The plane touched down at Milan Malpensa Airport in the early morning. I was tired after a very long travel-day from Los Angeles.
The capital of Lombardy and Italy’s second largest city, Milan is located in northern Italy, an hour from the Swiss border. Metropolitan Milan spreads across a broad valley bounded by the Po and Ticino rivers, lakes and the Alps. Famed as a center for fashion, design, shopping, art, the culinary arts and entertainment, the heart and soul of the city is the Duomo, Milan’s majestic cathedral that took six hundred years to create.
For centuries, no building in Milan could be taller than the cathedral. Today there are taller buildings, but they are not close enough to disturb the Duomo’s domination of the city center.
To be near the city center, I booked a room at the 4-Star boutique hotel Maison Milano – UNA Experienze, one block from the Duomo.
The train service from Malpensa was an easy way to transfer into Milan, but the concierge desk at Maison Milano suggested booking a car service to meet me at arrivals. After an overnight flight, I appreciated the comfort of a car on the hour drive into the city.
At Maison Milano, I was greeted by the friendly staff, offered a welcoming beverage and invited to check my luggage until my room was available. Armed with suggestions from the front desk, I headed out into the city.
Milan has an efficient, easy-to-use public transportation system, but I decided to walk, to put myself up-close with the city.
Before there would be exploring, I needed an espresso. I stopped at Bar Madonnina. Popular with tourists and locals alike, the café had an outdoor covered patio, a stand up bar inside and a downstairs dining room. At the cashier’s desk, I paid for a double espresso and joined the crowd at the bar.
From behind the counter, men in crisp black vests and starched white shirts efficiently served espresso drinks and sandwiches. The variety was impressive. Sandwiches could be made in a dozen different combinations with mozzarella, speck, brie, bresaola, salami, turkey or salmon on focaccia, baguettes, piadina or panini.
The coffee arrived, hot, strong and full of flavor, just what I needed. I sipped my espresso and watched customers pick up their sandwiches from the counter. Now, I was ready to begin my adventure. Outside, the weather was perfect for walking, overcast and cool. After so many hours confined in airplanes and airports, I was happy to be on foot.
Milan’s Cathedral, the Duomo
The fifth largest cathedral in the world, Milan’s Duomo is the largest in Italy. St. Peter’s Basilica is larger, but, technically, it is in Vatican City, not Italy.
I walked across the wide plaza (Piazza del Duomo) in front of the Duomo. People fed pigeons, took selfies with the cathedral in the background and hung out around the statue of King Victor Emmanuel II, the first ruler of a unified Italy.
To the left of the cathedral, the elegant 19th century shopping mall, the Galleria, also named for King Victor Emmanuel II, shared the block with the upscale La Rinascente department store. To the right of the cathedral, the sprawling Royal Palace (Palazzo Reale di Milano) housed several museums, including one dedicated to the history of the Duomo and one devoted to 20th Century Art (Museo del Novencento in the Palazzo dell’Arengario).
My tour of the Duomo began outside with the massive doors facing the plaza.
Decorated with metal reliefs, the doors told stories from the Bible and church history. They were remarkable for the emotion conveyed in the faces of the men, women and angels. In one tableau, as Jesus accepted his fate to be crucified, two women huddled close together, consumed by grief, their faces contorted in pain. That emotion was not shared by the angels nearby who showed resolve, quietly confident that this was all God’s plan.
For centuries, out of reverence and for good luck, pilgrims touched the figures on the door. After so many fingers brushed against the dulled metal, its dark patina was worn away to reveal the bright bronze underneath.
Inside, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the subdued lighting. I took time to appreciate the artistry and scale of the cathedral. Construction began in 1386 and continued for centuries. Solid stone columns were erected to create an arched ceiling hundreds of feet overhead.
The imposing scale of the cathedral’s interior was meant to inspire awe. But the Duomo was also meant to be an intimate sanctuary for reflection. Benches and chairs were gathered together so devotes could sit in contemplation while devotional candles burned in front of icons.
My next stop was the cathedral’s imposing roof.
The Fast-Track elevator was small. Five-people small. Besides the operator, that meant only four people at a time could ride up to the roof of the Duomo.
