Italy’s economic capital is probably best known for its bi-annual fashion week, but there’s much more to this stylish city than big name designer outlets and shopping. I spent last weekend in Milan, and before my trip, it wasn’t somewhere that was on my radar. But I was looking for somewhere to go for a pre-Christmas mini-break and noticed there were cheap flights to the city, so I decided to see what it was like.
The Lombard capital may not have the same must-visit status among travellers as Italy’s cultural powerhouses Venice, Florence and Rome, but I found a city that’s steeped in culture and history with great food and shopping, and a slew of incredible artworks that almost rivals Florence.
Milan is home to one of the world’s most magnificent cathedrals, an architecturally renowned shopping arcade (above), a world famous opera house, two da Vincis (including one of his most celebrated masterpieces), countless other priceless artworks, an imposing castle, top-notch museums and charming churches. In a nutshell, I wasn’t short of things to do.
I arrived in Milan mid-afternoon and after checking into my hotel near the central station, I hopped on the metro to the Duomo to have a quick look around the city centre. On walking out of the metro station, I was greeted by the imposing sight of Milan’s magnificent and enormous cathedral, which dominates the Piazza del Duomo. It’s an incredibly decorative and ornate building, and I was amazed by how many statues and carvings adorn the outside of the building.
I’d decided to visit the Duomo the following day, so instead of going inside I walked over to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade. The arcade, which was built by Giuseppe Mengoni in the 1860s, is something of an Instagram star and having seen it in so many photos, I was keen to have a look at it myself. Built from a pinkish marble, the arcade is laid out in a cross shape, with an incredible glass and iron roof that culminates in a massive dome in the centre of the arcade.
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is filled with grand cafés and shops, including designer labels such as Prada and Louis Vuitton, and when I went in, was packed with shoppers and tourists taking photos. In the centre of the arcade there was a giant Christmas tree, sponsored by Swarovski, and it looked as though they were about to have an event to switch on the Christmas lights as there was a stage set up in front of the tree with cameras and security guards milling around.
I wandered through the arcade, window shopping as I went, then walked back towards the Duomo, where I ventured inside the plush La Rinascente department store. La Rinascente is essentially Milan’s Harvey Nicholls, only posher. Walking through the store, I’m not sure they had any labels that weren’t high-end and completely unaffordable for mere mortals such as myself. But I was heading to the store’s renowned food hall on the seventh floor.
Alongside the rows and rows of delicious products, the food hall features a number of places to eat including a lobster bar, a juice bar, a mozzarella bar and a sushi restaurant. I skipped the restaurants, preferring to look at the incredible products in the food store. There I found fantastically shaped pastas in different colours, wines, sauces, condiments, and stunningly inventive and artistic sweet treats for Christmas – all with eye-watering prices.
I stopped to look at some pretty chocolates that had caught my eye when one of the store assistants came up to ask if I needed any help. At that moment I spotted the price tag for the chocolates – $70! – and politely told her I was “just looking”.
By now, I was a wee bit peckish so I stopped at the patisserie counter, which was filled with scrumptious-looking pastries and desserts. I couldn’t resist one of the passion fruit and raspberry eclairs (above, a bargain at $3.90!) and bought one to take away.
From La Rinascente, I hopped back on the metro as I had booked tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The painting is in the 15th century convent’s refectory and is so popular, you have to pre-book your tickets online or by phone weeks in advance.
The ticket office, where I had to pick up my ticket 20 minutes before my scheduled visit, is in a separate building to the church. I found this a little confusing and wasn’t really helped by the sour staff who seemed to have no patience with the many bemused tourists looking to collect their tickets. I eventually found the ticket office myself, and once I had my ticket, headed towards the refectory entrance.
Only 30 people are allowed to view The Last Supper at any one time and all 30 from my group were soon huddled together in a narrow corridor waiting to be allowed in. At 5.45pm, a lady came down to scan our tickets and we passed through an electronic door. Once the entire group was through, the door behind us closed and another electronic door in front of us opened. We went through two more chambers like this before we got in to see The Last Supper.
The refectory was bombed by the US during the Second World War causing lots of damage to the building, but The Last Supper miraculously survived intact. The huge painting is on the right wall of the refectory, and on the opposite wall, there’s a painting of The Crucifixion by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano.
The Last Supper, which was commissioned by Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, in 1495, dominates the room, and although it’s very faded, has a mesmerising quality. It’s a masterpiece and I spent quite a bit of time admiring it and soaking up all its details. The one thing that struck me was how much John the Baptist looks like a woman and then I remembered all the (frankly believable) conspiracy theories that John the Baptist is actually Mary Magdalene.
The Crucifixion opposite is a great work of art, too. It features two very faded portraits of Ludovico il Moro and his wife Beatrice added by da Vinci, and I spent some time admiring that, too. Before I knew it, our 15 minutes were up and we were quickly ushered outside.
After my visit to the refectory, I decided to have a look around the Santa Maria delle Grazie church. The church, which was designed by the architect Donato Bramante at the end of the 15th century, looks like a fairly typical Milanese church from the outside, but inside, I realised it’s a work of art.
It was gone 6pm when I visited and I couldn’t see very well inside as the lights were off, but the walls and ceilings were covered in a beautiful patterned fresco. Along the right and left walls, there were a series of altars in little alcoves behind locked gates. I soon discovered why the alcoves were protected as above the altars were priceless pieces of art by the likes of Caravaggio.
In the St Crown’s Chapel, for example, Carvaggio’s Deposition from the Cross took pride of place. Even more astonishing, the painting had replaced Titian’s The Crowning of Thorns Coronation, which was stolen by the French in the late 18th century and now sits in the Louvre. The Santa Maria delle Grazie church is a spectacular building, everywhere I looked there were superb pieces of art, and I was glad I’d popped in, even if it was too dark to see it in all its glory.
Having looked around the Santa Maria delle Grazie, I headed back into town where I wandered around the main sites again. It was great to see them all lit up at night. If anything the buildings looked even better in the dark as they were much more dramatic with the illuminations. I then walked the short distance to the Brera district, where I was amused by the prosecco-themed Christmas lights (Cardiff take note!), and found a nice little trattoria for dinner and some quiet time after the jam-packed start to my Milanese trip.