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Northern Italy

Top-20 Towns

Get away from the crowds with this grand tour of northern Italian towns that are not well-known, traveling by train, boat, and on foot, exploring these beautiful places. We include two big cities, Genoa and Bologna, but mostly this is all about smaller towns, experiencing their history and modern life today. These are ideal destinations because they are far less famous and crowded than Rome, Florence, Milan and Venice. We love those four superb places, and describe them elsewhere in the website, but this page is focused on 20 less well-known destinations, which have so much to offer.

Same video on dedicated video page.

There are a lot of wonderful things to see in these smaller out-of-the-way places, the Top-20 Towns of Northern Italy, loaded with authentic Italian charm...and not many tourists! These 20 towns can be visited on a three-week trip, so you could use this information to plan an itinerary for an off-beat vacation that you would absolutely enjoy. The towns are close together and connected nicely by train, so it's easy to get around and see a lot.

In this age of overtourism with so many crowded cities, it's nice to be in a place where nearly everybody is a local.


Short video of GENOA

We begin in the harbor city of Genoa with its delightful waterfront promenades, a collection of classical buildings, monumental statues and my favorite attraction of the town, a vast pedestrian zone, one of Europe's largest, making a delightful place to go for a stroll.

Genoa has a fantastic number of these little side alleys. They go around and up and down. Some of them are very quiet, while others are lined with shops and filled with people walking around. It's got so much character you could easily spend days in the maze of alleys of Genoa. As you walk along, you'll notice that most of the people here are locals rather than tourists. And that's what we'll find in all 20 of the cities that will be visiting in this itinerary.

There is lots more to do in Genoa, for example, along the waterfront you've got the beautiful marina. A maritime museum reflects Genoa's long history and the largest aquarium in Italy, one of the city's most popular attractions.

Among the favorite exhibits are the manatees and the penguins, along with 15,000 other animals representing 400 different species in a beautiful building designed by the famous local architect Renzo Piano, who also designed a crane that can lift you up 40 meters for a spectacular aerial view of Genoa.Another great view is from Spianata Castelletto with a commanding view over the whole city.

Pastel-colored buildings are typical of this region of Liguria and one place you find a lot of them is along via Garibaldi, lined with historic palaces that are World Heritage Sites, ranking among the city's top visitor attractions. Nearby is Palazzo Reale, the Royal Palace Museum, constructed in the mid-17th century, complete with frescoes, statues, paintings, sculptures and furnishings that belonged to the noble families who lived there.

Genoa is the largest city in our itinerary with a population of over half a million, but it's included in this list of off-beat destinations because it does not get very many international tourists, is relatively undiscovered, but definitely worth visiting.


Short video of CAMOGLI

The closest, most attractive town nearby is Camogli, just 40 minutes away by train. You might be familiar with nearby Portofino and Cinque Terre. Well, Camogli is just as beautiful and a little bit less famous, which makes it more approachable and less crowded and attractive, although it does get busy.

Camogli is well-known to the hip traveler who wants to find a delightful seaside oasis. The beach is not white sand, but black pebbles. We can still call it a beach. Everybody loves to lounge out here and soak up the rays.

The waterfront promenade is lined with restaurants and bars, and then you go through an archway into the other side of town to a marina with fishing boats and excursion cruisers. Camogli is a small but spectacular waterfront town.


Short video of SESTRI LEVANTE

From Camogli it's a short 30-minute train ride to the next town on our list, Sestri Levante. It's only about a 500-meter walk from the train station  along a couple of busy roads before you get to the pedestrian zone, where you want to turn right where you see those steel balls, which brings you directly into the main, charming pedestrian lane of town.

It's only 600 meters long but lined with dozens of shops and restaurants, cafes and those beautiful pastel buildings, leading to the idyllic beachfront, right out of a picture postcard.

Relaxing at the sandy crescent or tapping into the wi-fi of the local cafe is a lovely way to spend the day. Sestri and Camogli are definitely worth your time. You might also want to explore the western side of the Italian Riviera, Savona and Albania.


Short video of SAVONA

The pedestrian Corso Italia runs through the center of town, with cafes,  shops and side alleys reaching out from it. The main street is lined with porticos and sidewalk merchants and soon leads down to the waterfront. Symbol of the city is the medieval tower overlooking the harbor.

Nearby is the tallest of the medieval towers, Brandale, at 50 meters. They serve fresh seafood right from the boat in the marina, which gets quite busy on a day like this when a couple of cruise ships are in port.

