We often have clients who want to kick off their Italy itinerary with a few days on the Ligurian coast (the Cinque Terre is the headliner, of course, but we also nudge travelers to stay near the equally charming but much less crowded Portofino peninsula) before continuing south to Florence, Rome, and even the Amalfi Coast. For these trips, we suggest flying into Milan and out of another city closer to the final stop on their itinerary.
Most travelers want to make the most of every second in Italy, hitting the ground running when their plane touches down in Milan and diving straight into the almost 4-hour drive to the coast. We often suggest considering breaking up the trip with a stop in a charming small town or city between the Malpensa or Linate airport and Liguria, however, to catch your breath, sleep off a bit of your jetlag, and avoid reaching the coastline late at night.
The opposite is true of ending a trip on the Ligurian Coast and flying out of Milan, of course. Most flights leave in the morning, requiring travelers to get up in the pre-dawn hours to make the drive and get to the airport in plenty of time to check in…an exhausting way to end an otherwise unforgettable holiday.
Here are a couple of great towns for a stop between Milan and Cinque Terre, whether you’re kicking off your Italy trip or bringing it to a close.
Set in the heart of the Lomellina Valley about 45 minutes south of Milan’s Malpensa airport, Vigevano is a gem so hidden that many Milanese have never visited, though this architectural jewel is just about half an hour from the city.
Almost completely devoid of tourists, the town has a dazzling main square, the Renaissance-era Piazza Ducale, considered by many to be the prettiest piazza in Italyh (the great conductor Toscanini called it a “symphony with four walls”). It was built in the late 15th century under the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, as a breathtaking forecourt to the city’s Castello Sforzesco, one of the largest fortified complexes in Europe and his summer residence.
In addition to its architectural treasures, Vigevano has a charmingly authentic atmosphere with shops and restaurants bursting with locals. The city has long been known for its shoe production (there is even a shoe museum in town), so a great place to scratch that shopping itch.
Read more about Vigevano here: 5 Reasons to Visit the Town of Vigevano
If you have a sweet tooth, you may want to stop between Milan and the Cinque Terre in the charming town of Novi Ligure, home to two historic chocolate brands: Pernigotti and Novi. Pernigotti, founded in 1860, is famous for its creamy Gianduiotto chocolate and hazelnut candy, as well as and nut-studded nougats. Novi, founded in 1903, is the beloved producer of milk and dark chocolate bars and chocolate hazelnut spread.
Located in the Scrivia Valley just across the border from Liguria in Piedmonte (hence the name) and about 90 minutes south of Milan Malpensa airport, the town is surrounded by the rolling hills of the Genoese Apennine mountain and was where wealthy families from Genoa would once have their weekend and summer residence. Still today there are a smattering of historic noble residences in the old town sporting beautifully painted facades. Them most famous include Palazzo Negroni, Palazzo Durazzo, and Palazzo Delle Piane.
Like Vigevano, Novi Ligure has very little tourism so is a great spot to enjoy the feel of a “lived-in” Italian town. The restaurants are excellent here and reflect the border location, as the local cuisine mixes Piedmontese and Ligurian specialties.
Read more about Novi Ligure here: Cycling and Shopping near Novi Ligure
More of a small city than a town, Piacenza is a Gothic delight set in the northernmost reaches of Emilia Romagna, about an hour and 20 minutes south of the Milan Malpensa airport. Once the end of the line for Roman soldiers traveling along the Via Emilia from Rimini, today this stately town is known for its spectacular architecture and countless churches (the city was once known as La Città delle Cento Chiese, or the City of 100 Churches.
Be sure to stroll through the bustling main Piazza dei Cavalli, dominated by the 13th-century town hall, the Palazzo Gotico, and named for its two baroque equestrian statues depicting the Farnese dukes Alessandro and Ranuccio. These same dukes were part of the wealthy and powerful dynasty behind the massive Palazzo Farnese on the northern edge of the historic center, a massive 16th-century fortified palace (never completed) that now houses a collection of museums.
Of Piacenza’s many (many) surviving churches, those that get top billing include the Romanesque Duomo, the Renaissance Santa Maria in Campagna, and San Savino not far from the train station. This latter is home to two stunning 11th-century mosaics, one of the city’s cultural treasures.
Piacenza may be in Emilia Romagna, but its proximity to the region of Lombardy just across the border flavors the local cuisine and makes it a but different than what you’ll find in Bologna and Parma. Try pisarei e fasò (tiny dumplings in a thick tomato and borlotti bean sauce), coppa al forno (roasted pork neck), and picula di caval (horse meat stew with peppers and vegetables), washed down with sparkling Bonarda and Gutturnio reds of Malvasia white wines.
This town just an hour south of Milan’s Malpensa airport is steeped in history and makes for a great stop between Milan and the Cinque Terre. Founded by the Romans, it’s home to one of the oldest universities in Europe and the lively historic center is home to a number of worthwhile sights like the 15th-century Duomo (designed in part by Leonardo da Vinci and Donato Bramante) and Romanesque Basilica of San Michele, Visconti Castle, and the Collegio Borromeo and Collegio Ghislieri at the University of Pavia.
Perhaps the city’s most famous landmark is its Carthusian monastery, the Certosa di Pavia. One of Italy’s top Renaissance treasures, this richly decorated complex includes chapels, cloisters, a sacristy, and a courtyard.
Just to the south of Pavia and across the River Pò lies one of northern Italy’s best kept secrets: rolling countryside and historic villages of the Oltrepò Pavese. Known as the “Tuscany of northern Italy”, this stretch of Lombardy is known for its vineyard-covered hills dotted with delightful villages…perfect for hilltown hopping for a day. The prettiest towns include Fortunago,
Varzi, Zavattarello, Golferenzo, San Ponzo, and Godiasco.
Read more about Pavia here: Pavia
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