From the street, the top of the cathedral hundreds of feet away appeared to be a lattice work of delicate spires and distant human figures. A few steps out of the elevator, the view of the city was spectacular. But, more impressive than the city view was being able to see the work of the master stone masons who had labored centuries before. I could see up close the rough faces of the glowering gargoyles and the statues of clergy and saints as they gazed out over Milan.
To better appreciate the history of the cathedral and its magnificent artifacts, I visited the Museum of the Duomo, across the street in the Royal Palace.
Collected through the centuries, nothing, it seemed, was ever discarded. Chalices, gargoyles, religious icons, stained glass windows, tapestries, sculptures in painted wood and stone, terracotta reliefs and water spouts sculpted into the mouths and bodies of women, men and monsters were all carefully curated.
Instead of creating large, impersonal rooms, the museum was laid out as a labyrinth. A narrow path led from one darkened space into another. Pools of lights illuminated the artifacts, giving them a spectral quality. Sculptures of men and women from the bible, saints and church figures were displayed in the eerily quiet rooms. Some figures were life-sized, others were the size of giants, all were fighting a war between good and evil.
In another wing of the Royal Palace complex, in the Palazzo dell’Arengario, I visited the Museum of the Twentieth Century (Museo del Novecento). Like the Guggenheim, visitors begin a tour of the galleries by hiking to the top of the building and then walking down.
The well-curated museum highlighted works by early 20th century avant-garde artists including Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and the Italian Futurists Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), Carlo Carrà (1881-1966) and Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964).
Besides the museums in the Royal Palace, Milan has a wealth of museums documenting the grand achievement of human art across the centuries from the ancient to the contemporary.
Cozy cafes, elegant tea rooms and a world class food court
Before I left the Royal Palace, I stopped in Giacomo Caffé. Nestled in the arched building between the two museums, the delightful café had a stand up espresso bar and dining rooms. I ordered an espresso and lingered at the bar enjoying a quiet moment in the beautifully designed room.
In Milan, I visited many places like Giacomo Caffé. Intimate espresso shops, tea rooms and small cafes, perfect places to spend time relaxing, reading or enjoying the company of others in conversation.
Later that first day, as the skies darkened, I walked north from the Duomo to fashionable Brera. The narrow streets were lined with small restaurants, bakeries, antique dealers, upscale food purveyors, clothing boutiques, churches, museums and art galleries.
When it started to rain, I ducked into Ristorante il Cestino on the corner of Via Brera and Via Madonnina. The restaurant had a wood burning pizza oven, brick walls lined with bottles of wine, white tablecloths and glass-fronted display cases filled with fresh seafood on thick beds of ice.
I arrived before the restaurant opened for the lunch service. No matter, owner Agostino Ragno invited me to sit at a table and served me a complimentary glass of Prosecco while I studied the menu. After walking around the city, I needed something simple and nourishing. I ordered a green salad and spaghetti with clams.
Outside, the drizzle had become a steady downpour. As the lunch service began, the restaurant quickly filled with customers, shaking the rain off their umbrellas and taking off their water-slicked raincoats.
My lunch was exactly what I needed. The salad was farm-fresh, the lettuce crisp and clean tasting. The plate of spaghetti with clams in their shells was classic Italian. Quality ingredients were presented with a minimum of fuss, seasoned only with olive oil and parsley.
On the way back to Maison Milano, I stopped in La Rinascente, an upscale department store opposite the Duomo. Every floor was bustling and festive with holiday decorations.
Riding the escalator from the 6th to the 7th floor, when I saw the faceted ceiling illuminated by a sultry dark orange light, I knew I was in for a treat. The lighting reminded me of the times when I hid underneath the bed covers as a child. Reading a book with a flashlight after my mother had turned off the lights, the amber light illuminating words and pictures of fairy tales.
The 7th floor was a foodie-paradise. Half a dozen restaurants served a variety of cuisines, from upscale bar food to local Italian and international dishes. In the center of the floor, a market was stocked with quality packaged goods. Jars were filled with culinary treats, truffles, mushrooms, pickled vegetables, tomato sauces and pates.
In addition to the market, a store sold hand-crafted sweets, chocolates and baked goods in glass-fronted display cases that glowed with soft light. I would have happily purchased a box of the chocolate-dipped candied oranges, marzipan shaped to look like baby fruit and colorful bags of Italian cookies. But I had my eyes on the sfogliatella, my favorite Italian pastry. Half a dozen were displayed under a clear dome, like precious gems in a jewelry store.
As I left La Rinascente, the sky threatened to add more rain to the already slickened paving stones. The sight of the Duomo, its Gothic spires and dramatic façade illuminated by bright-white lights stopped me in my tracks. With hundreds of others, I stood in the rain, taking in the beauty of Milan’s cathedral.
At Maison Milan, a welcoming plate of fresh fruit and a refrigerator packed with complimentary sodas and fresh fruit juices was waiting for me. My room had a sitting area separated from the sleeping area. I sat next to the window with busy Via Giuseppe Mazzini below.
Settled into the comfortable chair, I cut open the sfogliatella from La Rinascente. The outer leaves crackled as they gave way to reveal the thickened, sweet ricotta custard inside. The sound of car tires on the wet pavement was the soundtrack to my happy moment. I enjoyed the sfogliatella as I studied a map of Milan, looking forward to the next day’s adventures.
The Fashion District (Quadrilatero della Moda)
Milan is home to many of the world’s best designers. The experience of window shopping on the fashion district’s streets of Via Manzoni, Corso Venezia, Villa della Spiga, Via Sant’Andrea and Via Monte Napoleone can be overwhelming.
Walking on Via Monte Napoleone between Via Alessandro Manzoni and Corso Giacomo Matteotti, I passed a who’s-who of high-end, branded clothing and accessory stores.
Celine, Valentino, Pucci, Sergio Rossi, Cartier, Salvatore Ferragamo, Bottega Veneta, Rolex, Monte Blanc, Brunello Cucinelli, Pinko, Bally, Corneliani, Falconeri, Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani and Moncler Louis Vuitton.
Each store had inviting front windows that created a diorama of its version of well-dressed luxury.
On the corner of Via Pietro Verri and Via Monte Napoleone, next door to Prada and across the street from Larusmiani Milano and Gucci was the elegant tea room, Cova Montenapoleone.
Cova is one of Milan’s treasures. Desserts were displayed in the window with as much care as the accessories, jewelry and clothing in the luxury designer shops nearby. Inside, elaborate cut crystal chandeliers floated above the dining rooms and bakery. The confections in the bright display cases seemed as if they were color coordinated with the interior design. The tablecloths, walls and ceilings in understated off-whites, pale oranges, dark browns and pale yellows were the same colors as Cova’s cakes, candies, chocolates and petite fours.
A guided tour
For my first two days, in a voyage of accidental-discovery, I embraced being lost because everywhere I walked, I found something to enjoy, even if I never knew exactly where I was. I stumbled onto the iconic opera house, La Scala and the less famous but popular Veg-Mi Trike, a plant-based food cart on a side street near the Duomo.
On the third day, Fiamma Bozzolo connected the dots.
An experienced guide, Fiamma triangulated the city center using where I had walked with the Duomo on one side and the Sforza Castle (Castello Sforzesco) on the other.
On a blue sky, sunny day, Fiamma began the tour in the Galleria with its giant glass-domed ceiling. She pointed out the historical restaurants that were popular with tourists who wanted an elegant Italian meal. Ristorante Savini served Milanese style risotto with saffron and Compari’s Camparino had recently reopened. In the center of the Galleria, where the two arms of the complex cross underneath the glass dome, two Prada stores faced one another. One, the first Prada store, opened in 1913 to sell designer luggage. The other store opened in 2013.
Walking through the Galleria, we entered bustling La Scala Square, framed on one side by the the opera house and by City Hall on the other. As we turned down side streets. Fiamma pointed out that just a block from busy tourist areas, the neighborhoods were quiet, populated by locals going about their daily lives.
We walked past Panzerotti Luini, famous for its calzone-like panzerotti, fried or baked pockets of dough filled with cheeses, meats and vegetables. I was tempted to try their signature Pomodoro e Mozzarella (tomato and cheese) panzerotti, but it was too early in the day.
