It’s a July Saturday afternoon after a long flight from the United States and I’m not sure what to expect. I have heard mixed opinions about Milan and am worried what I will find. As I ride into the city by taxi, the driver asks if I am headed to Bellagio, Italy to see George Clooney (apparently there are groups of mainly American tourists who stake out George Clooney during the summer!). When I comment that I am planning to spend four days in Milan, the driver looks worried, commenting that the city is “just okay”—hardly a resounding endorsement for a first time visitor.
Being a huge fan of Italy who likes to visit less touristy places, I am up for the challenge of exploring Milan. The city does not disappoint and is filled with subtleties. Some of Milan’s best experiences, while discretely hidden (this seems to be a city characteristic), are amazing discoveries. I have tried to list out some of my favorite places for visitors to this underrated city.
Begun in 1387 (and not completed until the 1800s!), the Duomo is a stunning sight in the city’s historic center. With delicate stained glass in the interior, the picture frames depict scenes from both the Old and New Testaments. Be sure to look for the red light behind the altar as this is believed to be one of the nails from Christ’s Cross. Visitors should also be on the lookout for a statue of St. Bartholomew, which frankly is very graphic and difficult to look at.
For me, the highlight of the Duomo was going to the roof. I’m normally afraid of heights but I loved this experience. From the rooftop, visitors will have a view of the copper Madonnina as well as the church’s many statues and spires. I went on a Sunday morning when church bells across Milan, as well as the organ inside the church, could be heard. Perched on the roof, I felt like a bird in a tree as the views are spectacular. Be sure to go early before groups of tourists ascend to the top. I almost had the roof to myself and this is an experience I will never forget. The costs to visit the roof are twelve euros by elevator or seven euros by stairs.
2. Teatro alla Scala (La Scala)
Opera buffs around the world have heard of Milan’s legendary La Scala, which beckons tourists to operas in the past. Interestingly, like most of Milan, the building is discrete, as visitors will need to dig below the exterior to explore the interior. Getting tickets to actually see an opera is apparently extremely difficult so the alternative to tourists is to visit La Scala’s museum.
Entry to the museum will be through winding stairs with walls filled with show posters from Aida, Madame Butterfly and Tosca as examples. Visitors will be able to enter a few opera boxes and look out over the theatre. The deep reds and ornately decorated walls are a touch of elegance and a hidden surprise, as frankly, the outside of the building does not look like much. Also in the museum, tourists should be on the lookout for Franz Liszt’s Steinway piano from 1883 as well as the various costumes from Aida in the second floor library. Admission to the museum is six euros.
3. Coffee, Coffee, Coffee
For visitors staying anywhere near the shopping street of Corso Buenos Aires (metro stop is Porta Venezia), some of the best coffee I’ve ever had tasted can be found at Torrefazione Caffe Ambrosiano. I was lucky that my hotel was in the area as I immediately became a fan of this wonderful shop. With an elegant chandelier as well as walls of coffee beans, locals will be lined up early (try stopping by during off hours) for the smooth espressos and caffe lattes. Visitors are greeted with a cheery “buongiorno” and regulars were all saying “ciao” when leaving. There are a few seats outside but most people (including myself) have their coffee inside standing at tables or at the counter. I was talking to one business visitor from Hungary who said she never misses a stop at this café. This is seriously good coffee.
4. Villa Necchi Campiglio
Hidden behind high walls and nestled in lush gardens with a swimming pool, a tour of this villa is a find. Built between 1932 and 1935 by architect Piero Portaluppi, this villa reflects the unique architecture of its time. Originally owned by two sisters, Nedda and Gigina Necchi, as well as Gigina’s husband, Angelo Campiglio, this house contains beautiful ceilings as well as a stunning Art Deco stairwell. For me, the two sisters’ individual bedrooms and baths, the wardrobe with couture dresses like Chanel and the history of the gun room (Britain’s Prince Philip hunted here) were fascinating.
This home experienced upheaval during World War II and its aftermath as in September 1943, the Fascist party took over the house, as the villa had a strategic location for Mussolini. British forces later occupied the home followed by the Netherlands consulate general, before the family could return.
Tours to Villa Necchi Campiglio, priced at nine euros, run about an hour but unfortunately, the tours are all in Italian. For foreign visitors, laminated texts in other languages will be distributed so I had a flip booklet in English during the tour. I was impressed by how ordered all the Italian visitors were as at the end of the tour, everyone lined up to shake hands with the tour guide.
Be sure to also stop by the cafeteria for a cool retreat from Milan’s humidity, where I saw impeccably dressed local women playing cards.
5. Milan Aperitivo
Basically, the Milan aperitivo is the Milanese happy hour which is not to be missed. Starting promptly at 6:00 pm, many bars and restaurants offer an all-you-can-eat buffet for the price of one drink minimum (roughly six or seven euros). For a price conversion, six euros is about the price of a meal at a Milan McDonald’s. The Brera and Navigli districts in the city are especially popular for aperitivos which can include pastas, plates of meats, bruschetta, trays of vegetables and risotto as examples. There is no pressure to buy more than one drink and competition for the happy hour crowds is fierce. Bars are used to patrons coming in, looking at the buffet, and leaving as visitors are searching for the most food at the best price. Milan’s happy hour is a terrific way to eat both healthy and cheaply, which is always a plus.
