Milan and Lake Como – the perfect 4-day pre-or post-cruise trip

Plan to stay in Italy at least four or five days before or after your cruise vacation to give yourself time to visit the cultural capital Milan and to experience one of the prettiest places in the world, Lake Como.

Milan and Lake Como are two destinations that should be on every traveler’s bucket list. And we have just returned from this idyllic combination trip. We have included some of our photos so you can see the views we have seen. However, we can say that the pictures do not come close to doing justice to the experience in reality.

These two locations are known for their breathtaking scenery, rich history, and delicious cuisine. In this article, we will take you on a four-day trip to Milan and Lake Como, exploring each location and providing you with travel information to make your trip successful. Enjoy this fantastic combination you can arrange when booking your cruise vacation.

Milan and Lake Como is a perfect combination trip if you have a cruise from Venice or a from Genoa, as these cities are an easy train journey from Milan. If your cruise departs from another port in Italy, allow for more travel time to get to your cruise port.

Day One – Arrival day in Milan

Malpensa International Airport is 50 km northwest of Milan. From the airport, the best way to reach the city center is by train. The Malpensa Express train runs every 30 minutes, and it takes approximately 45 minutes to get to Milans’s central station, or 9 minutes later, you are at Cadorna station, which is in the heart of the city, close to the Duomo.

It is easy to follow signs for departing trains at Malpensa airport in Milan
Easy-to-follow signs for departing trains at Malpensa airport

We purchased tickets at the train station as we are used to using the train system in Italy. If you do this, remember you must get your paper tickets validated in the train station’s yellow machines before you board the train.

However, buying Trenitalia train tickets (Italy’s primary train operator) is easy before you leave home. We recommend you search, compare, and book train tickets in Italy with Omio, where you pay in our local currency and receive an electronic ticket. These tickets do not need to be validated at train stations. You simply climb on board your train.

Milan’s second airport Linate is even closer to the city. Although if you arrive from outside of Europe, most often, flights will land at Malpensa. If you are flying into Linate airport, the best option to get you to the city center is by taxi or private airport transfer. The journey to the city takes about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on traffic.

Another option is to take a bus. The 73 bus runs from Linate Airport to the city, stopping at San Babila Square, a central location in Milan. A ticket costs 2 euros per person and can be bought on the bus.

Recommended hotels in Milan

Once in the city, we recommend staying in a centrally located hotel, such as the Hotel Milano Scala or the hotel NH Milano Touring which was our choice.

We always have had a good experience staying in an NH hotel. You can sign up for a free “Discover” membership and add your membership number to your booking before you travel to get extra perks at check-in. The NH group has hotels across Europe. Our standard room at the hotel NH Touring was spacious, spotless, and comfortable. There is a great bar and lounge and a light and airy restaurant. Within a pleasant 20-minute walk, we were at Milan’s magnificent cathedral.

Alternatively, the Mercado Centrale Milano is just a short walk from the central station. Or, for a 5-star experience, try the beautiful Bulgari Hotel in Brera, probably our favorite district in Milan.

You can easily search, compare, and book hotels via our preferred travel partner, All our suggested hotels are centrally located and offer great service and excellent breakfasts. Remember to look for flexible booking terms in case your travel plans change.

Milan – an elegant vibe and hidden corners

After checking in, explore the city’s historical center. Milan is known for its impressive architecture, such as the Gothic cathedral, the Sforza Castle, and the Galliera Vittorio Emanuele II.

The cathedral is stunning. And a walk on the roof should be on everyone’s bucket list. You can walk to the top via the steps or take the elevator. Either way, you must have tickets, and we recommend booking these before you leave home for the time you want. It may be possible to purchase them when you arrive, but be prepared for an entrance time much later in the day or perhaps the following day if it is really busy.

The famous Cathedral di Milano
The famous Cathedral di Milano

If you love architecture and history, you may want to book a guided tour in Milan with a knowledgeable guide and have tickets for the climb to the top of the cathedral included in your tour price.

Close by, don’t miss the Vittorio Emanuele II Gallery. This mesmerizing shopping galleria is between the cathedral and the famous La Scala theater. Stand on the bull in the center of the mosaic floor, and spin around 3 times for luck.

Walk along Corso Garibaldi for stunning architecture and to see Murale Artistico di Gucci – the Gucci wall. We were lucky to be there when the artist spray-painted the new image onto the wall.

The famous Gucci Wall in Milan being painted with a fresh mural
The famous Gucci Wall in Milan being painted with a fresh mural

If you enjoy art, visit the Pinacoteca di Brera, home to one of Italy’s most impressive art collections. And you will most certainly want to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper painting, hanging in Santa Maria delle Grazie church. You will need to book a ticket in advance. The ticket allows you entrance and a 15-minute viewing time. We have always found it impossible to get entrance on the day. Plan your visit – it’s worth it to see this original masterpiece.

End your walk at Porta Garibaldi, and visit the little home design shop tucked in the courtyard Piazza Venticinque Aprile, across the street.

