As we noted when we kicked off this series on UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy last month (beginning with an overview of Campania’s gems), Italy is home to the most treasures recognized by UNESCO in the world. It may come as a surprise, however, to learn that the region richest in “places of outstanding universal value to humanity” isn’t a cultural hub like Tuscany or Lazio (home to Rome), but Lombardy.
This bustling northern region is Italy’s financial and industrial epicenter and best known for the chic, modern city of Milan. When most people think of Lombardy, business and design come to mind…but there are ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites scattered across this region, including Italy’s first site to receive the UNESCO nod.
If you’re planning a trip to explore Milan, you may want to take advantage of your visit to venture into the surrounding region and check out one of these UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Sites, from the most famous to the virtually unknown.
Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan)
The most famous UNESCO site in Lombardy is set in the historic heart of the region’s main city and is home to one of art history’s premier frescoes: Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
Visitors flock to this understated church—built as a private place of worship by the powerful Duke Francesco I Sforza in the 15th century and later reworked by the great Renaissance architect Donato Bramante—primarily to take in the groundbreaking masterpiece, hidden in the refectory of the adjoining Dominican convent. (Be sure to book tickets far in advance, as small groups of visitors are allowed inside for 15-minute viewing time slots that sell out quickly.)
The church is a masterpiece in its own right, however, with a mix of Gothic and Romanesque elements in the brick facade and a soaring nave. Bramante made a number of later additions, including large semicircular apses, a drum-shaped dome lined by columns, and the now-famous cloister and refectory. Not far from this church, Leonardo’s vineyard offers a delightful reprieve from Milan’s bustle and crowds.
Rock Drawings of Val Camonica
If you are interested in the evolution of art, there is no better place to start than the Val Camonica rock drawings, a group of prehistoric petroglyphs that was named Italy’s first UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
The Valcamonica stretches over about 56 square miles of the eastern Alps between Brescia and Bergamo, and was named for the Camuni civilization that lived here during the Iron Age. The area is home to engravings that are some of humanity’s oldest artistic expressions—dating from the Paleolithic to about 1,000 years BC—and include scenes of agriculture, hunting, and even dance.
One of the largest groupings of prehistoric art in the world, the rock drawings are spread among eight different parks with walking and hiking trails. The most famous is the Naquane National Park of Rock Engravings with more than 100 petroglyphs of animals, armed humans, dwellings, and a labyrinth.
Mantua and Sabbioneta
Two superlative examples of Renaissance urban architecture, these two cities were both built by the powerful Gonzaga dynasty—Mantua as a city-court and seat of power and Sabbioneta as a center of art and culture.
Mantua, known as La Bella Addormentata (Sleeping Beauty), is surrounded by a ring of artificial lakes, built during the 12th century as part of the fortification system. This defensive moat protected the historic center from modern development for centuries, and today it has an intact old town that is home to jewels like the Ducal Palace and Palazzo Te.
The smaller sister-city of Sabbioneta was also a Gonzaga stronghold, and the 16th-century city walls built by Vespasiano Gonzaga to fortify the city still stand. The old town is an outstanding example of the Lombard Renaissance architectural style and highlights include Palazzo Giardino and the adjoining Galleria degli Antichi, Teatro all’Antica, and the Palazzo Ducale. The city is also home to a historic synagogue that still has some of the original interior decoration and furnishings from the 19th century.
Just as Valcamonica and Leonardo’s The Last Supper represent the evolution of art, the Gonzaga cities and Crespi d’Adda represent the evolution of urban planning. Set halfway between Milan and Bergamo, this modern company town is one of the best-preserved examples in the world of a planned workers’ town.
Crespi d’Adda was founded in the late 1800s by the owner of a local textile factory to house workers and remained under the ownership of the company until the 1970s. The tiny town is still inhabited and preserves its 19th-century style.
The Bernina Express
Known as the Trenino Rosso (Little Red Train), this historic narrow-gauge rail line has been chugging across the Swiss-Italian border for more than a century. The route, which sets off from Chur over the Bernina Pass to Tirano just east of Lake Maggiore, is the highest in the Alps and one of the most scenic in the world, descending from snow-blanketed peaks to Mediterranean palm trees in just over four hours.
The Bernina Express passes through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges, including the dizzying Landwasser Viaduct, spiral-shaped tunnels between Bergün and Preda, and the Brusio Circular Viaduct. There are over 20 stops along the route, including St. Moritz and Ospizio Bernina (the official border between Romansh-speaking Engadine and Italian-speaking Valposchiavo); the stretch of line from Thusis to Tirano is specifically recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, though the entire route is breathtaking.
Bergamo’s Venetian Walls
The handsome city of Bergamo embodies Lombardy’s mix of historic elegance and youthful energy. The city’s hilltop Città Alta old town (linked to the modern urban expanse below by a funicular) is encircled by majestic 16th-century city walls that extend more than three miles and give the city a timeless fairytale atmosphere. Inside the walls are a warren of winding lanes, squares lined with tony boutiques and hip coffee bars, and handsome churches and palazzi.
The Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, the “Holy Mounts” includes nine groups of chapels or altars built in the 18th and 19th centuries as outdoor devotional complexes. These hillside sites are inspired by the Via Dolorosa—the route Christ carried the Cross between Jerusalem and Calvary—are located near the towns of Varese, Varallo Sesia, Serralunga di Crea, Orta San Giulio, Oropa, Ossuccio, Ghiffa, Domodossola, and Valperga.
One two of the nine are located in Lombardy, and by far the more famous of these is the Sacro Monte di Varese. The mile-long cobbled pilgrim route leads past 14 frescoed chapels, three arches, and three fountains to a hilltop sanctuary overlooking the medieval hamlet of Santa Maria del Monte and Campo dei Fiori reserve to the Alps on the horizon.
Monte San Giorgio
Even older than the prehistoric treasures in Valcamonica, the paleontological park on Monte San Giorgio butting up against the border with Switzerland is home to the most extensive fossil record of Middle Triassic marine life in the world, stunningly intact. Besano’s Civic Museum of Fossils houses remains unearthed from the Italian side of the park, including the fossil of a 20-foot Besanosaurus.
Longobards in Italy: The Places of Power
This serial site, spread across seven locations, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2011 and includes art and architecture dating back to the Lombard era that stretched from the 6th to the 8th century. The sites located in Lombardy include the monastic complex of San Salvatore-Santa Giulia in Brescia and the Torba Monastery, Church of Santa Maria Foris Portas, and ruins of the Basilica of San Giovanni Evangelista at Castelseprio.
The least showy but among the most important UNESCO sites in Lombardy, the pile-dwelling sites are scattered across the Alps in six different countries. There are ten spots in Lombardy where you can admire the remains of settlements and villages dating back to 5000 BC, spanning from Lake Varese, where there are the oldest piles, to Lake Garda.