Milan (Milano to the locals) is unlike other Italian cities. You’ll either love it or hate it but after a few days here you will have a strong opinion either way. The city isn’t associated with art or history or food but with industry and business which transformed Milan throughout the last century and explain the skyscrapers transforming its skyline today.
The Milanese are proud of their achievements and like to be at the cutting edge of everything. Their city works and has the accruements of an efficient transportation system, bike and car sharing, uber and many things Italians in other parts of the country can only dream about. That explains why Italians from across the peninsula have relocated to Milan and why you’re likely to meet immigrants from all over the world hoping to make their fortune here.
It’s a fast-paced city with grey skies where even the nuns are in a hurry to visit the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and take selfies under Il Cenacolo (The Last Supper). Outside on the streets, high heels move at frenetic pace. No one wants to be late for happy hour or the latest Gucci sample sale. This is the land of see-and-be-seen where television starlets play a game of merry-go-round with VIPs on their way to leather-clad locales that are nearly impossible to access. No one said a visit here would be easy, but if you’ve chosen to stay in Milan for a few days you’re in for an unforgettable ride.
The Duomo is the traditional place to start an exploration of Milan. It’s the geographical core, if not the spiritual one, that lies somewhere between the San Siro football stadium and the Quadrilatero, where fashion lives and trends are born. In between are Brera, Magenta, and Sempione. Not exactly beautiful neighborhoods, but gritty in a pleasant way with the charms of a city looking ahead rather than behind.
Rush hour in Milan is one of the worst in Italy. It’s wise to stay in bed until 9:30 am and avoid traveling 5:30-7:30pm to avoid paralysis. Also be aware of pickpockets, especially around the stations and on subways and buses. They’re often children working for adults. Keep wallets in front pockets and backpacks tightly zipped.
| Piazza del Duomo
If Milan had a downtown this would be it. The area around Piazza del Duomo is congested most of the day with shoppers, office workers, and tourists looking for the Duomo. Two subway lines intersect here and above ground the avenues and streets lead to Milan’s other neighborhoods. Scaffolding is a common sight and luxury brands are revitalizing the Galleria and streets around the impressive church. At night the curtain goes up at La Scala and the barman at the only seven-star hotel in town gets ready for another long shift.
On a beautiful, sunny day, the Duomo (Piazza del Duomo, tel. 028/646-3456, http://www.duomomilano.it, daily 7am-7pm, free admission) may hypnotize you with its 100 thin, Gaudi-like spires about to take off into the sky. It’s the kind of church Godzilla wouldn’t want to step on. Gian Galeazzo Visconti commissioned it in 1386 and it wasn’t completed until the 1800s, which is late by modern Milanese standards. The piazza around it is less grand and the church looks slightly cramped. Outside, pigeons brush against pilgrims on their way to the gloomy interior and a collection of Christian icons and relics. The confession boxes do a swift business while tourists light candles and marvel at the coolness.
The roof is open to the public and provides a nice view. Take the elevator (€6) unless you consider yourself fit enough for the stairs (€4). On the Saturday closest to September 14, the archbishop removes a nail of Christ’s cross from its resting place behind the altar.
Bordering the Duomo on the southern edge of the piazza is the oddly shaped Palazzo Reale (Piazza del Duomo 12, tel. 02/860-165, Tues.-Sun. 9:30 am-5:30 pm, free). This was the seat of government and the walls were meant to reflect power. After it was partially demolished to make room for the Duomo, Francesco Sforza looked after the renovations in 1452. It was later used by Spaniards and has been modified significantly over the centuries. Today it houses the Tourist Office and is worth a stop to see Sala delle Cariatidi on the second floor, which was once a theater.
GALLERIA VITTORIO EMANUELE II
On the other side of the piazza is Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (tel. 02/7252-4301), a beacon for shoppers since Giuseppe Mengoni won the competition to build it in 1863. This proto-shopping center was completed quickly and has remained a good place to find shoes. Even if footware isn’t your thing, the two long promenades covered with a Belle Epoque iron and glass roof make for an elegant stroll. Keep an eye out for mosaics on the floors. The bull near the center is where Milanese get their good luck. There are plenty of cafés around the Galleria, although prices tend to be unfashionably high.
The oldest museum in Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (Piazza Pio XI 2, tel. 02/806-921, http://www.ambrosiana.it, Tues.-Sun. 10 am-5:30 pm, €8), houses paintings donated by Cardinal Borromeo in 1618. Masterpieces include Leonardo’s da Vinci’s Portrait of a Musician and Caravaggio’s Fruit Basket. Lines are shorter than outside the Duomo and the 23 rooms are often nearly deserted except for scholars in the library examining Leonardo’s incredible sketches and drawings.