This massive Priamar Fortress was built in the 16th century by Genoa, which had already conquered Savona and was trying to maintain its hold over the town.

Completing our quick look at Savona, we're now heading along the coast to the small historic town of Albenga.


Short video of ALBENGA

The main attraction here is the well-preserved town center, with buildings dating back to the Middle Ages. The old town is less than 400 meters wide from one end to the other, with a grid of streets that reflect the early Roman origins.

The special quality that could make this town worth visiting is the uniform medieval appearance of all the buildings. These old structures have been well-maintained because people still live in them and the shops and cafes are up to date doing good business with the locals and visitors. A short walk through the modern town, boosted by some gelato, will get you to the train station in a few minutes.


Short video of BELLAGIO

Leaving Liguria, traveling from Genoa by train up to Lake Como to visit the magical little village of Bellagio. The town is on the lakeshore and extends a few blocks inland up a hillside. So there will be some steps, with a picturesque setting that makes the climb worthwhile.

Bellagio is most famous for its staircase streets. There are seven of them, and they lead to the upper-level shopping street. So you can go up one staircase, across, and back down again. Just wander at will. It's a bit of effort, but the steps are pretty shallow, quite easy to climb. Then walking back down is very easy. Sometimes the slope is so gradual it's a pathway rather than a staircase.

Back near the lakeshore, it's all quite level. And there's a series of restaurants sheltered by the arcades as you walk through this beautiful loggia. Several hotels are available, such as the three-star Hotel Bellagio and the ultra-deluxe Villa Serbelloni. If you spend the night, it would be delightfully quiet in the evening with all of these day trippers gone.

But you'll probably find that 4 or 5 hours is enough to get a good feeling for this beautiful little village. One of the choice items to purchase is silk, because nearby Como has been a leader in silk production for centuries. After walking up and down several staircases and along the main routes, maybe shopping and eating, you'll be ready to move on.

There are lots of opportunities for scenic boat rides on the lake and while leaving Bellagio, we have a lovely view across the water looking back at this waterfront village.


Short video of VARENNA

A 15-minute boat ride will take you across this branch of Lake Como over to another classic village, Varenna, on a scenic lakefront setting with its pastel-colored buildings quite similar to Bellagio, and staircase streets, but much smaller.

The church and piazza of San Giorgio, with a four-star Royal Victoria Hotel, are major gathering places in town. Follow the brick path leading down through a stone staircase tunnel to the idyllic scenery of the lakeshore, framed by cafe tables, flowers and those pastel-colored buildings.

This section of shore has its own name, Riva Grande. And behind it we've got the tables of a series of restaurants specializing in fish from the lake. Varenna was founded more than a thousand years ago as a fishing village. The map shows you how small it is, and those dotted red lines indicate staircases instead of ordinary streets. But if you arrive by boat and you're leaving by boat and you don't need to go uphill to see Piazza San Giorgio, you don't have to climb any steps at all. Just stay along the shores of the lake.

Sit back and relax at the restaurants with maybe just a snack, drink, or meal. As you head back to the boat dock, you'll walk along this path on the edge of the water, past the marina, and along what they call the Lovers Walk. It's a cantilevered, very secure and scenic walkway.

Then we took a short drive over to a dramatic river gorge called the Bellano Ravine. The river has been carving out this chasm for 15 million years, creating a route with waterfalls and lush vegetation.


video of BERGAMO

Detailed webpages about Bergamo

From Lake Como we're heading to Bergamo, one of the most fascinating towns in our itinerary, with a piazza considered among the prettiest in Italy.

Bergamo's Old Town is up on a hill surrounded by massive fortified walls that the Venetians built in the middle of the 16th century. They are so well-preserved that several of the original gates are still functional. And now the wall is a World Heritage Site, with the Venetian walls wrapping around the hillside.

The modern district of Bergamo is down below and quite lovely, but not the main focus of your visit. Instead, you'll want to spend your time in Bergamo is Citta Alta, the upper town, with origins that go back more than 2000 years. There are still quite a few of those old buildings surviving from the Middle Ages. Especially dramatic are the towers that had been fortified homes of wealthy families, and now this one is home to the Tourist Information Office.

There is one main pedestrian street that runs through the center of town, just under a kilometer long. This nicely paved lane is quite level, so you could walk from one end of town to the other in about half an hour. But there is so much to see it could take you two days, especially wandering along some of those steeper little side lanes.

