Milan and the Lakes (Maggiore, Como, Orta)
In Lago Maggiore area, I recommend to spend the night in Stresa as it’s the closest town to the amazing Borromean islands. Many companies link the islands to Stresa by boat. You can hire a private water taxi (expensive, but no timetables to stick to) or use the scheduled connections (very affordable) offered by many companies. I took the first morning shuttle boat of a company named Lake Tours, departing from Stresa at 9:15. Their boats first stops at Isola Madre, then Isola dei Pescatori and last in Isola Bella before heading back to Stresa. They leave from each island to the next one on an hourly basis (every 30 minutes in high season) and adult ticket for the 3 islands costs 15 euros. Each of those 3 wonderful islands has a very strong identity and are all totally worth the visit! Isola Madre for the exotic gardens, Isola dei Pescatori for its picturesque village and Isola Bella for the magnificent palace.
The only downside with Lake Tours is that for the first island (Isola Madre) you will need to hurry if you want to catch the 10 am boat for the next island, or wait until 11 am… You can easily spend 1h30 in its beautiful gardens (that’s clearly not the problem) but the boat and next islands may be more crowded if you leave later. Then one hour for Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Bella is enough. When arriving to Isola Madre, buy the combined ticket for Isola Madre and Isola Bella (both have an entrance fee). On Isola dei Pescatori you can have lunch, though most of the restaurants seem quite touristy… Inside Isola Bella’s palace, look up: carved in the ceiling of the main hall lies the Borromean family’s motto Humilitas (!).
After the Borromean islands (my favorite part of this region without any doubt), I drove to the nearby and smaller Lago d’Orta. A good spot to park the car is Sacro Monte, then walk to the Orta San Giulio village (no cars allowed inside the village). Don’t forget your parking disc, mandatory if you want to avoid a fine! The very scenic village itself is quite small. Have a nice walk along the lakeshore on via Ettore Motta and via 11 Settembre, which makes a loop and takes you back close to Sacro Monte.
On my way to Lago di Como, I planned to take the cable car from Laveno (Il Monte del Sasso Ferro) to get that breathtaking view of Lago Maggiore from above. So I entered Il Monte del Sasso Ferro in the car’s GPS and followed instructions… Big mistake. The GPS’ logic wasn’t the same as mine and it decided to take me via an extremely narrow and tortuous mountain road as close as you can get by car to the Sasso Ferro, NOT to the cable car’s departing point in Laveno. Fair enough. So I ended up in a small place called Casere, and wasn’t disappointed after all as this place turned out to be full of locals on a sunday afternoon’s hike instead of tourist crowds! With a restaurant and a wonderful view of the lake below, surrounded by snowy mountains. Sometimes those annoying GPS mistakes come out as nice surprises.
I was pretty excited to reach the famous Lago di Como (George Clooney, James Bond, the jet-set, you know…). I arrived in the town of Como at night and had to drive to Bellagio where my hotel was. What a nightmare… The road from Como to Bellagio is simply awful! Narrow, sinuous, mostly unlit. If you could drive it through alone, at your own pace, without dreading every sharp turn, it would be fine. But you will continuously have a crazy local driving behind you, stuck to your bumper and madly flashing his lights to let him pass. On the next day I took the car-ferry from Bellagio to Cardenabbia to avoid driving back the dreadful road to Como!
Lago di Como is mainly interesting because of the fastuous villas and their lush gardens on its shore (Villa Carlotta, Villa Melzi, Villa del Balbianello). Close to Bellagio, Villa Melzi is less grandiloquent than Villa Carlotta on the other side of the lake (but still features gorgeous gardens). I have a slight preference for Villa Carlotta though. Villa del Balbianello (where a James Bond scene was filmed) has very limited opening hours, and was closed to the public when I visited the area.
