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A Rough Guide to Italy. Things to do in Milan
The city of Milan does not lie with the ancients of Athens, Istanbul or the Italian capital Rome. Nor does it resemble an open air museum of the stunning art and architectural marvels of Florence and Venice. There are very few signs or even hints of the classical era and the Renaissance seems to have avoided Milan.
Nevertheless the city has much to offer the traveler of the European continent for lovers of all things Italian, its art, its history and its culture. There are many things to do in Milan and many things worth seeing in an exciting, energetic and busy city.
Money never sleeps in the financial world
Of course Milan is in the industrial north, Milan is commercial and Milan has money pulsing through its arteries. Paper money changing hands, coins in machines or digital transfer through electronic current and magnetic strips. It houses a major banking centre with an international stage for the main financial players. Business dominates.
Venice may have the straw boaters and striped shirts of the gondolier but in Milan the power suit and the expensive tie are the uniform for the business classes. Plus the ubiquitous sunglasses in the bright summer months.
It will be no surprise therefore to discover that Milan can be expensive and the traveller on a tight budget should take notice. Even a modest coffee or a quick drink around the city centre will cost quite a few euros in the most exclusive areas.
The most exorbitant price I saw for such was €12 for a pint of beer in one of the cafes opposite a huge bank. Every sip of coffee will also account for many cents of your cash so it pays dividends to shop around and wander further afield.
If you explore beyond the immediate city centre you will find cheaper prices relatively speaking. Certainly the cost of a 3-course meal will increase the taste of the food as you factor the price into the ingredients. However Milan, like any major city, has its McDonalds cafes too.
For any traveller the centre of Milan is where you will want to be for most of the major attractions. An area within a radius of only half a mile around the Piazza Duomo contains much of what you will be there to see. That is unless you have a more curious disposition. The unbeaten track can offer its own special delights
The Piazza Duomo and the 'Vittoria Emmanuelle II' Shopping Arcade
The main tourist attraction in Milan is the Piazza Duomo or 'Cathedral Square' to give it its less than lyrical name in English. The Gothic 'ice-palace' spectacle of the Duomo dominates the square and shines brightly in the summer as its white stone reflects the sunlight which illuminates the facade and the many thousands of intricate statues and carvings that cover the building.
The Duomo itself is over 600 years old with work commencing in 1386 to be exact and it was not fully completed until 1813. At its highest point it reaches almost 150 feet with beautiful statues and carvings adorning its walls. For an entrance fee you can wander inside and also take the lift to the rooftop where on a clear day you can see the Alps.
Backpacking in Milan
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Solar positioning is well timed indeed especially as many locals partake of the 'passegiatta' in early evening and mingle with the tourists.
All are perhaps attempting to avoid the trinket-selling street traders who will accost the unwary with flimsy cloth bracelets or bird-feed for the many pigeons on the square.
They can be pushy and insistent and it's advisable to keep your hands by your sides and stroll swiftly past. One man tried to place a band on my wrist unprompted by myself and assured me it was a free gift. The street-wise will understand this low-level sting operation whereas the naïve may be reaching for their wallets.
Adjacent to the Duomo is the magnificent glass-covered arcade of the Vittorio Emmanuell II shopping area.
This is a far cry from the soulless malls of the western suburbs. High-class shopping and quality cuisine are the order of the day.
The decorative glazed street ceiling surmounts the high buildings and they offer cool and shade in the hot summer months
And also protection from the wet and inclement weather during the cold northern winters.
For good luck remember to spin around three times on the famous mosaic of the bull on the ground below the central cupola. You stand on a certain part of its anatomy which I won't mention. Let's just say it has become more of a bullock through the wear and tear of the footwear.
High-class fashion and shopping
When you think of Milan then undoubtedly you will think of fashion and shopping.
To be precise people think of high-class fashion and upmarket shopping.
Milan is one of the most important fashion centres in the world and a leading trendsetter for new creations.
Thousands descend on the city every September for that all important fashion week.
For several days the catwalks resound to the sound of confident footsteps of the supermodel as the cameras of the paparazzi flash. Many famous companies in the fashion world were founded or are based in Milan.
