Destination: Italy

Combining Milan and the Italian Lakes Makes For A Viaggio Perfetto

By Carol Sorgen

Breathtaking scenery, warm and friendly people, and daily doses of pasta, Prosecco, and gelato … what’s not to love about Italy? That’s especially true of Milan and the Italian Lakes.

While neither Milan nor the Lake District makes an ideal destination on its own, combining the two gives the savvy traveler the best of both worlds. Milan is recognized for its sophisticated urban vibe as a fashion, design, and arts center; the Lakes is known for that very Italian philosophy of dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing).

Begin your trip in Milan where, if you’re a first-time visitor, you’ll undoubtedly want to visit the city’s most famous attractions. The Duomo, built over the span of 450 years beginning in 1386, is one of the most important Gothic buildings in the world and known as the symbol of Milan. For a magnificent view, ascend to the roof of the cathedral either by steps or by elevator.

“The Last Supper,” the 15th-century masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, can be found in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Music lovers won’t want to miss Teatro alla Scala, which has seen the most famous opera singers of the world perform on its stage.

And speaking of shopping, the elegant, four-story Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is lined with designer shops and cafes under a beautiful glass cupola.

Return visitors — and those staying for more than just a quick tour of the highlights — can look to Milan’s newer attractions, such as the Museo del Novecento, a public venue dedicated to Milan’s collection of 20th-century art; the Darsena and canal district, the city’s ancient dock that has been revitalized with bars, restaurants, artists’ showrooms, and canal cruises; the Museum of World Culture, a new ethnographic museum and exhibition venue; and for fashionistas, the Silos Armani Museum, displaying hundreds of outfits designed since 1980.

To combine a love of wine, art, and architecture, visit Leonardo da Vinci’s Vineyard, located opposite Santa Maria delle Grazie. The vineyard was given to the artist in 1499 by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. It has been replanted and is now open to the public. For more of a taste of Italian wine country, check out the nearby region of Franciacorta, home to Franciacorta sparkling wine, a relative newcomer to Italian wines, produced only since 1961.

Once you’ve gotten your city fix in Milan, switch gears and head to one (or more) of the nearby beguiling Italian lake towns. (You can rent a car — though be prepared for some white-knuckle drives — or better yet, take the train.)

About an hour from Milan is Lake Como, the third largest and deepest of all the Italian lakes, which has been a tourist destination and vacation residence for centuries. Today its shores are lined with the villas of European aristocrats, industrialists, and film stars. (Sadly, no sighting on a recent trip of George Clooney, who has a home on Lake Como, but sightseeing cruises will give you a closer look at the homes of the rich and famous.)

Varenna, which is served by both a train station and a ferry dock, makes a good home base for a Lake Como stay. Once a sleepy village off the tourist path until travel guru Rick Steves clued the rest of the world in to its charms, Varenna is quieter than some of the other Lake Como towns such as Bellagio and the city of Como. Eat lunch lakeside then stroll along the pathway known as The Lovers’ Walk, lined with galleries, boutiques, and gelateria (it’s difficult not to find a gelato shop in Italy!). Spend another morning or afternoon visiting the gardens of both Villa Monastero and Hotel Villa Cipressi, where you can spend hours strolling through the photo-worthy gardens.

Just 15 minutes from Varenna by ferry, and just 12 miles from Switzerland, is the town of Menaggio. Have lunch or your daily afternoon gelato in one of the many cafes lining the main square, Piazza Garibaldi, followed by window-shopping and a leisurely stroll along the beautiful lakeside promenade.

From Menaggio you can either ferry back to Varenna or go on to Bellagio, known as the Pearl of Lake Como. For an overview of Bellagio, take the narrated tram tour through town — you’ll be happy to sit for a while before tackling Bellagio’s steep alleyways).

The name of the game in Bellagio is shopping. There aren’t many bargains, but the boutiques set into the cobblestoned lanes are worth a visit even if you’re not planning to buy as you look at the craftsmanship of Italian silks, leather goods, and ceramics.

For a change of lake view, consider moving on to Lake Maggiore, the westernmost of Italy’s Lake District. The elegant town of Stresa had its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s when European aristocracy arrived by train and took up residence in the grand hotels (still open for business) with their views of the Borromean Islands.

From Stresa’s ferry departure point, you can visit the three Borromean Islands open to the public: Isola Bella, Isola Madre, and Isola dei Pescatori. The first two islands are famous for their lush gardens, wandering peacocks and palaces. Isola dei Pescatori is a working fishermen’s village, but there are lakeside restaurants, an open-air market, and — of course — more gelato!

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