Check out this guide to the best things to see in Monza for a fantastic day trip from Milan. You’ll find a grandiose Royal Villa, a magnificent park and an alluring historic centre.
For many, Monza is just synonymous with the Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix, but trust me, there are some fabulous attractions to explore beyond car races. Located just a 10 minutes’ train ride from Milan, Monza is a charming town on the banks of the Lambro river brimming with historical sites and splendid landmarks.
Monza was one of the capitals of the Lombard Kingdom in the 6th century and throughout the centuries the city hosted many royals families and illustrious historic figures, including Napoleon and the Royal House of Savoy.
So, here’s how I spent a day in Monza, between lovely walks in nature and a delightful visit to the city’s major sights.
The Royal Villa of Monza
I started my day in Monza with a visit to the impressive Royal Villa, which is undoubtedly the city’s main symbol. Back when Lombardy was part of the Austrian Empire, Empress Maria Theresa commissioned the construction of this grandiose estate as a summer residence for her son Ferdinand. She chose Monza because of the good climate and its strategic position on the road between Milan and Vienna.
The villa was designed by the royal architect Giuseppe Piermarini, who also planned Milan’s La Scala Theater, and boasts a horseshoe structure in neoclassical style. After the unification of Italy in 1861, the estate passed to King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of the Royal House of Savoy. They thoroughly refurbished the villa by introducing major improvements such as electricity and hot water and lived there up to 1900 when Umberto was murdered.
During the guided tour, I visited the private apartments of Umberto and Margherita on the first floor. The rooms are exquisitely decorated with beautiful frescoed ceilings, sumptuous chandeliers, walls covered in silk and inlaid wood flooring. Unfortunately, though, they appear pretty bare since most furnishings had been moved to the Quirinale Palace in Rome after Umberto’s death. The guide shared lots of interesting stories and anecdotes about the occupants, such as the numbered closets of Queen Margherita and the secret passageway that Umberto used to reach his mistress (typical, right?).
The villa is surrounded by royal gardens that feature a large variety of centuries-old trees, as well as lawns, grottos, lakes and even a small Doric temple. Before leaving, I took a look at the charming rose garden adjacent to the Villa. The best time to visit it is right between May and June when it’s covered in multicolored flowers.
You can visit the villa with a guided tour, advanced booking is required. All details are available on the Reggia di Monza website.
A delightful stroll around Monza Park
The Royal Villa is located right next to Monza Park, the city’s huge green lung. Covering an area of over 700 hectares and surrounded by 14 km of walls, this is one of Europe’s largest enclosed parks. Napoleon’s stepson Eugène de Beauharnais (who took possession of the villa in 1805) established the park as a hunting reserve and a model farm, and today you can find splendid walking trails, old farmhouses and the famous F1 Monza race track.
Strolling around the park’s shady paths on a hot summer day was pure bliss. There were families doing picnics and people busy in all sorts of activities, from running and cycling to exercising and practicing tai chi. What’s more, the park is crossed by the Lambro river, and during the walk I stumbled upon charming bridges and little waterfalls. Honestly, it felt like being in the middle of New York’s Central Park!
Monza Park is also sprinkled with old estates and some interesting works of art, like this giant table and chair by Italian sculptor Giancarlo Neri, which had been previously displayed at London’s Hampstead Park.
Monza Park is open every day between 7:00 am and 8:30 pm (till 7:00 pm in winter).
Top attractions in Monza historic center
After a good couple of hours inside the park, I took the underground passage from via Boccaccio to reach Monza historic center. I must say that the first thing that caught my eye was the elegance of this city, with its refined buildings and lovely little squares.
Whilst walking through Via Carlo Alberto, Monza’s main street, I often stopped to admire charming corners like Piazza San Pietro Martire and the adorable Via Bellani covered in plants.
Then I arrived at Piazza Roma, home to the Arengario, an arcaded red-bricked building that used to be the seat of the local town hall. My favorite viewpoint in this square is by the bench in front of a toyshop, where the view spans as far as the Cathedral in the distance.
I continued my exploration in Piazza Trento e Trieste, a large square developing around the memorial for those who died in WWI, and then took Via Italia, lined with shops and cafès. Turning right into Via Rossi, I caught glimpses of the Cathedral of Monza and was instantly smitten with its imposing striped marble facade. It’s absolutely gorgeous even if it’s half-covered with scaffolding due to renovation works.
