Top things to do in Milan:  Scarlet’s Travel Guide

Top things to do in Milan: Scarlet’s Travel Guide

What are the top things to do in Milan?

If you have 3 days in Milan you can cover most of the sights and get a really good feel for this Italian city.

Milan is a chic, charming city full of style. Quietly confident yet understated, it’s full of little boutique cafes and bars where people watching is the local pastime.

Milan’s Duomo

Top things to do in Milan

Milan’s duomo

The centre of the city is dominated by the Duomo – the massive cathedral which was begun in 1387 but which wasn’t completed until the 1960s.

For the best ‘wow’ factor transfer into the city centre via the metro and if you are lucky choosing your exit from the station you will come up the steps and exit into the piazza and see the main facade of the cathedral directly in front of you.

The Duomo’s dome completely dominates the skyline yet it appears to float to float delicately above the huge piazza on which it sits.

Despite its massive size, the intricate stonework and marble gives it a feather-soft beauty, catching the changes in the light and ensures that it looks magical whatever the weather.

If you are physically able to, do pay to go up inside the tower and explore the roof of the cathedral. Clambering around on the sloping lead tiles and scrambling up and down steps at eye level with the old stone gargoyles, you really get an idea of the sheer scale of the building.

The main roof slopes gently away either side of the ridge but it’s easy to negotiate and there are many small corridors, balconies and nooks and crannies to discover.

The view across the rooftops  of Milan from the top of the Duomo is, as you would expect, quintessentially Italian with countless domes and stone church towers poking up between the rusty coloured terracotta roof tiles.

Flocks of pigeons scatter in the path of children who run around on the large chequered piazza below and over in the distance you can see snow capped mountains.

For the best view of Milan’s Duomo

There is a large department store called La Rinascente which is just alongside the Duomo.

Take the escalator to the 7th floor where you will find a row of restaurants and bars and arguably the best place to experience the Duomo as you are looking AT it, rather than from it.

These little bars range from ‘not so cheap’ to posh, but do order a drink and sit and watch the tourists who are watching you from the balconies of the cathedral.

In nearly all of the bars in Milan you will be given tiny little plates of nibbles to go with your drinks. These nibbles can range from some nuts in a bowl to dainty crostini, pieces of chorizo or cheese and olives, to hunks of bread or cakes.

Snacking in Milan

Going out for a drink in the early evening in Milan can take this snacking cuisine to a whole new level. Track down a bar which is serving aperitivi and you are sorted.

Buying a drink (choose a Negroni or a sbagliato) in one of these bars advertising aperitivi and you will get access to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The drink may cost a little bit more, but the food will certainly make up for it. A myriad of tapas style snacks or a large pot of stew served with beans, a bar somewhere in Milan will be serving something that you like to eat.

And to drink? Milan has made the aperol spritz its own. Made with prosecco, Aperol and soda water and served in oversized wine glasses over ice and a slice of an orange, you should order one, settle back in your seat and watch the world go by.

top things to do in Milan

Aperol spritzer

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

For a shopping centre with style, visit the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which is also in the main square with Milan’s Duomo.   

When it was constructed it was way ahead of its time, and now the iron and glass arcades are filled with the likes of Prada and Gucci and old-style cafes where waiters silently glide around in starched cotton aprons.

The architect Giuseppe Mengoni plummeted to his death from the glass roof just before the project was completed.

To ward off similar bad luck, stand on the testicles of the mosaic of the bull which is set into the floor near the centre and spin on your heel.

top things to do in Milan

shopping in style

The Last Supper

Probably one of the most iconic paintings in the world is in Milan.

Technically not a painting but a fresco The Last Supper is well worth a visit but you will need to be a bit of a detective to obtain a ticket.

You can always buy a grossly overpriced ticket from an agent and you can of course, go along to the ticket office, but tickets generally sell out days or even weeks in advance in high season.

There is a website but I personally didn’t find it to be very user-friendly and I resorted to asking an Italian friend of a friend to organise one for me.

