If you're flying across an ocean, you'll most likely fly into Milan's Malpensa Airport (MXP; tel. 02-2680-0613; www.sea-aeroportimilano.it), 45km (28 miles) from downtown -- closer to Como than to Milan itself.
From Malpensa, a 40-minute express train heads half-hourly to Cadorna train station in western Milan rather than to the larger and more central Stazione Centrale from which most trains onward to Tuscany will leave (you'll have to take the Metro to get there). The Malpensa Express train costs 11€. To grab a bus instead, which will take you directly to the central downtown rail station, take the Malpensa Shuttle (tel. 02-5858-3185) for 7€, which leaves two or three times per hour for the 50-minute ride to the east side of Milan's Stazione Centrale. A taxi to the city center runs about 70€.
For flights to Milan from within Europe, you might also fly into Linate Airport (LIN; tel. 02-7485-2200; www.sea-aeroportimilano.it), about 8km (5 miles) southeast of the city, a much more convenient option. From Linate, STAM buses (tel. 02-717-100) make the 20-minute trip to Milan's Stazione Centrale every 20 to 30 minutes daily from 7am to 11pm, and cost 2€. The slightly slower city bus no. 73 leaves hourly for the S. Babila Metro stop downtown (1€ for a regular bus ticket bought from any newsagent inside the airport, but not onboard).
From Milan's Stazione Centrale, you can get trains to Florence.
Flying Directly to Genoa, Bergamo, or Venice -- Budget carriers within Europe fly to a number of northern Italian cities; three of the most popular are Genoa's Cristoforo Colombo Airport (www.airport.genova.it), Bergamo's Orio al Serio (www.sacbo.it), and Venice's Marco Polo Airport (www.veniceairport.it).
In Venice, ATVO buses (www.atvo.it) run every 30 minutes between Piazzale Roma and the airport for 3€, and also run to the busy train station in nearby Mestre on a more frequent basis. Bergamo's airport is easily reached from Milan with a shuttle that leaves every 30 minutes from the main station, Stazione Centrale, which takes about an hour door-to-door and costs about 9€ one-way. Genoa's airport is very close to the downtown, taking 20 minutes on the bus (4€) that runs to the Stazione Principe.
If you're planning to drive to northern Italy, you'll likely need to rent a car. You'll get the best rental rate if you book your car from home instead of renting direct in Italy -- in fact, if you decide to rent once you're over there, it's worth it to call home to have someone arrange it all from there. You must be 25 or older to rent from most agencies (although some accept ages 21 and up).
The legalities and contractual obligations of renting a car in Italy (where accident and theft rates are very high) are more complicated than those in almost any other country in Europe. You must have nerves of steel, a sense of humor, a valid driver's license or International Driver's Permit (with photo), and a valid passport; and you must be 25 or over (some places accept 21). Payment and paperwork are much easier if you present a valid credit card with your completed rental contract (many companies won't even consider a non-credit card payment). If that isn't possible, you'll likely be required to pay a substantial deposit, sometimes in cash. Insurance on all vehicles is compulsory, though what kind and how much is up to you and your credit card company: Ask the right questions and check with your credit card company before leaving home.
Note: If you're planning to rent a car in Italy during high season, you really should book well in advance: It's not at all unusual to arrive at the airport in Milan in June and July to find that every last agent is all out of cars, perhaps for a week.
When offered the choice between a compact car and a larger one, always choose the smaller car (unless you have a large group) -- you'll need it for maneuvering the winding, steeply graded Italian roads and the impossibly narrow alleyways of towns and cities. Likewise, if you can drive a stick shift, order one; it'll help you better navigate the hilly terrain. It's also a good idea to opt for the Collision Damage Wavier (CDW). Although the 19% IVA value-added tax is unavoidable, you can do away with the government airport pickup tax of 10% by picking up your car at an office in town.
The main autostrada, or super highway, that runs the length of the Po valley from Turin to Trieste is the A4. From Milan, you'll need to follow the signs for the tangenziale, or beltway, that will eventually lead to an exit to whatever highway you choose. Getting onto the tangenziale, however, can be tricky. Insist on specific, detailed directions from the car rental agencies and make use of a co-pilot; otherwise, just do it the Italian way and feel your way onto it by intuition. If you're calm and patient, seemingly ridiculous road signs really do make sense.
Northern Italy is rather compact. Genoa to Milan, for example, is 129km (80 miles) on a highway where people regularly drive in excess of 129kmph (80mph). Milan to Verona is about 161km (100 miles), and Verona to Venice is another 121km (75 miles). Coast to coast, then, is only 4 hours, even at North American driving speeds -- that is when there is not traffic. In reality, this is the most traveled highway in all of Europe, so the going can get slow, especially on Friday afternoons and Sunday nights, and rush hour around the cities is epic. Plan to travel mid-week and midday, if possible. See www.autostrade.it for live traffic updates.
Tolls can also get expensive, costing about 1€ for every 19km (12 miles), which means that it would cost about 20€ for a trip from Genoa to Venice. Add in the gasoline and the car rental, and it's cheaper to take the train from city to city even with two people.
Traveling to northern Italy by train is the best option if you're looking to visit the major sites without the hassle of renting and driving a car. Most towns in northern Italy have their own train stations; the major train hubs are in Genoa, Turin, and Milan.
Along the major east-west train line in northern Italy, the distance from Turin to Milan is about an hour and 20 minutes; the trips costs 23€ (second class) on the Eurostar high-speed train. Milan to Verona is the same price (train travel in Italy is priced per kilometer, with different rates for the speed of the train and the class). Verona and Padua are 40 minutes apart by train, and the trip costs 13€. The train continues east to Venice; from Padua, it will take 20 minutes to get to Venice and will cost 12€. The fastest way to continue on to Trieste from Venice is on the international Cisalpino train (www.raileurope.com), which costs 14€ and takes about an hour and a half.
The major north-south train lines in northern Italy are Milan-Genoa (1 1/2 hr. and 15€ on the midspeed Intercity train) and Trento-Verona (1 hr. and 5€ on the infrequent, high-speed trains to and from Austria). Otherwise, apart from the main artery that runs from Milan to Rome and quicker lines along the coasts, north-south routes around here can be pretty slow going because they rely on the regional trains that stop at every minor hamlet in the valleys.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.