La Scala (Via Filodrammatici 2, tel. 02/7200-3744, http://www.teatroallascala.org) opera house opened in 1778 and audiences have been hoping for encores ever since. The stage is one of the largest in Europe and acoustics within the horseshoe-shaped theater are perfect. On days when no performances are held you can visit the adjacent Museo Teatrale (€5) which contains costumes and sets from past productions. The museum also provides a look inside at the four tiers of velvet-clad boxes and two balconies under an impressive chandelier.
The best way to experience Italy’s most famous theater, however, is by attending a performance. Artistic directors change but the program remains dedicated to classics and a season usually includes some Rossini, Verdi, or Puccini. Performances sell out quickly and it’s best to reserve before your arrival by phone or over the Internet, although a block of standing-room-only tickets are put on sale a half-hour before every show. Prices range from €10 in the upper decks to €170 if you want to feel the wind from the conductor’s baton. Tickets can be purchased at the central box office in the Galleria off Piazza Duomo (daily noon-6pm, closed Aug.) or at the evening box office at the theater. This is La Scala, so proper attire is required, which means a tie and jacket for men. If you left your blazer at home, you can contact Francine Garino (02/8879-2090, email@example.com) for guided tours which cost around €30.
This neighborhood is also known as the Quadrilatero (www.viamontenapoleone.org), and is made up of the streets between Via Montenapoleone and Via delle Spiga. Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, and Gucci have turned the area into a paradise for shoppers. During the day, heiresses and sheiks are common sights browsing the glamorous storefronts, while models parade by on their way to the next photo shoot. At night, the sidewalks are deserted.
MUSEO POLDI PEZZOLI
Shopping isn’t the only attraction. Museo Poldi Pezzoli (Via Manzoni 12, tel. 02/794-889, http://www.museopoldipezzoli.it, Tues.-Sun. 10 am-6pm, €8), near the Montenapoleone subway stop, was one of the first museums in the city and contains the personal collection of the wealthy Poldi family. Their taste can be hit and miss and if armor or tapestry isn’t your thing, head straight to the second floor. The Golden Room contains an early Botticelli and Pollaiolo’s stunning Portrait of a Woman. From here there’s also a good view of the gardens outside. The other highlight is the Jewelry Room, which has an extensive collection of diamond-encrusted watches, miniature goblets, fine porcelain, and crucifixes. Don’t look for a café, since there isn’t one.
MUSEO BAGATTI VALSECCHI
Not far away from Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Museo Bagatti Valsecchi (Via Santo Spirito 10, tel. 02/7600-6132, http://www.museobagattivalsecchi.org, Tues.-Sun. 1-5:45 pm, €6, €3 on Wed.) is a house-museum where you can get an idea of how 19th-century Milanese bourgeoisie once lived. It wasn’t a bad life and the elaborate furniture and finely decorated rooms demonstrate that luxury has always been in style.
VILLA BELGIOJOSO BONAPARTE
If you continue north along Via Manzoni, you’ll reach the public gardens that are a nice way to escape the heat in summer. There’s a small lake in the center where people feed the ducks. On the edge of the park are the Museo del Cinema, Natural History Museum, and Planetarium. Villa Belgiojoso Bonaparte (Via Palestro 16, tel. 02/7600-2819, http://www.villabelgiojosobonaparte.it, daily 9am-1pm and 2-5:30 pm) borders the park, and it’s free to visit this grand neoclassical 19th-century villa where Napoleon briefly lived. It now houses an art gallery and on summer evenings regularly hosts classical music concerts in the extensive gardens.
Brera is where Milan really begins. The rest is just wrapping. It’s populated with creatives at all hours and is the center of a vibrant art scene. Small galleries with big prices line Via Brera and Via Fiori Chiara behind La Scala. Good pasticcerie and trattorie are on every corner and this is where natives come for their aperitivo. At night the streets fill up with fortune-tellers, rose peddlers, and vendors of fake designer bags hoping to make a euro.
PINACOTECA DI BRERA
Pinacoteca di Brera (Via Brera 28, tel. 02/722-631, http://www.brera.beniculturali.it, Tues.-Sun. 8:30 am-7:15 pm, €5) is Milan’s most important art gallery. Housed in a 17th-century palazzo, it was restored a decade ago and now offers white-walled tranquility under high vaulted ceilings. Chairs are spread out throughout the gallery, making it easy to rest a few moments and observe Tiziano and Caravaggio. Paintings span seven centuries and Room 24 is the home of Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin.
Some of the city’s only Roman ruins can be seen within San Simpliciano (Piazza San Simpliciano 7, tel. 02/869-0683). Lower walls date from the 4th century, when Christianity was just gaining popularity in the area. Later interventions enlarged the church and added the current triple nave layout. Many concerts are held inside and the acoustics are excellent, although the pews can get uncomfortable after an hour.
