You have a free weekend coming up, and you’re looking for a cheap European getaway (preferably to a totally new place). So, you sit down at your computer, open Google Flights and use their handy ‘Everywhere’ search. You’re watching, waiting, anticipating… aaaand the cheapest destination is —drum-roll, please!—: Milan!
Your heart sinks a little. Sure, Milan is great, but you’ve already been there. It was nice, but pretty grey. And you don’t really have the budget for the designer shops that line Via della Spiga. There’s not really much else to do—you can only admire the Duomo so many times.
But wait! Don’t close that tab! The North of Italy is an incredibly diverse region, and you’ll be surprised by how many cool things you can do in the area, without needing to be in the busy cities.
And that’s where Milan’s airports come in—they're far enough from the centre of town that the city really can be ignored in favour of that idyllic country paradise. Where do you start? Well, luckily for you, I’m a local, and I’ve put together a list of my favourite suggestions for trips once you land in Milan.
From Orio al Serio Airport (BGY)
At Orio al Serio Airport, the Airport Bus takes you to Bergamo’s train station in 15 minutes. From there, a world of opportunities opens up :-)
No matter the time of the year in Lake Garda, you’ll be surprised by how stunning the area is. Even though summer is the most popular time to visit, hotels and restaurants are open throughout the year, with activities like horseback riding, olive oil and wine tastings (in that order), and boat rides available.
Lake Garda is also a hotspot for locals’ weekend getaways. The two shores of the lake are dotted with cute little villages, including Sirmione, which is known to be one of the prettiest. With its long alleys, Roman ruins, and incredible beaches, Northern Italians (and Germans too) will probably be upset with me for revealing this local secret! The (two!) thermal baths which probably also play a role in crowning the village the best around.
You’ll need to rent a car to move easily between the east/west/north shores of the lake. Here are my top tips for each part of the lake:
The eastern shore (Veneto side), is the place for foodies, with the villages of Garda and Bardolino being the hot-spots for fish and shellfish-based dishes, as well as everything olive oil and lemons.
If you’d rather a quieter area, head to the western shore (Lombardia side). Toscolano Maderno has some lovely beaches, and unlike those in Sirmione, you won’t have to fight for your spot.
The village of Limone del Garda and its ciclopedonale definitely deserve a mention. This is the most impressive cycle path I’ve ever seen—there’s nothing like a path above a lake, surrounded by rugged landscape. It starts right in the city centre, at lungolago Marconi, and it’s only 5 kilometres long, so it’s a pretty reasonable walk (or roller skate), if you don’t feel like biking.
Further north, bordering the Trentino Alto Adige region, Riva del Garda is the best spot for all the water sports and adrenaline aficionados among us :-)
By the way, if you happen to be around Lake Garda with kids, Gardaland amusement park is a teen favourite in the region! It’s on the southern shore of the lake and, from Peschiera del Garda train station, there are free buses bringing you to the entrance of the park.
And if I haven’t convinced you that Lake Garda is worth a visit, the view from this Airbnb in Riva will probably do the trick!
How to get there:
- By train (2 hours): From Bergamo station, get a train to Rovato and change for trains to Verona (yes, that Verona). You can either stop in Desenzano or Peschiera del Garda, both good starting points for moving around the lake.
- Flixbus has some direct routes from Orio al Serio Airport to Peschiera del Garda, which take 1hr and 10-min.
- 1 hour from Bergamo Airport by car.
Note: There is always traffic on the roads around the lake, so keep that in mind if you do choose to go by car.
Some people like to call it the ‘Tuscany of the North’ because of the endless vineyards in the region.
Basically, if you’re coming to Franciacorta, you’re coming for wine. Just take a look at this map that demonstrates the sheer number of wineries in such a tiny area. The sparkling wines are the worldwide speciality, and they’re specifically made with only with three types of grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero.
