Nine must-do highlights of Monza, Italy

By Tricia Welsh

The royal residence

Some 20kms northeast of Milan, the city of Monza (pop. 120,000) has a fairy-tale setting with its very own royal residence. The U-shaped neoclassical 740-room Villa Reale was built in 1777 at the request of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria as a summer residence for her son, Ferdinand I, Governor of Lombardy. Set in 700ha of English-style Royal Gardens – one of the largest walled parks in Europe, some 28 apartments and halls are open from Wednesday to Sunday.

Villa Reale was the 18th century summer residence of Ferdinand I, Governor of Lombardy.

Villa Reale was the 18th century summer residence of Ferdinand I, Governor of Lombardy.

Even Napoleon was to appreciate the luxurious Lombard lifestyle it offered with its decorative ceilings, exquisite chandeliers, beautiful woodwork and clever trompe l’oeils when he lived there for a year in 1805. See

The luxury hotel

The historic Hotel de la Ville is heaving with beautiful antiques and treasures.

The historic Hotel de la Ville is heaving with beautiful antiques and treasures.

Opposite the Villa Reale is the charming Hotel de la Ville. Covered in a deciduous creeper that turns russet in autumn, the 70-roomed boutique hotel with adjacent free-standing villa is filled with beautiful antiques, fine artworks, collections of Gustavian wall clocks, ornate mirrors and rare books to give it the air of a private aristocratic home. A member of the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World, it has been owned and operated since 1958 by the elegant Nardi family and is gradually being passed on to the fourth generation of consummate hoteliers. The excellent Derby Grill, considered one of the best restaurants in northern Italy, serves top regional dishes such as Milanese veal cotoletta, osso buco and risotto con la luganega, as well as innovative Italian cuisine. Regulars enjoy aperitifs in the intimate Derby Bar or on the glassed-in verandah. During the Italian Grand Prix season each September, the hotel is ‘home’ to some dozen Formula 1 drivers and team managers. See

The tour

You don’t have to be a rev-head to enjoy the Monza Experience at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza. The 5793m long Formula 1 Grand Prix track was purpose built and is considered the fastest in the world. Tours are conducted four times a day and take guests via a photographic display of historic race moments, through to the press rooms where winners are interviewed, video rooms where team managers dissect individual race performances, with the chance to stand on the winner’s podium above the final straight of the track. The one-hour tour concludes with a drive around the circuit, albeit at a modest pace – not quite matching the track record set by Juan Pablo Montoya of 372kms an hour in 2005. This year’s event will be held on September 3, the exact date of the track’s first race in 1922. See

The Duomo

Gothic marvel Monza cathedral, or Duomo, dates back to 1300.

Gothic marvel Monza cathedral, or Duomo, dates back to 1300.

Tucked away on a secluded piazza in the city’s cobble-stoned historic centre is the magnificent Monza cathedral, or Duomo, dating from 1300. Gothic in style, its main façade features alternated black and white marble with a delicate central rose window and a 75m high bell tower. Inside, magnificent Baroque frescoes adorn the walls such as the Tree of Life and those in Theolinda’s Chapel, a small side chapel honoring the former Queen of Lombardy. Hidden in the chapel’s altar is the cathedral’s greatest treasure, the Iron Crown, used to crown kings including Charles the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte, and considered a masterpiece in goldsmithing, a nail of which is believed to have come from Christ’s crucifixion. The Duomo with Theodolinda’s chapel is a UNESCO listed Heritage Site for a Culture of Peace. See

The bar

Saint is supremely located, opposite the Duomo.

Saint is supremely located, opposite the Duomo.Credit: Saint

Across the cobble-stoned piazza from the Duomo is the trendy bar, aptly name Saint. Huge black Italian market umbrellas shade smart clients relaxing in black directors’ chairs while sipping great aperitifs. Their dozen signature cocktails change with the season and might include some wonderful concoctions with Tanqueray 10, Campari, Pisco and Tequila. I choose a Saint No 4 comprising Tanqueray 10, refreshing Italicus – a bergamot liqueur, with pear juice and lemon thyme that is considered ‘vivace, fruttato e informalmente elegante’ – and it is! There is a small Bar Bites menu, and for those a little more peckish, an appealing restaurant inside with an intelligent menu divided into ‘ground’, ‘waves’ and ‘roots’. See