However, once you are armed with your ticket and you have found the building that the fresco is in, you wait for your time-slot and you are allowed into the hall with its subdued lighting.

The fresco has been damaged by time and also by the priests who once hacked a new doorway to the kitchens through it. The colours are now cloudy and lumps of plaster have dropped off it but the scale of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, not to mention the conspiracy theories and fictions which surround it, make it one special piece of artwork.

No photos are allowed inside, and to be honest, no pictures can do it justice, so you will have to go and see it for yourself.

Castel Sforzsco

Milan has a castle, the Castel Sforzsco . With imposing walls it sits in a large park, complete with a lake and a bandstand and lots of paths to wander around.

It began life as a fortress before being taken over as a stately home and it now houses a museum.

Arco della Pace

At the far end of the park with the castle is a piazza that is dominated by the Arco della Pace – a triumph of giant statues and arches. Sit on the steps or pause for a drink in one of the little bars that line the crossroads and the road to Paris and marvel at the pomp and splendour of the gateway.

top things to do in Milan

Arco della Pace

La Scala

You may not be interested in opera or your visit to Milan may not coincide with a performance, but a peep inside La Scala theatre is a glimpse into another world.

Opulent red velvet and gold provide a spectacular colour theme and posters and costumes make you feel as if you have stepped back in time.

La Scala is one of the iconic theatres of the world and retains all of its old world magic.

The Navigli district

The Navigli neighbourhood runs alongside the canal, and while it is now sleek and modern and packed with bars, restaurants and independent shops, it still manages to retain a bohemian atmosphere.

On the last Sunday of every month antique dealers and second hand traders set up their stalls alongside the canal.

…and the other top sights in Milan?

The railway station.

If you happen to be passing take ten minutes to pop in and take a look at the marble columns and panels that were in vogue when it was built

Art – contemporary or ancient.

Home to many of the renaissance art schools and now dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty first century, somewhere in Milan you will find a gallery or a museum to interest you.

Wander around the masterpieces of the Pinacoteca di Brera in the substantial stone building with its sturdy veranda running around the central courtyard or find a modern gallery – its all here.

Leonardo da Vinci.

You have The Last Supper and the Museo Nazional della Scienza e Technologia Leonardo da Vinci with its reconstructed models of his ideas.

There are the fortifications of Castel Sforzsco which da Vinci designed and posters and references to him everywhere – you can’t escape reminders of this prolific man.

Shopping and fashion

From designer to vintage, artisan crafts or ingredients for the most discerning chef, the shops are a work of art in themselves. Never shabby or run-down they epitomize Italian chic with their tasteful window displays.


Find a little backstreet pizza restaurant with an authentic stone oven and you are in for a treat. Where better to enjoy a pizza and a glass of wine or an aperol spritzer than in Milan

These are my top things to do in Milan.  But don’t take my word for it.  Go over there and see for yourself.

Lloret de Mar and Platja d’Aro

Lloret de Mar and Platja d’Aro

Do you remember the Spanish beach resorts? Maybe it’s time that you revisited them

The beach resorts of Lloret de Mar and Platja d’Aro

The Spanish beach resorts attract millions of tourists every year. Visitor numbers are influenced by the global economic situation, the success and popularity of other destinations and the reputation of the resorts within different groups. Back in the 80’s this coastline began to attract hoards of young holiday makers (sadly the Brits were tarred with a bad reputation although they were no way alone) – the 18-30 set who were hell-bent on getting drunk, sunburnt and sleeping with as many strangers as possible. Many of the resorts attracted large ex-pat communities who wanted a cheaper cost of living, or elderly visitors who were looking for winter sun so there was this curious disparity between what people were hoping to get from the area. When I last visited the holiday resorts of Spain the bars and restaurants screamed ‘Irish Pub’ or ‘British Fish & Chips’.  Karaoke bars, full English breakfasts and bar crawls were the name of the day.  Those things are still there but there has been a not-so-subtle change.

