If you ask any Italian, they will tell you that there is a significant difference between Northern and Southern Italy. Southern Italy is best for seaside escapes and exploring the capital city of Rome.
But Northern Italy is best for biking around the lake, indulging in a variety of local wines, and enjoying the lush green landscape. An ideal Northern Italy travel itinerary should include all of the above. After exploring the Venice, Verona and Lake Garda area for one week, I found that Northern Italy boasts some of Southern Europe’s best cities and landscapes.
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What cities to include in your Northern Italy Travel Itinerary?
The top places in Northern Italy are Venice, Verona, Milan, Lake Garda, Lake Como, and Cinque Terre. However, it would be pretty tough to see this all in a week, even with a car. I recommend picking a maximum of 3 destinations, and then working backwards to figure out your transportation options.
Here’s a breakdown of each destination:
Venice: Best for people that have a bigger budget and can tolerate crowds.
Verona: Best for people looking to see a variety of attractions and travel throughout the region by public transport.
Lake Garda area: Best for slow travelers or bikers who can explore the entire region by bike or car.
Milan: Best for those who enjoy shopping and gothic architecture.
Dolomites: Best for those that love the outdoors, skiing, and mountains. (You can easily do a separate 7-day Dolomites itinerary.)
Lake Como: Best for those with a car interested in luxury travel.
Cinque Terre: Best for those with a car interested in hiking and seaside Italian towns. You can read all about this region here.
I planned my Northern Italy travel itinerary around the fact I didn’t have a car, and wanted to see Burano Island (near Venice), Verona, and Lake Garda. I did this all by public transportation, and I would recommend my itinerary for anyone that wants a varied combination of Northern Italy’s landscape and culture.
How to Get to Northern Italy
To get into the region, I would recommend flying into either Milan or Venice. This is because these are both popular and well connected airports throughout Europe. Easy Jet, Vueling, Volotea, British Airways, and many other budget-friendly airlines fly into both of these airports.
I flew in and out of Venice, but you could also fly out of Milan instead (or vice versa). Alternatively, if you’d like to spend some time in Rome or Florence before, you could fly into either of those airports beforehand.
Transportation in Northern Italy
In terms of actually getting around Northern Italy, you have a few options. It is quite popular to take a Northern Italy road trip for 7 day. This is the best option if you’d like to maximize your time. I also recommend this option if you are prioritizing Lake Como, Lake Garda, and Cinque Terre, which don’t have the best public transport in the area.
However, do note that the traffic is terrible in the peak months of summer. It often can take longer than public transport, which I heard from many locals.
If you don’t want to rent a car, you can consider traveling by train and ferry. The train system is pretty affordable and well-connected. You can also take public ferries around Venice and the Lake Garda region. Plus, it’s a great way to cut down on your carbon footprint.
How I spent one week in Northern Italy: Venice, Verona, Lake Garda
I spent 3 nights in Venice and 4 nights in Verona, and saw Venice, Verona, and some of Lake Garda. My itinerary can be tailored if you decide to go to some of the other cities in the region, or if you decide on a 5 or 10-day itinerary instead.
Venice area (2 nights)
Venice is truly a place that is amazing to experience at least once in your life. It’s hard not to be fascinated by by the Venetian empire’s history, art, and culture, dating back to the 5th century. I personally don’t think you need more than 3 days in Venice to experience the best. I ended up spending three days in two nights and it was perfect.
However, it should be noted that Venice has become a cautionary tale for over-tourism, especially during the peak summer season with many cruise ships. The rising cost of rent has pushed many locals out of the city, and the sea levels are rising due to climate change and the environmental stressors of tourism.
In 2019, Venice will be charging visitors an entry fee starting at $2 a person, up to $11 a person in the peak season. For this reason, I think it is ideal to visit Venice from November until April when it is less crowded.
The new slogan for Venice is #EnjoyRespectVenezia. I’d recommend reading up on this to minimize your impact and respect Venice while visiting.
Day 1: Arrive in Venice
(day) The trek from the mainland Venice airport to the city center of Venice is quite long, so I would factor in that this can take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half. Depending on when you get in, I would recommend not cramming in too much on your first night.
(evening) I’ve been to Venice twice, and I always tell people to start with exploring the Rialto Bridge area. This is because it is very central and easy to navigate, which isn’t true for all of the tricky, tiny streets in Venice. There’s also many shops, restaurants, gelato shops, and gondola stops in this area as well.
