If you think Milan is not worth a stop on your Euro trip, you’re probably right. But who was going to argue with a brother who decided it was, and I was happy to be proven wrong in the end. The Duomo is pretty breathtaking, and there are hidden gems in Milan well worth your time. Plus the food is lovely, and people friendlier than in Venice from where we’d just landed.
Do before: get a 2-day pass. It costs €4.50 for an unlimited day pass (subway, bus, and tram) and €8 for a 2-day pass. More info at the ATM site here. This is not the same as the Milan Pass which is valid for 48 hours and costs €69. Getting an ordinary travel pass has more value in my view than the fancy all-in-one. You never land up using the extras, but I digress.
It was MAGNIFICENT! More than I’d anticipated. As soon as you climb up the metro steps, it looms over you like a many-spired white ghost, like an expansive Dumbledore or Gandalf, overpowering you, making your jaws drop.
The Duomo took over six centuries to complete and has many interesting stories associated with it. It’s the second largest cathedral in the world, but with the most number of statues (~3500!). Most of them are perched on top of the numerous spires. The Madonnina, or the gold-colored statue of Mary stands on the cathedral’s highest spire, looking over the city, blessing it. The construction of the Duomo started in 1386 sponsored by the then ruler of Milan – Gian Galeazzo Visconti – who thought to create the biggest church in the world. By the way, the Visconti family is synonymous with the creation of Milan and sponsors of most of its splendors.
Among the many stories of its strange and long history is that the Duomo was never bombed, not even during the World War II.
The simple reason: the white marble of the Duomo makes it resplendent in the dark, even in a blackout, and thus the German bombers used it as a beacon to orient themselves to the city. The neighboring Galleria Vittorio had no such luck. Also, another trivia: During World War II, the Madonnina on top was covered with a cloth to avoid providing an easy target for the bombers. And trivia three: after five hundred years of ho-hum-never-done construction, the Duomo’s facade was finally completed thanks to none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, who in the early 1800s, conquered the city and wished to be crowned king. He offered to pay all expenses for the completion, provided there’s a statue built of him on one of the spires! Well, what’s one statue if the Cathedral gets completed, right? Let’s sell a piece of the soul to the devil.
There are long queues to get inside the Duomo, so it might make sense to buy tickets online before. The official online seller is Ticketone. There are five types of tickets but my suggestion – buy a pass instead: Pass A (€16), Pass B (€12), which covers Terraces (by lift-A, by stairs-B), Duomo, Museum, and Baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti. More information here.
Going to the terrace of the Duomo is a must do – but even if you have a pass, expect a 30-minute wait (in peak hours) to get to the roof. But it’s an absolute must do. Sorry, I repeat this, because it is! I mean, I’d already had enough of views by then, but up there it was amazing – eerie, overpowering, awe-inspiring! We spent long hours posing, looking at the spires, admiring (albeit tad fearfully) the sculptures perched on them, the building roofs, the unheeding world below…
The Duomo is a 4-hour expedition if you really want to do it well. So get in early and finish by 1 PM or so.
Right next to the Duomo is Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Italy’s oldest active shopping mall (built between 1865 and 1877) and, I believe, the third oldest in the world. The structure of the mall consists of two glass-vaulted arcades intersecting in an octagon covering the street connecting Piazza del Duomo to Piazza della Scala. The mall has been built and rebuilt several times in the last century and stands as a great architectural marvel today as well as a shopper’s delight (for the more heavy pocketed kind – though I did manage to snag a lovely Swarovski creation thanks to my Mum’s generous heart). Other shops inside are Versace, Montblanc, Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, a bookstore. The Biffi café in here is the only surviving shop from the 1860s. More here.
Via Monte Napoleone
Arguably Europe’s most expensive shopping street, Via Monte Napoleone, is an upscale shopping street in Milan, and part of the fashion district known as the Quadrilatero della moda. The street traces the Roman city walls erected by Emperor Maximian. Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, the street that runs from Piazza del Duomo to San Babila has shops like Diesel, Replay, Zara or H&M. Between the Via Edmondo de Amicis and the Piazza 24 Maggio are Milan’s most alternative stores. Corso Buenos Aires, a bit farther away from the city center, is the cheaper shopping alternative. Know more about the top five shopping streets in Milan.
I did a lot of research on where I could get cheaper alternatives to the luxury brands in Milan. There are places an hour’s drive from Milan where you could lay your hands on international brands offering goodies at 40-80% discounts. McArthurGlen Serravalle, the largest Designer Outlet in Europe, is located 50 minutes away. Franciacorta lies nestled between Lakes Garda and Iseo, an hour from Milan. And the most famous, FoxTown, is an outlet store on the Swiss border, similar to US-style “Factory Stores”. Read the details here. I never managed to go to any though. Sigh, 48 hours are clearly not enough.
