Where: MIlan, Lombardy, Italy
When: December 2015
Why: We went a bit crazy with the cheap flights and ended up booking four weekend adventures in a row (Andorra, Asturias, Liechtenstein and Milan). Jeff booked this one.
I don’t know why but I never fancied going to Milan. I got the idea that Milan was a big, busy, sprawling city, that it was very serious and pretentious, that there wasn’t that much to see and that everything would be quite hard to visit and that it was mostly shopping and business anyhow. I don’t know where I got this idea from – because it’s so wrong.
I’ve been near Milan a few times and considered going there a few times too, but I always went somewhere else. I was going to book a trip to Milan and the lakes for a friend’s hen-do, but then we went somewhere else. When we inter-railed around Europe, we could have gone through Milan but we chose to go through Verona instead. For some reason, I just never quite made it.
Jeff booked this trip as a surprise (thanks honey). We went a bit crazy with the autumn budget airlines sales and booked four weekends away in a row. I think if I had been the one booking the trips, I wouldn’t have picked Milan – I would have gone somewhere else.
But I’m really glad Jeff did book this and that we finally made it here as Milan is lovely! It is big, busy, businessy, BIrmingham-like and sprawly; but it’s also a thoroughly nice Italian city with some great attractions, good food and fab shopping. We only had 24 hours here, but we had a lot of fun and I’d love to return to explore further. I would return to Milan just for a taste of being in Italy.
I can imagine that Milan is a good city to live in: there were lots of pretty parks, a nice centre, good transport infrastructure and great restaurants. The city is run down in places, and there are lots of 60s style tower blocks (like Brum), but this dirt stops the city from being too perfect and makes it feel less pretentious. There are gentrified areas too (including some gentrified canal areas, like Birmingham). It’s a nice mix. I love Birmingham because it’s an unpretentious, second city with great shopping, yummy restaurants and some good tourist sites; which is probably why I like Milan so much too.
Milan is the transport interchange for northern Italy, and so next time I’m travelling somewhere else in the region I’m going to make sure I also travel via Milan.
So Milan, I apologise for not appreciating you sooner. Hopefully I can make it up to you by coming back many more times to just hang out and have fun with you.
One of my top tips for intrepid travellers is to sign up for the budget airlines e-newsletters, as they email you when sales launch and you can get some pretty good deals. In autumn, many of the airlines run sales, they start competing with each other on price and you can get some pretty good deals. This is why we went away four weekends in a row.
We flew from Birmingham to Milan Malpensa with Flybe. The return flights cost £56 each.
It was a pretty perfect flight. We were in a prop-plane which had two seats on each side, so we could have cuddled up as just a couple, but the plane was mostly empty so we got two seats each to ourselves. The flight was quick, the crew friendly, we’d picked up all the free magazines from Birmingham, but best of all were the views. We flew over the Alps and the views of these snow topped mountains were wonderful. They were even better on the return journey when the air was so clear you could practically see people climbing the glaciers and we could see the Alps curving off into the distance, marking the Italian border (see photo above).
Milan Malpensa airport is huge. It’s a major gateway for Europe. The airport itself is modern, funky and efficient and had lots of good food options.
There’s two terminals at Milan Malpensa and they’re quite a distance from each other. We came into the main terminal, terminal 1, which is where the train station is. There is a bus between the two terminals which runs every 20 minutes. I’ve read online that it can take quite a while to travel between T1 and T2.
Malpensa is 40km out of the city. It seemed to be that there were two options for getting into the city centre: the bus or the train. We caught the train to the centre then the bus back. Time wise, they seemed to be pretty similar, though we did take the bus on a Sunday when the traffic was quiet. It might be different in the week.
The Milan Express train cost €12 one way to Milan Centrale, €18 return. We just walked up and bought the tickets in the machine, though you can pre-book if you wish. The train itself was modern and comfy (it was a posh, metro style train).
We came into the city at the magnificent Stazione Centrale. This art deco wonder is one of the most opulent stations in the world. It’s a magnificent, high, imposing edifice covered in frescos, statues and paintings.
There’s a shopping centre underneath the station, with two supermarkets and lots of clothes shops (see the What we Did section for more info on this), and a Semphora make-up shop on the platform. I had to have an escort to go here, past security, without a ticket.
Just a quick note about the station: there is quite high security here but even so it seems to be a place where you may run into trouble. We’ve heard of scams of people trying to help travellers at the ticket machines, but then scarpering with their change or cards – and we saw a few suspicious people hanging around the machines. One of my basic rules for travel is that if someone approaches you, they tend to want something from you; so it pays to be careful.
Sadly, there were also a lot of migrants camping around the outside of the station in the freezing cold, though everyone seemed to be very peaceful and kind.
We caught the bus back to the airport. I can’t remember which company we travelled with but it doesn’t really matter as all the buses left from the same place, looked the same, left about the same time and charged the same price of €7.50. The buses depart from the side of Centrale Station. There’s lots of signs in the station directing you to them.
You can find out all about Milan Malpensa airport, its services and the transport options for getting to the city, at the Milan Malpensa website.
