1: Lake Maggiore, Piedmont region

Where: (1½ hours by car or train from Milan)

Lake Maggiore, flanking the southern Alps, is Italy’s second-largest lake. The gorgeous trio of Borromean Islands afloat in its magical waters has been called the “treasure chest on Lake Maggiore.” Named for the noble family that has owned them since the 17th century, each island is unique and memorably beautiful. An insider tip: Lake Maggiore is less frequented and far more tranquil than its neighbor, Lake Como.

As for the islands, Isola Bella boasts the grand Palazzo Borromeo, a Baroque paradise of terraced gardens, fountains, statues, and an obelisk. Lively Isola dei Pescatori (“Fisherman’s Island”) is the only island inhabited year-round, and Isola Madre is renowned for its superb botanical garden, filled with rare plant specimens and a flock of roaming peacocks.

An ideal starting point for a day in the Borromean Islands is the charming lakeside town of Stresa. At the embarcadero here, you can purchase a full day ferry ticket to visit all three islands.

I would suggest you visit Isola Bella first, followed by lunch at one of the many outdoor eateries on Isola dei Pescatori, then finish your day at Isola Madre. The best time to visit  is the spring, when all the gardens will be in full bloom.

2: Bergamo Alta

Where: Lombardy region

(1 hour by car or by train from Milan)

Bergamo is a small, perfect treasure of a hilltop city, nestled in the foothills of the Alps between Milan and Lake Como. A wonderful, idiosyncratic place, it has yet to be fully discovered by tourism. The city’s two distinct halves, an ancient upper area called Bergamo Alta and a more modern lower area called Bergamo Bassa, are linked by a funicolare. A ride on this old-time cable car offers breathtaking views of the town.

I especially love strolling in Bergamo Alta. Paved with medieval cobblestone alleyways dotted by quaint shops, cafes, and traditional restaurants, it’s not only the highest, oldest part of the city, it’s a trip to a different time in history.

A favorite treat (which I recommend indulging in) is Stracciatella gelato. Created in Bergamo in 1961, this milk-based ice cream, is spiked with crunchy, dark chocolate shavings. I have delicious memories of meandering along Bergamo’s ancient Venetian walls and through the city’s massive 16th century gates (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), while enjoying a late afternoon gelato.

All of Bergamo’s main streets lead to the Piazza Vecchia, surrounded by magnificent medieval and Renaissance buildings. In my opinion, this is possibly the most beautiful town square in all of Lombardy. It’s hard to know where to focus first—the imposing 12th century Palazzo della Ragione, with its bold lion of St. Mark (a reminder of Venice's long reign here), the majestic Campanone bell tower, or the Palazzo Nuovo, Bergamo’s original Town Hall and today, an important library housing a significant collection of historic tomes.

Be sure to check in with almost every Renaissance Master at the Accademia Carrara (Mantegna, Bellini, Botticelli, Raphael and others), and, if you are an opera buff, don’t forget to visit the house where famed composer Gaetano Donizetti was born.

Punta San Vigilio

3: Punta San Vigilio

Where: Lake Garda, Veneto region

(50-minute drive from Verona, 10-minute drive from the town of Garda)

When visiting the eastern shore of Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda, don’t miss a stop at what I consider its most enchanting feature—the beautiful, intimate cove of Punta San Vigilio. I discovered this exquisite cove by chance a few years back and fell in love at first sight. Often, I find myself daydreaming about its magical beauty.

Arriving at Punta San Vigilio you’ll walk along a stone-paved, cypress-lined lane to reach the tiny harbor, with its inviting line-up of tables shaded by the pergola of the local taverna. Enjoy a drink or a meal alongside the lake’s clear green waters and experience total relaxation, soothed by the simple perfection of this place.

If you are here at the end of the day, you can catch one of the world’s best sunsets over Lake Garda! To make a full (and lovely) day of it, follow the shady allé of olive trees to reach the pristine beachside Parco Baia delle Sirene (Sirens Bay Park); one of the absolute best places to swim in Lake Garda. Now you’ll be as in love with Lake Garda as I am!

4: Burano

Where: Veneto Region (45-minute ferry ride from Venice)

A tiny island in the Venetian Lagoon, Burano is known for its candy-colored homes and remarkable hand-crafted lace. Legend has it that for centuries, the island’s houses have been painted in brilliant hues ranging from hot pink to lavender to mint green and cobalt blue, so that fisherman could find their way home even in a fog.

Residents repaint their homes every two years to keep the island looking vibrant—and to stand out from their neighbors.

When in Burano I always feel as if I’m walking through a rainbow! This picture-perfect isle feels almost too pretty to be real and will surely bring a smile to your face the moment you disembark. Just wandering over its small bridges and narrow canals lined with gondolas and small boats is a great start on a perfect day. Explore the side streets too, and you’ll find wonderful, picturesque corners and details to photograph.

The tradition of lacemaking on this unique island dates to the 1500s. To learn more about it, visit the Lace Museum in Piazza Baldassare Galuppi. While here, be sure to enjoy a fresh seafood meal at one of the main restaurants. In fact, if you stick around ‘till evening, you can see the fisherman returning with the day’s catch—a.k.a., your dinner. As an aside, the incredibly fresh-looking seafood you see in Venice’s famous Rialto Market is caught by the fishermen of Burano. And finally, treat your sweet tooth to a stop at any bakery and taste the local specialty, Bussola, a kind of butter cookie in the shape of a small donut or letter “s”, perhaps for “splendid”.

5: San Fruttuoso

Where: Italian Riviera, Liguria region

(30-minute ferry ride from Portofino)

Thanks to its remote location, San Fruttuoso remains one of Northern Italy’s truly hidden gems, accessible only by boat or on foot. However you manage to get there, you will never forget its romantic, secluded beach and luminous blue/green waters.

The easiest way to reach San Fruttuoso is via ferry from Portofino, savoring the spectacular Italian Riviera coastline en route. The other alternative is a challenging, but glorious hiking trail through the Regional Park of Portofino (approx. 2 hours each way from Portofino).

The poetic allure of this ancient fishing village starts with its tiny, idyllic cove and narrow pebbled beach, and continues upward toward the dramatic 10th century medieval monastery, Abbazia di San Fruttuoso, towering above the sunbathers and the small boats.

On clear days, Cristo degli Abissi, a 2-1/2 meter underwater bronze statue of Christ with open arms, gazing up at the surface, can be seen standing on the bottom of the Bay of San Fruttuoso. The statue is a magnet for divers, who often celebrate weddings almost within the embrace of the statue.

All in all, there are few spots as lovely as the pristine bay of San Fruttuoso surrounded by a soft mantle of olive and pine trees. Once you’ve managed to get yourself to this remarkable place, treat yourself to a swim, then relax and recharge on the small beach or at one of the welcoming 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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