You really can’t go wrong with Italy. It is one of the most exciting destinations in the world. The Italians claim so much history, style, art and great food, they even make the French jealous.
If you’ve been once, you’ve no doubt crossed the Venice-Rome-Florence triangle off your list. Repeat visitors usually knock out the Amalfi coast, Capri, Pompeii and/or Sicily. However, Italy's northwest region often gets wrongly overlooked in favor the more famous spots further south. Places such as Lake Como, Verona and Cinque Terre are all amazing, world-class destinations and will make you just as happy as a visit to the Trevi Fountain or the Colosseum. Lake Como might just be be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, while Verona will undoubtedly enchant you with its Roman amphitheater and Casa di Giulietta, the Gothic-style 1300s house said to have inspired Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
If you have a week, you can se the entire northwest region of Italy at a clip, starting and ending in Milan, with a total of 11 hours of driving in between over the course of seven days. This itinerary might seem fast-paced if you travel to relax or like spend more than one day in a city, but it also gives you a chance to see a whole lot in one week. (And feel free to skip the towns in between if you like to take it slow.)
Staring in Milan, head to Genoa—or Genova, as it’s known in Italy—a port town that many people skip but shouldn't. It’s not really out of the way and it has a nice Old Quarter that’s fun to explore, plus it's the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Columbus’s house is long gone, but there’s a reconstructed version you can visit if you’d like to visualize what things were like before 1492.
An hour further down the coast is Santa Margarita and the quaint little town of Portofino. During high season, the area becomes a madhouse with endless cars and limited parking, so shuttle buses run between the two towns; many travelers opt to leave their vehicle in Santa Margarita and join the Speedo-wearing Europeans on a rocky beach dotted with colorful striped umbrellas. Besides looking a little like the set of The Talented Mr. Ripley, It is the quintessential Italian Riviera experience, especially if you’re sipping on the local drink, an Aperol spritz. Personally, I prefer the villages when both the weather and crowds have cooled.
Plan to make a day out of Portofino, then stay the night near Levanto, where you’ll begin your next day.
Levanto is a reasonably sized town that’s not overrun with tourists and serves as a good base for visiting Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre means “five lands” in Italian and this rugged coastal area consists of five villages that make up one of the world’s most picturesque UNESCO World Heritage Sites. What’s interesting about this area is these towns have been built on the sides of steep cliffs, its buildings beautifully painted in vibrant colors. They’re not really accessible by road, so you'll need to use the local train, walk, or go by boat—this is half of the fun. Each village is unique, and while most are centered around fishing and tourism, there’s terraced agriculture in the area as well. There are tours that leave from Naples, Florence and Milan, and all the towns have small B&Bs that you can book if you plan ahead.
In Levanto, purchase a pass that allows you to hop on a train and go back and forth between the towns, which are lined up on the rail in this order: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggiore. It’s €16 and comes with a little information packet so you don’t have to decipher Italian.
With your pass, you can visit one or all five of the villages, but the last two are usually considered to be the most photogenic. Monterosso is more of a tourist resort with its beaches and bars, and is the only town out of the five that doesn’t have the bright houses perched on cliffs usually associated with Cinque Terre. The other towns are breathtaking and make up some of the prettiest scenery you’ll find in Europe. The villages have retained their charms as their popularity has soared in recent years, but still have a cruise port feel to them. You’ll see limoncello, lots of souvenir shops, and restaurant menus in different languages. You can visit all five towns in a day, have lunch, do some shopping, and stay a night or make it back to your car and drive on to Pisa.
Pisa never disappoints. You’ve grown up seeing photos of the famously leaning tower, you’ve heard the story of Galileo doing gravity experiments from its balcony, and no doubt witnessed its image on countless pizza boxes. There’s something magical about the quirky tower and even if you’ve seen it before, you might just want to pop in and take another picture or two.
