Milan - Off the beaten track
Where the Lombard plains rise into the Alps, the countryside is inlaid with a series of stunning blue lakes. Lago Maggiore attracts more than its fair share of Milan's upper crust and Northern Europe's sunburned masses, who flock to the prim and proper resort town of Stresa during the hot summer months.
From Stresa, you can sail to the lovely Borromean Islands. Isola Bella is the most touristed and, arguably, most interesting, featuring a lavish castle packed with antiquities. Isola Madre has its own royal residence and Italy's tallest palm trees, while Isola dei Pescatori retains its fishing village atmosphere.
Parco Nazionale della Incicioni Rupestre
North of Milan along the Valle Camonica, a trio of national parks shows off the finest unspoiled countryside the region has to offer. The vast Parco dell'Adamello offers amazing hiking opportunities, while Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio is punctuated with Alpine rifugi.
Lovers of rock carvings will have a field day at Incicioni Rupestre, the most interesting of the three parks. It's a 30-hectare (69-acre) open-air museum containing an array of engravings that date as far back as the Bronze Age.
This thriving industrial and cultural centre on the banks of the Ticino River is probably best known for its prestigious university (alumni include explorer Christopher Columbus and physicist Alessandro Volta of 'volt' fame), but there are many reasons to make the half-hour trip from Milan.
Things to see include the forbidding Castello Visconteo, built in 1360 for Galeazzo II Visconti, who never actually resided here. Its two massive towers watch over the northern end of the medieval city.
Even more amazing, the Gothic Certosa di Pavia, a 14th-century monastery, was once among the most lavish buildings in northern Italy. Tromp l'oeil murals, a 1409 sacristy composed entirely of hippopotamus teeth, and scores of small sculptures made this a rather comfortable place to be a monk.