Lake Como is beautiful and great if you like sharing a shoreline with George Clooney (and spending jaw-dropping sums on a stay). But nearby Franciacorta, a sparkling-wine region an hour's drive from Milan, has the same beautiful resorts, stunning Alpine scenery, and excellent Italian food (and did we mention the sparkling wine?) at a fraction of the cost. That’s because it lacks the celebrity cache or name-brand recognition of Lake Como. So if you’re someone who enjoys an authentic resort town, one that’s laid-back and under-the-radar and that markets mostly to other Italians, this might be the vacation spot for you.
Still not convinced? We’ll spell it out: In Franciacorta, just like in Lake Como, you can stay in a boutique, luxury hotel and bounce between wineries, five-star Italian restaurants, and have the kind of picnics you thought only existed in Fellini movies. Franciacorta is also home to massive Lake Iseo, which looks so much like Lake Como it's eerie—except that Iseo also boasts Monte Isola, Europe's largest inhabited lake island (and a perfect place to eat seafood or bike around the perimeter), in its center. An equally gorgeous and luxurious vacation with more bang for your buck? We’re sold.
How to Get There
Most Americans will fly to Milan and then either rent a car or take the train to Brescia Central Station and rent a car there. The train from Milano Centrale station to Brescia can range from $7-$25 USD, depending on the rail and time you decide to take it. If you’re already in Europe, the smaller airport in Bergamo, just 24 miles from Franciacorta, might be your best bet; we found one-way flights from Paris for $56 USD. Either way, you’ll probably want a rental car in Franciacorta to get into the region’s hidden corners.
Where to Stay
Le Quattro Terre
With achingly beautiful views of rolling hills and endless vineyards, the hotel, restaurant, winery, and agriturismo (an independently owned farm) somehow manages to feel both elegant and rustic. The restaurant and rooms are in a vast, restored 18th-century farmhouse, and the grounds will make you want to sit outside and sip Franciacorta (yes, it’s also the name of the double-fermented white and rosé wine produced here) all day. We found rooms during August—peak season—for an impressive $100 USD per night, including a beautiful homemade breakfast buffet.
This small, family-run hotel is perched on the edge of Lake Iseo, which means you can sit in the garden and admire the patchwork of homes, hotels, and churches stacked along Monte Isola’s sloping hills. (Frankly, the whole region oozes opulent The Talented Mr. Ripley vibes—minus the murder and identity theft.) Hotel RivaLago has 28 rooms and six suites, plus a solarium, Jacuzzi, and outdoor pool, and we found rooms in August from $186 USD per night.
This four-star, lakefront "wellness hotel" is home to a huge spa, two restaurants serving locally sourced dishes, and souped-up indoor and outdoor swimming pools. We found high-season rooms from $131 USD a night, and the chic, light-filled hotel often offers special packages, such as a four-night stay with daily breakfast, two dinners, a wine tour and tasting, massages, and daily spa access for 454 euros, or about $529 USD, per person.
Where to Eat
Hostaria Uva Rara
Dine inside a 15th-century farmhouse amidst ancient stone vaults and a massive fireplace, or out on the garden under a beautiful old mulberry tree. Either way, Hostaria Uva Rara serves delicious Italian food at a great value. Buckwheat straccetti pasta with duck ragu and lemon will run you 12 euros (approx. $14 USD), while octopus on a salad of beans and onions with basil mayonnaise will set you back 18 euros (approx. $21 USD).
No trip to Italy is complete without piping-hot pizza. This hip little eatery, part of the vast, whimsical L’Albereta Resort, serves Napoli-style pies with handmade, airy dough and fresh ingredients, all paired with sparkling local wines. Try the aglio, olio, e peperoncino pizza (garlic, anchovies, chilis, parsley, local olive oil, and fresh herbs) for 10 euros (approx. $12 USD), or the viandante with mortadella ham, fresh buffalo ricotta, pistachios, and lemon zest on a fried crust for 16 euros (approx. $19 USD); they’re all definitely big enough to share.
Cucina San Francesco
For an elegant dinner that won’t break the bank, head to Cucina San Francesco—a sophisticated hilltop restaurant that pulls from an onsite vegetable garden to create fresh interpretations of local dishes. Tucked inside Cappuccini, a resort and spa housed in a restored monastery, the restaurant has exposed beams, traditional furnishings, and a panoramic view of Franciacorta—so you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The food is equally transportive: The seasonal four-course traditional menu, featuring specialties like veal steak with tuna sauce and local anchovies, mincemeat-stuffed pasta with butter and sage, slow-cooked guinea-fowl (similar to a pheasant, but less gamey) with vegetables and polenta, and almond crumble cake with fior di latte ice cream, costs 47 euros (approx. $55 USD) per person.
What to Do
Wine-tasting is a must in Franciacorta. Most vineyards offer a guided tour followed by a tasting, accompanied with nibbles such as cheese, almonds, and charcuterie. We love the grounds and sips at the beautiful La Montina winery, where tours start at 10 euros. (approx. $12 USD), as well as Barone Pizzini, an ultra-modern organic winery with tours from 20 euros (approx. $23 USD). Castelveder has a charming estate and tours from 12 euros (approx. $14 USD). Insider tip: During weekends from July to September, you can take a free half-day bus tour that includes stopovers at two wineries, with a guided tour and tasting at each. The shuttle is free, while tastings are paid onsite; the cost is between 6 and 20 euros (approx. $7-$23 USD).
A trip to Franciacorta isn’t complete without a little time out on magnificent Lake Iseo and on its charming island, Monte Isola. While you can charter a boat, the most cost-efficient way to make the crossing is on the local ferry; single fares start at 2 euros (approx. $2.30 USD), depending on how far you go. Once on the island, rent a bike and pedal around its circumference, buy some gelato and wander its cute shops, or just settle in a lakefront cafe and enjoy the view.
Horseback riding is another cool way to explore Franciacorta’s landscape, a crumpled area of land with vast jade vineyards and shifting mountain vistas. A one-hour guided tour with Scuderia Crazy Horse starts at 25 euros (approx. $29 USD) per person. If you’d rather mount a Vespa than a steed, head to Percosi; a half-day rental, including insurance, helmets, and a point-of-interest map, is 58 euros (approx. $68 USD).