Mostly we walked, though Milan city centre is quite spread out and the main train station is on the edge of town, so we did take the subway for one or two journeys.
The subway system was old but good and ran till quite late at night. There’s four subway lines that run across the centre of the city. I liked that the walls of the stations were painted to reflect the line colour that they served. I also liked that at one station we visited we could see the next station further up the tunnel. For some reason I found that surprisingly cool.
A single, 90 minute ticket cost us €1.50. This can be used on the metro, buses and trams. A day ticket costs €4.50
There’s also a tram network in Milan and I was quite sad that we didn’t have an excuse to use it. These wonderful, old-fashioned trams look like a really easy, cool way to get around the city. One tram has a restaurant on it and you can eat dinner whilst taking a tour of the city. The dinner tour on ATMosfere costs €70 per person for a four course meal and half a bottle of wine (Jan 2016). You can book at the ATM website.
For the outlying suburbs there’s a good local train network.
Transport information, including maps and a journey planner, can be found at www.atm.it/en.
What we did on our holiday
We were staying in a hotel by Stazione Centrale, so first we checked in and dumped our bags, then we walked the twenty minutes from the station to the city centre. It was a wonderfully, cold but sunny, sparkly winter day. We stopped for lunch at a very strange cafe en-route (it was like a speed race eating here), and then we carried on down to the central area of Teatro alla Scala and Galleria Vittoria Emanuele. The Scala is the famous opera house: the epitome of all opera houses; which we didn’t know was reopening that weekend after a refurb. We didn’t go in sadly, but I have seen pictures of this opulent dream and I’d like to go here next time we visit – just to see the building.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Sitting between La Scala and the Duomo, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the most famous sights in Milan and possibly the most famous shopping centre in the world. This beautiful pavillion, with glass ceiling and marble floors, is a gorgeous place to be – and a wonderful place to shop. It’s light and bright, the shop fronts are pretty and the cafes inviting. I can imagine that it can get very crowded in peak-season, but it was not too bad when we were there.
The Galleria is possibly the oldest shopping mall in the world and is also the location of the very first Prada shop.
We just used the galleria as a thoroughfare. We stopped to take some photos but otherwise we just walked straight through, as I suspect many people do too. The shops were a bit too high end for us – pretty though.
Highline Galleria is a panoramic walkway at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. This overlooks the Duomo, and costs €12.
Sometimes when you’re travelling you see something that just makes you go wow. The first sight is so stunning that it just leaves you mouth-open with wonder and speechless. The Duomo was like that for me. We emerged from the Galleria onto the Duomo square and when I caught my first glimpse of the cathedral I just stopped and giggled in wonder. The Duomo is magnificent.
What is so amazing about Milan Duomo for me is not the scale, though it is big (the 5th largest church in the world), but the wonderful ornate carvings that cover the front of the cathedral. Like Reims in France, I could spend days looking at all of the characters, following their stories, giving them personalities.
The queues to visit the cathedral were not too bad when we visited though I can imagine this must get very busy in peak season. It took us about fifteen minutes to get tickets and make our way in. The ticket office is outside the Duomo, to the right of the front facade. There’s toilets here too. The guards who checked our ticket at the doors of the cathedral wore fabulously, feathered hats. Very fashionable darling.
Inside, the cathedral, the large, collonaded apse is imposing and wonderful; though inside there’s not a huge amount to see. That’s not to say it’s austere, but there were less chapels and art work inside than other cathedrals within Europe I have visited. You can visit the tomb of St Charles, there’s wonderful stained glass windows, some pretty chapels and the actual building is beautiful.
I really liked the statue of Saint Bartholomew Flayed, by Marco d’Agrate which is from 1562 (see photo on the right), although I didn’t quite realise the subject matter at the time and thought it was a very thin man wearing robes. In fact, the robes are St Bartholomew’s skin, which he wears over his shoulder. Despite the horrible subject matter, this beautiful statue looks as if it is made from oiled wood and seems so alive. It’s a compelling piece.
According to Wikipedia, there is a nail from the cross of Christ in the apse. The location is marked by a small red light-bulb. This is taken out once a year for people to see. We didn’t see this.
We spent about half an hour inside the Duomo. I wish we’d visited with a guide, as it would be great to know more about this interesting place.
It took over 500 years to build the Duomo. It was started in the 14th century and finally finished by Napoleon at the start of the 19th century. This was done so that he could be crowned King of Italy here. Because it took so long to complete, the Duomo is a mixture of styles from across the ages: a hodge-podge of a cathedral.
It’s possible to go onto the roof of the Duomo, and apparently this is a really cool thing to do as you are up with the spires, above the city. Apparently, on a clear day, you can see the Alps off in the distance. It costs €15 if you take the lift up to the terraces, €11 if you walk up.
An alternative to the terraces is to visit the Highline Galleria, a panoramic walkway at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. This costs €12.
Entrance to Duomo and Museum – €2.
There’s a H&M right next to the Duomo. We went in here to look for some Christmas fashion, darling.