Santa Roma, Lloret de Mar

The resorts have reinvented themselves. They have dragged themselves kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. Progress and modernity go side by side with culture, history and, in the case of Catalunya, a pride and a desire to reclaim their own specific culture and separate identity.

The beach at Lloret de Mar

Streets have been pedestrianised, museums and experience centres have been revamped and there is a greater emphasis on a more wholesome experience. Regional cuisine across Spain is generally excellent and international dishes can be found just about everywhere.  There is a big emphasis on fish and seafood and all over the country you will find many of the restaurants offering a ‘Menu del Dia’ during the weekday lunch times.  This usually consists of 2 or 3 courses of food plus a drink at a very reasonable price and is extremely popular among the Spanish who treat lunch time with a special reverence and certainly do not rush the meal.

Lloret de Mar

One of the gems of Lloret de Mar is its old town district with narrow streets lined with shops and little bars and restaurants where chairs and tables spill out into the sunshine. A wide promenade backs the beach and the coastal footpath winds its way away from the town and across the cliffs in both directions.  High on one of the cliffs is a monument to the fishermens’ wives, watching out to sea.

statue to the fishermens’ wives

These days Lloret de Mar is establishing itself as an activity resort both on the water and off. Yes, there are still bars and clubs and a wild side but there is another side to Lloret, a side which appeals to hikers and kayakers, climbers and cyclists.  Defined as an ‘urban beach’ tourist destination, the natural attractions are complimented by additional activities and attractions. The town appears affluent because of the money which was initially invested into it by the Indianos or Americanos.  Boatloads of (mainly poor) teenage boys and young men left for Cuba and America in the early 1800s and made their fortunes, mainly in the boat building industries.  They returned with their wealth to marry and to settle in Lloret de Mar, constructing grand villas and houses. p20150502_075752 This link to foreign lands is also reflected in the modernist cemetery and the rather grand Church of Sant Roma with its domes and mosaics.  There are the beautiful cliff top gardens of Santa Clotilda, a comprehensive maritime museum and the Castle of St Joan which watches over the town from its position on the cliffs. There are 13 beaches and coves in the immediate vicinity of the town where you can toast yourself in the sun to your heart’s content whilst if you want to go sightseeing the town has good transport networks to the surrounding towns and Barcelona.

Platja d’Aro

Further up the coast from Lloret de Mar is Platja d’Aro which has a long sandy beach backed by a pleasant promenade and which is lined with hotels, apartments, restaurants and beach bars.  When I was there the sand sculptors were out creating intricate designs from wet sand for an exhibition and the smell of paint was in the air as the bars and cafes prepared themselves for the summer season. But due to the climate and some very clever marketing, Plaja d’Aro has something for everyone all the year around.  It’s also very close to the historic city of Girona with good bus links and it has countless shops and little malls which sell everything that you can think of.

Sand art at Platja d’Aro

Wide pavements and large open spaces as well as the huge stretch of beach, coupled with not too many overly high buildings give the resort an upmarket feel, and what was striking, along with the other places in the region that I visited was the cleanliness and attention to detail which is reflected in the smart paving stones and the eye-catching signs which hang outside the various businesses.

The Hotel Planamar

I was fortunate to stay at the Hotel Planamar which is set right on the beach at Platja d’Aro. It is just a couple of streets back from the main road and a short hop from all of the major shops and bars, but due to its position is nice and quiet at night.

Hotel Planamar, Platja d’Aro

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw my room which was very different to the standard hotel rooms that I remembered from the ‘nineties. The bed was in the centre of the room facing the balcony and behind a small wall was hanging space, a washbasin, a fridge and a large, walk-in shower with constantly changing coloured mood lights. The toilet had a frosted glass door which was a bit bizarre but it did give the impression of light and space. I had a TV, a balcony (with a sea view), good free WIFI and a welcome touch of a complimentary bottle of wine.