Eat at Navigli or Brera
While Milan is no Venice, the Navigli neighborhood, located southwest of the Milan Cathedral, once comprised a system of 5 navigable and interconnected canals. The canals are mostly used for irrigation today. The only two canals which operate a tourist navigation system are the Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio Pavese. It’s an artsy neighborhood with many art studios and little galleries hidden down the side streets. It’s also a nightlife hub. If possible, go to the flea market that pops up here on the last Sunday of every month. Find the best places to eat here. Mag Café is worth a visit.
Or go to the Brera neighborhood close to the Duomo and catch the aperitivo between 6 pm to 8 pm in one of its upscale restaurants.
We should have done the walking tour on day 1, and it’s the wiser thing to do, but were just so excited to see the Duomo that we scheduled it on day one. Also, we did not think Milan had much to offer other than the Duomo, but oh, we were proven quite wrong within seconds of the tour’s start (every day at 10 AM).
“This is what most first-time visitors to Milan do: walk to the Duomo, admire the Duomo, get a ticket, walk inside, go to the roof, admire the skyscape, come down and walk around, go to Galleria Vittorio, walk around…”
And that’s how Maruzio began his treatise on Milan and entertained us for the next 3.5 hours in his free walking tour, showing us a side we couldn’t have known of through Google search. More entertaining for me were the ghost stories he told. You know how guides try to make walks more interesting (especially after we’d walked a lot and were getting tired). He told us about men mistakenly fornicating with female ghosts found in the park behind Sforza castle, of ghosts (almost always female) haunting the castle walls, etc. etc. It was fun.
A couple of sights we would have missed (with our limited aim of merely visiting the Duomo) if he hadn’t shown them to us were:
The middle finger in Piazza Affari in front of the Italian stock exchange is a sight to behold. At first, it looks like a F*ck you to the bankers, but if you look closely, it’s the other way round. The bankers are f*cking us, true isn’t it? The 36ft (11m) high installation, called L.O.V.E. (Libertà, Odio, Vendetta, Eternità i.e. Freedom, Hate, Vengeance, Eternity) and unveiled in Milan in 2010, is part of a retrospective dedicated to the Italian contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan, whose provocative works include a sculpture of Pope John Paul being hit by a meteorite. Read details here.
If you have the time and energy, head over to explore more at:
The Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci (Cenacolo Vinciano) at Santa Maria Delle Grazie
Tickets for this need to be bought months in advance or take one of the group tours who sell it as part of a package (and costing a bomb) if you are so desperate to see it. Buy tickets here and if they’re not available online, call them. People have had better luck over the phone. Alas, we didn’t get to see it. (Last entry is 7:45 PM, closed Monday)
Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci
The Museo nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci” in Milan is the largest science and technology museum in Italy and is dedicated to Italian painter and scientist Leonardo da Vinci. Closed Monday; guided tours take place from 10.00 am until 45 minutes before the Museum closing time.
The Sforza Castle
The castle was built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza (married into the Visconti family), on the remnants of a 14th-century fortification. Numerous artists have decorated the castle, including Leonardo da Vinci. It began as a fortress and was later turned into a castle. Most of the outer fortifications were demolished during the period of Napoleonic rule in Milan under the Cisalpine Republic but was later rebuilt. The Castle was the headquarters of Visconti until 1447, when the Ambrosian Republic was proclaimed, after Filippo Visconti’s death.
Experiences to try:
Stay at Casa Berra
What a lovely, lovely place to stay, especially for a group of friends or family. In the morning, we were woken up by church bells, right next to the living room/ kitchen, and we stared at the church spire as the sun went down. There are two beautiful gardens inside with trees and flowers and a few pets. The rooms and kitchen are well equipped, spacious; the bedrooms dressed with chandeliers and wall mosaics…it was calm, ancient, gothic, and absolutely memorable. It is a 10 minutes’ walk from Crescenzago metro station and close to cute family shops and eateries. The supermarket Aldi is also very close by. We longed to return to the apartment after a tiring day exploring.
Hop on hop off the old tram line
Eat at Luini
A street food joint right behind the Duomo, they are open Monday 10AM-3PM, Tue-Sat: 10AM-8PM (closed Sunday), with long queues leading up to the counter. It serves Panzerotti of a hundred different kinds. What is Panzerotti you ask? Soft, springy, fried dough parcels stuffed with – tomato, mozzarella, ricotta, spinach, salami, mushrooms, anything you want or can dream of (not all together, of course, there are combos). There is also a sweet version panzerotto dolce, baked and using a shortbread crust, stuffed with nuts, figs, cocoa. The store was set up in 1888 and is an immigrant import from Puglia but has become a sensation of sorts over the past few decades.
Walk among graves
At Cimitero Monumental – of the two largest cemeteries in Milan, known for its artistic tombs and monuments. Opened in 1866, it is replete with a wide range of contemporary and classical Italian sculptures, Greek temples, obelisks, and tombs of rich people designed by renowned artists.
Watch a football match at the historical San Siro
San Siro, as you must already know, is a football stadium in the San Siro district of Milan, which is home to two major clubs – A.C. Milan and Inter. Match tickets start around €25 and you could check out tickets here. More details of the matches at Italylogue.
Other useful Links: