In March, 2017, I spent just over a day in beautiful Milan. This city was so much more than I expected. Mark and I spent 8 wonderful days in Florence and found a convenient flight home to Texas through Milan. I did a little research and found there are some great things to see and do there, so we decided to spend an extra two days and explore a bit. If the weather had been warmer, we would have extended our trip even longer and ventured up to the Lake district to look around. We would have gone to Lake Como at a minimum.
Here is a summary of our jam-packed 1.5 days in Milan. We saw a lot, and there is no way we could have seen this much without the assistance of our private guide, Laura. We hired her through Walking Tour Milan, and they also do all kinds of great group tours. You can find them at this website.
We arrived in Milan via the Stazione Centrale, an imposing Mussolini era train station. The trip took us just over 1.5 hours on the Frecciarossa high speed train from Florence. This was an extremely pleasant and easy ride. We had a lot of luggage, so we upgraded to “executive class” to keep things easy. We bought our tickets on-line in advance and had a driver pick us up in Milan. The journey was the incredibly simple.
We dropped our luggage off at our hotel (Sina De La Ville, very nice!) and began exploring the city right away. Our hotel was just around the corner from the Duomo square, Piazza del Duomo, and the heart of all the action, so that was perfect!
The first thing we saw in the Piazza was the incredible Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an absolutely beautiful covered shopping alley. The shops there included Versace, Prada and Luis Vuitton. It also had numerous restaurants, bars and one of only two SEVEN star hotels in the world. Wow!
It really is so much more than a shopping mall!
Next we toured what is arguably the MOST recognized landmark of Milan, the Duomo. It was spectacular! Construction of this magnificent church took over 700 years!
The interior of the Duomo is as spectacular as the exterior. Our guide told us there are 52 columns inside, one for every week of the year. We took her word for that, and didn’t count to verify. It looks a little bit like a forest to me.
It is incredibly impressive looking down the length of the Cathedral to the altar. We could not walk down this center aisle, but worshipers go there on Sundays and holy days.
This statue of St. Bartholomew is impressive, beautiful, and gruesome all at the same time. It depicts St. Bartholomew after his skin has been removed (that is how he was killed). Here, we see him with his skin draped over his shoulder. You can even see his face there just on top of his shoulder blade.
The anotomic detail of this statue was done with such skill that many thought Leonardo was the sculptor for a while , but it later proved to be the work of one of his students.
The Stained Glass windows behind the altar are from the 15th century and are in the oldest section of this Duomo. Each panel tells a story from the Bible. Back in the days when the parishioners were illiterate and the mass was spoken in Latin, this was how the lessons of the Bible were “written” for the people.
Our ticket included a visit up on the roof of the Duomo. Views up here are spectacular, and walking amongst all the gargoyles, spires and buttresses is a very cool experience. Fair warning: this isn’t the best place if you are afraid of heights or if your mobility is limited in any way.
Next we went to the La Scala museum. La Scala is one of the most famous opera houses in the world, and I wanted to take a peek inside. We were lucky, because the peek inside is not always available to museum visitors. The museum is fairly small , and to be honest, if opera isn’t your thing, it might not be worth the time to go here. This stop didn’t take us all that long, so it wasn’t a waste.
Our next stop, however, was a major highlight of our time in Milan, the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. This is where you find Leonardo’s Last Supper. It has deteriorated and been restored many times. The art is so fragile that access is VERY limited. They only allow 24 people in at a time for only 15 minutes. Getting reservations is quite difficult. We went in the off season, and were told that reservations sold out three months prior. Summer is much worse. Since we could not get in with our own reservation, we had to scramble a bit. I was lucky enough to find a group tour with Zani Viaggi that had two extra spots available, so we took their tour, and gained access with them. If you take away nothing else from this post, remember this: GET YOUR TICKETS ARRANGED WELL IN ADVANCE TO SEE THE LAST SUPPER!
On this tour, I learned many things about the fresco. There were two facts that were particularly surprising. One is that this room was bombed in WW2 and only the wall with the Last Supper remained standing. The room was not restored for several years, and the painting was in open air. Secondly, the room where you find the painting was the monks’ dining hall. At some point, the monks cut a hole and build a door through the painting to achieve better access to their kitchen. Let me repeat…. THEY CUT A HOLE IN LEONARDO’S LAST SUPPER . Now Jesus’ feet are not there anymore.
It isn’t easy to gain access to see this work of art, but I really think your visit to Milan would not be complete if you missed it.
On our next day, we got up early to visit The Basilica Sant Ambrogio, one of Milan’s oldest basilicas. It was founded in 379 by Ambrose, himself. Ambrose was buried here in 397. It is easy to tour this church on your own, as there are many English signs explaining things. Most of the church is free to access, but they charge 1 Euro to see the little museum collection. It was interesting and worth it to me. (see the nativity below).
The interior of the Basilica is good for about 30 minutes of exploration.
In the museum section of the church, which you pay 1 Euro to access, there is a nice collection of frescoes, relics and treasures. The thing that really touched my heart, however, was this nativity. It is sort of off in the back, tucked away. The nativity scene was created during WW2 by a group of Italian soldiers who were prisoners in a German Concentration Camp. Together, they crafted the scene using whatever they could find around them. It was made with bits of wood, fabric, paper, and the star is made of barbed wire. I can only imagine these poor soldiers at Christmas time crafting this scene.
Our private guide suggested we stop in to see the Church of San Maurizio. This church is divided in half with a beautifully frescoed wall. One side of the church is for the public and the other half was for cloistered nuns. Every inch of this church is covered with colorful frescoes painted by Bernardino Luini, a follower of Leonardo. It is free to enter here, and close to many major sights. Definitely worth taking a peek inside.
Almost as imposing a landmark as the Duomo, the Castello Sforza is also a must-see stop on your tour of Milan. You can walk around the grounds for free. This castle is very large and imposing. It is pretty much what you would expect a castle to be. It even has moats and draw bridges. The Sforzas ruled Milan during its “golden age” , and were the ones who brought Leonardo to Milan.
Inside the Sforza, you will find Michelangelo’s unfinished Pieta. This was his last work, and he died while working on it. Even though it was not completed, it captures the pain of Mary, the mother of Christ, as she holds up the lifeless body of her son. If you look closely, you can see the chisel marks and picture the aged Michelangelo sculpting away at this block of marble, and how difficult it was becoming for him .
Our last stop before heading out to the airport was The Brera Art Gallery. This museum was constructed by Napoleon and was filled with his “acquired” art works. In the center of the courtyard is a statue of Napoleon made to look like a Greek God. Word is that it is not a very good likeness!
Inside the Pinocoteca di Brera, you will find many great masterpieces. There is quite a collection of Polyptychs and Tryptychs. We saw Mantegna’s Dead Christ, with its unique use of perspective, works by Raphael, Caravaggio, Canaletto, Tintoretto, Bellini, and this one, Francesco Hayez’s The Kiss. It was unique at its time because of the passion it showed.
On our way to the airport, we got one last view of the moon over the Duomo at night. Spectacular!