For our third ever trip to Italy (second this trip) we finally got to see Milan, the last of the large cities in Italy that we had yet to see. Milan is Italy’s largest urban and metropolitan area and the second most populous city proper in the country. Due to bombing in the Second World War, the city was partially destroyed and for that reason has lost some of its traditional Italian character. However, it has since become a thriving metropolis and the center of business in Italy and a world leader in fashion and design.
There are two must-see sights while in Milan. Ironically, both are sights we saw from the outside but never explored the treasures within. Regardless, the first of these monuments is the Duomo, a fantastic gothic cathedral in the center of the city which is adorned with hundreds of different spires and unique statues and took nearly six centuries to complete.
The second must-see sight is the Santa Maria delle Grazie which is home to Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper, which many do not know is 100% restored, with none of his original painting surviving. Unfortunately, we did not book far enough in advance to be able to go, so we were unable to see the painting, only the building which houses it. Regardless, there is plenty to see around the city outside of those two monuments as I found making a little excursion around the city. Unfortunately, Lauren was unable to join me due to work but I still tried to make the best of it.
The first site I visited in Milan was the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano (Monumental Cemetary of Milan) which is a massive cemetery in Milan that has been called by many the most beautiful cemetery in the world and for good reason. My first step into the cemetery was breathtaking, as a number of beautiful sculptures, elaborate obelisks, and massive tombs were laid before me. Many of the tombs were designed and sculpted by some of the greatest Italian sculptors of the 20th-century. I was blown away by the beauty of the cemetery and definitely recommend any visitors to Milan to make a stop there.
Like most of Europe, football is the number one sport in Italy and Milan has two of the most famous calcio teams in Italy and the world in A.C. Milan and FC Internazionale. Both teams call the famous Giuseppe Meazza Stadium, also known as the San Siro, home. I couldn’t leave the city without going on a tour of the stadium so I went off on my own on a little excursion to the 83-year-old stadium which is one of the largest in Europe and largest stadium in Italy. For its size and lengthy history, however, I had to say I was a little disappointed in my visit. Unlike all other stadium tours I have been on, it was unguided, not giving you any information about the stadium or much of anything about the massively supported teams that play there. The small museum did not help to fill any blanks in on that information either. As a fan of neither team, it was not a worthwhile tour, but as a huge football fan, I still would never have missed it. An annual gathering of youth and 6-a-side teams played while I visited, though, which provided me with a spectacle to watch as I enjoyed the view of the historic stadium.
Before heading back to our Airbnb to meet up with Lauren for dinner, I stopped by the Colonne di San Lorenzo (the Columns of San Lorenzo) which are the ancient Roman ruins outside the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Today, College-aged Italians relax under the columns in the afternoons, sipping on beers found in one of the several bars nearby.
That night we found a little trattoria which is a small, usually family-owned restaurant serving regional favorites nearby our hotel. The restaurant had a wonderful characteristically Italian feel and we fell in love with it as we dined on their delicious, baked-in-house hard rolls dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, a heaping plate of spaghetti carbonara for Lauren, pici with porcini mushrooms for me, a flan each for dessert, and a bottle of red wine to wash it all down. Their food was simply exquisite for what we had to pay for it. No matter how different Milan is to the slow and methodical approach the rest of Italy has, this was Italian dining at its finest. We ended up going back on our last night in Milan to enjoy the wonderful ambiance and I would gladly have gone back again if we had more time in Milan.
The next day, I took off again on my own toward the Duomo – as most sights can be found nearby – with several sights I wanted to see in mind and an eagerness to go wherever Milan willed me. My first stop was the San Bernardino alle Ossa ossuary. An ossuary is a container, usually a box that contains human skeletal remains. Built in 1210, this ossuary is actually an entire room with walls completely covered in bones and skulls from several different places around the city. Accompanying the remains are frescos from Sebastiano Ricci which date from 1695. Though I figured it would be, it was more creepy than I had imagined, but it was definitely a unique and interesting sight in a macabre way.
This was just a start of the long day I spent wandering the city. Being guided only by Google Maps and the usually less than helpful reviews therein, from the Ossuary I walked to the L.O.V.E. Statue, a unique statue of a hand holding up its middle finger only which sits just outside of the Italian Stock Exchange. The ironic L.O.V.E acronym stands for “Libertà, Odio, Vendetta, and Eternità,” or “Freedom, Hate, Vengeance, and Eternity” in English. There are debates on the meaning of the statue, but it is definitely an interesting piece to say the least.
As I left the statue, to make my way back toward the Duomo my eyes fell on a large building off into the distance that I made my way towards, eventually finding that it was a sight I had wanted to see all along, the Sforza Castle. The castle was built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan on top of an older 14th-century fortification before being enlarged in the subsequent two centuries. Today, the former castle is home to no less than seven museums covering everything from art to music to history. Any fans of museums would do well to not miss this amazing collection of museums.
Being too short on time to go into any museums, I walked through the castle and the Parco Sempione toward the Arco della Pace way off into the distance. The triumphal arch was built in the early 1800s to celebrate Napoleon’s victories as King of Italy. The arch was planned to be one of many statues dedicated to Napoleon but he was ousted a few years later and the arch was left as only one of the two that were ever completed.
From this part of the city I was pretty much out in no-mans-land and had to make the long trek back toward the center of the city. Before heading back, however, I stopped in the Canal District to get a picture of the Naviglio Grande canal amongst the many Italians enjoying their lunch-hour in cafes along the avenue.
Being nearby, I also made sure to stop at the San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, a church that is as unassuming from the outside as it is gorgeous from the inside. The church is filled with beautiful frescoes on nearly every available wall space and is covered in rich gold leafing. The interior was built to rival Rome’s Sistine Chapel and is best of all, free. There are new discoveries to be had with every second spent in the tiny former church which make it one of the best sights to see in Milan.
Overall, Milan is admittedly not my favorite Italian city but definitely a fantastic place to be if the churches of Rome don’t tickle your fancy or if you are huge fans of museums, fashion, or shopping. I am really glad that I visited the city on my third trip to the country as the laid-back atmosphere and quiet daily life that makes Italy so special is a little less obvious in the hustle and bustle of Milan. Still, there are a lot of wonderful things to see and do throughout Milan and I think with a little more time there I would have learned to love it more.