In this guide to the top things to do in Northwest Italy, you’ll get juicy intel on the most stunning places around the regions of Lombardy and Aosta Valley. Learn how to get there, how to get around, when to go, what to eat, and what to bring!
There’s a lot more to Northern Italy than the Dolomites, Venice, and Verona. The Italian Northwest is often overlooked in the likes of its famous neighbours, but its gems deserve the spotlight, too.
Travellers keen to visit the Western Alps including Europe’s highest peak, picturesque lakes, medieval fortresses, warm up on alpine food, and enjoy hiking, relaxing and Milanese-city-sleeking, this article is for you.
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A bit about the Lombardy and Aosta Valley Regions
Both Lombardia (Lombardy in English) and Aosta make up the westernmost regions of the Italian North, surrounded by France and Switzerland.
Milan, the capital of Lombardy, is one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, and the whole region is the most populated in Italy.
On the other hand, Lombardy’s unknown neighbour, the Aosta Valley region, is the smallest and least populated area in the whole country.
This sets the stage for an ideal holiday where travellers get to enjoy the best of both worlds! The fame and riches of Lombardy and the adventurous coziness of Aosta.
Getting to Lombardy and Aosta Valley Regions
Getting to Milano is easy! It’s a perfect base to start exploring Lombardy and take day trips from there as the city is hugely connected with the world.
Three airports serve Milan’s visitors. Malpensa Airport is the main international airport, located 52 kilometres out of the city. Then comes Milan Linate, only 8 kilometres from central Milan, operating flights mostly within Italy.
The Orio al Serio Bergamo Airport sits 55 kilometres out of Milan. Still, this is an important international hub too – and the third busiest airport in Italy.
Arriving in Milan by train or bus are also practical and budget-friendly options for travellers within Europe. Milano Centrale station is a convenient hub for people coming and going anywhere!
Aosta, the capital of the Aosta Valley Region, is ideal for spending a few days exploring the region as it’s well connected by trains and buses.
You can’t fly directly into Aosta. Visitors have to arrive in Milano Malpensa first – 180 kilometres away – or Turin’s Airport -117 kilometres away. However, you could also fly into the Geneva Airport and make your way to Italy’s border town Courmayeur, which is just over 100 kilometres away, and start your trip there.
All this will depend on your itinerary and whether you are planning to rent a car or use only public transport.
How to get around
As mentioned before, you have many options to get around, in and out of Milan. Still, you need to get familiar with the numerous train services arriving and departing at all times.
As Milan is the beating heart of Northern Italy, getting the hang of trains and buses can become a quest. Milano Centrale is the main station. But if, for example, you were to take a bus, you’d have to get to Milano Lampugnano first. So when purchasing your tickets, always double-check all details! Make sure you are clear on how to combine your means of transportation.
Getting around the Aosta Valley is very straight forward. If you spend a few days in the cute town of Aosta, you’ll simply head east and west for most of your day trips along the region’s main route.
The best way to organize your trip is to head to the tourist centre in town and get the updated public transport schedule. Buses and trains operate between the main sights every 30 to 40 minutes, and they are usually on time. Travelling in this region is a breeze!
Renting a car to tour the Aosta Valley is also a neat idea if you want to enjoy schedule-freedom. Aosta’s towns are not overcrowded, and some are tiny, so you won’t have trouble finding parking. On the other hand, renting a car to travel around Milan could become a real hassle due to congestion and limited parking.
What to bring and when to go
Above all things, the Aosta Valley is an outdoor paradise for hikers and skiers alike. Its dramatic alpine landscapes, dotted with fortresses and castles, simply add some cultural magic to this gorgeous region.
As this trip through the top things to do in Northwest Italy will take you to natural sights and city attractions, you’ll need to pack accordingly.
Both Lombardy and Aosta are great for visiting year-round. Over the summer months, Milan gets boiling hot, but you’ll always need to layer up a bit as you approach the Italian Alps.
Hiking and camping enthusiasts should bring both their outdoor gear and some city-worthy outfits. Remember Milan is the fashion capital of the world – not that you should care!
