Despite having visited many of the major Italian cities (Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples), I find it rather surprising that I hadn’t yet explored Milan, aka the fashion capital of the country. Especially when I lived merely a few hours away by train in France, it would be all too easy just to make a weekend getaway there. The fact that I hadn’t gone until this past April vacances was astonishing, but made for a pleasant visit, regardless.
Actually, I hadn’t been so interested in visiting Milan, but rather Lake Como. All the same, using Milan as a base to get there was a wise thing to do, and at the same time, I decided to see what Milan had to offer, even if it wouldn’t be as rich and plentiful as places like Rome or Florence. In fact, Milan did surprise me with some unexpected sites, along with incredible food that I’d go back just to eat again.
I took a direct train from Lyon to Milan. It was a morning departure (8:30), so I had to be up-and-out early, first to take the short train ride to Lyon, and then hop on the TGV bound for Italy. I’d booked my ticket in advance, although I wished that I’d gotten first-class: my second-class cabin was completely booked, so it was an uncomfortable five-and-a-half-hour journey in cramped seats with my traveler’s backpack to boot. The views outside, however, were lovely, as we passed through the French Alps.
Weather wasn’t so ideal when the train pulled into Milan Garibaldi around 14:00. It was a rainy introduction to the city, but it didn’t deter me from heading on foot to the Palazzo Lombardia, a skyscraper about 15 minutes from the station. It was opened for Milan Design Week, and I happened to arrive on its last day. While I wasn’t so keen on checking out designs, I still found the rainbow-glass exhibition at the top floor of the building pretty cool, along with free, sweeping views of the Milan metropolitan area. The city is massive, to say the least!
I caught the bus to my hostel, where I checked in and was given complementary tea. After dropping my belongings in the dorm room, I headed out to explore Milan in the afternoon. It was raining throughout, but I didn’t let it deter me from seeing the main sights that very first day. It was about a 25-minute walk to the Duomo, which is the highlight of the city. Even in the dreary weather, its imposing, Gothic exterior was still dazzling. I would visit the interior and climb the top a few days later, when the weather was better. But even if you don’t manage to go inside or climb to the top, the exterior itself is already a masterpiece to admire.
Just adjacent to the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a massive, covered arcade that’s home to plenty of upscale brands, cafes, and restaurants. Being a Sunday and a rainy day, it wasn’t a surprise that it was absolutely packed when I entered. I made my way through the four-pointed passageway, seeing the Louis Vuittons and Armanis as I passed by. I also saw the famous bull mosaic in the arcade’s center– myth has it that if you spin your heel on its testicles three times, you are granted virility. A bit strange, but I saw some tourists giving it a shot!
Exiting the arcade, I saw the Teatro alla Scala, the city’s opera house. It appeared rather small from its exterior, but I’m told it’s pretty nice inside. I’d been interested in paying to see the interior, but my parents (who’d visited Milan prior) had told me that it wasn’t worth it, as it was too small. And considering that I’ve seen my fair share of pretty theater interiors, I ended up deciding to give it a pass. The same went for seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, housed in the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent: not only did it require to book in advance, but also it was really expensive. Paying just to see a painting, famous or not, for a few minutes didn’t seem worth it, so I also chose not to visit.
I made my way west of the city center to the Sempione Park, the largest in Milan. I’m not a huge park-goer myself, but I did find the lush green trees, flowers, and ponds rather tranquil. The Sforzesco castle which I passed through was attractive, although nothing but museums inside. At the end of the park was the Arco della Pace, an arch that resembles many of the ones all over Europe (think the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin or the arc de Triomphe in Paris). Although shorter in stature compared to other arches I’ve seen, this one in Milan remains a notable monument to check out.
Afterwards, I headed back to the Duomo, where I decided to get an aperitivo before dinner. I opted for a refreshing Aperol Spritz with the small tray of olives, peanuts, and chips on the side. Admittedly, it was a bit chilly to be having a cold drink that afternoon, but I still enjoyed it.
I then headed to one of the restaurants I’d looked up for dinner, where I ordered the city’s signature dish: ossobuco con risotto alla milanese. I had it few months prior when I was on a cruise with my family, and I was excited to have it again, this time in the city where it originated. The dish didn’t disappoint, with its creamy, fragrant risotto and the tender veal shank with fatty bone marrow inside. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of risotto, but I actually enjoyed it that night– the infused saffron made all the difference, and I was content at the end of the meal.
The following day was spent visiting Lake Como and its small towns (more on it later). Upon returning to Milan in the early evening, I ate out again, this time getting another Milanese dish: costoletta alla milanese. Essentially, it’s a massive wiener schnitzel, and I was shocked to find it bigger than the size of my face! It was a lot, but I somehow managed to eat it all. Crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, it was very-much a fulfilling dinner.
On my last full day in town, I spent the morning first visiting the San Bernardino alla Ossa, a church not far from the Duomo. Apparently, it’s lesser-known compared with the other sites in Milan, but I’d say it’s well-worth a visit. Especially if you’re into chapels covered with tons of skulls and bones (creepy, I know), then it’s worth a pop-over on your way to the main attractions.
I arrived at the Duomo ticket office once it opened at 8:00 (as it can get pretty busy later in the day), and I purchased a ticket both for the interior and the top. The cathedral inside is massive, but rather empty– the highlight, however, was taking the lift to the top, where not only do you get nice views of the square below, but also the hundreds of spires of the cathedral itself. It’s really atmospheric, and it’s definitely worth paying a bit of money to access it.
After the cathedral, I headed to the main train station to take to Bergamo, where I spent half the day visiting the city (more in another post). I was back in Milan by the late afternoon when I checked out the Naviglio Grande, a canal south of the city. There were plenty of bars and restaurants along its edges, which reminded me a bit of Canal Saint-Martin in Paris. Lovely feel to it, and much calmer than the bustling Duomo district.
Dinner on my last night in Milan was simple compared to the fancy dishes I had the previous two nights– this time, it was merely take-out at Luini, a famous bakery known for selling panzerotti, which is similar to a calzone. I opted for a spinach-ricotta one: it was a bit lukewarm since I’d gone in the evening, but it was still delicious with its lightly-fried exterior and pillowy interior. Also got gelato afterwards (because when in Italy, why not?) before I headed back to the hostel for the day. I would be waking up super early to catch my ride back to France, so I couldn’t stay out late. Plus, I was too tired from sightseeing that day to do anything else besides rest up.
My three nights in Milan were short, but enough to see what the city has to offer. I would say that it doesn’t have as much to see as other places like Rome or Florence, but it’s still worth heading to, perhaps for a weekend getaway. The food was incredible (albeit pricey), and it was definitely the highlight of my stay– I’m sure I gained a few pounds in those three short days!
I’ll be recapping the day trips I took in Italy this past April vacances soon. Until then!