If Milan was in your family, she would be that one sleek cousin who’s basically a model, always wearing heels and looking effortlessly put together. Chances are she’s got a few Prada handbags, but chances are also that she has likely worked really hard for them.
Milan is a modern business city. It is very industrial in parts, lots of offices with people in suits buzzing around, phone in one hand and briefcase in the other. These people work hard during the day, and then really know how to make the most of their time off by drinking with friends along the canal or traveling on the weekends. You can feel that the city prides itself off of its metropolis mentality and everything seems to run smoothly.
Amidst the cobblestone streets full of Vespas and muted, warm-colored apartment buildings you’ll find small sights and places to visit: favorite cafes, beautiful churches, museums and markets. There are many small things to check out to keep busy in Milan. However, the one main thing to do is inescapable… The Duomo. The massive, gorgeous, white marble cathedral in the center of the city.
It is the largest church in Italy (not including St. Peter’s Basilica in The Vatican), and the fifth largest in the world. It took almost six centuries to complete, and no wonder, because it is incredibly detailed and ornate. One of the nails from the crucifixion is kept as a relic at the front of the church and some say that the marble they used to build the church was extracted directly from the downtown Navigli canal!
Its really beautiful, but unfortunately some of this pleasure of the visit is taken away from the tourist trap that it has become. You have to wait in three different lines, you’re funneled into the gift shop, there are strict dress regulations, and no one that helped us was even remotely friendly. So while it is striking to see the insides of the church, it wasn’t a great experience.
With your ticket inside you’ll also get access to a small Duomo museum with old stone gargoyles (there are currently 135 on the church exterior) and a giant gold Madonnina statue. You also get to go through a tiny pink church called San Gottardo di Corte.
Just adjacent to the Duomo in the same plaza is a massive beautiful indoor shopping mall, The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. This 19th Century gallery has intricate sculptures, dramatic frescoes, and a clear glass ceiling. I honestly don’t understand how anyone could actually shop here, I would get completely distracted. Inside the gallery are all of the most expensive designer shops, Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, blah blah and blah. While these shops aren’t made for travelers on a budget, it is still it worth it to wander around and take a look.
The city architecture is a strange mix between new and old, it really depends on what neighborhood you’re in. Some areas have very generic, gray buildings, while others are full of colorful walls, shutters, and intricate street art. There are two neighborhoods outside of the Duomo area that have this more interesting, developing character and for this reason are becoming increasingly more trendy, Brera and Naviglio.
Brera is an ritzy, artistic area northwest of the Duomo with a few museums, like the Pinacoteca, and nice churches. This one above is called the Santa Maria del Carmine. We unknowingly stumbled into a Sunday market with antique maps and furniture, vintage clothes and jewelry. You can tell that the neighborhood has got a pretty high price tag, all of the apartment buildings are beautifully intricate with huge doors, colorful shutters, stone columns and plants dangling of the balconies.
If you walk through Brera towards the west, you’ll come across a huge green park called Parco Sempione, which is home to Castello Sforzesco, a 14th Century red brick fortress with old drawbridges and moats. The castle is now full of different art and science museums. We roamed around the park people-watching and eating popsicles in the sun.
The other neighborhood that is definitely worth a visit is the Navigli District. If you continue south you’ll come across some picturesque canals, lined by taupe, yellow and orange buildings. This area is really up and coming, as well as home to a more young and diverse part of the Milan population.
There are a ton of art galleries, bookstores, restaurants, and many of the bars along the canal compete for the best aperitivo experience. The aperitivo is super popular in Northern Italy, when you pay 8 or 10€ for a drink (probably 99% of those would be Spritz) and get access to a large buffet of basically full course meals. Not a bad deal, huh?
One great thing about all of this exploring in Milan is that the public transportation is excellent! You can hop on a tram or bus to check out one of these neighborhoods instead of walking everywhere which can be a nice change of pace. Tickets are supposed to be 1.50, but every time I got on the driver just waved me through. I didn’t see anyone actually pay… so take advantage of that!
Overall I would say that Milan is not a top European travel destination. We did everything that we wanted within one day. The city lacks the history of Rome, the art of Florence and the charm of Venice; however, it doesn’t mean that it should be overlooked. What Milan has that many Italian cities don’t is the contemporary practicality of a growing metropolis. There are plenty of fun things to do and see. Thankfully, you can tell that while business is always advancing, the Italians still hold strong to their love for traditional art, food and culture. So, while Milan may not have so much to do monument-wise, it is still worth stopping by for a weekend or using it as a hub to explore the rest of Northern Italy.