Pisa is ultra-touristy and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to buy a mini tower or T-shirt, but sipping a cappuccino or spritz at a little cafe with a view of the tower is priceless. Spend the night here, or go on to nearby Lucca.
Lucca has maintained its ancient fortress walls and although it’s on the tourist grid, it’s a little less crowded than Pisa. There’s some great streets to wander around and if you’re an opera fan, you can visit the house where Puccini lived, go inside the ancient city walls and grab some great gelato.
Florence is next on this route and you could spend days visiting this city, or get an early start and see the main sights in a day. For brevity’s sake, I’ll assume you’ve already visited Florence; however, you’ll find lots of hidden treasures in the city that make it worth revisiting.
From there, head to less-visited Bologna, famous for its mortadella sausage (which America nicknamed bologna, and which has only slightly higher status than Spam in the U.S.) as well as tortellini, tortelloni (the giant version of tortellini), spaghetti Bolognese, and lots of other gastronomic treats.
At first glance, Bologna is not Italy’s most beautiful city. It’s a town of students (it boasts the oldest college in Europe) and it’s not squeaky clean like some of Italy’s more touristy towns. However, it has a great Old Quarter and its ancient porticos make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its most famous sites—the Neptune Fountain, the Plaza Maggiore, and the Leaning Towers of Bologna (yes, that really is a thing—are all within walking distance of one another.
From Bologna, you can stop in nearby Modena, a small town famous for producing Lamborghinis, Ferraris and balsamic vinegar. You can actually get up-close-and-personal with one of the world’s most beloved sports cars at the Enzo Ferrari Museum. The famous opera singer Luciano Pavarotti also lived there; his house is now a museum as well. There’s also the intimate Galleria Estense museum that houses art from the 1400s to 1700s. Modena is a great place to get lunch or dinner. The food in this part of the country is the best that Italy has to offer. Who doesn’t love balsamic vinegar?
The next stop is beautiful Verona. There’s a reason Shakespeare picked this lovely medieval city as a setting for one of the most romantic stories ever told. Piazza delle Erbe is my favorite plaza in any Italian city I’ve ever visited. Its buildings are full of character, with paintings of faces worn by time. You’ll also find a lot of Venetian influences since Verona is in the same state of Veneto as Venice.
The Roman amphitheater is so well-preserved that it’s used as a stadium for modern events, while an ancient Roman aqueduct fringes the medieval part of the city as well. The piece d’ resistance is Casa di Giulietta. Although Romeo and Juliet are fictional characters, a large percentage of the crowds that cram into the small courtyard don't seem to realize or care. A bronze statue of Juliet stands in the small square and it supposedly brings good luck to your love life if you touch her breast. Her balcony above is a picture-perfect example of exactly what you’d expect if you were imagining the story of Juliet calling out to her beloved Romeo below. You can also visit the inside of the house and see clothing used in the Hollywood film.
Verona is a great city for an overnight stay. For a fitting evening meal, sit in one of its beautiful piazzas and sample its famous potato/pasta fusion: gnocchi.
Lake Como is two-and-a-half hours away from Verona and is the postcard-perfect lake you’ve seen in countless movies. George Clooney fell so much in love with it while filming there that he promptly bought a villa. The lake is surrounded by beautiful homes and fringed by picturesque mountains. You can drive around the lake or take a boat for a more unique view. There’s ferries available or motorships, which allow you to hop on and off in any small village. If you prefer, you can just relax and take the two-hour voyage from end to end by hydrofoil.
Bellagio is one of the lake's smaller, more charming towns—and looks nothing like the casino that was named after it. Como is the largest city on the lake and is the place where you’re likely to begin your drive or boat trip.
It’s just a little over an hour drive back to Milan, which is one of Italy’s best cities to use as a flight hub. Its famous Duomo and one of the world’s most famous paintings, The Last Supper, are just a couple of reasons to spend a day or two in this vibrant city. Follow this loose itinerary and you’ll have an amazing trip you can do on your own that will give you access to some of the greatest treasures Italy has to offer.