Milan was never particularly high on my travel bucket list, but flights were cheap so I thought why not and was very glad I did. The city has a perfect amount to offer for a long weekend, as well as easy access for a day trip to the beautiful Lake Como.
I chose a hotel in the Navigli area as it’s the best in Milan for restaurants and bars and my friends and I prefer to do any travelling around the city in the day time and just have a short walk for evenings out. It certainly had plenty of options for that and on our first night we were spoiled for choice as we meandered along the cobbled Navigli Grand Canal.
We stayed in a street just off that canal at the Art Hotel Navigli which was great. Big room, a courtyard garden and nice touches like a voucher for a free apertivo hour drink and buffet and complimentary coffee and mini cakes always available in the bar. It was also amazingly quiet considering how close it was to the lively nightlife, though the next morning the scene looked quite different as we found a market had sprung up. So we browsed the stalls as we walked along to the iron footbridge that took us across the canal and to the metro.
Getting around the city is very easy using either the metro or trams and pretty inexpensive at just €1.50 a trip. Our first stop was the red brick and imposing Castello Sforzesco, originally a fortress and then home to the Sforza dynasty that ruled Renaissance Milan.
There’s an impressive central tower, some fat round watchtowers, a pretty courtyard with a pool and a large moat that’s now grassed over and home to a colony of breeding cats. The castle also houses multiple museums, some decor by Leonardo da Vinci and Michealangelo’s final sculpture, Rondanini Pieta, so plenty to keep you occupied for quite a while.
Just behind the castle is Parco Sempione. In the past dukes hunted here, but today it’s a public park with ornamental ponds and paths for the more acceptable pastime of walking. At the other end of the park you can see the 25m high Arco della Pace, Napoleon’s triumphal arch.
Back at the front of the castle it’s just a short walk straight down Via Dante to Milan’s main square Piazza del Duomo. But we detoured off by the Mac shop to wind our way through narrow streets to Teatro alla Scala, one of most famous opera houses in the world. If you haven’t bought tickets for a performance you can pay to go in and take a peek, but there were refurbishment works underway so we decided to just admire the exterior.
Walk out of the right hand corner of Piazza della Scala and you’re at the entrance to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele ll, a fabulous iron and glass shopping arcade shaped like a crucifix. It’s really stunning so I’m surprised anyone goes into the shops, they’re too busy looking up at the roof.
You might also be distracted watching people spinning backwards on the bull mosaic on the floor. The guy who designed the arcade fell to his death just before it opened and superstition says you can avoid his bad luck with the spinning. If you do find time for the shops you’ll discover that not surprisingly they are mostly upscale, it even has the first ever Prada store.
The other end of the galleria opens onto Piazza del Duomo and that’s where you’ll find Milan’s undisputable main event, the fabulous city cathedral which took almost 500 years to complete. The white Gothic facade is topped by 135 spires and an octagonal lantern with a spire and golden Madonina which for centuries was the highest point in the city.
You can go and see the roof up close, either by lift if you’re prepared to queue, or you can walk. Its about 160 stairs but there’s a break to turn the corner after every three or four so its not too difficult. Once there the spires, the thousands of statues and the great views make it well worth the climb. It’s a memorable and magical experience.
The inside of the Duomo is impressive too. Built to accommodate 40,000 people it has five aisles and 52 pillars, one for each week of the year. There are also some vast and very gorgeous stained glass windows as well as a rather lovely polychrome marble floor which is briefly interrupted by a brass strip near the main entrance. On closer examination you’ll see it has zodiac signs painted on as its an 18th century sundial.
It’s easy to spend a lot of time in the Duomo but there are also other attractions in the piazza, including the Museo Del Novencento, housed in Mussolin’s Palazzo dell’Arengario and now home to 20th century art. There’s also art on show at Palazzo Reale and in the same building you’ll also find the cathedral’s fairly new museum.
As the sun was shining we decided to skip the museums and head for Quadrilatro d’Oro, the ‘Golden Rectangle’ and Milan’s famous shopping area. Not to buy of course as it’s very much the province of designer brands, but the window shopping and general ambiance makes it worth a visit.
Saying that some of the streets with the poshest shops were really quite dark and ordinary. But Via Gesu was rather nice, including the smiling doorman at the Four Seasons Hotel. And at the end was Via della Spiga which is pedestrianised and has potted plants standing to attention alongside the security guards outside the stores. Navigli was also quite good for browsing the shops, particularly if you’re interested in vinyl records, art or stocking up on comics at SuperGulp.
There are quite a few other areas and sights to explore in Milan, including what’s regarded as either its ugliest or most iconic building, Torre Velasca. Definitely polarising as I thought the former but one friend really liked it. There’s also Milan’s most famous painting, The Last Supper, but we found it impossible to get tickets as they are all sold in advance and seemingly go seconds after going on sale. We could have probably done it as part of a city tour, but didn’t think it was worth giving up our independent meandering for 15 minutes with the painting.
We also decided to take a day out for a trip to Lake Como, which I’ll write about in a separate post, but we did spend our last morning exploring some sights not far from where we were staying in Navigli. First we took a look at the Darsena, Milan’s revamped dock. An expo in 2015 saw it turned into a pedestrianised piazza with trees and a food market. We’d also seen lots of people hanging out here with drinks on Friday evening.
A short walk from there is one of Milan’s oldest churches Basilica di Sant’Eustorgio which has a lively past as was the city’s Inquisition HQ. A few minutes further is Basilico San Lorenzo, a really lovely circular church with three adjoining chapels. In front of it are the hugely impressive San Lorenzo Columns, 16 original Corinthium columns salvaged from a Roman home.
Just before we reached the church we spotted something that looked like a photo exhibition on an outside wall. Intrigued we crossed the road to look closer and found it was the Wall of Dolls, an installation created in 2014 to coincide with Milan’s menswear fashion week and shine a light on increasing violence against women. The dolls were made by fashion brands and designers and the photos were of real victims of violence. Very powerful stuff.
On a lighter note and as mentioned earlier we found plenty of places to eat, drink and be merry in Milan, mostly along or around the Navigli Grand Canal. It’s particularly perfect for the warmer weather as there are stacks of restaurants with alfresco seating. We had good pasta at Alzaia 26 and great late night croques at Cantina Concordia when we got back from Lake Como.
The nicest place we ate was Rebelot del Pont, which is a bit more upmarket and does a modern take on Italian tapas. It was very warm that night so we chose to sit in the cooler interior with bricks and wooden stable doors on the walls. We also had a great and very cheap menu of the day for lunch at Anema e Cozze before heading to the airport. A crazy €10.60 for starter of pasta, main of fish or meat, a side of salad or chips, a glass of wine or beer and coffee.
Bars are plentiful in Navigli too – Ugo, Bar Rita, Mag Cafe and Bond are all good spots for a whatever tipple you fancy. La Vineria, right by the metro entrance at the end of Via Casale, cuts the cost by offering wine straight from the barrel. And of course there are also many gelateria for that after dinner taste of delicious Italian ice cream. If you eat it while walking along the canal I’m sure it cancels out the calories! We also found a great little cafe called Bar GB, squeezed between a juice bar and pasta place at 18 Via Agnello. Perfect for a €5 panini stop near the Duomo.
Food and drink is definitely good and plentiful in Milan, but there are also enough great things to see and do to keep you occupied for a very enjoyable long weekend. My only final piece of advice is to take insect repellent. We didn’t expect it to be an issue, but after five minutes of sitting alongside the Navigli Grand Canal we realised it was 100% essential.
Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery and see more photos. And then why not read my post on our day trip from Milan to beautiful Lake Como.