Corn fields bathed in sunlight and poppies swaying in the breeze. A Renaissance tower rises in the distance. Citizens go about their daily lives in the shadows of centuries of history and architecture.
Shimmering lakes invite you to jump straight into their clear waters. Families gather near vineyards for feasting.
This is Brescia, Italy.
Every year thousands of people flock to Lake Garda in northern Italy to experience its picture perfect towns, clear mountain water and natural wonders. But just beyond the lake’s shores lies a region bursting with history, gastronomy, art and culture just waiting to be explored. Let me share with you the many treasures of beautiful Brescia.
The province of Brescia is nestled in the foothills of the alps in between Milan and Verona and stretches from the western shores of Lake Garda to the region of Cremona in the east.
Part of the Lombardy region, Brescia has been an important strategic centre since pre-Roman times and was the target of several Venetian and French occupations over the centuries. More recently Brescia played an important role in the Risorgimento – the unification of the Italian states.
The area is alive with history as well as its famous natural attractions – Lake Garda and Lake Iseo.
1 | Fascinating cities and towns
Wandering the streets of Brescia is like taking a potted journey through Italian history. From the impressive Roman ruins of the Piazza del Foro, the impressive Venetian Renaissance Palazzo della Loggia and 18th century palazzos, it seems each era of time made its mark on Brescia.
Perhaps the most striking example of this city that collected time is Piazza Paolo VI where medieval, baroque and romanic buildings overlook the vast piazza lined with cafes.
Beyond Brescia city, smaller towns and cities of the region are well worth exploring. From the picture perfect lakeside fortress town of Sirmione to Montichiari and the towns on the Brescia plain, there are stories and sights waiting to be uncovered.
2 | Gastronomy
Wherever you go in Italy, gastronomy is held sacred and Brescia is no exception. Brescia was named as one of the European Regions of Gastronomy for 2017 in recognition of its rich culinary heritage and commitment to slow food.
Home to the finest Italian caviar, the birthplace of Grana Padano cheese and unique pasta dishes like casoncelli – pasta stuffed with meat and breadcrumbs, Brescia and the East Lombardy region have a wealth of culinary delights.
Luckily there is a solution. Every year since 2000, Brescia Slow Food has celebrated regional food and wine with its annual event in June – Brescia con Gusto. This is a great way to discover the local specialties and wine, all the while taking in the incredible architecture of the city.
You can also get those tastebuds tingling with this handy guide to gastronomy in East Lombardy.
3 | Art and architecture
Around every corner in Brescia you discover centuries of art and architecture.
Roman ruins found in Brescia city are some of the most important in northern Europe and are part of the Longobards UNESCO World Heritage site. The main sites – the Capitoline temple, forum and theatre show that Brescia, or Brixia as it was known, was an important city in the Roman Empire.
There are stone tablets from the Roman era in buildings lining the Piazza della Loggia. But that square’s main attractions include a beautiful portico crowned with a spectacular 16th century astronomical clock and the palazzo facing it, evidence that the city was once ruled by the Venetian Republic.
Recently restored, Piazza della Vittoria has some fine examples of fascist architecture. Despite the controversy I like the historical continuity of the modern buildings existing side by side with their ancient counterparts.
Away from Brescia city the small towns and cities of the province are home to spectacular cathedrals donated by the dukes and people of the area. In Verolanuova the basilica is practically a gallery in its own right with several works by Tiepolo and other Renaissance artists.
4 | Unique stories and people
Of course it is the people and stories of a region that make it come alive.
In Montichiari you meet Count Gaetano Bonoris, who in the 19th century built a castle faithful to the Medieval style. Complete with frescoes and ornate interior, the castle has a room built for a king – Umberto I – and a secret vault to hide its treasures.
There’s the story of a girl – Biancamaria – who in 1480 threw herself from the parapets of Castello di Padernello (pictured below) trying to chase the pretty fireflies twinkling in the countryside below. According to local legend she returns to the castle every 10 years on the anniversary of her death as La Dama Bianca.
Spend some time visiting the local vineyards and you will uncover the stories and passion behind the wine. The Formentini family at Selva Capuzza are dedicated to the production of wine from traditional and indigenous grape varieties for 100 years. They will happily share their philosophy and thoughts behind producing their signature Lugana white wine.
5 | Bustling markets
We always head to the markets on our travels for the best insight into local life you will ever find. In Brescia the weekly Saturday market sprawls out from the Piazza della Loggia into the surrounding streets.
Vendors sell fresh seasonal produce, local cheeses, meat and vegetables alongside household goods. It seemed everyone was out in Brescia doing their weekly shop.