The authentic character of this place is seen in that small-town atmosphere, with residents doing their shopping, chatting with neighbors and relaxing out in the public spaces. Walking along the back lanes you might run into some university students heading for class. When getting hungry with all this walking look for the pizzeria on the main route with an amazing selection.

The main piazza has got several delicious restaurants, or maybe just sit and have a spritz. The majestic Palazzo Della Ragione stands at one end of the main piazza, constructed in the Gothic style 800 years ago as a government building. You could walk 230 steps to the top of the Civic Tower, or better yet, take the elevator for a great view looking down on the main churches.

The Basilica is on the left side with that plain facade, and on the right side is a highly decorated chapel that you really should enter for an over-the-top view of Baroque decorations at the tomb of Bartolomeo Coleone. Next to that is the Duomo, with an elaborate interior. There is no charge to enter these three churches.

There are also palaces, museums and parks to enjoy here. You could visit Bergamo on a daytrip, for example, it's only 48 minutes away from Milan by direct train. However, it's worth spending a couple of days here, which gives you the time to see a lot and enjoy the evening when it's less crowded and more enchanting.

When it's time to go, you can take the funicular from the upper town down to the modern city. You could also walk, or you can take the public bus or taxi. From the bottom of the funicular to the train station it's about a mile or 1.5 kilometers, so you might want to take the bus from the upper town, which will bring you directly to the train station.


Short video of BRESCIA

We are moving along in our extensive itinerary to the city of Brescia. This is one of the least-known of all the cities that we are visiting, yet it has many fine things to see and friendly people enjoying a relaxed, modern lifestyle.

It does not get very many tourists, which is even more of a reason to visit because you will avoid the crowds while discovering an authentic Italian town that is rich with history, excellent food and a compact pedestrian zone. Yes, there are excellent museums, Roman ruins, a castle on the hill and many fine restaurants. But you'll discover that just walking the streets of this charming town is one of the great highlights of your visit. These residents enjoy a high quality of life, which is enhanced by the lovely physical layout of the city with these open plazas and piazzas.

We've just been on Corso Zanardelli, and the three main piazzas are located practically right next to each other, making a very compact downtown that's easy to explore on foot. Piazza della Vittoria was created in the 1930s with an art nouveau style of architecture, beautiful buildings, and, of course, restaurants and cafes.

The cathedral stands very tall over Piazza Paolo VI, which seems to be the largest and busiest of the piazzas.

Piazza Della Loggia is considered the most beautiful in town, with a 500-year-old City Hall, partly designed by Palladio, at one end and the Clocktower at the other, and cafes offering generous snacks with your spritz. Just next to it, the young locals have found a great place to have an outdoor party.

Every Saturday afternoon a crowd gathers to have a wonderful time together. These people realize one secret to the good life -- having a drink while talking with friends out in the streets. And yes, there are museums. The City Museum, among other exhibits, has an ancient Roman house, and nearby the best-preserved Roman structures in northern Italy. There's also the Pinacoteca fine art museum.

One of the most popular sites is the huge castle up on the hill, one of the largest in Europe, with walls constructed by the Venetians who conquered and ruled Brescia for nearly four centuries. It's worth the climb to get up here to enjoy this fantastic view over the city. Brescia is the world's smallest city with a subway and also excellent train connections that will bring you in this case up to Lake Iseo.


Short video of ISEO

It only takes 30 minutes to arrive at one of Italy's most beautiful lakes. There is the small town of Iseo along the lakeshore, with beautiful promenades on the waterfront and several little piazzas with the usual restaurants and cafes around them.

You could wander around in the little side streets, maybe get a bite to eat. It's a lovely little village, but for most people, the reason for coming here is to take a boat ride and explore this beautiful Lake Iseo. It's one of Italy's smaller and less-busy lakes compared to Como, Maggiore and Garda, but it's extremely beautiful.

Short video of PESCHIERA

The most popular stop on the boat ride is the little village of Peschiera on the island of Monte Isola, which is the largest inhabited island in southern Europe with 12 little villages and up to 20,000 residents, and no cars on the island.

