That’s a question I always asked myself – there are so many vacation options in Italy that it would take a lifetime to do justice to them all. We’ve had the privilege of visiting the country many times over the years – we’ve camped at the lakes and in Tuscany, queued for the art galleries in the major cities, explored the great archaeological sites including Paestum and Agrigento, fought for our spot on Italian beaches in August, visited hundreds of churches – and I won’t even start on the food and vino! But Milan just didn’t appeal – my image was always of a dark, northern industrialised sprawl with expensive designer shops. Yes it has a cathedral but this is Italy … every city has a fabulous cathedral! It has an opera house – but that’s not going to beat sitting in the amphitheatre in Verona on a summer’s night….
Anyway – isn’t it wonderful to be proven wrong!
That’s travel for you!!
So – Back to my question –
Why would anyone go to Milan?!!!
1. For The Last Supper
Leonardo’s Last Supper must be one of the most famous paintings in the world. It can still be viewed in its original location – the refectory of the monastery attached to Santa Maria delle Grazie. Its appearance is a bit of a shock – centuries of damage due to smog and damp caused marked deterioration which was actually accelerated by the painting technique used by Leonardo. At some stage, Jesus lost his feet when the doorway was raised. Poor restoration efforts in the 19th century didn’t help, they just further altered the image.
The condition of the painting now imposes limits on visitors. Only 30 people at a time can enter the refectory which is maintained at a constant temperature. Each visit lasts for 15 minutes. While most tickets are sold on line, there may be slots available on the day if you’re willing to queue at 8.30am.
2. For the Churches and Basilicas
You could spend your mini break here visiting religious buildings alone. While some of the architecture is noteworthy in itself, many of the churches are unassuming or even austere. But hidden behind these facades are incredible works of art – frescoes, sculpture, mosaics and paintings. You can’t visit them all but here are a few of the most important…
San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore is renowned for its frescoes.
You will see 4th century mosaics in Cappella di Sant’ Aquilino.
At Basilica di San Lorenzo Maggiore you can see a display of the foundation stones which were taken from the nearby Roman amphitheatre.
Basilica di Sant’Amrogio is one of the oldest churches in Milan.
3. For the Architecture
Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle 11
A landmark in its own right, the Galleria was originally built to link the Duomo and La Scala and is named after the first king of the Kingdom of Italy. The street is covered with arched glass and cast iron and makes for a stunning piece of architecture.
The term ‘shopping mall’ seems an understatement but this is one of the oldest in Europe and is full of high end stores. While the contents are beyond the budget of most of us mere mortals, its nice for window shopping and you might manage a coffee or gelato!
Its also the site of a 7 star hotel and several restaurants. (McDonalds were forced out after 20 years and replaced with new Prada store in 2012. The company sued the city but withdrew when accommodated on a nearby street).
Here’s one for the modern architect – 800 trees, 4500 shrubs and 15000 other plants have been incorporated into 2 residential towers. Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) is a project for urban reforestation and a team of dedicated gardeners look after the trees and shrubs.
4. For the Culture
Teatro alla Scala
When I think Milan I think Cathedral, fashion and Opera House. We didn’t get to do the tour or enjoy a performance – but that’s on my list should we ever return to Milan.
The facade is surprisingly modest – it originally opened onto a street rather than a square so a lot of embellishment wasn’t considered necessary. The theatre and museum tour seems to be well worth doing – not just for the exhibits and the plush red velvet and gilding of the auditorium but for the chance of catching either the performers or orchestra in rehearsal.
Of course, getting the opportunity to listen to opera at La Scala is on many a visitor’s bucket list. Apparently the booking website is a challenge! You also need to do your homework before spending big money on tickets. Many seats have ‘restricted’ viewing which seems to translate as ‘no viewing’ (this is relevant for a highly visual performance such as a ballet). Most seats in the boxes are actually backless stools which are very uncomfortable to sit on through a few hours of a performance. It is possible to buy tickets when you arrive in Milan – you may strike lucky on the day.
When planning your trip, don’t forget to check for temporary shows and exhibitions.
We were lucky that our visit coincided with a Caravaggio exhibition at the Royal Palace beside the Duomo.
5. For wandering the streets, piazze and canals – just taking it all in…
Just outside Sant’ Ambrogio is a marble column with 2 holes – When struggling with Saint Ambrose, the devil pierced the column with his horns – apparently you can still smell the sulfur and hear the sounds of hell!
Due to the absence of a main river, a network of canals – the Navigli – were constructed to connect Milan with waterways and the sea. Once used to transport necessities such as coal, wine, meat, wood and even the marble for the Duomo into the city, their use declined with the development of road travel. Some canals were gradually filled in but 3 remain, the most important being Naviglio Grande. The area today is filled with shops, bars, cafes, restaurants and galleries. While it really comes alive at sunset, its lovely for a walk and a coffee at any time during the day
6. For sitting and people watching
There is no shortage of coffee places in Milan. However, there is an etiquette to the ritual of coffee drinking:
If you order a coffee, you will get a simple espresso unless you specify what you need.