We then walked down Via Orefici and Via Dante towards Castle Sforzesco, stopping en-route to drink coffee and eat the most delicious ice creams. I had Sicilian orange, almond and rich, dark chocolate. Jeff had tiramisu ice cream. Yum.
There was a Christmas market taking place outside Castle Sforzesco. We think it was a Christmas market. It may have been a flea market, as they seemed to be selling more standard products and it was less traditional than some of the Christmas markets we have been to around the rest of Europe. Either way, it was fun to walk and browse the food, the clothes, the gifts and the random products. There were quite a few second-hand stalls selling crazy clothes and antiques. It was interesting.
We thought the market would just be in front of the castle, but we followed it and it went on and on and on, through Parco Sempione and all around the building. We were really tired and our feet ached by the time we got back to the fountains at the main entrance to the castle.
Sadly, as we were only travelling with cabin baggage, we didn’t have the space to buy anything – but it was fun looking and a nice, cold, seasonal walk.
I was super excited to go to Castle Sforzesco as this is where Leonardo da Vinci and the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforzesco lived. He sounds wonderful and powerful, doesn’t he? Like a character in a Shakespearean novel.
The actual castle is quite fort like, with big red, crenelated defensive walls. There were a few large courtyards that we could just stroll through. There were museum areas too, but by this time we were tired, so we just walked around the fort, listened to the wonderful carol singers and popped to the free loos.
If we go back I will spend some more time here. There’s a museum of ancient art, prehistory, Egyptian art, musical instruments and the museum of Rondanini Pietà, which contains Michaelangelo’s last sculpture. There are also paintings by Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci, and Leonardo’s codex is in the library here.
Navigli District/ Canal area
Milan is a long way from the sea and a navigatable river and so in olden times they build the navigli, which are navigatable canals which link Milan to the sea. Leonardo da Vinci himself helped with the design of the canals that are still there to this day.
Today the canals are the centre of a nightlife district. There’s loads of bars and restaurants on the canal side lanes, and we had a great time strolling along these fairy-light-lit waterways, stopping to read menus and looking for somewhere to eat. It was really busy when we were there and I suspect that this area is always busy – because it seemed to be locals here, heading out for dinner and drinks. The navigli area was busy and buzzing and seemed to be the centre of Milan nightlife.
Milan’s bars have a strange tapas like buffet thing, called aperativo. Many bars offer an all you can eat buffet of snacks and small plates, which you pay a set price for, and you have to accompany drinks. The restaurants we wanted to go in were all too busy, and we spent a long time trying to find somewhere, anywhere to eat. Eventually we ended up back at the first bar we had walked past and looked at – and we went in here for aperativo and good, fresh beers. The aperative we had had salady items, pasta, bread, cheese, fruit, pizza slices, some hot dishes, tempura. It was a mish-mash of cheap pub food. It wasn’t what we were looking for, but it was filling and cheap.
There was a stereotypical Christmas market with mulled wine and crepes etc, by one of the canals and an ice rink on the water. We walked past this, but we weren’t really in the mood (we were tired, full and had been up since 5a.m.), so we headed back to the hotel for a good sleep.
Finally, on our last day we only had an hour to spare before we had to go to the airport, so we went food shopping at the supermarket in the station. This isn’t a huge supermarket, but it had a good range of products, including some nice gourmet stuff, and so we were able to pre-buy lots of Christmas presents.
There were also a number of clothes shops in the station basement, such as Zara and Pimke.
What we didn’t do
There were loads of designer stores in Milan, which aren’t really our cup of tea; but it was interesting to see.
There also appear to be a number of outlet malls quite close to the city and we saw a lot of leaflets offering tours to these places.
The last supper
Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ mural painting is in the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie church, located in the north of Milan. Although the painting is in the church’s refectory, it is run as a separate museum.
Tickets to see the Last Supper must be purchased in advance and they do sell out quite quickly. You can buy them online from www.vivaticket.itwww.vivaticket.it. They cost €8 (as of 2016). I just had a look at spaces for the next month and it looks like if you can be flexible on time, you can book just a few days in advance. You can also make a visit as part of a guided city tour.
Conciliazione on red Metro line 1 and Cadorna on green Metro line 2 are both about five minutes walk from the church and museum.
I have to confess, I don’t get these Expo things. When we lived in South Korea, there was a huge hoo-ha as they had the Expo in Yeosu. I’m not quite sure what they are for. Are they just a huge exhibition to showcase a country? I guess I’ll just have to go to one to find out.
Expo 2015 took place in Milan. I have heard many stories about corruption surrounding this event. They were advertising it outside Castle Sforzesco when we were there, but it wasn’t something that I particularly fancied. How could it compare to the everyday, historical attractions and wonders of this fantastic city?
Where we stayed
Best Western Atlantic
Located next to the central station, which was perfect for us. It looked a little daggy from outside and not that inviting, but inside it was nice and snazzy and the room was warm, cosy, comfortable and a nice place to be. Good breakfast too with pastries, breads, cheeses etc. They gave us free panatonne when we checked in – which is not something I’ve ever had before. Thanks Best Western Atlantic.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.