My last stop and third night in the region was in Milan. I had quite high expectations for the world’s fashion capital and was somehow disappointed… Milan turned out to be a big, grey and austere city. Some things were nice, of course, but I expected more. Try to pick a hotel in the very center of the city (close to the Duomo) from where it’s easy to walk everywhere. Must-sees include the old luxury shopping mall of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the magnificent Duomo cathedral (book your tickets in advance as lines can be long, and take the less crowded stairs to the terraces instead of using the elevator). Close-by, hidden in a small street, is the barber shop Antica Barbieria Colla (an icon in terms of barbers!). If you like urbanism, have a stroll in the modern Isola district (where the famous Bosco Verticale is located). My Milanese highlight moment took place in this district, when I had dinner at Alice Ristorante.
Everybody knows Venice to some extent and many think of it as an expensive tourist trap. I just loved it. Go in shoulder season, have night walks, and you will peacefully discover one of the (if not the) most fascinating cities on Earth. No cars after the Piazzale Roma terminus, but every part of the city is easily reached by foot and by boat. I chose to stay at Hotel Moresco close to the car and train terminus and was very satisfied by their high standards of service (see my review via the link). What I enjoyed most in Venice was having a long night stroll in the small streets, across idyllic bridges (more than 400 bridges in Venice) and all the way to the almost empty Piazza San Marco. Then I took a vaporetto (public boat) along the Canal Grande (Venice’s main canal) back to Piazzale Roma. On this affordable cruise (20 euros for a 24 hours travel card vs. 80 euros for 30 minutes on a gondola…) you pass numerous palaces and under the Rialto bridge. Magnificent.
During the day, instead of climbing up the bell tower in Piazza San Marco (which is in fact a replica of the original medieval bell tower that collapsed in 1902!) take a vaporetto to hop to the small island of San Giorgio Maggiore and climb the bell tower there for a better overall view of Venice.
Another thing I strongly recommend to do is to hire a private guide for a couple of hours. I had a 2-hour walking tour with Monica Maguolo and learned so many interesting things about this amazing city built more than 1000 years ago on seawater! With a Venetian guide you also have the opportunity to discover less-known corners of Venice.
Last but not least, before heading to Florence, I took the vaporetto (line 12) to Burano. It takes 45 minutes to reach this small island full of colorful houses, with beautiful vistas of Venice skyline and Murano on the way. You will also get a glimpse of the remote Torcello island, where Venice was actually founded.
Top tip: as hiring a private gondola is super expensive (80 euros for half an hour), for only 2 euros you can take a shuttle gondola to cross the Canal Grande. It takes less than a minute and isn’t very romantic, but it’s a real experience (that’s the only gondolas the locals actually ride). The motorized water taxis are also overpriced and only used by tourists.
When I arrived in Florence, it was dark and raining. The famous skyline looked beautifully eerie. Nice start!
After a good night’s sleep I was off to discover the city and some of its museums (though I am not usually a big museum fan) and started with Palazzo Pitti. I strongly recommend to buy the combined ticket which gives access to the adjacent Giardino di Boboli and Giardino Bardini. Palazzo Pitti was a nice classic art museum with a clashing temporary exhibition of fashion pictures by Karl Lagerfeld at time of visit, but what I liked most was walking through the Giardino di Boboli to the Giardino Bardini (a rather small and less-known garden built uphill). Stop at the cafe with gorgeous views of Florence. It was still lightly raining on that morning and the gardens were almost empty, what a wonderful moment. Giardino Bardini was the place I enjoyed most in Florence!
Then I made my way to the historical center by crossing the famous Ponto Vecchio. This bridge looks somehow nicer in the pictures than it really is… Expect a lot of tourists there. I wasn’t going to visit all the art museums in Florence, so I decided to pick the Uffizi Gallery as it’s known as one of the most beautiful art museums in the world. The line to buy tickets was long, very long (I hadn’t booked online as I don’t like the fact you need to book your ticket for a specific time)… As soon as I got to the end of the queue, a gentleman in a suit came to me (he looked like a member of the museum’s staff) so I asked him right away how long it will take to reach the entrance. He told me approximately an hour but that a guided tour was starting shortly and if I wanted to join I would skip the line. Yes! 35 euros for a 1,5 hours guided tour (including entrance fee), not bad. I then understood it was a private company that arranged the tour, not the museum… Ouch. Was it a scam? I gave it a try, and wasn’t disappointed! Nicely led by a guide named James B, the tour provided a lot of interesting information about the building and its multiple artworks. Of course the most outstanding paintings your stop by are those made by Boticelli. Nice early works by Leonardo da Vinci also. After the tour you can stay in the museum for as long as you like.
After this great dose of art I made my way across Piazza della Signora towards the Duomo. The ticket office stands at the eastern end, close to a small museum. There you can buy tickets for the parts you want to visit. I recommend to go for the dome itself and the campanile. Don’t forget to use the self-service machine next to the counter to schedule times for your visits. The clerk won’t necessarily tell you to do so and you will end up waiting in line before entering, as the number of visitors inside the monument is regulated! When you get inside the dome, the visit is not easy and the way to the top can be long… Corridors and stairways are extremely narrow and the number of visitors consequent. You will be blocked in some cramped places at times to wait for people ahead to move on, so think twice before going if you are claustrophobic. The adjacent campanile tends to be less crowded, but prepare for a steep ascent. The view at the top is similar to the one at the top of the dome and both are splendid, especially during the last hours of daylight.
Before sunset I took a cab to Piazzale Michelangelo. Unfortunately I need to warn you about Italian taxi drivers, all are not honest… The one that took me there tried to give me back less cash than needed, and it was clearly not a mistake (tourist=easy catch, nope). On the Piazzale Michelangelo you can have a drink (maybe a spritz?) contemplating at the famous skyline. To end my visit I had dinner at La Prosciutteria, which I really recommend for a true Italian experience (the place was recommended to me by a fellow travel blogger)! It’s not a restaurant, but you can buy tasting plates and enjoy them there with a bottle of Tuscan wine. The atmosphere is simply great.
After one night in Stresa (Lago Maggiore), one in Bellagio (Lago di Como), one in Milan, one in Venice and 2 nights in Florence, I ended my Italian visit in Cinque Terre under the beautiful Mediterranean sun. My plan was to park the car in La Spezia and to buy the Cinque Terre card which allows unlimited train travelling to and between the small villages of Cinque Terre (as all the travel guides I had read strongly advised not to go there by car because of very limited parking space)…but there was a rail strike in Italy on that day and train traffic was disrupted. So I had no choice but to drive there. I decided to head to Corniglia, the middle one of the five villages, and to my surprise easily found a free parking place close to the village!
A hiking trail connects Corniglia to Vernazza and Monterosso. Between Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore the path is currently closed. To hike the trail you need to buy a pass in the village (unless you bought the Cinque Terre card), as the area is a protected national park. I hiked from Corniglia to Vernazza. The trail is a bit challenging but can be walked through in less than an hour if you are in good physical conditions. The views halfway between the villages towards Corniglia and Manarola (and when arriving Vernazza) are gorgeous.
In Vernazza I had lunch at Ristorante Belforte. A bit touristy, but good food and great setting. From Vernazza I strongly recommend to hire a water taxi, which I did to reach Manarola (the most photographed village in Cinque Terre). There are many companies along the jetty that offer this service and prices seem to vary a lot. I used a company called Nord Est that took me in a small motorized boat to Manaralo for a very decent price, stopping on the way in front of the sea caves and Corniglia (nice view from below, as Corniglia is the only village without direct sea access). In Manarola to get the best view of the village you need to have a drink at Nessun Dorma (try the local sciacchetrà wine!).
At the end of the day, to get back to Corniglia and my car I took the train. The strike was finally over.