The High Tech Shop in Milan is an amazing mixture of design, innovation and beauty
The High Tech Shop in Milan is an amazing mixture of design, innovation and beauty

We recommend trying authentic Milanese cuisine for dinner in the evening, such as saffron-induced Risotto alla Milanese or Cotoletta alla Milanese. The city has many excellent restaurants, such as Trattoria Milanese or Osteria del Binari.

Day Two: More of Milan – discover, eat, shop

On your second day in Milan, we recommend exploring the Navigli district, famous for its canals and colorful buildings. It’s a 30-minute walk from the cathedral. This neighborhood also has excellent restaurants, bars, and shops.

In the afternoon, head to the Quadrilatero della Moda, Milan’s high-end shopping district. Here you can find the most luxurious fashion brands in the world, such as Gucci, Prada, and Armani. Walk the main street, Via Monte Napoleone, and look up to see the stunning neoclassical architecture.

There are a great selection of restaurants in this area for dinner in the evening.

Spaghetti alle vongole is a traditional Italian pasta dish
Spaghetti alle vongole is a traditional Italian pasta dish

Day Three: Lake Como and a glimpse of paradise

Pick up a rental car in central Milan. Ensure your car has GPS navigation so you can put in your destination address. Driving out of Milan, you will find many motorways, and you’ll need to keep an eye out for the correct exits along the way. Closer to Lake Como, you will be heading towards the Lecco side of the lake on the west. The trip from Milan to Lecco takes about 50 minutes. Then from Lecco to Varenna, where the roads are pretty narrow but driveable, takes about 20 minutes.

If you prefer to travel by train rather than drive, then there are regular trains running from Milan to Varenna. We recommend you search for the best option using Omio, where you have access to all train times and prices across all operators. Click to find out how to search, plan and book your train travel. 

Once in Varenna, finding parking can be a little challenging, so be patient. The village is very pretty, with beautiful lake walks and cozy restaurants by the water. Check into one of our recommended hotels in Varenna, such as the Hotel du Lac or Villa Ciprissi.

Varenna is a picturesque town on the shores of the lake, known for its colorful buildings, narrow streets, and stunning views. Explore the town on foot, visit the Villa Monastero, and take a boat tour to other towns on the lake.

From Varenna, head towards the ferry and buy tickets to visit Bellagio, about a 15-minute ferry ride.

Bellagio is a stunning village for its luxurious villas, beautiful gardens, and colorful shops. After exploring the town, take a taxi to the restaurant Trattoria Baita Belvedere, located a steep drive on the top of a hill. We promise the view will be worth it. Taxis are available from Giuseppe Mazzini, outside the Hotel du Lac opposite the ferry station.

The 20-minute drive to Trattoria Baita Belvedere takes you to one of Lake Como’s best and most breathtaking views. Book a table in advance and enjoy an excellent lunch.

A view from above of Bellagio taken from a mountaintop restaurant
A view of Bellagio from a mountaintop restaurant

In the afternoon, you can hop back on the ferry to the quaint town of Menaggio on the other side of Lake Como or return to your hotel in Varenna.

In the evening, have dinner at one of Varennas’s many excellent restaurants, such as La Contrada or Il Cavatappi. These restaurants serve authentic Italian cuisines like fresh pasta, seafood, and locally sourced ingredients.

Day Four – a lakeside drive returning to Milan

Leave Varenna, making a stop along the road in the small village of Lierna. Find a spot to park and get out for some last lake photographs. We stopped at Bar La Piazza for coffee and a lakeside seat.

View of Lake Como from a cafe in Lierna
View of Lake Como from a cafe in Lierna

Return your rental car to Milan and transfer to your cruise port. Milan is located inland and does not have a cruise ship port. Your cruise to the Mediterranean or Greek Isles will most likely leave from one of the following ports:

Port of Genoa: This is the largest seaport in Italy, located approximately 145km from Milan. To reach the Port of Genoa by train, you can take a direct train from Milan to Genoa, which takes about 1.5-2 hours.
Port of Venice: This is one of the largest ports in Italy and is located 280km from Milan. A direct train takes about 3 hours.
Port of Ravenna: To reach Ravenna by train takes about 4 hours from Milan, a journey of around 250 km. Most often, you will need to change trains at the station in Bologna.
Port of Trieste: Trieste is further away, about 450 km, and a direct train is available from Milan.
Port of Civitavecchia: This is the main port for Rome and is located 580km from Milan. You take a direct train to Rome’s central station, Termini, then change to a train to Civitavecchia. The whole journey will take about 4 hours. You also have the option to return your rental car to the airport and take the short flight from Milan (Linate or Malpensa airports) to Rome. A direct flight takes just 1 hour and 10 minutes.

It’s important to note that schedules and train options may vary depending on the time of year and day of the week. Train tickets in Italy can be purchased before you leave home to guarantee your seat.

We recommend arriving in your port city the day before your cruise departs to allow for any unforeseen hiccups, such as delays. Stay at a hotel close to your port city for at least one night before cruise embarkation day.

Meet the author: Sarah has created and booked hundreds of travel itineraries for thousands of customers during a career in the travel industry that spans 20 years. Having worked hand in hand with cruise lines, hotels, airlines and tour operators worldwide, she offers inspiring & detailed insights in the world of travel and tourism.

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