Waist deep in Google searches for Northern Italy?
Sweet, so glad you’re here.
Northern Italy is everything on the map above Rome. You should visit, ‘cause the cities are alluringly ancient and the villages are works of art.
We get that it’s overwhelming to digest, and you just want to know exactly what to do. You’re totally over barebones info you’re skimming on the web.
We’ll guess that Florence, Milan and Venice made most lists (they’re on ours, too) — but we know that you’re still not sure which ones are worth seeing.
Whatever you read next has to be The Guide To End All Googling.
You want real recommendations, from real Italians, about real sweet spots in northern Italy. Pronto.
That’s where our tiny team of Italian intel comes in.
There’s 10 spots in northern Italy we adore, and we know the nitty-gritty details that can make or break your trip. Like how to get there. The absolute best times to visit (so it’s worth). Pretty towns way off the beaten track.
This isn’t another fluffy top 10 list. It’s your handy-dandy guide to make planning your northern Italy trip easy-peasy.
What’s the difference between northern Italy and southern Italy?
Let’s compare apples to oranges, shall we? (Which is like comparing Milanese risotto to Naples pizza.)
Northern Italy is smart suits, commerce, and has cities that might look like Prague or Vienna. It’s more “user friendly”.
If your nonna was from Northern Italy, she would live in Verona, wear Todd’s loafers, wear a fur jacket, and visit the salon for weekly blowouts and gossip.
Southern Italy equals countryside, traditions and cities that feel like they’ve seen better days. More cracks on the sidewalks, more chaos.
If your nonna was Southern Italian she’d be in an apron, cooking for your family every Sunday (and wondering what you’re cooking her son the rest of the week). She’ll take food markets over hair salons any day.
But generalizations only go so far… because this is Italy. And Italy is complicated.
We don’t travel Italy for cut and dry “this is the way it is.” We travel for the layers, the nuances. The unexplainable-ness.
Where to stay in Northern Italy?
We believe no single solution fits all people and seasons.
Here are tops things you need to consider, before creating your Itinerary for northern Italy, or anywhere.
1. What season are you traveling in? Winter, summer, or shoulder season?
Wonderful winter suitable cities are Trieste, Bologna, Milan, Florence. Wonderful high season places are Verona, Trieste (less crowded than Venice, Florence). Places to avoid in the summer heat are Florence, Milan, Venice. Perfect summer places are seaside spots like Portofino or the Cinque Terre.
2. Are you more suited to countryside, seaside, or cityscapes?
Milan, Venice, Florence are large cities. Balance these out with smaller towns and non-city places to get a mix of experiences all on one trip, depending on the seasons. (We talked about seasons above.)
3. Who are your traveling companions?
Got kids — mix cities and beaches. Got elderly parents? Avoid long train rides. Got just you and your sweety — do it all (but ask your sweety what they most want to do for extra brownies points).
4. Will you be driving or taking the train?
This is the number one question to clarify before you plan any of your itinerary. Don’t screw this up! We go over all these considerations in detail in our amazing Italy travel guides.
Top Spots in Northern Italy You Need on Your Radar
People love to hate Milan, but we love to love Milan. Not only does it have an airport you can fly into, but it also bursts with culture-so-cool, you’ll want to redo your entire house and your wardrobe after visiting.
Milan is what we call a real workin’ Italian city — not one of the spots that has more travelers than Italians, where someone is constantly bumping into you with a camera. Unless, of course, you happen to stumble upon a fashion photographer. In which case, work it.
What we dig in Milan: Well, it has an airport — so that’s a mega bonus. It’s a great starting point to ease into your trip. We love indulging in the tradition of pre-dinner aperitivo (Milan invented it), swanky design spaces, canal-side strolls (you didn’t think Italy only built ‘em in Venice, did you?), vintage clothing stores on every block, swanky design vibes, the Duomo, opera and people-watching during fashion week. Try visiting Milan without purchasing a voluminous printed skirt or a ridiculously tiny bag, when you see Milanese women pull ‘em off daily. I dare you.
Oh, and craft beer is a thing here now, too. If you’re into it, Milan has fallen hard for craft brews and does them well.
When to go: Anytime except August will do -– the Milanese usually take their summer vacations in August, so not only will it be sweltering, but some family run spots will be closed.
2. Turin (Torino)
Barely a two-hour drive from Milan and at the foot of the Alps, Turin doesn’t make it onto everyone’s itineraries. But it should be on yours.
It’s small-town-cozy. It was the first ever capital city of Italy. And it even birthed Nutella’s hazelnut paste.
If coffee-chocolate-combos, escaping big cities and a lil’ skiing is your thing, stay here.
