At different points in its history, Milan has been ruled over by Celts, Romans, Goths, Lombards, Spaniards and Austrians. The city sits at the strategic gateway to the Italian peninsula and today is the centre of industry, finances and fashion for Italy. Rome may be the administrative capital, but Milan has emerged as the undisputed economic and cultural powerhouse of a united Italy.
In May 1796, Napoleon marched into the city and was greeted with an enthusiastic reception in hope of unity and reformation. It wasn’t until several years later, in 1859 that foreign rulers were conquered and the United Kingdom of Italy was established.
We had flown many times into Milan’s surrounding airports but now we wanted to spend a day getting to know the town.
We parked in short-stay and walked towards security. With one bag each security usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes. However, today we had a super vigilant ‘electronics checker’ so my hairdryer and Paul’s electronic array of chargers and hard drive all had to be removed, checked and then rescanned!! Apart from that, the flight from London to Milan Malpensa was uneventful and only a few minutes late.
For a change, we’d decided that rather than hiring a car we’d rely on public transport and use an assortment of buses and trains. We’d read that it’s best not to buy bus tickets from the airport to central Milan until you are at the bus (€10). This turned out to be true as there are three bus companies all wanting to sell you tickets, it’s best to get on the one that is leaving first (they tend to wait until they are full before departing). Conveniently we were nearly the last passengers on the bus so only had about 5 minutes to wait before leaving for central Milan.
We had chosen a hotel close to Milan Central Station so had just a short walk to our hotel and we quickly settled down for the night. The next morning we enjoyed our hotel breakfast, left our bags with reception and went off to explore. We took the metro (€2) to the Duomo – tickets easily bought using automated machines in each station. Once we were in the enormous central square – Piazza del Duomo – we decided to queue for standard tickets (in the ticket hall opposite the right-hand side of the cathedral). These cost €13 compared with €25 for fast track or €35 for a personal tour. We took a queue ticket number on entering and had to wait for about 20 minutes for our number to come up. Once we had purchased our entry tickets, we were able to walk straight over and up the stairs of the Duomo (no queue), so the queuing was all done inside the ticket hall. We climbed the stairs to the roof of the Duomo and started listening to an audio tour that we had downloaded earlier (Rick Steves Italy), this proved very useful as we explored the roof and then went inside the cathedral. Amazingly, construction on the cathedral began in 1386 and took five centuries to complete! In size and scale alone it is amazing and our photos do not do its grandeur justice.
We ate our picnic lunch in the Piazza del Duomo, still listening to our podcast audio. The impressive statue on horseback opposite the main entrance to the Duomo is Vittor Emanuele II, the first king of the kingdom of Italy. After lunch we walked through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Italy’s oldest active shopping mall. On the ground in the centre of the mall are four mosaics with the coat of arms of the capitals of Italy: Turin, Florence, Rome and Milan. If you are in need of good luck, there is a tradition which states that you can receive good fortune if you spin around three times on the testicles of the bull in the Turin coat of arms. Not sure about the good luck, but the mosaic needs to be replaced every few years as it gets worn away by all the people spinning and it’s fun to watch the variety of spinning styles.
We then caught the metro to Sforza Castle. It was built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza the Duke of Milan, on the remains of a 14th-century fortification. It was enlarged in the 16th and 17th centuries to become one of Europe’s largest citadels. There is an entry fee into the building and ramparts but the courtyards and gardens are open to the public for free. This is an impressive structure, with long gardens leading to an Arc de Triomphe style arch – Arco della Pace – at the other end.
The Brera district was a ten minute walk from the castle. We visited the Palazzo Brera, a monumental palace with an art academy, botanical garden and an astronomical observatory. This palace was used by Napoleon when he took residence in Milan in the 18th century. There are a variety of places to eat ranging from upmarket restaurants to more affordable cafes. Although a short visit to Milan, we were impressed with its great architecture, both classical and modern. If you are in Milan on a Saturday, you might be able to go up one of the public administration buildings such as The Pirelli Tower or the Palazzo Lombardia to get fabulous views as they are occasionally opened to the public for free.
We tried some gelato and bought more food for our train journey onwards to La Spezia, collected our bags and boarded the train. The train was very busy as the next day was a bank holiday. We had a slight delay en route but we arrived in La Spezia and were soon settled in our apartment. Read about our Cinque Terre trip here