But to cater for the more modest budget the stores and shops on 'Via Torino' and 'Corso Buenos Aries' are recommended. The former leads south-west directly off the Piazza Duomo while the latter is further north-east of the Piazza. Outside Milan, like most major cities these days, there are also large shopping outlets serviced by daily buses departing from the city centre every day.
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Wining and dining
If you want to avoid the gastronomic prices of the city centre when you are dining out then you will need to wander a little further away.
The area of town called Brera is a popular spot full of fine places to eat.
It is to the west of Piazza Duomo less than ten minutes walk behind La Scala Opera House.
During the day you will find the Milanese enjoying some fine food or maybe just having a social afternoon chatting over a coffee or a drink. In the evening it is an ideal place for a romantic dinner in pleasant surroundings.
Highly recommended is the 'Milanese Aperitivo' which is an evening happy hour from 6pm to 8pm. Many of the Milan Bars offer a large variety of buffet food,and snacks together with your drink for only €10.
Luciano and Leonardo
Those interested in more cultural pursuits and places to visit will not be disappointed. Only a two minute walk from Piazza Duomo will bring you to the doors of the aforementioned 'La Scala' Opera House. If you haven't seen it before then prepare for an anti-climax as the front entrance is surprisingly modest and unspectacular.
The real majesty and splendour is to be found behind the plain exterior walls of the building. Within those walls are over 2,000 seats and tremendous acoustics that have made it one of the most famous opera houses in the world. There you will see the stage where the great such as Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti have sang the classics.
Another five minutes and you can feast your eyes on one of the greatest works of art in history. As Paris and the Louvre are known for the Mona Lisa so Milan and the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie are celebrated for 'The Last Supper' by Leonardo da Vinci. Be aware that in the busy summer months advance booking is recommended to guarantee a viewing.
There is a charge to see the painting but do not expect to linger in your admiration. Such is its popularity in high season visitors are processed like a human conveyor belt after passing through a decontamination process. You will only have fifteen minutes to view the painting. The Italians take great care and attention of da Vinci's great masterpiece.
There is more great art to be observed at the Pinacoteca di Brera art museum. There are Italian works dating as far back as the 13th century. For example you will find 'Dead Christ' by Mantegna, the 'Virgin and Child with Saints' of Piero della Francesca, 'Pietà' by Bellini, and the Caravaggio painting 'Supper at Emmaus'. There is also to be found work by Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese as well as a studio of plaster casts and drawings.
The city of apartments
The most characteristic feature of this urban environment is the ubiquity of the apartment building. Milan is a very built-up city and street after street, block upon block are dominated by buildings at least five or six storeys high. Whether old or modern they stretch out all over the city from the centre to the periphery.
Therefore Milan can sometime overwhelm the senses and create a claustrophobic atmosphere. Large apartment buildings and office blocks loom over the packed pavements and the manic rush-hour traffic. In addition the 'Corso Como' area has seen the advent of skyscrapers towering above the city.
However the summer visitor may welcome the shade that the apartment blocks offer from the blistering and windless heat. Milan is set in an inland plain far from the refreshing sea breezes of the coast or the mountain winds that the Italian Alps and the Dolomites sometimes produce.
Unfortunately the fact that 'graffitti' is an Italian word won't be lost on you. It seems that almost every ground floor in the city has scrawls of the urban scourge. Too much youthul free expression within arms reach of the spray can.
However, casting your eyes upwards you willl find that many of the buildings are pleasing to the eye with their attractive windows and sculpted balconies. If you pause at an entrance you will see pleasant courtyards inside with perhaps the colour and design of urban interior gardens landscaped with trees, bushes and colourful flowers.
The city parks and the old fortifications
In a similar vein the antidote to the battlements of the Milanese apartment buildings are of course the public parks. The 'Giardini Publicci' are not too far from the city centre and are enjoyed by walkers, cyclists and also those who enjoy a picnic.
There is also a Botanical Gardens in 'Via Motta' west of the city centre. These are places perhaps to remind the children of the joys of nature which can easily be forgotten by the youngest in the city.
On the western outskirts is the park and artificial lake of Idroscalo. It's elongated shape betrays its origins as an airport for seaplanes when it opened in 1930. Nowadays many watersports take place there such as kayaking, rowing and sailing
Another central park to enjoy and which will also transport you into Milan's past is the large 'Parco Sempione' half a mile west of the Duomo.
