20+ Best Towns & Cities to Visit in Northern Italy

Italy is such a beautiful and diverse country that seeing all its main attractions will take you quite a few trips. I should know as I’ve visited it 8 times to date and still have so many places unchecked on my bucket list.

So while this post lists more than 20 beautiful towns and cities to visit in Northern Italy, don’t take it as a challenge to visit them all in one go (I know it’s tempting!), rather plan your trips targeting one region at a time or grouping two of them if you’re traveling for a longer time.

Lake Como Region

The garden of Villa Monastero in Varenna, Italy
The beautiful garden of Villa Monastero in Varenna

01. Varenna

Varenna is a small, yet very picturesque destination on the famous Lake Como. It’s also a great location to stay overnight if you want to catch the Bernina Express panoramic train from Tirano to St. Moritz in the morning.

Since in my experience, Trenord Trains (the regional service in Northern Italy) often have delays, taking an earlier connection to Tirano (from where the Bernina leaves) can be a very good idea, but this will be harder to do if you leave from Milano, as most people do.

But getting back to Varenna, some of the highlights of any visit are La Passeggiata degli Innamorati – a lovely path along the lake, which in some spots is suspended directly above the water, the picturesque old port and Villa Monastero along with this incredible gardens, where you can spend more than one hour exploring.

Inside the garden of Villa Melzi in Belagio, Italy
Enjoying the lake views from Villa Meltzi’s garden, Bellagio

02. Bellagio

Nestled right at the junction where Lake Como splits into two branches, Bellagio is often referred to as the “Pearl of the Lake” and its popularity is inversely proportional to its rather tiny size. And yes, before you ask, the famous casino in Las Vegas was indeed named after it.

Apart from wandering on the charming streets, a trip to Belaggio should also include a visit to the gardens of Villa Melzi. They are quite vast and have amazing views of Lake Como (I could have stayed there forever!).

Como seen from above
My unique way of using the telescope to see Como from above 🙂

03. Como

Located at the southern tip of the lake, Como can either be a good start or the perfect ending to a ferry itinerary to Belaggio and Varenna.

While there, make sure you take the funicular up to Brunate for an amazing panorama over the lake and the town itself. There were also some telescopes up there that were free to use when I visited.

Another great thing to do is explore the grounds of Villa Olmo which are free to visit. The garden at the back is quite nice and less trafficked; I visited it in June and loved the many hydrangeas in bloom along the wall and under the trees.

Lake Garda Region

Sirmione Lake Garda
Scaligero Castle in Sirmione

04. Sirmione

Located on a peninsula protruding out onto Lake Garda, Sirmione is most famous for its Sinking Castle (officially known as Scaligero), which is a great example of medieval lakeside fortifications.

Apart from visiting the castle, other great things to do in Sirmione include walking along the lake promenades on either side of the town, visiting Grotto of Catullus, relaxing at Aquaria Thermal SPA and watching the sunset from Passeggiata delle Ricordanze Poetiche.

I also suggest you forget about any diet you might follow and indulge in as much gelato as you can: I found it to be tasty, cheap, and sold in large quantities (3 scoops were the equivalent of a small bowl!).

gelato in Sirmione
The amount of gelato you get in Sirmione is no joke!

Lastly, if you’re visiting during summer you can also spend a few hours at the beach as there are several to choose from. Though word of warning: beach here usually means more rocks than sand.

One thing to note is that Sirmione doesn’t have a train station, so reaching it is a little bit more complicated than in the case of other towns. I recommend reading my post on how to get to Sirmione for a detailed travel guide.

Malcesine Castle is one of the best things to do in Malcesine Lake Garda.
Malcesine viewed from the top of the Scaliger Castle’s main tower

05. Malcesine

Malcesine is another small town on Lake Garda, this time located further north. Like Sirmione, it also has a castle (also called Scaliger) and I recommend you visit it for its views over the lake and the town itself.

There are quite a few stairs involved to reach the top of its main tower and the last bit of the way (right where you emerge on the tower platform) is kind of hard to navigate, but it’s worth it, I promise.

If you’re visiting Malcesine for more than a few hours I also recommend you ride the cable car up to Mount Baldo. Not only do you get to admire Lake Garda from 1800m above, but the 2nd leg of the journey uses rotative cabins, so you’ll get a unique 360° perspective on your way up.

Other things to do while in Malcesine are walking on Via Lungolago lakeside promenade, hitting the beach, or seeing the shortest river in Italy (Aril), located in the nearby village of Cassone.

Limone Lake Garda
Limone sul Garda

06. Limone sul Garda

Located a stone’s throw away across from Malcesine (you can reach it by slow ferry in like 20 minutes) sits Limone sul Garda, known for its terraced lemon grooves.

You can visit one by following the signs on the floor towards Limonaia del Castel. The entry fee is just 2 euros, but make sure you have cash on you as you can’t pay by card.

