This post takes you off the beaten path through 26 beautiful places in northern Italy.
As a local Italian who has wandered these lands since childhood, I’ve unveiled the secrets mainstream guidebooks often miss.
These hidden gems in northern Italy include mountain villages, picturesque towns, and angles of well-known cities that escape the view of first-time travelers.
In this corner of the world, history whispers through cobblestone streets and breathtaking landscapes await.
An example is the Madonna della Corona Shrine in the province of Verona (perhaps the most hidden of all) or a botanical garden accessed through a small gate that looks instead like the entrance to a private home.
The same could be said of a house museum of a contemporary Italian poet or an undiscovered fountain that is a masterpiece of contemporary sculpture.
Hidden gems in Northern Italy: Lombardy region
One of Milan’s most popular places among travelers and locals is the Navigli area. There are dozens of restaurants and cafes where the Milanese gather at aperitivo time, on the banks of 2 ancient canals once used to transport goods.
Not everyone knows that in the Navigli area Alda Merini, Italy’s greatest poetess, was born.
Alda Merini, of modest origins, had a tumultuous life with several hospitalizations in asylums. Poetry was her greatest talent and also the most effective cure for her psychological hardships.
Of her immense artistic output, some pieces are considered among the most famous Italian love poems.
To learn about Alda Merini, head to the house museum “Spazio Alda Merini” at 30 Magolfa Street in Navigli.
In this building, you will find the furnishings of the poet’s home, personal objects, photographs, and many of her verses and thoughts reproduced on the walls of the rooms, as she loved to do.
There is also a cafe and a small garden to sit in.
Some lovers of her poetry have created murals as a tribute.
The house museum is freely accessible Thursday through Sunday from 4 PM to 6:30 PM (last admission.)
The church of San Maurizio in Milan
One of the most beautiful treasures of the city of Milan is the Church of San Maurizio, located in the central area of the Lombard metropolis, between Corso Magenta and Via Bernardino Luini.
You can get here by getting off at the Cairoli M1 stop. The entrance is on Corso Magenta, and a lot of people pass by as they see a gray and anonymous entrance, almost as if to deliberately hide among ordinary buildings.
Instead, just entering through the front door is enough to be breathless. Admire the walls covered with more than 4 thousand square meters of frescoes by different painters of the 16th century.
The peculiar architecture divides it into two parts: one initially intended for the public and the other historically reserved for religious nuns, now open and made accessible. The paintings find continuity from one room to the other, up to the vault, depicting different scenes from the Bible. Stunning is the organ, also decorated, and the nuns’ choir, made of carved wood.
Small helpful tip: Best to plan your visit on a sunny day to benefit from the natural light coming in through the stained glass windows and enhancing the paintings (ideal late morning or between 3 and 5 p.m. in summer).
The Mysterious Baths of Milan
The capital of Lombardy is a large and beautiful city. Milan’s hidden places are very interesting, and one of them is the Milanese “Mysterious Baths.”
It consists of a fountain located in the garden of the Palazzo dell’Arte in Sempione Park and created by artist Giorgio de Chirico in 1973. The baths are also called “the fountain of Milan” and feature a large pool in which there are stone figures, namely swimmers, a diving board, a swan, a fish, a water fountain, a ball, and finally a beach cabin.
The realization was conceived for an exhibition at the time, but later the Milan municipality decided to leave it permanent on the site, probably because of its originality and artistic beauty. Milan’s mystery baths can be seen at any time of the day, once Sempione Park is open, perhaps on a pleasant day in the city of Milan during a morning or afternoon walk.
It is fair to point out that what can be seen today at the original site is a copy of the original work. This is on display at the Museo del Novecento at the Arengario in Milan.
Unveiling the secrets of the city: Explore Milan like a local with our comprehensive travel guide.
The underground shelters of Varese
Varese is a very interesting city because of the presence of multiple hidden places to visit. Little known are the two World War II underground shelters. One is located at the air raid shelter in Via Lonati, very close to the city’s iconic Giardini Estensi, and the other is located near Viale dei Mille, near the Biumo Inferiore neighborhood.