My room. Not huge but perfect

I stayed at the Hotel Planamar for 6 nights and breakfast was included during my stay. Breakfast was served buffet style in the comfortable restaurant which overlooked the beach and there was a great selection of hot and cold foods, cereals, fruit, toast and excellent coffee.  Lunch and evening meals are available here too and must have been good because the restaurant was always busy. Below the hotel was a bar where I saw a lively flamenco show one evening and on another night they hosted a musical duo. The bar also serviced the beach restaurant where food was competitively priced. One night I dined by candlelight and ate a tasty lasagne and wine – feeling like Shirley Valentine as I gazed out to sea and I was periodically chatted to by the attentive waiters and bar staff.

Shirley Valentine – the beach is behind me

The rooftop pool and terraces have also been given an upmarket, modern twist. Large double four-poster sun beds add a touch of glamour and there is a small gym inside a glass cube room with views out over the bay.  You can arrange to have a massage or a manicure and the swimming pool is inviting.

Relax in style at the Hotel Planamar

On the ground floor of the hotel there is a comfortable reading area with a TV and a comprehensive library of books to borrow or swap, there is a computer available for guests and a couple of tables and chairs outside by the front door if you want to sit and watch the world go by.

you don’t feel swamped by the tall buildings when you are at the hotel

The staff are very friendly, speak many languages between them, and they will make sure that you have no problems.During my stay the majority of the visitors were from France and there was also a contingent in for the Grand Prix in Barcelona.

Oversized puppets and human towers

Before I finish telling you about this region you may be interested in the gigantes and the castellers. p20150430_185537 Whilst not confined to Catalunya the gigantes are massive puppets styled as people.  If you are of a certain age you may remember the British game show ‘It’s a Knockout and the hilarious costumes?  Well they were styled on the gigantes.  The figures can be several metres tall with giant papier mache heads and elaborate clothing.  They are operated from within by a person who ‘wears’ them on his or her shoulders.  They are a feature of many of the fiestas and while they look totally unreal standing still, when they are moving around they become almost believable in a comedic way. The ‘sport’ of castels is peculiar to Catalunya and is an extravagant team building exercise. Castellers are the people who form these intricate human towers.  The necessary bonds between the participants who build the tower produces a strong social cohesion and with competitions and displays taking place throughout the summer between villages and towns, they build community too.

Castellers in action

The base of the tower spreads itself out with people all having a very specific role to play, muscles are tensed and nobody can drop their guard for a moment.  From this strong base a tower forms with people holding tight to each other and winding hands around the scarfs and belts worn by others.  Once the tower is complete – and they have been known to be 13 levels high (that is higher than a house) the smallest agile children often as young as 4 years old clamber up to the very top where they hold their hands up to symbolise the unfurling of the Catalan flag.

The watching crowd will hold their collective breath as the youngsters slowly make their way back down to safety, followed by the others.  It is not uncommon for the tower to topple or for people to be seriously injured but that doesn’t prevent children following their parents into the sport. The smaller children now wear specially designed helmets – hard on the inside yet padded outside so as not to hurt anybody that they may fall upon.



So forget anything that you remember of these seaside resorts from the 70’s, 80’s and the 90’s.  The entire region has re-branded and dragged itself well and truly into the 21st century.


Travel Tips and Useful Bits

Both Lloret de Mar and Platja d’Aro lie to the north of Barcelona and are served by good bus routes to and from the cities of Barcelona, Girona and the two airports.  They lie on the Coasta Brava – the wild coast which has similarities with the Cornish coastline with rugged cliffs, charming deserted coves and small villages.

You can get some excellent informative maps of the regiona by clicking on this link to the Girona Tourist Guide Map#3 – the Girona Province Map (or Treasure Map) shows the entire region and has information on the major points of interest as well as many suggested routes.

If you have access to a car you may like to follow the Garden Route, the Castle Route or the Volcano and Lake Route to name but a few. This information, plus much more is available at the Girona Tourist Guide but you should also check out the official site at the Girona Tourist Board

During the Temps de Flors (the Girona Flower Festival) maps are available with every official floral display marked on them.  You can pick one of these up at the Tourist Office in Girona or from one of the many guides who are on the streets during the festival.

One of the displays at the Temps de Flors


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