You might want to rent a bicycle to get around or just stroll along the picturesque waterfront and you'll see the traditional fishing boats. You might just spend half an hour here and then catch the next boat to continue your excursion. The ferry boats visit several villages along the lakeshore so you can get a tour in a single day. However, these boats only operate from late March through October, while there is year round service connecting Montezuma with its closest shore town, Sulzano. I noticed the line to get on the boat is much longer at midday than when I began at 9 a.m. I was here on the last Sunday of October, so people are eager to get their final chance for a boat ride before the season ends.

Back in Iseo Town, you can catch a train that runs along the lakeshore to continue the exploration of this beautiful Lake Iseo. The train along the lakeshore does run year-round, and it only takes a half-hour to ride the entire length of the lake from Iseo up to Pisogne. You get some nice views looking out on the water as you travel along. You can hop off at a few towns and then just get back on an hour later when the next train arrives and then turn around in the same train can bring you back to Brescia, which makes a good home base for visiting this lake.



Short video of SIRMIONE and GARDA

Now we're moving on to the next lake and the fortified village of Sirmione on Lake Garda, passing through the wall's fortified gateway, the first sight you'll see is the remarkable Scaligero Castle, constructed in the 14th century.

We will climb through the castle in a minute, but first, a quick look around this small village of Sirmione. Lovely waterfront views include the marina and several restaurants right on the water's edge. The main lane is just about 400 meters long, so it's quite easy to see this little village in a couple of hours.

Of course, you might need a little more time if you're eating and shopping and exploring the coastline. Maybe take a short ride on one of the scenic excursion boats that go around the peninsula or just sit for a while watching the ducks. The place is full of narrow lanes and old stone buildings that give the feeling of a medieval village.

The castle is so appealing it draws you in like a magnet. There are nice staircases that will bring you to the upper bastions, which you can walk all the way around for views across the town. Notice the castle's extension into the water, whose internal docks are the only surviving examples of a 14th-century fortified harbor. Beyond the castle, a pebble beach gets quite busy during the summertime with a pleasant walkway alongside it.

That completes our brief look at Sirmione, as we get on a small boat that will take us around the peninsula and across the lake over to the town of Garda. At the north end of the Sirmione peninsula we saw Grottoes of Catullus, an amazing Roman villa built 2000 years ago. It was immense, 170 meters long and 100 meters wide with massive walls that were later incorporated as part of the medieval fortifications of Sirmione.


Arriving by boat at the small lakeshore village of Garda gives us a nice overview of the town. This is a famous lakeshore resort, well-known because it has the same name as the lake. Garda has those usual amenities of a lakefront town with a marina, a waterfront promenade and a row of outdoor restaurants all gathered together in a compact space just 500 meters long.

After our shoreline stroll, we head inland to the Old Town with its narrow pedestrian lanes and covered passageways.

We've been visiting Garda from our home base in Verona, which is just about a half an hour away by car. Or you could take a one-hour public bus ride from Garda to Verona.


Short video of VERONA

Ironic that Verona, the romantic city of Romeo and Juliet, is most famous because of a couple that never really existed except in the mind of Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Verona is a wonderful place with many attractions, including a large pedestrian zone, several central piazzas, lots of stores, great places to eat, or maybe just sit alfresco and have a drink. Major churches and well-preserved historic sites, especially, and most famously, the ancient Roman Arena, which is so well-preserved that it is still used for outdoor concerts and events.

The Verona Amphitheater is a wonderful sight, especially at twilight, it's really quite dazzling. The building is about 2000 years old. It was the third-largest arena that the Romans ever built. And it's right here in the heart of Verona, beautifully preserved. It's quite amazing to be able to walk inside a 2000 year old building. The adjacent Piazza Bra is one of the biggest piazzas in all of Italy. There's a long row of restaurants extending for several hundred meters offering wonderful outdoor places to eat.

The main shopping street in Verona is via Mazzini. It goes from the amphitheater all the way up to Piazza Erbe, a grand open space surrounded by palaces and monuments, that used to be the main vegetable market of Verona. Before ending our short visit we have one more essential stop to make and pay our respects to Juliet up in her balcony.

From here, you can reach Vicenza in 30 minutes by train.


Short video of VICENZA

Vicenza is another one of the great towns of Italy, most famous for the architecture of native son Andrea Palladio, who lived here 500 years ago. We're focusing on the people and the streets of this beautiful city. With a population just over 100,000 it has a small-town feeling and a high quality of life.

It's an effortless place to visit on a day-trip because the Old Town center is quite small, about one square kilometer, with many pedestrian lanes and beautiful historic sites. It is not one of those touristic places. You'll see mostly locals out taking a stroll, furnishing an authentic experience.

