Our northern Italy itinerary, 7 days from the Alps to Milan, is all about exploring the wonders that lie at the top end of the boot. And they really are wonders – this is the land of the cathedral-like Dolomites, the actual cathedrals of Milan, and the glistening Italian Lakes, after all.
Over the course of a week, it will take you from the snow-capped reaches of the Aosta Valley where Italy buts up to France all the way to the depths of the eastern mountains. As you go, there will be glimpses of priceless Renaissance art, swims in clear mountain water, and hikes through pine woods to lookout points.
You can do this northern Italy itinerary, 7 days from the Alps to Milan, in any season. However, bear in mind that different times of year are better for different things. To hit the ski fields – and you’ll be passing some of the very best ski fields in the country on this one – choose the months from December to March. For hiking, the summer is better. To maximize your budget, choose shoulder seasons like spring or fall.
Day 1: Aosta Valley
Start in what some say is the single most beautiful corner of the Italian Alps: The Aosta Valley. Tucked deep into the mountains north of Turin, this is a land of jagged summits and rolling ski pistes. Mont Blanc dominates its western side. There, it’s possible to ride a cable car over the mountains to survey the famous Chamonix Valley of France. But there’s hiking on the Italian side of the border that offers fantastic views of Western Europe’s highest summit, too.
At the center of it all is the loveable town of Aosta. Most are surprised to find 2,000-year-old Roman ruins dotting the core of the town. Don’t miss the Teatro Romano, a relic of the imperial age, and the Mura Romane, the old city walls that once defended the settlement.
Heading east through the Aosta Valley, take the turn off to for Cervinia Valtournenche at Châtillon. This will bring you into a long and snaking gap in the mountains that leads to one of the most famous peaks on planet Earth: The Matterhorn. It rises above the resort at the end. By summer, you can hike your way into Switzerland and back again. In the winter, there’s skiing that connects with Zermatt, only for a fraction of the price.
Day 2: Turin
The regal, royal city of Turin is the hub of northwestern Italy. The Alps – the snow-capped, cloud-busting Alps – run a halo around the whole town. They are visible on the horizon to the north and west, which makes the drive or train ride in from the Aosta Valley a truly spectacular one.
In the town itself, there are a couple of cultural highlights that you simply cannot miss:
- Palazzo Reale – The mighty palace that rises in the middle of the city, this was once the home of the powerful House of Savoy. Today, it’s an enthralling museum and one seriously jaw-dropping piece of classical architecture.
- Mole Antonelliana – An incredible structure that looks like a needle thrust into the sky, the Mole Antonelliana used to be a synagogue but now hosts a museum dedicated to cinema (a very good one at that!).
- Egyptian Museum – Believe it or not, Turin is home to one of the finest Egyptology museums in Europe. There are statues of ancient pharaohs and even original papyrus scrolls within.
- Piazza San Carlo – A central square surrounded by gorgeous palaces.
All that aside, this city is perhaps most famous for its eponymous shroud. It’s the relic that many believe was once wrapped around the dead body of Christ himself. Sadly, it’s not on display anywhere, though the replicas in the Most Holy Shroud Museum will help tell its mystical story.
Day 3: Milan
It’s 1.5-2 hours in the car down the A4 motorway from Turin to Milan. What awaits is the second-largest city in Italy and the country’s buzzing financial and fashion capital. It’s an undoubted highlight of any northern Italy itinerary, 7 days could easily be spent wandering the iconic museums and piazzas of this metropolis on its own!
We’ll have to distill that into one quick day trip, though. And that means picking the standouts:
- Milan Duomo – This majestic Gothic church that rises in the middle of Milan is one of the most famous in the whole of Italy.We think a Spritz at one of the bars on the piazza out front is a great way to appreciate it all, but you can also walk on the roof for 10 euros.
- Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – Perhaps the chicest shopping center anywhere in the world, this one is home to haute couture boutique aplenty.
- Pinacoteca di Brera – Once inhabited by Napoleon himself, this vast palace complex is now home to a rich art collection that includes priceless pieces like Pietà by Giovanni Bellini.
