This article covers Bergamo, Torino, Mantua, and Sabbioneta, all of which can be explored on intraday tips from Milan, while each can support a more in-depth exploration.
The very likable Bergamo ♥♥ consists of two fairly distinct parts. While there are some interesting features in the lower part, most visitors proceed directly to the Upper Town up on the cliffs. Both parts are included on a tentative submission to become a World Heritage site, although the walls of the Upper Town are already part of the existing serial site called Venetian Fortifications. Porta San Giacomo ♥ is as good a place as any to check out the fortifications and the vistas over the lower town.
Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore ♥♥♥ is one of the main attractions in Bergamo – opulently rich, almost excessively so, and fascinating to explore. Adjoining Capella Colleone ♥ features a very ornate exterior with a comparatively muted interior. (No photos are allowed inside the chapel). By comparison, the nearby Duomo ♥♥ is practically understated, while rather elegantly decorated, light, and bright.
Campanone ♥♥ on the main square of the old town offers great views in all directions. The ascent to the second from the top platform is by elevator. Bells hang right above the visitors’ heads on the top platform and do their thing at appropriate times – plan your visit accordingly. The tower ticket is combined with access to Palazzo de Podesta ♥ which has a very interesting interactive museum focused on the 16th-century Venetian impact on Bergamo. There is English text on the stands in all rooms but the exhibits themselves are marked only in Italian, which dulls the effect for non-speakers.
A number of other points of interest are worthy of consideration to explore, among them Rocca, Museo della Citta, and Museo Donizetti. Churches always merit a quick look when accessible; for instance, the “borough” church of San Pancrazio ♥ turned out much bigger and richer than could have been expected from viewing its exterior.
If you happen to visit Bergamo during the winter festive season, leave some time for the lower city, which is where all of the Christmas markets are.
One place worthy of a recommendation is Trattoria da Ornella (on the same small piazzetta as San Pancrazio), which offers great local cooking and a very nice atmosphere among mostly Italian-speaking clientele despite being on the major tourist walking route in town.
A special mention got to Tasso (across the square from Palazzo Podesta): the logo on the napkins has a “da 1476” marker, which is impressive on its own, and even before noon, an order of prosecco was accompanied by a nice selection of cicchetti.
It is a bit disingenuous of me to include a large city such as Turin in a “Beyond Milan” narrative. In fact, I suspect that anyone hailing from the capital of Piedmont would expressly hate me for implying that their city can only be visited on a day trip from a rivaling metropolis. The matter of fact is, though, that Turin is likely to struggle to appear on any list of recommended top places to visit in Italy, and our familiarity with it is solely via a single intraday visit from Milan.
For a city this size, Turin is no more than middling in terms of impressions. The nice features are too few and far in between, even though occasional impressive buildings do pop up.
There are three stately squares that are nice to linger at: Piazza San Carlo ♥, Piazza Vittorio Veneto ♥, and Piazza Castello ♥. The latter is home to several major sights in town. Palazzo Madama ♥ offers an impressive palatial main floor, plus an interesting collection of decorative and baroque art. There are good views of the central sights from the tower. The ornate church of San Lorenzo ♥ is well worth a visit, with a circular plan and a geometrically-patterned cupola. (Visiting times are limited to the afternoon only).
Palazzo Reale is considered one of the top attractions in Turin. We heard from a few people who have been that they did not consider it remarkable, so seeing the long ticket lines we turned around.
Several palaces in and around Turin form a serial World Heritage site called Royal Houses of Savoy, including the aforementioned Palazzo Reale and Palazzo Madama. We also stopped to admire the exterior and the courtyard of Palazzo Carignano which houses Museo di Risorgimento which should appeal to the Italian history buffs. Despite my WH-chase bona fides, we did not go into any of the other palaces beyond Palazzo Madama.
We also took the briefest of looks inside the Duomo, due to a service in progress. Nothing of surpassing quality could be discerned from that look, even though the dome of the cathedral when seen from the tower of Palazzo Madame appeared quite exquisite.
Quite a few churches in town sport beautiful exteriors, enlivening the landscape. Basilica Corpus Domini ♥, not far from the cathedral, is quite rich on the interior as well. Church of Gran Madre di Dio, across the bridge from Piazza Vittorio Veneto, is likely worth a look as well. Behind it is a fantastic local flea market ♥.
Another of the top attractions in Turin is the remarkable Museum of Cinema ♥♥♥, which offers an extensive exhibition on the history of cinematography, and a number of themed exhibits. You could easily spend a day here. The highlight is a jaw-dropping Temple Hall in the atrium of Mole Antonelliana, one of the symbolic edifices of the city, with cinema-like rows of seats to watch music videos and movie clips. There are hundreds of interactive displays for children of all ages throughout the museum. You can also ascend to the lantern of the tower, which requires standing in a separate line for over an hour.
Mantua ♥ – or Mantova in Italian – is recognized on the UNESCO World Heritage list as an example of Renaissance town planning. This one is more of an intraday-fitting destination, although as with any other lovely place in Italy, you can probably find things to do to stay overnight.
A couple of major squares, Piazza delle Erbe ♥ and Piazza Sordello ♥♥, host a number of interesting architectural monuments. The former is more commercial. The latter is significantly larger and formal-looking and is home to some of the main points of interest in town. Duomo ♥ is traditionally decorated and impresses with the unique details of every chapel. Ducal Palace ♥♥ is worth a visit as well, with two dozen increasingly impressive spaces comprising the tour. There is not much furniture but magnificent ceilings and wall frescoes and decorations. An audio guide is hardly necessary since all rooms are well-signposted in English. The same entry ticket also allows access to nearby Castello di San Giorgio ♥ with one splendid staircase and a room full of Andrea Mantegna’s frescoes (Camera degli Sposi) open for viewing.
Other significant attractions in Mantua include Palazzo Te and Basilica di Sant’Andrea.
The town of Sabbioneta is linked with Mantua on the same World Heritage entry as another example of Renaissance town planning. Our less than hour-long stop there failed to significantly impress us. A planned grid of streets with some nice buildings comprises the town core. Pleasantly-looking main square is home to not exactly exceptionally looking Ducal Palace and a church. All potential points of interest, including churches, were closed on Saturday, so we could not form any opinions about their interiors.