At its entrance you will find the 'Castello Sforzesco' which is the central feature on the western side of the immediate city centre.
Originally built in 1386 it underwent a major restoration in the early 20th century to return it to its former glory.
A recreation of the front tower by Luca Beltrami transformed the castle.
People are free to take a look around inside the large square within its fortified walls. There are also twelve small museums and a huge archive in the building.
At Christmas there is a traditional fair 'Obei Obei' and 'Fiera dell’Artigianato' held all around the Castello Sforzesco.
Milan is also the city of “panettone” the famous Christmas sweet bread loaf with raisins. Other delights are available at the famous cafe, the 'Cova Pasticeria' which opened for business in 1817. It is located in 'Via Montenapoleone' just a few blocks north-east of the Duomo.
Monuments and Museums to visit
You will find a lot of history dotted around the streets of the city and there are many things to see. Further south is the Porta Romana, an ancient city gate which now stands alone where it once formed part of the city walls back in the 16th century.
It was built at a time of Spanish rule over the area and was completed to celebrate the visit in 1596 of Queen Margaret of Spain. Nowadays it is certainly one of the most impressive traffic roundabouts in Milan.
Other relics, ruins and artefacts from the Roman era can be found in several museums in the city. The 'Civici Musei del Castello', the 'Civico Museo Archeologico' and the 'Pinacoteca and Biblioteca Ambrosiana'.
On 'Via de Amicis' you can see the remains of a large amphitheatre which was uncovered in 1935 and on 'Corso di Porta Ticinese' are the Columns of San Lorenz .
Getting around on the transport system
Taking a 180 degree curve through the city map and you will be at the magnificent Centrale Stazione. The main railway station is typical of the architecture of the 1930s. Soaring and grandiloquent it cannot fail to impress new arrivals to the city. Some may label it as fascist in its bombast and ego with classical carvings and statues evoking the history of the Roman Empire. The equestrian statues on top of the roof are especially impressive.
Milan's links with the fascist past of Italy do not end there. In 1922 Mussolini ensured that the train for the 'March on Rome' arrived on time. Thus the myth evolved of his continued effect on the timetables of the country's railways.
His story ended in Milan too in 1945 when his corpse was hung upside down from the roof of an Esso petrol station in Piazza Loreto in the city. An ignominious finale to megalomania and vainglory.
If you arrive at the Centrale Stazione you can avail yourself of a marvellous infrastructure of city transport in its many forms. Both airport buses and local buses are available. Milan is served by three airports. The main airport Linate is on the south-east outskirts. An hour drive will take you to Malpensa and Orio al Serio at Bergamo for budget flights .
The best way around the city is through the Metro. The nearest station, also called the 'Centrale', sits underneath the square in front of the railway station.
Therefore you can transfer almost seamlessly unless, that is, if you happen to be there when the little market is on the square.
Antiques, ornaments and many volumes of books can be bought or bartered.
Going underground on the Metro
The Metro is a cheap way to burrow your way underneath the streets.
A day ticket is only a few euros and well worth the price if you want to hop around the city.
It is well organised and easy to understand the different lines and stations.
Much simpler than London or Paris for example and the instructions on the ticket machine displays can be changed to English. Always reassuring when your are in a foreign country and you do not know the language.
Above on the streets of the city there are also trolley buses and trams to get you around. For the more traditional among you there are old-fashioned versions of the trams amidst their modern counterparts.
The latter are more numerous but there enough of the historical carriages that add an effortless charm to this busy modern city.
But however you travel in Milan or anywhere in Italy always remember the word 'convalida'. That simply means getting your ticket date-stamped by the machines at the railway platform or on the buses and trams.
Failure to do so can lead to a hefty fine. No such worries on the Metro as your ticket is automatically stamped when you feed it through the turnstile.
The Italian Lakes and the coast of Liguria
Returning to the Centrale Stazione you can depart from there and venture further afield. A reasonable train journey will take you to the Italian Lakes and the cost is not expensive. It takes an hour or an hour-and-a-half depending on whether you take the express or the regional train.
