Milan – Top tips

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade in Milan, Italy

Despite doing a lot of research before my trip to Milan, there were a few things I learned while I was there that I wish I’d known sooner. So I’ve put together some of my top tips for anyone planning a trip to the Lombard capital.

Getting there

Milan has three airports – Malpensa, Linate and Bergamo. I flew into Malpensa, which is some 30 miles from the centre of Milan. It’s really easy to get to Milan from the airport – there’s an express train that takes you to Central Station or Cadorna Station. But I chose to hop on the express bus, which leaves every 20 minutes from Gate 4 – it only costs €8 (I bought my ticket from a guard beside the bus) and takes around an hour to get to Central Station. Linate and Bergamo airports also have express bus services that take you to the centre of Milan.

Getting around

The city centre is very compact and all the main sights are within walking distance. But if your legs are tired or you want to get from A to B quickly, then the Metro is very reliable. The underground transit system has four lines – a red, yellow, purple and green one – and stops close to all the major sights.

You can buy your tickets from the ticket machines or kiosks in the Metro stations. But be warned, many of the ticket machines are old and aren’t in the best condition, and I found a lot of people struggled to use them so you can be queuing for a while to buy your ticket. A one-way ticket costs €1.50 and is valid for 90 minutes or you can buy a day ticket for €4.50.


The Last Supper

Santa Maria delle Grazie Church and Convent

If you’re planning to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper while you’re in Milan, make sure you book your tickets weeks in advance. I booked my tickets two weeks before I went and the only tickets left on the Saturday morning were for slots that started before 9am.

Tickets cost €10 (plus a €2 booking fee) and you can buy them from the Vivaticket website or by phone on +39 02 9280 0360. Only 30 people are allowed in to see The Last Supper at any one time and visits last 15 minutes. You’ll need to pick up your tickets at least 20 minutes before your scheduled visit – the ticket office is in a separate building to the Santa Maria delle Grazie refectory, it’s the other side of the small garden next to the refectory entrance.

The Duomo

The Duomo in Milan, Italy

Milan’s magnificent cathedral is open every day from 8am and if you’re planning a visit, you’ll need to buy your tickets from the box office across the street or online from You can buy tickets for the cathedral, its roof terraces or its archaeological area, or you can do as I did and buy a Duomo pass, which allows you to visit all three and will save you money.

I opted for the Duomo Pass B, which cost €12 and gave me access to the terraces by foot. If you want to take the lift to the roof terraces, you can buy a Duomo Pass A for €16, but unless you have mobility issues, you’re better off saving yourself the €4 and walking – it’s not a particularly arduous climb and you’re at the top before you know it.



Risotto alla Milanese

Milan’s most famous dish is probably osso bucco, which is a dish of slow-cooked veal shanks in a vegetable broth. It’s often served alongside risotto alla milanese (above), which is a saffron-based risotto. I made sure to try both during my trip to Milan and the osso bucco, in particular, was incredibly tender and tasty. I ordered it at a pleasant little restaurant called Momus on the Via Arco. Milan is also the home of Panettone.


Luini Panzerotti in Milan

On my first day in Milan, I passed a small shop called Luini (above) selling panzerotti  that had a long line of people outside queuing to get inside.

Whenever I go anywhere and see a long line of people queuing for food, I take it as a good sign. So at lunchtime the next day I headed over to Luini’s, tucked away in a little side street between the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade and the Duomo, only to find there were two enormous queues stretching down the street – in both directions!

Panzerotti look like pasties but are essentially small calzone pizzas – they’re made with dough and filled with typical pizza toppings such as tomato, mozzarella and hot salami. They also have sweet versions with fillings such as peaches, almond and amaretti, and figs, walnut and cocoa.

Tomato, mozzarella, olive and anchovy panzerotti

I joined the queue and it took around 20 minutes to get served, and I was amused to find there was a security guard near the front making sure no-one pushes in and that the queue moves efficiently.

I opted for a tomato, mozzarella, anchovy and olive panzerotto (above), as well as a chocolate and pistachio one, which I saved for later. I then copied my fellow diners and stood in the street opposite the shop tucking into my warm panzerotto. It was delicious and  worth the wait! The sweet panzerotto was also very good.