The cathedral is the guardian of the city’s history and dates back to the back to the 6th century when Teodolinda, Queen of the Lombards, laid the foundation of the church as indicated by a dove that appeared to her in a dream. The interiors of the cathedral are lavishly decorated with stuccos and frescoes, including the beautiful Tree of Jesse by Giuseppe Arcimboldi.
Right underneath the church stands the Museum and Treasure of the Cathedral of Monza, displaying a precious collection of items that retrace fourteen centuries of art and history. Major pieces include Theodolinda’s precious Gospel cover, the Cross of Agilulfo covered in pearls and gems, the Sapphire Cup that Teodolinda used during her engagement ceremony with Agilulfo, and the opulent chalice used by Gian Galeazzo Visconti.
Afterwards, I walked through Via Lambro (lined with some beautiful medieval buildings) up to the ancient Tower of Teodolinda that leads to the banks of the Lambro river. This area is really lovely, with delightful footpaths that follow the course of the river and a charming historic bridge, Ponte dei Leoni, guarded by four marble lions.
One of the paths took me to an ancient mill dating from the 18th century, Colombo Mill, which was once used to grind wheat and produce oil. I read that ancient tools and machinery can still be seen inside the building, but unfortunately it was closed that day. However, I found this great piece of street art near the entrance:
Finally, on my way back to the car I passed by the pretty Piazza del Carrobiolo lined with the 13th-century Church of Carrobiolo, decorated with some valuable frescoes by Lombard artists, the convent of the Barnabites and the Villoresi Theatre, which dates from to the 1920s.
If you have time, take a look also at the Civic Museums of Monza inside the medieval House of the Humiliati, displaying a selection of paintings and sculptures linked to the history of Monza. There are also a number of interesting churches to visit in Monza, but unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to explore all of them all. These include the Church of San Maurizio and Santa Margherita (whose history is connected to the figure of the Nun of Monza narrated in Manzoni’s historical novel ‘The Bethroted’), the Church of Santa Maria in Strada, and the Church of San Pietro Martire.
When visiting the Cathedral, you’ll notice a chapel to the left of the main altar, hidden behind red velvet curtains. It’s the Chapel of Teodolinda, where the queen’s tomb is kept alongside two precious treasures. One is the incredible pictorial cycle narrating the life of Teodolinda, Queen of the Lombards, who founded the church and is revered by locals. Her sarcophagus can also be found inside the chapel.
Commissioned by the Visconti family in the mid-1400s, this artistic masterpiece consists of 45 scenes that develop from the top to the bottom across the chapel walls, creating a fascinating spiral. During the tour, I learned that Teodolinda, daughter of the duke of Bavaria, came to Lombardy to marry Autari, the king of the Lombards (they were a Germanic pagan tribe that was ruling that part of the peninsula). Only a year after the wedding, Autari died and she remarried to Agilulfo, duke of Turin.
Each scene is beautifully executed and rich in details, offering glimpses into court life at that time, from wedding banquets to fashion details. It felt like reading an illustrated book! Photos are not allowed inside the chapel, but you can see some images here.
After explaining the paintings, the guide carefully unlocked a box located on a little altar right in the middle of the chapel and there it was, the legendary Iron Crown! This is a tiny gold crown was once the symbol of royal power in Italy, used for the coronation of illustrious historical figures such as Charlemagne and Napoleon Bonaparte, who proclaimed the famous phrase “God gives it to me, beware whoever touches it” upon placing it on his head in 1805. What’s more, it is believed that the crown originally contained one of the nails used for the crucifixion of Christ. Let me say that it’s amazing to see a tiny little crown bearing such a huge meaning!
The Teodolinda Chapel can be visited with a guided tour only and tickets must be booked in advance, all details are available here.
- Monza can be easily explored on foot, here’s the here with all the attractions I visited
- There are regular trains connecting Milan to Monza in just about 10 minutes (check the train schedule here).
- If you are traveling by car, try to park along Via Giovanni Bocaccio right at one of the entrances to the park (it’s free and fills up pretty quickly, though). There is also a paid parking lot on Viale Cavriga (Park Monza), close to the entrance to the Royal Villa.
- If you’re looking for a sweet break, try the delicious gelato of here on Via Carlo Alberto. For lunch or dinner consider Joe Scarpetta or Uova & Farina (fantastic handmade pasta, dinner available only on Fridays and Saturdays).
- Here are a couple of major festivities that could be a good occasion to visit Monza: the Feast of San Giovanni on June 24th, which celebrates the city’s patron saint with historic parades and fireworks, and the Feast of the Holy Nail on the third Sunday of September, when the Iron Crown is carried in procession through the streets of Monza.
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Big hugs from Italy,