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  • Allyson Rychlak

Milan & Italy's Northern Lakes Mini-Guide

This spring, my family and I met in London to visit my brother, who is studying abroad in Castellanza, a town outside of Milan. After an incredible few days in the U.K. (read the London blog here!), we jetted to Italy to use Milan as our home base for the next part of the trip. I decided to structure this mini-blog with recommendations for a day each in Milan, Lake Como, and Lake Garda. Italy's northern lakes are stunning and should not be missed. What better way to supplement your Milan trip with some countryside excursions? 



Milan's famous Galleria, built in the late 19th-century


Day One: Milan


STAY: We stayed at an Airbnb near Milano Centrale, a stone's throw from two other Metro stops. This location was super convenient for our travels throughout the few days we were here and something to consider. Italy's train system is reliable, quick, and affordable. While the city's Metro system could be more thorough and seamless than London's famous Underground, it's easy to use and efficient. 


TRANSPORTATION: From Malpensa, Milan's airport, we took the Malpensa Express to Milano Cadorna since we couldn't check into our Airbnb until the afternoon, but it can also be taken to Milano Centrale. Metro lines from both train stations can take you anywhere else in the city. We purchased tickets for the Express train from the airport on the Trenord app, which I'll discuss later to get to both lakes.


Morning:

Start your day at Lavazza's flagship store, right outside the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, with their signature (or pistachio) cappuccino and crioche, a pastry that comes plain or filled with hazelnut, chocolate, pistachio, custard cream, or jam. We came here two mornings in a row and thought the crioche was much better than the pastries at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, but more on that later.


Get tickets in advance to enter the Duomo, Italy's largest cathedral and Milan's most iconic landmark. There are options with varying times and prices, so decide which landmarks inside you'd like to check off your bucket list. Afterward, visit Da Vinci's "Last Supper" at the Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano. These tickets are booked months in advance, so plan appropriately.




Milan's Duomo has over 3,400 statues and 700 figures within its incredible facade


Afternoon:

Grab lunch in Navigli, one of the most photogenic areas of Milan, where the ancient canals long gone elsewhere in the city have been preserved. 


If you want to shop, stroll back through the Piazza del Duomo and around the surrounding streets. Most designer stores are within the Galleria, which is fun to wander through regardless of your wallet's status at this point in the trip. Make sure to spin your heel on the bull on the floor's mosaic for good luck


For aperitivo, you can't go wrong with any cafe you stumble upon in Milan. However, for a spot with a view, check out Terrazza Aperol for spanning views of the Duomo. Since the Starbucks Reserve Roastery can be very busy for coffee - it's worth it, but I promise the drinks were even better - come for a cocktail (or two). Check out the Arriviamo Bar on the restaurant's mezzanine for a less-crowded spot and delicious mixology. My mom and I tried the rhubarb spritz since I loved this take on the spritz at an Italian restaurant in London. 


Evening:

Enjoy a lovely meal at Galleria Ristorante, aptly named for its location. The staff was so friendly and accommodating and brought complimentary dishes and desserts. Their pizza is phenomenal, so I highly recommend saving your pizza fix for this spot!


After dinner, if the timing is right for your trip to Milan, check out an Inter Milan game at San Siro. We did this as a family birthday gift for my dad, a huge soccer fan. This stadium holds over 80,000 people and is the largest in Italy and one of the largest in Europe. Be ready to climb some stairs to get to your seats!


Inter Milan fans are seriously devoted - see the Ultras, or Curva Nord, section in the far end of this picture


Day Two: Lake Como


We made the mistake of not pre-booking ferry tickets from the town of Como to Bellagio or Varenna, but we live and learn! These tickets are booked in advance online, and the line for the ticket booth was over an hour long. If those two towns are on your list, plan accordingly or take the train from Milan into Varenna directly. We also used the Trenord app to book these tickets from Milan, which was super easy to use. These towns are very crowded in the height of the season, so I recommend starting your day early. 


If you stay in Como, I recommend walking through the streets and shops and eating with water views. A funicular takes travelers up the mountain to the hilltop town of Brunate, which is how we spent our lovely day. Be prepared for a long wait to go up if it's mid-day, but we had a short wait on the way down. In Brunate, we ate lunch with a stunning view of the lake at Trattoria dei Bracconieri. Try their special truffle pasta, the bolognese, and the chilled red sparkling wine. 



The stunning view at Trattoria dei Bracconieri


Since I had recommendations for both Bellagio and Varenna, I included them in this guide as well...


Varenna
  • Smaller than Bellagio, you can walk through the town quickly or take your time. The harbor is lined with cafes and shops, so explore! 

  • Piazza San Giorgio - see Chiesa di San Giorgio, the beautiful church in the town center. 

  • Al Prato - considered by one travel guide to be the best restaurant in town, but very tiny, so be prepared!

  • Bar Il Molo - a picturesque restaurant with views of the village and beach.

Bellagio
  • Explore, of course! Wander through Melzi Gardens, eat some gelato (more on that below), shop in the historic streets, visit the Basilica of San Giacomo, and maybe even stroll to the quaint fishing village of Pescallo.

  • Punta di Spartivento - a scenic viewpoint at the far northern tip of the peninsula.

  • La Punta - another restaurant with beautiful lake views (see a pattern?). Recommended dishes: spaghetti alle vongole or risotto alla pescatora.

  • Trattoria del Glicine - known for their homemade pasta dishes, you can't go wrong with any choice here. More recommended dishes: spaghetti alla chitarra or tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms.

  • Trattoria San Giacomo - the most photographed spot in Bellagio; you know the one. Come early to get a table outside! Located where Via Guiseppe Garibaldi and Salita Serbelloni meet.

  • Dai Viga Pasta - an affordable spot for choose-your-own pasta and sauce and a fun concept for a more relaxed dinner. 

  • Gelateria del Borgo - I'm sure you can find a gelato spot on your own, but this one was recommended. 



My mom and I enjoying Como only a stone's throw from the train station


Day Three: Lake Garda


Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy, so this guide does not include all the lovely towns to explore. We visited only Sirmione, which was beautiful. I wish we had spent more time here or stayed overnight! From Milan, we took the train to the Desenzano del Garda-Sirmione railway station, then a taxi to the tip of the narrow peninsula to the town of Sirmione. 



The tulips and flowers along the town were in full bloom, even in early April


The historic old town is mostly closed off to traffic and feels right out of a storybook. Some highlights of Sirmione include the Grotto di Catulo - the excavated ruins of a large Roman villa at the very end of the peninsula - as well as the 13th-century Rocca Scaligera Castle at the very entrance of the town and the churches of San Pietro in Mavino and Santa Maria Maggiore. There is also a historic family winery called Cascina Maddelena, but we ran out of time. 


We had the loveliest, most leisurely lunch at the Hotel Pace's restaurant on the lake. The kinds of pasta were all great, as well as the house wine and cocktails following our meal. Il Mosaico Ristorante was also recommended for handmade pizza. To end our evening, we celebrated my parents' anniversary with a cruise around the lake. We highly recommend this tour



Lake Garda by boat is certainly the best way to see it!


The bottom line...


Italy can do no wrong, in my eyes. We loved our latest trip and truly enjoyed the lakes of northern Italy. Milan, in my opinion, can be done in a day - unless you really want to shop. If you're pairing this with a more extended trip in Italy, check out nearby Verona, Venice, or even Maranello in Modena, known for balsamic vinegar and Ferrari. 



As always, please reach out with any questions when planning your next trip. Thank you for reading! 

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