Before going to Milan, I’d read the Brera district (to the north of the Duomo) was a good place to go for dinner. So on my first night, I headed off on foot up the Via Brera only to find a number of places that looked like tourist traps. Famished, I stopped off at one where the food was good and reasonably priced, but not quite as nice as I was hoping for.

On my final night, I did a bit more digging and found I was in the right district, but at the wrong end. So I hopped on the Metro and got off at Lanza (on the green line), then headed in the direction of the Via Mercato and the neighbouring side streets where there were loads of great restaurants. If I was to visit Milan again, this is where I’d go for dinner.

Food shops

Passion fruit and raspberry eclair

Milan is renowned for its fashion boutiques, but the city also has some impressive food shops. The food hall on the seventh floor of La Rinascente department store is incredible with unbelievably pretty chocolates, desserts and patisserie (above), along with unusual pastas, pasta sauces, condiments and wines. It’s not cheap, but well worth a browse.

Window display at Peck, Milan

Peck is another of Milan’s famed food halls, it’s like the Milanese Fortnum & Mason’s. I had a great time wandering around and gawking at all the incredible food stuffs I couldn’t afford to buy. There’s a fish counter, a meat counter, a cheese counter and so on, all brimming with top quality produce, as well as chocolates and other sweet treats that are so pretty it would be a crime to eat them (above).

Have you been to Milan? If so and you have any more tips to share, I’d be really interested in reading them – please leave them in comments below.


Looking ahead to 2018

Playa Manuel Antonio in Manuel Antonio National Park

If there’s one thing I learned over the past year, it’s not to make predictions on my blog. I made a number of predictions for 2017 – and while a few of them materialised, quite a few of them didn’t.

Part of that is down to the fact the past year has flown by (more so than usual) and I can’t believe we’re in a new year already.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who’s read, commented, liked or followed my blog this year –  I’ve really appreciated your support and encouragement, and I’m still surprised anyone actually reads it. And to all the bloggers I follow and have discovered in 2017, I’ve really enjoyed reading what you’ve been up to – your blogs have provided a lot of inspiration and have done nothing to lessen my wanderlust and food envy.

Coming up in 2018

In 2018, I’m looking forward to a year of notable milestones. I’m currently having driving lessons and hoping to pass my test in the spring. I’m also hoping to finally buy my own home and be a fully fledged grown up.

On the travel front, I’m 90-odd per cent certain I’m going to Brittany in France in June – I’m planning to spend a week in the countryside and then a few days in the capital Nantes.

Other than that, I’d quite like to take a city break somewhere in Europe (suggestions welcome!) and a longer trip further afield – current destinations in the running include Ethiopia, Zambia, China and Russia. If you’ve been to any of these places, please let me know what you thought of them. And if I do pass my driving test, I’m hoping it will allow me to travel a little more freely throughout the UK.

On the blog front, I’ll be writing up my trip to Costa Rica over the next few months, as well as my recent trip to France in the area around one of my favourite French cities Poitiers. I’d also like to continue my mini travel guide series as they seem to have proved popular – next up will be Jordan, then after that possibly Cuba or Edinburgh. If you have a preference, let me know.

I’m also hoping to finally get around to writing my Insider Guides to London and Cardiff that I promised last year. I’ve planned the content – I just need to find time to write them.

Whatever the year brings, hopefully it will be a year full of adventure and laughter. I can be a little slow in writing up some of my adventures so if you’d like to keep up with what I’m doing in real time, check out my Instagram @thislittleoldworld.

Happy New Year! Have a wonderful 2018!


Milan – Castles, churches and more da Vinci

Castle Sforza in Milan

As regular readers to my blog may have guessed, I’m a sucker for a castle and when I found out Milan has its very own castle, it ended up somewhere near the top of my must-visit list. Having spent the morning exploring every last inch of the city’s Duomo, I made my way to the castle.

The Sforza Castle, or Castello Sforzesco to give it it’s Italian name, was built between 1360 and 1370 on behalf of Galeazzo II Visconti, the then-ruler of Milan. It then passed into the hands of the famed Sforza dynasty, after whom the castle is named, who turned it into a great ducal residence. Over the centuries, the castle changed hands multiple times between Milan’s ruling powers and fell into decline, until it was rescued and restored by the architect Luca Beltrami in the late 19th century.

Courtyard inside the Castle Sforza in Milan

When I arrived at the castle, I walked through the massive gates into a huge courtyard, and it was then that I realised that the Sforza Castle isn’t a castle in a traditional sense with lots of rooms, and nooks and crannies, to explore. Instead various parts of the castle have been turned into museums – there’s an Egyptian museum, an art gallery, a museum of ancient art, as well as a museum dedicated to Michelangelo’s masterpiece Rondanini Pietà.

Smaller courtyard inside the Castle Sforza in Milan

Rather than explore the castle’s many museums, I spent time looking around the castle’s courtyards, taking photos of the different facets of this impressive building. It’s an imposing sight and must have been quite something during its heyday when the Sforza family held court.

Parco Sempione in Milan

Behind the castle, sits Milan’s Parco Sempione, and having seen all there was to see in the castle’s courtyards, I headed to the park through an exit at the rear of the castle. The 116-acre park used to be a hunting ground for the Sforza family but in the late 19th century it was turned into a landscaped park. At the far end of the park is a huge triumphal arch, commissioned by Napoleon, that was remodelled as an Arch of Peace by the Austro-Hungarian emperor Francis I in commemoration of the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

After making a quick detour to a nearby gelateria for some gelato, I headed back to the park where I took my time walking around it. The park is a large, attractive space, and although there isn’t anything particularly special or distinctive about it, it was nice to spend some quiet time away from the busy streets, ambling around the park’s pretty trees and lakes.

Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio in Milan

After a pleasant stroll, I headed off on foot to the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, which I’d read was one of Milan’s most impressive churches. When I arrived, the church was closed for lunch so I hung around for 10 minutes or so until it opened, then headed inside.

The basilica was founded by the city’s patron saint, St Ambrose, in the 4th century and is notable for the two campaniles that stand either side of the church. Inside, the basilica is a fairly standard Milanese affair with a pretty patterned roof and lots of priceless-looking paintings hanging above the many altars that line the church’s sides. There’s also a striking marble pulpit decorated with delicate, intricate carvings.

The church’s crypt is the resting place of St Ambrose, along with two martyrs, the Roman soldiers Gervasius and Protasius, and I was somewhat taken aback to find their three skeletal corpses on display in a see-through casket, their bones clothed as though they were still alive. It was such an unexpected and unusual sight that I had to take a second glance to make sure I hadn’t imagined it.

Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan

From the basilica, I made my way through the back streets of Milan to the Pinacoteca and Biblioteca Ambrosiana. The art gallery and library is home to paintings, sculptures and artefacts from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and features artworks by the likes of Jan Brueghl, Paul Brill, Sandro Botticelli and Titian, as well as a number of Lombard artists. But the gallery’s pièce de résistance is Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of a Musician, as well as pages from a folio featuring sketches and notes by the great master.

The Pinacoteca and Biblioteca Ambrosiana has some 22 galleries to explore and is situated in a magnificent late 16th century building. I followed the suggested visitor route around the gallery, which at times took me outside to a balcony lined with statues, overlooking a spectacular courtyard (above).

The building itself is as much a work of art as the priceless pieces within and many of the rooms are spectacular. Room 12, for example, features a stunning marble staircase and mosaic, with a series of marble statues above it. While rooms 10 and 11 feature a fake wooden library above the artworks.

The lighting throughout is superb, too, and is possibly the best lighting I’ve come across in a museum or gallery. The artworks are showcased in dimly lit rooms with spotlights shining on them, which makes them pop and shows them at their best.

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is best known for its da Vincis but as I walked around I had yet to see them and was worried I’d missed them. But as I was leaving the gallery, I stepped into a room and there, taking pride of place, was da Vinci’s Portrait of a Musician. It’s a striking painting and dominates the room, and I spent quite a bit of time admiring it, as well as the other painting in the room, before moving into the library.

The library (above), which was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Borromeo in the early 17th century, is supposedly Italy’s first public library and is stacked high with thousands of books, but its main attraction is the Codex Atlanticus.