Spring, summer, and winter are the most popular seasons to visit the Valley and Lombardy. That said, heading there around autumn also has many perks! Cheaper fares, fewer tourists, and stunning views of orange leaves and vast landscapes.
On the other hand, for the most part of autumn, cable cars are not operating and some hikes are closed, so you may end up missing out on some alpine action.
What to eat in Northwest Italy
It’s true, Northern Italy’s food is not as widely known to the pasta-lovers around the world. Yet, it’s here where you’ll find the most luscious and soul-warming dishes any foodie could ever wish for – you’d better add ‘Feasting’ to your list of top things to do in Italy’s Northwest!
Milan and its surrounding regions enjoy a plethora of fresh, high-quality products. From fruits and veggies to glorious cheeses, grains, and meats. Here’s a hint of the not-to-miss culinary joys of these regions…
Northern Italy is the birthplace of Polenta. Polenta may not get as much recognition as pasta, but it’s a staple of northern cuisine.
One of the most popular ways to try this boiled cornmeal classic is to combine it with Gorgonzola cheese. Gorgonzola is a type of blue cheese, similar to Roquefort but with a softer flavour and a creamier texture.
When you order a Polenta Gorgonzola dish, you’ll get a plate with Polenta and a massive slice of Gorgonzola on the side. Don’t blame yourself if you need to nap after lunch!
Risotto alla Milanese
What makes this Risotto a truly Milanese staple is the use of saffron, giving it a ‘royal’ golden look, worthy of the rich and famous! Nutmeg, beef marrow bone, and grated Grana Padano cheese complete this noble glory.
Pizzoccheri della Valtellina
A favourite with origins in the valleys of the Valtellina – at the top of Lombardy – this pasta dish is the absolute winter warmer.
The Pizzocheri is a type of short ribbon pasta, made from buckwheat and wheat flour. The classic recipe combines the pasta with cabbage, potatoes, cheese, butter, and sage. The result? A rich, thick, and flavourful dish with a mouthwatering taste.
Wherever you go in the Italian North, make sure to head somewhere – anywhere – for Aperitivo. Think of tapas in Spain, but Italian-style.
Locals usually head to a pub or cafe of their choice after work for a pre-dinner drink and snacks. However, many times these snacks are better than anything you could ever cook. Another great perk? You get a lot of value for your money!
It depends on the establishment, but many would let you eat as much as you want for a flat flee plus drinks. Some establishments may even give you ‘free’ food with your drink!
In any case, the best part is to participate – from 7 pm to 9 pm – and take the chance to mingle with locals.
Spend a day exploring Milan’s highlights
Devoting at least one full day to Milan is a top thing to do in Northwest Italy. Milan has a very different vibe when compared to cities like Rome, Naples, or Palermo.
This can turn off some visitors expecting narrow cobbled alleys and 2000-year-old ruins. However, Milan has a distinct grandeur that portrays a different aspect of Italian culture.
An iconic cathedral dominating the city landscape, people passing by wearing Gucci and Ferragamo like it is the simplest streetwear, massive galleries and museums, and one of the most important opera houses in the world are just some of Milan’s delights.
A visit to this imposing Gothic cathedral – one of the world’s largest – is not just about navigating sacred sights. It’s about enjoying sweeping views of the city from its rooftop, mixed with statues and flying buttresses.
It’s free to enter the cathedral, but – and here’s the trick – you need tickets to visit the other sites within it. Depending on what you fancy and the time you’ve got, you could purchase a fast-lane ticket to explore with ease.
The cathedral’s rooftop is one thing not to miss! If opening times allow, head there just before sunset.
La Scala Opera House
Just a 5-minute walk from the cathedral, you’ll find the ‘Teatro Alla Scala,’ one of the most renowned opera houses in the world.
