Planning a Trip Through Northern Italy: Days, Weeks, and Beyond
Your journey is never done when you’re traveling through Northern Italy, but in just four or five days, you can base yourself in Milan and see some of its surrounding highlights, including Lake Como and Lake Garda, Turin, and Bologna.
In up to two weeks you can go even further, branching out to Venice and the Veneto on the Adriatic coast, and Florence and the many Tuscan hill towns to the south. With 3 weeks you can head west to the cluster of five towns known as the Cinque Terre, or go north and experience the snow-capped mountains of around Trento and Bolzano.
Learn more about Italy’s regions in this comprehensive guide.
Northern Italy in 4-5 Days
With less than a week in Northern Italy, you can still see quite a lot. Start in Milan, the thriving fashion, culture, and business capital of Italy, where you can walk the roof of the intricate Duomo or main cathedral to see views of the city and distant snow-capped mountains, visit the 16th-century, neoclassical Royal Palace, now home to a museum, and see Leonardo’s masterpiece “The Last Supper” in its own gallery. Make sure to check out Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an elegant covered shopping arcade, and the imposing Castelo Sforzesco, a medieval fortification.
On day two you can head out to Lake Como, long known as a luxurious getaway for socialites and celebrities who have built villas directly on the water for decades. A languid day at the lake should include a guided tour of the city of Como, a walk on the waterfront promenade, and even a boat ride. Make sure not to miss the terraced 18th-century gardens of the Villa Serbelloni Park.
The next three days will be a whirlwind of beautiful sights as you take in several cities within easy driving or train distance of Milan, including Turin, Bologna, and even Parma and Modena. Turin, or Torino, is a mix of elegant palaces like the Palazzo Reale and Palazzo Madama, now both museums offering tours of their art, antiquities, and royal furniture and objects, and churches and cathedrals from different eras and architectural styles. The interactive National Cinema Museum, housed in a 19th-century synagogue, is a highlight.
Bologna is famed for its 11th-century university, as well as the central square Piazza Maggiore and its age-old buildings, and a number of art museums and architectural highlights beyond. But Bologna’s greatest distinction is perhaps as one of Italy’s finest food cities: it birthed delicacies like tortellini and ragu alla bolognese, now beloved around the world. Parma and Modena are also known for their culinary prowess: Parma as the home of the famed Parma ham, and Modena as a new foodie destination, with restaurants like Osteria Francescana, consistently ranked one of the best in the world.
For an idea of how to plan a five-day trip in Northern Italy, take a look at this sample itinerary.
Northern Italy in 1 Week
Strike out east from Milan as detailed above, ending your trip with two days in Venice. Laced with canals and hidden alleyways, with art institutions that house some of the world’s great masterpieces, Venice reveals its secrets gradually, but is also compact enough to experience in only a couple of days.
Wake up early to experience the bustling Rialto Market at its least crowded, then take a vaparetto or waterbus on the Grand Canal to catch sight of elegant mansions like Ca’ Rezzonico, where the poet Robert Browning died, and Palazzo Mocenigo, once home to Lord Byron. Your endpoint is the Piazza San Marco, home to the Basilica di San Marco and the Doge’s Palace, both stars of many iconic paintings by Canaletto. After lunch in a classic Venetian trattoria, delve into some of the city’s best art at the Accademia, a gallery with works by Venetian masters Tintoretto, Titian, Bellini, and Tiepolo.
On your second day in Venice, and last full day of your trip, you can take a water taxi out to the Peggy Guggenheim collection – a museum for European and American art in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, her former home. In the afternoon, head out to the islands of Murano, the center of the Veneto’s glass trade, and Burano, a fishing village with houses painted in bright colors, known for its delicate lace trade.
The farthest island of Torcello is also worth a trip: Byzantine mosaics tell the story of the last judgment at the Cathedral of Santa Maria Dell'Assunta, and great works of art are also on display at the Casa Museo Andrich, formerly an artists’ home. Most of the island is taken over by nature trails, and the Ponte del Diavolo or Devil’s Bridge is a popular spot for photos, as it was built without railings. Check out this guide to the Venetian islands for more.
