In this article I share a list of the prettiest hidden gems to visit in Lombardy that travelers often miss.
I’ve been recently writing down all the places I want to explore or revisit in my region, Lombardy, as soon as we are allowed to travel again. What follows is a list of those off-the-beaten-path places that travelers too often overlook but are well worth a visit. From cultural attractions to quaint villages and rural idylls, Lombardy has charms aplenty.
The vineyards of San Colombano al Lambro
Did you know that there’s a wine district right in the province of Milan? It’s called San Colombano al Lambro and is Milan’s only wine-producing region. What’s more, the excellent red and white wines bottled here received the DOC mark in 1984. The village of San Colombano itself is charming and forms part of a special itinerary called “The Road of San Colombano Wine and the Food”, which connects Milan to Lodi by passing through beautiful hamlets brimming with history, art, as well as food and wine delights. Check out this cool video on the wine of Milan.
Fun fact: the logo of the local Wine Consortium is a religious man holding a bunch of red grapes, as tradition has it that it was an Irish missionary who started winemaking in San Colombano in the 6th century after converting the Barbarians to Christianity and the cultivation of vines!
Livigno, Lombardy’s “Little Tibet”
Livigno is the kind of place to go to when feeling the need for a breath of fresh air and a full immersion in nature – especially on those oppressively hot summer days. Hidden away in the Italian Alps, at 1816 meters above sea level, Livigno is a beautiful town surrounded by pristine forests and spectacular snow-capped mountains. It’s often nicknamed the “Little Tibet of Lombardy” because of its remoteness and the benefits that a trip there can produce on one’s mind and spirit. How come I’ve never thought of visiting Livigno before, I wonder!
Despite being a popular ski resort, it has lots to do for non-skiers like me, from trekking excursions along beautiful mountain trails and water sports on the lake to crazy tax-free shopping (Livigno enjoys the status of free area and is therefore exempt from VAT tax!). There’s also a popular wellness center in town called Aquagrande, with a number of swimming pools and spa areas for a little pampering.
Nesso and its beautiful gorge
Lake Como is dotted with tens of beautiful villages, but Nesso is truly unique. This sleepy village about twenty minutes’ drive from glamorous Bellagio is home to a striking natural gorge called Orrido di Nesso, with a waterfall flowing into the lake that even Leonardo Da Vinci mentioned in one of his diaries.
The best views are from Ponte della Civera, a cute stone bridge accessible via some 300 steps downhill. All around the village are picturesque alleys to explore, including sections of Strada Regia, an ancient road built by the Romans that connects Como to Bellagio.
Morimondo is a favorite destination of Milanese people looking to escape to the countryside over the weekend, as it’s only a handful of kilometers from Lombardy’s capital. A group of Cistercian monks founded the village back in the 12th century and built a splendid Gothic-style monastery that continues to be an attractive landmark in the province of Milan.
The village seems to be frozen in time, with picturesque alleys, lovely cottages, and green fields. All around are various walking and cycling paths leading to the fields and the farms that dot the area. One of the favorite pastimes in this idyllic corner of Lombard countryside is laying on the grass with a local artisanal beer in hand while soaking up the sun… I’m so looking forward to that!
Soncino, the walled village
Grandiose defensive walls welcome visitors to Soncino, a beautiful village sitting at the center of the Lombard plain. The main attraction here is the magnificent fortress built by the Sforza family in the 15th century, which is considered one of the finest examples of military architecture in Lombardy. Other interesting things to see in Soncino are the frescoed interiors of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, just outside the walls, the Azzanelli palace that was built by a local merchant family, and a museum dedicated to silk housed in a former spinning mill.
Soncino is also renowned for its past as a flourishing printing center thanks to the work of a Jewish family who came from Germany in the 15th century. Here they printed the first Jewish Bible complete with accents and vowels, and traces of their precious contribution can still be seen at the local Printing Museum.