To enter, simply purchase a ticket to the museum. This will include the Scala’s grand foyer, its massive auditorium, and galleries featuring a selection of costumes and works of art. For an in-depth experience, book a guided tour.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Welcome to one of the most luxurious galleries in Europe! Located right in front of the cathedral, this gallery with arched glass ceilings is both an icon of Milan and a shopping hub. Packed with restaurants, and luxury stores, walk its length or simply sit back and enjoy a fancy coffee-fix.
Da Vinci’s Last Supper
Another one for history and art lovers. Da Vinci’s massive wall painting is located inside the Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie. Visits to the Last Supper are strictly controlled and only possible with pre-booked tickets. > Click here to purchase your tickets.
Once you start the booking process, you’ll get to see availability and select the time that suits you best. Know that as visits are limited to 30 people every 15 minutes, you must plan ahead.
Castiglione Olona and Varese
Eager to get a bit off-the-beaten-track in Northwest Italy? Located one hour north of Milan, the medieval town of Castiglione Olona is a little gem surrounded by hills, forests, and the Olona River.
Known amongst Italians for its similarity with Tuscany, this terracotta village offers fantastic views from the green terraces of the Monteruzzo Castle.
Castiglione Olona is enclosed by nature and blends lush greenery with local charm and beautiful medieval architecture. An ideal half-day trip, take two or three hours to stroll around town and to visit Castiglione’s top historical site, the Collegiata Museum.
To finish your off-track trip, head to the Torba Abbey -3 kilometres from Castiglione, connected by a pedestrian path, one of Lombardy’s UNESCO Heritage sites. The abbey’s restaurant, La Cucina del Sole, is an adorable stone-walled restaurant, open from 10am to 6pm from Wednesday to Sunday.
After exploring Castiglione Olona, head to Varese. This is one of Lombardy’s main cities, even though it’s virtually unknown for international tourists. The main sight, just five kilometres out of the city, is another UNESCO Heritage Site, the Sacro Monte di Varese.
If you are keen to take on a stunning little hike that, again, blends nature with historical buildings, then climbing Sacro Monte should be top of your list. As you make your way up the hills, you’ll come across a complex of churches that make up this devotional path.
Once you reach the top, you’ll encounter the town of Sacro Monte. Full of terraces offering mesmerizing views of the region, this is one of the best sunset spots in Lombardy. After your hike, grab a well-deserved Aperol.
Both Varese and Castiglione Olona are perfectly located for discovering the region if you prefer to escape the hustle of Milan and connect more with natural sights. Both are also closer to Lake Como, another main stop along any Northwest itinerary.
You could easily spend two full days soaking in all the beauty, history, and the decadent Italian glamour that brings Lake Como to life. This famous and massive lake sits close to the Swiss borders. It has been, for centuries, a holiday haven for the rich and famous. And yet, mere mortals can still make the most of the many sunkissed little towns, calm waters, and soulful sunsets.
Taking a day trip to Lake Como from Milan, Varese, or most main hubs in the region – or even Switzerland – is quite straight forward. A great option to enjoy a full day is to start in the town of Como, 50 kilometres north of Milan. From there, catch the ferry towards Varenna, Bellagio, or Menaggio.
Some visitors recommend starting directly either in Varenna or Bellagio. However, if you are devoting a full day to the lake, getting on the ferry from Como is also a great alternative.
Tucked 185 kilometres west of Milan, the town of Aosta lies at the core of the Aosta Valley Region and is the ideal starting point for roaming around its gorgeous alpine settings.
The town itself is quite sophisticated and deserves a stroll along its massive main square and pedestrian street.
Aosta is also home to a slew of fine eats; the Trattoria Aldente is a must for delicious food on a budget, can be found in a cozy brick vaulted ceiling salon! The magic of this town lies in getting back to it after a day scouting the region’s castles and outdoor spots.
However, visitors can still get their ancient-fix touring Aosta’s archeological sites, which include a 2000-year-old Roman theatre.
Forte di Bard
Visiting the Aosta Valley’s castles and fortresses is one of the top things to do in Northwest Italy. With over 70 castles scattered just below the magnificent Alps, there are plenty to choose from!