Ciclopista del Garda, Limone sul Garda
Ciclopista del Garda

If you have enough time to spend in the town, I also recommend you walk on Ciclopista del Garda, a 1km long path near the border between Trentino – South Tyrol and Lombardy regions that runs along the mountains and partly above the lake (spoiler alert: the views are great!).

It took me around 35 – 40 minutes on foot to reach the point where the path is suspended above the lake and while it may look like it’s only made for bikes, pedestrians are also welcomed.

Best towns on Lake Garda: Riva
Riva del Garda

07. Riva del Garda

Riva is the northernmost town on Lake Garda and for this reason, it has the best mountain views. Among the best things to do here are: walking along the waterfront promenade, exploring the old town, hiking, taking the panoramic elevator to the ruins of Bastione di Riva, and doing watersports (windsurfing in particular).

Also, because Riva is located so far up north, you could even fit in your itinerary a nice day trip to the Dolomites and/or to the stunning Lake Braies, given that you spend at least one night in the town and you have a rental at your disposal.

Ligurian Coast Region

Portovenere, Italy
Portovenere in June

08. Portovenere

Located just below Cinque Terre, Portovenere is considered by many the 6th unofficial Terre. And with its colorful, picturesque houses and tiny alleys it certainly fits the bill as well.

The easiest way to visit Portovenere is by taking the Line 02 ferry that connects Levanto and La Spezia (this line also connects 4 of the Cinque Terre villages) or a direct boat trip from La Spezia. There’s also a bus service, but the road is quite winding, so I’m not really recommending it (more so if you have motion sickness).

Once you’re in Portovenere, you can wander around the town, explore the Church of San Pietro, or hike up to Doria Castle.

riomaggiore cinque terre

09. Riomagiore

The southernmost of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore is known for its colorful harbor and for having a more lively nightlife than the other villages.

You can get a good panorama of the harbor from the pier protecting it, however, you should be careful when doing so as the path ends when it reaches water level, so you’ll have to walk on the actual pier (which is made from boulders) to reach a good viewing spot.

manarola cinque terre italy

10. Manarola

With its narrow streets, pastel-colored buildings and extremely picturesque harbor, Manarola irrevocably stole my heart and quickly became my favorite Terre.

If you visit it, I highly suggest you try the Tri Colori bruschetta at Nessun Dorma restaurant. There’s usually a line outside it – they operate on a first-come first-served basis, but you can download their app (search for Nessun Dorma app on Google Play/Apple Store) to get a spot in line before reaching the restaurant, but the food and view are worth the waiting.

Those that don’t manage to enter, can still admire that iconic, postcard-perfect view of the village from other spots on the Manarola Overlook Viewpoint.

corniglia, cinque terre, italy

11. Corniglia

Corniglia is the only Cinque Terre village that doesn’t have water access (so you won’t be able to visit it by ferry or boat tour) as it’s located atop a hill.

To visit it you’ll have to climb quite a few flights of stairs or take the shuttle bus; for this reason, it’s usually a bit less crowded.

While in Corniglia, I recommend you go to Terrazza Panoramica Di Santa Maria (S. Maria Panoramic Terrace) to get the best view of the sea and the surrounding mountains. You can even spot Manarola from there on a clear day.

vernazza, cinque terre, italy
Vernazza seen from the path connecting it to Monterosso

12. Vernazza

Many people consider the tiny village Vernazza to be the most beautiful among the 5 Terres (for me it was 2nd place after Manarola, but only by a little) and the village certainly delivers.

From here you can also embark on the two hiking trails in the region that require a paid permit (the Cinque Terre Card): Monterosso – Vernazza and Vernazza – Corniglia. In fact, the viewpoint where the above photo was taken is located on the trail that links the village to Monterosso a Mare.

I actually wrote an entire post listing the best views in Cinque Terre, so if you want to find out more, I invite you to read it.

monterosso al mare cinque terre
The newer part of Monterosso

13. Monterosso a Mare

Monterosso a Mare is the largest and northernmost village in Cinque Terre and it’s divided into two distinct sections connected by a narrow tunnel.

One is the newer area that has the vibe of a small resort town and the other is the historic part village, which resembles a lot more the other 4 Terres.

If you also plan to hit the beach during your Cinque Terre trip, staying in Monterosso is best as it’s the only village that actually has a (large) beach.

However, be warned that the prices can be pretty high for sun lounges, umbrellas, and other things during the high season.

Best Italian coastal towns: Camogli

14. Camogli

Sitting in the shadow of its more famous neighbors, Cinque Terre and Portofino, Camogli is a bit of a hidden gem on the Ligurian coast.

Here you’ll find a long and wide pebbled beach, more than enough restaurants serving delicious food, the typical colorful Italian houses, and several trails to work a sweat if you desire so.

