By my count, this is the 100th entry I’ve posted on this blog. I thought about doing a “100 Things We’ve Learned By Traveling” or “100 Favorite Experiences on Our Trips” type post to celebrate, but I’m already finding it hard to balance all the posts I want to write about this leg in Italy with my workload. Plus, these days I’m far more excited about our current reality than looking back on past trips.
Our time so far in Italy has been phenomenal, due in large part to our decision to spend our first eight days of this leg in Milan.
We booked our travel to Italy when they were temporarily doing “COVID-tested flights” to and from the U.S. to allow Americans in. Those flights were only going to Milan and Rome and we thought, ok, we’ll fly into Milan and out of Rome! We also thought we’d be safest to start in the north of the country, both due to weather (Rome and all points south are brutally hot in August by most accounts) and the higher vaccination rate of the north compared to the south (much like in the U.S., except the south here is doing better than the U.S. as a whole so it is probably unfair to compare them with the southern U.S.).
Chad was very interested in seeing Milan, but it has never been a city that was high on my list. I freely admit now that I was completely wrong. Milan is one of the best cities in Europe. It is beautiful and old and has great food and there is so much to see and do.
My initial thoughts about our time in Milan is that we’d mostly try to settle back into a good abroad routine with work and dining out a couple times a week and walking around and enjoying the city life. However, on our first night, as Chad prepared our traditional night 1 dinner of lemon chicken and rice served with green beans, I looked into what there might be to see and do in Milan and became enraptured by it’s Duomo. I was able to book tickets on their website for the opening time of 9 a.m. the following morning to see all four of its main attractions – roof, inside the church, archeological site, and museum.
Sunday Morning at the Duomo
We decided to leave fairly early for our Duomo visit so we could explore the sites around it. We left our apartment before 8 a.m. and took the metro down to the Duomo stop. When you emerge from the metro station, your view is immediately filled by the exterior of the Duomo. Photos really don’t do it justice with more than 3500 statues decorating its outer walls.
We took a quick left turn and started in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade, which houses many of the luxury brand stores in Milan. It also looks exactly like the interior of all the Italian-themed casinos in Vegas. Seriously, those Vegas designers nailed it. We also saw the Teatro alla Scala (and made a mental note of its museum signs), the outdoor parts of the Royal Palace, and the Piazza Mercanti, a square dating back to Medieval times. These are all in the immediate vicinity of the Duomo and very easy to see at the same time. It was nice being there early because the crowd at 8:30 a.m. was far smaller than what we saw later in the day.
Finally we got in line to take the elevator up to the roof at the opening time of 9 a.m. We were the second couple in line. The security person checked our CDC cards and we went up in the first elevator. The roof of the Duomo is extremely cool and made this our best church experience ever (and we have visited NUMEROUS cathedrals and churches during our travels). You basically follow the side of the building and then up another couple flights of steps to the main roof. We spent about 20 minutes there, mostly because we were taking so many photos and enjoying the great view of Milan.
We exited the roof right into the cathedral itself where our tickets were scanned again (some people buy the roof admission without cathedral entry but we got the full package). Because it was Sunday morning, mass was being held, which was actually really nice and no one seemed bothered by the many tourists milling around the perimeter of the church. We got to hear the organ and see where the priest or bishop or whoever is giving the mass stands.
From the interior of the church, we self-scanned our tickets to go down to the archeological site. This is where they’ve uncovered pieces of the original church that dates back to 355, including an old baptistry. Apparently this church was damaged in a fire around 1000 years ago and then rebuilt as the current Duomo. Another fun fact is that the dates of construction for the Duomo are listed as 1386 to 1965, so it was only finished a little over 50 years ago.
After the archeological visit, we went across the road to the Royal Palace to visit the Duomo museum, which opens at 10. We had a few minutes to wait before it opened, but not long and our CDC cards were checked again for entry and tickets scanned. The museum is a great opportunity to get a closer look at some of the statues and art present in the Duomo. We took photos of some of our favorites.
We’d thought about visiting a second church that morning, but after the museum we felt we’d seen enough so took the metro back to our apartment for lunch. It was a great way to spend our first morning in Milan.
An Evening in the Navigli Neighborhood
Our next big touristic excursion within Milan didn’t occur until Thursday evening. We’d taken a day trip to Lake Como on Tuesday (read about it here) and the rest of the time we really needed to catch up on work. We got into the routine I’d originally envisioned of making nice food at home and taking lots of walks and enjoying city life.
Thursday we decided would be our date night to one of Milan’s best neighborhoods, called Navigli. Although our apartment was north of the city center and Navigli is south of the city center, it was easy to access by metro. But before going to Navigli, we decided to stop and see the church we didn’t visit on Sunday morning, Basilica San Lorenzo Maggiore. This is an older church that features 5th century mosaics and was really cool to see. There was no entry fee and no one checking green passes (or CDC cards), so it must be a less popular tourist attraction. But we both really enjoyed seeing this church and the 16 Roman columns adjacent to it.