If you take the shuttle train from Malpensa airport you arrive in Sempione. Next to the station is Castello Sforzesco, a symbol of Milanese power, and behind that the park where the Torre Branca rises 108 meters into the Milanese skyline. The area is a center for Italian design and many ingenious objects are created here.
Castello Sforzesco (Piazza Castello, tel. 02/8846-3703, http://www.milanocastello.it, Tues.-Sun. 9am-5:30 pm, €3 or €7 combo ticket), a square-shaped fortress guarded by four imposing towers, has had many occupants since it was first conceived in 1386 by Gian Galeazzo Visconti. During the Renaissance, Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci were commissioned to renovate the fortress. Military goals were replaced with cultural pursuits in 1893, and the castle now shows off a fine collection of furniture and other treasures in the Sala Castellana and Sala del Tesoro. With a guide you can also explore the network of passages below the castle and walk along the battlements. Tours last over two hours and begin every Sunday at 3pm.
Behind the castle is Milan’s biggest park. Parco Sempione occupies the old parade ground and was completed in 1890 in an English style. It was the site of the 1906 World’s Fair and one pavilion was later transformed into an Aquarium (Via Gadio 2, tel. 02/8846-5750, http://www.aquariocivico.mi.it, Tues.-Sun. 9am-1pm and 2-5:30 pm, free) with a spectacular transparent bridge for viewing the fish, and vice versa. The hard-to-miss Torre Branca (Viale Luigi Camoens, tel. 02/331-4120, Apr.-Oct., open Wed. and weekends) is next to the Triennale di Milano (tel. 02/724-341), where exhibitions are held. It is vaguely reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower and provides an excellent view of the city. From the top you may be able to spot the fountain designed by De Chirico. There are a great variety of trees in the park with oak, cedars, pines, and beech all providing shade on hot summer days.
This might be Milan’s chicest area and having The Last Supper in the neighborhood hasn’t hurt the value of property. It’s largely residential, with many restaurants and boutiques. Corso Magenta is the main thoroughfare and nearby you can discover why Leonardo da Vinci was a genius.
SANTA MARIA DELLE GRAZIE
Don’t expect to just walk in the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent (Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie 2, tel. 02/8942-1146, http://www.cenacolovinciano.org, Tues.-Sun. 8:15 am-6:45 pm, €6.50) and see The Last Supper. You need a reservation for this famous painting and it’s wise to book a few weeks before your arrival. Even if your name is on the list, you only get 15 minutes with Jesus and the apostles. No more than 25 visitors at one time can enter the room inside the convent in order to keep the temperature down.
It took Leonardo da Vinci four years to complete the painting commissioned by Ludovico Sforza. He used a dry technique that allowed greater flexibility and special color effects. The portrayal was innovative and for the first time apostles were featured in a single plane beside Jesus. If you step back from the larger-than-life figures, the symmetry of the painting becomes more evident and there’s a subtle 3-D effect.
Fifteen minutes may seem like a long time with one painting, but as you’ll learn from the audio guide there’s a lot of history behind it–for instance, the time that monks cut a doorway through the wall and permanently damaged the savior’s feet, or when Napoleon’s troops used the room as a stable. There’s no chance of that now and the 21-year restoration has gotten the painting back in top shape. After seeing the remarkable work you can reflect on the achievement in the cloisters, which are often overlooked.
MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
The Museum of Science and Technology (Via S. Vittore 21, tel. 02/485-551, http://www.museoscienza.org, Tues.-Fri. 9:30 am-5pm and Sat.-Sun. 9:30 am-6:30 pm, €8) may seem like an odd chaser to The Last Supper, but they’ve also recreated 30 of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions, in addition to being home to dozens of interactive libraries. It turns out that his helicopter really could fly and that the catapults he designed were some of the most lethal weapons of the time. Outside you can also look through the periscope and explore the narrow metallic corridors of Italy’s first submarine.
Sant’Ambrogio (Piazza Sant’Ambrogio 15, tel. 02/8645-0895, http://santambrogio-basilica.it, Mon.-Fri. 7am-noon and 2:30-7pm, Sat.-Sun. 7am-1pm and 3-6pm) is dedicated to Milan’s patron saint and is the best-looking Romanesque church in the city. Bramante was responsible for the 15th-century renovations but the mosaics and golden altar are much older. The remains of Sant’Ambrogio are kept in the crypt along with other early Christian remains. His feast day on December 7 is a standing-room-only affair when locals come to pay tribute to the “reluctant bishop” who became governor of the city by popular demand.
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