The town is like an outdoor museum with a large collection of important historic buildings, beautifully preserved, such as this old gateway through the medieval walls. Founded by the Romans over 2000 years ago, with continuous occupation, reaching its artistic peak in the works of Andrea Palladio, especially the Basilica on the main Piazza Signori surrounded by beautiful cafes.

Palladio Basilica has four piazzas around it and the main pedestrian street, Corso Andrea Palladio is just a few blocks away. Another easy 30-minute train ride brings us to Padua, or, as they say, Padova.


Short video of PADUA

The center of Padua is a wonderful complex with a big building in the middle and piazzas all around it. In the morning they have the fruit and vegetable market and some clothing and other things for sale here. It's really quite a sight to see, the center of town. The grand Palazzo della Ragione is surrounded by three primary piazzas, delle Erbe, dei Frutti and dei Signori.

One block away is Via Roma, the main pedestrian lane of Padua. And while it's not a piazza, it functions as one because there are no cars allowed. So it's long and narrow as a street but filled with people.

Padova is a college town with the second-oldest university in the country, founded in 1222, and today it's a very big and busy university with lots of students around.

Padua's lovely pedestrian zone has arcades lined with shops, many bars and cafes, large cobblestone piazzas with lots of people out having a good time. Of course, there are monumental buildings like City Hall and the Cathedral, or maybe the highlight of your visit is walking these lovely arcaded lanes.

Keep walking beyond the end of via Roma and you'll arrive at the largest piazza in all of Italy, Prato della Valle, with statues and a waterway surrounding a peaceful green park.

We are at the south edge of town, two kilometers away from the train station, and the tram can take you directly there to continue our journey across northern Italy. Our next city is Mantua or, as Italians say, Mantova, about a two-hour train ride from Padua.


Short video of MANTUA

All 20 amazing towns in this itinerary are among the best of northern Italy, and I'm happy to say that Mantua was one of my favorites.

There are three piazzas right next to each other in the center of town, forming a vast outdoor space for pedestrians lined with shops and restaurants in the outdoor loggia. And these three piazzas of Erbe, Broletto and Sordello have got many attractive pedestrian lanes all around them.

Among the oldest sites in the center is the Rotonda of San Lorenzo. It's a circular church built in the Romanesque style nearly 1000 years ago. Maybe you'll see this cat out for a walk. The historic center of Mantua is on a peninsula surrounded by three artificial lakes created back in the 12th century as defensive moats, and there is a canal on the south part of town completing the watery encirclement.

Palazzo Ducale: The imposing Castle of St George is part of the Duke's Palace, Palazzo Ducale, which is the most important historic site in the city, open to the public as a museum filled with art and royal architecture.

The most famous work of art in the palace is a ceiling painted by Mantegna, giving the illusion of a roof open to the sky with little putti and angels all around it, and three-dimensional paintings on the walls, a masterpiece of Renaissance art. The palace is a large group of buildings, consisting of 500 rooms connected by more than a dozen courtyards and gardens.

Palazzo Ducale is like a city within the city, constructed for the Gonzaga royal family between the 14th and 17th centuries. It's the sixth-largest palace in Europe, located right on Piazza Sordello, facing the Duomo Cathedral, with an adjacent public garden.

Palazzo Te: The Gonzaga family also built a second royal palace, Palazzo Te. It was a mansion for social gatherings and parties where Duke Federico II could enjoy the company of his mistress, constructed in Renaissance style in the early 16th century.

There is a collosal series of illusionistic murals covering the walls and ceilings with dramatic 3-D perspectives. As evening settles in the town is still quite lively, with people out having a drink, having some snacks, eating dinner with a mix of locals and tourists, sharing the piazzas together.

Almost everywhere in Italy now, when you order one drink, say a spritz for 5 euro, you get free snacks to go with it, almost a meal. Sitting at a cafe is a lovely way to wrap up the visit.


Short video of CREMONA

Our next city, Cremona, is less than one hour away from Mantua by direct train.

This quiet town of 70,000 residents is even further off the tourist route than the other towns that we've been looking at, and yet you'll see that it's an enjoyable place to spend a day or two.

Like most Italian towns, there is a pedestrian zone right in the center of the city where no cars are allowed, just people, bicycles, sidewalk cafes and always lots of shops, including a Galleria, built 80 years ago in that fascist style of the 1930s. The Civic Museum has fine arts, history and archeology, founded in 1960.

