History is alive and thriving in two Lombardy centres, writes Leanne Rinne.

I'm looking up at the formidable Castello Sforzesco, once home to the Visconti family in the 15th century, and now one of the most famous monuments in Milan.

The city's cobbled streets bustle with life in the shadow of tall terracotta-coloured buildings decorated with pastel shutters, and narrow lanes burst into piazzas full of fashionably-clothed people and the smell of fresh coffee. Here, I realise, it's very easy to switch between living in the moment and delving into the past.

Along with nearby Mantua, Milan features on the prestigious Unesco World Heritage List, and these two cities make an ideal two-centre break for anyone wanting to unearth the riches of Italy's Renaissance past.

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Milan

Tickets for sites such as Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper is on display, need to be booked weeks in advance, but there are still plenty of treasures for those who haven't planned ahead.

Medieval city of Mantua in Lombardy, Italy. Photo / 123RF
Medieval city of Mantua in Lombardy, Italy. Photo / 123RF

The Castello Sforzesco, for instance, is full of tapestries, tombs and stunning stained glass windows. It's also home to Michelangelo's last sculpture, The Rondanini Pieta. The Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral), meanwhile, is the best place to learn about the city's religious past. It is the fifth largest cathedral in the world and took nearly six centuries to complete. The spiky Gothic pinnacles form a fierce exterior, but inside, little candles light up the aisles and make everything look soft and peaceful.

Milan is as fascinating by day as it is by night, with a number of great restaurants to sample. The local speciality is ravioli stuffed with veal and porcini mushrooms, but if you prefer a vege option, head to the Osteria di Porta Cicca restaurant for mouth-watering basil dumplings with caponata sauce.

Mantua

A two-hour drive from Milan, on the southern tip of Lombardy, is Mantua, nicknamed "sleeping beauty" because the city hasn't changed much since the Middle Ages. It's also where Romeo lives in exile in Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet.

If you're looking for tales of love and tragedy then Palazzo Te in the heart of the city should be your first stop. The palace was built by Frederick II Gonzaga, for his life-time mistress Isabella Boschetti, and rooms are full of architectural embellishments and fine paintings depicting Greek mythology.

Tired of exploring by foot, I take a boat trip on the family-run Barcaioli del Mincio along the river Mincio (an outlet of Lake Garda). As we glide past bright pink lotus flowers, waiters serve a selection of homemade tapas-style dishes such as local hams, cheeses and grape jelly.

Other sights worth seeing include the exceptionally small bed in the 14th-century Palazzo Ducale, supposedly used by Napoleon when he stayed here, and the Basilica di Sant'Andrea, believed to house sacred vessels containing the blood of Christ.

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FACT BOX
Getting there
Emirates flies from Auckland to Milan, via Dubai, with return Economy Class fares from $1849.

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