We stopped at Iginio Massari on Via Marconi to look at chef Massari’s elegant pastries and handmade chocolates, then around the corner on Via Spadari to Princi Bakery and Panarello, two pastry shops across the street from one another. Down the block we stopped at Peck, an upscale market that sold high quality Italian products including fresh produce, fruit, charcuterie, cheeses, spices, fresh and dried pasta, meat, poultry, fish, wine, chocolates, baked goods and ready-to-eat food. The interior design of the store was as elegant as a Tiffany boutique.
Now that we had explored the area around the Duomo, Fiamma said she had a special destination to show me. I was pretty certain I sensed a sly smile as she said she wanted me to see one of Milan’s newest attractions.
An unexpected surprise on the way to a castle
Two blocks northwest from the Duomo, we stopped at Cordusio Square (Piazza Cordusio), dominated by the statue of the poet Giuseppe Parini (1729-1799). Fiamma gestured to an imposing building on the corner of the busy street. The sign was unmistakable.
Starbucks. The first in Milan. But this was not your regular-one-on-every-corner-neighborhood Starbucks. Located in a restored, historic building, Starbucks had created a Circus-Maximus sized emporium to coffee and Italian culture.
Inside the sweeping, open space, the ceiling rose several stories to accommodate a giant Scolari coffee roaster that dominated the middle of the auditorium-sized room. The coffee roaster’s polished metal reflected the sacks of coffee stacked neatly on the marble floor. Pneumatic tubes ran overhead to bring freshly roasted beans directly to the baristas at their coffee stations.
Besides baristas making coffee beverages, there were stations for merchandise, a café bar serving American and Italian style sandwiches and salads, baked goods from Princi and a gelato bar. Fiamma was correct in assuming that I would enjoying visiting this large and glamorous Starbucks, so different from the one I frequent at home.
From Starbucks, we walked fifteen minutes northwest on Via Cordusio, across the busy city center, to Sforza Castle (Castello Sforzesco).
Just before entering the castle grounds, Fiamma pointed out two important landmarks. A heroic statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), a general revered for his efforts on behalf of Italian unification. The other landmark, one of the most popular tourist stops in Milan, was the sandwich shop, Chiosco Square Calcio. Crowds were lined up at the kiosk-café to order sandwiches named for popular soccer stars and teams.
To enter the Castle, we crossed over a bridge and looked down at what had once been a moat designed to keep out attackers but now was a grassy lawn, home to several dozen feral cats and their families.
Originally built in the 15th century by the Dukes of Milan on what had been a 14th century fortification, Sforza Castle was expanded over the centuries and transformed from a military fort and ducal residence into one of Milan’s most popular public spaces.
The spacious interiors were occupied by nine museums and the Trivulziana Library which contains Leonardo da Vicini’s “Codex Trivulzianus.” The museums had collections documenting Italian art from the Renaissance, ancient art, musical instruments, Egyptian artifacts, an archeological museum and a museum of antique furniture, print making and applied arts (jewelry, pottery and art glass).
The Castle adjoins Simplon Park (Parco Sempione), a large public park with lawns and wooded areas and the Arc of Peace (Arco della Pace), a monument that is similar in style to Paris’ Arc of Triumph.
With the tour ending, Fiamma pointed out there was so much more to see. On my next visit, I could use trams to visit the Canals District (Navigli di Milano) to have an aperitif at one of the many bars and restaurants. Milan had more historic areas to explore as well as futuristic Porta Nuova and Isola to visit hip stores and dive bars and the Garibaldi District with Eataly and dozens of cafes and bakeries. I was excited to return to learn more about Milan.
WHEN YOU GO:
Milan Tourism’s official website, Yes Milano, has a great many resources including a top ten list of what to do in Milan, guides to Milan’s museums, top tourist attractions, holiday events, sporting facilities, theaters, musical performances, public monuments, parks, family-friendly destinations and events related to the 500th year of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. A transportation hub, Milan is easily reached by planes, trains, buses and automobiles.
