Northern Italy’s Architectural Gems

Verona is a lovely city located by the Adige River that embodies a golden opportunity to appreciate its two thousand years of history. Verona is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)



Home to the Alps, this part of Italy is a breathtaking region full of rich history, architectural masterpieces, and art treasures. Let’s join gastroenterologist Dr. Jun Ruiz as he visits Milan and Verona on the road to Venice

My guided group tour of eighteen days in Italy three years ago was one of my most memorable tours of a lifetime. Italy is such a beautiful country, with gorgeous natural attractions, magnificent cities full of rich history and interesting culture, bigger than life man-made monuments that reflect inspiring architecture, and has a great cuisine that caters to everyone’s gastronomic delights. All our Italian stops during the tour were so distinctively memorable, and the next experience was always completely different from the preceding day.

I was blessed to be in a small tour group, numbering only twenty tourists from the United States, Australia, Canada, India, and the Philippines. Everyone was wonderful and pleasant as we worked well with one another and developed a great camaraderie – making this tour doubly enjoyable and fun. This tour has spawned five amazing travelogues, this one included, and I like to compare it to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” music albums that individually produced record-breaking seven Top 10 singles.

The centerpiece of Milan is the grand and Gothic Duomo di Milano, and is the most iconic attraction in the city (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

Rome, Florence, and Venice are the most popular cities in Italy tourists flock to. However, there are a multitude of other beautiful places worth exploring. Among the breathtaking areas we visited was Northern Italy. The region has a diverse geography due to its two coastal regions, divided by the dramatic mountain landscapes of the majestic Alps and Apennines. This region of Italy is studded with historical and ancient cities waiting to be explored.

Venice is the most famous city in all of Northern Italy, with its enchanting island city setting, beautiful canals, and historical grandeur known by people from all corners of the world. There are other magnificent cities that warrant your time, like Milan, Verona, Bologna, Genoa, and the Italian Lakes. The myriad of attractions in Northern Italy, whether it is the architecture, the arts, or the landscape, is so diverse that there is something for everyone’s taste. I am sharing my wonderful travel experiences in Milan and Verona in the road to Venice in this article.

Milan’s Duomo

Milan is one of the most vibrant and modern cities in Italy, located in the Lombardy region. It is the country’s biggest metropolis, and is the capital of finance and commerce in Italy. It is also known to fashionistas everywhere as one of the big four fashion capitals of the world (the other three are Paris, New York, and London). It is the home to elite designer lines like Armani, Versace, and Prada. This chic locale offers opportunities for designer-fashion shopping, but I was not there to shop.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, named after the first king of Italy, is the place to go for the best of Italy’s haute couture designs (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

After spending the morning in Genoa, we headed to Milan. The metropolis is a city of huge contrasts, from the medieval buildings along the narrow, cobblestoned streets to the cosmopolitan skyscrapers. It effortlessly combines the old with the modern. Not here for shopping, we explored the stylish city for its stunning architecture, rich history, and cultural heritage. We were not provided with a tour guide, thus we explored Milan by foot for the allotted four hours, saving time for lunch. Fortunately, the top two attractions are located across each other.

The centerpiece of Milan is one of the most elaborate Gothic cathedrals in Europe – the grand Duomo di Milano, also known as the Milan Cathedral. This is probably the most iconic attraction in the city, so it is a good place to start. Dedicated to Saint Mary Nascent, this cathedral is the third largest church in the world. The façade is intricate and dramatic, with its bristling 135 spires, several statues, and striking pink-tinged Italian marble capturing your attention. The tallest pinnacle is 350 feet high and is graced by the Madonnina statue. The construction began in 1386, and was not completed until 1965 when the finishing touches were applied to the building. This long construction time of over six centuries resulted in the use of various styles, creating this masterpiece of architecture.

The lines to enter the church can sometimes be extremely long, so book your ticket in advance. Inside the cathedral, the 52 giant pillars hold up an extremely high vaulted ceiling, and the church is lit from all sides by the beautiful stained glass windows, creating a Gothic setting. You can go up on the rooftop to admire stunning views over the city.

The author tries to be fashionable inside Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II, one of the most glamorous shopping arcades in the world (Photo courtesy of Jun Ruiz)

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

The square outside the Duomo is the Piazza del Duomo – Milan’s cultural and social heart. It has a lively atmosphere where people meet up and chat while drinking coffee or eating gelato from the nearby shops. On the left side of the Duomo is another splendid building with a very impressive entrance arch that leads into the northern arcades. This is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, named after the first king of Italy, which opened in 1867. This is the place to go for the best of Italy’s haute couture designs, and is the oldest enclosed shopping mall in the world.

The architecture of this palace of a mall is spectacular, with its steel and blue glassed vaulted ceilings, intricate mosaic flooring, and a towering, magnificent central dome. The galleria itself has a floor plan in the shape of a Latin cross, with an octagonal center adorned with mosaics. This is one of the most glamorous shopping arcades in the world and has top fashion and department stores that include Louis Vuitton, Versace, Gucci, and Prada. Though I was dazzled with the uber-chic name brand suits and designer apparel, I had to content myself with plain window shopping.