These basements were probably built during World War II to defend the local population from bombing by the enemies of the time. Visits are recommended in groups, as the shelters are only open under certain circumstances. There must be a speleologist technician present at all times who will talk about the structure and history of the Varese basements in more detail.
The Sphinx of Valganna
Well, sphinxes are not only found in Egypt but are also found in Lombardy, in the province of Varese.
Valganna is a highly appreciated valley just outside the city for the presence of natural areas such as forests, caves, canyons, and small lakes that are very peaceful and interesting to learn about.
Just inside one of these caves, there is a complex of very mysterious and gloomy tunnels, which over time have taken the name of the “Sphinx of Varese” or Valganna.
No one knows the reason for the presence of these passages, although it is likely for some that they were made in the late 1800s for possible mining. Extensive studies by multiple local archaeologists have called the tunnels a work dating back to the Roman Empire. Almost no one, however, knows of their presence.
Going into them alone can be very dangerous, so it is advisable to inquire with local caving groups, having, as well, the proper clothing.
My list of hidden places to visit in northern Italy includes the Ferrera Waterfalls. The waterfalls are located among the forests and canyons of the town of Ferrera, near the city of Varese.
In this place it is also possible to take a quick swim, easily reached on foot after a short hike through the woods. The area is set in a tranquil and majestic natural setting, ideal for weekend getaways with friends and family.
Specifically, it is possible to visit two waterfalls, one smaller and the other larger and more expansive, just a fifteen-minute walk from the first.
The Ferrera Waterfalls are one of the most photographed and popular destinations in and around Varese, and it is recommended to visit them during the spring and summer seasons, perhaps even to cool off a bit.
The main road in the village is heavily traveled, given the proximity of Switzerland, but to reach the falls it is necessary to leave the car and walk into the narrow streets of the village before entering the woods and reaching the falls.
Hidden Gardens and Vegetable Gardens in Pavia
The northeastern part of the city of Pavia hides some vegetable gardens and botanical gardens that cannot be seen from the normal street passage.
Gardens, vegetable gardens, flowerbeds, and small parks worthy of mention are located within private properties that are now historic buildings, access to which is nonetheless “private.”
The Ghislieri College with its garden toward Via Spallanzani is a good place to start, and then head in the direction of the former Sant’Epifanio Convent and the nearby Botanical Garden, which boasts several flowers and plants of certainly uncommon species.
Not far away is the garden of Bellingeri Palace, which is a real gem of botany. The path is not always active and available, so it is best to inquire at the FAI office in Pavia.
No problem, on the other hand, to enter the Horti Almo Collegio Borromeo Park, located on Viale Lungoticino Sforza, while access to the Botanical Garden of the University of Pavia is for a fee.
Loggia delle Pescherie Giulio Romano in Mantua
That Mantua is one of Italy’s most beautiful cities is objective and recognized by UNESCO.
That there are many things to see while walking around the city is equally established. But almost no one knows the Pescherie di Giulio Romano, placed, almost unnoticed, near Via Orefici St. on the route between Piazza Mantegna and Palazzo Te.
The structure there is very distinctive in that it enhances the Rio, a waterway that runs through the city in a very discreet way. The building was intended for the fish trade in the seventeenth century and, like the city meat slaughterhouse, is the work of the architect Giulio Romano.
At sunset, this place features very impressive scenery, and if you are into photography, you cannot miss going there. Both the covered area and the colonnade area are reflected on the little river creating in interesting play of light and shadow.
The Scarpatetti Quarter in Sondrio
I guess you’ve never heard of Sondrio, a village in the magnificent Valtellina region in northern Lombardy.
Travelers here visit the main streets and squares and thus the more modern part of the charming town. Having more time, however, it is possible to walk to the Scarpatetti district, located north of the city center.
In this area, it is amazing to notice an authentic old village. You will see houses still made of stone and with the famous Valtellinese “piode“(slabs used for roofing instead of traditional tiles).
