Visit Milan: former capital of the Western Roman Empire

 

Milan was at the centre of the recent COVID outbreak, but life is now getting back to normal, so it is time to start planning a visit!

Milan is a fascinating city – a large urban conurbation, but with all the main sites conveniently near the centre round the Duomo, so perfect for a whistle stop weekend break.

There was much speculation as to why Milan was at the centre of the COVID outbreak, but it is conveniently placed for travelling not only all over Italy, but also farther afield to Switzerland, Germany, Austria and major European capitals like Paris. At the time of COVID, some tourists were heading to Milan and then making their way to Venice for the carnival, so that may be one reason the virus spread so rapidly.

Duomo, Milan
Duomo, Milan at night

Milan has always been at the centre of things – the city used to be the capital of the Western Roman Empire and is considered one of the most important global business centres for finance, fashion (of course!), the Arts, tourism and research, among other sectors. It is the home of Italy’s Stock Exchange, rather than the Italian capital, Rome – and is one of the world’s four fashion capitals, along with London, Paris and New York.

Stand on the roof of the Duomo and these days you can not only gaze out across the medieval rooftops of the old city, but also see in the distance the glittering skyscrapers of the new Milan.

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Milan is a great sprawl – with Greater Milan having more than 8 million residents and the City of Milan having nearly 1.5 million. It is an urban powerhouse – and arriving in Milan from the airport you will notice how urbanised it is, with the skyline slowly being filled with the sort of architecture you find in New York, London and Singapore. Milan is reconfiguring its ancient skyline – now from any vantage point you take a photo, there undoubtedly will be a towering skyscraper photobombing the ancient architecture.

 

But there is a pearl at the heart of this urban sprawl in the shape of Piazza del Duomo and its surroundings. It is possible to take in the main sites of Milan in just a weekend – any more might be too exhausting, as you have to leave time for relaxing in a cafe and taking in the passing crowds.

The sightseeing must-dos in Milan are:

The Duomo and Duomo rooftop

The Last Supper

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Museo Palazzo Reale

Teatro alla Scala

La Scala, Milan
Interior, La Scala

There are many other sights, such as the Sforzesco Castle and the many museums and galleries – head for Pinoteca di Brera to see works by Raphael, Tintoretto and Bellini and Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. Other museums and galleries to enjoy include:

Gallerie d’Italie (contemporary Italian art)

Poldi Pezzoli Museum (European masterpieces)

Museo d’Arte e Scienza (ethnic art and Da Vinci)

Ambrosian Library (classical art)

Civic Archaeological Museum

You will need more than a weekend to break the back of Milan’s art galleries and museums, so start with the basics and take time to explore Milan’s streets rather than race around.

You will also find independent galleries as you make your way around Milan – Forma Meraviglia – Project Room for Photography is on Via Meraviglia near Piazza del Duomo and is very accessible. I recently saw the exhibition Vivian Maier. Colour there for just five euros and it is a real find if you like small, independent galleries.

The Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Milan

 

Roman Ruins in Milan

There are still signs of the Roman Empire in Milan – principally the 16 columns standing in front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the interior chapel dedicated to S. Aquilino. The chapel dates from 400 AD and is octagonal. The Basilica of San Lorenzo is situated at Corso di Porta Ticinese 35 in Milan.

BasicSan Lorenzo, Milan
Roman Columns of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Milan (Image Wikipedia)

The Museo Archaeologico at Corso Magenta 15 is also worth a visit – and there is crypt in San Giovanni in Conca that dates to Roman times.

Beneath the Chamber of Commerce at Via S. Vittore al Teatro 14 lies the Teatro Romano, which was excavated as recently as 2005.  The mosaics and pottery found there are thought to date back to between 1AD to 3AD. Viewing is by appointment only.

Getting around Milan

Walk Milan:

If you like walking, as I do, it is an interesting city to wander around, although very much a working city, rather than a sightseeing experience, as Rome is.  Milan has a canal system and it is very pleasant to stroll along the canal and stop for supper at one of the many restaurants and bars.

Milan travel cards:

Metro and trams and buses and taxis are plentiful.  There are many companies offering travel deals and apps – I tried the widely promoted Milanocard, and would not recommend it, as it is not an app as advertised because the travel aspect is a paper travel card you have to collect on arrival at Terminal One of Milan Airport or Piazza del Duomo – and even then it did not work. However, you can buy travel cards at Milan Public Transport.

