Had it really been four years? This question ran through my mind as I was watching the familiar sights of sprawling vineyards and tall cypress trees from the train. Yes, it had really been four years since I last went to Italy, a country that I list as one of my favorite countries in the world every time when asked to name my most beloved countries.And yet, my travels didn’t bring me here for years before my last visit in 2011, and again it had taken me nearly half a decade to return, even though after my last visit, I had vouched to visit more often again. Because if I know one country well, it is Italy, with about a dozen visits under my belt. Thinking about it, it is probably the country I’ve visited more often than any other country. The Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, Rome and Liguria – I know them all so well. And yet, even after so many visits, I still have many regions in Italy to see: Puglia, Emilia Romagna, Calabria, Abruzzo, Sicily and Sardinia, to name just a few, are all places I have yet to explore. And the north, which I passed through so many times when driving down from Germany – somehow I never stopped there, despite glorious tales of beautiful alpine mountain trails and famous lakes like Garda and Como. So when I was invited to get to know Milan and Lombardy, a region in northern Italy, I jumped at the chance. And when I finally laid eyes on Lake Garda, I couldn’t help but ask myself: What took me so long? Why didn’t I come here earlier?
I am not sure why the north doesn’t get as much attention as famous regions further south, because every place I went to was gorgeous and had something special to it.
Which is why I thought I’d introduce you to Lombardy with the favorite pictures of my trip, showing you why this part of Italy is well worth a visit.
1 Quaint lake shore towns
Lombardy might not have any access to the Mediterranean, but now that I spent some time there, I say: it doesn’t really need it! With famous lakes like Como and Garda, and lesser known but not less stunning lakes like Maggiore or Iseo, Lombardy still has plenty of beaches. I loved the small towns that dot the lake shores – they usually come with a picturesque promenade, colorful buildings, plenty of sidewalk cafes and lots of gelaterias.
2 Lake Garda sunsets
Who needs beach sunsets when you can have sunsets like this?! Lake Garda really showed off while I was visiting, coloring the sky in some the most vivid colors possible – none of the tourists who were meandering up and down the promenade could simply walk by – everybody pulled out their camera or cell phone to take pictures. A true show stopper!
3 Hidden gem #1: Brescia
I had never heard of Brescia before I visited the city, which turned out to be home to the most significant Roman ruins in all of Lombardy (see below)! The big university city still manages to feel like a small town in its historic core, and there are enough architectural highlights to fill a photo essay on their own: striking churches, beautiful piazzas, grand mansions, castles and the famous Santa Giulia monastery. The best part? There were barely any tourists in town!
4 History alive
Brescia’s historical heritage is among the most significant in all of Italy. There’s the 8th century Santa Giulia monastery which now houses a museum of epic proportions: here, you find a collection of over 11,000 items spanning artifacts from prehistoric times, antiquity, the Lombard Age, the Carolingian Age and Venetian ages. You could spend an entire day wandering the 12,000 square meter large museum, but wait.. there’s more! Brescia is also home to the oldest Roman ruins in northern Italy, and wandering the streets you’ll stumble across a well-preserved Roman Capitolium (Roman temple), forum and theater. I was lucky enough to be one of the first visitors who got to try out brand new multimedia glasses (ArtGlass) at the museum, which transformed the ruins into the magnificent buildings they once were. It made me wish I would’ve had glasses like those when I hopped from ruin to ruin in Rome and Pompeji – what a spectacular feature and way to bring a place back to life!
5 The scrumptious regional cuisine
I ate so much good food in Lombardy that I was seriously concerned about fitting in my dirndl – I was heading straight to Oktoberfest in Munich from here (in case you’re wondering: the zipper just closed and I tried not to breath all day). I could easily post 20 photos of the meals I devoured, but the food in Lombardy deserves its own post – stay tuned for mouth-watering photos of all the ravioli, gnocchi, pizza, polenta, risotto and pastries I stuffed myself with. Pictured below are some of the best gnocchi I ever had – topped with truffles!
6 Hidden gem #2: Bergamo
Bergamo, another town I’d heard of before coming to Lombardy, charmed me with its Citta Alta, the Upper Town, which sits on a hilltop overlooking the plains around the Lower City and offering fantastic views all the way to the Alps and even to Milan which sits southeast of Bergamo. Historic Renaissance and Baroque architecture is plentiful here, and I loved the distinctly medieval feel of the Upper Town.
7 Roman ruins with a view
The Grottoes of Catullus are the remains of a massive Roman villa, which belonged to the Latin poet Gaius Valerius Catullus. He sure knew to picked one of the best spots along the shores of Lake Garda, the Sirmione peninsula which The vast complex consists of the criptoportico hall (famous for its sixty pillars), there is a triple window grotto, many well preserved pillars and arches and baths, plus a collection of items found on the site.
