- Before packing my bags and travelling to Milan, Italy’s (and to many, the world’s) fashion capital, I didn’t know what to expect. Should I picture a city where designer-clad, beautiful people strode up and down streets all day, clutching on to their Dolce & Gabana and Gucci bags? Or should I envisage a city with some of the world’s most famous works of art and one of the country’s most breathtaking cathedrals? Well, the answer is both.
After arriving in Milan on a bright March morning at 10am, and taking a quick, hot shower in my hotel (there aren’t too many hostels in this city), I consulted my map. As touristy as it is, I have a habit of wandering to the city’s main tourist hub when I first arrive. In light of this, my first port of call in Milan was Piazza del Duomo, home to Milan’s famous gothic cathedral. Once I arrived I immediately sported a hapless frown. Much to my disappointment, the cathedral was masked with scaffolding. I could see similar expressions all around. As I sadly placed the black cap back on the lens of my camera, I made my way to the stairs to climb to its roof. Thankfully its stunning façade wasn’t hidden by such horrid metal.
A lengthy 'to-do- list
Seeing the Duomo scratched the top attraction off a fairly lengthy ‘to-do’ list. Below it were the Brera Gallery, Milan’s best known; the Navigili district, Milan’s most vibrant area; the San Siro stadium, where AC Milan and Inter Milan both play their football; and Castello Sforza, a huge fortress that for years guarded the northern Italian city from being suspected enemies.
All the above were ticked off one by one, the San Siro experience being particularly enjoyable since I managed to blag my way into the press box for the game against Empoli. Sitting in my assigned seat, and seeing I was placed beside a sports journalist from the UK’s Daily Telegraph, I felt a little bit out of my depth. But thankfully the writer in question never showed up for the 3-0 victory so I could enjoy the game in peace, almost. An Italian commentator was seated to my left. Had I been fluent in the native tongue I would have welcomed his presence all the more.
But the one attraction I didn’t manage to see when I was there was ‘Il Cenacolo’, home of ‘The Last Supper’. To visit it, you need to book your tickets anything up to two weeks in advance. I always research cities before travelling to them (honestly) but somehow I managed to miss this vital piece of information before hopping on my plane. I urge you not to make the same mistake. It is one of the world’s most famous paintings and will be top of my ‘to-do’ list on my return to this city.
By the end of my four days in Milan, apart from the aforementioned masterpiece, I managed to visit all of its top attractions. Naturally this didn’t take up all of my time. I put away a number of hours to check out some other sides to Milan – partying and shopping.
Not far from Il Duomo is an affluent quarter made up of four streets – Via Monte Napoleone, Via Sant’ Andrea, Via della Spigna Via Alessandro Manzoni. Collectively they are known as Quadrilatero D’Oro. I wish I could say I swanned in and out of designer shops, buying item after item, but I similarly wish I could say the last thing I did before coming into the office this morning was park my red Porsche 911 in the downstairs car park. Neither would be accurate statements. Instead I wandered up and down the four streets, admiring the flash cars parked by its kerbs and watching the chicest of Italians walk in and out of shops carrying bags of the latest, in-season garments.
I did, however, decide that I was going to treat myself to one item from a Dolce & Gabbana premises. This was going to be a martini, shaken not stirred, from the minimalist bar at the back of its store on Corso Venezia. Unfortunately I never managed to sip on that martini. The well-groomed staff were too busy waiting on those indoors as I was on the only remaining seats outside. That experience has now joined the last supper on my checklist for my return.
If you are on a tight budget, just like I was when you go to Milan, you now see you will have trouble engaging in some retail therapy when you get there. One activity you won’t need a lot of funds to do though is eat out at night. This is due to a local tradition known as ‘aperitivo’. During aperitivo time (usually from 6pm to 9pm), bars all over Milan squeeze as many plates full of finger food as possible on a table in the bar. For the duration of these three hours, this food is free. Yes, free. I couldn’t get my head around it at first either. If this practice was to take place in my local pub the town’s less-off folk would arrive every day with empty backpacks ready to stock up on food for the family meal that night. But here locals drop in for a glass of wine and take moderate plates of everything from parma ham to hot potatoes back to their tables before leaving after one single helping.
As the phrase goes ‘when in Rome’, I decided to check out as many of these aperitvo bars as possible during my stay. Some offer all types of food, while others may tempt you with nothing but variations of mozzarella cheese. One of the better bars I found is called Bar Brera. Here, along with Ashley, an American backpacker who was in Milan for a few days. I saved myself a few euros by managing to sample at least half of the food on offer. This was the only bar worth visiting in the Brera district though. The best places can be found in the Navigli district, the area along Milan’s two canals.
Milan's most vibrant area
In Navigli you will encounter bar after bar after bar. The one I returned to was Luca and Andrea. Staff were friendly yet far from intrusive. When I told them I longed for a glass of fine red, they promptly asked me if my pallet preferred dry or sweet wine. Afterwards I hopped from bar to bar, dodging many along the way as this is Milan’s busiest place at night.
If you go to Milan in search of masterpieces and cathedrals you won’t be disappointed. It has plenty of both. If you go to Milan to let your hair down you’ll feel right at home as it is one of Italy’s liveliest cities. But whether you go to sightsee or party, make sure to bring a bag full of attitude with you. It’s the only way to fit in with the locals.
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