What we dig about Turin: Sipping bicerin at the almost-ancient café’s + chocolate houses that were frequented by the likes of Dumas, Nietzsche and Puccini. The lack of large swaths of foreign travelers. Their religious belief in slow food, and taking your time with every meal. And of course, the killer skyline views with the Alps at your fingertips.
When to go: Turin shines in the winter. They’re famous for their truffle festival in November and they go all out to deck the town from head-to-toe in lights. Visit from November – January to soak up it’s wintery wonderland in all its glory.
We love that Bologna is one of the nicest cities you’ll ever visit, and it’s barely on anyone’s radar. We also love that Bologna has an airport, which means you can fly from Paris, Barcelona or Prague and be in a small, perfect, compact, beautiful city within a few hours, no cars, no train, no hassles.
What we dig in Bologna: The food. Yes, it’s worth to travel to Bologna just to eat. One of the most famous restaurateurs in all of Italy, Massimo Bottura, also happens to run one of the 50 top restaurants on the planet here. So while it’s unlikely you’ll score a reservation at his place, you’re likely to find dozens of other excellent-write-home-about-these places right inside Bologna.
When to go: Anytime of the year, but August would be the most dud month, because it’s not near any water and the locals will be. We vote Bologna as a perfect in the winter season, because there’s plenty to do in the foul weather, and plenty of places nearby.
4. Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre is not a city, it’s an area, like saying “Lake Como”. Don’t try to book a hotel in the “Cinque Terre”.
An easy journey from Tuscany, Cinque Terre is made up of five main villages: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. They’re all connected by a short train ride, and they’re super-duper close to each other.
Cinque Terre is where you end up sitting on stone steps at the marina, drinking home-brewed vino out of plastic cups. It’s where pretty pastels smack you in the face.
What we dig in Cinque Terre: One-street villages. Winding stone staircases. Clear, warm water you can snorkel in. Hiking between the villages (the trails are super famous). And enjoying a glass of sciacchetrà (a local specialty) + aperitivo while staring at the ocean and pink hillside houses, stacked like lego at sunset. Cinque Terre is where you go to slow the eff down.
When to go: Anytime besides November to Easter. This is a seaside location and best enjoyed it when the weather is good and the water is for swimming. Now, I can hear the comments already saying “but I love November in Manarola”. The reality is Cinque Terre is truly a seasonal place. Not all services operate all year.
We’re Cinque Terre experts. Travel to the Cinque Terre (and have more fun) using our city guide or book one of our private Cinque Terre tours.
Portofino is where celebrities come to vacay. Think the Clooneys, Madonna, Giorgio Armani, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. If they don’t own a gorgeous villa, they’ll be sipping Dom Perignon on a friend’s superyacht bobbing in the harbor.
It’s the prettiest village on the Italian Riviera and it’s teeny-tiny. Take the ferry over for a day trip, or if you wanna treat yourself, splurge on a night at the famous Belmond Hotel Splendido (AKA the “best hotel in the world”).
What we dig in Portofino: People-watching in the piazzetta, boutique shopping, pesto-laden focaccia and feeling like we’re on a movie set. Biking through lush, winding paths to hidden beach coves. Taking in the castello and century-old buildings tucked away neatly up in the hills, if you’re willing to trek for the 360° seascape. And the view of this crescent-shaped village when you pull up into the marina is pinch-me-is-this-real kinda stuff. Here’s more info on what to do in Portofino.
When to go: Anytime except December-February, unless you’re cool with a sprinkle of snow and slippery roads. Portofino comes alive in its warmer months, and March, April and May is when this seaside village wakes up.
This is the city we love to love, and everyone else does too. You can walk the entire historical centre in a day or two, but you could spend months just trying to try every restaurant. Florence is doubly fab because it’s a breezy drive to Tuscany, and a quick train nearby Cinque Terre or Pisa.
What we dig in Florence: Tuscan food will knock your sandals off. It’s famed for its cuisine and they take it seriously. Hearty pastas with wild boar sauce, peppery extra virgin olive oil, fennel-spiced salami, and famous Fiorentina steak. And when you’re not napping post-pasta, we recommend strolling (and kissing your sweetie) on bridges, vintage shopping in the Oltrarno neighborhood and driving vintage Fiats through the Tuscan countryside. Oh, and the only thing we’ll ever wait in line for is the Duomo (walk the 463 stairs to the top of Brunelleschi‘s “La Cupola”). More things to do in Florence here.
When to go: Anytime except August. Florence can be stiflingly hot and humid then, and lots of establishments shut down completely for weeks as Italians head to the coast for their holidays. You should do that too.