The neighborhood was created to house the old farmers of yesteryear and still retains its characteristics. The rural stone and wood cottages feature the “involt,” also made of stone (stone-covered vaulted ceiling) and holders for oil lamps used decades ago. From the Scarpatetti, ascending to the nearby castle, one can also unearth three votive chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary, erected over the centuries as a well-wishing sign of the harvest.
Best places in northern Italy off the beaten path: Piedmont region
The Leumann Village in Turin
Imagine visiting the city of Turin and suddenly finding yourself catapulted back to the late 19th century, in perfect Art Nouveau style. Welcome to the Leumann Village, that is, an entire neighborhood between Turin and Collegno in which houses, small gardens, and streets, follow the same architecture.
Mr. Leumann, a great Swiss industrialist of the time, had an entire village built for his workers and their families around his company, which was involved in cotton processing.
The style of the village, which is one of the most unique places to visit in Piedmont, recalls Nordic stylistic dictates. There is a small church, a gymnasium, a food cooperative, schools, utilities, and everything necessary for people’s well-being.
Today the village still has about a hundred families and can be visited free of charge by accessing it through the main entrance and leaving your car just outside in the parking lots available on site.
A similar village can also be found in Crespi d’Adda, in the province of Bergamo and very close to Brianza, a few kilometers from Milan.
Town of La Morra
Tucked away in the hilly countryside of the Langhe area of Piedmont, a hamlet will capture the attention of those who enjoy a life of authentic flavors and relaxing views.
Perched atop a gentle hill, La Morra offers panoramic views that stretch across the rolling vineyards, creating a tapestry of colors that change with the seasons. What sets La Morra apart is not only its breathtaking scenery but also its commitment to preserving its heritage. This village seamlessly marries its historic roots with a contemporary spirit, resulting in an atmosphere that is both inviting and awe-inspiring.
I recommend you climb the splendid Bell Tower of La Morra. The tower dates back to the 13th century and will enrapture you with wonderful views of vineyards, verdant hills, and perched hamlets. The entire Langhe is within your eye’s reach.
Even when you get down ” to the ground ” you will certainly not be disappointed. Visiting the alleys of this quaint, perched, stone-built hamlet, several scents will catch your attention.
The specialties of Piedmontese cuisine will be calling to you, and I recommend that you let yourself be tempted.
One of the delicacies you cannot miss is tajarin ai trenta tuorli. A typical handmade pasta of Piedmontese cuisine, it is prepared with precisely thirty yolks for every pound of flour used. Grandma’s recipe calls for them in these variations: plain, with butter and sage, or with mushroom and meat sauce.
One of my favorite osterias is Osteria More e Macine, where excellent value for money is balanced with a breathtaking location hidden in the medieval walls of the city.
If you love walks, you can take one along all the vineyards surrounding La Morra, which will take you to the colorful Brunate Chapel, a work of art by artists Sol LeWitt and David Tremlett.
And again speaking of walks, generally on the last Sunday of August, one of the most fun events in the area takes place: the Mangialonga. A real 4-kilometer food and wine walk among Unesco heritage vineyards.
The purpose, besides making participants taste local delicacies, is to enhance and promote the area. To take part, one can register online. The cost of the ticket includes all wine and food tastings offered by participating stands and partners. It is an unmissable all-around experience: nature, sports, and good food!
Off the beaten path in northern Italy: Veneto region
Campo di Brenzone and Punta Veleno
Among the hidden places in northern Italy, the hamlet of Campo is located in a small town called Brenzone sul Garda, in the province of Verona.
In this place, renowned for beaches, sun, and lake, there is a lovely village surrounded by nature and characterized by old stone houses, located on streets made of limestone slabs. This small village can be called one of the most unique places to visit in northern Italy.
Reachable through an ancient mule track, the village has a peculiarity, namely that it is home to numerous olive trees since in earlier times these plants were constantly cultivated and maintained by local farmers. In addition, once you arrive at your destination, you can go to a small church with 13th- and 14th-century frescoes inside and a ruined castle that can only be visited from the outside.