What’s so special about Franciacorta is that its wines are still mostly made in family wineries run by craftsmen, meaning wine tastings are very intimate and unique. You can expect plenty of family owned agriturismi (farm stays) offering activities such as horseback riding and mountain biking. One of my favourite is Cascina Solive, which is immersed in vineyards and olive trees, without the inflated prices of other touristy areas :-)
Best time to be here: Every year, the Franciacorta in Cantina festival celebrates the best wineries and local delicacies. It's usually sometime in mid-September (16th-17th in 2023) but keep an eye on their website for up-to-date information.
How to get there: Just like in Tuscany, you’ll get the most out of Franciacorta if you can drive around the fields and vineyards in a car. You can easily rent one at Orio al Serio Airport, and it will take you only 30 minutes to drive to Borgonato/Torbiato, where I recommend you base yourself.
You may recognise this one from Christo’s Orange Floating Pier… Apparently, the artist was mesmerized by the beauty of this underrated lake surrounded by the mountains, and decided it was the perfect place to create his magic.
Sitting just above the Franciacorta region, the area is filled with hiking paths, historical villages and amazing (but maybe more importantly, cheap!) restaurants. The best seasons to visit are spring, summer, and autumn—with May and September the best months to avoid high local tourist numbers.
San Martino is one of my favourite restaurants on the lake, offering typical lake-fish based dishes (as well as tasty pizzas!) and—of course—some Franciacorta bubbles. If you’re lucky, you could even have dinner there during one of their live-music sessions—give them a quick call for details about their jazzy nights :-)
On a hot day, try to find your way to the Bogn Bay near Riva di Solto. It’s a hidden spot with shallow waters, and—thankfully—free parking at the entrance of the walking path!
Another cool activity around Lake Iseo is visiting the nature reserve of Torbiere del Sebino - a small wetland known for its biodiversity: try to spot all the shrews and the purple herons (they won’t give a prize, but we’ll be cheering for you anyway!)
How to get there:
- By train: From Bergamo station, get the train to Brescia. From there, you can hop on the teeny tiny Trenord trains all the way to Iseo.
- If you want to combine the Franciacorta region and Lake Iseo, I’d suggest renting a car at Bergamo Airport. I’d recommend basing yourself in the village of Iseo or Lovere.
Camonica Valley / Adamello
More into endless valleys and forests? You just gotta go a bit further north.
The little sisters of the Dolomites are just above Lake Iseo, and have tonnes of rifugi and bivacchi ready to host you during your hiking adventure. If you’re more of a day-tripper, base yourself in the villages of Ponte di Legno or Edolo, where plenty of hiking trails start.
During the winter, adrenaline junkies can hit the slopes at Passo del Tonale’s ski area. But if you don’t feel like getting those pesky skis on, you can always relax at the very fancy La Tana dell'Orso.
FYI, Valcamonica was the first Italian site on the UNESCO World Heritage List thanks to the gigantic collection of petroglyphs (the largest in the world!) held within its valleys. If you want to see a small chunk of them, make a stop at the National Park in Naquane.
How to get there:
- By train: From Bergamo station, get the train to Brescia. From there, you can hop on the teeny tiny Trenord trains all the way to Edolo. To reach Ponte di Legno, you can hop on one of the local buses from Edolo.
- 2hr by car from Bergamo Airport.
From Malpensa Airport (MXP)
Malpensa has an Express train service connecting the airport to Milan’s main train stations, as well as Switzerland and the lake region, in less than 1 hour.
Everyone knows Lake Como (which is also just a 1-hour train ride from Malpensa) but Lake Maggiore is a strong rival, sitting just around the corner from Bellagio—THAT village in Lake Como—and its pricey surroundings.
The little town of Stresa is the jewel of the lake, with a lively cultural scene and boat connections from its tiny port. My favourite is a day trip to the Borromean Archipelago, a group of three tiny islands off the coast of Stresa. Named after the Borromeo family, you can find several fabulous villas and palaces, as well as enchanting gardens filled with exotic plants (there’s no doubt as to why locals like to call them the ‘Garden of Eden’).