Terminal One, Malpensa Airport, Milan
Malpensa Airport

Milan transfers:

Charter flights like EasyJet arrival at Terminal Two of Milan Airport which is some distance away from Terminal One, the schedule flight terminal. There is also an airport transfer bus to Milan Central Station, or you can catch a train from Terminal One – Terminal Two is, frankly, on arrival, a bit of an outpost, but if you like WWII re-enactment, some of the buildings and barbed wire fencing will set your pulse racing. It is not the glamorous arrival in Milan you might have anticipated! Catch the bus into Milan from Terminal One at bus stop 2. 

Milan taxis:

Official taxis in Milan are white, although there are plenty of Uber touts. A taxi from Central Station to Piazza del Duomo costs about 10-12 euros (January 2020 prices) – a taxi from Piazza Scala to Santa Maria Delle Grazie to see The Last Supper costs about the same amount. Airport transfer by taxi to Malpensa is around 80 euros. 

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Milan Shopping

Central Milan is full of retail joy, whether you love designer brands (head for Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II), the high street like Zara, Nike, Carpisa bags, or Flying Tiger – or independent boutiques where you can find the sort of pieces that make your friends green with envy. Think merino wool and cashmere sweaters and dresses, beautiful skirts, those essential LBDs and coats. Stay around Piazza del Duomo if you are short on time – or take a wander round the streets and discover independent stores. After visiting The Last Supper, I took stroll along Via Vincenzo Monti and discovered some lovely independent stores and eateries.  The Quadrilatero d’Oro shopping centre is a famous cobbled quadrangle of designer stores perfect for window shopping and soaking up the glamour of Milan fashion. There are also lots of bookshops in Milan, including a fabulous bookshop in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, with bargain art books on sale.

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Galleria restaurant – I ate supper here and the staff are lovely, as is the food!

Milan Eating

You will not starve in Milan – Piazza del Duomo boasts a McDonalds if you really must, but Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II has some convenient traditional restaurants and tearooms, but they are often busy. I collapsed exhausted into Galleria restaurant for dinner and was well fed for 40 euros without wine. Stop by the cafe and restaurant at Teatro all Scala (“La Scala”) for a coffee and cake pitstop or sandwich and aperitif. Sit outside to watch the crowds go by – or head inside to lounge on a scarlet velvet banquette surrounded by gilt-framed mirrors. Otherwise, there are restaurants and trattoria of all shapes and sizes all over Milan – as well as smart bars and traditional eateries. Milan has an Alpine feel to it at times and there are restaurants that will make you feel you have travelled three hours over the border and arrived in Switzerland.  There is also a fabulously atmospheric Fin de siècle cafe in Palazzo Reale called Giacomo Caffe, which is perfect for a light lunch, coffee break or beer. It is wonderfully atmospheric and bustling and really takes you back to another era. I love it, but you will undoubtedly find your own special places to wine and dine on your travels round Milan. Piazza del Duomo also has a selection of bars above Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, with views over the square and the Duomo, including Comparino in Galleria – and Terraza Aperol, which you will hear before you see it, thanks to a pumping sound system. 

 

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Milan – when to go

Visit Milan all year round – January is usually cold but sunny with occasional rain, summer is scorching. As I said,  it is a great centre for travelling from, with trains to Rome, Florence, Verona, Venice, Bologna and other Italian cities from around 20 euros one way. The Italian Lakes are very close, also. You can also travel to Switzerland from Milan – Lugano is just over the Swiss-Italian border – as well as Paris, Nice, Cannes and London, among many other destinations. I visit Italy regularly and travel by train – Trenitalia trains are functional rather than luxurious, but they are cheap and efficient and laugh in the face of bad weather, so visiting and travelling round Italy and farther afield is viable at any time of year. See where you can travel to from Milan at Seat61.com.

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Mobility in Milan

If you have mobility issues, staying round Piazza del Duomo is convenient – Italy is full of cobbled streets, but although the square is cobbled, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is fabulously tiled and easy on the feet and wheels.  There are also lots of eateries and shops to peruse in the covered arcade around the piazza – and the Duomo and La Scala are within easy travelling distance, as well as the high street shops and Museo Palazzo Reale.  That itinerary alone should be enough to keep you busy for the weekend!

Buon viaggio!

 

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On the roof of the Duomo at sunset in January 2020

 

 

Images copyright A, Meredith 2020 except where stated

 

Featured image Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Milan, Pixabay

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