Milan and the Northern Lakes

Godfrey Hall is an award-winning UK based travel journalist and member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. He has been in search of elves in Iceland, traveled to the depths of central Australia and been off the beaten track in Bulgaria.

Well served by a number of international airports, Milan is an excellent starting point for a tour of Lombardy and the northern Italian lakes. Home to stars such as George Clooney, Lake Como and Lake Garda both have a great deal to offer from magnificent views and spectacular villas to fantastic food and wines. The location for the 2015 Universal Exposition from May-October, Milan has strong connections with Leonardo de Vinci. It also has one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in the world—including the Milan cathedral—plus the renowned La Scala opera house and some wonderful designer shops. Spring and autumn are ideal times to visit, when the summer crowds have thinned.

La Scala (Godfrey Hall)

La Scala (Godfrey Hall)

Places to See

Milan is a very stylish city, full of impressive cafes and restaurants. The center is dominated by the Duomo cathedral and the Castello Sforzesco, which is now a museum. Close to the cathedral is the spectacular shopping arcade the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which has many designer shops and cafes.  At one end is the Piazza della Scala and the famous opera house. One of the most famous mural paintings in the world, “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci, is located in the Santa Maria delle Grazie church.

The Central Station is an architectural masterpiece and is an ideal place to start your tour of the city. A short train ride from Milan is the city of Brescia and its UNESCO World Heritage Site. This includes several perfectly preserved Roman houses. Also famous for the Mille Miglia classic car race, the city has a program of events throughout the year.

Star Wars and Casino Royale Villa (Godfrey Hall)

Star Wars and Casino Royale Villa (Godfrey Hall)

The area is home to several lakes including Como, which can easily be reached by train from Milan. The mountains drop steeply to the shoreline, and the lake has many picturesque villages and towns. With the backdrop of the Alps, the views are breathtaking. The lake has been used for a large number of movies including “Casino Royale” and “Star Wars: Episode II.”

Next to Como is Lake Garda, which is often described by the locals as a sea. The delightful town of Sirmione is also worth exploring, with its castle, lakeside walks and quaint back streets.


Milan has a wide selection of accommodation ranging from luxury hotels to hostels. The Hotel Anderson, close to the railway station and airport buses, is a convenient place to stay. It is easy to get to and just a few stops on the underground into the center of the city. If you are thinking about staying on Lake Garda, then one of the best-located hotels is the Grand Hotel Terme at Sirmione. Next to the castle, it has spectacular views across the lake and its own spa facilities, which utilize the local thermal springs. There are lots of alternative places to stay in Como including the four-star Palace Hotel, which is situated on the lake. One of Como’s most historical buildings, it has 100 bedrooms and excellent facilities. Many of the villages and towns around the lake have a variety of smaller establishments that provide local charm and character.  Further out of the town and ideal if you are touring and have rented a car is the Hotel Cruise.

Sirmione (Godfrey Hall)

Sirmione (Godfrey Hall)

Food and Drink

This part of Northern Italy is famous for its fish and its wines, and you should not leave without trying some of the local sparkling varieties such as Franciacorta. Another favorite—though it can be an acquired taste—is grappa, a grape-based brandy high in alcohol. Legend says that it was a Roman soldier who first distilled grappa in the northern Italian town of Bassano del Grappa using distilling equipment that he stole from Egypt.

You should also try some of the handmade pasta, which simply melts in your mouth. One of the best restaurants in this region is La Sosta in Central Brescia. Travelers to Lake Garda should consider the wonderful fish dishes at the Antica Contrada Sirmione, a short distance from the center of the town. For somewhere a bit different in Milan, there is the Orti di Leonardo restaurant or El Brellin in the canal district.

Italian Chocolate Surprise (Godfrey Hall)

Italian Chocolate Surprise (Godfrey Hall)

Often the meal will start with a pasta dish then a meat or fish main course and finally a dessert. Don’t skip dessert in Italy—especially options such as tiramisu or zabaglione.

Italians also like different coffees including one of my favorites, the cappuccino. This is served in a smallish cup and has quite a kick to it. Espresso is also very popular. There are plenty of cafes where you can buy a coffee and a pastry.

Italian food is very varied and isn’t just pizza or spaghetti. Be adventurous and investigate local dishes, which are often far more interesting. On a recent visit to the region, I had three types of local fish included in one meal.

Always look for where the locals are eating and if you can, try the dish of the day.


Milan is home to many young people, and there is plenty of nightlife on offer, from the more sedate such as the opera at La Scala to the clubs. The two main areas to try are close to the Brera gallery and the Navigli district. Milan has many lively bars and nightclubs. Things really kick off at around 11 p.m. running to about 4 in the morning. However, you might like to start off the evening with the happy hour drinks from about 6 p.m. in one of the popular bars or cafés such as Biffi on Corso Magenta.

Lake Garda (Godfrey Hall)

Lake Garda (Godfrey Hall)

Brescia has always been thought of as a prosperous city, and there is plenty going on at night and particularly on the weekends. One of the hottest places to visit is the Circus Beat Club, offering house music in a glamorous environment. This club is just a few minutes from the city center on Via Dalmazia. An alterative is the Paradiso Disco on Via Casotti.

On the lakes the pace of life can be somewhat slower; however, there are still plenty of bars that are usually open until at least 2 a.m. On Lake Garda, Bardolino and Desenzano are famous for their nightlife, while on Como there are some delightful wine bars. One of the best is Enoteca Cava Turacciolo in Bellagio. It provides excellent wines and tapas in a friendly atmosphere. In the town of Como there are lots of bars and cafes where you can swap stories and find out all the local news.

Funicular Railway Como (Godfrey Hall)

Funicular Railway Como (Godfrey Hall)


There are three main airports serving the area: Milan Malpensa, Linate and Bergamo Orio al Serio. Linate is the most convenient to the city. Another way of arriving is by train. There are connections to other parts of Italy and also Geneva, Paris and London via Eurostar. There are excellent connections from Milan to Como and Brescia. British Airways and Alitalia both fly into Linate.

Milan has a very effective metro system as well as trams and trolleybuses, and both Lake Como and Garda run a number of regular boat services providing an opportunity to visit a variety of towns and villages.

Flights from the USA can connect via Paris or London. Expert Tips

How To Get There: Milan Malpensa Airport (MXP) is approximately 25 miles from downtown Milan. You can take either the Malpensa Express or the cheaper Malpensa Shuttle. Malpensa Express stops at Cadorna Station near Duomo Square. It costs €11 one-way, runs every 30 minutes and takes approximately 40 minutes. The Malpensa Shuttle costs €5 one-way and stops at Milan Central station. It runs every 20 minutes and takes approximately 50 minutes. Information regarding area transportation is available here.
Best Time To Visit: Milan’s peak season, like most of Italy, is the summer with its long days and pleasantly comfortable evenings. Their summers typically stretches into September. To avoid crowds, spring is the best time, especially May, when temperatures tend to peak in the low 70s and the water can be warm enough to take a dip. If you want to time your trip with their sale season, the winter sales are around January and the summer sales are around July.

Sample Fares: Fares displayed are the lowest roundtrip fares found in the last 48 hours to Milan from:
Boston — $682 (April 6-13)
Chicago — $781 (Feb. 23-March 7)
Dallas — $895 (May 12-26)
Newark — $625 (April 22-May 7)
San Francisco — $965 (April 7-21)
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* All fares are roundtrip including all taxes and are accurate at time of publication. For updated pricing, conduct a new search on Updates

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Featured Image: Lake Como (Godfrey Hall)

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