Hot to get there:
- By train: From Malpensa train station, hop on a train to Busto Arsizio. From there, change to the train heading to Domossola, and it’ll stop in Stresa. In total, it’ll take you 1hr 15-min to get there from the airport.
- 1hr by car from Malpensa Airport.
From Both Airports
Trenino Rosso del Bernina
You may have already seen videos of this ridiculously scenic train route. A dream of many, the Red Bernina Train is considered the prettiest ride across the mountains, going from the Italian Alps all the way to Saint Moritz, in Switzerland.
Included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the train leaves from the town of Tirano, close to the border with Switzerland, and reaches the fancy town of Saint-Moritz in 2hr 5-min. Through the large train windows, you can admire valleys, lakes, and even ‘touch the sky’ at 2,253 m (the highest point reached by a train line in Europe!).
Depending on the ticket you select, you can get back into Tirano the same day or stay in Saint Moritz overnight. You can also extend your stay and head to the town of Lugano with the Bernina Express Bus (the bus travels along the shores of Lake Como!), the possibilities are endless :-)
Note: For the best views on the train, sit on the left side of the train going south to north, and the right side in the opposite direction.
How to get there:
- By train: Getting to Tirano from both Bergamo and Milano Centrale is pretty easy. From Bergamo, catch the train to Lecco, and from there hop on the connection to Tirano. From Malpensa, get the train to Milano Centrale and change for the train to Tirano.
- Tirano is a 2hr 5-min drive from Malpensa Airport.
Since cheap flights to Genoa aren’t that common, Milan also has the best airports to access Liguria: the Cinque Terre region. This rugged coastline of the Ligurian Riviera, is made up of five incredible hillside villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Even if you don’t know them by name, you’ve definitely seen them all over your Instagram feed.
The five villages are connected by hiking trails open all year round, with hikes taking anywhere from 40 mins to 3.5 hours. Taking the ferry is also an option to admire the colourful houses from a different perspective, and you can hop on and off whenever you like.
However, the most common (and cheapest) way to get around in the Cinque Terre is by train. The Cinque Terre Express trains run from Sestri Levante every 15 minutes and stops at each one of the Cinque Terre villages.
If you decide to spend a weekend there, I’d recommend finding an Airbnb/Hotel in Sestri Levante. Less touristy and bigger than the Cinque Terre villages, it has everything you need to enjoy Liguria without feeling cramped inside a tiny town.
On the way to the Cinque Terre, you’ll be passing by Genova. It’s one of my favourite places to visit in Northern Italy, so I’d suggest making a stop for a few hours.
Here in Genova, you can take a stroll in the caruggi and maybe check out the Aquarium on the port. When aperitivo hour comes, try to find your way to Bagni Santa Chiara. It’s a hidden tiny lido with a restaurant/bar on a dock. Head there before sunset and spoil yourself with some Aperol Spritz and handmade focaccia.
For dinner, walk for ten minutes to Boccadasse, the prettiest borgo in the city. There are some cute restaurants in front of the sea, but if you wanna blend in with the locals, grab a stramburger and eat it on the beach :-)
BTW, pesto was created in this region and locals argue that there’s no better place in the world to have a pesto pasta with green beans and potatoes. Trust them and give it a try yourself at Pestobene! :-)
How to get there:
From both Bergamo and Malpensa Airports, you can get a train ride to Milan Centrale and then a connection to Genova and Sestri Levante. The train trip takes about 3.3h.
Now that you have a few ideas of what to do after landing in Milan, maybe you’ll actually consider this underrated region and book those £20 return flights, again and again :-)
Note: If you’re planning to reach any of these places by train, Trainline and Trenitalia are the best websites/apps to look for routes and tickets. Just know that Trenitalia's train schedules and fares are typically only released 90–120 days in advance.