The Codex is a collection of sketches and notes by da Vinci, and pages from the Codex are on display in clear panels in the centre of the room. I took my time looking at all the pages, some of which are really impressive, others less impressive scraps and doodles, and I came away with the impression that da Vinci must have been a prolific doodler.

There’s one last masterpiece within the gallery, tucked away at the far end of the room, just before the exit – Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit. It’s a magnificent painting, and with this and the da Vincis, the gallery saved the best for last. I’m always amazed by how true to life so many still-life paintings are and Basket of Fruit is no exception. I have no idea how Caravaggio managed to paint such realistic looking grapes, apples and figs, it’s really clever and I was a little dumb stuck by how good it was. It’s a fabulous painting and a brilliant way to end a superb museum.

By now it was early evening, so I stopped off for a cup of tea in one of Milan’s many swanky cafés (bog standard Starbucks-type establishments seemed to be few and far between in Milan), then spent the rest of the evening wandering around the shops. I had another look around La Rinascente department store, then ambled up the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, a large shopping street, until I reached the fashion quarter.

There, I turned down the swanky Via della Spiga, aka Milan’s Bond Street, where I marvelled at the incredible window displays in the designer stores. Being a pauper, I avoided going inside any of the shops as I wasn’t too keen on having a Pretty Woman moment, but the window displays were so spectacular I was happy just gawking at them and the overpriced goods within.

Milan is very much a walking city and I enjoyed my day ambling around the city, mooching from one attraction to the other. From churches to priceless works of art, castles to parks, I visited so many varied places it made for a fun and eventful day. I was also glad I found time to fit in a spot of window shopping. I wasn’t sure I’d have time to fit in any shopping as I’d planned such an action-packed day, but I’m pleased I did as I couldn’t go to one of the world’s greatest fashion capitals without seeing a few sartorial masterpieces.

Milan – Duomo

The Duomo in Milan, Italy

I’ve visited a lot of cathedrals over the years, but Milan’s Duomo is one of the most impressive cathedrals I’ve ever seen. Commissioned by Gian Galeazzo Visconti in 1386, the 157m-long Gothic cathedral took an astonishing five centuries to complete.

This fact is less surprising when you see how detailed and elaborate the building is. Its façade features some 2,300(!) statues and there are a further 1,100 statues inside. While its highest spire stands at 108m tall and is topped by a 4m-high gold leaf statue of the Madonna. Having briefly laid eyes on the Duomo the previous evening, I was keen to have a proper look around, so it was my first port of call on my second day in Milan.

Inside, I was struck by how big the Duomo is. It’s the third largest cathedral in the world (after Seville Cathedral and St Peter’s in Rome) but I hadn’t appreciated just how enormous or how wide it was from the outside.

In contrast to the ornate façade, the inside of the cathedral felt quite plain. I was expecting the cathedral’s walls and ceiling to be adorned with colourful frescoes and elaborate gilded decorations like you see in a lot of Italian churches. But the grey stone walls and high-vaulted ceilings were left largely untouched, aside from the obligatory statues, and the cathedral’s paintings hung from the ceiling instead (above).

I made my way down the right side of the cathedral, stopping as I went to look at the many altars off to the side and the impressive artworks within. One of the altars featured the remains of Pope Paul VI, who was Archbishop of Milan until he became pope in 1963.

Saint Charles Borromeo's tomb

I carried on going as far as the crypt, where I stopped to have a look inside. At either end of the crypt, behind locked gates, were opulent alcoves housing the cathedral’s treasury and the rock crystal tomb of Saint Charles Borromeo, a 16th-century Archbishop of Milan (above). The alcoves were amazing and I was taken aback by the riches and splendour within. It was by far and away the most lavish crypt I’ve ever seen.

Replica of the Madonnina statue inside Milan's Duomo

From the crypt, I walked back to the main body of the cathedral, where I continued walking until I reached the replica of the Madonnina of the Duomo di Milano (above), the statue that sits atop the cathedral’s main spire. The glamorous Madonnina was covered in gold leaf and it was good to see a close-up replica of the statue, as the original sits so high above the cathedral it’s almost impossible to make out.

