Steep, snow-capped mountains reach towards the heavens, gradually giving way to gentler slopes. We’re just an hour from Milano and yet the city couldn’t feel farther away. Here in La Provincia di Varese, the lush green of the forest contrasts in an ethereal way against the shimmering blue of the lakes below.
Here, charming towns are to be found around every turn, while culture can be found in abundance: history meets modernity in a destination which has been inhabited for millennia. Truth be told, there is little to dislike about the area of Varese, a province of Lombardy in Northern Italy.
Close to the border with Switzerland, this gem of central Europe makes for the perfect weekend getaway, or a longer excursion, time permitting. Here’s a guide to the best things to do in La Provincia di Varese; including countless churches, endless hiking trails, and plenty of Italian food.
Why you must visit the Province of Varese
But first… Why visit Varese? And why must you add this magical Italian destination to your Italian bucket list? Well, this province of Italy has been popular among tourists for centuries. Often referred to as the ‘blue-green land’ of Italy thanks to its many glacier-formed lakes and stunning mountainscapes, visitors have been flocking to Varese since the 17th-century.
The most famous attraction of La Provincia di Varese is undoubtedly Lake Maggiore (literally ‘superior’ or ‘largest’ in English), so named thanks to its enormous size. Located between the regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, part of the basin of the lake belongs to Switzerland and the entire area is dotted with small towns, hermitages, and plenty of things to do.
Also known as Lago Verbàno, the water of Maggiore replenishes naturally every two years, making it the cleanest lake in the boot-shaped country. The lake is also one of the largest lakes in Italy, second only to Lake Garda. Other lakes in the Varese province include Lugano, Varese, and Comabbio. Each has its own merit, breathtaking scenery, and each body of water is well worth checking out in its own right.
Hike, Ski & Cycle in the Prealps
High above the lake below and nestled below the snow-covered Alps above, the Prealps of Varese offer some of the most beautiful hiking trails that Northern Italy has to offer. During our time in Varese, we were fortunate enough to hike part of a pass close to the Passa Forcora, a starting point for several trails.
While at Forcora, there’s also the chance to drink at the refuge (a chalet-style restaurant offering meals and numerous beverages), or explore the small and simple chapel which overlooks the alpine landscape below.
If you’re more keen on covering ground on two wheels, as opposed to your two feet, then it’s well worth noting that the Varese Province is where some 100 km worth of cycle paths are to be found. In the winter months, this area is even home to a number of skiing pistes and funiculars operate on a regular basis during snow season.
Admire the chapels & Sanctuary of the Sacro Monte di Varese
Aside from Lake Maggiore, one of the top highlights of Varese is the Sacro Monte di Varese, a holy place often considered to be one of the most important of a number of Sacri Monti in Northern Italy. Situated in the very heart of the National Park Campo dei Fiori (Field of Flowers), it’s well worth dedicating a few hours to enjoying and exploring this impressive feat of architecture.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term ‘Sacro Monte’, it’s worth noting that there are nine sacred mountains of Piedmont and Lombardy in total. These ‘calvaries‘ were created during the 16th and 17th centuries and feature numerous outdoor chapels leading along a sacred way/ holy path up a mountainside, culminating in an (often) ornate sanctuary at the top.
Together, these stunning Sacri Monti and their surrounds have been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site since 2003. The chapels at Varese are constructed so as to be admired via their exteriors as pilgrims ascend the mountain. In total, there are fourteen chapels along the 2 km route and the climb up is a steep 600 metres.
The idea is that pilgrims should climb the slope quickly (in under an hour), just as they would ascend a set of stairs on their knees so as to demonstrate devotion. Atop the mountain, some 833 metres above sea level, and at the end of the Holy Way pilgrims are rewarded with the chance to visit a beautiful Baroque Sanctuary. That of the Sacro Monte di Varese is known as the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Monte.
Taste local Liqueurs
And while we’re on the subject of the Sacro Monte di Varese, it’s worth noting that one of the most romantic hotels in the region, Al Borducan Hotel can be found on the slopes of the mount, overlooking the lush green trees and sparkling lake below. All Art Nouveau architecture, think wood panelling and a vintage vibe inside.
The hotel and restaurant get their name from the “Elixir Al Borducan,” a tasty (and incredibly strong) alcoholic drink which was created by Davide Bregonzio in 1872 and can still be tasted in situ today. This liqueur is created from herbs and oranges, tastes delicious, and is best drunk together with prosecco while admiring views of the lake below!
Wander around Luino
Located lakeside, the pretty city of Luino is well-known for its traditional markets and quintessentially Italian architecture. Birthplace of writer Piero Chiara, this town is located close to the border with Switzerland and things to do include admiring the Maggiore views, wandering the cobbled lanes, and of course, attending the Mercato di Luino.