Campo di Brenzone is an off-the-beaten-path Italian village perfect for spending your Christmas vacation or Eastern weekend.
Branzone also features Punta Veleno: a high point reached after a winding road with a series of hairpin bends ideal for motorcyclists. You can take this road from the village, not from the main road.
Sanctuary Madonna della Corona
This shrine takes the definition “one of the hidden places of Veneto” literally. The reason is very simple: it is nestled in a mountain and can only be glimpsed with a keen eye from the Brennero Highway coming down from Trento in the direction of Verona.
From Caprino Veronese (in the province of Verona) it is necessary to follow some specific directions in the municipal signs and then leave the car and walk to reach the mountain.
The shrine is about 800 meters above sea level. Follow the (well-maintained) path that leads to the church concealed by the rock. Steps are the main feature, so wear comfortable shoes. The trail is relatively short: from when you leave the car, the walk is about 20 minutes (the last section turns out to be more complicated).
Longer, on the other hand (about 90 minutes on foot), is the ascent one must make by walking up the ancient path from the village of Brentino Belluno. Although the Sanctuary is quite busy, it is not a common destination for those who visit the area, but its view creates a unique scenery.
The Blue Grotto of Mel
I don’t know how many have ever heard of the town of Mel, in the province of Belluno and not far from the Piave River. Yet, in that very place, there is a wonderful cave hidden in the woods with crystal clear water that looks like the sea of Sardinia or Puglia.
To get there, you must first leave the village and follow in the direction of Parcheggio Castello di Zumelle, where it is recommended to leave your car. The marked walking route then leads to the path leading to the Blue Grotto.
Here is a corner of paradise that originates from the rock and finds cover from the foliage of the forest trees as if to protect a pristine and little-known naturalistic space. People are hardly encountered on the walk; however, not recommended for the elderly, young children, and the disabled. A few more people may be encountered on weekends, but during the week, the place still needs to be discovered.
Villages of Stramare and Milies
The small hamlets of Stramare and Milies are part of the municipality of Segusino, a village with just under two thousand inhabitants in the province of Treviso in Veneto.
These two hamlets are a small cluster of old houses, but the most extreme isolation of the dwellings and the direct contact with nature and the surrounding woods make Stramare and Milies small hidden urban gems worth visiting (which very few do).
In Stramare, it is recommended to pay a visit to the Church of St. Valentine, a sacred figure of the place, while in Milies significant is the Church of Mary Helper, also called the Little Church of the Alpini.
Stramare also turns out to be an uninhabited place today, but it is very interesting to discover along with Miles during the winter season, as the larger municipality of Segusino often organizes small tours to introduce them to its hidden places in a snowy, Christmas landscape.
These are hidden destinations that cannot be seen from the traditional crossing, but one only has to look for them to reach an environment that still seems untouched.
Unique places to visit in the Liguria region
Cycling along the old railway
In recent years, sections of the Ligurian Riviera di Ponente railway line (between Genoa and Ventimiglia, to France) have been made more modern and usable.
The interventions included moving them further inland from where they had historically been located, to provide better acoustic ease for citizens. Thus, the old routes, once cleared of rails, stones, and wooden sleepers, have been converted back into bike paths that provide incredibly scenic views.
It is not always easy to find the entrance to these cycle paths, which, for example, allow you to touch on Varazze, Arenzano, Cogoleto, or, going further down towards Ventimiglia, pass through Sanremo, Ospedaletti, and San Lorenzo al Mare.
Also worth mentioning is a wonderful hidden stretch in the Riviera di Levante towards La Spezia, with a bicycle path carved out of the old railway line that connects Lèvanto, Bonassola, and Framura. This stretch is full of perfectly lit tunnels, with no passage of motor vehicles, and passable in complete safety. In the various passages, it will be up to you to discover access points to small hidden beaches that can only be reached this way (or from the sea).