The Arena was originally an enormous Roman amphitheater where gladiators fight (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

From Piazza del Duomo, my friend Julius and I bought several scoops of gelato while strolling down Via Dante on our way to the Sforzesco Castle. It is a medieval castle and fortress built in the 14th century that became a showcase of power and prestige of the ruling elite of Milan during the Renaissance. Today, the castle is home to the Musei del Castello. The most famous artifact is the Pietà Rondanini, Michelangelo’s last sculpture that he left unfinished. If one has time which we did not have, head to the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie where you can appreciate Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece “The Last Supper”. We later headed back with our tour group to our hotel in Lake Maggiore.

The author joins the many tourists in caressing Juliet’s breast, hoping it will bring good fortunes in one’s love life (Photo courtesy of Jun Ruiz

The romantic city of Verona

The following day, we left our beautiful hotel by the lakeside and headed to the romantic city of Verona. It is the perfect city to visit to get my fill of Italian culture. A stop in the picturesque Verona is a must while traveling through the Northern Italy, as the old narrow paved roads, elaborate churches, and many lovely piazzas offer the authentic Italian feel I was looking for. This lovely city embodies a golden opportunity to appreciate its two thousand years of history – the many archaeological ruins dating back a thousand years ago, to the impressive Medieval and Renaissance architectural buildings, and as the place where William Shakespeare set his play Romeo and Juliet. Many tourists consider Verona a more relaxed and charming place to visit, as compared to the neighboring crowded Venice. Verona has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its urban structure and ancient architecture from the Roman and medieval times.

We arrived in Verona by the Adige River where we met our excellent local tour guide Cecilia who would introduce the group to this charming city to us via a walking tour over the next four hours. We crossed the Ponte Pietra Bridge (Stone Bridge) to explore the city proper. From this point, you can see the Castell San Pietro above the hill where one can see spectacular views over Verona.

Cross the Ponte Pietra Bridge over the Adige River to explore the city proper (Photo courtesy of Verona Tourism)

The city center of Verona is compact, and is easily navigable by foot. The stop that our group, especially the women, was very excited about was Juliet’s House (Casa di Giulietta). The house has been identified as that of Juliet for centuries. It is the unification of several brick and stone houses around a small internal courtyard, and styled to a rich14th century merchant’s house. At the end of the courtyard is a bronze statue of Juliet. The balcony of Juliet was added in 1936 as an inspiration to the famous balcony scene where the lovers declared their love from each other in the Shakespeare’s novel, an effort to bring in more tourists. It is not known if Shakespeare ever visited Verona at all.

Traditions have grown up around the shrine of Juliet. It can be magical, especially for the lovers and the romantics. It has been said that rubbing the breast of Juliet will bring good fortunes in your love life. I joined the many other hundreds of tourists and pilgrims in taking turns caressing Juliet’s breast, hoping that my own love life would be also be blessed. Some admirers offer flowers around the statue, and you will see hundreds of notes and letters from the lovelorn all over the world addressed to Juliet in the walls of the courtyard. These are answered and given advice in the matters of the heart by the secretaries of the Juliet’s Club.

Piazza delle Erbe is a lively square to enjoy a drink and soak in the Italian culture (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

We passed by several historical landmarks during our walking tour. Piazza delle Erbe is a lively square surrounded by medieval buildings, restaurants, bars, and beautiful frescoes. This square is a bustling market, but has been a forum since the ancient Roman times. This is great site to enjoy a drink and soak in the Italian culture. You can appreciate the brick and marble Torre dei Lamberti with its clock tower, built in 1172 and the tallest tower in Verona. It was once the residence of the powerful Lamberti family. You can ascend to the top to appreciate incredible vistas of the city. The Piazza dei Signori (Lord’s Square) is another important piazza, which used to be the historic center of power in Verona as former government buildings border the square. We also admired the Gothic-style and intricately carved stone sarcophagi and tombs of the Scaligeri family (medieval rulers of Verona) found outside a small church.

The Arena

We finally reached Piazza Bra, one of the largest squares in Italy. There are many cafes and restaurants around the square, and strolling under the shade of the numerous pine and cedar trees is a very relaxing experience. The colossal Arena di Verona, or simply the Arena, dominates at one end of the square and is the most important landmark in the city. Verona’s town hall, the Palazzo Barbieri, also looks out across the piazza.

The author stands outside the arena where a fragment of the original outer
perimeter wall is also seen (Photo courtesy of Jun Ruiz)

The Arena was originally an enormous Roman amphitheater completed in 30 A.D., the venue where gladiators fight and ferocious animals were hunted. It is the third largest amphitheater in Italy, after Rome’s Colosseum and the arena at Capua. It could seat some 30,000 spectators during its heyday. The capacity to house more than one-half of the population of the city at that time is a testament to Verona’s importance during the Roman times. The combination of brick and river stone of the Arena initiated the Romanesque red and white striped motif ubiquitous in Verona. The current twostory facade is actually the internal support for the tiers, as only a fragment of the original outer perimeter wall in white and pink limestone remains as a result of the massive earthquake of 1117.

The massive interior is very impressive and is virtually intact – one of the best-preserved ancient buildings from the Roman times. Decorated with marble, the oval has 44 marble tiers, supported by 4 concentric galleries, with 72 arches which corresponded to particular entrances. Its elliptical shape enhances acoustics, making it ideal for music events. Now, it is used for public events, pop music concerts, fairs, and opera productions during summer nights. The worldfamous Verona Opera Festival is held at the Arena every summer.

The road to Venice was full of exciting adventures and exploration of Northern Italy’s architectural gems of Milan and Verona. I totally enjoyed the finest offerings of these magnificent cities, and this further solidified my Italian vacation as probably the best vacation I ever had.

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