Why go to Varese? Varese is the capital of the Province of Varese, the territory that counts the highest number of places of international interest in the region of Lombardia, with four UNESCO World Heritage sites surrounding the city. We stayed three nights in the area. A week would have been better.
Varese is tucked into the northwest corner of Lombardia, with the Swiss boundary a few miles to the north, and Lago Maggiore and Piemonte a few miles to the west.
The streets of Varese's old city teem with people going about their business during the day--at night becoming a havien for Aperitivo time, when the din of conversation combines with cheers for soccer goals seen on televisions or heard on the radio. The food selection in restaurants spans a variety of cuisines; you gan get Japanese, Chinese or Indian food as well as food from other regions. At times, local cuisine seems to hold a back seat to more exotic fare from afar, and Lombardia wine selection seemed amazingly sparse.
Varese is often refered to as the garden city, and if you stay in the center you'll have easy access to the gardens around the Palazzo Estense, which are free to visit. Walk through the park to arrive at the museum of Villa Mirabello, dedicated to the archeology of the territory. The museum seems small when you visit the inovative exhibits on the first floor, but go upstairs and you'll learn of the long history of the area.
Near Varese to the west is its lake, lago di Varese, home to Isolino Virginia, an island that was home to one of the oldest pile-dwelling settlements in the Alps. The small, triangular island made UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2011 as part of a grouping known as the “Prehistoric pile dwellings around the Alps”.
The blue markers indicate restaurants, specialty food shops and things to see, and the green marker is where we stayed and recommend staying if you favor apartments over hotels.
Originally a small chappel outside the walls of Verese, in the late 15th century it was transformed into a church. It fell into disrepair and Between 1995 and 1996, a complete interior and exterior restoration fixed earlier restoration errors and brought the frescoes back to life. It is amazing to view today--although the area is no longer the meadows but a continuation of the modern city.
Villa Mirabello, built in the late 1600s, is the seat of Museo Civico Archeologico. The area's rich cultural heritage is well-explained and represented by many artifacts. A visit is a must if you're curious as to how the area evolved over time.
Duke of Modena and Governor of the Duchy of Milan n 1765 bought the palace and grounds, emplorying architect Giuseppe Bianchi to handle the renovations necessary to turn it into his summer residence. The gardens behind the villa were transformed into French formal gardens and Italian gardens and today are free to the public.
In this corner of Lombardia, there are four important and diverse UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Sacred Mountain, north of Verese is easily reached and the most mentioned on the Internet.
"The Sacro Monte of Varese is a religious complex built on the mount of Velate between 1604 and 1698 and compoused by 14 Chapels, the Shrine and the Crypt. Its aim was to spread the Catholic faith to local people as a way of combating the growing influence of the protestant reformation." -- The Sacro Monte.
The other easy-to-reach UNESCO site is the Isolino Virginia, a triangular island that looks like a boat tied to the western shore of Lake Varese. This is one of the most important sites of the Prehistoric pile dwellings around the alps.
Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps comprises a selection of 111 out of more than 1000 known archaeological pile dwelling sites in six countries around the Alps (Switzerland, Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia). They date from from 5000 to 500 BC. Dwellings are situated under water, on lake shores, along rivers or in wetland, offering exceptional conservation conditions for organic materials like wood, textiles, plant residue and bones.
On the small island of Isolino Virginia in Lake Varese there is a restarant, little museum (a majority of the finds you'll see in the archaeological museum of Varese. An educational path illustrates the prehistory of Lake Varese.)Show me on a map!
Castelseprio Archaeological Park - Church of Santa Maria Foris Portas - Santa Maria Assunta - This trio of sites includes a Roman fort, a historic church, and an Abbey founded in 737.Show me on a map!
Fossil lovers will be happy to note there is a site in the territory shared with Switzerland: Monte San Giorgio’s transnational paleontological district, where there is ample evidence of history dating 230-245 million years ago. A path connects the sites.
Varese offers a slightly different culinary experience than the rest of Italy. There are only a few restaurants specializing in the traditional food of the Lombardy region, but there are many options for creative cuisine drawing from the past but modernized for today. There are international options as well--from sushi to Indian cuisine.
If you are wandering about the historic center in the evening, you'll notice crowds forming at the outdoor tables of Varese's popular watering holes around 6. You are winessing Varese's aperitivo, where folks gather in a crowd to listen to the big game or just gossip the evening away with a cocktail, beer, or glass of wine--and some food, nibbly stuff.
It's a great way to put something in your stomach before dinner, and carries on the fabulous Milanese aperitivo tradition. You need to try it if you have the time. It's a great tradition of the culture, a happy hour but slightly different.
After our stay in Varese, we came away with two favorite restaurants and a pizzeria, marked on the map above.
La Posteria rates a 5 out of 5 for location. Tables are available in a covered monastic courtyard in the center of Varese. The restaurant offers great, inovative food--and half-portions are available. This allows the diner to have a small order of pasta, which brings back the days when you didn't have to stuff yourself silly when you ordered a full Italian meal. I loved my Rigatini “Felicetti” con ragù di coniglio, porri e cedro--rigatini with a ragu of rabbit, leeks and cedro, a citrus the French call citron.
Vecchia Trattoria della Pesa in Varese offers well-prepared food as well. It's not so easy to find local specialties in Verese outside of a few from Milan. The hit of the day was called "Risottino alla Parmigiana con pesce persico di lago di Garda". Or a parmigiano rice with fried lake perch from lake Garda. It was a very fine dish and could have been what Italians call a piatto unico, a single dish meal in itself.
La Piedigrotta Varese gets two thumbs up for its great pizza and and the artisanal beer selection.
And finally, If you are staying in an apartment--perhaps like the one we review below--you might want to have a meal on the balcony that you don't have to cook, and for that we recommend the Gastronomia del Corso offering a great selection of ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat food and good wine. We enjoyed a fantastic slightly fizzy Reisling with our pizza, and thought it so good we bought a bottle to take home with us to the Lunigiana.
We stayed in a fabulous apartment in the heart of old town Varese. Make note that it is not a historic building but a modern apartment with more luxury than you're paying for. One room had a large desk with plenty of electrical access to power your stuff. The little balcony had a fine view of the old town, and underground, secure parking was free. There were two very modern bathrooms. The living room featured a sound system with subwoofer and a huge tv along with a very comfortable sofa. The windows kept sound out. It was all very efficient and functional, so much so it kept reminding me of neighboring Switzerland--at a bargain price. Check out Central Loft Varese.
If a rental apartment isn't your thing of your time in Varese is limited, see the lodging map below for more lodging options in Varese.
Varese has a convenient train station located just southeast of the historic center. Trains on that line run on the Porto Ceresio–Milan railway.See Train Tickets, Milan to Varese See Bus Tickets, Malpenso Airport to Varese
The Autostrada A8 takes you from Milan to Varese in about 40 minutes.
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