Milan

Image result for milan map cuteIf 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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.

 

 

Lake Como

Looking for a relaxing day trip away from the business buzz of Milan? Catch the train and head North to Lake Como, a long, winding lake tucked at the base of the Italian Alps. Lake Como is renowned for its natural beauty. Many people in Europe refer to Lake Como as a popular resort destination. The seemingly most popular fact being that George Clooney has a summer home on the lake… Ok, cool I guess. But all jokes aside, this lake is not just for superstars, it is a very doable and incredibly worthwhile trip. You can spend your day exploring colorful villages, visiting lavish villa gardens or old Roman castles, and indulging in pasta and gelato at a lakeside café. I mean, who’s to say, maybe you will even catch a glimpse of George cruising his boat around the lake!

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Lake Como meanders through the valley between the mountains. Each pocket of water along the coast holds its own little town perched along the hillside with colorful houses and stone churches. Although, this beauty is not totally easy to come across, because it does require a bit of planning. Within one day from Milan, you can easily hit three small, lake towns: Como, Bellagio and Varenna.

I found that while planning our trip, it was really difficult to find information regarding what to do and how to get around. Perhaps because not many people attempt to do all three cities in one day. (It is a bit ambitious)

So hopefully this can come in handy for someone. You can buy train tickets ahead of time at trenitalia.com and the ferry tickets the day of. Make sure to check schedules, because the ferry online runs twice a day. And check the weather too, because you definitely don’t want to take a two hour ferry ride in the rain!

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Milan Central Station

Transportation Schedule:

  1. Catch a morning train from Milan Central Station to San Giovanni in Como at the southernmost tip of the lake (Trenitalia, 30 minutes and 4.80€)
  2. Take the scenic ferry ride from Como to Bellagio, a small town on a peninsula (2 hours and 12€)
  3. Hop on the ferry again from Bellagio to your last stop the eastern side of the lake, Varenna (30 minutes and 6€)
  4. Finally, take an evening train back to Milan from Varenna Esino Station (Trenitalia, 45 minutes and 6.70€)

*You could surely do the same trip in reverse if you prefer, but I recommend it this way because Varenna is the perfect place to have dinner and watch the sunset.


COMO

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Once we arrived in Como, we walked through the cute downtown, past a town hall and university building towards the lake. It was a quiet and cloudy morning, so we peacefully strolled through plazas surrounded by pastel-colored buildings.

The architecture actually reminded me of the buildings in Salzburg and Innsbruck, which makes sense because the lake was controlled by the Austrians for a few decades in the 1700s. It was also originally founded by the Greeks, Caesar sent troops there in the first century BC to protect trade between Italy and Switzerland. Clearly, this territory has always (and will always) be highly sought after.

In downtown Como there was a street market with local meats, like boar and prosciutto, and cheeses and wines. A happy, old man was playing a piano in the square next to the main cathedral, Cattedrale di Como, which by the way, is gorgeous inside and out. This Piazza Duomo is the perfect place to get a morning cappuccino.

After wandering around the shops in the downtown, walk along the lakeside and through the narrow residential streets to the Funicular, Funicolare Como-Brunate. You can pay a couple euro to ride an old, red cable-car up to the top of a hill where there is a small town called Brunate. Its a short, fun ride; you can see beautiful villas built on the slopes while also enjoying the incredible, mountain views.

At the top there are some shops, terrace restaurants and houses. We ran around taking pictures and followed the soft sound of an choir singing a capella into an elegant, open-air cathedral, the Chiesa di Sant’Andrea Apostolo.

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After hurrying down the funicular, we boarded the ferry and enjoyed the trip to the next town, Bellagio. The ferry was quite crowded with tourists, but of course for good reason. It was absolutely beautiful. The alpine crystal waters contrast perfectly with the warmly-colored houses and the deep emerald hills.

BELLAGIO

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Bellagio proved to be a much more charming village than Como. It is also probably the most touristic of the three cities. You can spend your afternoon strolling up and down the cobblestone staircases built on a hillside, checking out small shops, wine bars, art galleries and cafés. Lots of the apartments have hanging plants and beautiful wrought-iron balconies with lakeside views.

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It would be nearly impossible to not enjoy the stone arches, spring flowers and fairy-tale like atmosphere, and of course, the smell of fresh baked pizza wafting through the alleyways. There are unlimited choices of food, but we had a yummy lunch at a corner restaurant called Vecchio Borge. After we wandered around, check out a couple old churches and strolled through the strolling through the Parco Martiri della Libertà. Before hopping on the next ferry we got pistachio gelato.

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Like I said… its impossible to not be happy here!

Once we had our fill of beautiful Bellagio, we decided to move along to our last stop, Varenna. So we hopped back on the ferry for another short ride.

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While the three lakeside villages are small and similar in style and architecture, they each have their own particular feel, thanks to the different layouts and monuments. Varenna is known for its small-town, sleepy, fisherman vibes, lavish garden villas and the Castello di Vezio.

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Although we didn’t make it up to the castle, we spent a while getting lost on the small, winding streets. We often followed the bright colored walls, choosing our route by whichever direction seemed most appealing at the time. But even around every nook, cranny and corner of the village, the lake is almost always in sight. We stumbled upon many narrow, photogenic stairways and churches covered in moss and ivy. The main cathedral, San Giorgio is a 14th Century stone masterpiece with painted fresco ceilings.

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Tempted by seeing the hundreds of refreshing, pink Spritz drinks, we settled in to eat dinner at a restaurant along the water called Bar il Molo. We had paninis and gnocchi while sipping our summery cocktails and watching the sun set across the lake. Couldn’t get much better than that.

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Honestly, after having been to a few different parts of Italy, I can confidently say that I think Lake Como is the most beautiful place I’ve seen in Italy… and MAYBE even one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in Europe.

When I reflect upon my weekend trip now, I enjoyed our day at Lake Como much more than the city of Milan itself. Nothing against Milan, these small towns are just breathtakingly unique, and incredibly manageable. You feel so productive after having seen three towns in one day! I would even fly into Milan solely for the purpose of returning to the lake. So trust me (and Caesar and George), its worth the trip.

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