Here are some of the top reasons to visit Varese, a delightful town near Milan rich in artistic and natural beauties.

Varese

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 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.

Palazzo Estense in VareseToday Palazzo Estense is the seat of the local town hall, which makes visits difficult (you need to make a reservation by writing at promozione.territorio@comune.varese.it). 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 centre

Varese’s pedestrian city centre is really pretty, dotted with lively piazze and cozy cafés nestled under porticoed streets. One of my favourite spots is Broletto, a delightful XV-century courtyard that used to host the local grains market and today houses little shops and a café.

The Broletto courtyard in VareseCorso 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).

The Mera Arch in VareseAlso, look for Chiostro di Sant’Antonino, an historic convent that was converted into luxury apartments, and the super photographed terracotta window of Casa Perabò, a XV-century residential complex that belonged to one of Varese’s most influential families.

The interior of the Basilica of San Vittore in Varese4. 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 centre, 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.  

The Sacro Monte of VareseSacro 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 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 the 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.

Santa Caterina del Sasso on Lake MaggioreIf 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 travelling from that region.

If you are travelling by car, I suggest to leave it in the underground parking site at Le Corti shopping centre. It’s not cheap (€8 for a day) but it’s super handy and right at the entrance to the city centre, 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).

Useful tips

  • 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,

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30 Comments

Maggie 23 July 2019 at 18:33

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!

    Val 23 July 2019 at 20:34

    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 🙂

Elizabeth 24 July 2019 at 18:32

You’re right I hadn’t ever thought of visiting Varese, but your posts makes me want to visit! I love cities with a lot of parks and gardens, it’s a good way to have a break in nature while still having all the convenience and excitement of a city. Those villas and historic mansions would be really nice to see. I bet they are really impressive.

    Val 24 July 2019 at 21:09

    Yay, thanks Elizabeth!

Mijia Eggers 24 July 2019 at 19:19

I have been to Italy many times, almost every year. But I haven’t heard about this place. Indeed it is a perfect destination from Milan. I will for sure to check this hidden gem.

    Val 24 July 2019 at 21:08

    Fantastic Mijia, hope you’ll be able to visit Varese on one of your next trips to Italy 🙂

Jeremy 25 July 2019 at 07:45

Didn’t know this beautiful lake town is just 50km away from Milan ! Hope to visit this some day !
Palazzo Estense is beautiful but I still think Schönbrunn is much more grand !

    Val 8 August 2019 at 10:17

    So under the radar yet so beautiful!

Jas 26 July 2019 at 08:59

I’ll be honest, I’ve never even heard of Varese until now. It is absolutely beautiful though – both its nature scenes and gorgeous villas + architecture. The Golden Egg Bar has my attention. Are they known for a golden egg dish?

    Val 8 August 2019 at 10:20

    Ahahah, unfortunately no, “just” super yummy paninis!

Sandy N Vyjay 26 July 2019 at 09:01

Varese looks like a living Art Gallery of sorts. So beautiful as if it has emerged from the imagination of an artists mind. The enchanting streets, beautiful villas and the ethereal lakes look so riveting. Time seems to have stood still here. Would love wake up in this beautiful place in Italy someday! It would be like waking up to a dream.

    Val 8 August 2019 at 10:22

    Thanks so much Sandy, what amazing words 😀

Shane Prather 26 July 2019 at 16:32

The architecture of Varese is so unique and beautiful! I wish I would have had more time in Italy to explore beyond the touristy places. Reason to return!

    Val 8 August 2019 at 10:22

    This is the beauty of Italy – if you scratch the surface you find even more beautiful jewels!

Shreya Saha 26 July 2019 at 20:40

Varese is a pretty place that I would love to visit. You are right, I have never thought of visiting this place while in Milan. But after reading through your blog, and knowing about the architecture, this is something that I would not like to miss when in Milan. Thanks for sharing details about the lovely Versailles of Milan, plus thanks for the useful tips. I am surely going to order Apollo 11.

    Val 8 August 2019 at 10:23

    Yay, great choice Shreya! 😉

Archana Singh 27 July 2019 at 02:37

I’ll be frank with you, before reading your post I had not even heard about Varese. I love the offbeat parts pf Italy and this seems like my kind of place. The city centre and the streets look so quaint. But the one thing that tugged my heart is Lake Varese. I would love to cycle here.

    Val 8 August 2019 at 10:24

    And you can do it with a great day trip from Milan, how cool is that?!

Jackie 27 July 2019 at 23:23

Varese looks amazing! I love hearing about lesser-known places like this that are rich with history, culture, and art. I love all the gardens as well–and right on the water! Definitely putting Varese on my next trip to Italy. Thanks for the tip!

    Val 8 August 2019 at 10:27

    Thanks so much Jackie!

Aleksandr Popkov 28 July 2019 at 23:25

That looks like a place, where I would like to go around with my camera. I am not that much into architecture photography, but I would love to give it a try there on all the beautiful villas and city center.

    Val 8 August 2019 at 10:28

    Good point Aleksandr, there are some fantastic corners to photograph there 😀

Medha 29 July 2019 at 05:29

Milan is in my list of places to visit on my second trip to Italy (there are so many places I couldn’t make it to on the first trip) and this little day trip looks perfect! I love the sound of a garden city, the fact that is has so many gardens means it must be so green! I also love the charming city centre, such a lovely place to take a stroll, have a meal. Also, Palazzo Estense looks pretty cool. And the fact that there are lakes, adds icing to the cake! Varese is going in my list 🙂

    Val 8 August 2019 at 10:29

    That’s fantastic Medha, thank you! I hope you’ll be able to return to Italy soon!!

blair villanueva 29 July 2019 at 13:15

Based on your post, it seems that Varese is another romantic place to visit. I love the view overlooking the town, and even that view near the creek. Mesmerizing feeling.

    Val 8 August 2019 at 10:29

    Totally Blair 😉

Daniel 29 July 2019 at 14:42

I thought I did my fair share of exploring in Italy but I never heard of this place! The garden city reputation it has is quite interesting and rather descriptive. When I come back to Italy this is definitely one of the first places I’ll want to visit.

    Val 8 August 2019 at 10:29

    Thank you Daniel!

Desirée travels 2 August 2019 at 12:24

Wow! Varese looks absolutely beautiful! I shall definitely return to your blog later on, as I am 100% going to have to spend more time visiting Italy. The Italian kitchen and your wines has been one of my absolute favourites for ages, and only this June did I visit Italy first time. I only had 3 days in Milan, which went past way too quickly, and so now I am definitely planning on going back, seeing more – and of course just keep going on with regards to the eating and drinking. 😉 Gorgeous photos!

    Val 8 August 2019 at 10:31

    Let’s plan a proper Italian escape Desirée, 3 days in Milan are just a tiny taste of the amazing things that my country has to offer. Seriously, get in touch when you’re planning to return and I’ll be happy to help with the itinerary 🙂

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Ciao! I’m Val

Ciao! I’m Val

Ciao! I'm Valentina, an Italian blogger with a huge passion for my country, its culture and traditions. My Italian Diaries is the online space where I share my expert knowledge of itineraries, activities and off-the-beaten path places to help you experience the best of Italy like a local.

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