Vigevano and its Renaissance jewels
The elegant town of Vigevano is one of those hidden gems that should be on the list of any traveler exploring Lombardy. It’s only a thirty minutes’ train ride from Milan, yet it feels like stepping into a different world. The historic center develops around what’s considered to be one of Italy’s most stunning piazzas, a real jewel of the Italian Renaissance lined with charming porticoes and home to bubbling cafés and shops. From the piazza once can access the magnificent Sforza Castle, one of Europe’s largest fortified complexes (just to give you an idea, it’s about twice the size of Buckingham Palace).
Interestingly, Vigevano played a major role in the development of the shoemaking industry, as seen at the International Shoe Museum that displays a vast collection of shoes of all shapes and models, including some unique pieces worn by popes and celebrities.
READ MORE: “5 reasons to visit Vigevano”
About 25 km west of Milan, Cassinetta di Lugagnano is a lovely village on the banks of the Naviglio Grande, immersed in the Ticino Park. Such an idyllic location made it a popular destination for noble Milanese families, who used to escape here in the summer attracted by the peaceful, bucolic atmosphere of the village.
Today the villas of these noble families represent the key heritage of Cassinetta di Lugagnano, with some of the most beautiful including Villa Negri (the mansion of Gaetano Negri, one of the first mayors of Milan), the neoclassical Villa Visconti Castiglione Maineri with splendid English and Italian gardens, and Villa Nai Bossi Poroli. Most of these mansions are private property but still, it’s nice to walk around and catch glimpses of them – even from the water, aboard one of the boats that take visitors along the Naviglio Grande.
Toscolano Maderno, town of fishing and paper mills
Toscolano Maderno is a lovely town of ancient origins located on Lake Garda’s western shores, consisting of two distinct centers ideally divided by a river. One, Toscolano, has been a major paper production center since the Middle Ages, while the other, Maderno, is more geared towards tourism, with a quaint little harbor and a particularly renowned lake cuisine.
One of the must-sees in Toscolano Maderno is the Paper Mill Valley (yep, just like the one in Amalfi …), with a series of delightful walking paths and a museum located in an old paper production complex. There are also some really pretty beaches in town, including one specially designed for dogs called Bau Beach.
Zavattarello and the Oltrepò Pavese
Zavattarello is an interesting historic hamlet immersed in Oltrepò Pavese, a beautiful corner of Lombardy that combines two major Italian attractions: excellent wines and beautiful sceneries. A grandiose castle towers majestically over the village, offering stunning views of the surrounding countryside from its terraces. Also, a curious thing to see is the local cemetery with its unique octagonal shape.
A trip to Zavattarello can be easily combined with a visit to some local wineries and other pretty places like Fortunago, Varzi, and the mysterious – and quite isolated – Abbey of Sant’Alberto di Butrio to further explore this totally undiscovered side of the region.
READ MORE: “A wine tasting tour of Oltrepò Pavese”
Only half an hour’s drive from Mantova, in the valley of the Po River, Sabbioneta is a jewel of Renaissance architectural style and town planning. It was built in the 1550s, when Vespasiano Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, decided to create an “ideal city” based on the aesthetic and architectural canons of Rome. Solid walls enclose the village, creating the shape of a six-pointed star.
The oldest building in Sabbioneta is Palazzo Ducale, the former residence of the duke. Other interesting sights include Teatro all’Antica, the first example of a civic theater in Europe, Palazzo Giardino, the mansion built for the duke’s ‘delights and entertainment’, and the Jewish Quarter with its splendid synagogue.
Monte Isola, the island on Lake Iseo
Monte Isola is the largest lake island in Europe, located at the south end of Lake Iseo. It’s home to 11 adorable hamlets frozen in time, where cars are banished and locals still use naecc, the traditional tapered boats. Life is very much centered around fishing, with a particular focus on the artisanal production of boats and fishing nets, as well as a particular way of conserving the lake sardines that won the island the title of Slow Food Presidium.