Another option: eat and drink your way through Northern Italy on this 7-day culinary tour. Explore the 11th-century university and covered porticos in Bologna, indulge your taste buds with visits to prosciutto and parmesan producers, and stay in a quiet medieval town in the Emilia Romagna countryside.
Northern Italy in 2 Weeks
If you have two weeks on your hands, plan to further explore the Veneto region around Venice before hopping a train south to Florence. The many Tuscan hill towns surrounding it are filled with treasures of art and architecture, as well as vineyards, wine estates, and restaurants serving delicious Tuscan and Etruscan specialties.
Venice may be the most famous city in the Veneto, but there are a few others you may have heard of, thanks to a certain writer named William Shakespeare. Chief among them are Verona and Padua, settings for "Romeo and Juliet" and the "Taming of the Shrew," respectively.
In Verona, you can actually visit the supposed house of the Capulet family, where you can still see the balcony from one of the most famous scenes in English literature, where people in love come to write messages to each other on the walls. In Padua, the Shakespeare connection is a bit more tenuous, but it's worth visiting for its centuries-old university, where Galileo was once lecturer, as well as Cappella Degli Scrovegni, home to frescoes by the master Giotto.
The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Florence is a treasure trove of majestic churches full of frescoes, museums displaying historical works of art, and sometimes, as in the case of the Ponte Vecchio bridge, iconic bits of the city itself. Any visit to this Tuscan city should include a stop at the Uffizi and the Accademia, home to Michaelangelo’s David. When you need a break from the art, the bustling San Lorenzo Market has been entirely reimagined as a food hall where you can taste the region’s best delicacies year-round. For the ultimate guide to Florence, click here.
Outside the city, a string of hill towns awaits: San Gimignano, with its 14 medieval towers that make up an elegant skyline, charming Siena, and Pisa with its iconic leaning tower, actually a freestanding campanile. In between, you can visit grand wine estates that produce well-known appellations like Montepulciano and Montalcino.
Alternately, you can spend two relaxing weeks sticking to Milan and the Lakes Region. In this itinerary, you'll split your time between leisurely stints on Lake Como, Lake Maggiore, and Lake Garda.
Northern Italy in 3 Weeks
In 3 weeks in Italy, you can branch out to visit the string of coastal towns known as the Cinque Terre (the five lands) or the Trentino region, where rolling hills peppered with vineyards give way to the snow-covered peaks of the Alps, and Italy starts to feel a bit more like Switzerland.
Known as the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre’s five villages on the Ligurian Sea have become more and more popular every year. Each is a cascade of colorful homes, lush vegetation, and charming streets that seem to tumble gently down to the sea, where beaches are a mixture of sand to lounge on and rocks to jump from.
A long footpath connects all five—Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare—and there are hiking routes in the hills that will take you up mountains and through vineyards with some incredible views. There are also old churches to explore, such as the 15th-century Oratorio San Rocco, and historic fortresses like the Castello Doria, but mostly, these towns are all about relaxing, eating seafood by the water, and soaking up an atmosphere that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Further up the coast, you should also consider making a stop at Portofino and exploring the many treasures it has to offer on land and in the sea, including the beautiful San Fruttuoso Beach, which sits in the shadow of a medieval abbey, and the Christ of the Abyss statue, submerged on the sea floor in memory of Dario Gonzatti, the first Italian to use diving gear, which you can see on your very own snorkeling tour. Check out this helpful guide to Cinque Terre and the Italian Riviera.
If your tastes skew more towards mountains than beach, you can also rearrange your itinerary to head to Trentino Alto Adige after Milan in week 1. This mountainous region, also known as South Tyrol, sits on the border of Switzerland and Austria, and is a favorite for outdoor activities in any season. Skiiers and snowboarders flock to two separate mountain ranges – the Dolomites and the Alps – for some powdery winter fun. In summer when the snow has melted, hiking routes open up that take you between charming alpine towns like Meran and historic buildings like Trautmannsdorf Castle, set against a backdrop of white peaks where the snow never melts, enchanting forests, and emerald alpine lakes.
For more information on Northern Italy and beyond, see our Ultimate Guide to Italy's Regions.