An hour by express will take you to Lake Garda but to be honest at half the price the slow train is good value. It is only around 25 minutes longer than the express and if it is the next train leaving then you won't arrive at the lake much later than you would with the fast train.
Another train journey north of around an hour and a quarter will take you to the southern edge of Lake Como, the favoured holiday destination of the Hollywood jet-set. An hour south will take you to Genoa, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus in 1451 and the gateway to coast of Liguria and the Cinque Terre.
Sporting activities in the city and elsewhere.
For sports fans there are also free trains every year to the Formula 1 race of the Italian Grand Prix. Held at the Autodromo Nazionale in Monza every year it is only 30 kilometres north of Milan and is one of the most prestigious races of the F1 season.
However remaining within the city itself and staying within the sporting subject there is the San Siro stadium. Home of both AC Milan and Inter Milan, two giants in the football world, it is in the south west of the city.
You can reach it by tram as there is a specially built terminus for the stadium.There are also tours inside this mega-structure with its space-age design.
Therefore how incongruous the nearby Tudor style building appears sitting in the shade of the San Siro. But unsurprising when you know that prime among the founders of AC Milan in 1899 were two Englishmen. They were a lace-maker called Herbert Kilpinn plus his business partner Alfred Edwards and originally it was also intended as a cricket club.
Adjacent to the San Siro is the 'Ippodromo del Trotto', the Milan Horse-Racing Track. A huge bronze statue of a horse stands seven metres high outside the main entrance. The course holds both harness-racing and thoroughbred events
Afternoon strolls and Italian night-life on the canals
Milan may not have a famous river flowing through its centre but it does contain some canals or 'I Navigli' as they are called. These are relics dating back to the 12th, 15th and 16th centuries when they were built to provide irrigation and transport produce.
The area of Naviglio nowadays, which straddles the Grande canal has become a modern social centre. Here you can have a meal in its many restaurants and tavernas. On a hot day you may be fortunate to feel the cooling breeze of a wind blowing along the waters.
This is an older part of Milan and there are many old buildings of the former village that it once was in the past. In the late hours Naviglio is frequented by the younger social set who will gather for drinks beside the canal. Most of the bars open till 2am and there is even one small pub called 'BQ' that unusually serves real ales on draught.
There is also a small music store selling CD's and DVD's until midnight. Both new and second-hand are available with a nice selection of Italian and international acts on the shelves. The canal areas are also where you will find the bargains in the local flea markets as well as a monthly antique fair.
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Once again, at the canal, you will be welcomed by street hawkers mostly selling flowers.
A regular procession of persistent sellers offering half-dead roses will punctuate even the deepest conversation.
Any couples should not expect to have the evening all to themselves.
Places to go for music, from Hip-Hop to Heavy Rock
Aside from the canals another popular area for night-life is the 'Corso Como'. Here the young can mingle, drink expensive drinks and dance the night away. Hip-Hop, R n'B and Techno are all on offer for the party-goers.
There are also designer clubs like 'Armani Privè', 'Just Cavalli Cafè' and Jazz clubs such as 'Scimmie', 'Blue Note' and 'La Salumeria della Musica'.
Milan is a top city for rock music and there are several bars devoted to the sound of the electric guitar. The best is probably a bar called 'Rock n' Roll' in 'Via Zuretti' behind the Centrale Stazione.
Milan is also a favoured venue for concerts and every summer Radio Italia hosts a show in Piazza Duomo. There are also places like 'Alcatraz', the 'Mediolanum Forumo' and the 'Teatro Romano' all the way to the San Siro where the superstars perform. Greats to have graced the stadium are home-grown talents Vasco Rossi, Jovanotti and Luciano Ligabue
Among the international set you will have found the likes of U2, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones all playing there. There is also an intermittent Heavy Rock Festival called the 'Gods of Metal' which takes sometimes takes place in June at the Arena Fiera and attracts international acts.
If you have perhaps not been drawn away from the Renaissance magnificence and Roman Classicism of the more historic Italian cities you may still agree that Milan has much to offer.
It may be too much to recommend the city as a long-stay venue although as you have seen it serves as a useful base for further afield. Certainly as a stop-off during your travels it will add variety and flavour to your Italian vacation.
(Thanks to Antonella for the additional information)