© 145/Vincenzo Lombardo/Ocean/Corbis

The Villa Reale di Monza palace, 'Italy’s Versailles', is a short train ride from Milan, perfect for a day trip.

Valerie Waterhouse
June 22, 2015

Just a fifteen-minute train ride from Milan’s Central Station, the stately city of Monza is mostly ignored by non-Italians—apart from the occasional Formula One fan. Now, though, the famous racetrack is not the only reason to visit: spurred by Expo Milano 2015 (running until October 31), Monza’s Versailles-like Villa Reale has been restored to more-or-less its former glory, after a gap of 114 years.

Commissioned by Queen Maria Theresa of Austria in 1777, the palace was designed by the La Scala opera house’s architect, Giuseppe Piermarini, and built in just three years. In 1859, it fell into the hands of the Savoy royal family. Tragedy struck in 1900, when King Umberto I was assassinated in Monza by an Italo-American anarchist. Devastated, his family stripped the palace of most of its furniture and artworks and fled, never to return again.

Today, it’s open for guided visits that center on the exquisite, if sparsely furnished, Royal Apartments (200 items of furnishing and artworks still languish in the Quirinale, official residence to the Italian president in Rome). Highlights include the mirrored ballroom where Mozart once played, intricate intarsia wood floors, and the marble bathroom where King Umberto’s body was laid out, after he was shot.

Post-tour, visitors can take in an art show in the third floor exhibition space (Italy: Charm and Myth from 1500-2015, runs until September 6, 2015). Or they can head for the well-stocked bookshop and buzzing café, to pick up a pre-packed basket for an impromptu picnic in the surrounding 1,730-acre grounds, now a much-loved public park. On the way out, don’t miss the rose garden, with more than 500 varieties, beside the main entrance.

If the trek back to Milan (a 15-minute taxi ride to Monza station, plus the aforementioned train ride) feels like too much of an effort, the Belle Epoque Hotel de la Ville (doubles from $200), opposite the palace’s main gate, provides an appropriately genteel retreat. Run by brothers Tany and Luigi Nardi, it’s the kind of establishment that would have well-heeled guests fighting over reservations, were it in the centre of Milan or Rome.

The 70 rooms and corridors showcase pieces from the family’s quirky collections—from convex Renaissance mirrors to prints featuring the Savoy family and pendulum clocks. During Formula One season, you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with race-car drivers such as Lewis Hamilton at the hotel’s award-winning restaurant.

To reserve a tour of the Royal Apartments: +39 02 890 96942; info@villarealedimonza.it. Closed Mondays, and in August 2015 for restoration work.

Valerie Waterhouse covers Italy for Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @val_in_italy. 

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