7 Days in Northern Italy Itinerary: Pastels, Prosciutto & Parmigiana

northern italy itinerary covering lake maggiore, lake como, parma, bologna and bergamo


The Best Northern Italy Itinerary


If you’ve visited Italy before and want to venture off the beaten path, I highly recommend Northern Italy! We recently spent a couple weeks in and around Milan, exploring Italy’s northern lake towns, foodie cities and pastel coastal villages.

The best time to visit is in spring or fall, when the scent of magnolia and lemons bloom along the region’s quaint cobblestone roads. I’ve put together a Northern Italy itinerary below featuring some of my favorite small cities and towns that we visited!

Keep reading for advice on planning a Northern tour of Italy!


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7 day northern italy itinerary
northern italy itinerary
northern italy in 1 week






1 Week in Northern Italy


When planning my trip to Northern Italy’s small towns and charming cities, I relied heavily on Rick Steves’ Italy guidebook.

It’s a great planning resource with lots of information on popular sights, timetables and transportation info as well as hotel and restaurant recommendations. I definitely recommend grabbing his guidebook before your trip to Italy.

With that being said, Rick Steves has curated his version of what he thinks American visitors to Italy would like. He omits a lot of beautiful places in Northern Italy that deserve a visit! I did additional planning research through family / word of mouth and online forums and blogs to put the below itinerary together.






7 Day Northern Italy Itinerary

Personally, I love quaint towns, charming architecture and good food so that’s the theme for my Italy trip.

I also hate crowds so I did a number of day trips that were off the well-beaten Italy tourist path. To find out about quaint day trips in Northern Italy, you can check out this post.

Below is my recommended 7 day itinerary for Northern Italy which covers the highlights and must-see cities.


Days 1-2: Lake Maggiore


Located at the foot of the Swiss Alps, there are 5 major lakes in Northern Italy: Maggiore, Orta, Como, Iseo and Garda.

Here you’ll find aristocratic, old-world romance, quaint villages and glacial lakes fed from the Swiss Alps. With dramatic limestone peaks, sleek Rivieria sailing boats and incredible local wines and spas, it was easy to fall in love.

I think most Americans overlook the Italian Lakes in favor of the Amalfi Coast, but what they don’t realize is that they’re seriously missing out! For a base, pick either Stresa or Baveno. All the boats that go to the islands stop at both towns. Stresa is larger, with more hotels and shops, while Baveno is cozier and less touristy.






Things to do in Lake Maggiore

  • Visit the beautiful botanical gardens of Villa Taranto where over 300 dahlias bloom in spring
  • Explore the Baroque palace of Isola Bella and its stunning pyramid garden.
  • Have a fresh seafood dinner on Isola Superior (also called Isola dei Pescatori or Fisherman's Island)
  • Take the alpine cable car to the top of Mount Mottarone for dramatic panoramic views
  • Spend the afternoon in Lake Orta with its lakeside piazza and excellent gelato shops!
  • Visit the Basilica di San Giulio a monumental old seminary that dominates the tiny island
  • If you like gardens, Isola Madre has a beautiful villa and exotic plants


Where to Stay in Lake Maggiore: Grand Hotel Dino

Baveno was a popular resort town for aristocratic Italian families during the Romantic Age so the best hotels around here have Victorian names, grand staircases and waterfront promenades.

Our corner room was spacious, comfortable and clean with a beautiful balcony overlooking Lake Maggiore. The hotel has been family owned for 150 years so it's dated, but in a charming way. You can wander for hours on the property – it's huge!

There's an excellent on site restaurant Last Hall, that was designed by Paolo Maldotti and has cool, egg shaped wine barrel seating. With fantastic modern Piedmont cuisine, a couple swimming pools, ivy covered walkways and a fantastic location along Lake Maggiore, there are so many reasons to stay at Grand Hotel Dino.

The dock for water taxis and boats is right off the edge of the hotel too!

Book rooms: Hotels.comBooking.comTravelocity

Check prices: TripAdvisor





Days 3-4: Lake Como


Lake Como is a quick getaway from Milan. From the sleepy village of Varenna to posh Bellagio and dreamy Balbianello, the entire area is lovely!

If you want a relaxing vacation, the lakes of Como are perfect. Hopefully you have time to visit both the sights of Lake Maggiore and the towns of Lake Como. Even though they are both part of the Italian Lakes region, they’re quite different and both worth a trip!

 Read more:  Where to Stay in Lake Como






Things to do in Lake Como

  • Relax with an apertivo in Varenna's tiny harbor. Don't forget to wander its narrow lanes until you find its castle, Piazza San Giorgio and church.
  • Try the local specialties: lavarello, a white lake fish and missoltino, pasta with salted fish
  • Shop the boutiques in classy Bellagio, a substantial island town with busy streets stuffed full of restaurants and stores

If you’re tight on time you can explore the highlights of Lake Como on a day trip from Milan. I would definitely recommend staying overnight though, to properly soak in the charm and avoid the tourist hoards who swarm the towns during the day.

If you can only make a day trip, check all the ferry timetables before hand – they run selectively throughout the day so you’ll want to properly time the ferries, islands and train back to Milan to make sure you can fit everything in 1 day.


Where to Stay in Lake ComoHotel Villa Cipressi

Varenna was my favorite of the towns on Lake Como. It's quieter, with lots of charm. Villa Cipressi is located near the church, a bit higher than the waterfront so the rooms have excellent views of the lake.

It's an older hotel but incredibly beautiful and the staff is great. If the restaurant is open, try it! It's known for its food.

The best part of Villa Cipressi is that guests have access to the private gardens which run along the lake. Really amazing gardens that are terraced into the village!

Book rooms: Hotels.comBooking.comTravelocity 

Check prices: TripAdvisor





Day 5: Day Trip to Bergamo


Bergamo is a medieval city in Northern Italy that was held by the Venetians for many years. It’s such a unique town to visit in Italy because the Old Town is built on top of the modern town.

Ride the funicular to the top of the medieval city and explore its grand plazas, impressive churches and romantic art museums. It’s well off the tourist trail so the food here is classic Northern Italian cuisine and delicious!

We gorged ourselves on stuffed pastas richly cooked in brown butter sage sauce and then walked it off on the old Venetian walls which once served as the city’s defenses.





Bergamo Italy Lombardy Town


Things to do in Bergamo

  • Ride the funicular which connects Bergamo's two city centers
  • See the Cappella Colleoni, a gorgeous red and white marble mausoleum
  • Climb up to the ancient Rocca di Bergamo fortress for a great view of the Italian hills – all the way to Milan!
  • Walk the magnificent Venetian walls and catch the sunset!
  • Try the local pasta, pizzoccheri, a buckwheat pasta with greens, potatoes and lots of cheese!


Where to Stay in BergamoHotel Relais San Lorenzo

This modern 5 star hotel has 30 elegant rooms, an on site restaurant and spa. It's one of the most classic hotel choices in the city and its lounge bar is perfect for cocktails and sunset dinners, as it has a view of the town center and Alps!

Book rooms: Hotels.comBooking.comTravelocity 

Check prices: TripAdvisor





Day 6: Parma


Now it’s time to eat! Head to the foodie city of Parma, famous throughout Italy and the world for its production of prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is the capital of Italy’s cured meat production and I highly recommend visiting local prosciutto and parmigiano factories.

Parma was the first city in Italy to be heralded a UNESCO creative city for Gastronomy and there are more than enough restaurants to fill your belly with amazing delicacies.

From Parma ham to Parmesan cheese, Parma is world famous! This is also the city where Barilla pasta originated and where Lambrusco wine is plentiful. Parma, Italy is quite compact so you can easily explore it on foot.






Things to do in Parma

  • Learn how to make real parmigiano reggiano at an Italian caseificio, or dairy farm
  • Explore a prosciutto factory… just prepare yourself now for the smell!
  • Wander through Parma, a lively university town known for its famous 19th century opera house, art museums and Romanesque buildings


Where to Stay in ParmaStarhotels Du Parc

Great location within walking distance of Parma's old city center. There's free parking on site and the rooms are clean, simple and comfortable. If you want an affordable room at a great location, Starhotels is a solid choice.

Book rooms: Hotels.comBooking.comTravelocity 

Check prices: TripAdvisor





Days 7: Bologna


Bologna is the capital of Italy’s Emilia Romagna region and sprawling. It’s the 7th most populous city in Italy and after a high speed train was built to connect it to Milan, it’s both a convenient city to visit and crowded to boot!

Bologna is famous for its beautiful plazas and arched colonnades which can be found all over town. In medieval times, the town was dominated by two families whose towers can be explored today. Make room in your stomachs – Bologna is a foodie’s paradise!

 Read more:  6 Fun Day Trips from Bologna






Things to do in Bologna

  • Bologna is nicknamed La Grassa (the fat) by local Italians for its delicious food. Try both tortellini en brodo and tagliatelle al ragù here.
  • Explore the world's oldest university, the University of Bologna, famous for its creepy anatomical theater where dissections were once performed
  • Try several scoops at the Gelato Museum and at gelato shops all over town. La Sorbetteria Castiglione makes some of the best gelato in Italy!
  • Climb the Two Towers to see aerial views of Bologna's red roofs.


Where to Stay in BolognaAemilia Hotel

Bologna is a huge town so visitors can choose to stay either neither the train station in modern day Bologna, or near the historic city center. If you prefer the charm of the latter, Aemilia is a fantastic, modern hotel with affordable rates and clean spacious rooms.

Rates include a pretty extensive complimentary breakfast (this is Italy so most hotels offer a bare bones yogurt / espresso) and there's also a convenient parking garage next door. Overall the hotel is located in a quiet and peaceful part of town.

If you love a good city view, you'll enjoy the roof terrace! It has excellent views over all of Bologna and the famous Assineli tower. If you also want to do any day trips from Bologna, the hotel is about a 10 minute bus ride from the train station!

Book rooms: Hotels.comBooking.comTravelocity

Check rates: TripAdvisor





Visiting Northern Italy

There are so many more towns in Northern Italy to explore but I picked my absolute favorite small Italian cities for this itinerary, in order to keep it to 1 week.


Northern Italy in 7 Days

Here’s a recap of my recommended 7 day Northern Italy itinerary.

Days Cities Overnight
Days 1-2 Lake Maggiore’s beautiful islands Stresa
Days 3-4 Lake Como: Varenna & Bellagio Varenna
Day 5 Day Trip to Bergamo, a medieval tale of two cities Parma
Day 6 Parma: famous for prosciutto & Parmesan production Parma
Days 7 Bolgona: nicknamed La Grassa, or “the fat” for its great eats Bologna


If you have more time, there’s much much more to see, and you can get additional inspiration in my Northern Italy article here and in my Italian Lakes post here. Or, you could take on Switzerland! Happy planning!





What are you most looking forward to in Northern Italy? Let me know any questions in the comments below!


Visiting Italy – Trip Planning Checklist

There's so much to see and do in Italy that you can visit again and again and still discover new sights. I recommend concentrating on the big 4 cities (Rome, Venice, Milan & Florence) if it's your first time and then coming back to explore either Northern Italy or Southern Italy in more depth.

Go | Flight prices from the US to Italy are highly seasonal. You can set a fare alert here to be notified of discounts. Every fall & winter, I've seen great deals to Milan. One word of caution: avoid Alitalia at all costs!

Getting Around | A convenient way to explore Italy is via high speed train. You can search train schedules and book online here. Buy your tickets in advance to save on fares. Make sure to validate your ticket on the platform!

It also helps to speak a little Italian. Brush up on your Italian language skills with Rosetta Stone. You can take 10% off with promo code CJBT10.

Stay | Book hotels in advance to save, or check here for last minute deals. Many hotels in Italy are older so don't be surprised if even 5 star accommodation feels slightly dated. Opt for a room with a view instead of breakfast, as Italians don't eat breakfast in the same way Americans do and you'll probably be disappointed with their offering.

Alternatively, groups or budget travelers can check out Airbnb

Protect | Lastly, be sure to visit Italy with travel insurance. Whether you get injured and need to be hospitalized, your phone gets stolen, or a flight delay leaves you with nothing but the clothes on your back, travel insurance will help when you need it most.

A rail strike occurred during our trip, unexpectedly shutting down transportation for an entire day. Get a quote for your Italy trip here.


 You Might Also Enjoy: 


Italy Vacation Planning Articles

The First Timer's Guide to Italy: A Classic Itinerary

THIS is the Best Time to Visit Italy

What to Wear in Italy: A Packing Checklist


Northern Italy

The Most Beautiful Places in Northern Italy (that are still a secret!)

Headed to Northern Italy? Here's the Perfect 7 Day Itinerary

Exploring Bologna: Travel Guide

Quick Guides to: Bologna Day Trips & The Best Bologna Restaurants

Visiting Parma: The Center of Parma Ham & Cheese

7 Reasons to Explore Medieval Bergamo

Visiting Ravenna's Mosaics

Test Driving Fast Cars & Touring Car Museums in Italy's Motor Valley


Cinque Terre

Plan Your Trip: Travel Guide

How to Choose Which Village to Stay

A Blissful 3 Day Cinque Terre Itinerary

The Best Cinque Terre Airbnbs for Large Groups

Quick Guides: The Best RestaurantsPopular Hiking Trails

Inspiration: Photo Diary of the 5 Villages


The Italian Lakes

Exploring Lake Como: Travel Guide & Where to Stay

Quick Guides to: Varenna, Bellagio & Villa del Babianello

Visiting Lake Maggiore

Quick Guides to: Isola Bella & Villa Taranto

Discovering Hidden Lake Orta


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  1. Ted Riley
    September 6, 2019 / 6:26 pm

    I have been to Italy 3 times in the last three years. I have never been to northern Italy and want to go. Can I follow your 7 day northern Italy itinerary using trains and buses. I will be flying from Boston Ma. and will only fly without connecting flights. I have no problem booking my own air, hotel and train reservations. I have Rick’s guide book and have studied Italian on line for two years. I don’t want to pay for a tour. Your thoughts please.

    • Sher
      September 6, 2019 / 6:37 pm

      Hi Ted – You’ll love Northern Italy! You can fly into Milan and use the city as a hub to get train connections all over Northern Italy (like Bologna, Ravenna, Venice, Parma, etc). The only area in my itinerary where transportation is a little trickier is the Italian Lakes region.

      Without a car or tour, I’d suggest visiting Lake Como instead of the other lakes. You can take the train from Milan to Varenna, then hop on a local boat to explore the Como villages. I have more transportation info on my Lake Como series. Start with this Como guide and feel free to check out my posts on the individual towns too!

  2. Ted Riley
    September 7, 2019 / 5:29 pm

    Thank you soooooo much for the response. I will figure this out.I really want to put this together

  3. Lucy
    February 25, 2020 / 10:39 pm

    I notice that you use Milan as your base city for the 7 day northern Italy tour. What are your thoughts of using Bologna as a home base? Or do you have any other recommendations?

    • Sher
      February 26, 2020 / 12:11 am

      Hi Lucy! Bologna is a good base too because the frequent train connections. It depends on your itinerary though, some of the Northern Italy destinations route through Milan, so you might find yourself backtracking a lot.

      For example, if you want to see Bologna, Milan, and the Italian Lakes, you probably don’t want to go all the way back to Bologna every night.

      But if you’re going to visit Bologna, Parma, Modena, Ravenna and maybe Venice, Bologna is a great base.

      Once you’ve decided on the towns you want to visit, browse the train schedules on Omio for your dates and then you can plan out the most straight forward (and cost effective) route :)

  4. Greta Morrison
    March 8, 2021 / 8:24 am

    Would love to visit northern Italy in 2022

    • Sher
      March 8, 2021 / 12:38 pm

      Same! Here’s to hoping it becomes reality…

  5. Toxok
    February 23, 2023 / 1:35 am

    Nice Ideas.

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