Last week, I travelled to the Lombardy (Lombardia) region of Italy as part of the #InLombardia365 project. This is a year-long showcase of the best from Lombardia – through the eyes of national and international bloggers and Instagrammers.
I got offered the chance to explore the area around Varese and Lake Maggiore (Lago Maggiore), located in the Northwestern part of the country. This region is known for its mountains and lakes, as well as the surrounding historic villas, orchards, gardens and terraces. Varese itself is known as the ‘Garden City’ and often referred to as the ‘Versailles’ of Italy, so you can only expect to be in for a treat, right?
This guide will show you the best things I did in the area, suitable for different types of travellers. Which one of them are you? I’ve added some extra suggestions here and there to make your trip even more memorable. Enjoy!
LOMBARDIA: MAGGIORE LAKE & VARESE SUGGESTIONS
LOMBARDIA FOR NATURE LOVERS
1. Hiking Monte Cadrigna
When I think about Italy, the second thing I think about (after food!) is definitely nature. And while the cities in Lombardia are definitely worth visiting (such as Milan, Bergamo, Monza, Como and Varese), I can highly recommend to take some time out of your holiday and go on a (short) hike in the region.
We met up with experienced guide Silvano Moroni, who is well-known in the area for his quality guided treks, (Nordic walking) hikes and mountainbike rides. He brought us to the top of Monte Cadrigna, where we got spoiled with an incredible view over Lake Maggiore and the surrounding hills.
Along the way, we even did some foraging as a girl from the tourism board brought back two massive mushrooms that apparently are edible. Makes for a good risotto!
The Best Trekking Lombardia
2. Boat Trip Around Lake Maggiore
Lago Maggiore literally means ‘Greater Lake’, and that is precisely what it is. It lies at the South side of the Alps and is the second largest lake in Italy on one site, and the largest lake of southern Switzerland on the other side.
We entered the lake from the Italian region of Lombardia (Lombardy) and hopped on board of a beautiful sailing boat with our own private skipper! While I personally enjoyed my time on board when the motor was on, I didn’t like it when the sail went up at all. The boat rocks a LOT more, and I have no balance whatsoever, but if you don’t have that problem, then renting a boat for a (half) day is definitely a fantastic way to see more of the area.
The climate around the lake is mild all year round, so you can expect many gardens growing exotic plants, which I always love! If you’re interested in renting a boat yourself, or going on a group tour, there are plenty of options, just check the website of the tourism board.
LOMBARDIA FOR HISTORY BUFFS
3. Walking Up To Sacro Monte di Varese
The Sanctuary of the Varese Sacro Monte (‘Sacred Mountain’) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 2003) that connects 14 chapels winding up a 800 meter high mountain along a 17th-century Holy Road made out of pebbles. Each of the chapels has its own architectural design and represent one of the Mysteries of Jesus Christ’s life in detail, with many sculptures and paintings inside.
The path along these type of sacred mountains (there are 8 others in Italy) resemble the ‘Via Dolorosa’, the road that Jesus walked while carrying the Cross from Jerusalem to Calvary, so pilgrims have the opportunity to visit, on a smaller scale, the buildings in which his Passion took place.
Once you have passed the final chapel, you’ll find yourself before the 2 km ascent which leads to a sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the town of the picturesque medieval town of Santa Maria del Monte. The views from here are just breathtaking!
Besides the sanctuary, at the top of the mountain you can also find a cloister, museum and house museum, as well as a permanent nativity scene and different restaurants, bars and bed & breakfasts.
If you’re not feeling up for the climb, then make sure to arrive on the weekend, because there is a funicular that runs between the parking lot at the first chapel and the top of the mountain.
4. Visit Other Castles, Monasteries and Villas in the Region
We just visited the Sacro Monte, but of course there is plenty of more history to discover in the Lombardia region. Here are some quick suggestions:
Rocca Borromeo in Angera
The Rocca di Angera is a castle that stands on a lakeside hilltop on the Southern shores of Lago Maggiore. Before 1227, the castle belonged to the Della Torre family, but they lost it to the Visconti family after a battle in 1277. In 1449 it passed into the ownership of the Borromeo family, who expanded and refurbished the castle over the centuries and still own it to this date. In the castle, you can find a doll museum where you can see over a thousand dolls made between the 18th century and the present day.
Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso in Leggiuno
De Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso (Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso) is a 14th century Roman Catholic monastery perched on a rocky ridge on the eastern shore of Lago Maggiore. You can get there on foot by descending down a long winding stairway, taking an elevator or a ferry. The hermitage features 19th century frescos and consists of three buildings: two convents and a church.
Villa Della Porta Bozzolo Casalzuigno
The comune (municipality) of Casalzuigno lies about 14 kilometers (9 miles) northwest of Varese and includes 16th-century Villa Della Porta Bozzolo, that has an impressive 18th century Italian garden with stairs, fountains, water features and an aedicula (small shrine) decorated with frescoes. The rose garden is said to be impressive!
If you’re interested in seeing more of Italy’s heritage, I can recommend checking out the work of the FAI (the Italian equivalent for the National Trust). They are a non-profit foundation that takes care of special places in Italy for the benefit of people today and future generations by educating and protecting of the natural and cultural wealth of the country.
LOMBARDIA FOR ART ADMIRERS
5. Visit to Villa Panza Varese
Giuseppe Panza di Biumo was, together with his wife Rosa Giovanna, an important collector of modern art. He lived since he was born in 1923 in both Milan as Varese and started building his collection in 1956. Their focus was European and American paintings and sculptures of the mid-1940s through early 1960s. After that, they mostly collected very minimalist and conceptual art pieces.
While he sold most of his works by now, about 10% of his 2500-piece collection still remains in the 18th-century Villa ‘Menafoglio Litta Panza’, which you can visit just outside Milan. The villa was built in the 18th century as the Marquis of Menafoglio’s party place and was acquired by the Panza’s in the 1950s.
We had the chance to have a look ourselves and I can say that while I am not a huge modern art fan, I was definitely impressed by the way they incorporated the modern works in relation to the old building and existing furniture that dates back to the 18th to the 20th century. At the mansion, you can also find a wing (formerly the stables), where artists have created works especially for this building.
Even if you’re not a modern art fan, I can still recommend a visit, even if it was just to stroll through the immense English Garden and enjoy the view over the city!
LOMBARDIA FOR FOODIES
6. Lunch at Postporta Restaurant in Gallarate
If you’re flying into Milan–Malpensa Airport and are looking for a restaurant nearby on your way to Varese or Lago Maggiore, then perhaps do as we did and stop in the small town of Gallarate.
You can have lunch at the cute Postporta Restaurant (their risotto is bomb!), but also don’t skip a quick peek in their cathedral (the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta). It’s almost like walking onto a movie set, so gorgeous are the decorations here.
7. Dining at Grotto Mazzardit Restaurant in Tronzano
Want to taste delicious local Lombardia food? Then The Grotto restaurant is a great choice! This charming restaurant offers traditional cuisine based on fish and selected meats coming from the area. They have a wine cellar that’s impressive to say the least and while dining, you can look out over the shore of Lake Maggiore.
While we were here at night and unfortunately couldn’t really get a good sense of the area around the restaurant, apparently form the terrace you can see both the Swiss as the Piedmont side of the lake, as well as the Alps covered in snow!
This restaurant is only open from March to mid-October, but if you’re here during this months, I can highly recommend a visit!
LOMBARDIA FOR KIDS
8. Learning at Volandia in Somma
The whole of Lombardia is pretty kid-friendly, but I think a favourite will be the transport museum of Volandia, located right next to the Milan–Malpensa Airport. This Museum of Flight is an aviation museum housed in the former industrial buildings of the Caproni company and covers over 60,000 m² (645,000 square feet), of which 20,000 m² (215,000 square feet) are indoors.
You can see about 45 planes, helicopters, balloons and other flying machines, but there are also cars, motorbikes and many scale models and historically significant artifacts on display. My personal favourite section was, of course, the building dedicated to the universe and space travel. And good news: soon there will be a completely new building where this collection will be housed in!
