Brescia is one of the loveliest towns in Northern Italy and can be visited as a delightful day trip from Milan.
Among the best underrated towns in Northern Italy, Brescia is perhaps the one that impressed me the most so far. Often overshadowed by rockstar neighbors like Milan and Verona, Brescia features several great sights, including one of the largest archeological sites in northern Italy and the stunning Santa Giulia museum complex. Not to mention that it’s just a stone’s throw from the prestigious Franciacorta wine district and Lake Iseo.
A fascinating history
Brescia’s roots are Celtic, with the first settlement dating back to 1200 BC, but its fame began in 89 BC, when the town became a Roman colony and quickly grew into an important trading and manufacturing center. At that time the heart of Brescia was the Capitolium, a huge temple built by Emperor Vespasiano, whose remains still stand proudly in the heart of town. Honestly, I was so in awe at the sight of it that for a moment I thought I was in Rome! Then Brescia passed from the hands of several rulers, including Lombards, and Venetians, until the city’s uprising against the decision to hand it over to Austria in 1848, which earned it the nickname of Italy’s Lioness.
One of the top sites to visit in Brescia is the Brixia Archeological Park (Brixia was the ancient name of Brescia), which contains the remains of a number of spectacular Roman constructions like the Forum, the Republican Temple and the Theater. Just a few steps from the archeological park stands the Santa Giulia Museum, a spectacular 14,000-sqm exhibition space that retraces the history of Brescia from the prehistoric age to modern times.
The museum is set in an impressive monastic complex founded by the Lombard king Desiderius on the site of a Roman domus. I spent a good couple of hours browsing the incredible pieces on display here, from bronze masks and iron swords to the beautiful mosaics of the ancient Roman house and the splendid frescoes in the Nun’s Choir.
Not to miss is also the cross of King Desiderius, a stunning 9th-century gold crossed covered in precious gems
Archeological remains can also be seen under Palazzo Martinengo, an aristocratic mansion whose rather austere façade hides layers of construction from different ages that are testament to the incredible archeological stratifications of Brescia.
A town with two cathedrals
When exploring an Italian city, a visit to the local Duomo is undoubtedly top of the list, but Brescia takes this ritual to another level, with Piazza Paolo VI hosting not one but two cathedrals! They sit right next to each other and are equally stunning despite being completely different.
The Old Cathedral was built in the XI century erected in place of the paleochristian basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore which was destroyed by a fire in 1097. It boasts a unique round shape with an overlapping cylinders construction. The construction of the New Cathedral began in 1604 and took over 200 years to be completed. It features a splendid marble facade and the third-highest dome in Italy (80 meters) after San Pietro in Rome and Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.
Splendid squares and charming back streets
Brescia boasts a number of really beautiful squares that were once the center of both the religious and political life and today are the preferred meeting place for the locals. The main square is Piazza Paolo VI, which is home to some of the most important historical buildings in Brescia. One of these is Broletto, the old public palace and seat of the city magistrates. The courtyard is really lovely, but what caught my attention were the grotesque faces decorating the keystones of one of the palaces…so weird!
A short walk through Via Bevilacqua leads to Piazza Vittoria, inaugurated by Mussolini in 1932 and dominated by the huge white and ochre striped Palazzo delle Poste and the 60-meter-high Torrione, one of Italy’s first skyscrapers designed in the early 1930s to host the National Insurance Institute. This piazza is the departing point of the annual Mille Miglia, an historic competition of vintage cars.
Piazza della Loggia was built under the Venetians, who ruled over Brescia for a very long time between 1426 to 1796 and wanted to build a new square to express the power of the local government. It was designed following the Renaissance canons of perfect symmetry. It is lined with stunning buildings, including an astronomical clock similar to the one in St Mark’s square in Venice and the magnificent Palazzo della Loggia, which is still the seat of the local government.
The square I liked the most, though, is Piazza del Mercato, which has been the site of the local market since 1428 and now is lined with lovely cafés and restaurants – the perfect spot to enjoy an al-fresco lunch in warm months (try Osteria Da Ceco)!
In Brescia even the back streets are lovely, with charming cobbled paths and glimpses of flowery balconies and pastel-colored facades. I mean, look at this:
Other unique places to visit in Brescia
The list of things to see in Brescia is pretty long and includes the spectacular Teatro Grande, an architectural gem that dates back to the XVI century. This is the place where Puccini’s Madame Butterfly obtained its first success after an unsuccessful debut in Milan and that event is still remembered with a special room displaying some memorabilia of that performance. I was only able to see the foyer, but guys, I was completely in awe, look:
I also managed to squeeze a quick visit to the Church of Santa Maria della Carità, with its sumptuous Baroque interiors, beautiful tiled flooring and a scale model of the Holy House of the Madonna of Loreto in Le Marche behind the major altar.
One of the things I really wanted to see was the Mille Miglia Museum but I was completely short of time and had to skip it. If you don’t know it, Brescia is the birthplace of the historic Mille Miglia car race, which takes place every year in spring. It’s housed in the former Monastery of Sant’Eufemia (about 4km from the city center) and boasts a fantastic collection of legendary cars that took part in the race between 1927 and 1957.
The castle of Brescia
The walk back to the castle, where I left my car, was uphill and took me through the lovely Piazzetta Tito Speri and Contrada Sant’Urbano, with delightful views of the city spreading down below me. The castle is perched at the top of the Cidneo hill and is considered to be one of the largest and best-preserved fortresses of Northern Italy. It was erected in the Middle Ages and played a central role in the city’s history until the early years of the XX century, when it was purchased by the local municipality and opened to the public.
The visit involves a few climbs and flights of steps, but overall it’s well worth it. Entrance is free and you only pay to visit the Ancient Arms Museum (with over 500 weapons on display, making it one of the most important collections in Europe) and the Risorgimento Museum (retracing the history of the Italian Risorgimento, with a particular focus on the rise against the Austrians). Inside the castle there is also a large municipal park with great views over the cities and lots of lovely spots to relax under the shade of trees.
- You can reach Brescia comfortably by train from Milan (about 45 minutes) and Pavia (1.5 hour)
- If you prefer to drive to Brescia, I suggest to leave the car in the free parking lot by the castle like I did, it’s a quick stroll downhill to the center
- Do not leave Brescia without trying a “Pirlo” the local version of “Spritz” at Bar Desiderio in Piazza Loggia or Storico Café in Piazza Paolo VI
- Forget high hills or wedges and wear comfortable shoes with thick flat sole to face Brescia’s cobbled streets – your feet will thank you!
- You can find information about Brescia and the events taking place in town on the Brescia Tourism website.
Ciao for now