The gelateria

What started out as a small family-owned hand-made gelati venture in country Lombardy in 1985, L’albero dei Gelati, now in the hands of the second Solighetto generation, boasts three regional outlets, including one in Monza and one in Brooklyn, New York. Sourcing produce from small sustainable producers, the Monza gelateria offers 24 flavours such as spirulina, ricotta goats’ milk with strawberry compote, cassata, lemon with echinacea, salted caramel and torta paesana – based on the eponymous regional cake. Last year, they won the I Tre Coni (three cones) for the Best Gelaterie in Lombardy from respected Italian food and produce guide, Gambero Rosso, although locals insist it is the best in the world. See

The bakery

Renowned baker Adriano del Mastro is taking Monza by storm with the launch of Il Forno del Mastro.

Renowned baker Adriano del Mastro is taking Monza by storm with the launch of Il Forno del Mastro.Credit: Il Forno del Mastro

Baker Adriano del Mastro has taken Monza by storm with his range of traditional Italian breads, focacce and pizzas in teglia using sourdough and stoneground flours. Having worked and trained with the best including 3-Michelin-star chef Niko Romito in Abruzzo and renowned Italian bakers Gabriele Bonci and Davide Longoni, del Mastro opened his first shop in Monza a few years ago, and last year opened Il Forno del Mastro in the centre of town. Locals love his huge feather-light breakfast croissants, olive-laden rustic bread, traditional bio loaves and pizza slices topped with perhaps zucchini, potato and rosemary or arrabbiata. Pavement tables and chairs invite you to linger over a coffee with some of his mouth-watering pastries. See

The shopping street

Who needs to go shopping in Milan when you’ve got all the big fashion brands already in Monza. Pedestrian street via Carlo Alberto which changes its name to via Italia at the city’s historic landmark town hall, Arengario, is lined with beautiful boutiques with tempting displays of fashion items for men and women, exquisite lingerie, bridal dresses, shoes, jewellery and accessories. Names to look for include Brian and Barry, Andros Canali and Paolo Pessina for smart menswear, Carnelli for underwear, Elena Miro for larger women, Falconeri for beautiful cashmere knits, Re Mida and Canali for jewellery and watches, and Pozzilei with possibly the best selection of top fashion labels such as Valentino, Bottega Veneta and more. Interesting to note that designer clothing store Maxfactory and emporium La Rinascente are housed in the original Frette factory where manufacture of Italy’s acclaimed bed linen began in1860.

The gourmet restaurant

Il Circolino by acclaimed chef Claudio Sandler should be high on your food list.

Il Circolino by acclaimed chef Claudio Sandler should be high on your food list.Credit: Il Circolino

Last year, celebrated Milanese-born chef Claudio Sadler opened Il Circolino in a quiet street off the city’s main thoroughfare to great acclaim. The Michelin-star chef whose Restaurant Sadler in the Casa Baglioni hotel is one of the most celebrated in Milan, brings his fine style of cuisine to Monza through talented young chef Lorenzo Sacchi. The elongated eatery offers different spaces for casual dining at a café-cum-bistro, a cocktail bar and sheltered side garden where guests can share tapas-style plates – perhaps octopus taco, anchovies on a crispy brioche or burrata with tomato salad and wasabi. The elegant gourmet dining room at the rear of the contemporary space behind a folding door features creative dishes such as tartare of lamb with scampi, dates and foie gras as well as regional dishes with a twist such as risotto alla Milanese with ossobuco terrine. Go with an appetite to enjoy the eight-course Menu Degustazione and if you enjoy kitchen theatre, ask for a table right in front. See

One more thing

Monza is perfectly located between Lake Como and Milan to take advantage of this idyllic northern Italian lifestyle without the high prices of lake life nor the chaos of life in the city. Being so close to Milan, trains run every 12 minutes. You can whip in to view Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (you will need to pre-book), catch an opera at La Scala (this also has to be pre-booked), check out the Duomo (with all the pigeons) or shop in its fabulous fashion houses in the Quadrilatero shopping district. And at just over half an hour by car from Como, you can enjoy a day on the lake with a ferry ride to Bellagio… and the chance to spot George!

The writer was a guest of Hotel de la Ville and RailEurope.

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