Two days is not nearly enough time to spend in Italy’s second-largest city, but it’s certainly enough to dip your toe in the water. Here are 10 things that I found to occupy myself in just over 48 hours.
Visit the Duomo
This is pretty much always the first item on the list of Milan’s greatest hits.
The largest church in Italy and the third-largest church in all of Europe, this giant cathedral took over six centuries to complete (they started in 1386 and put on the finishing touches in 1965). So it’s Gothic in its bones, complete with heavy columns on the inside …
… and flying buttresses without …
… but the elaborate carvings on the facade are largely Baroque, and the panels on Lodovico Pogliaghi’s late 19th century giant bronze doors show Romantic and Art Nouveau influences.
Inside, much of the Duomo is currently under renovation. But you can still see some lovely stained glass windows …
… this creepy and eerily intriguing statue of St. Bartholomew, who was flayed alive (and who is portrayed here draped in his own skin) …
… and a clever solar meridian line, studded with figures from the zodiac, on which a small hole in the wall allows the sun to shine through at exactly noon every day:
Go Up to the Roof
For a separate (hefty) fee, you can either climb the steps or take the elevator up to the Duomo’s rooftop.
Here, you can get up close and personal with the open pinnacles, spires, and statues that are nearly impossible to see from the ground.
A trip to the rooftop also affords great views of the vast Piazza del Duomo (where, during my visit, they were in the process of dismantling an enormous Christmas tree)…
… the arched entrance to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II …
… and much of the rest of the city.
A note if you’re visiting in winter: don’t bother spending tons of money on a ticket if they say the roof is icy and you can only go up to the first level. The rooftop really needs to be seen in all of its glory from the very top.
Milan is one of the fashion and design capitals of the world, and you could shop here for days on end.
The best place to see high fashion is the Quadrilatero d’Oro, a neighborhood where famous Italian designers have been setting up shop for over 100 years. You can find everyone in this twist and turn of old streets, from Armani and Bottega Veneta to Valentino and Versace. If you want your high-end shopping more centralized, just hop over to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, right next to the Duomo:
Italy’s oldest shopping mall, this 1877 iron-and-glass roofed extravaganza is home to all sorts of luxury retailers.
But it’s not just for shopping — it’s also an amazing architectural sight.
I found much more affordable shopping on the Corso di Porta Ticinese, where I bought these very cute boots!
Listen to Opera
Milan is known for having one of the best opera houses in the world: La Scala.
This 1778 building isn’t much to look at from the outside, but inside, it’s a wonder of golden details and red brocade:
Seeing a show here is far from free; I paid an arm and two legs to sit in the cramped back row of a box (which I shared with five other people) on this tiny stool …
… and to have a partial view:
But the experience and the singing (I saw Tosca) were worth every penny.
Wander the Canal District
Tired of Milan’s over-the-top splendor, shininess, and commercialism? Head to the Navigli , a delightful historic neighborhood that will show you what Milan might have looked like a hundred years ago.
Milan was once ringed by grand waterways, a series of five canals (navigli) that were covered over in the 1930s to make roadways. But you can still see a few stretches of the remaining canals in the Navigli district, which has recently become a popular area for dining and barhopping.
Many of the side streets here retain (or have been renovated to recapture) their old charm, including the Vicolo dei Lavandai, where men used to work under this covering to wash clothes:
Go to the Poldi Pezzoli Museum
I’ve been to a lot of museums, but few have surprised me as much as the Museo Poldi Pezzoli. This gem of an art gallery, which began as the private collection of a 19th-century Italian count, has a vast and sometimes random-seeming collection, which includes paintings …
… to period rooms …
… to watches …
… to glassware:
And there’s so much more — sundials and saints’ teeth, cutlery and French porcelain, jewelry and Greek vases, nautilus shells and Chinese bronze work. It’s a crazy and wonderful museum, and I can’t recommend it higshly enough.
Eat & Snack
As a major city, Milan has plenty to offer in the culinary department. It’s most famous for risotto, which I recommend trying at Enoteca Regionale Lombarda (where they will also recommend wonderful local wines for you). There are restaurants galore; you can dine in a traditional trattoria, have lunch in the relatively new splendor of the Rinascente Mall with a view of the Duomo, or head to a grand dame like Biffi, founded in 1867 by the king’s pastry chef.
There’s also plenty of gelato on hand, much of it piled scandalously high for the tourists …
… though I preferred the simpler offerings at Gelateria Toldo:
If you want to buy fancy food treats, you should head to the exorbitantly-priced Peck, which calls itself an “Italian Temple of Gastronomical Delights.” Part deli, part restaurant, part gift shop, it’s a gourmet staple in Milan (and it sells mozzarella and tiny baby artichoke hearts to die for).
Wonder at Santa Maria presso San Satiro
How do you make a small church …
…look like a cathedral on the inside?
You use trompe l’oeil to create a false apse — in this case, flat semicircular “arch” just behind the altar:
This 3-D trickery inside Santa Maria presso San Satiro is the work of Renaissance artist Donato Bramante, and it is considered one of the very first uses of trompe l’oeil in the art world. If you go, it’s well worth paying the 1 Euro fee to light up the arch to see this piece in its full glory.
Stop at the Train Station
If you happen to find yourself at Milan Centrale, the central train station, take a moment to put down your bags and look around.
This station is a monument to Fascist power, Benito’s Mussolini’s expansion of a pre-WWI project designed to impress everyone coming into the country by rail. It has a terrifying history — this was a major train for deporting Jews to extermination camps — but it is an impressive piece of architecture. This is a train station of grand staircases, enormous sculptures, wide canopies, and art just about everywhere.
Go on a Walking Tour
It’s easy to become overwhelmed in Milan, to feel like you’re surrounded by nondescript buildings and too many chain stores. To try to get a better sense of the city’s neighborhoods, history, and architecture, I went on a long walking tour — and it really helped to make the city feel more appealing. We started in the northwest quadrant of the city, in Sempione Park, which is home to ponds, cafes, and the Arena Civica (which Napoleon had built for sporting competitions and mock naval battles):
At one end of the park stands the Arco della Pace, or Arch of Peace, also built (or at least started) under Napoleon’s reign:
Our walking tour then took us through the grounds of the Castello Sforzesco, or Sforza Castle. First built in the 15th century, this was one of the largest citadels in Europe (and it now houses a large museum and art collection).
From there, we wandered on through the Brera District, the neighborhood of Milan’s first art school (and also what may be its best art museum, the Pinacoteca di Brera) …
… past some beautiful 18th and 19th century buildings …
… and into the very center of town, where the Duomo stands:
I then had another look at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, where my guide explained that if you spin around three times on one foot on this bull’s testicles, you’ll have a year of good luck (no joke — and so many people do this every day that they need to replace the testicle mosaics on a regular basis):
Our walk next took us down busy shopping streets to the Columns of San Lorenzo, a row of sixteen Roman columns attached to one of the medieval city gates …
… past another old gate, the Porta Ticinese …
… past the Basilica of Saint Eustorgio, which holds the Shrine of the Three Kings (said to contain their tomb) …
… and out to the canal district. This tour was a wonderful way to get to know the city, and while my feet were killing me by the end, I was really glad to have done it.