5 Things You Don't Know About Northern Italy

A gondolier sits down in front of the Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice. Riccardo De Luca
By Eric Sylvers

Northern Italy's most well-known attractions -- Venice, Milan, and the Lakes -- can hold some surprises even for the seasoned traveler. From catching a soccer (football) match to seeing the region's smaller (but no less beautiful) lakes, here's how to see the best of Northern Italy.

Photo Caption: A gondolier sits down in front of the Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.
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Gondolas along the Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge in background, Venice. Riccardo De Luca
This is the time of year that Goldilocks would go to Venice: not too hot, not too cold, not too many tourists, prices just right. The tourist crowds can get out of hand at Carnival, but the city can also be packed in summer and during most of autumn. A winter visit will be damp, and the days will be short. Instead, if you visit from Easter to early June, you'll hit Venice's sweet spot as far as weather, the number of tourists, and hotel prices.

Photo Caption: Gondolas along the Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge in background, Venice
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Lake Iseo and the island of Loreto, Lombardy. Jon Shave
Northern Italy's big lakes -- Garda, Como, and Maggiore -- get all the press, and deservedly so. But if you want to venture a bit farther afield while still spending some time lakeside, other options abound in Northern Italy.

Lake Orta (www.orta.net) is just a 30-minute drive from Stresa, the biggest Italian town on Lake Maggiore; in addition to charming towns on its shore (most notably Orta San Giulio), Lake Orta also has a little island. Lake Iseo (www.lagodiseo.org), halfway between Bergamo and Brescia, is also dotted with picturesque towns and has its own inviting island. Lake Ledro (www.vallediledro.com) is not much more than a speck on the map, especially when seen next to its massive neighbor Lake Garda, but it offers just about all you might want from a few days on the lakeshore. You can rent paddleboats, rowboats, and canoes, or simply stroll by the lake.

Photo Caption: Lake Iseo and the island of Loreto, Lombardy
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AC Milan vs. Inter at San Siro (Giuseppe Meazza Soccer Stadium), Milan. nobbiwan
Milan is not only about shopping, fashion, the Duomo, and Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. It's also Europe's most successful soccer town, a boon for the hardcore sports tourist as well as the visitor just out to experience a bit of local flavor. With two teams taking turns using Milan's Giuseppe Meazza soccer stadium (locals call it San Siro), you can catch a championship-level soccer match on almost any weekend from September to May. If AC Milan (www.acmilan.com) isn't winning the Italian championship, chances are that city rival Internazionale (known as Inter; www.inter.it) is. A Milanese team has held the championship for eight streight years, from 2003-11, and combined the two teams have a total of 36 trophies (18 each).

Photo Caption: AC Milan vs. Inter at San Siro (Giuseppe Meazza Soccer Stadium), Milan
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Predoi (Prettau in German) is the northernmost part of Italy. Allie_Caulfield
Tucked away in the far northern reaches of Italy -- in fact, quite literally the farthest north you can go and still be in Italy -- sits the village of Predoi (www.gemeinde.prettau.bz.it). Called Prettau in German, the village is surrounded on three sides by Austria. The alpine town is home to a one-of-a-kind spa: There, deep inside a mountain, lies a 15th-century copper mine (www.ich-atme.com), shuttered since 1971, that has been converted to a sort of health resort.

You take a tiny train almost a mile into the mountain and pop out in an enlarged tunnel dotted with lounge chairs. Kick back on one, drink a cup of tea, and breathe in the mine's claim to fame: it's said to have the cleanest air in Italy and be able to cure respiratory maladies. The air is kept clean through a natural system of filters created by the numerous tunnels; in addition, it's kept at ideal humidity and a constant temperature of 48 degrees Fahrenheit, which supposedly helps facilitate regeneration of the lungs. Alleged health benefits aside, the experience of relaxing inside a mountain is not something you'll quickly forget. (Plus, children love the train ride and the thought of being deep inside a mine straight out of The Lord of the Rings.) For those just passing through, it's well worth just the one visit.

Photo Caption: Predoi (Prettau in German) is the northernmost part of Italy.
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A Ryanair flight on the runway at Orio al Serio Airport, Bergamo, Italy. Luigi Rosa
Trying to combine your Northern Italy trip with some sightseeing in the south or perhaps elsewhere in Europe? Budget airline Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies from numerous cities across Northern Italy to all corners of Europe. If you reserve in advance, you could find a flight to London, Barcelona, Berlin, Warsaw or even Riga for just a few euros (but don't forget to factor in any extra baggage fees).

Bergamo's Orio al Serio airport (www.sacbo.it) is your best chance for finding a flight -- it's equidistant from the center of Milan as Malpensa (the city's main airport) and it's a major Ryanair hub with flights to more than 80 destinations in 24 countries. Or board a bus from Venice to the airport in Treviso (www.trevisoairport.it), where you can then fly to 29 destinations. Verona, Turin, and Trieste offer fewer options.

Photo Caption: A Ryanair flight on the runway at Orio al Serio Airport, Bergamo, Italy
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