From there we walked down to the Navigli neighborhood, which gets its name from the great canals present there (the Italian word for canal is naviglio, plural is navigli). It was already 6 p.m. so we decided to start our visit with a cocktail and stopped a little ways down the canal at a charming and relatively outdoor seating of a bar with a naviglio view. Only a couple of the tables were occupied at that time, but it turned out that we’d stumbled upon a great place for apertivi, the northern Italian tradition of enjoying elaborate bar snacks with a pre-dinner cocktail. Chad ordered an old fashioned and I ordered one of the traditional Italian cocktails called a carolina. Both were delicious and we were very impressed with the complementary snack provided. In fact, it was so impressive that it completely spoiled our dinner!
We quickly noticed tourists stopping to take photos of the little mini-naviglio next to us and learned that it is a well-known old canal where residents used to bring their laundry, called Vicolo Lavandai. It wasn’t an attraction we were looking for, but definitely cool to see. We were really glad we’d chosen that spot for our drinks.
After our drinks, we walked along the Naviglio Grande down to another neighborhood I wanted to check out called Tortona, which was so-so, and then to a nearby gelateria that Chad had researched as being one of the best in town. He ordered two scoops – the richest pistachio we’ve ever tasted and lemon-basil. It was phenomenal and I think basil is my favorite ice cream. We enjoyed the gelato immensely (Chad declared last night during an even better gelato experience in Bologna that gelato alone makes Italy worth visiting).
A Quick Trip to the Theater
On Friday afternoon, we made a quick visit to the Teatro alla Scala museum. We both love beautiful theaters and your museum admission includes a chance to see inside the theater itself. We bought advance tickets for a late afternoon time and took the metro again to the Duomo stop. Our CDC cards were checked and we were told that if we couldn’t see the theater due to the rehearsal, we could come back right before they close at 6. But when we got upstairs and had our tickets scanned, the person advised us to go right to the theater. We weren’t sure exactly what he meant and thought we were supposed turn right somewhere. But we hustled past the exhibits and were shown the way into the lobby and up the stairs where they have the theater box seats that you can see it from.
The rehearsal must have been on a break because the theater lights were up and we took lots of photos of the beautiful space. Then we went back and enjoyed the exhibit from the start. I thought it was very thoughtful of the workers there to hustle us to the theater so we could see it with the lights on. By the time we got through the exhibit (maybe 30 minutes or so later), the break was ended but we watched a bit of the rehearsal (and snuck a couple photos). It was cool to see the theater both lit up and in rehearsal mode. The exhibits were ok – some cool old instruments, some memorabilia. I wish they’d had more costumes. The highlight was the photos of the old sets. It is such a historic production company and interesting to see how they staged various shows.
We plan to time a future trip to Milan with being able to see an opera there. I think that would be an awesome experience. The other thing we didn’t get to do on this visit (because it was sold out when we checked) was to see Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting at Santa Maria delle Grazie church. Next time we’ll do more advance planning and book that ticket and time our visit with tickets to a show at the teatro.
Our final bit of touristic fun came on our last day in Milan. In the late afternoon we headed out to the Parco Sempione, again taking the metro, but this time walking down to line 2. We actually started in the Brera neighborhood, which is between the center and the park, and is full of upscale cafes and pretty architecture. Then we walked over to the park, which is home to the Sforzesco Castle, the big fortress of Milan from Medieval and Renaissance times. One of the signs we read suggested Leonardo Di Vinci designed the balustrades or something. It was very impressive and the park was nice. We walked the full length up to the Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace), a Napoleon-era triumphal arch (all the best European cities have one).
The park also contains the Trienniale Museum, which is dedicated to 20th Century Italian design. Chad and I are suckers for some modernism, so we spent an hour or so exploring the permanent exhibit there. Not only were our CDC cards checked but they also took our temperature. COVID precautions in Italy are pretty on-point.
We enjoyed the museum very much and then we went off to Chinatown in search of a drink. We came across a little beer hall that seemed cute and chose that. Again we hit it at the right time because we got a table in the shade and, within an hour, all the tables including the ones in the sun were filled. We enjoyed our foreign beers – Guinness for Chad and Staropramen for me – and researched where to get our Chinese food that night. We settled on a cute place called Shanghai that ended up being pretty touristy (photo menu, for example), but fun. Our tofu was the consistency of panna cotta and the Asian noodles seemed like spaghetti, but the dumplings we ordered were great.
La Dolce Vita
We enjoyed our eight days in Milan very much. The tourist attractions were a lot of fun, but what we loved the most was the lovely Italian lifestyle we embraced. We tried fun fresh pastas from the grocery store, enjoyed morning walks by the naviglio near our neighborhood, and pretty much lived “the sweet life.” Milan was a great start to our 3-month Italy leg and we know the rest of it will be just as good.
Airbnb Review – Rossella’s place is very comfortable and had everything my husband and I needed for a wonderful 8-day visit to Milan – fast reliable wifi, well-equipped kitchen, close to the main train station and metro lines 1 and 2 so easy access for anywhere in the city, the airport, and day trips. We really liked the quiet neighborhood – great for morning walks. There’s an excellent supermarket right down the block on the way to the Pasteur metro station. The apartment is very stylishly decorated and really felt like home. Communication with Rossella was great throughout our stay. We would definitely stay here again.