The archaeological site at Milan's Duomo

I then turned around and walked back towards the main entrance, where I followed a narrow staircase down into the archaeological area beneath the Duomo (above).

The archaeological area showcases the remains of the ancient buildings that once occupied the site, among them the baptistery of Ambroses and the old Santa Tecla Cathedral, along with display cases featuring artefacts unearthed at the site. The archaeological area is quite small and doesn’t take long to look around, but it was interesting and I enjoyed learning about the site’s history.

Spires on the Duomo's roof terrace in Milan

Having seen all there was to see inside the cathedral, I walked outside and turned down the left side of the Duomo towards the entrance to the roof terraces. You can either walk the 250 steps to the Duomo’s roof or pay an extra €4 to take the lift – I chose to give my legs a good work out and walked. Luckily, the climb didn’t take as long as I was expecting, and before I knew it, I was on the roof.

The Duomo’s roof terraces are incredible. The architecture is superb – even better than the façade – with elaborate spires, intriguing shapes and intricate carvings everywhere you look. The views across Milan are fantastic, too – and it was a clear enough day that I could make out the Alps in the distance, their pale blue snow-capped peaks contrasting beautifully with the cathedral’s creamy, pale pink marble.

I made my way along the outer edge of the terrace, stopping every so often to admire the architecture and the views, and dodging the many people who were blocking the path to take selfies.

From the outer terrace, I climbed a very narrow staircase (there wasn’t room for two, above left) to the roof. I spent quite a bit of time clambering over the enormous sloping roof, making sure I stopped to take in the wonderful views over Milan from as many angles as possible.

The roof terraces were fantastic and I was glad I made the effort to go up there. I had great fun exploring all there was to see, and the views and the architecture, as I’ve already mentioned, were breathtaking. Milan’s Duomo is an exceptional world-class building, but clambering over the roof and seeing its architecture up close was a fantastic experience. It’s easily one of the best and most interesting cathedrals I’ve visited.


View from the roof terraces of the magnificent architecture of the Duomo in Milan

The Duomo’s ticket office is situated across the street from the cathedral and there are a number of ticket types on offer, depending on what you want to see. You can pay to go inside, visit the roof terraces (above) or buy a combined ticket that provides access to the cathedral, the roof terraces, the archaeological site and the Duomo museum. Wanting to see all this impressive building had to offer, I chose the latter.


The Duomo in Milan, Italy

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.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade in Milan, Italy

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.

Christmas time in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade in Milan, Italy

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.

La Rinascente department store in Milan, Italy, illuminated for Christmas

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”.

Passion fruit and raspberry eclair

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.

Santa Maria delle Grazie Church and Convent

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.

Inside the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie

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.

Cardiff – St Fagans

St Fagans Castle and gardens, Cardiff

One of my favourite places for a Sunday stroll is the St Fagans National Museum of History on the outskirts of Cardiff. The museum is an open-air museum set in 100 acres of woodland in the grounds of St Fagans Castle.

Blaenwaun Post Office, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

The castle and the grounds were given to the public in 1948 by their then-owner the Earl of Plymouth and since then more than 40 buildings from different eras from all over Wales have been rebuilt in the grounds.

Over the summer, the main entrance building, which had been closed for the past few years for an extensive refurbishment, reopened and I was keen to see what it was like. I was surprised to find the main building was quite sparse with an enormous foyer and a small information desk, a new café and a shop. But it turned out it has yet to fully reopen as the exhibition galleries are still being refurbished.

Turog Bakery, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

As a creature of habit, I always follow the same tried-and-tested route whenever I visit St Fagans. My first port of call is always the bakery (above) because their cheesy buns are one of my favourite things in the world to eat and they’re so popular they often sell out. There’s nothing more disappointing than a trip to St Fagans to find there are no cheesy buns. So cheesy buns purchased, we were free to stroll around the rest of the grounds at our leisure.

A pig on the farm at the St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

First off, we headed down to the farm (above), which is home to numerous animals such as geese, chickens, and my favourites, the pigs. I love the pigs, especially the adorable piglets, and make a beeline to see them whenever I visit. They always look so content lounging on the ground or moving around their pens, sniffing as they go and munching the straw around them, that I could spend hours watching them.

