Frommer's Favorite Experiences in Northern Italy
Taking a Gondola Ride in Venice: Yes, it looks hokey. Yes, it's way overpriced. But when it comes down to it, there's nothing quite so romantic after a long Venetian dinner as a ride on one of these long black skiffs. Settle back into the plush seats with that special someone and a bottle of wine, and slide through the waters of Venice's back canals guided by the expert oar of a gondolier.
Spending a Day Among the Islands of the Venetian Lagoon: Venice's ferry system extends outside the city proper to a series of other inhabited islands in the lagoon. First stop, Murano, a village where the famed local glass-blowing industry began and where its largest factories and best artisans still reside. Not only can you tour a glass factory (complete with a hard sell in the display room at the end), but you'll discover a pair of lovely churches, one hung with paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Veronese, and Tintoretto, the other a Byzantine-Romanesque masterpiece of decoration. The isle of Burano is a colorful fishing village with an ancient lace-making tradition and houses in a variety of supersaturated hues. Nearby, lonely Torcello may have been one of the first lagoon islands settled, but it's long been almost abandoned, home to a straggly vineyard, reed-banked canals, the fine Cipriani restaurant, and a stunning Byzantine cathedral swathed in mosaics. Time it right, and you'll be riding the last ferry back from Torcello into Venice proper as the sun sets and lights up the lagoon waters.
Cruising the Brenta Canal: The lazy Brenta Canal, lacing its way into the Veneto from Venice's lagoon, has long been the Hamptons of Venice, where the city's nobility and merchant princes have kept summer villas. From the massive, palatial Villa Pisani, with its elaborate gardens, to the Villa Foscari, designed by Palladio himself, most of these villas span the 16th to 19th centuries and are open to visitors. In the past few years, a few have even been opened as elegant hotels. There are two ways to tour the Brenta: on a leisurely full-day cruise between Padua and Venice, stopping to tour several villas along the way with an optional fish lunch; or by driving yourself along the banks, which allows you to pop into the villas you are most interested in -- plus you can pull over at any grassy embankment for a picnic lunch on the canal.
Driving the Great Dolomite Road: From the Adige Valley outside Bolzano (Bozen in German) across to the ski resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo runs 110km (68 miles) of twisting, winding, switch-backed highway, called the Great Dolomite Road, which wends its way around some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in Italy. The Dolomiti are craggier and sheerer than the Alps, and as this road crawls around the peaks and climbs over the passes, one breathtaking panorama after another opens before you, undulating to the distant Po plains to the south and to the mighty Swiss Alps to the north.
Riding the Cable Cars over Mont Blanc: There are not many more dramatic trips in Europe than this one, where a series of cable cars and gondolas rise from Courmayeur in the Valle d'Aosta to the 3,300m (10,824-ft.) Punta Helbronner, from which the icy vistas spread over Mont Blanc's flank in one direction and across to Monte Cervina (the Matterhorn) in the other. It is here that the true thrill ride begins as you clamber into a four-seat enclosed gondola that dangles from a trio of stout cables some 2.4km (1 1/2 miles) above the deep fissures of the Vallée Blanche glacier. It takes half an hour to cross to Aiguille du Midi on French soil -- the longest cable car ride in the world not supported by pylons. From here, you can take a jaunt down into France's charming Chamonix if you'd like, or turn around to head back into Italian territory, perhaps stopping at the Alpine Garden two-thirds of the way back to Courmayeur to sun yourself and admire the wildflowers.
Hiking the Cinque Terre: At the southern end of the Italian Riviera lies a string of former pirate coves called the Cinque Terre. These five fishing villages are linked by a local train line and a meandering trail that clambers over headlands, plunges amid olive groves and vineyards, and skirts cliff edges above the glittering Ligurian Sea and hidden scraps of beach. The villages also share an excellent communal white wine. Though tourists are discovering this magical corner of Italy, there are as yet no big resort hotels or overdevelopment, just trattorie on the tiny harbors and houses and apartments converted into small family hotels and short-term rental units. It takes a full, long day to hike from one end to the other, or you can simply walk the stretches you prefer (conveniently, the trails get progressively easier from north to south) and use the train to connect to the other towns. Pause as you like in the osterie and bars of each town to sample the dry Cinque Terre white wine and refresh yourself for the next stretch.
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.