The region of Lombardy, or Lombardia in Italian, is characterized by the great city of Milan, smaller, historic but thriving municipalities, and beautiful scenery that changes dramatically from the majestic and breathtaking in the north to the plains in the south. It stretches from the Alps on its northern edge with Switzerland, on the border with Switzerland in the north, down through the romantic Lake Como, the eastern part of Lake Maggiore and the western half of Lake Garda on the east, past the smaller lakes, scenic valleys near Bergamo, to the broad, flat plain with the River Po in the south, and the start of the Appennine Mountains in the southwest of the region. It is a populous region that is dominated by the ancient, but modern and very dynamic city of Milan, the largest city in Italy, which sits on the plain, roughly in the center of the region. It is the largest and wealthiest city in Italy. Though there are several cities that challenged Milan in the past such as Pavia, Mantua, Bergamo, and Como, its second most populous city, Brescia is only a fraction of its size at 200,000 residents.
Bustling Milan is the business capital of Italy, and possibly the fashion capital of the world. It is the most advanced and important industrial, financial, commercial, transportation, couture and clothing, and agricultural center of Italy. If you are traveling to Italy, you will likely be passing through the greater Milan area, as one of the two airports in the country that handles transatlantic flights, Malpensa, lies in its outskirts, and many of the trans-European trains connect through Milan. The geography of its key city of Milan on the fertile plains that are a natural junction of trade routes from the river Po, ports on the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian parts of the Mediterranean, and from the Alpine passes made it a center of commerce since its inception.
The region has long been home to great patrons of the arts. Not just in Milan, but Bergamo, Mantua, too, which are renowned for their artwork. There are grand opera theaters in each of the cities and many of the towns. The region is the birthplace of Donizetti, and the inventor of the modern opera, Monteverdi. It played long-time host to the grand master of the Italian opera Verdi, who saw many of his works premiere in Milan, and where he died. It is the home of the center for the development and manufacture of the key instrument of classical European music, the violin, Cremona.
the great lakes region and the alps
After Milan, Lombardy’s attraction is that of a region with the Alps providing an amazing background in the distance, beautiful lakes dotted with villas with beautiful gardens, impressive valleys and hills, of wealthy and attractive towns filled with imposing buildings and ornate Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance churches, and the skiing and winter sports center of Bormio, and the nearby the glacier-heavy Stelvio National Park.
The beautiful Lake country, especially the largest lakes, Lake Garda, Lake Como and Lake Maggiore have been drawing tourists from all over Europe for the past couple centuries. Though several of the lakes are shared with the regions of Piedmont and Veneto to the west and east, plus Switzerland to north, Lombardy contains much of the best attractions, and certainly the easiest to access. At these large lakes, and the smaller ones such as Iseo, Varese and Orta, you can revel and relax in the serenity of the picturesque landscapes featuring verdant hills, the calming, still deep blue water, and the majestic Alps in the distance. Then there are water sports, and some of the region’s most splendid villas and gardens.
Two-legged Lake Como boasts sparkling blue-green waters set against the snowy peaks of the Alps. It has been a favored resort destination since Roman times. The ancient town of Como lies as a gateway at the southern end of the western leg of the lake. From the Piazza Cavour you can gaze at the beauty of the lake, and then stroll through the ancient Roman street plan and admire its attractive buildings and basilica. The town of Bellagio at the intersection of the legs of the Lake Como is regarded as one of the most beautiful towns in all of Italy. Much of the lake is dotted with villas and gardens. Long, thin Lake Maggiore is around 65 kilometers from end to end, and is home to stately hotels, quaint villages and the distinctive, attractive Borromean Islands. These are actually more accessible from the towns on the Piedmont side of the lake. The ornate, stately and somewhat garish Palazzo Borromeo that dominates the Isola Bella with its artwork and gardens, the largest of the three islands, Isola Madre which is entirely landscaped as a beautiful English garden, and the small Isole dei Pescatori, a dense fishing village. Very popular with summer tourists, Lake Garda is the biggest of the lakes, lying between the Alps and the Pianura Padana. The towns of Desenzano del Garda, Sirmione and Riva del Garda are well worth visiting. Riva is one of Italy’s principal windsurfing centers. Italy’s version of Disneyland, Gardaland, lies east of Sirmione. The smaller lakes are also beautiful and worth visiting, if somewhat less touristy than the big three.
The towns of Bergamo, Pavia, Mantua and Cremona are interesting and distinct in their own right. Each is within easy reach of Milan. Pavia was the home of the Lombard kings for several centuries before the first millennium, and then a thriving commercial center due to its location near the heart of the region’s productive agriculture. With its wealth of medieval, Renaissance and baroque architecture, the walled hilltop town of Bergamo is an enchanting place. The medieval Città Alta, the upper town on top of the hill, is an attraction in its own right. Piazza Vecchia is the elegant square at the heart of the old town. The handsome city of Mantua, situated on a plain at the shores of three small lakes, was founded by the Etruscans and remained independent for many centuries including rule by the art-loving Gonzaga dukes whose patronage is still evident. The Palazzo Ducale, one of the best Renaissance palaces, and the 15th century Basilica di Sant’Andrea designed by Alberti, dominate the city. The graceful town of Cremona has a centuries-old tradition of making violins. All of the famous violin-making families started here, Stradivarius being the most well known. Violins are still made here today, and some workshops are open to the public.
The attractions of Lombardy travel are diverse: urban and outdoors, historic and modern, art and activity, and summer and winter. Though the history of Lombardy is very rich, the outlook is dynamic and forward-looking. It is emblematic of much of present-day Italy, but there is more than enough culture, art and natural beauty that touristy Italy is known for in which to indulge.