And while Camogli is in no way deserted, you’ll typically encounter fewer tourists and many more locals.

famous places in italy: portofino

15. Portofino

Initially a simple fishing village on the Ligurian coast, Portofino rose to fame in modern times as a retreat for Europe’s richest people. As a result, its tiny harbor often welcomes opulent yachts of all sizes, in striking contrast to the colorful historic buildings that line the shore (which in my opinion still steal the show!).

To take in the most breathtaking views of the idyllic harbor of Portofino, make your way to the vantage points of Terrazza San Giorgio and Castello Brown.

Also, if you don’t have a yacht of your own – mine was getting repainted at the time of my visit:)), know that you can easily reach Portofino by ferry from Santa Margherita Ligure.

Venetian Lagoon

Venice, Italy
Don’t be like me and wear long sleeves in Venice in July!

16. Venice

Honestly, Venice hardly needs an introduction. Famous all over the world, the city with no roads is equally unique as it’s popular with tourists.

But if its canals and incredible architecture (referred to as Venetian Gothic) are not enough reasons to make you want to visit it (they should though!), Venice is also known as the host of an annual Carnival celebration (typically held in February), during which participants wear elaborate costumes and masks.

No matter when you visit however, make sure not to miss St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, and the Rialto Bridge.

And while expensive, a gondola ride is also a nice way to sightsee the canals with your loved one or even your friends. More so if you take the time to learn about these oddly shaped boats and all the history and tradition behind them.

Travel hack: If you want to save some money on accommodation, stay in Mestre and take the train to Venice every day during your visit: it only takes a few minutes and there are lots of connections every day. It’s also quite cheap.

Burano, Venetian Lagoon
The colorful houses of Burano

17. Burano

Burano is a tiny (and I mean tiny!) island, part of the Venetian Lagoon that’s renowned for its vibrantly colored houses and rich heritage in lacemaking.

It is said that the bold colors of the buildings are a tradition dating back to when fishermen would paint their homes in bright colors to see them from a distance while at sea.

Burano can be easily reached from Venice by Vaporetto.

Murano glass demonstration
Attending a glassmaking demonstration at Vetreria Zanetti Murano

18. Murano

Murano is another small island located just north of Venice, known for its centuries-old glassmaking tradition (the famous Murano glass).

Here, visitors can witness the glassblowing process and admire delicate works of art at several factories across the island.

I watched such a demonstration at Vetreria Zanetti Murano, which is located very close to where the Vaporetto stops. During my visit it was free, but now they seem to have an attendance fee of 5 euros.

Other Northern Italy cities

The two leaning towers of Bologna
Asinelli and Garisenda: The leaning towers of Bologna

19. Bologna

When people hear the phrase “leaning tower” they often immediately associate it with Pisa, but Bologna is home to two leaning towers of its own, known as Asinelli and Garisenda.

These iconic structures are situated in the heart of the city, just a short distance from Piazza Maggiore, the main square.

Unfortunately, Garisenda, the shorter of the two towers, was recently closed off due to growing concerns about its stability. Authorities are aiming to start its restoration process in the near future, but this process is expected to last several years.

Also within the city center stands another pelicular landmark, the Basilica San Petronio, featuring its distinctive, partially completed facade.

Ponte di Castelvecchio in Verona, Italy
Ponte di Castelvecchio was my favorite bridge in Verona

20. Verona

While Verona is famously known as the setting for Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and attracts many visitors to Juliet’s balcony – a symbolic representation of love, the city has much more to offer than the iconic tale of these star-crossed lovers.

First and foremost, it’s worth noting that Verona has a remarkably well-preserved Roman amphitheater (Arena di Verona), which nowadays hosts concerts and various performances. For this reason, inside there are many plastic chairs (the type you’ll see in football stadiums) which I’ll have to admit is not the best look for such a historic landmark.

Then, in addition to exploring the charming streets and squares, I also recommend visiting several of the bridges spanning the Adige River, particularly the Ponte Pietra and Ponte di Castelvecchio (pictured above).

And if you’re feeling a bit adventurous, you can also hike up to Castel San Pietro, where you’ll be rewarded with amazing panoramic views of the city.

Duomo di Milano, Italy
Milano Doumo

21. Milan

While Milan is not everyone’s cup of tea with its fairly industrial look, I think the city is worth visiting for its impressive Doumo alone. It is the largest in Italy (if you exclude St. Peter’s Basilica which is located in Vatican City anyway) and it took approximately six centuries to build.

Aside from the Duomo, Milan has a few other attractions as well, like the Vittorio Emanuele II Shopping Gallery with its beautiful iron-and-glass rooftop, the Last Supper, the famous mural painted by Leonardo Da Vinci and Sforzesco Castle, a medieval fortress turned museum.

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