Here are some of the top reasons to visit Varese, a delightful town near Milan rich in artistic and natural beauties.
I guess not many of you have ever thought of visiting Varese while in Milan, right? Well, you might want to rethink this and add Varese to your travel list, because this relatively unsung jewel near lake Maggiore will steal your heart.
Here are the 6 reasons why I think you should organize a trip to Varese when you are in Milan.
1. The “Garden City”
Varese has been dubbed the “Garden City” because of the numerous parks and gardens of all shapes and sizes that adorn the town with their well-manicured bushes and flower beds. These were commissioned in the past by noble families for their private mansions and today they are open to the public.
One of the most impressive parks in town is that of Palazzo Estense, dominated by a huge fountain that in the summer is the protagonist of a “sound and lights” show.
2. Milan’s little Versailles
Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi once described Varese as Milan’s little Versailles while referring to the magnificent Palazzo Estense. This palace was built in the XVIII century for Francesco III d’Este, the Duke of Modena, who was so impressed by the beauty of Varese that he wanted it as one of his feuds. Apparently he had Schönbrunn, the summer residence of the Habsburg family, in mind when planning this palace, so it’s no surprise that the place is truly impressive.
Today Palazzo Estense is the seat of the local town hall, which makes visits difficult (you need to make a reservation by writing at firstname.lastname@example.org). You can still admire the palace from the outside, though and explore its beautiful gardens. I suggest not to miss he view over the palace from the Belvedere hill, it’s truly impressive!
3. A charming city center
Varese’s pedestrian city center is really pretty, dotted with lively piazze and cozy cafés nestled under porticoed streets. One of my favorite spots is Broletto, a delightful XV-century courtyard that used to host the local grains market and today houses little shops and a café.
Corso Matteotti is Varese’s main street and leads to some of the top sights in town, such as the Mera Arch that connects the charming Piazza Podestà to Piazza San Vittore, where the Basilica of San Vittore and its imposing bell tower stand. Just next to the bell tower is the Baptistery of San Giuseppe, the most ancient monument of Varese, dating back to the XII century and preserving some stunning frescoes (unfortunately though it’s open only on Wednesdays, Fridays and the second Sunday of the month).
Also, look for Chiostro di Sant’Antonino, a historic convent that was converted into luxury apartments, and the super photographed terracotta window of Casa Perabò, a 15th-century residential complex that belonged to one of Varese’s most influential families.
4. Beautiful villas
There are some pretty amazing villas in Varese that used to be the home of aristocratic families and now are open to the public. One of these is the splendid Villa Panza, sitting on top of a hill and opening up onto a fantastic 30,000 sqm Italian garden. The villa was built in the XVIII century as the noble mansion of a Marquis to host social events and today houses a XX century American art collection.
Next door you’ll find Ville Ponti, a complex of two elegant villas immersed in a huge park. Nowadays they are used as an event and congress center. Other historic mansions not to miss are Villa Toepliz and the Masnago Castle, just 2 km from the city center, whose unpretentious exterior hides beautiful frescoes dating back to the XIV century. The castle is also home to the Civic Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.
5. A sacred mountain
One of the top attractions in Varese is its sacred mountain called Sacro Monte di Varese. It’s one of the 9 holy mounts scattered around Lombardy and Piedmont that have been included in the Unesco World Heritage Site list. Basically, these are mountainside cobbled paths that are dotted with elaborate chapels depicting Biblical scenes and culminate in a sanctuary. They were created between the XVI and XVII centuries as places of pilgrimage and today they continue to attract both devotees and lovers of hiking in the unspoiled nature.
Sacro Monte di Varese sits in the heart of Campo dei Fiori national park, so expect vast landscapes with amazing lake views and birds singing in the background. You could spend a half-day here doing the holy path and exploring the little village of Santa Maria del Monte that sits at the end of the trail. The path is always open and the entrance is free!
6. Fantastic lakes
The area around Varese is renowned for its beautiful lakes, with the closest one being Lake Varese, just 6 km from the city center. It’s lined with picturesque villages and can be explored using the well-marked cycle path. The lake is not suitable for swimming, but it’s still a great place to chill out and enjoy the natural landscape and mountain views.
The pearl of the area around Varese is Lake Maggiore, the second largest body of water in Italy after Lake Garda. It’s immersed in a beautiful landscape of mountains and hills and surrounded by some fantastic places to explore, including impressive castles, quaint villages and the fascinating archipelago of the Borromean Islands.
If off-the-beaten-path places are your thing, then you should head to Lake Ghirla, a picturesque body of water near the Swiss border surrounded by a pristine landscape, or Lake Monate which is perfect for a refreshing swim in these hot summer days.
How to get to Varese
Varese is a great day trip from Milan, being only 50 km away from it. There are several trains connecting the two cities from Milan Porta Garibaldi Passante station in just about an hour. Varese is also pretty close to the border with Switzerland, so it could be a great weekend idea for those traveling from that region.
If you are traveling by car, I suggest to leave it in the underground parking site at Le Corti shopping center. It’s not cheap (€8 for a day) but it’s super handy and right at the entrance to the city center, where you can also catch the bus to Sacro Monte di Varese.
The city is quite compact and you can easily visit all the main sights on foot. In any case, there is a great local network of buses available. Tickets cost €1.40 and can be bought at any tabaccheria or directly on board (have the correct amount at hand, though).
- A must when you are in Varese is the aperitivo ritual at Da Pirola cafè. Order an Apollo 11, their signature pink cocktail named after the historic moon landing. There are also bottles on sale if you are looking for a special gift.
- Another local delicacy to try is the buosino made at Pasticceria Buosi, an explosive mix of hot chocolate and coffee, topped with frothy milk and grains of dark chocolate and served with a chocolate teaspoon.
- Good places to eat in Varese include the historical Golden Egg Bar and Osteria di Piazza Litta, but if you are planning a romantic meal you should consider Al Borducan, in the fascinating village of Santa Maria del Monte
Until next time,
I think you just let the secret out! This place is absolutely gorgeous and doesn’t look anywhere nearly as crowded as the more popular Italian cities. The town center is just gorgeous, I love the architecture. I’m visiting Milan soon and this looks like the perfect day trip outside of the busy city. So glad I found your blog!
Thank you Maggie! I’m trying to encourage people to explore more of Italy beyond the usual suspects and Varese is such a good example of beautiful, off-the-beaten-path places that deserve more attention 🙂