Siop Losin (sweet shop) at the St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Having spent quite a long time watching the pigs, we strolled back towards the bakery, past the old water mill and the toll house, and on to the Gwalia grocery stores. There you can buy traditional Welsh produce such as cheese, jam, seaweed snacks and honey. Next door there’s a new sweet shop (above), so we popped inside and found a back wall filled with jars of old fashioned sweets, while the area around the counter was brimming with chocolate, Kendal mint cake and sticks of rock. I resisted the temptation to load up on sweet treats and instead plumped for an intriguing pot of raspberry and lavender jam from the grocery stores.

Oakdale Workmen's Institute, St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

Behind the Gwalia stores is the Oakdale working men’s institute (above). I’m from a long line of coal miners in the Valleys and the institute is one of my favourite buildings as I feel it’s the one that best represents my Welsh heritage. Working men’s institutes were built all over the Valleys to provide coal miners and their families with a social and cultural centre, and this wonderful building boasts a library, reading room and committee room. Over the years, I’ve spent ages poring over the photographs that hang on the walls, wondering whether or not any of the faces staring back at me are my ancestors. Probably not – but it’s not impossible!

After the institute, we wandered up through the woods to Llys Llywellyn (Llywellyn’s Court). It’s a recreation of a medieval princes’ court from Anglesey and has been under construction for a few years. I like popping by whenever I’m in St Fagans to see how it’s coming along and this time I was surprised to see one of the buildings was almost finished. I’m really looking forward to having a look around it when it opens as there aren’t any surviving examples of the princes’ courts and I’m keen to see what they would have looked like.

From Llys Llywellyn, we walked the short distance to another of my favourite buildings, St Teilo’s Church (above). From the outside, the church looks like any regular church, but inside it’s elaborately painted as it would have been during the Middle Ages. I love looking inside and seeing the decoration. I often forget when I visit old churches in the UK that many of them would have been painted during the Middle Ages and I’m always amazed at how colourful and decorative St Teilo’s Church is as it’s so different to the plain, stone churches we usually see in the UK.

Wicker man at St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff

After looking around the church, we strolled up to the old slate farmhouse, which was closed for renovation work, then walked past the woods that played host to the Battle of St Fagans on 8 May 1648 during the Civil War.

As we wandered back down towards the centre of the museum, I was intrigued by the giant wicker man that was standing tall in one of the fields (above). The wicker man had been erected for Halloween and was set to be burned during one of the museum’s nighttime Halloween events. There were lots of craft stalls nearby, too, where you could buy handmade goods or try your hand at making a mini wicker man, pottery or jewellery.

Our final destination was St Fagans Castle (above right). I love strolling around the castle gardens as they’re so vast and varied. They include Italian-style gardens on the hill leading up to the castle and a series of rectangular ponds beneath them (above left). Up near the castle there’s a fruit and vegetable garden with a number of greenhouses, as well as a series of gardens beautifully laid out in different patterns.

It’s a really pretty, relaxing place to walk, especially during the autumn when the trees are a medley of reds, yellows, oranges and greens. I’ve been inside the castle countless times, so I often skip the tour inside and just spend time enjoying the gardens, which we did this time, too.

Red stone farmhouse, St Fagans National History Museum, Cardiff

From the castle, we then headed back to the main building for a well-earned, warming cup of tea in the café. The perfect way to end a very pleasant autumn stroll.

St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff CF5 6XB
Open daily, 10am-5pm

Lisbon – Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon

The last place I visited during my trip to Lisbon was the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, founded in 1969 to house the enormous art collection that belonged to Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian.

Calouste Gulbenkian was an obscenely rich businessman born in Constantinople in 1869. Over the years he amassed a massive collection of around 6,400 artworks dating from the Egyptian and Greco-Roman period to the early 20th century. When he died in 1955, he left his collection to the city of Lisbon on condition it built a museum to house it.

The museum was constructed in the mid-1960s in the city’s Parque de Santa Gertrudes and around 1,000 of Gulbenkian’s artworks are on permanent display. The building has won a number of architectural awards, but if I’m honest I wasn’t too keen on it. It’s very late 1960s/early 1970s with lots of beige and brown, which I found quite ugly.