I stumbled into a restaurant called Ostaria Antico Dolo, which was a cute and affordable mom-and-pop shop with great gluten free pasta and wine.
Day 2: Take a day trip to Burano Island
(day) One of the main reasons I came back to Venice was to visit the colorful island of Burano. Using my 36-hour public transport pass, I took the 45-minute boat ride from Venice for no additional cost. I’d consider that a steal!
The story behind these colorful hues makes the houses all the more vibrant. For decades, this small fishing village used bright colors so that local fisherman could see their houses from offshore. This way when they came in at night, they could tell which one was theirs.
Today, the houses are repainted every few years, and the locals have to petition if they would like to change their house to a new color. The island is also known for its lace, which dates back to the 1500s. You can visit the Lace Museum in Burano for the full history, or shop within many of the local lace shops.
I loved getting lost in the side streets off of the main colorful houses. Actually, I took all of these pictures on my own with a tripod! However, I would recommend to be mindful of getting too close to any of the houses. I noticed some Italian grandmothers would come out of their houses and stare at me, pretty obvious that they wanted me to go away. It is their homes, after all.
Burano does get pretty crowded, so I recommend trying to get there as early as possible.
I decided not to stop at the island of Murano, which is known for it’s glass, on the way back to Venice. However, this is another popular island, but not nearly as photogenic.
(evening) If you have a bit larger of a budget, I would recommend seeing a show in Venice.
For anyone that is interested in classical music like myself (played in orchestra for 10 years!), you should really try to go see a quartet show. Since Vivaldi was from Venice, there are many different quartets that will play the tradition “four seasons” concert.
Day 3: Check out the market and book shop
(day) The morning would also be a perfect time to hop on a gondola, since it is less crowded. You can get a discounted price if you ride with other passengers. Otherwise if you go with a couple, it will likely be around $40 per person for about a half hour. It is an experience to have, even though it can be somewhat pricey.
After, I would recommend checking out the Rialto market. You can check out the fresh fish, fruit and vegetables, and either grab some local foods for a picnic, or snacks for later on the train to Verona.
Before you leave Venice, don’t forget to stop at Acqua Alta Library Bookshop. This is one the oldest bookshops in Venice, and claims to be one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. It’s filled with old Italian novels, maps, posters and other knick knacks. There’s even a flight of stairs made out of old books. This is probably one of the most unique attractions in Venice, but it does fill up fast in the afternoon.
Transportation in Venice
I highly recommend getting a 1,2,or 3 day public transport pass from the Venice tourist office, which is called “Venezia Unica”. They sell these at the airport, or at the office in town.
You can also get an addition discount on this if you are under 30. This gives you access to all of the waterbuses within Venice, and even to the island of Burano and Murano. I bought a one-way bus ticket from the airport to the central Venice area, and the 36 hour pass for 34 euros. Not bad, since this also included by day trip to Burano. You can also book private transfer if you prefer.
Venice to Verona by train
The best way to get to Verona from Venice is by taking the train from the central Santa Lucia station. You can either take the express train, which goes directly to Verona for around 30 euros, which takes about an hour and 10 minutes. Or you can take the train that is a little bit longer, around an hour and a half, for 9 euros. The latter was a no-brainer for me.
You can either buy a one-way or round trip back to Venice either online or at the train station. Make sure to validate your ticket before boarding, and should Verona be the last stop. Sometimes the train does go all the way to Bresica, however.
Verona itinerary (4 nights)
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Verona is probably my favorite city in Italy. The Roman city is a combination of old-world architecture, amphitheaters, quant balconies and riverside walkways surrounded by a green and lush landscape. It definitely has a different vibe than most other European cities I’ve visited, and even many other Italian cities.
Compared to Venice, it’s much more affordable, the people are nicer, and it’s easier to navigate. If you’re not crazy about seeing Venice, I would either go for a day trip and skip entirely and see Verona for more time instead (this will also be significantly cheaper). I think Verona is a good base to explore the entire Northern Italy area Verona was a strategic position and under Roman rule, which is seen through the bold Roman architecture throughout the city.
The people of Verona are very friendly and have a strong sense of pride, being from “Verona first and Italy second” as a few locals told me.As the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Verona is very romantic with hundreds of balconies. No surprise why it’s actually known as the city of balconies.
I think seeing all of the major attraction in Verona within a day is doable, but not necessarily enjoyable. The city has a relaxed atmosphere, and some of the best parts about the city, such as the side streets, quant coffee shops and boutiques, are not really attractions at all. For this reason, I’d say you need at least two days to experience Verona.
