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What are the top things to see and do in Milan?
Milan is a chic, charming city full of Italian style. Quietly confident and understated, it is full of little boutique cafes and bars where people watching appears to be the local pastime.
The centre of the city is dominated by the Duomo – the massive cathedral which was begun in 1387 but not completed until the 1960s. For the best ‘wow’ factor arrive at 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 the main facade of the cathedral will be directly in front of you. Its dome completely dominates the skyline yet it appears to float to float above the huge piazza on which it sits. Despite it massive size, the intricate stonework gives it a feather-soft beauty, catching the changes in the light and looking magical whatever the weather.
If you are physically able to, make sure that you go up 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 is easy to negotiate, and there are many small corridors and balconies to discover.
The view across Milan from the top 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.
There is a department store alongside the Duomo. Take the escalator to the top 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.
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.
For a shopping centre with style, visit the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which is opposite the Duomo in the main square. Way ahead of its time, 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.
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 timeslot 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.
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.
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.
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 splendour and magic.
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.
What else you should you see in Milan?
The railway station. If you happen to be passing take ten minutes to pop in and 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. From The Last Supper to the Museo Nazional della Scienza e Technologia Leonardo da Vinci with its reconstructed models of his ideas, or the fortifications of Castel Sforzsco which da Vinci designed, you can’t escape reminders of this prolific man and references to him are everywhere.
Shopping – 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 epitomise Italian chic with their tasteful window displays.
Pizza – 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 see and do in Milan. But don’t take my word for it. Go over there and see for yourself.