8 Olives fresh from the tree
To be honest, I had no idea olives still grew that far north – but you can find olive orchids throughout Lombardy and I loved having some fresh olives from the region with a glass of wine at night.
9 Breakfast brioches
Italian breakfasts may seem small and unassuming – a cup of coffee and something sweet with it, usually a freshly baked pastry, like a brioche (known as cornetto in the south of Italy), but these brioches are just to die for! I’m usually not a croissant person, but these heavenly, buttery, crisp on the outside and cake-y on the inside. Speaking of croissants – I shouldn’t have mentioned that word, because brioches don’t like to be compared to their French counterparts. While similar, they’re not made the same way, and brioches can come simple (without filling), or filled with jam, honey, custard or nutella. What a great way to start the day!
10 Milan’s many faces: The bohemian face
One of the reasons I wanted to go on this trip was because it’d give me the chance to spend an extended period of time in Milan. I’ll be honest here: I wasn’t all too fussed about Milan when I first visited Italy’s second biggest city in 2011, but heard glowing reviews of Milan from other travelers. I knew that Milan deserved a second chance – and I am glad I gave it another shot. I loved Milan the second time around, but telling you about all the things I discovered this time around would go beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll bring you a full article on the different faces of Milan I got to see. But let me at least mention a few of the things I loved about Milan: for one, its bohemian side in the Isola neighborhood, where the tree-lined boulevards and the grand buildings reminded me of Buenos Aires.
11 Milan’s many faces: The hipster face
And the Navigli District with its terrific street art, flea markets and hipster hangouts.
12 Milan’s many faces: The historic face
And the historic side of the city, with remarkable columns, churches and of course the magnificent cathedral.
13 Pastel colored towns and villages
This is one thing I love about Italy in general, and Lombardy was no different than the rest of the country: all of its towns have narrow streets lined with pastel colored houses and green or blue wooden window shutters. So pretty!
14 UNESCO World Heritage (lots of it!)
Lombardy is home to only 6% of Italy’s population, but it is home to 8 of the country’s 51 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which is quite impressive and makes Lombardy in fact the region with the highest concentration of UNESCO sites in the country! From the rock drawings in Valcamonica and the Sacri Montichapels to the combined site of the Longobord’s Places Of Power In Italy (including Brescia’s monastic complex of San Salvatore and Santa Giulia) or the workers’ village of Crespi d’Adda, there are some really interesting UNESCO sites to be explored in Lombardy.
15 Lakes meeting Alpine mountains
Tuscany might have rolling hills, but Lombardy has Alpine mountains that meet azure blue lakes! Being on or by these lakes, surrounded by green mountains, some of them with snow-capped peaks, is a stunning sight. And different from the Alpine lakes further north, the lakes here benefit from a more Mediterranean climate, which means the water gets really warm here during the summer months. Lombardy’s landscapes definitely stand out.
16 Medieval castles
If you are a history buff and can’t get enough of ancient castles, Lombardy is the right place for you! With its many strategically placed hilltop towns, naturally there are lots of medieval castles that were built to protect the cities during the times when Italy’s regions weren’t as friendly with each other as they are today. I was impressed to see how well preserved most of them are!
17 Medieval towns
This goes with #16 above – it’s not just castles, cathedrals, palazzos and mansions that are well preserved in Lombardy – you can find entire ‘Old Towns’ all over Lomardy that still look pretty much what they used to look like hundreds of years ago. I often felt like I was stepping back in time – and I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true.
18 Charming red roofs everywhere
I love getting a bird’s eye’s view of a city, and in Italy I am usually in luck, since there seems to be a tower that can be climbed. Red tile roofs just have a special charm, don’t you agree?
19 A French Riviera vibe
Like I said – Lombard doesn’t even have access to the Mediterranean, and yet, in several of its lake side towns, I felt a Cote D’Azur vibe. Maybe George Clooney felt that way too, and that’s why he bought a house on the shores of Lake Como? Anyway – I loved the sophisticated flair when I strolled down the wide, palm tree lined promenades, passing yachts in the water and elegant ladies with big sunglasses and hand fans in the cafes. The main difference between here and the French Riviera? It is much less pretentious and much less expensive.
20 Polenta e osei
This pastry alone is worth a trip to Bergamo, where this local specialty is from. Funnily enough it doesn’t have any polenta in it, despite being named polenta e osei, but that’s because it looks like a perfectly mounded polenta. It’s topped with marzipan and the black topppings resemble the osei, which means birds.