Saul Schwartz took his wife Fern by the hand and crossed the great pond for the first time since the pandemic on a mission to fall in love with Europe again. And what better place to rekindle that romance than in Northern Italy?
What is the best way to spend 3 days in Milan? Let them show you:
By Saul Schwartz
Milan is underrated as a tourist destination, as many focus on its fashion industry. Fern enjoyed shopping at stores which were well beyond U.S. stores in terms of its offerings. The weather in late April was ideal for touring, with high temperatures around 18 degrees Celsius / 65 degrees Fahrenheit. It rained briefly on one of the three days.
Our first stop – and the first of many travellers arriving in Milan – was Milan’s monumental central train station; the largest train station in Italy. Built in 1931, it is truly an architectural adventure, with its art deco and art nouveau style. This gigantic and monumental building contains numerous sculptures. The station is beautifully decorated with winged horses, medallions, and mosaic panelling. We passed under a vaulted glass and steel domed ceiling on the upper level, leading to the 24 tracks. The Metro connects to the station, so we were there often.
Walking out of the station, a large spacious plaza contains a giant white Apple sculpture which was donated to Milan in honour of the food and nourishment themed Expo of 2015. The sculpture by Michelangelo Pistoletto is called The Big Apple of Milan. The plaza is often frequented by teenagers on skateboards and hawkers selling their inexpensive tourist wares.
Brera – the artist neighbourhood
We spent our first afternoon in Brera relaxing and adjusting to the new time zone (6 hours ahead of the U.S. Eastern Time). We took the Metro to Lanza station and walked to Brera art gallery (officially called Pinacoteca di Brera). Tickets for the day were sold out, but Fern and I were able to walk around the neoclassical Palazzo and the outside courtyard. The building was erected in the 17th century by the Jesuits and the centre of the inner courtyard is dominated by the large bronze statue of Napoleon in the guise of Mars the Peacemaker, erected in 1859. The outside corridors are settings for monuments celebrating artists, scientists, and benefactors of the gallery. After viewing the statute of Cesare Beccaria, I learned that that he was an important influence on American criminal justice.
This cool neighbourhood with its cobbled streets and is centered on Via Brera which features upscale shops, fashion boutiques and restaurants. We spent several hours sitting outside at Bar Brera having a light lunch. This neighbourhood watering hole has excellent sidewalk seats for people watching and our meal was accompanied by free bowls of olives and pistachio nuts. The prices were reasonable, and we enjoyed a vegan dessert and drinks.
Walking tour of Milan
To get a better orientation about Milan, we began our 2nd day with a 2,5 hour walking tour through Freetour.com. We took the Metro to the Duomo stop, as the tour began at the Piazza Duomo. Our certified guide Marco, a Milan local, was engaging, entertaining and knowledgeable about his city. With a walking tour by tip, we paid our guide 20 Euros at the end of the tour, as there is no set fee in advance.
Vittorio Emanuele II Galleria
We really liked it that Marco took us to several sites that we might otherwise not have visited. He provided us with background as we entered through a triumphal arch into the beautiful Vittorio Emanuele II Galleria. Just off Piazza Duomo, the gallery is much more than an upscale shopping arcade with exclusive brands and luxury goods.
Contained within a soaring high curved iron and glass ceiling, the gallery is called Milan’s drawing room. Underneath a glass dome, there are lovely patriotic mosaics, decorations, and murals. The gallery with its splendid, covered arcade was created by celebrated architect Giuseppe Mengoni in 1877. Its two arcades form a cross-shape. It is also nicknamed the Salon of Milan because it is a popular gathering place. The five story buildings have facades resembling a grand palace.
University of Milan
Marco then took us to the University of Milan. He explained that a large rectangular red brick building arranged around a series of courtyards in the centre of the University served until 1939 as what was then one of the finest hospitals in Europe. Sculptures are contained over the main entrance gate. Built in a late Renaissance style, Marco explained that the hospital was innovative in focusing on curing patients rather than palliative care with individual rooms for each patient.
Marco then discussed the sculpture next to the main campus of the University. Astronomer Margherita Hack became the first female scientist honoured with a public statue in Italy. Hack, who was born in 1922 and died in 2013, was a high-profile figure for decades in the country, where she was a prominent science communicator. She is credited with inspiring generations of young women to pursue a career in science. The bronze monument of the astronomer looking through here hands as if they are a telescope is by Italian artist Sissi.
Next, we went over to Piazza Mercanti. This public square was once the centre of Milan’s commercial and governmental life, surrounded by important public buildings. Today the square has retained its historic architecture. At the centre of the square is a 16th century pit, surmounted by two 18th century columns. It houses four buildings constructed as early as the 13th century. The small square is now quiet, with several vendors and a McDonald’s nearby.
We walked by several churches of interest. Outside San Bernardino alle Ossa, Marco explained that this location was once the site of several now non-existent canals which were used to transport goods, such as the marble for building the Duomo. He showed us Santa Maria presso San Satiro, a church which was built in the 15th century on the site of a 9th century place of worship. The tour ended by a marble statute called Love by a controversial modern Italian artist named Cattelan.