Campopisano Square, Genoa
Despite being called Piazza, almost all Genoa travelers do not go there because it is not “advertised” and is not among the city’s most attractive and popular places.
In truth, Campopisano is a small square that takes the shape of a shell and features the design of a galley plowing through the waves of the sea with a clever play of pebbles and colors.
Underneath, 9,000 Pisans were buried, prisoners who died following the Battle of Meloria in 1284, in which the Republic of Genoa triumphed.
Although the history is not exactly auspicious (it is said that at night the strange noises that are sometimes heard are the result of the wails of the spirits of the buried prisoners), the place is worth a visit. Come here during sunset hours for a photo that could turn out to be a true masterpiece of light.
The troughs of Santa Brigida, Genoa
Let’s stay in Genoa. Because of the way it is built and because of its geography, the city is full of hidden places that are not very visible on a normal tourist visit to the city.
Walking down Via Balbi (one of the city’s most beautiful streets), at one point a seemingly insignificant side street leads to the Salita di Santa Brigida and the small square of the same name. All around are very colorful buildings that restore brightness to the area.
You may also come across some exquisite metal buildings with ancient features that look like gazebos. They protect what used to be called troughs (or truogoli), which are special 1650s washhouses made of concrete that once women used to access to wash their laundry.
Though they are very similar to each other, the charm is still timeless as they are located in one of the brightest and most historic areas of the city, but without being visible from the main thoroughfares.
Even today it is still possible to see a few women going to the wash house to wash their laundry, perhaps lowered with ropes from an adjoining building to avoid carrying weights from the stairs. In this hidden corner of Genoa, one breathes an air of history again.
More hidden gems in northern Italy
The Units of Parma and the Lousy Tower, Emilia Romagna
Those who visit Parma in the Emilia Romagna region do so mainly to enjoy the popular local products such as Parmesan cheese.
Take a thorough walk through the city’s historic center to work off those hearty meals.
Walking through Parma it is not easy to find, in the most common monuments and buildings, some cues that refer to historical curiosities, although there would be many.
For example, passing through Piazza Garibaldi where the Governor’s Palace is located, it is possible to unearth, on the outside and in the built walls, the “brick of Parma.” This was the ancient unit of measurement used by Parmesan bricklayers of the time.
Continuing walking, as far as Piazza Duomo, one comes across the search for the “Pertica Parmense.”
Still strolling, going to Via Farini, one finds a seemingly insignificant stone in which the shape of a louse is inscribed. That area was used for the market. When the mountaineers came down to the city they were obliged to wash themselves right at the Lousy Tower to “drown” the lice with water. It was widely believed that from the countryside these kinds of parasites were brought to the city: here the mystery is revealed.
The mines of Brusson, Aosta Valle
Among the hidden places in Val d’Aosta, we must highlight the Brusson gold mines located in the village of the same name.
Visits to castles or waterfalls are all the rage in the area, but the mines represent a hidden place worth visiting, in complete safety.
The entrance is reached by walking a short path (I recommend appropriate hiking clothing) during which care must be taken, however, before reaching the heart of the forest and especially entering the belly of the mountain.
The experience requires the local guide to be very knowledgeable and is also a pleasant adventurous time for children as well, who can thus get excited about the stories and the mines. The mining trail starts after the dedicated parking lot located at Rue Col Ranzola in Brusson.
Rango, Balbido and the Witch, Trentino
The village of Rango is included in the list of Italy’s Most Beautiful Villages. Located near Trento, it looks like an enchanted place where time has stood still, not far from the Adamello del Brenta Natural Park.
In this small village of only 122 inhabitants, it is possible to walk among the houses and then continue on the neighboring paths, ideal for peaceful and pleasant walks in nature.
Not far from Rango, near the municipality of Bleggio Superiore, is Balbido, a village characterized by small mountain streets. In this place, it is possible to feel a rustic atmosphere reminiscent of ancient peasant traditions, with frescoes and murals on the houses.
A tradition that is still popular today is the so-called “Stria di Balbido” or town witch. It is possible to admire at the beginning of the village a tall wooden structure representing a witch, made to bring good luck to the locals.