Chiosco Square Calcio, Piazza Castello, 4, 20121 Milano MI, +38 351 997 0393. Outdoor seating next to the kiosk. A colorful signboard lists all the sandwiches named for soccer players and teams. Besides serving sandwiches, the kiosk sells sodas, wine, coffee beverages and tea.
Ciacco Gelato Senz’Altro, Via Spadari, 13, 20123 Milano MI, +39 02 3966 3592. Locals told me that this was the best Gelato in Milan. Gelato in a dozen flavors. The menu is in Italian only.
Cova Montenapoleone, Via Monte Napoleone, 8, 20121 Milano MI, +39 02 7600 5599. The tea room and patisserie offer upscale delights. The dining room serves breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea and aperitif. The décor is as elegantly lovely as the dessert offerings. The store sells cakes, pastries, chocolates, coffees, teas, wine, holiday desserts and gifts. Reflecting the elegance of the Milan store, there are stores in Monaco, Hong Kong, Dubai, Tokyo and Shanghai.
Duomo of Milan (Duomo di Milano), Piazza del Duomo, 20122 Milano MI. Consult the website for an informative overview of the cathedral’s history. To save time before you visit, purchase tickets on the website. The Fast-Track Option offers skip-the-ticket-line access to the museum and a ride on the dedicated elevator to the roof, purchased separately. The museum of artifacts from the Duomo is located across the street in the Duomo Museum, Royal Palace, Piazza del Duomo 12. Tickets for the Museum may also be purchased on the Duomo website.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Piazza del Duomo, 20123 Milano MI. A popular tourist destination in the Duomo plaza. The 19th-century four-story building stretches over several blocks and contains a wealth of luxury boutiques, restaurants and shops including the first Prada store that opened in 1913.
Giacomo Caffé, Royal Palace (Palazza Reale), Piazza Duomo, 12, 20121 Milano, +39 02 89096698, email@example.com. The cozy literary café serves an all-day menu with salads, sandwiches, soups, entrees, freshly baked tarts, cakes and pies, espresso, tea, beer, wine and cocktails.
Guides. With an English-fluent guide, exploring Milan can be a much more enjoyable experience. Milan’s Tourism Department recommends using licensed guides. Please consult the website of the local trade Association GITEC (Associazione Guide Italiane Turismo e Cultura) for a list of qualified independent professionals. You can tailor the kind of tour you would like by choosing a guide who knows Milan’s history, culture, culinary, architecture, fashion or shopping. Fiamma Bozzolo can be reached by text/phone +39 3934837263 and email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Iginio Massari, Via Guglielmo Marconi, 4, 20122 Milano MI, +39 02 4969 6962. Colorful, elaborate confections, chocolates and candies find the perfect setting in a spare, modern interior. Chef Massari is a master pastry chef, the author of numerous books and a television personality.
La Rinascente, Piazza Duomo, 20121, Milano, +39 02 9138 7388. A large department store featuring luxury brands, La Rinascente is also popular because of the 7th floor food court, with a packaged goods market, cafés, sushi bar, a bar and casual-upscale restaurants.
La Scala (Teatro alla Scalla), Via Filodrammatici, 2, 20121 Milano MI. The elegant theater devoted to opera has survived wars, weather and temperamental performers since opening in 1778. Visit the informative website to purchase tickets to performances, tours of the theater and entrance to the museum.
Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the Refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie), Piazza di Santa Maria delle Grazie, 20123 Milano MI. Reservations are required. To buy a ticket go to the Leonardo’s Last Supper Museum or the Yes Milano websites. Tickets for specific dates and times sell out quickly, so plan ahead. Groups of up to 35 are allowed fifteen minutes in the large gallery space that has The Last Supper (1495-1498) on one wall and The Crucifixion (1495) by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano (1440-1502/3) on the facing wall. Placed high above, The Last Supper could only be seen from a distance. The pigments were faded and the image was far away, but da Vinci’s depiction of the emotion and drama of the moment was still evocative even after so many centuries.
Maison Milano, UNA Esperienze, Via Giuseppe Mazzini, 4, 20123 Milano, +39 02 726891. The 4-Star hotel has 27 rooms with complimentary Wi-Fi and 24-hour concierge service. The friendly front desk staff made my visit very pleasant with suggestions about where to go in Milan. Breakfast in my room every morning was well-worth the modest charge. The selection of freshly baked breads, rolls and cakes together with eggs anyway I wanted, breakfast meats, espresso and fresh fruit began helped me begin my days in the best way.
