I didn’t know much about Milan when we booked our trip–I just had some vague idea of fashionable women and opera singing. We took a train from Rome, and from the train station we took a subway into the heart of town. I will never forget walking up the steps out of the subway station and seeing the Duomo for the first time, shrouded in January mist and glorious. The Duomo is the cathedral church of Milan, located at the center of the city on the Piazza del Duomo. I would come to discover that the Duomo is the heart and soul of Milan, and as I walked up and into the square, it took my breath away.
Milan had a lot more for me to discover as well. I wasn’t wrong about the fashionable women and the opera singing (more on both to come), but I didn’t know before we arrived that Milan was the financial capital of Italy. As one taxi driver put it, “Rome is Italy’s past, and Milan is our future.” It is a city that oozes sophistication, that is deeply connected to its art, and in general just seems to know what it’s about–past, present, and future.
And while we’re talking about knowing what we’re about, can I please take a moment and just gush over the grandmas on bicycles? Older, beautiful women in well-cut wool coats confidently peddling over the cobblestone streets, obviously pleased to just be out in their city. “Ideal imaginary future Heather” went crazy with wanting to someday be one of them.
If you find someday find yourself in Milan, here are my top 8 recommendations for entertaining yourself:
01 Tour the Duomo. First, the exterior. It is covered in thousands of individual sculptures, more sculptures than any cathedral in the entire world, and each is unique and beautiful (or scary, if it’s a gargoyle). I was amazed at how clean the marble is–and I soon learned that cleaning and preservation is always happening, they move through the entire building and then start again. Inside there is an awesome and accurate sundial on the floor, beautiful stained glass, 52 grand pillars, AND, it supposedly houses one of the nails from Jesus’ crucifixion (the spot is marked by a red lightbulb above the altar).
The sculpture of “St. Bartholomew Flayed” is not soon to be forgotten–he is draped in his own skin to remind us that he was martyred by being skinned alive. I’m not going to lie–church can be a lot without a skinless man staring you down every week, so to those who worship here regularly, you have my respect.
02 Go see The Last Supper. I really had no idea that this iconic painting was created to decorate a dining room in a monastery. The open space below Jesus is an actual door. I also learned that one of the priors was mad that the creation of this (future world-renowned masterpiece) painting was taking so long and complained, and so an enraged Leonardo used that guy’s facial features to inspire Judas. Savage. To preserve this painting they have created light and temperature-controlled rooms–a maximum of 30 people can see it at one time. Get your tickets as soon as you know you are headed to Milan.
03 Tour La Scala or attend a performance if you can! When I found out we were going to Milan, there was really only one thing I wanted to do, and it was a major bucket-list item: Attend an opera at La Scala, one of the most famous opera houses in the world. La Scala is very plain and simple on the outside, but lush and opulent on the inside, like a jewelry box. When I checked the schedule and found out Romeo and Juliet was slated for the night we were there, I almost melted. Going to the opera is a hefty splurge, but here’s my advice–if you can afford to get the good seats, buy them. We opted to save some money and still feel fancy by getting the “limited view” box seats. Big mistake. Let me be clear–limited view means no view. Apparently what happens is that everyone just kind of crowds in and drapes themselves over the very plush red velvet arm rest at the front. I felt awkward doing this and didn’t want to disturb the incredibly sweet older Italian woman who had received her ticket as a Christmas gift from her son–who had lived in Milan his entire life and was attending his first opera with his elderly mother. It seemed to me that it was their night. But what I am saying is that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience–get the good seats and don’t look back. With that being said, we loved our box-mates and had a wonderful time chatting with them before the show and at intermission–they gave us all kinds of advice about what to see in Italy. (My sister and her husband, in a neighboring box, were not so lucky.) The music was incredible. Powerful. Sublime. I mean, there aren’t really words so I’ll just say it’s the kind of music that gets all the way into your bones. At the end everyone bowed and bowed with more vanity and grandiosity than ballroom dancers and I didn’t mind one bit. They earned every drop of their glory.
04 Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. I am not much of a shopper, so you aren’t going to get the inside shopping scoop from me. However, I do know enough to recognize that Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is a mecca for beautiful brands. Prada. Gucci. Versace. There is a reason that there were elegant and fabulous women everywhere in Milan. Even if you don’t buy anything it’s fun to window shop. Also fun . . . . stepping on bull’s balls! In the center of the Galleria there is a tiled mosaic on the floor that depicts a bull. There is a tradition that if you put your right heel on the bull and spin 3 times it will bring you luck. But be sure to spin counterclockwise–this is the correct way. If you spin the wrong way, an older Italian man might come along and grab you by the shoulders and force you to spin the other way. That could happen.
05 Eat Pasta. At one point during our exploring we were hungry and we wandered into a nearby restaurant. After getting recommendations from our waiter, we ended up with a family-style meal and three or four different kinds of pasta and oh. my. goodness. We were definitely not in Olive Garden anymore. When our waiter came to check on us I said, “This is the best pasta I’ve ever had in my entire life.” He looked at me without blinking and said, “Of course it is.” I didn’t try all of the pasta in Italy–but I can nonetheless recommend Ristorante Papa Francesco in Milan. Let them feed you.
06 Duomo Rooftop Tour. My husband thinks I’m cheating by separating the Rooftop Tour from the rest of the Duomo. But it is for your own good. You need to know that the Rooftop Tour is a separate thing with its own ticket and its own entrance. And you must do the Rooftop Tour. We did the Rooftop Tour right before the opera. This was not ideal, but this happened because we did not understand that it was a separate thing and we had to scramble to get tickets and this was the only time we could fit it in. I was wearing my opera dress around on the rooftop and I felt very silly, but my sister did get a pretty amazing shot of me that just wouldn’t have had the same vibe in jeans and boots, so I guess things work out. There are beautiful views of the city and a million instagrammable spots up there, so go and have fun!
07 Lake Como Day Trip. Okay–this is possibly another cheat, but everyone said that you could do Milan in 1 or 2 days (2 if you are going to the opera!), and that a day trip to Lake Como is well worth it. I agree. Lake Como was very charming with beautiful boutiques, lots of cafes, and more churches. We went on a boat ride and admired the homes of the rich and famous. Another fun thing was riding the Funicular tram to the top of a hillside, where there were more shops, and we opted to hike up to the lighthouse and catch incredible views of the surrounding area. A very fun day!
08 Grab a snack at Chocolat. When we got back to Milan it was cold, dark, and foggy. We happened upon a gelato shop called Chocolat, and while the gelato did look amazing, I was freezing and needed something warm. Their decadent hot chocolate was exactly what my weary soul needed. If you need a snack that is sweet and wonderful while you are exploring–find this place.
I can’t close my post about Milan without acknowledging that while we had an incredible time, we were there at a time when it was unknown that the coronavirus was spreading invisibly throughout the city. Weeks after we returned, the city was shut down, hospitals were bursting, and Milan was making international news. I do not know how we avoided the virus. We were constantly in crowded busses, subways, trains, piazzas, hotels, and restaurants. Maybe Milan gave us some of its luck when we turned counterclockwise in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele.
A few months later, on Easter Sunday, I watched Andrea Bocelli performing live from the Duomo with a message of hope and healing for Italy and for the world. Because I had been in that place, had walked all around the cathedral and made it a part of my life experience, I felt a kinship with my Italian friends that I would not have felt otherwise. I guess that is part of what traveling gives us. It makes brothers and sisters out of strangers–and it makes foreign lands into familiar places. It seems Italy will forever have a piece of my heart.