If you’re stumped trying to choose between staying in Bellagio or Varenna when visiting Lake Como, we give Varenna our air kiss of approval. She doles out romance in the form of majestic old villas with sweeping gardens, yellow hotels in olive groves and quiet, medieval lanes for long strolls.
She’s easiest to get to via train from Milan, and it’s way too pretty to argue with your travel pal once you’re there, or be stressed about much. It’s just that zen.
What we dig in Varenna: Monasteries-turned-villas like Villa Monastero, where botanical gardens overlook the lake. Marble paths at the foot of the water (seriously). The weirdly wonderfully milky river, Fiumelatte. Prosciutto and parmesan from farms owned by local families. And if you want to make the most of your stay, it’s the best base for hiking through the wild Gringe Range. Or, dining at the top of Varenna will do the trick too, if you only brought pretty shoes in your carry-on.
When to go: Travel during May-October. It’s warmest and at its best when you can enjoy being outside. Lakeside dips and evening aperitivo here shouldn’t be done in frigid weather.
Often overshadowed by neighboring Venice, Trieste is a little-known secret most travelers don’t know about. It’s 1.5 hours from Venice, but far away from other Italian cities. It’s a port tucked inside the Slovenian border, and a hop away from Hungary and Croatia.
Trieste is the kind of place where an itinerary would be useless. Where you loiter without a plan. No one’s trying to seduce you to go anywhere, it’s just a charming little town going about its business. In fact, a lot of Italians have never even been here, because it’s out of the way.
What we dig in Trieste: Its rich, layered history that left a mark. It’s a frontier city; over the years, it’s been owned or occupied by the Romans, Habsburgs, Mussolini’s regime, Germans and Allied Forces. The result? Viennese architecture and coffee houses (ask for a caffé latte, instead of cappuccino). Presnitz, a chestnut pastry recipe created by Italians and Central Europeans. Germanically symmetrical roads. Serbian Orthodox churches. It’s a rare tangle of architectural and ethnic influences. It kinda looks like Budapest, Prague and Venice had a baby. Beautifully weird and haunting.
When to go: Anytime except August and December. The Triestini take their vacay during those months, so most places won’t be open then. July is the hottest month here. If you want to visit while it’s warm and not super busy, September is a good bet.
This list would be incomplete without telling you where Italian urbanites escape to on winter weekends: traditional ski towns like Courmayeur. It’s less than two hours from both Turin and Geneva, panini-ed between Mont Blanc in Italy and Chamonix in France (just 22 km away).
What we dig in Courmayeur: The powder, obvi. And this town sees Italians from Milan and Turin pull in on the weekends in droves, but they aren’t always there to ski – so the mountains are all yours. When you’ve hung up your ski boots, hang out on pretty Via Roma, where you’ll find gorgeous clothes in little boutiques and cozy cocktail bars perfect for people-watching. Restaurants here are ridiculously good. Try to ski in the morning, because Courmayeur is basically the spiritual home of the long lunch. You wanna make time for it.
When to go: Skiing here is fab from November-March. Busiest in December, but gorgeously festive if you’re spending your Christmas skiing with family.
Venice is really one of the most magical places on earth, a gorgeously improbably place where there are canals instead of streets and gondolas instead of cars. Despite being tiny compared to places like Rome and Florence, it makes it that much more manageable in terms of sights and travel time. That’s probably why the city’s nickname is La Serenissima, or “The Most Serene”.
What we dig in Venice: Prosecco n’ cichetti (traditional Venetian snacks) combos in taverns. Wine for under two euros in quiet side streets. Outdoor music and bustling food and fashion markets. Ancient book stores that stock books in bathtubs. Kayaking the canals. Of course, Piazza San Marco and Ponte De Rialto at sunset. And gondola rides might sound corny or tourist-trappy, but if you’re ever gonna do one, it should be in Venice.
When to go: March-July is great to visit when the weather is mild or warm, and Venice plays host to tons of festivals during those months. Avoid October-January, because that’s high water season.
So, which of these top 10 spots in Northern Italy can you see yourself circling on the boot?
Share with us in the comments! Ask us all your questions. We’re an espresso-fueled team, we can handle it. And, we’re wanderlust enablers. Whatever we can do to help you make your trip easy-peasy.
Want to know more about on travelling northern Italy? These links might help:
- Gigi Guides: The Complete Cinque Terre Guide
- Gigi Guides: The Complete Florence Guide
- Gigi Guides: The Complete Venice Guide
- Italian Fix Tour: Discover Cinque Terre
- Italian Fix Tours in Florence
- Italian Fix Tours in Cinque Terre