Marchesi 1824, an elegant patisserie and tea room with three locations at Via S. Maria alla Porta 11/a, 20123 Milan MI, Via Monte Napoleone, 9, 20121 Milano MI and in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, 20121 Milano MI on the second floor above the Prada that opened in 2013. Like COVA, Marchesi sells quality baked goods, chocolates, candies and holiday gifts.
Panarello, Via Speronari, 3, 20123 Milano MI. +39 02 8646 2264. Serving traditional baked goods made in the Genoa-style.
Panzerotti Luini, Via Santa Radegonda, 16, 20121 Milano MI, +39 02 8646 1917. Website only in Italian.
Peck, Via Spadari, 9, 20123 Milano, +39 02 802 3161. The “Tiffany” of upscale Italian food markets. Selling high quality fresh fruit, vegetables and ready-to-eat appetizers, salads, entrees, desserts, coffees and teas, Peck strives to offer the best-of-the-best. A must-visit destination in Milan to pick up a snack, bring home a gift or just window-shop.
Pizza Ok, Piazza Sempione, 8, 20154 Milano MI, +39 02 3453 7919. Directly across the street from Park Sempione and the Arc of Peace, with indoor and outdoor patio seating, Pizza Ok serves salads and thin crust pizza with dozens of toppings. I enjoyed a very large, very delicious pizza topped with paper thin slices of spicy salami, tomato sauce and bubbling hot mozzarella.
Princi Bakery, Via Speronari, 6, 20123 Milano MI, +39 02 874797. The store close to the Duomo is only one of the Princi Bakeries in Milan. Always busy with crowds waiting in line to buy breads, pastries and cakes. Pizzas are a big draw for the customers who come to eat at the stand up counters.
Ristorante il Cestino, Via Madonnina, 27, Milano, Brera, +39 02 86460146. A charming restaurant in the vibrant Brera district with a sidewalk dining area and dining rooms on the ground and second floors. Specializing in seafood, the catch of the day is displayed in the refrigerated counter at the back bar and on ice in the window facing Via Madonnina.
Sforza Castle (Castello Sforzesco), Piazza Castello, 20121 Milano MI. A historical site from a time when Milan was on the border and a massive, defensive fort was needed to protect the city. Today, the castle is a quiet refuge with a complex of museums, a library and archive, a café and a park. With so much to see, allow a full day to enjoy the many exhibits in the different museums. A café on the grounds serves beverages and light meals. Entrance to the castle is free. Tickets to the museums can be purchased at the ticket office inside the castle.
Stand up coffee and sandwich bars are found on many commercial blocks throughout the city. One of the joys of walking around Milan is stopping at a café or stand up bar when you need refreshment. Close to the Duomo, I had a coffee at Bar Madonnina, Piazzetta Pattari, 1/3, 20122 Milano, +39 02 8646 4947, which, like many piadineria, serves baked goods, coffees, teas, alcoholic drinks and freshly made sandwiches using white flour flatbread called piadina, which are filled with meat, fish or vegetables. Of the great many piadineria in Milan, I had some recommended to me that I will try on my next visit: La Piadineria, Via dell’Unione, 4, 20122 Milano MI, +39 02 7201 7209, Piadineria La Caveja Via Flavio Baracchini, 1, 20122 Milano, +39 02 4897 5739 and L’Isola della Piadina, Via Santa Maria alla Porta, 20123 Milano, with vegetarian options.
Starbucks Reserve Roastery, Via Cordusio, 1, 20123 Milano MI, +39 02 9197 0326. A premier destination for Starbucks aficionados. A self-described celebration of Italian design and culture, the restored building has beverages, food, coffee and merchandise for sale with seating at counters, tables inside, on the landscaped patio facing Via Cordusio and upstairs at the Arriviamo bar.
Veg-Mi Trike, Via Guglielmo Marconi, 20134 Milan. Vegan food from a bicycle-powered cart. Burgers, hot dogs and kebabs all plant-based.