The northern Italian city of Milan is the perfect city for a short break and its popularity has grown in recent years following the 2015 Expo. A couple of days were certainly not enough to see everything in Milan but we managed to pack in some of the well-known and lesser-known sights creating a weekend that was pure Italian and gave us glimpses in to the spirit of the city. These are my highlights for your own visit:
Piazza del Duomo – You won’t want to miss getting to the Piazza del Duomo. From here you will be overwhelmed by the extravagant and ornate front of Milan’s gothic Duomo. Once you have taken in the grandeur of the cathedral, look to your left to see the equally stunning entrance to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II 19th century shopping mall. This is the heart of Milan and a must for every visitor and it is always crowded but gazing at the surrounding splendour you forget the hordes. Strolling through the Galleria to La Scala is free; visiting the Duomo isn’t and except maybe in the depths of winter involves joining queues. The experience not to be missed is climbing up to the terraces on the roof of the Duomo and going here at sunset has many advantages. Late in the day the queues are shorter and the crowds less; we were the next to last group in the lift to the roof [the staff tried to put us off, telling us we might not get up before they closed but we stuck with it] and with no further visitors following us we could find some quiet corners among the many statues that adorn the building. Reaching the front of the Duomo that faces west and the setting sun, I could hear the music and chatter from the surrounding rooftop bars. The disadvantage of going late at night was that we couldn’t get in to the interior until the next day and so had to queue again [for about an hour and a half] and after so much build up the interior of the Duomo is a bit of a let down.
Coffee and cake in a classic italian Cafe – Pasticceria Marchesi has been making cakes and coffee since 1824 and is worth the expense for the excellent coffee and delicious cakes. There are three shops in Milan and we visited the charming and smaller cafe near to Sforza Castle. As lunch time approached the cafe became busy with people coming in for lunch and a swift coffee and the system of ordering from one counter and paying at a till appeared chaotic. We had been walking all morning and enjoyed a relaxing sit down in the calmer back room so felt we had our money’s worth.
Panzerotti Luine – Eating in Milan is rarely cheap so you need to take the opportunity for something affordable when you can. For a few Euros you can buy delicious Italian streetfood; fried, baked or sweet panzerotto, a stuffed bread snack. The classic panzerotto is fried with a mozzarella and tomato filling.
With locals walking tour – Over two-and-a-half hours our guide took us to places we would never have found without her local knowledge and gave us an inside flavour of the city and this proved to be an excellent introduction to Milan.
Rinascente food hall and roof top cafe – I could have spent hours in the food hall at Rinascente department store; it is packed with Italian goodies. It is also worth climbing up the seventh floor of this store for the roof top cafe. We visited in the early evening and had a selection of Campari cocktails and snacks for the full Milan experience with a view of the ornate roof line of the Duomo and surrounded by noisy chattering Italians.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper – It is an incredible story that this painting on the wall of the Refectory at the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie survived at all. In its 500-years it has lived through being an armory, prison and animal shelter, as well as bombing and many restorations. It is claimed that the last restoration in the 1990s took the painting back to its original and it certainly brilliantly and humanly captures a moment in the story of the last supper.
Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore – You could spend all your days visiting churches in Milan and you might walk by this unassuming church and not think twice about popping in but make sure you do. Inside this former convent are such glorious frescoes on every inch of the walls it is worth seeking out.
Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio – Near to the Navigli district and one of the oldest churches in Milan, this church doesn’t have the abundance of frescoes of the Chiesa di San Maurizio but has some interesting features including an early Christian church underneath the existing building. In the 15th century Portinari Chapel there are colourful frescoes on the ceiling and an ornate ark with the remains of Peter Rosini, known as Peter Martyr or Peter from Verona, the prior of Como.
Naviglio Grande – You can walk or cycle for many kilometres along this canal that once was used by ships bringing the marble for the Duomo in the centre of Milan. On a rainy morning we attempted to work off some of the calories we had consumed in the cafes, restaurants and bars of Milan by walking some of the canal. Near to its end the canal area has been gentrified and is now lined with cafes and there are often market stalls. After working up an appetite we found the canalside Universo Vegano cafe for some delicious and healthy lunch.
Buskers – I like to find time to stop and listen to or watch some of the many street artists wherever we visit and I will happily hand over some change to say thank you for the entertainment. The street artists of Milan are regulated and are usually high quality artists.
Braidense National Library – Enter the courtyard of the old Palace of the Collegio Gesuitico di Brera, pass the classrooms full of students at the art college and climb the stairs to the library, opened to the public in 1786 thanks to Maria Theresa who considered that Milan needed “an open library for the common use of anyone who wants to cultivate his mind, and acquire new knowledge.” The peaceful and atmospheric library has shelves of old books and holds temporary exhibitions about some of its collection.
Brera Botanical Garden – Tucked away behind the Braidense National Library we found this small botanical garden famous for its old Ginkgo biloba trees. Here were signs of spring with blossom on the trees and flowering bulbs. In summer this would be a cool place to relax that is away from the bustle of the city.
Parco Sempione – Beyond Sforza Castle is this large park that is popular with both visitors and locals. Covering 116 acres the park has many grand monuments and winding paths among grass that are perfect for a walk. On our visit there was a fairground in the park with terrifying rides.