At Volandia, we had a great guided tour by Giuseppe, who showed us all the highlights of the museum (there are many) and even let us sit inside of the DC-3, a propeller-driven airliner that revolutionized air transport in the 1930s and 1940s. We also stepped inside the plane in which the Pope flew on many occasions, that was pretty special!
General entree tickets are 11 Euros for Adults and 5 Euros for Kids (3-11).
Guided tours only run at a minimum of 15 people, then it’s € 2 per person.
LOMBARDIA FOR LOVERS
9. Candle Lit Dinner at Al Borducan in Varese
Feeling romantic on your trip to Lombardia? Then you NEED to book yourself a dinner (or stay) at the four star “romantic hotel” Al Borducan in Varese. It’s right at the bottom of the Sacro Monte that I wrote about earlier and you can only dine here as a couple. At night, they light up their round dining hall with candles, which looks incredible of course!
The restaurant is decorated with frescoes and also features a terrace with a panoramic view of the lakes and the massif of Campo dei Fiori and also has a private garden. If you decide to stay, you can expect a room that is furnished with the original antique furniture from the Bregonzio family.
Another highlight of this restaurant is the fact that they serve their own “Elixir”, a one-of-a-kind herbs and oranges infused liquor invented by herbalist Davide Bregonzio 1872. Strong, but tasty for sure! The elixir is also used in the restaurant to enhance their historic recipes.
10. Wellness at Camin Hotel Colmegna in Luino
While I only stayed in one of the Varese hotels, I think I can already confirm that the Camin Hotel Colmegna is one of the most beautiful.
Right next to Lago Maggiore hotel Colmegna has stunning views from pretty every room. The rooms also have free wifi (mine a bit flaky, I was on the top floor) and very comfortable bathrooms with everything you need. Hotel Lago Maggiore is also bike- and kid friendly, so it really is a place everyone can enjoy.
In the garden of the hotel, that runs along the lake, you can find a jacuzzi overlooking the water, a green house with the Colmegna spa, massage and yoga facilities, the ‘torretta’ historical tower and even a beach! You can rent a (paddle) boat here or just relax and eat all day.
There is breakfast, brunch, afternoon snacks, dinner and a bar available, so you’ll never go hungry or thirsty here! We had dinner at the hotel one night and the food was very good. On another note, they had the softest napkins I’ve ever touched in my life, haha.
I hope you found this guide to the Lombardia region of Italy useful! There really is a lot to see and do here, and we barely touched the surface in the days of my visit. Below you can find some more inspiration and practical information to plan the rest of your stay.
Website Turismo Lombardia: www.in-lombardia.it/en
Website Varese: www.in-lombardia.it/…/tourism-varese
Website Lago Maggiore: www.illagomaggiore.com/en_US
Handy free app with points of interest: www.in-lombardia.it/en/pass-app
Lombardia Online Magazines: www.in-lombardia.it/download-magazine
Where to Stay Lake Maggiore Hotels Varese:
I stayed at Camin Hotel Colmegna in Luino.
- Hotels in Angera
- Hotels in Casalzuigno
- Hotels in Gallarate
- Hotels in Leggiuno
- Hotels in Luino
- Hotels in Milan
- Hotels in Somma
- Hotels in Tronzano
- Hotels in Varese
Here is my Lombardia Map with all the places I recommended in this article:
Going to Italy and need more inspiration? Here are some of our other guides:
- One Day In Aquileia, Italy? Complete Guide To A Perfect City Break!
- One Day In Grado, Italy? Complete Guide To A Perfect City Break!
- Bologna Map: Self-guided Walking Tour (2 Hours In Bologna)
- Enjoying The Slow Life In Cesena (Emilia-Romagna)
- Visiting Coastal Cesenatico: Living Maritime History!
- Visit Senigallia And Experience La Bella Vita
- Daytrip From Senigallia: Corinaldo
- Explore The 5 Senses Of Puglia
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