Clearly the thing to do after your shopping is snack on fried fish and seafood as there were a couple of huge vans selling all kinds of fish based street food. These fried fish vans were new to me but we saw them in several places in the Brescia region.
6 | Vineyards for miles
Brescia is famous for its sparkling variety Franciacorta, also known as Italy’s answer to Champagne. Awarded DOCG ( (controlled and guaranteed designation of origin) status in 1995, the wine is made from a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot blanc grapes from vineyards covering only 2,000 hectares of vines.
You can follow The Franciacorta wine route over 80 kilometres to discover some of over 100 cellars producing wine using this method. The route extends south from Lake Iseo across to Brescia and takes in rolling green hills and charming villages.
If following wine routes is your kind of thing (and it really should be) there are two other routes to follow:
- the Strado dei Vini e dei Sapori del Garda which follows traditional local wines Garda Classico, Lugana and San Martino della Battaglia and
- the Strada del Vino Colli dei Longobardi where you can discover the Capriano del Colle and Botticino wine varieties.
7 | Generous hospitality
“This is the best place for casoncelli,” the lady smiled as we perused the menu at a cafe overlooking Piazza Paolo VI. Like so many people we met in Brescia, this signora really wanted us to have a lovely time in her region.
We were stopped by people who overheard my Australian accent wanting to chat about our visit and help us along our way. And in shops and restaurants we were greeted with warm smiles and assistance.
I loved the relaxed vibe we found in Brescia. It’s quite different from the cool sophistication of Milan or the fierce passion you find in Sicily. Locals greatly outnumber tourists in this part of Italy and the pace of life is a little slower, more relaxed and all about enjoying life, good food and wine.
8 | Back to nature
For a region that is so close to bustling Milan and the tourist throngs of Venice, you can find a little piece of solitude on the Brescia plain and surrounding hills and valleys.
Take a walk or bike ride along country roads where poppies dance in the breeze and little streams pass through corn fields. It’s a great way to build up an appetite for your inevitable feasting.
9 | The famous lakes
Garda is Italy’s largest lake and is a place of outstanding beauty. I first visited here over 20 years ago and was utterly captivated by the shimmering lake.
The province of Brescia hugs Garda’s shores and includes the Sirmione peninsula where, on the tip, the impressive Roman ruins of the Grotte di Catullo preside over the lake.
Sirmione itself is one of the prettiest towns I have ever set eyes on. The town and its pretty cobbled streets are dominated by Scaliger Castle built in the 13th century. Swans glide around its moat and the turrets are straight out of a fairytale.
The streets of Sirmione become very crowded so its best to head to the water and take a circular boat tour of the peninsula.
To the north Lake Iseo is Garda’s lesser known sister. Quite a beauty in her own right, in the middle of lake you will find Monte Isola, an island where the single-nave church of San Michele in Peschiera Maraglio overlooks chestnut groves and the lake itself. The lake inspired the recent ‘Floating Piers‘ project by installation artist Christo.
How to get to Brescia
Brescia has its own airport however there are many more flights into the major cities close by – Milan, Verona and Venice. I recommend hiring a car from one of these cities so you can explore the hidden secrets of this region.
The drive from Milan Linate airport is around 1.5 hours and from Venice Marco Polo approximately 2 hours. The closest well known city is Verona an hour’s drive from Brescia.
Where to stay in Brescia
Of course most visitors head to the shores of Lake Garda during their visit to this region, however, if you crave peace, tranquility and the genuine Brescian hospitality I mentioned, stay a few kilometres away from the lake.
We stayed at Palazzo Novello in Montichiari, just 24 kilometres from Sirmione. This beautiful palazzo dating from the 16th century has been lovingly restored by the Novello family into a charming boutique hotel.
There is no denying the wow factor of the entrance and staircase with gorgeous fresco on the ceiling above. But I loved retreating to my large airy room with its comfortable bed. Decorated simply and elegantly, the guest rooms at Palazzo Novello have shutters that open onto views of the rooftops of the town or the garden below.
Breakfast at Palazzo Novello is somewhat of a feast with all tastes catered for – especially those who love homemade cake.
When we travel we look for special and unique accommodations and we certainly found that at Palazzo Novello.
Brescia – good for the soul
My time in Brescia was too short by far.
This is a place where lingering, slowing down and enjoying your spritz in the shade of ancient monuments will do wonders for the soul.
Visiting Brescia was a reminder that exploring just a few kilometres beyond the most popular attractions there is a whole world waiting to be discovered. Rich with the history, culture and food that we all love about Italy.
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