Monte Isola can be explored by foot or bike using a 15km trail around the island. The main village is Siviano, which is also the departing point of ferries that connect the island to the mainland. At the top of the island (about 600 mt / 1,968 feet above sea level) there’s a sanctuary that offers stunning 360° views over the lake.
Cornello dei Tasso, birthplace of the postal system
Cornello dei Tasso is a tiny medieval hamlet nestled on a rocky spur amidst Val Brembana, in the province of Bergamo. It can be accessed only by foot and is extremely well preserved, with charming cobbled streets and porticoed alleys. It’s here that the modern postal service was born back in the 14th century, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of the local Tasso family. Their story is well retraced at the local museum, where a letter sent in 1840 using the first stamp ever issued in the world is displayed.
In the village, there’s a popular trattoria that attracts both locals and visitors during the weekend and a little church with frescoed interiors that is worth visiting.
READ MORE: “The medieval hamlet of Cornello dei Tasso”
Another beautiful hamlet to visit in Val Camonica is Bienno, which stands high on a hill surrounded by lush mountains and beautiful hiking trails. Bienno is often dubbed as the village of blacksmiths, as it used to be a thriving center for the production of iron tools. The local Ethnographic Museum of Iron, Arts and Popular Traditions represents a precious testimony of the ancient iron forging tradition of Bienno, with an interesting collection of tools and finds related to the mining activity in the region, as well as examples of iron products.
The village itself looks really pretty, with a maze of alleys opening onto picturesque courtyards with flowery balconies, panoramic corners, and interesting historic buildings. There is also an ancient mill and interesting church with precious works of art.
Sirmione, the pearl of Lake Garda
Sirmione is an attractive spa town with a scenic location on a small peninsula that juts onto Lake Garda. An impressive fortress that seems to be floating on the water welcomes visitors, who come here for the beautiful – and completely pedestrian – center, the excellent thermal baths, and the lovely beaches.
Not to miss are the remains of the ancient mansion of Catullus, one of the largest Roman villas in northern Italy, while in summer Jamaica Beach, right on the tip of the peninsula, is a popular stretch of coast with large slabs of rock lapped by crystal-clear waters.
Bagolino is a picturesque stone hamlet in the province of Brescia, particularly renowned for a type of local cheese called Bagoss that is produced only there. The narrow streets and cobbled alleyways of its historical center lead to little corners of authentic beauty, like the parish Church of San Giorgio (often nicknamed the mountain cathedral) that preserves precious artworks by Tintoretto and Titian.
Bagolino is home to very special Carnival celebrations that scientists have classified as one of Italy’s most important ethnological discoveries over the last 200 years! The museum ‘Habitar in sta terra’ is the place to go to learn more about this and other local traditions and customs.
READ MORE: “A day trip to Brescia”
The walled village of Pizzighettone
Pizzighettone, in the province of Cremona, is another one of those places that seem to belong to another era, completely untouched by the madness of the modern world. It lies on the banks of the Adda River, surrounded by imposing medieval walls that constituted an impressive defensive complex back in the 16th century. About 2km long, these walls were built with an articulated sequence of over 90 interconnected rooms called casematte, once used as military lodging and storage.
Other attractions in Pizzighettone include the Mozza Tower, which is what remains of the ancient castle, and the parish church of San Bassiano with its splendid Romanesque facade. Not to miss is also the little Church of San Pietro located in the hamlet of La Gera, just across the river, which is completely covered in mosaics.
The monastery of Santa Caterina del Sasso
Santa Caterina del Sasso is undoubtedly one of the top sights on Lake Maggiore: a charming monastery perched on a rocky spur that overlooks the azure waters of the lake. It was founded in the 12th century by a merchant who wanted to spend the rest of his life in prayer and solitude after surviving a shipwreck. His mummified body is still preserved inside the church.
The monastery features three different chapels, each beautifully decorated with splendid frescoes. Externally there are some charming porticoes where visitors can admire stunning lake views.
A super hug from Italy,