After the tour, we then stopped for a light lunch at the Starbucks Roastery at Piazza Cordusio. Inside the historic Poste building, the 25000 square foot Reserve Roastery is clearly a homage to the Italian coffee culture. We ate outside on the terrace. I enjoyed an unusual strawberry iced tea-based drink called the Strawberry Silver Needle.
Inside sits a fully functioning coffee roaster, manufactured just miles outside of the centre of Milan. The wood-fronted bar echoes a motif found in Italian architecture and is topped with marble sourced from the world-famous quarries of Tuscany. Upstairs on the mezzanine, a 30-foot-long marble bar was carved from a single block of marble. And there is a wood-fired oven, built onsite by hand using a crew of masons and artisans.
A monumental Cemetery
We took the Metro to the Monumentale stop to visit the Cimitero Monumentale, the Monumental Cemetery. Outside the cemetery features striking Renaissance-revival black and white walls. Inside, the cemetery contains a vast number of grand sculptures with a wide variety of artistic styles. The cemetery opened in 1866 and there is no charge to wander the grounds. It is famous for its artistic tombs, sculptures, and elaborate mausoleums. The cemetery is open daily and is a member of the European Cemeteries Route, recognized as a cultural route of Europe.
The main entrance leads through the Hall of Fame, a massive marble and stone building containing the tombs of notable Italians. We strolled along with a map provided inside the forecourt (in Italian) which highlights the most interesting monuments. Fern and I spent most of our time visiting the tombs of Jewish descent (labelled as Israeli on the map) on the far-right side from the entrance. The Jewish section, opened in 1872, contains many artistic Jewish stars, menorahs and dramatic sculptures including angels and women weeping. Many noted Italian architects designed shrines in this section.
Just inside the cemetery grounds, there is the stark and moving geometric steel and marble memorial to Milan’s 800 World War II concentration-camp dead. The World War II memorial was designed by the Italian rationalist architect group BBRP.
A night at the Opera
We purchased advance tickets for the opera Lucia di Lammermoor at the iconic Teatro alla Scalla on the theatre’s official web site. Balcony seat prices began at 36 Euros. As a popular entertainment centre for tourists and locals, advance ticket purchases are recommended. Otherwise, you may have to pay a premium ticket price from a ticket reseller. Opera greats have performed at La Scala over the years and its auditorium is richly decorated.
The world-famous theatre lists a strict dress code that prohibits wearing shorts, miniskirts, slippers or sleeveless T-shirts. Most Italians come dressing their best. A rule of thumb is that the closer one sits to the stage, the more you should get dressed up. The theatre is easily accessible from several metro stops, including the Duomo stop.
The 2800 seat theatre was inaugurated in 1778. Outside the eye-catching façade is notable for its elegance and classical proportions, with half columns leading up to a design featuring Helios in his golden chariot being chased by advancing night. Inside, the lovely opera house contains six gilt and crimson tires underneath a huge glass chandelier. It is a lavish centre for entertainment. Posters throughout the theatre hint of centuries of musical drama performed within this elegant venue. The schedule includes ballet, concerts and opera. The acoustics are amazing. When the theatre filled up with attendees, we were a little too warmly dressed as the theatre heated up.
Private tour of the Duomo
We booked a two-hour individual guided tour of the Duomo through the cathedral’s official web site. Our guide Fabbrica was extremely knowledgeable, providing us with extensive information and answering all our questions. The cost of $54 Euros included admission to the cathedral, along with its archaeological area and the Duomo’s rooftops. In addition, the advance booking allowed us to skip the lines and enter each area with our guide. We took the Metro to the Duomo stop and met our guide at the Duomo ticket office, right by the cathedral.
On the outside, with its white marble façade with its over 3000 sculptures, pinnacles and 135 spires piecing the sky, Milan’s Duomo cathedral is a gothic masterpiece. We particularly liked the sculpture of Grandma Liberty on the front façade, a predecessor to the Statute of Liberty. Construction began in 1387, but additions were made throughout the 19th century and restoration in the 20th century. It is one of the largest cathedrals in the world.
The Duomo sits in a vast piazza which is crowded with vendors, locals, and tourists. In the centre of the plaza, Milan’s most popular square, there is an impressive statue of Vittorio Emanuele II on horseback, the first king of independent and unified Italy. This monument was installed in 1896 and stands upon a marble pedestal with lions on either side. This area has been the focal point of the city since the Roman era.
The Duomo di Milano is the city’s main Catholic place of worship. Inside, Fabbrica guided us around the five naves and the 52 pillars. Highlights included the 55 colourful large stained-glass windows and the flooring with bright patterns of different coloured marble. We went downstairs to see the archaeological ruins from a prior church, including a 4th century Christian baptistery. We then took an elevator to the roof for a close-up look at some of the 96 gargoyles, spires and the central spire topped statue of the Madonna made of copper. From the rooftops, we could see the modern Milan skyscrapers in the distance.
For a quick lunch, we headed nearby to the Rinascente department store. On the 7th floor, there is a food court with restaurants and other food options. Several more formal restaurants had an outside terrace looking out at the Duomo. We chose a more informal option and ate a quick meal inside.
Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and other Renaissance Treasures
We took the Metro to the Cadorna station to view Leonard da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper. The painting is contained within the wonderful small church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The artist painted it from 1495 to 1497. Advanced tickets are a must. We booked our tickets through the Milan Museum site, which included a tour guide and headphones.
To preserve the painting, tours are only allowed for 15 minutes to view Milan’s most famous painting, which is located on a wall of the church. Unfortunately, the 42 square meter iconic mural is now deteriorating, despite restoration work, due to exposure to the elements, bombings from World War II and bad restoration efforts. Our guide provided her viewpoint on this work which is the scene of Jesus last meal with his disciples before his arrest.
At the other end of the church is the ignored fresco of the Crucifixion painted in 1495 by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano. Ironically this work was painted at the same time as The Last Supper. The church was completed in 1490, but later additions have been made.
Our ticket also included a trip inside the Church of San Maurizio, which contains many beautiful colourful frescoes of religious scenes. The interior is stunning. We particularly liked a different version of The Last Supper and a Noah’s Ark painting which included two unicorns on the ramp to the ark. The nondescript exterior of the 16th century church hides the breath-taking frescoes. The decorations were paid for by powerful Milan clans. Most were painted by Bernardino Luini, who worked with Da Vinci.
Outside the church you can view some of the ancient Roman ruins. The remains of the original structure are in the form of two Romanic towers. The church was formally the church of a Benedictine convent and dates to 1515. Today the church is used by locals and as a concert venue, as well with an impressive organ dating back to the 1500s. It was interesting to see the way the church is divided into a public area with a main alter and an area for the nuns where the choir is located, underneath a vaulted ceiling.
The two-hour afternoon tour ended at Sforza Castle. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day for us to tour this historic fortress.
Milan exceeded our travel expectations. When in Northern Italy, it would be a mistake to not spend a few days in Milano! We felt that three days in Milan was just about right to cover the major attractions. Certainly, an additional days’ worth of sites would have been doable without being bored.
By staying near the Central Station, it was very easy for Fern and me to head by train to our next destination: Florence. Stay tuned for more Adventures in Northern Italy!
In love with northern Italy? Perhaps these will enamour you:
To the airport
My wife Fern and I had not been to Europe since we had to hastily leave Ireland in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Neither of us had previously been to Northern Italy before. We chose to begin our return to Europe in our top bucket list destination – Northern Italy with stops in Milan, Florence, Pisa and Venice. From the Washington, D.C. airports there are no non-stops into Northern Italy, so we began our adventure with a one-stop flight to Milan’s Linate Airport. In Italian, the city is referred to as Milano.
From the airport
Milan Linate Airport is 7 kilometres east of the city centre. It was easy to get from Linate to Milan’s Stazione Centrale (the Central Station) by an express air-conditioned bus, costing 7 Euros and taking less than 30 minutes. The bus was comfortable. There were no stops between the airport and the train station. The bus was easily found when we exited the airport, and we were able to buy tickets at the bus stop by credit card. Milan’s Metro does not go to Linate.
The Hilton Milan is two blocks from Central Station, located at Via Luigi Galvani 12. The hotel featured a large fitness centre open 24 hours a day with modern cardio equipment and weights, a superb breakfast buffet and a very nice executive lounge with light dinner offerings, drinks, and a pleasant outdoor terrace. Like all Milan lodgings, guests must pay the city tax of 10 Euros daily in addition to the hotel rate. Our guest room was quite comfortable. The location is super convenient for public transportation access (by Metro or train).
The Hilton adjoins an Aldi supermarket where we purchased lunch items to have on the go between seeing sites. This Aldi had a wide variety of food items at good prices.
Milan has a world class public transportation system. All the sites we visited were close to Metro stops. Navigating the four lines was easy, with announcements and signage in both English and Italian. The lines are numbered one, two, three and five, and are color-coded. We are not sure what happened to line four!
We started each day at the central station (Centrale) Metro, which is on two of the Metro lines. The Metro cars were crowded, but clean. The three-day pass was great value for 13 Euros, allowing us unlimited access to trams, Metro trains and buses.
Resources and tips
- Although somewhat outdated, Lonely Planet’s Pocket Milan was a useful guide to attractions and practical information, such as the nearest Metro stop and maps.
- Rick Steves always provides extremely detailed tips for European travel. We listened to several of his Milan playlist tours and interviews.
- Also, the Visit a City app provides recommended plans for top sights to see in one to three days and tour offers to purchase.
- It is important to have change for the public toilets which range from one to two Euros per visit.
About Saul Schwartz
Saul lives in Alexandria, Virginia and has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1984. He loves to travel throughout Europe with his wife and family and particularly enjoys interacting with local residents and learning about life in their city and country.
Saul has previously shared his travel insights with us. Check out his story about Touring Southwest Ireland – Limerick, Clare & Galway or check out his trip to Modern Athens – Beyond the Acropolis or his fascination with The Vatican: Rome of the Popes.