Devoting at least one day to tour the Aostan defensive strongholds and residences gives visitors an idea of the importance the valley had through history as a passage for those crossing the Alps.
One of the most stunning places to visit is Fort Bard. Built in the 6th century as a castle, it then became a fort in the 19th century. Back in 1800, this grand building held Napoleon Bonaparte’s siege for two weeks before the Austrian forces were defeated.
This is a must-visit, and the fun part is that you can reach its top by hopping on glass lifts located on the front of the fort.
The fort is made up of museums, exhibitions, an old prison, and it looks like a town in and of itself. There are different ticket entries, but if you were to only access the complex, the entry costs around $3. For a full experience, get the full-access combined ticket for $24.
Fort Bard is closed on Mondays. From Tuesday to Friday, it’s open from 10am to 6pm – extended until 7pm over weekends.
The medieval town of Bard is a beautiful way to get your visit started. Make sure to take in the views of the fort from the bridge.
Another remarkable sight around the Aosta Valley, the Fenis Castle is one of the most popular visits in the area. This grand pentagonal complex of towers boasts manicured interiors with rich frescoes and a beautiful courtyard surrounded by wooden balconies.
Built in the 14th century, what sets apart Fenis Castle from Fort Bard is that it wasn’t raised for military purposes, but as a residence for noble families.
From April to September, the castle’s opening times are 9am to 7pm. October to March from 10am to 1pm, and 2pm to 5pm.
If you want to get more in-depth knowledge of the region and its castles, head to Issogne, Sarre, and Verrés.
Courmayeur Mont Blanc
Welcome to the perfect hiking and skiing getaway, Courmayeur, which sits at the foot of Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc.
A lovely alpine resort town, Courmayeur comes to life over summer, spring, and winter. Even though there’s not a whole lot to do over autumn, it’s still worth a visit.
With easy access to nature, you can get on your way to a mountain or lake hike right next to town. Head to the Rifugio Bertone. Walk the first steps of the Tour du Mont Blanc trek. Hop on the skyway cable car for 360º views, and discover Val Ferret and Val Veny, two of Mt Blanc’s valleys.
The Skyway Monte Bianco cable car is an impressive feat taking visitors up to 3,466 metres of altitude. Beware though! It’s not open year-round, so check the official website before planning.
Terme di San Didier
After all the hiking, eating, Milano-style shopping, and cultural sightseeing, you deserve some hedonistic pampering! And to honour Aosta’s noble legacy of aristocrats, it’s time to spend a day at the QC Terme Pré Saint Didier.
This SPA Thermal complex is the closest thing to being a royal anyone could experience in life. Exaggeration aside, its baths, saunas, steam rooms, salt rooms, and relaxation areas will keep you entertained for a full day.
Enjoy the views of Mont Blanc, take a stroll around the premises wearing your robe and slippers, and prepare to indulge big time.
You will need to book before you go. Choose from full-day SPA access or a half-day evening pass.
Final thoughts on the top things to do in Northwest Italy
Lombardy is also known as the Lakes Region, so you could complete your itinerary with visits to Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore. Or you could cross from Aosta to Chamonix and enjoy the views of Mont Blanc from France. You could even focus on hiking – or skiing if you head to Aosta during wintertime.
The great advantage here is that international travellers usually limit their visits to Milan and Lake Como. So you stand the chance of enjoying gorgeous places without big crowds.
Keep in mind that these are some of the wealthiest regions in the country. Hence, you can expect fees to be higher when compared to other parts of Italy.
Plan to stay between five and ten days, and give these underrated, yet stunning, regions the best chance to conquer your wandering heart.
Enjoy your visit!
About the Author:
Martina Grossi is a travel writer and SEO Specialist from Argentina based in New Zealand. Like many Argentinians, Martina has Italian roots, which has taken her to explore the country 5 times! Lover of road-tripping, eating, camping, hiking, and nature, her travels focus on connecting with a destination’s vibe, rather than ticking items off a bucket list. You can find Martina on her website The Global Curious.