Last updated on May 14th, 2020 at 01:43 pm
When it comes to northern Italy, there are so many stunning cities from the Italian Alps to the rolling vineyards of Tuscany. Trying to plan an itinerary for the entire northern Italy is difficult, and you’re going to have to make some sacrifices. But fear not! I’ve spent months exploring this part of Italy, and I’m here to help you pick and choose what you want to see and how to see as much as you can:
- 1 Travelling in Northern Italy
- 2 Understanding Northern Italy
- 3 Northern Italy itinerary highlight (14 days)
- 3.1 Venice – 3 days
- 3.2 Verona – 2 days
- 3.3 Milan – 2 days
- 3.4 Bologna – 2 days
- 3.5 Florence – 3 days
- 3.6 Cinque Terre – 3 days
- 4 Northern Italy itinerary with nature (8-10 days)
- 5 Discover Veneto – 10 days
- 6 Discover Emilia Romagna – 10 days
Travelling in Northern Italy
Unless you head up towards the mountains and explore the Dolomites, you don’t need a car to get around Italy.
Train in Italy
Their train network is fantastic, with fast trains linking major cities such as Venice, Milan, and Genova. However, bear in mind that fast trains are not cheap but slow trains are not reliable. I have spent an hour between Verona and Milan on a regional train due to technical difficulties.
Getting a ticket at the station can be a bit of a shore, as the queue for both the ticket counter and machines can often be long. Which is why I recommend using the Omio app. Sometimes you get slapped with a 50cent booking fee, but you won’t need to remember to validate your ticket or queue to see if there are seats on your desired train. It even notifies you if your train is late.
It’s often much better to book the train in advance, especially the fast ones, because the price increases as the date approaches and they get sold out.
Renting a car in Italy
Driving in Italian city is not for everyone, but for those going to the mountains or countryside it’s the only option. The best place to rent a car is at the airport, and usually the smaller the cheaper. I’d advise you to book with bigger companies instead of cheaper one, because they often want to up sell you on an insurance package and some even withhold your deposit.
Always, always, always check reviews online extensively and compare prices!
Understanding Northern Italy
There are a total of 9 provinces in northern Italy, with the most famous being Tuscany and Veneto. Overall, you can split it into the mountains, the cities, and countryside, and the coastline. But since we’re covering the whole of northern Italy, here’s a quick overview:
- Trentino-Alto – the main region where the Dolomites is located, it’s perfect for nature lovers
- Veneto – the former Venetia Empire with the crown jewel Venice. Other beautiful cities are Padua, Verona, and it also extends up and include some part of the Dolomites
- Lombardy – neighboring both of the above, it is where Milan is with Lake Como and mountain towns, too
- Piedmont – a lesser known region with the historic Turin east of Lombardy
- Liguria – stretches along the coast from the French Riviera down, it’s home to Cinque Terre
- Emilia-Romagna – south of Lombardy and Veneto, this is a region of hidden gems and the foody region with Bologna as its center. There’s also the independent city state San Marino.
- Tuscany – wine, rolling hills, and culture, Florence is no doubt the most famous of Tuscany’s city.
Northern Italy itinerary highlight (14 days)
Want to see everything? Here are some of the top cities to visit in Northern Italy in 2 weeks! It’s a bit packed, so if you can, skip one or two based on preference to focus more on the others. If not, you should still be able to see the highlights
Venice – 3 days
Kick off your adventures at the capital of the once mighty Venetian Empire. Venice is like a step back in time with canals, bridges, and palazzos, a relic from a glamorous time. Its main sights are crowded, yes, but there are quiet pockets, a side street between canals where it’s just you and hundreds of years of history. If it’s your first time, be sure to hit all the highlights – I have a guide on the best passes in Venice that can save you money sightseeing.
Here is an rough itinerary for you to follow:
Day 1 – Wander around Venice and discover its nooks and crannies! There are simply too many photogenic spots. Then join a food tour to explore the Venetian way of life and sample the Italian cuisine.
Book in advance for a slot on the rooftop on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (for free) to gaze over the main canal, before seeking out the pretty Libreria Acqua Alta Di Frizzo Luigi to see the book staircase.
Day 2 – Visit the Doge’s Palace on the Secret Itinerary tour in the morning, then join a boat trip to see the islands of Venice: Burano, Murano, and Torcello. Known for their colourful houses, lace, and as the first settlement respectively. Round off the day by visiting the St Mark’s Basilica and watch the sunset at the square.
Where to stay in Venice
Mid-range: for mid-range, there are some choices for inside Venice main town. B&B Da Nina Venice is a cute and clean place and relatively spacious. Locanda Barbarigo is more centrally located with a venetian vibe.
Verona – 2 days
The city of love is arguably my favourite in northern Italy. A thriving city since the Roman times, you’ll find one of the best surviving Roman Amphitheater, gates, bridges as well as the houses of a Shakespeare tragic lover, Romeo and Juliet. You can see all the highlights in 2 – 3 days and getting a Verona Card can save you money – here’s a review.
Day 3 – Take the morning train from Venice to Verona, which should be around 1-2 hours depending on how fast it is. Drop your luggage off at your accommodation and go on a hunt for all things Romeo and Juliet! It’s very likely that they were real people that Shakespear adapted. I highly recommend heading up to Piazza San Pietro for an unparalleled sunset view over the city!
If you just so happen to be in Verona during August and September, why not get a ticket (which starts at 25 euros) to see an opera in the grand Amphitheater? I’ve done that a few times and had a blast!
Day 4 – the main sights of Verona can be done in one day if you are ambitious. Use the Verona Card to get the max benefits. Key sights are the Palazzo Vecchio and the beautiful red brick bridge, the churches dotted around the city, the Roman bridge Ponte Pietro. I’ve also got some off the beaten path suggestions, too.
Where to stay in Verona
Mid-range: I stayed at B&B Casapiu Piazza Erbe on my first visit to Verona and it’s amazingly located but still nice and quiet. B&B Casanova is not as close to Juliet’s house but a good walking distance everywhere with good reviews.
Splurge: Hotel Milano & SPA***S is just across the road from the Roman Amphitheater that can be seen from the rooftop. Corte Realdi Suites Piazza Erbe has classical decor and a lovely terrace and view.
Milan – 2 days
The fashion capital is not only a stylish city, but also home to the largest Chinatown in Italy. I must admit, my first visit to Milan was lovely but it didn’t make me love the city. My second time, however, I began to warm up. Compared to Venice and Verona, it’s a more living, working, and hustling hub, and I adore how it is both modern and old.
Day 5 and 6 – Verona to Milan is also about two hours, getting you right into the center. I did a weekender to Milan and visited the famous Milan Cathedral, the nearby Galleria, as well as the artsy canals and less talk about castle! Here’s my full guide.
Where to stay in Milan
Budget: Ostello Bello Grande is only a few minute’s walk from the Central station. It’s one of the nicest and warmest hostels I have ever been to.
Mid-range: My Bed is a good choice 10 minutes from Duomo, but bare in mind that it’s in a traffic restricted zone. A little further but with a great modern vibe, B&B Hotel Milano Sant’Ambrogio is near the Sant’ambrogio metro.
Bologna – 2 days
The capital of the Emilia-Romagn is a foodie paradise and I’m ashamed to say that it took my 4th trip in the region to actually visit. It’s known for having many towers, red roofs, and home to the oldest university in Italy.
I love that even in the historic center you see a mix of locals and tourists, and the university section is full of students chatting and drinking at night. I honestly would spend a lot more time in the region, and if you agree, I have a Discover Emilia-Romagna itinerary further down.
Day 7 – the fastest trains take you from Milan to Bologna in 75 minutes, giving you plenty of time to arrive in town for lunch in Bologna. I’ve rounded up all my favourites in this foodie guide, and I personally recommend diving headfirst into the regional special Tagliatelle Ragu at Ragu.
There are many sights in Bologna, for more information see my guide to Bologna here. The first order of business is making your way to the Neptune Fountain and Piazza Maggiore. It’s the busiest part of the city and a great place to people-watch. Within the area there are several churches to see, but Santo Stefano is arguably the most famous with 7 churches in the complex. If you feel up for a walk, head south and go up to the Santuario di Madonna di San Luca for a panoramic of the city.
Head back inside the city to this cute alleyway just off Piazza Maggiore and try another traditional Bologna cuisine: tortellini at Caffè del Mercato.
Day 8 – Walk up to San Luca on the longest outdoor portico in the world or catch the San Luca Express from Piazza Maggiore. I do recommend at least walking one way to experience it! Head back in town to Ristorante È Cucina Leopardi to enjoy a three-course lunch the Bolognese way.
In the afternoon, take a wander around town to admire all the covered walkways and visit the Anatomical Theater. Remember to pre book so you can climb up the taller of the Two Towers. For dinner, go to Osteria Dell’Orsa for some authentic pasta and one of the best tiramisu I’ve had.
Where to stay in Bologna
Midrange: if you like apartments, then L’8 Boutique Apartments is the perfect choice between the central square and train station. Bibliò Rooms Guesthouse has great modern but vintage-style rooms with a private bathroom. Biasanòt Mini is located in a quieter part of town with airy and spacious rooms.
Florence – 3 days
Spend the next three days immersing in art in the jewel of capital. Florence is the epitome of the Renaissance with the distinctive Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio.
There are enough works of art in its museums that would take you days, if not weeks to see. And if you want to stretch your legs, a walk along the Arno River or up Piazza Michaelangelo would give you an unparalleled view.
I went to Florence pre-blogging, but here is a great 3 day itinerary for your Day 9 – 11.
Where to stay in Florence
Budget: B&B La Residenza di Michelangelo has clean, classy rooms and only 7 minutes from the Duomo Square.
Cinque Terre – 3 days
Translated as the five land, it refers to five villages along the Liguria coast that’s famous for its colourful houses and beautiful landscape. You can hike between the villages or opt to take the train. I suggest spending 2-3 days here – I have a complete guide to Cinque Terre on here, but this is the outline:
Day 12 – spend the day visiting all of the five villages. If you are short on time, you can skip Corniglia as it’s on the hill and not as pretty as the others.
Day 13 – day trip to Portovenere, a nearby village that’s significantly less crowded but just as pretty.
Day 14 – depending on what time your departure is, spend some more time in our favourite village of choice before heading off.
Where to stay in Cinque Terre
It’s best to choose one place to stay for the whole time instead of going to and from.
Budget: We ended up staying in a hostel about a 20 minutes’ drive from Riomaggiore called Ostello Tramonti. It’s a good choice for backpackers and they offer shuttles to Riomaggiore.
If you want to stay in the five villages, I personally enjoy Riomaggiore the most. You can find a full list of accommodation recommendations here:
Northern Italy itinerary with nature (8-10 days)
A completely different trip, escape to some of the most beautiful mountains and lakes in northern Italy. I’m featuring some of my personal favourites:
The Dolomites – 6 days
Two hours from Venice, the Dolomites have some rugged mountains waiting for you to explore. I have planned the perfect 6 days split between Cortina d’Ampezzo and Ortisei in Val Gardena here. You do need to rent a car to do the trip, but I suggest extending the trip to Lake Garda from Ortisei!
Lake Garda – 2-4 days
There are numerous towns around Lake Garda, but I’ve only been to Sirmione and I adore it. Base yourself there for two days, use one to explore the town and enjoy the beach. You can look into a day trips to another Lake Garda town.
The nearest international airport is Verona, which is around 1-2 hours away depending on where you leave from.
Discover Veneto – 10 days
Don’t want to rush yourself too much and enjoy both the main sights and hidden gems? I spent 1 month in Verona and explored the smaller towns of the Veneto region so I want to share this in depth itinerary to you. And I have to say it feels like I’m still only scratching the surface!
Venice – 5 days
You still need to spend three days to explore Venice properly if you’ve never been before. And even if you have been before, I always find it so wonderful to walk around. Use the two day itinerary I had before and takthe last day to visit anything that catches your eyes on my Venice recommendations. It’s not a city to be rushed!
In addition, I’d take two day trips from Venice. There are many options but in terms of proximity and personal recommendations, I’d pick:
- Treviso – 20 minutes from Venice, it’s a great place to escape from the crowds and admire some more Venetian history and architecture.
- Padua – another former Venetian city, it has beautiful churches, one of the largest squares in Europe, and the oldest university botanical garden.
Verona – 2 days
If I put it on the highlight, it means that you can’t skip it! The city of love has a lot of hidden gems as well, but there are also some great day trips within 1-2 hours’. Here are three of My top favourites:
- Mantua – a small city with three palaces to visit, including some stunning frescos (although this town is actually not in Veneto!)
- Sirmione – laze out on a limestone beach by Lake Garda and admire the quaint town vibes
- Brescia – an often overlooked city, Brescia also has a keen Roman past but also mixed in with some Fascist/Rationalist buildings.
Discover Emilia Romagna – 10 days
Bologna – 7 days
Spend 7 days in Bologna, with 3-4 days in Bologna with the first two days the same as my highlight. In addition, you can either visit:
- Gelato university
- Fico Eataly
- Or pick spend an extra day day tripping to see a Parmigiano Reggiano Factory and the Balsamic Vinegar Factory
Then it’s time to take 3 day trips to see some off-beat towns with charming history of their own. I would say base yourself in Bologna near the train station to avoid too much changing! For a full list of possible choices, see my guide on day trips from Bologna here. I suggest these three towns:
- Ferrara – only 24 minutes from Bologna, Ferrara was the seat of the d’Este family with the Estense Castle in the center.
- Parma – its Veronese Pink Marble Baptistery is a must-see, and you can visit a Parmigiana Reggiano factory on this day, too.
- Modena – home to balsamic vinegar, sports cars, and of course, a historic old town
Rimini – 3 days
Spend the remainder of your time in Rimini by the Adriatic coast. It’s a lovely little city with Roman roots, medieval castle, and some lovely beaches. Although the beach is a 20 minutes’ walk from town, so be sure to factor that in!
Day 8 – explore Rimini’s past and the many Roman structures, in particular the Augustus Arch and the Tiberius Bridge. It was the start of the Aemilia Way that sees it flourish into medieval time under the rule of Malestesta from the 13th to the 16th century.
Day 9 – Take a day trip to the oldest republic in the world: San Marino. From piadina class to climbing its two towers, it’s only an hour’s journey from Rimini and the highest point in the region.
Day 10 – enjoy the beach or do some last minute sightseeing before your flight out!
Where to stay in Rimini
Mid-range: Hotel Napoleon is a good, traditional hotel by the train station. Hotel Aria is a good beach choice with a good price range.Splurge: Stay close to the station in comfort at Card International Hotel, the best of both worlds only 20 minutes away.