Giovanna’s Top 5 Hidden Gems Of Northern Italy!

These are all places that I very much love...each one a small treasure of immense beauty and peaceful retreat. Destinations I dream about, smile about and never ever get tired of. You won't regret adding any of them to your next trip.

1. The Borromean Islands

Lake Maggiore, Piedmont region (1½ hour by car or train from Milan)

The Borromean Islands have been called “The treasure chest on Lake Maggiore.” Set along the southern flank of the Alps, Lake Maggiore is Italy’s second-largest lake and less visited than neighboring Lake Como. Afloat in its magical waters, the Borromean Islands are a true treasure, jaw-droppingly beautiful and a must-see destination.

The islands are named after the Borromeo family, who have owned them since the 17th century. The archipelago includes the stunning Isola Bella, with its 17th Century Palazzo Borromeo, surrounded by amazing baroque terraced gardens, fountains, statues and obelisk, the picturesque Isola dei Pescatori (“Fisherman's Island”) and Isola Madre known for its magnificent and romantic botanical garden, rich in rare plants and beautiful peacocks freely wandering around. The perfect starting point to visit the Borromean Islands is the charming lake town of Stresa. Here at the Stresa embarcadero you can purchase a full day ferry ticket to include all three islands.

My suggestion is to make Isola Bella your first morning stop, followed by lunch at one of the outdoor cafes and restaurants on Isola dei Pescatori, the only island of the group to be inhabited year-round, and ending the day by visiting Isola Madre. Without a doubt the best time to visit is spring when the gardens are in bloom.

2. Bergamo Alta

Lombardy region (1 hour by car or by train from Milan)

Bergamo is a small treasure nestled between Milan and Lake Como. It is a wonderful hilltop city in the foothills of the Alps, which has not yet been fully discovered by tourism. Bergamo is divided into two distinctive parts: the upper ancient area of Bergamo Alta and the lower, more modern area of Bergamo Bassa. The two parts of Bergamo are connected by a funicolare, an old and charming cableway that offers beautiful views of the town.

I particularly love Bergamo Alta, the highest and oldest part of the city. I so enjoy strolling down the medieval cobbled stone alleyways dotted by quaint little shops, cafes and traditional restaurants. A special treat created here and one I always indulge in is a Stracciatella Gelato (milk-based gelato filled with yummy chocolate shavings) as I meander alongside ancient Venetian walls and through the 16th century gates that are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

All the main streets lead to Piazza Vecchia, which in my opinion is perhaps the most beautiful town square in all of Lombardy. The piazza is surrounded by magnificent medieval and Renaissance buildings. It’s hard to know where to focus first—the imposing 12th century Palazzo della Ragione, which bears the lion of St. Mark (reminder of Venice's long reign here), the bell tower known as Campanone or the Palazzo Nuovo, the ancient seat of Bergamo’s Town Hall and today an important library hosting an impressive collection of ancient books.

Make sure to go “meet” every master of the Renaissance at the Accademia Carrara (Mantegna, Bellini, Botticelli, Raphael and more), and if you like opera, do not miss a visit to the house where the great composer Gaetano Donizetti was born.

3. Punta San Vigilio

Lake Garda, Veneto region (50 minute drive from Verona, 10 minute drive from the town of Garda)

When on the eastern shore of Italy’s largest lake, don’t miss the chance to stop at what I consider being the most enchanted corner of Lake Garda—the beautiful, intimate cove of Punta San Vigilio. I discovered this picturesque cove just by chance a couple of years ago and it was love at first site. I often find myself daydreaming about its magical beauty.

Arriving at Punta San Vigilio you’ll walk along a cypress-lined lane with a stone walkway until you reach the tiny harbor with a line of tables under the shade of a pergola of the local taverna placed around it. Enjoy a drink or a meal next to the lake’s clear green waters and totally relax in the simple splendor of this place.

If you are here at the end of the day, you’ll see the best sunset on Lake Garda! If you want to make a day of it, go through a shady path of olive trees until you reach the pristine beachside of Parco Baia delle Sirene (Sirens Bay Park), which is without a doubt one of the best places for swimming in Lake Garda.

4. Burano

Veneto Region (45 minute ferry ride from Venice)

Burano is a tiny island in the Venetian Lagoon known for its vibrant colored homes and hand-crafted laces. Legend says that the houses have been painted for centuries with bright colors so the fisherman could find their way home even in the fog. The colors are bright and beautiful ranging from hot pink to lavender to mint green and cobalt blue.

Locals repaint their homes every two years to keep the island looking vibrant and unique from their neighbors. When in Burano I feel like I’m walking in a rainbow! This picture-perfect island feels unreal and will immediately bring a smile to your face. In Burano you’ll be happy to just wander around over small bridges and canals lined with gondolas and small boats. Off the main strand you’ll find wonderful corners to photograph.

The island is renowned for its lace-making, which dates back to the 1500s. Visit the lace museum in Piazza Baldassare Galuppi. Also, definitely enjoy a fresh seafood meal at one of the main restaurants. If you stay till evening, you will see the fisherman returning with the day’s catch. The seafood at the famous Rialto Market in Venice is caught by the fisherman of Burano. If you have a sweet tooth, stop at any bakery and enjoy the island specialty, Bussola, a kind of butter cookie in the shape of a small donut or letter “s”.

5.San Fruttuoso

Italian Riviera, Liguria region (30 minute ferry ride from Portofino)

Because of its remote location San Fruttuoso has till this day remained a northern Italy hidden gem as it can be reached only by boat or by foot. You will never forget this stunning secluded beach and small bay with bright blue/green waters.

The easiest way to get to San Fruttuoso is by scenic ferry from Portofino enjoying the gorgeous Italian Riviera coastline as you do. The other alternative is a panoramic but challenging hiking trail through the Regional Park of Portofino (approx. 2 hours each way from Portofino).

The magic of the ancient fishing village of San Fruttuoso is created by the tiny idyllic cove with its narrow pebbled beach and the backdrop of the beautiful 10th century medieval monastery, Abbazia di San Fruttuoso, which towers above the sunbathers and the small boats.

On the bottom of the Bay of San Fruttuoso visible from the surface on clear days is the beautiful bronze statue, Cristo degli Abissi, a 2½ meter high underwater statue depicting Christ with open arms gazing towards the surface. This is a very popular spot with divers who even celebrate underwater weddings next to the statue.

There are few spots as lovely as the pristine bay of San Fruttuoso surrounded by olive and pine trees. Once there, go for a swim and then relax on the small beach or at one of the quaint cafes.

Italy travel expert dedicated to opening the real doors to my native country, so that you may have a truly authentic experience… and fall in love with Italy as your own. In every corner of my Italy, I’ve sought out the beauty and the pleasures of its landscapes, cities, villages and people. Many are famous or popular, but many others remain undiscovered or rarely experienced. I know them all well though, and I’m eager to share my knowledge with you.

Contact me for more information about booking a spectacular and affordable small group tour or designing an affordable custom tour of your dream trip to Italy.

With love and gratitude,
Giovanna Chiti

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