Inside, the museum is split into different sections and the first part I visited housed ancient works from Egypt, the Greco-Roman empire and Mesopotamia. There were also tiles, rugs and various other objects from Persia and Turkey, as well as some lovely pieces of porcelain and silks from China. There was a lot to look at and it was fascinating to see so many varying pieces in such close proximity.

I then wandered over to the section on European art. This part of the gallery is home to a magnificent bust of Victor Hugo by Rodin, a portrait of Madame Claude Monet by Renoir in which she looks wonderfully French, as well as paintings by Nanette, Gainsborough and Turner.

The standout part of the gallery was the room dedicated to René Lalique. Gulbenkian amassed one of the world’s greatest collections of objects by Lalique and the pieces on display are incredible. There were beautiful glass goblets, dazzling vases, and delicate hair accessories and broaches. Everything was so elegant and pretty, I spent ages looking at it all.

Gulbenkian’s art collection is home to some exquisite works of art so I enjoyed my visit. It’s rare to see such a huge breadth of pieces from so many different eras and parts of the globe in such a small space. The gallery was also quite quiet as it’s away from the Lisbon tourist trail, so I was able to take my time looking around the collection. The only downside was the miserable staff, but the fabulous artworks more than made up for it. If you like art, it’s worth a visit.

Lisbon – Castelo de Sao Jorge and the Alfama

IMG_7026 (2)

The Castelo de São Jorge and the Alfama are among the oldest parts of Lisbon. This ancient, hilly district is home to a warren of winding cobbled streets and characterful old buildings, and it’s where I decided to spend my final morning in the city.

The Castelo de São Jorge is perched high on a hill, and to get to it, I had to put my thigh muscles to good use as I climbed the steep cobbled streets that twisted and turned in all directions. It would be easy to get lost in this labyrinthine part of Lisbon, but luckily there are signposts en route to show you the way to the castle. The stream of tourists heading up the hill also provided a handy clue that I was going the right way.

View over Lisbon and the River Tagus from the Castelo de Sao Jorge

The castle was built by the Moors in the middle of the 11th century. Unlike most castles in Europe, the Castelo de São Jorge was built as a base to house troops and wasn’t intended to be a home. But the following century, the castle was captured during the country’s Christian reconquest and it became a royal residence. It’s easy to see why the royal family would want to live here. From its vantage point on top of one of the city’s seven hills, it boasts fantastic views over Lisbon and the River Tagus (above).

Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon

The area around the Castelo de São Jorge is enormous, home to the castle itself, the remains of a former palace and an archaeological site featuring buildings that date back as far as the Iron Age. When I arrived at the castle, I passed through an outer courtyard then spent some time walking around the outer perimeter of the castle. This gave me an idea of the scale of the fortress – it’s huge, with tall formidable sandstone walls linking a series of square towers.

Inside the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon

After exploring the castle’s exterior, I went inside, crossing a stone bridge and passing a huge stone tower that once housed the royal treasury and a couple of bare stone rooms to reach a large courtyard. The courtyard is a big space, but like the rooms that preceded it, empty. So after having a quick look around, I climbed a flight of stairs that led to the ramparts above.

It’s possible to walk all the way around the ramparts, going inside the towers and admiring the spectacular views over Lisbon. There isn’t a huge amount to see inside the castle, it’s essentially an empty shell as there aren’t any furnished rooms to give you an idea of what it looked like when it was in use. So the ramparts, with their incredible views, were by far the best part of the castle and I enjoyed walking around them, stopping here and there to look out over the city.

Having explored it all, I made my way back down to a second courtyard, which was also pretty bare but had a few features, including a couple of wells and some trees.

Archaeological site at the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon

By now I’d seen everything there was to see in the castle, so I headed over to the archaeological site. The excavations have uncovered a number of ruins from different eras, including Iron Age structures, a couple of Moorish houses and part of the Palace of the Counts of Santiago, which was destroyed during the 1755 earthquake.

You can’t walk in between the excavated buildings but you can walk around the edge of the site and there’s a guide that shows you what you’re looking at. It was interesting to see remains from such varied points in Lisbon’s history so close together, and it brought home how old the city is and the richness of its history.