In this case, the witch will not come to you, but it is you who will have to go looking for her!
The Earth Pyramids, South Tyrol
Have you ever heard of Earth Pyramids? Some of them can be found in Bolzano, South Tyrol. Here you can discover natural monuments formed over the centuries, starting with the Ice Age.
Just past the city’s train station (about 400 meters), you can take the Renon Cable Car, which will take you to the plateau of the same name in 15 minutes. Already from the top, with a very careful eye, you will be able to spot on the right below some Earth Pyramids hidden by the woods around, just moments after the change of slope of the cable car.
However, if you want to better understand the phenomenon, you will have to take the appropriate path starting from the locality of Soprabolzano right from the cable car arrival station (Holiday Trail for a 2-hour walk). Or head to Collalbo with the Renon train and choose the gentler path to the Earth Pyramids, which you’ll reach in about 50 minutes (the Sentiero Monte di Mezzo trail is also suitable for families and children).
Udine’s Mysterious Fountain, Friuli Venezia Giuli
Udine is a city on a human scale, livable and full of insights that often appear hidden. There are many, but one is certainly the Mysterious Fountain with pump operation. To get there you should walk down Gemona Street and approximately halfway you will find the intersection with Cicogna Street, where there is a tiny alley you will have to pass through.
A somewhat cramped area forces you to pass under an archway that will lead you to a picturesque area with several small houses and a small cobblestone street. The fountain is right there, after the porch, but it is not easy to open the water.
You should use imagination and notions of plumbing together. If you fail, no problem: ask a passerby in the area or someone looking out of the windows: they will unravel the mystery.
The rose garden of San Giovanni, Friuli Venezia Giulia
Who would say that from the remains of an old asylum placed in an area in total abandonment, a good redevelopment can lead to the creation of a rose garden with more than 5 thousand species of roses? This is what happened in Trieste, one of the most beautiful cities on the Italian Adriatic coast.
With the closure of the San Giovanni psychiatric hospital, the entire area was in a wild state where vegetation had clear prevalence, as did the bustle of people during the day and night.
When the University of Trieste received approval from the Province to manage 8 pavilions, that’s when the rose garden came to life.
Among the thousands of variations of roses, many are uncommon and cannot be found at regular florists. The idea of making one of Italy’s most beautiful and renowned rose gardens has always been a key goal of the idea’s proponents. There are roses dedicated to historical or otherwise famous people, and specimens interesting in species and beauty. Everything is the result of care, hybridization, and respect for normal botanical cycles.
Maison des Anciens Remèdes in Jovençan, Aosta Valley
Just 5 km from Aosta is the Maison des Anciens Remèdes in Jovençan. This structure is little known and very little visited, but it is well worth a visit, not least because of the very affordable admission price.
It is a place where it is possible to go on a journey to discover natural and ancient remedies to the aches and problems that, every day, affect our well-being.
Plants, medicinal herbs, scents, tastes, and mixes are brought together by nature and knowledge through a guided and unique journey.
It is also possible to visit the adjoining garden and vegetable garden, enriching one’s experience even more. There are not many places where it is possible to fully understand all the various aspects of natural cures.
Decades ago, these remedies were used to heal the sick from even the most mundane colds. It was also customary to turn to healers even for more serious illnesses that were cured precisely with medicinal herbs by those who knew how to skillfully blend the various properties.
Wrap-up – northern Italy off the beaten path
In conclusion, discovering hidden gems in Northern Italy is quite easy if you dare to go off the beaten track.
If you love nature, in the province of big cities, you will find villages surrounded by forests, lakes, and nature reserves.
On the other hand, if you prefer history, spend more time exploring the historic centers of known cities, and you will find gems that only locals know about.
All in all, getting to know the locals is always a great strategy to get to know hidden places (and also to learn the Italian language and culture.)
Lisa is an Italian mom passionate about travel and writing. On her site, I’m Learning Italian, you will find helpful and up-to-date Italian language and culture content.