A surcharge on sitters is the reason that most locals drink their espressos standing at the bar.
A cappuccino is for breakfast or mid morning – never after that!
Prosecco and Apernol are perfectly matched to make this the most popular cocktail in Italy. Enjoy it at the Piazza overlooking the Duomo, or along the Naviglio Grande at sunset…. or anywhere really!
7. For the History
History tells us that the Romans conquered an existing settlement in 222BC and renamed it Mediolanum. There are a few traces of that time left in the city. The San Lorenzo Colonnade was erected in the 4th century with materials taken from another unknown building – probably a 2nd century pagan temple. Situated next to the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the 16 marble Corinthian columns form the best known ruin in Milan and are popular meeting place in the evenings.
The 14th century fortress is an imposing building and was the site of political power in Milan for centuries. After being severely damaged in 1943, it was renovated after the war and now houses several museums which are all accessed with the same ticket. Its here you will find Michelangelo’s final and unfinished work – Pieta Rondanini – housed in its own museum
8. For Sunsets and Aperitivo
As evening closes in, people gravitate towards the bars for an aperitivo and Milan is the best place in Italy to experience this ritual.
The original idea was probably to fill the void between lunch and dinner with a few nibbles but it has come to mean more than that and many use it in lieu of dinner.
In a nutshell – you pick your seat, order a drink ( anywhere from €8 – €15) and then eat as much bar food as you wish! Food is spread out along the bar and on adjoining tables. You can fill your plate multiple times and can even turn it into a formal meal of sorts – salad, meats, dessert and finally a cheese course!!
We visited 2 bars at Naviglio Grande (not the same night!). At the Manhatten Navigli, we paid €11 and they even had a full roast turkey which we could carve as we wished. Both bars (can’t remember what the other one was called ..) had a spread of pasta dishes, pizzas, bruschetta, salads, olives, cheese, vegetables, meats and desserts.
(I’d better add that its not supposed to replace your dinner and in places frequented by locals rather than tourists, repeated visits to the buffet might be considered bad manners!)
9. For the Duomo – bet you thought I was leaving it out!!
It really is spectacular. This Gothic style cathedral took almost 6 centuries to complete. The 3rd largest in Europe ( after St. Peter’s and Seville), it has more statues (3400) than any other building in the world. Located in the very central point of the city, it can accommodate up to 40,000 people.
There are several ticket options – most include Duomo museum, archaeological area and access to the roof terrace. We queued at the ticket office for about 30 minutes and bought the €12 Duomo Pass which didn’t include the lift to the terrace (there are about 250 steps). As the pass is valid for 72 hours, we visited the interior of the Duomo and the museum on our first afternoon and returned the following morning for the terrace.
The exterior of the cathedral was originally going to be of terracotta brick but the plan was changed early on to white, pink and light grey marble. It remained plain for a long time and then took so long to complete that the style changed from bottom towards top and so incorporates different designs. In the end it was thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte that the facade was completed – he wanted to be crowned King of Italy in the cathedral and offered to pay all expenses.
5 bronze doors depict biblical scenes and church history. The last door wasn’t installed until 1965!
Its huge! 5 naves rest on 40 massive columns. It is in the form of a cross and has 3 alters. With 1100 statues alone, there is plenty to look at.
Somewhere above the apse is stored a nail which supposedly is one of the 3 used in Jesus’ cruxifixion.
St Bartholomew was skinned alive for spreading the faith. Here he is depicted holding his flayed skin on his shoulders.
The Madonnina graces the main spire of the cathedral. She is said to protect everyone who sets eyes on her so a copy of the statue has been inside the cathedral since 2015 to allow devotees get closer to her.
55 windows depict 3600 biblical scenes and events. During the war, the glass was stored in the crypt for protection.
10. Last but definitely not least!! – for the Cathedral Roof
You can climb the stairs or take the lift but this is an absolute must on your itinerary. Apart from the architecture, you will be rewarded with great city views and on a good day you will see the Alps.
There are 135 spires, each topped with a sculpture of a biblical figure.
The highest spire is topped with the gold Madonnina. By tradition, no building in Milan should be higher than the Madonnina. There has been one infringement – a taller tower was constructed but they put a replica of Madonnina on top so she would not be overlooked.
There are 96 gargoyles.
How we got there:
We combined this city break with a few days in Bergamo so flew Dublin – Bergamo with Ryanair and then got the airport bus to Milan (€5 each way) which takes less than an hour.
How we got around:
We walked for miles of course but we got great value from the 48 hour tickets we bought at the Metro station (€8.25 each) which are valid for all public transport options – metro, buses and trams.
(Some trams have been in operation since the 1920’s!)
Where we stayed:
We spent 3 night at Hotel Teco which was about a 15 minute walk from the Bergamo airport bus stop. The hotel is close to the Red metro line and 3 stops from the Duomo. There are restaurants, bars and cafes close by.
Serve a good breakfast – cereals, fresh fruit salad, boiled eggs, meats, cheese, croissants, cakes.