in his bishop's finery, the saint's skeleton is displayed in the basilica's crypt.
The church embraces a mix of styles, having been rebuilt in the 11th century and much restored since then. The building has a squat, medieval Lombard facade thanks to its elongated atrium dating back to the year 1098.
Byzantine reliefs crown the 6th century capitals, and a graceful loggia lined with arches leads to the basilica's entrance. Two towers of different heights flank the atrium.
The highlight of the restrained interior in white and terracotta is the apse mosaic of Christ. You’ll also see carved pulpits and tombs, including the final resting place of Emperor Louis II.
The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio was heavily bombed during the Second World War and has been extensively restored.
Milan's fashion sense is world famous, and one of the streets to visit to see where the locals buy their designer brands is Via della Spiga. Along with other nearby streets such as Via Monte Napoleone, Via della Spiga is considered to be part of the Quadrilatero della Moda, or “fashion quarter.” Via della Spiga forms the northeastern border of the quarter.
Some of the designer names you'll see along Via della Spiga are Prada, Bulgari, Tod's, Armani, Hermes, Tiffany, Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, and Moschino. It's a pedestrianized street, making it a pleasure to wander – even if you're not planning to buy.
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