Northern Italy’s tourism is dominated by Venice in the east and Milan in the west, with people occasionally paying a visit to Verona in between. Often overlooked due to the popularity of southern Italy with Puglia, Amalfi Coast, and of course, Sicily, or the central Tuscany region, there are plenty of towns worth visiting in northern Italy. So why not ditch the crowded south and escape to the cool north?
Situated between Verona and Venice, Padua is a university town that holds the quintessential charm of a medieval city with its gleaming white marble buildings and cobblestone squares. Home to the oldest academic botanical garden in the world as well as the second biggest open square – the beautiful Prato della Valle – in Europe, it was strange that Padua isn’t more famous.
But the number one attraction in Padua is the UNESCO heritage site – the Scrovegni Chapel. Built in the early 14th century, the chapel has a starry night chapel adorned by the famous fresco cycle by the Florence painter Giotto di Bondone. My other favorite site is Palazzo della Ragione, which has a gorgeous, warm toned fresco ceiling galleria.
A small city south of Verona, Madua (or rather, Mantua in Italian) is pretty off the radar. What makes it special? Well, the fact that it has three palaces and castles. All built by the extremely well off Gonzaga family in the 14th to the 17th century, the fresco and interior of these palaces are stunning work of arts and I ended up spending more time than I thought strolling the magnificent halls.
The town is small enough that you can walk from one end to the other in less than an hour, and yet the castles kept me occupied for the entire day. My favorite palace is the Gonzaga’s family summer residence, the Palazzo Te. If palaces don’t tickle your fancy, then it is also home to a lovely lake and park, perfect for a stroll.
People had long been raving about Lake Como, and yet I had never seen a prettier place than Sirmione on the shore of Lake Garda. A peninsula that jutted out into the middle of the southern shore, Sirmione is a slice of paradise on the largest permanent lake in Italy. With a castle that straddled the entire length of the stripe of land, it was one of the only cities in the world with a water gate and guarded castle.
Couple its rich history with beaches, a gorgeous medieval vibe town and cobblestone streets and crystal blue water, it’s the perfect escape for people who are tired of the never ending skyscrapers and just wants to enjoy a good holiday.
Further on from Sirmione is the town of Brescia. Although it doesn’t stand out as much as Padua with its university and Mantua with the stunning palaces, there are still plenty to see in a town that was previously conquered by the Romans as well.
With the remnants of an amphitheater, a castle from the medieval times, as well as buildings left over from the Nazi occupation period which dominates a square not too far from the one that reflects its Veneto past, walking through the town was almost like walking through the pages of a history book.
But what I liked the most about Brescia was that it somehow manages to emit a different kind of charm and yet hold the same history. Maybe it has to do with its wider streets and more Romanized town plan, or the delicious gelato.
Upstream from Verona in the north is the city of Trento, which had a more turbulent history than the other four, having been under the rule Celts, Romans, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards, Franks, and remained the part of Austria until 1919.
This is reflected in the Germanic influences of its buildings, with the Trento Cathedral, Castello del Buonconsigli and its old city wall. But to me, the Fountain of Neptune and the Torre Civica are the real gems.
On the off chance that the aforementioned sites cannot sway you to visit, Trento is consistently voted as one of the best places to live in Italy and home to a top university. If you want to really go off the beaten path, then this is your town.
You can visit my blog for more on Padua, Mandua and Sirmione in my blog’s Italy archive.