As an alternative, visitors may want to head to the top floor of the department store next to the Duomo, La Rinascente, to the food halls. While this is a pricier option, visitors can try the mozzarella bar at Obika (try the mild mozzarella with fresh cherry tomatoes and basil—highly recommended) or Il Bar for cocktails and appetizers. The view is worth the expense as guests can sit outside on a balcony directly across from the Duomo.
6. Art Museums
Many visitors to Milan head straight to Santa Maria delle Grazie to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, but Milan offers other art museums “off the beaten track”.
Start with La Pinacoteca di Brera in the Brera district which is located on the top floor of a palazzo. This museum is unexplored and with artwork from artists like Modigliani, Raffaello and one of my favorites Hayez’s “Il Bacio” (The Kiss), roughly forty rooms of art are a treasure. Admission to the museum is ten euros.
Downstairs from La Pinacoteca is an art academy. Be sure to head to the back of the art academy for the entrance to a hidden botanical garden filled with luscious plants and flowers—a refreshing break from Milan’s humidity. Also located downstairs from La Pinacoteca is a small student café, which is reasonably priced for lunch, with several sandwich options available for roughly five euros.
The Museo del Novecento (Museum of the Nine Hundred) is located next door to the Duomo. I happened to see a special Andy Warhol exhibit but near the top floor are exhibitions by Italian artists like Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla and Giorgio Morandi. I found it interesting that some of the paintings were completed around World Wars I and II when Europe was suffering with the wars. Admission to the museum is five euros.
7. Street Musicians
I wasn’t expecting the quality of street musicians found in Milan. On Sunday afternoons, be sure to explore Corso Vittorio Emanuele II as Italians are out shopping. I happened upon one musician, known as “Edwin One Man Band” who was entertaining a large crowd with fantastic American blues. I had to laugh that Edwin made a comment about an americana margherita (or something similar), as a local lady looked at me and said in English, “That’s for you”. Hopefully, it was a compliment. Musicians seemed to be set up every couple of blocks on this street and all were good.
Coming out of the metro one morning I was impressed to find a musician, Paolo Zanarella, playing his grand piano just outside the Duomo. Apparently, Mr. Zanarella performs outside famous Italian landmarks and there were photos of him and his piano by Venice’s Rialto Bridge as well as performing on Venice’s canals. I tried to stop by the Duomo every morning just to listen to the moving classical music.
8. Public Garden
Parts of Milan may be grittier and more of a big city feel compared to more touristy Italian cities. For visitors wanting some greenery, the Public Garden (which has been renamed Parco Indro Montanelli) is a haven, which began as a leisure spot for Milanese aristocracy in the 1770s. With lakes filled with ducks (and baby ducklings), as well as Palazzo Dugnani, statues, a planetarium, a bowls court and a mini train and carousel for children, this park is an escape from the city. Be on the lookout for Bar Bianco in the mornings as like the other amazing street musicians I stumbled upon, a group of four classical guitarists were practicing. I tried not to be too intrusive as I was transported by their music.
9. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Next door to the Duomo is the Galleria which was completed in 1877. Unfortunately, the Galleria has some grim history as the designer, Giuseppe Mengoni, plunged to his death from scaffolding, shortly before the Galleria was to open. Local legend has it that to avoid this curse, look for the mosaic bull, the symbol of Turin, on the Galleria’s floor, grinding your heel into the bull’s testicles, and spinning around three times.
Today’s Galleria is filled with shops but rents are high. Avoid the coffee shops inside as these cafes are pricey. For fashion couture fans, the original Prada store is located inside the Galleria. I enjoyed just looking in the windows.
10. Castello Sforzesco
On the western side of Milan is a castle, Castello Sforzesco. This castle was home to the Sforza family that ruled Milan during the Renaissance. It is rumored that Napolean wanted to tear down this castle and build a new one, but luckily, the original castle survives. Outside the castle is a large fountain, known as “the wedding cake fountain” as this is a common place for Milanese couples to have their wedding photos taken.
Be on the lookout for individuals trying to “give” visitors Senegal friendship bracelets on entering the castle. Like the “free” roses at the Spanish Steps in Rome, this is a scam for a tip.
Inside the castle are several museums. I made the mistake of visiting on a Monday when the museums were closed but the trade-off is the castle is fairly quiet on Mondays. There are also lots of stray cats that roam the premises as apparently, some of the castle walls are hollow.
Milan is a business city that is fashion-forward and focused on the future. For visitors to Milan, while many of the sights are hidden, this is a part of the city’s charm. The city’s center has remained untouched and for districts like the Brera, visitors can experience cobblestone streets and historic architecture. I was in Milan four days and easily could have spent more time. The culture is discrete, a find and a reward for those tourists who are willing to dig deeper to immerse themselves in the Milanese experience.