Explore charming villages
All around Lake Maggiore, and indeed beyond, there are villages to explore, each often more beautiful than the last. During our time in the Province of Varese, we stayed in the Camin Hotel on the fringes of the small commune of Colmenga. Each morning, we arose to candy coloured skies, gentle waves lapping on the small beach of the village, and stunning mountain views as we ate our buffet breakfast.
Sail on Lake Maggiore
For those who love being on the water, there’s no better way to see Varese than by sailing, rowing, or swimming in the largest lake the province has to offer. For those who are looking to do a little sight-seeing while on the water, it’s worth noting that in the very heart of Lake Maggiore, Islet Virginia is home the remains of lower Neolithic and Iron Age housing.
Admire Art Nouveau Villas
If you’re a fan of all things architecture-related, particularly of the Art Nouveau variety, then you’re absolutely going to love Varese Province. After all, this area of Lombardy really came into its own as a tourist hotspot in the 19th-century with the introduction of plenty of Art Nouveau Villas to the area. Today, some of the best villas to visit in the region include Villa Panza (now an American Modern Art Museum), as well as the pink-hued Ville Ponti (now the Centro Congressi).
Explore the City of Varese
The stunning city of Varese is often called the ‘Garden City’ thanks to its abundance of nature. Parks, lush forests, and numerous gardens can be found in the rolling hills surrounding Varese, making for the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of modern day life.
Eat plenty of pasta
Pizza, pasta, pasta, and even more pasta: our exploration of La Provincia di Varese was punctuated by all the pasta stops! While in Italy, be sure to experience as much of the Italian food as possible. After all, the food here is some of the best cuisine in the world, the wine is world-class, and many products are sourced locally.
During our stay in Varese, my favourite meal of all was the homemade pasta at Ristorante Grotto Mazzardit. This romantic dining venue offers views of the glittering Lake Maggiore (which is equally as beautiful at night as during the day) and a menu comprising of sea-inspired dishes. Close to the Swiss Border, I also found my vegetarian dish of handmade ravioli with aubergine chips to be particularly delicious!
How to get to the Province of Varese
Due to its position north of the industrial city of Milano, there are numerous airports by which to reach La Provincia di Varese. Milan Linate, Milan Malpensa, and Milan/ Bergamo Orio al Serio all operate national and international flights to a whole host of destinations across Europe and beyond.
Though it may not look like it today, Milan Malpensa (which is not situated within the Province of Milan as you would expect, but actually the Province of Varese) is the most historic of all the Milanese airports. After all, aviation has been present in the place where Malpensa now stands in the form of a flying school, followed by the airport itself.
It was also near Milan Malpensa Caproni company at Vizzola Ticino was located. Today, the former factory is home to Volandia, a museum all things flight-related which has been open to the public since 2010. And so, if you’re interested in aviation and have a little time before your flight, then it may be worth checking out (especially if you have younger family members with you).
Of particular note is that you can enter several of the vintage planes should you opt to visit the museum as part of a guided tour. Otherwise, an interesting highlight of the Museum is a fragment of the silk from Napoleon’s Coronation Balloon.
If you’re looking to reach Varese by other transport, then Milano is well connected via both rail and bus to the rest of Italy and Europe. Even if you’re running short on time, then you might consider a visit to the region as part of a shorter excursion from Milan. After all, even a couple of days here are well worth the effort!
Places to visit close to La Provincia di Varese
Northern Italy is a beautiful destination well worthy of a visit and the area is best explored over the course of the week. While you’ll want to dedicate several days simply to exploring Varese, there are plenty of other Lombardian locations you simply need to see:
Milan: Otherwise known as ‘Milano’ in Italian, the modern and industrial city of Milan is not only the capital of Lombardia but is also widely regarded as the fashion and design capital of Italy. Highlights of this Northern Italian city include its impressive Duomo, as well as seeking out all of the hidden gems the city has to offer.
Pavia: The beautiful university city of Pavia is home to one of the oldest universities in Italy. Once the capital of the Lombardia region, there’s a Duomo designed by the hand of Da Vinci, as well as a church where Barbarossa was once crowned.
Certosa di Pavia: On the train line, somewhere between Milano and Pavia, the most beautiful Renaissance monastery in Italy is the Certosa di Pavia. All ornate carvings and equally stunning frescoes, this ecclesiastical set of buildings are free to visit and is one of the best day trips from Milan.
Bergamo: One of my all-time favourite European cities can be found in the form of Bergamo, a stunning Italian town which is best seen in late spring or early fall. While the newer part of town is known as the Citta Bassa, the historic part of the city (and where the best views/ tourist attractions are) can be found high on the hillside.
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I visited La Provincia di Varese as part of the #inlombardia365 iAmbassador Campaign with Lombardia Tourism. This is a sponsored post. However, all opinions, photos, and words are my own (as always!)