I was fortunate enough to have a friend from England visit me last month, and in my excitement of being her tour guide, I decided we must visit Milan (this being the only popular city of Italy that she hasn’t already seen). Though only an hour away from me, I am by no means a native to the city, having previously visited only briefly for a couple of hours: half an hour on the metro, and one and a half hours seeing the Duomo, the shops and the Castello. I was excited at the prospect of having a whole day to explore this metropolitan city, and as much as I’ve grown fond of solo travel, there is something especially thrilling about seeing a foreign city with a good friend. Unfortunately, for me, Milan fell below my expectations. Yet that is not to say there isn’t plenty of tourist appeal. Let us start with the positives:
The Duomo (Cathedral)
This is inarguably the figure point of the city. If you travel by metro, the exits from the station bring you directly in front if it, and it is certainly an impressive first sight. You cannot move your eyes two feet across the outer architecture without meeting a sculpture; every inch is intricately designed, an enormous feat considering the size. The inside holds similar grandeur, with the usual religious sculptures and paintings yet more extravagant, and far higher in number. You can also visit a crypt below, where the remains of Archbishop Charles (or in Italian Carlo) Borromeo are held. The design here is incredible, and reminded me of the similarity to more ancient religions, such as in Egyptian culture, where deceased rulers were put to rest in glorious tombs to represent their status. Yet while physically beautiful, the atmosphere is slightly unnerving, as though dressed and ornamented, there is little other attempt to disguise the skeletal remains contained in the centre. There are also several other past popes on the ground floor of the cathedral, each in a see-through coffin-like box, ornamented with the traditional Catholic garb. If you happen to be squeamish, I wouldn’t look too closely at these.
As I’ve said in a previous post, these are to be found in nearly every village, so it is only right that Milan has one to compete. Being only a ten minute walk from the cathedral, it comes complete with the remains of a moat guarding the front entrance (now a perfect place to stretch out on the grass), and beautiful gardens extending out the back (providing a relaxing stroll and multiple picnic spots). The castle itself is open topped and, honestly, not the grandest I have seen in Italy; it is only the walls and entrance that highlight it’s status as a “castello vecchio”. Though certainly cause for admiration, it doesn’t quite have the fairytale feeling of others. That said, you cannot escape the awe as you enter through its artfully designed archway, and I recommend taking a moment to allow your imagination time to fill in the gaps that history has taken (entering over a moat is far more exciting than walking over a ditch).
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Milan is famed for it’s shopping experience and high fashion, and there is no where better to experience this than the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. While the average pocket may not allow for any purchases, the window shopping is exciting enough – just don’t get too distracted or you may miss the the stunning architecture! Designed in an octagonal shape, the galleried glass ceilings and wall art are truly stunning, reaching their apex in the central circle.
If you intend to visit the duomo and castello, I recommend using the metro stop for the duomo and walking between, along Via Dante. Though not the most popular for shopping, the street holds several fashionable shops (some of which are even affordable), as well as gelaterias and quick-stop cafés, all contained within elegant, traditional architecture. Yet the most appealing aspect for me was the street acts: in the ten minute walk you are sure to find at least a couple, some musicians, others more exotic – I spent a minute being entranced by two Indian men, both of who were meditating, one somehow balanced above the head of the other.
Combine these features and you could be in for an enjoyable, interesting afternoon. Unfortunately, if your purse isn’t full you may find little else to entertain you in the vicinity. The above features are truly the highlights, as if you take the metro more than four stops from the centre, there will be little to remind you that you are in one of the most famous cities in the world. Also, perhaps because of it’s popularity, there are several detriments I encountered which I feel should be in a warning to would be tourists or travellers:
The crowds and queues that defeat even British patience.
Busyness is to be expected in such a touristic and metropolitan city, of course. Yet for me it was difficult to understand the appeal of such crowds, and I would certainly warn against visiting at popular holiday times. Even in November, we struggled to find a place to eat where the queue wasn’t out the door, and were constantly sidestepping other pedestrians. Probably the most problematic aspect of the city is the contrast between the work and tourism industry: the white collar employees are rushing while the tourists are stopping in their paths to a photo.
The cost to your pocket.
Again, this is a feature of popular cities in general so cannot be held against it. I am also sure the shops and restaurants further from the centre provide more economic options. Yet if you are visiting the centre, I strongly advise you to heed the wise words I ignored, and take a packed lunch. In this way you can avoid the cost of at least €10 for only a basic lunch, as well as the queues mentioned above. If you must eat in the centre, always check the menu outside first: those pizzerias in the galleria may look beautiful, but wait til you see the prices.
By this I do not mean the useless shops appealing to tourists (thought I’m sure there are also plenty of these), but actual tricks to take tourists money by people on the street. The one I encountered, and apparently quite a popular one, involved a gentlemen offering two bands of string as “good luck” , tying them round my wrist without consent, and then him and his colleague (who had done the same with my friend) insisting on us giving them all our money for these bands. We gave them five Euros in total, thinking they meant a donation, yet when the words “empty your purse” came about we walked away. Thankfully, the tourist location means they cannot pursist past a certain point due to the many other people in the vicinity. But I am always going to regret those five Euros: they may have paid for half of one meal in Milan.
The easy mistakes on the metro.
The metro system is hugely popular in several Italian cities, allowing easy and fast transport between the suburbs and city centre. (It is an aspect I feel England should learn from: London may have the underground, but they seem to forget that other cities exist too, where people are forced to rely on the ever inconsistent buses). I have no qualms with the system itself, quite the opposite, yet I would warn people to check their tickets. The difference between the tickets available to buy is the amount of minutes they allow you to travel: in almost every case, the cheapest one is enough for one journey, allowing for 100 minutes. Yet if you will be changing lines, or are unsure if you’ll make it, pay the slightly higher price, or there will be a much steeper charge at the end of your journey. I unfortunately discovered this when I was forced to pay €5 for an exit pass, due to running over only a few minutes. Don’t think you can get away with just that extra minute: it is entirely automated, and you can’t trick machines. it is slightly frustrating that there isn’t more information provided on the process within the stations, with it being a means of transport for several tourists.
There are some truly breathtaking things to see in the centre of Milan. Yet the focus is here for a reason; much of the remaining city is nothing special, and fairly uncharacteristic. Go more than three stops from the centre and you are unlikely to recognise that you’re in one of the most famous cities in the world. I do hope to visit again in the search for other attractions – I have heard there are some interesting places for the nightlife – so I hope I can improve my opinion at a later date, and update you when I do so.