From the archaeological site, I made my way back towards the entrance, passing the ruins of the old royal palace (also destroyed by the 1755 earthquake). The area around the ruined palace is a relaxing and attractive space with fragments of columns, trees and statues dotted around, as well as a strutting peacock (above).

Alfama district of Lisbon

After leaving the castle, I decided to explore the Alfama district. The Alfama is home to many of Lisbon’s oldest buildings and it was a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours, ambling up and down its narrow, winding alleyways and soaking up its sights and sounds. As I neared the waterfront, I stumbled upon a fantastic market selling all sorts of crafts including jewellery and leather goods, and I bought a pretty bracelet and a small bag made from cork.

My morning at the castle and the Alfama was enjoyable. The castle was enormous, and even though there wasn’t much to see inside, the views from the ramparts made up for the lack of attractions and the archaeological site was interesting. The Alfama neighbourhood, meanwhile, was a cool, relaxing place, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. An agreeable way to spend my final morning in Lisbon.

Sintra – Moors’ Castle

View of the Moors' Castle in Sintra from the Pena Palace

It’s almost impossible to miss the Castelo dos Mouros or Moors’ Castle in Sintra. The striking fortress, which sits high on a hill overlooking the town, dominates the surrounding landscape and is visible for miles. Its stone ramparts, towers and battlements are sprawled across the hilltop making it a formidable defensive structure.

The castle was built by the Moors in the 10th century following their successful conquest of Portugal and Spain, but it subsequently fell into a state of disrepair until it was restored by King Ferdinand II in the 19th century.

Tomb beside the Moors' Castle in Sintra

The Moors’ Castle was my last port of call in Sintra and after my visit to Pena Palace, I followed a trail through the woods that links the two sites. Along the way, I passed various stone structures, such as the small stone tomb above.

The tomb was built to house a number of human remains that were uncovered when King Ferdinand II’s restoration works damaged part of the necropolis at the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim opposite. The church, which is open to the public, now houses an exhibition about the castle’s history, as well as artefacts found during archaeological excavations.

When I reached the Moors’ Castle, I made my way inside and headed towards the Castle Keep (above) where I had great fun climbing the towers, clambering over walls, and going up and down various steps. There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore, and I was in my element seeing all there was to see.

View of the ramparts at the Moors' Castle in Sintra

From the area around the Castle Keep, I wandered down towards the outer walls of the castle. The walls form a defensive ring around the hilltop, connecting the castle’s towers and the mountain’s various rocky outcrops. I ventured down onto the walkway from one of the towers (above) but it had become very windy and I found myself struggling to hold my ground. The gaps between the ramparts are quite large with a sheer cliff the other side of the wall, and as the strong gusts became increasingly frequent, I didn’t feel safe carrying on so I decided to skip the walk.

Instead I headed back down to the centre of the castle where I set about exploring the rest of it including the Royal Tower, which was one of King Ferdinand II’s favourite places. I meandered up the hill to the Royal Tower where I had a good look around, admiring the phenomenal views. The wind though was really strong here, too, and at one point, I was caught by a massive gust and had to grab hold of the stone wall at the top of the steps to avoid being blown over.

With the wind increasing in its ferocity, I decided to stay away from the towers, too, and spent the rest of my visit looking around the lower parts of the castle before making my way back down the mountain to Sintra’s old town.

View over Sintra and the Atlantic Ocean from the Royal Tower in Sintra

It’s a shame the wind was so strong as the views from the castle were incredible. From the Castle Keep, I had a great view over Sintra, and from the Royal Tower I could see for miles and could even make out the Atlantic Ocean in the distance (above). The castle was built on one of the highest points in the Sintra hills to protect Sintra and nearby Lisbon, and with its fantastic vantage points, it’s easy to see why the Moors decided to build a castle here.

IMG_6926 (3)

The castle is a fascinating place to explore and very different to the many castles I’ve visited elsewhere in Europe. The only disappointment was the wind – it was so strong I didn’t feel safe looking around some of the more exposed parts of the castle. But I’d love to go back on a less windy day and see all the parts I missed.