There are two things that Cremona is most famous for. One of them is next to the cathedral -- it's the bell tower, called Terrazzo of Cremona. It's a 112 meters high, which makes it the tallest brick bell tower in Italy. The other thing Cremona is most famous for is Antonio Stradivari, the creator of the Stradivarius violin.

You can see several of those priceless musical instruments at the Violin Museum. Cremona is still one of the world's main violin-making cities, with about 100 workshops scattered through town, where sometimes you get to hear a practice tuneup session.

That completes 17 towns in our trip through northern Italy. And we've got three more wonderful places to go with Parma up next.


Short video of PARMA

There is much more to Parma than Parmesan cheese, although they do have the best of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and also famous for their prosciutto, the Parma ham.

The Governor's Palace was a city municipal building, but it's transformed now into an art museum for temporary exhibits.

Just enjoying a favorite activity, strolling the little streets, observing local lifestyle like these dog lovers at a cafe. You'll reach the opera house, built in the early 19th century with a neoclassical style.

Some more little lanes bring you to one of the main shopping streets of town, Strada Cavour, which leads towards the Piazza del Duomo with the great cathedral of the city. Construction began about 1000 years ago, and the interior decoration continued evolving for the next 500 years. The octagonal baptistery is next door.


Short video of MODENA

That was a quick look at Parma as we wind down our tour of northern Italy, heading now to Modena on a 30-minute train ride.

One of the first landmarks you'll see walking from the train station is Palazzo Ducale, which is open to the public as a museum in the old Duke's Palace. Modena is perhaps most famous for its balsamic vinegar, but there are more things to enjoy here in this beautiful town.

Many streets are lined with porticos, offering protection from the sun and rain while extending upper floors, creating more interior space, which brings us to the center of town.

Piazza Grande was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the cathedral and the tower. The cathedral is a masterpiece of the European Romanesque architectural style.

Two blocks away, you'll reach Albinelli Market, the oldest covered market of town, opened in 1931. Today, it has 65 different stalls selling mostly produce. There's also a wine bar and restaurant inside. And of course, nearly every pedestrian street in the center has more places to eat.

Behind Piazza Grande you can walk underneath a building, which brings you to Corso Duomo with more porticos and another picturesque church, where you'll also find sidewalk kiosks with jewelry and crafts.

The main item most visitors are interested in purchasing here is balsamic vinegar, because the worlds best comes from Modena. And many shops offer a free tasting session to help you understand the varieties.


Short video of BOLOGNA

Departing Modena, we finally reach the last destination of our grand tour of my top-20 towns of northern Italy, arriving in the great city of Bologna, which has one of the largest and best-preserved historic centers in Italy.

Starting at Piazza Maggiore in the heart of town, with some music in the air thanks to buskers always here. Some of the town's most important buildings are on the piazza, including Palazzo Comunale, the City Hall, and Palazzo Podesta, the former City Hall, along with the great Basilica of San Petronio, with its unfinished facade.

Next to the Basilica, you'll see a long portico with a series of arches and little side lanes extending from it, leading into a neighborhood packed with food shops and restaurants.

This restaurant section is called the Quadrilatero and has been the city's food center for centuries, the most popular dining area of town. These restaurant lanes get so crowded it's pretty hard to get a table, especially on a weekend night. But if arriving early, about 6:30, there's a good chance of finding a seat any day.

This is one of the most densely-packed collection of outdoor restaurants in Italy.

On weekends no automobile traffic is allowed anywhere in the center of town, so the main streets are packed with people. But you can easily walk a few blocks away and get into some nice quiet neighborhoods, like near the university.

Piazza Santo Stefano, one of the most scenic outdoor spaces town. The church at the end of the piazza is part of a larger complex with seven churches all connected together at this same location. First, you step into the oldest of them, the Church of the Crucifix, built in the seventh century. Then you walk through several more churches built from the 10th to 13th centuries, and Courtyard of Pilate, with a marble basin and two levels of loggia.

The loggia or porticos extend for 38 kilometers through Bologna and have been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Saving the best for last -- the two towers of Bologna, Garisenda, 47 meters high, and Asinelli, 97 meters high, the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world. They have been standing here for 900 years and are the symbols of Bologna. With that marvelous site towering above, we complete our tour of the top-20 towns of northern Italy.