Day 4: Visit Verona’s Castle and Roman Theatre
(day) I often like to start exploring a city by taking in the views from above. Castel San Pietro is one of the most iconic landmarks in Italy with the best view of Verona. From here you have a panoramic view of the entire city, and it’s easier to navigate the rest of the town from here. From here, you can easily walk down to the Roman Theatre, which also has a gorgeous view over the entire city. The entrance does cost about 4 euros.
You can easily walk down the Ponte Pietra bridge and head south towards Casa Di Giuletta. This is a fictional house based on Romeo and Juliette. Unless you’re super into the books, it’s best to quick pop in to see the love letters on the wall. It is very touristy.
(evening) In the evening, I would recommend heading to the Piazza Erbe area of town for dinner and drinks. Also, depending on if there is a show, you could also check the schedule for the Verona Arena or Roman Theatre.
Day 5: Take a day trip to Lake Garda and surrounding Verona Vineyards
(day) Seeing Lake Garda for at least a day is a must while in Verona, so I made sure to include this in my itinerary. The most popular day trip from Verona are either Sirmione or Garda town. It is hard to see this area without a car, so I would recommend booking a day-trip as public transport is a bit patchy in the region.
Sirmione is known for having ancient Roman ruins on a large peninsula that sits at the base of the lake. I didn’t have time to stop here, but it is probably one of the most popular places for tourists, with lots of shops, restaurants, shops, and hotels. It’s about an hour from Verona by bus. I opted to visit the town of Garda instead.
Garda is gorgeous for taking a swim, renting a bike, or just walking along the lake. There’s not a ton to see in the town, but the surround nature is gorgeous.
(evening) If you do go to Garda, I highly recommend stopping at a vineyard in one of the smaller provinces on the way back to Verona. We stopped in the Valpolicella area, which has a breathtaking view of the La Grola hill.
I was also here during Italian independence day, so we went to an Italian farm to table restaurant in the countryside. Otherwise, another stop on the way back from Garda could be the thermal hot springs in the area of Lasize.
Day 6: Visit the Verona Arena and Castelvecchio Bridge
(day) I don’t know what made me more sad during my trip. That I somehow missed that Bob Dylan was playing in the Verona Arena the day after I left, or that I couldn’t go in and see the Arena because they were setting up for his concert.
The Verona Arena is actually the largest functional musical Arena that exists today. Because of the acoustics of the roman structure, it’s possible to hear performers naturally because of it’s functional design. The entrance costs about 8 euros, but I would advise going there earlier in the morning and maybe checking the hours the day before.
They often set up for concerts and this can affect the schedule. I would give yourself a maximum of an hour and a half here. The entire area around the arena is also gorgeous, even if it is very touristy. It’s a combination of colorful cafes, archways, and green spaces.
While there are many gelato shops around Italy, one you MUST try is Grom. This is in Verona, Venice, and many other locations. They have probably some of the best gelato I’ve ever had, and everything is gluten free. Many things are also dairy-free. What’s coolest of all is that everything in the store is also recyclable or compostable, including their spoons, cups and napkins!
After grabbing ice cream (or lunch) I’d recommend heading over to the Castelvecchio Bridge. The bridge was built in the 13th century, but then later destroyed by the fleeing German troops. Today it is fully intact and one of the most magnificent attractions in Verona.
If you were feeling ambitious and had time, I would also recommend checking out the Giardina Giusti, which is a beautiful garden that is a bit outside the city. (evening) The last evening in Verona is best spent doing any last minute shopping or indulging in the amazing Italian food. If you’re looking for an authentic Italian restaurant, though it’s a bit outside of the city, I recommend trying Pizzeria Al Glicini. I had the best pizza I’ve ever had here! Completely forgot that it was even gluten free.
Day 7: Depart and head to airport
Whether you’re going back to Venice or the Milan airport, it’s good to give yourself at least an hour and a half to get there. You may buy your ticket online or at the box office if going by train.
Or, if you’d like to make your trip 10 or 14 days instead of 7, you could go on to explore the Milan and Lake Como area after Verona. I unfortunately didn’t have time for this. However, I would love to go back to Verona and onwards to explore Milan.
My northern Italy trip was a solo trip of a lifetime, but I also think it is perfect for couples, families, or friends looking to see the best of the region. There’s certainly an energy about Northern Italy that is hard to find anywhere else.