Street life in Milan is also not to be ignored. There are some cool neighborhoods here that brim with energy. Check out hip Porta Venezia, where speakeasies mingle with ethnic eateries. Or, there’s Brera, the land of the Milanese hipster, with its roastery coffee joints and design ateliers.
Day 4: Lake Como
Less than an hour’s drive north from Milan, the stunning waters of Lake Como begin to roll through the Prealps. Welcome to one of the most gorgeous corners of Europe – nay, the whole world. The Adamello Alps rise to the east, the Swiss piz peaks dominate the north. There are chocolate-box villages dotting the shorelines and beaches of pebbles washed by crystalline waters that roll down from the glaciers on high.
We’d recommend cruising up to Bellagio first. It’s one of the most exquisite towns on the lake, known for its 18th-century villas and the manicured gardens of Parco di Villa Serbelloni. From there, cruise back south a little and turn northwards up the eastern banks. You’ll go through handsome villages like Lierna and Varenna, always edging closer to the highest mountains.
Right at the top end of the lake, you’ll come to the charming area of Colico Piano. It’s a lived-in part of Como but also beset by super-high mountains. There are spectacular views to be had there, and some fantastic hiking – up the peaks of Monte Legnone and Pizzo Ligoncio, especially.
Day 5: Adamello-Brenta (a day of hiking)
From the northern side of Lake Como, day 5 will take you eastward through the narrow valley of Val Masino into the high mountains of Lombardy. This is where the great glacier of the Adamello-Brenta range takes over.
It’s about 40 minutes’ driving until you come to the town of Aprica. This is the first proper ski resort on your itinerary in the eastern Alps, so hop on the slopes if you fancy it. If not, pull on the hiking boots and make your way into the hidden valley at Brandet. There’s a day-long route there that will whisk you up to the inky Lago d’Piccolo for views over the heart of the Bergamo Alps.
Alternatively, you can keep going until you reach Edolo. That’s a charming place to settle in with a cappuccino and views of the peaks. But it’s also the gateway to even more hiking options, including the uber-hard routes that cross Corno Baitone, or the more family-friendly trip up to Lago Aviolo.
Day 6: Lake Iseo and Lake Garda
You’ll retreat from the high, high peaks on day 6, back down the length of the Val Camonica. That’s one of the longest valleys in this corner of the Italian Alps and it’s downright stunning, with high peaks flanked by emerald pastures ranging down both sides. As you drive, we recommend a pitstop at Cimbergo, a tiny village that’s famed for its pre-historic cave paintings.
From there, keep going south until you reach the northern banks of Lake Iseo. This is one of the lesser-known Italian lakes and it’s a beauty. The village of Lovere on its western side is rated as one of the most pristine and enthralling villages in the whole country. Drop in for an ice-cream at Bar Centrale and for a swim off the side of the promenade there.
After that, keep driving south and around to Lake Garda. The largest lake in the country, Garda is known as a major sports hub. Again, you’ll want to make for its northern side, which is the most dramatic since it’s the closest to the mountains. There, the handsome town of Riva del Garda offers a castle and series of beaches, but also access to the via ferrata routes of Arco town if you’re fancying a challenge.
Day 7: The Dolomites
The Dolomites are legendary mountains. They make for just about the perfect climax to our northern Italy itinerary, 7 days from the Alps to Milan. The drive in from the north side of Garda takes about two or three hours, but you’ll want time to stop and enjoy the view. You also might want a moment in the city of Bolzano, which has an amazing museum that hosts an ice skeleton that’s thought to date back tens of thousands of years.
After that, aim for the gorgeous South Tyrolean town of Ortisei. It’s a pretty one, with a cobbled square watched over by Baroque belltowers. It’s also the gateway to the amazing hike up the Seceda Ridgeline (Google it – the views are second to none). If it’s winter, then this is the gateway to the iconic Val Gardena, one of Italy’s biggest interconnected ski runs and the home of the challenging Sella Ronda ski circuit.