I found a reasonable round-trip flight from Detroit to Milan Malpensa ($900), so I invited my mother to join me for 10 days in Northern Italy. We had a good time, and I wanted to share some of the things we experienced.
We took the bus from Milan Malpensa to Lugano, Switzerland. (ATM at Malpensa was almost at the exit.) I had reserved the bus, but our bus was only about 1/4 full, and we bought the ticket at the bus ticket office near the exit (could have purchased from the driver). Lugano's charms are subtle; we walked around and up to the Parco Panoramico. (We enjoyed our stay at the recommended Albergo Stella.)
Taking the C12 bus from Lugano to Menaggio was easier than expected! It was difficult to nail down specifics online (the Lugano tourist office replied to my e-mail!). You must buy the ticket before you get on, and the tourist office told us to buy it at the "kiosk" near the Lido (which is what we would call a snack bar). The bus stop is behind the parking lot of Campo Marzio north of the Lido and east of the Flume. We took the 9:30 am bus, a scenic and fun local ride. Others were getting off in Menaggio--the bus keeps going downto near the waterfront. We then took the ferry over the Bellagio.
We really enjoyed Bellagio! (We enjoyed our two nights at the recommended Hotel Centrale in Bellagio.) It's a day-tripper town and nearly shuts down at night. (The "grocery stores" were also not what I expected, more a meat shop/deli and a produce shop.) I found the RS Italy 2014 guidebook's sections for Bellagio and Varenna did not ring as true as usual. I did not feel like a "tramp in a palace" in Bellagio as a backpack-wearing budget traveler--I guess it reminded me of a cross between Mackinac Island and Sarlat (France)--I felt welcome. (Maybe the town's vibe has changed in recent years?) "Punta Spartivento" is just a little city park (at the tip of Bellagio's peninsula) with great views--not a "dramatic natural park" as the book says. We enjoyed walking there during the day and at night. We also did the recommended kayaking with Bellagio Water Sports--2 hours of fun!
We tried to do the recommended walk from Varenna to the source of the Fiumelatte River. The directions in the book did not match the posted signs. We tried to follow the signs, but the path behind the cemetery was less-than-well-traveled, and you are out of view during that portion, so we walked below the cemetery, still on a fun walk, and made it eventually to the Fiumelatte River. This walk was my favorite experience on the whole trip, just the kind of nature + history walking we enjoy--reminded us of the walk from Schoellkopf to the Whirlpool Bridge in Niagara Falls, NY, along the old tram trail. We never did find the source (again, the trail seemed overgrown trying to trace it backwards), but it was fun. (The TI's pamphlet did not give many more details.) Nilus Bar in Varenna had great views and good pizza--glad it was recommended. The recommended Gelateria del Borgo in Bellagio was our favorite gelato of the trip!
From Bellagio, we took the train to Venice. 24 hours in Venice would have been enough, but we stayed two nights at Hotel Serenissima. We went on the roof of St. Mark's--very enjoyable--and went up in the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore for great views. We did a lot of back-streets walking, too. We got the 24-hour vaporetto pass. We went to Murano (bought picnic supplies at the supermarket near the Colonna stop--which has a free [but not so clean] WC across from its door--and ate them at the park up the street from the lighthouse. We also did the recommended traghetto ride instead of the gondola (a good choice for us) and the evening Grand Canal vaporetto trip (which we enjoyed very much). From Venice, we went to Ravenna. The Ravenna mosaic sites are amazing! So glad we went! We stayed at the recommended A Casa di Paola B&B and ate at the recommended Ristorante La Gardela--both excellent.