If I say Lombardia, what comes to your mind? Chances are you may not have even heard of this Italian region - even though this is where Milan, Italy's second largest city, is located.
Lombardia has long suffered the stereotype of being a grey, industrial, business-focused region - not many know that in fact it is home to great historic and artistic wealth, and stunningly diverse landscapes.
On the northern border of the region, you'll find the Alps, a year-round destination that offers very different experiences in summer and in winter. Then there are four of the great Italian lakes, including Lake Como, further south you'll find the endless Po plains and right at the very bottom, the foothills of the Apennines begin.
Here we aimed to collect 8 little-known (but no less amazing) Lombardia locations, roughly listed from North to South, with the aim of showcasing the natural and cultural heritage offered by the region.
Top Destinations in Northern Italy
This mountain town is located at the end of a twisty road, crossing two passes - but trust me, every bend is worth the effort. Livigno is magical. Not only is it one of Italy's best ski resorts, with 115 km of slopes, a snow park and several cross country ski trails - it is also duty free, and a great place to combine a mountain holiday with a bit of shopping.
In summer, Livigno becomes a great hiking and mountain biking destination, while ski lovers can hit the slopes year round at the Stelvio Pass, about 50 km away.
The saw-toothed profile of Mount Resegone is one of the most iconic in the Italian Alps, clearly visible from Lake Como and Lecco. There are plenty of outdoor activities available around Resegone - for instance adrenaline lovers can try their hand at a via ferrata, ascending rock walls via the aid of steel cables and ladders, or climb to one of Resegone's summits. There are several Rifugi (Mountain Huts) on Resegone, offering delicious traditional meals and overnight accommodation.
Iseo is the baby brother of larger Lake Garda, Como and Maggiore, the least visited of the great Italian lakes, briefly gaining fame at the beginning of summer 2016 thanks to 'The Floating Piers', an installation by the famous artist Christo. The piers are gone now, but Lake Iseo remains a great destination. You can hike the surrounding mountains with views over the lake and Montisola, the largest lake island in Southern Europe, or catch a ferry to explore Montisola and its quiet villages on your own.
Beloved by ancient Roman poet Catullo, Sirmione has been a popular tourist destination for millennia - and it continues to be one of the loveliest places on Lake Garda, thanks to its warm microclimate and clean blue waters. In summer, Sirmione is one of the best alternatives to the crowded beaches on the coast. Year round, make sure you visit fairytale-like Scaliger castle and Catullo's Villa, which is not actually a villa but a natural grotto.
Most people only know Monza in relation to the F1 Grand Prix, but the town actually makes a lovely day trip from Milan and has a lot of artistic sights on offer, some of which date back to over a thousand years ago. The 'corona ferrea', the iron crown of the Longobard Kings, is kept in the Duomo of Monza, along with some other precious artifacts dating back to the early Middle Ages. Another sight that shouldn't be missed in Monza is Villa Reale, one of the summer residences of the Italian kings, with its beautiful park.
Once upon a time, the city of Milan was cross-crossed by waterways used to transport goods from the mountains to the city, then southwards to the Po River. So, Milan was a kind of little Venice, until the canals were covered over in the Twenties to try and solve the problem of traffic in the city centre. The least known (but perhaps most interesting) of the surviving canals is Naviglio Martesana, connecting the city to the Adda River, 40 km north, and its cycle path makes it an ideal Sunday bike ride.
The canal flows through some picturesque villages that are now suburbs of Milan, then passes a series of locks and watermills designed by none other than the great Leonardo da Vinci. Gorgonzola is one of the towns along Naviglio Martesana, and every September it hosts a fete dedicated to its eponymous blue cheese - which strangely enough, is made in Piedmont.
Travelling southeast from Milan you'll reach Cremona, a quiet town near the Po River that is a must visit for all music lovers. Cremona was the home of Stradivari, the legendary violin maker, and the art of Luthery survives in the cobblestoned streets of the old town where violin makers still practice their craft.
For those who want to know more about Cremona violins, the recently-opened Museo deal Violino offers a great introduction, and there are frequent concerts at Teatro Ponchielli.
The southernmost tip of Lombardia is known as the Oltrepo Pavese - literally 'beyond the Po', as it is the only place in the region located south of the Po River.
The Oltrepo is an excellent foodie destination - it is the largest wine-producing region in Lombardia and the village of Varzi is famous for its excellent cured meats. If the Alps are too much for you, it's possible to go for a hike in the Apennines hills of the Oltrepo.