An inside guide to the UNESCO wonders of Lombardy, Italy

Home to 11 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, more than any other region in Italy, Lombardy makes an ideal road trip filled with history, architecture and intrigue.

Mantua is a perfect starting point from which to discover Lombardy's historical sites.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Angela Locatelli
Published 11 Apr 2021, 08:00 BST

Start at Mantua, a regional hub enveloped by lakes. While walking its cobbled streets, pay attention to the redbrick buildings and symmetrical architecture: this historic city, renovated and expanded between the 15th and 16th centuries, provides an exceptional example of an urban Renaissance landscape, with highlights including the majestic Ducal Palace and baroque Mantua Cathedral. Twenty miles away, Sabbioneta is another impressive Renaissance town with defensive walls and a grid-like layout. Here, don’t miss the Teatro all’Antica, one of the modern world’s first purpose-built theatres, as well as one of only three Renaissance theatres still in existence.

From Mantua, it’s only a two-hour train journey to Milan, but music-lovers should stop off at Cremona’s Museo del Violino to learn about traditional violin craftmanship — a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. Once you do reach Milan, make a beeline for the former Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie to see the world-famous Leonardo da Vinci creation, The Last Supper. Tickets are limited and sell out quickly, so book a slot online in advance. 

Next, rent a car and head to Crespi d’Adda, one of Europe’s best-preserved ‘company’ towns. This hamlet was founded in the late 19th century by a local entrepreneur to house workers from his textile factory and remained under the ownership of a single company until the 1970s. Still inhabited, it preserves its old-world charm.

Mantua's stunning Piazza Sordello is where you can find the Cathedral of San Pietro.

Mantua's stunning Piazza Sordello is where you can find the Cathedral of San Pietro.

Photograph by Alamy Photos

Then, head west. The sprawling Valle Camonica is home to one of the world’s largest collections of prehistoric petroglyphs, etched more than 8,000 years ago. Out of the eight rock art parks across the valley, make sure to tick off the Naquane National Park of Rock Engravings. This open-air museum guards 104 rocks tattooed with animals, armed men, huts and a labyrinth; Rock 1 is one of the most impressive in the region.

Archaeology fans should take on the three-hour drive to Monte San Giorgio, straddling the border between Lombardy and Switzerland. This unassuming mount has preserved the most extensive fossil record of Triassic marine life. At the bottom of the Lombardian slope, the Civil Museum of Fossils of Besano exhibits remains excavated from the Italian side of the peak, including a 20ft Besanosaurus.

For the final leg, visit one of the Sacri Monti of Lombardy — two mounts lined with series of Christian chapels created during the late 16th and 17th centuries. Of the two trails in Lombardy, the one up the Sacro Monte di Varese — a half-hour drive away from Monte San Giorgio — is a must. Hike the mile-long Holy Road edging up the mount, punctuated by 14 frescoed chapels and leading to a hilltop sanctuary. This cobbled path, flanked by beech, chestnut and hazel trees, offers postcard-pretty views of the medieval hamlet of Santa Maria del Monte, the Campo dei Fiori nature park and the Alps in the distance.

Published in the Lombardy 2020 guide, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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