Milan. Italy’s second-largest city, where well-heeled Milanese, international businesswomen, and cosmopolitan tourists collide. This is not your Mama’s Sunday ragu type of town. But it is undoubtedly and wholly Italian in its own way.
Milan is the industrial and financial centre of the Italian state, but that doesn’t mean it sprang from the ground in the last fifty years. So while Milan hosts enough luxury goods conglomerates and mid-height skyscrapers to rival major US cities, it also has a deep historical backbone, and astounding corresponding architecture feats make up that spinal column.
A bit of background: Celts settled in Milan around 400 BC, sparking the earliest foundations for this soon-to-be bustling metropolis. (Wait, does this mean the Milanese are directly related to the Irish…interesting!) Due to its ideal location near the Po River and the Alps, since then, Milan has been targeted by and come under the control of the Visigoths, Romans, French, Austrians, and a slew of other folks. Milan finally went under Sardinian rule in 1861 and, shortly after that, became part of the Kingdom of Italy, thanks to Victor Emmanuel II. Milan further cemented its leading economic role after World War II, when immigrants from far-flung came to Milan and played a significant role in rebuilding the city. Finally, thanks to the likes of Giorgio and Gianni, Milan became eponymous with haute couture in the 1980s and has remained a significant stakeholder thanks to the likes of Dolce & Gabanna, Prada, and Missoni. Thanks, Wikipedia! Ok, enough with the history lesson. Andiamo!
Duomo di Milano
First on our list, the Duomo di Milano. One of the most popular attractions in Italy.
This religious monument seemingly rises out of nowhere from its many approaches. Not particularly surprising as it is wider than it is high, and surrounding buildings can obscure the majesty of the seat of Milan’s Catholic Church. You won’t want to miss it, though, for the exterior is a sight to behold. Mainly intricate stone carvings adorn every single side of the cathedral. But you may notice that several look out-of-place. Sure there are few gothic apostles, but then some more romanesque and almost-Victorian figures peek out from archways. Why? Because the Duomo took nearly 600 years to complete. (Ok, ok, I promise never to complain about a long reno project.) So let’s head inside, shall we?
The Duomo houses some of the world’s most beautiful works of art. My particular favourite (and one which sparked a specific saintly interest) was Marco d’ Agrate’s rendering of San Bartolomeo. This frightening sculpture showcases the martyred saint holding what appears to be a long swirling cloth. The artist depicted Bart in his post-martyr state, after the flaying. Yes, that means after Bartolomeo’s skin was removed from his living body. Gross. What is most impressive about this art piece is that d’Agrate had apparently never studied anatomy in-depth (dissections were disallowed by the Church).
Notwithstanding his rudimentary understanding of the scientific (likely akin to my own), d’Agrate depicted the human underbody in perfect form. Again, gross. But completely awe-inspiring.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
From the Duomo, we move quickly to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which, wouldn’t you know, named after the above-mentioned unifying King of Italy. Here you will find shops and (apparently tourist trap) restaurants to satisfy all of your retail needs. I prefer to shop Prada at my sample sales back in New York or online, and each her own. The Galleria is itself a beautiful work of glass and marble art and well worth a quick visit.
You can head straight out of the Galleria and across a small square to Teatro Alla Scala, Milan’s acclaimed opera house. While it looks like nothing from the outside, apparently, the interior is matchless. I hoped to secure tickets to a performance. Still, too many Tripadvisor reviews, warning of exorbitant ticket prices and abysmal views warned me off. The theatre was initially constructed as an ideal listening and social gathering place. While folks wanted to hear the performance, they were far more interested in looking at their wealthy neighbours than at the sopranos and tenors.
Sforza Castle is a decent walk from these other attractions but a worthwhile visit. It is, as expected, an old school castle. Bonus, there is no admission to enter the castle grounds for a relaxing late afternoon stroll. The castle houses museums as well, albeit at an additional fee.
Santa Maria Delle Grazie
Finally, we come to Milan to see da Vinci’s Last Supper. This is an experience. Both annoying and exhilarating.
If you took high school art, you probably have a vague memory of the exciting details of the piece. If not, Wikipedia probably does a better job than I could of giving you the refresher. It is truly a beautiful sight of which no recordings are permitted. Thankfully there is a miniature reproduction just outside the viewing area, where you can get your been there-did that photograph. That was exhilarating.
Now for the annoying. Viewing the Last Supper is limited to 15 minutes per person. The room has a capacity control of something like 25 people. You are ushered in through a series of pressurised doors and quickly ushered out once your time slot ends. Understand this is to preserve the delicate piece, but just know that this isn’t the space to sit and sketch your own final meal. Take my advice, the second you know your Milan travel dates, book your tickets.
Is that all I can visit in Milan?
There is probably much more to see in Milan, but this is what we accomplished in one day. I am pretty proud of myself. But I have to be completely honest. We took an organised Last Supper + Best of Milan tour, and I am so glad we did. Our guide, Ludovic, was witty and kind, in addition to being particularly knowledgeable about Milan’s Christian (and not so Christian past). He paced the group well and made sure we saw all of Milan’s hot spots. I hope next time we’ll have more days to tour.