Bordering Switzerland at its northern end, Lombardia is one of the biggest regions of Italy and by far the most heavily populated. Prosperity and a good standard of living have attracted many migrants into Lombardy from the south of Italy, as well as all over Europe and beyond. This puts a strain on the housing market and makes for some pretty dreadful traffic jams in the big conurbations, but don't be put off! Lombardia has a huge amount to offer.
In terms of history and culture, the cities and towns of Lombardy provide an absolute feast. You've also got great shopping in Milan, world-famous racing-driving in Monza, easy access to the mountains and a choice of fabulous lakes.
What to see and do in Lombardia
Enjoy the mountains
If you're staying in Lombardia, you're well placed for many of the best Italian ski resorts, so this can be great for days out in the winter.
If you're a semi-serious hiker, I recommend you check out the mountains at Mandello del Lario, on Lake Como. When I lived in Milan, I quite often used to take a picnic and catch a train up there for a day's walking, and it was lovely.
Enjoy the lakes
Lombardia is famous for its abundance of beautiful lakes:
- Lake Garda, lying between Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto and Lombardia, is the largest lake in Italy
- Lake Maggiore, between Lombardia and Piemonte, is Italy's second largest lake
- Lake Como is the third largest lake in Italy
As I've already mentioned, I lived in Milano for a couple of years and I loved it. I found it an intelligent, dynamic, high-achieving city with a great deal of cultural activity and a huge mixture of interesting people. Although Rome is officially the nation's capital, as Washington DC is of the USA, Milano is the equivalent of New York.
Some of the highlights of Milano are:
- the Duomo. This is one of the largest cathedrals in the world and an absolutely stunning centrepiece to the city. For a price, you can climb up to the roof, from where the view is fantastic.
- the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II. This elegant arcade of shops and restaurants is named after the first king of the united Italy. It's expensive and touristy and I wouldn't recommend buying anything there but it's integral to Milan's character and you have to see it. Since it opens on the Piazza del Duomo, this is easy to arrange.
- the Castello Sforzesco, the enormous 14th-century castle named after Francesco Sforza, who transformed it into a ducal residence in 1450
- the San Siro football stadium, home to AC Milan
- the opera house and world-class centre of culture La Scala
- the navigli, the canals that connect Milan to the nearby rivers and lakes. The district of the city known as Navigli is a cool part of town.
- Leonardo da Vinci's painting Il Cenacolo (The Last Supper), at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie
Leonardo da Vinci worked in Milano for many years, in the late 15th century, and left a lasting legacy in the Castello, the Duomo and the navigli, as well as his art. You can find out more on these two websites:
Leonardo da Vinci in Milan (in English)
Leonardo a Milano (in Italian but Google will translate it for you, if necessary)
Explore the other cities and towns
There are many other cities and towns in Lombardia that are worth visiting. They include:
- Bergamo. The city is divided into the modern Bergamo Bassa (lower Bergamo) and the historic Bergamo Alta. The latter is far more beautiful and interesting than the former and I recommend you head straight up there.
- Pavia, a university town with a famous old monastery, the Certosa
Eating and drinking in Lombardia
The cuisine varies to some extent around the region but you'll generally find a lot of pasta on the menu, as well as risotto. Risotto alla milanese, with saffron, is of course a speciality of Milano - and very good it is too. As are scaloppine alla milanese, veal escalopes similar to Wienerschnitzel.
Some marvellous cheeses are made in Lombardia, including Gorgonzola, Taleggio and Grana Padano.
If you're in Milano and you feel like consuming a very large and fabulous pizza in a cheap-and-cheerful location, get down to Pizzeria King (via Ascanio Sforza 73, in the Navigli area). I have many happy memories of that place!
Recommended reading (and drama) from Lombardia
Alessandro Manzoni is one of Italy's classic writers. His great masterpiece is I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). Written in the nineteenth century, the novel is set in the late 1620s, during the Spanish occupation of Lombardia. It's an involving story and, although it's long, it's surprisingly easy to read. I much enjoyed it even at school, aged 16. This is a book practically every Italian has read and I definitely recommend it.
The playwright Dario Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997. While I wouldn't particularly suggest you read his work (unless you enjoy reading plays), I do recommend you see it at the theatre. If you speak Italian and can therefore do this in Italy, I think you'll really enjoy it. If you don't speak Italian, many of Fo's plays have been translated into English. Among the most famous are Can't Pay? Won't Pay! and Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
Io Sono l'Amore
Set in Milan in the early 21st century, the film Io Sono l'Amore (I Am Love) tells the story of a Russian-born woman (played by British actress Tilda Swinton) who marries an Italian industrialist and shares his life of privilege, until one day her head is turned by her son's friend. Love is depicted in its many forms, while Milano and the Italian countryside represent respectively wealthy, glamorous (slightly false) everyday life and rural, down-to-earth freedom.
For more information about Lombardia...
Buy a guide book for travelling around Lombardia.
Check out these websites: