Please, Do Include Milan on your next trip to Italy!
By Tab Hauser
Milan seems to get a bad rap when it comes to visiting Italy.
The industrial heart of Northern Italy is portrayed as the boring business end of the country so visitors tend to avoid it. While Milan does not have the volume of art and architecture of Venice, Rome, or Florence, it does have Italy’s largest church, Michelangelo’s last unfinished sculpture when he died as well as Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting the Last Supper.
Combine the above attractions to visit with other noteworthy places and you can enjoy an easy two nights here.
First Sights in Milan
Hungry and anxious to stretch our legs after the overnight flight we walked two blocks to Via Dante after dropping our bags off at the hotel. Via Dante is Milan’s leading pedestrian street.
Here we dove into the local culture by grabbing a table among Milan’s business people and tourists at Signorvino.
Lunch was a large platter of regional meat and cheeses along with a few glasses of wine. It was an excellent start to an Italian vacation.
Being on Via Dante the first sight we visited was the Sforza Castle ( www.milanocastello.it ) at the end of the street.
This early renaissance fort was started in the late 1300 and completed 150 years later. It served as a military installation guarding the gate to the city.
This is an imposing structure with corner turrets, a large courtyard, and many rooms.
In the early 1900’s it was restored to house a dozen small museums on different subjects including musical instruments, furniture, armor and weapons, and art. Perhaps their most important museum is that of the Rondanini Pietà. This room holds Michelangelo’s last sculpture that went unfinished. He worked on this until his death in 1564. While the piece is in the rough, the incomplete faces have a very peaceful look.
The Last Supper in Milan
Perhaps Milan’s most important attraction and one of the hardest tickets to get is Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco, The Last Supper (or Il Cenacolo in Italian).
Leonardo did the commission in the monastery next to the Santa Maria Della Grazie church between 1495 and 1498. Visitors have two ways to score tickets here.
One is by calling 39 02 92800360 and pushing 2 and hoping you get an English speaking person to take your order. (It took me three tries here).
The other more expensive way is to sign up for one of the many tours that include the tickets. Some of the so call tours are just an excuse for local companies to horde tickets and mark them up. The web site http://www.vivaticket.it gives you the information needed but the ordering links are useless.
Ignore the calendar that says the dates are sold out and call. If you want to pay 12E you need to be patient.
Scoring a 5 pm viewing
By calling 45 days in advance we were able to get a 5 PM viewing so be prepared to work your day in Milan around your time slot.
Visitors are given 15 minutes to see the masterpiece. Get the audio guide and listen to it while you are in the waiting room.
Viewing this painting in person on the original wall is stunning as da Vinci made the fresco look like an extension of the room it is in. No book or web site can duplicate standing in front of one of the Renaissance’s most famous paintings.
With jetlag starting to kick in, our first-night evening entertainment was kept simple. This included dinner and then a walk to the Piazza del Duomo. This is the large square directly in front of the Duomo di Milano. Coming here at night is special because of the way the area is lit up.
It is a lively place with people hanging around the statue or stairs or bustling across trying to get home. After enjoying the piazza we strolled into the adjacent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (more on this later) for a Campari spritz at the Camparino in Galleria at the entrance.
The Camprarino was established at the galleria’s opening in 1867. The historic bar is complete with wrought iron chandeliers, carved bar, and mosaics. (Note that any beverages in Italy enjoyed standing at the bar can be half the price than sitting. We sprung for the extra charge with a table by the walkway and joined others in people-watching.)
Getting to Know Milan Better
To get to know Milan better we signed up for the free 10 AM Frog Walking Tour. Free tours are becoming popular worldwide and we have done them in Europe and in Chicago. You simply sign up in advance and tip the guide after the tour. Our tour started at the Crocetta metro stop about three-quarters of a mile south of the Duomo di Milano.
From there a group of 18 walked north stopping at many of Milan’s points of interest. At each stop, our energetic guide would discuss architecture, history, or something interesting about what we were seeing.
At the Duomo di Milano, he explained in detail the pearl white façade and told us to explore the inside of the church on our own after the tour.
Our group then walked next door to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. This is a four-story glass-domed high-end shopping mall opened in 1877.
The Galleria is open, airy, and tastefully done with old-world paintings in the corners and mosaic tiles on the floor showing the coat of arms from all four of the Kingdom of Italy’s capitals at the time.
The heel on the Bull’s Balls
A peculiar tradition by visitors has a person place their heel on the testicles of the mosaic bull in the Turin coat of arms and spin three times for good luck.
It is spun on so much that there is a hole in the floor that periodically gets replaced. The shops here are mostly high end including Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Armani. Next door is an upscale food court worth grazing. Another Milanese landmark we visited was the Middle Finger Statue.
While Wall Street has the bull and bear at New York’s financial headquarters, Milan is literally “flipping the bird” in front of their financial center except the “salute” is coming from the bankers and going to the people. The tour ended at the Sforza Castle.
The Huge Duomo di Milano
With the tour over it was time to visit the Duomo di Milano on our own. This is the largest church in Italy and the third-largest in Europe (St. Peters in Vatican City and the Sevilla Cathedral are larger). Construction started in 1386 and was completed in 1965. Its design dominates downtown with its white façade, 52 one hundred foot high pillars, and a total of 135 spires.
The church sits on a 525 and 300-foot platform capable of packing in 40,000 at prayer. It is immense inside. After being marveled by paintings, 14 th century stained glass windows and some of 3400 statues visitors can take the elevator or stairs to the roof for views of the city from 330 feet up. If you still wish to see more on the church you can visit the Duomo museum next door. (www.duomomilano.it)
Fashion in Milan
Milan has a worldwide reputation for fashion. To see where Milan’s fashionistas shop we walked 10 minutes to Via Monte Napoleone and strolled the narrow old streets in the area. The area is a mix of high end recognized brands dotted with upscale Italian boutiques including some over the top shoe stores my wife loved walking through.
For a break visit the bar at the Four Seasons and relax in their courtyard bar with an apertivo.
With the entire day spent in the inner city, it was time to check out the Navigli district a ten-minute taxi ride from the Four Seasons. (Have the driver drop you off at Ripa di Porta Ticinese) Canals in Milan go back hundreds of years. It was a way to serve the city and region.
The modern era closed off most of these canals but a resurrection occurred about 25 years ago in Milan.
Here in Navigli, you will find a lively area with boutiques, antique and art shops, and plenty of places along the water to eat and drink on either side of the canal.
When here take a pass on the canal boat ride as it is expensive and not very scenic for most of the ride. It would be better to walk about half a mile on each side until you find a place for a drink or dinner.
The Milan Facts:
Milan has direct flights from the United States and is an excellent start or finish to any trip to Italy that involves Northern Italy.
The Gran Duca di York is a 33 room boutique hotel located in the 19 th Century restored building. It offers personal service, comfortable accommodations, free non-alcoholic mini-bar and breakfast in a convenient and quiet location.
Lunch: Signorvino on Via Dante for lunch. They have a tasting menu of everything you can think of Italian for the region and many wines by the glass. www.signorvino.com
Dinner: Trattoria Trippa is a 25-minute walk from the Piazza Duomo on a small street. This is a foodie place with a fresh menu daily limited to several items. The staff is passionate about their food and it shows. www.trippamilano.it
Extra: Milan is known as one of the design capitals of the world. It holds a design show every three years. The Triennale di Milano ( http://www.triennale.org ) is Italy’s first permanent design museum.