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A Short City-Break Sight-Seeing Tour of Milan
By Kimmo Korpilahti, November 2019.
The story goes that Milan was founded by the Celtic Insubres people in 600 BC. A few hundred years later the area came under the rule of Rome and was renamed to Mediolanum, foreshadowing the modern name: Milan. Over the centuries, the rulers of Milan have changed many times, each culture leaving its distinctive mark on the region.
Contemporary Milan, with its many faces, is the second largest city in Italy and the beating heart of Italy´s economy and industry, as well as one of the world´s top fashion capitals. Milan is likewise a leading centre of education, culture and tourism. Nine million tourist visits on average per year, nominates Milan as one of Europe's most popular travel destinations.
With a metropolitan population of over eight million inhabitants, Milan is brimming with activity and sightseeing attractions. One could easily spend an entire month on a sightseeing tour and still barely scratch the surface of the breath-taking experiences Milan has to offer.
Sadly, given our hectic lives, we seldom have a month to spare, so I suggest prioritising your journey in terms of quality rather than quantity. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your weekend, from someone who’s a frequent visitor to this fascinating city.
First and foremost, I suggest equipping yourself with a two-day metro-ticket, which should cost under 10 Euros. The city metro is a fast, convenient and flexible way to get around town and multiple-ride tickets are available in most bars, newspaper stands and at all metro stations. Just remember that the ticket must be stamped at all entrances and exits of the metro system.
Got your ticket? Great! Now, let’s take a light tour of some of Milan’s amazing attractions.
(Numbers refer to map locations)
The Milan Cathedral (1) is a colossal structure, which dominates the Piazza del Duomo, Cathedral Square, which is the main square of the city. The Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan and is dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente (the Nativity of St Mary). It is the fourth largest church in the world, after St Peter’s Basilica of the Vatican City, Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida of Brazil and Spain’s Seville Cathedral respectively. Regardless of your religious beliefs, this masterpiece, which took over six centuries to complete, is a massively impressive landmark indeed. The Cathedral boasts a capacity of 40,000 persons and there are 3,400 statues decorating it—the largest single selection of sculptures in the world. Some 700 of the sculptures depict notable saints and over a hundred are figures of gargoyles, as well as of historically significant pontiffs. The dimensions of the grand Cathedral are likewise vast: it is 108m high, 158m long and 92m wide. In recent years, several companies have embarked on creating augmented reality tours of a number of world wonders, including the Duomo.
Work on the ambitious project began back in 1386, spearheaded by Archbishop Saluzzo and the Duke of Milan, Gian Visconti and was only truly concluded in 1965. In terms of design and architectural language, the building is a blend of styles, as over the centuries of its construction, around 80 of the best and brightest architects of their day, were sourced from all over Europe to work on the resultant masterpiece. Today, the overall architectural gestalt is classified as Italian Gothic. It’s no secret that the highest grade marble comes from Italy and the marble used in the Milan Cathedral is also home-sourced—from the Ossola valley in Piedmonte, to be exact. Hundreds of tonnes of precious marble were transported to Milan via waterways and specially constructed canals. The very same Veneranda Fabbrica, which centuries ago oversaw the installation of the top-grade marble, is still maintaining the stone within the Cathedral today. Naturally, the factory has evolved its methods and means in line with contemporary scientific and technological advancements.
Take a few hours to admire the humbling beauty of the Milan Cathedral and discover its treasures and secrets—such as the largest organ in Italy, which comprises 15,800 pipes. Although not on the official 7 Wonders of the World list, no top 10 list of world wonders could ever be complete without this marvel. Do not deny yourself a visit to the Cathedral Museum, Museo del Duomo, where you may dive deep into the rich history of the building and the culture that wrought it.
“What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! […] They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St Peter's at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.”
Having indulged your senses in historic and cultural reverie, it is time to resurface and step back into the modern world. From the Cathedral’s north-east corner walk into the bustling pedestrian zone Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, named in honour of a prominent 19th century monarch of Italy. Pretty soon you will find yourself surrounded by an eclectic mix of cafés, boutiques, and shops. During the summer months, you will find entertainment galore here as buskers, mimes, magicians and other street performers ply and polish their chosen trade. In this district you will find multi-national clothing conglomerates and brand stores, such as Urban Outfitters, which operate three shops in Milan. Their apparel’s appeal—and in turn—success, stem from their chic, yet practical collections, which are not only at home on the catwalk, but in everyday life too.
Relax and enjoy the San Babila square (2), a tourist attraction in its own right. A long time ago this square was an important hub in the city’s road network. Nowadays it has become a nice place to unwind by the small fountain and pool.
Haute Couture Fashion District
All the iconic Italian fashion houses without exception, including Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino, Versace, Fendi, Prada, etc. are lavishly represented in the famous Milan Fashion Quarter (3), which sprawls beyond San Babila Square. Fashion buffs might enjoy exploring the Palazzo Morando fashion museum on Via Sant’Andrea 6.
During the Milan Fashion Week, most world-famous designers and models flock to various flamboyant venues here, surrounded by extravagant entourages and fawning aides. The event also attracts throngs of fashionistas and journalists, all eager to behold the vicissitudes of mode or glimpse an exclusive scoop on a sensational story.
Teatro alla Scala
Having had your fill of chic, glitz and glam there is another internationally famous site that is most certainly worthy of your attention. Some 400 meters from the Montenapoleone metro station along Via Alessandro Manzoni street lies a small square with a Leonardo da Vinci statue, across the street from which you will find the Teatro alla Scala (4), affectionately known as La Scala, one of the most celebrated opera houses of the world.
La Scala opened in August 1778 and is still referred to as a theatre because in the past, this venue housed Teatro Ducale. The grand opera building is six stories high and accommodates close to 3,000 seats and a museum, Museo Teatrale alla Scala, with an extensive collection of paintings, props, costumes, and statues, providing a good account of the history of the opera and theatric genres.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Just a few steps away from La Scala is the oldest shopping centre (5) in all of Italy. This renaissance-style shopping centre opened in 1877 and was named in honour of Victor Emmanuel II —the first king of the Kingdom of united Italy since the 6th century, who was also known as the Padre della Patria (Father of the Fatherland). Besides numerous premium brand shops and mouth-watering restaurants, we recommend a visit to the Mondadori Rizzoli Galleria bookstore, which boasts a considerable number of books on fashion and design. Architecture, history and art are also well represented and some works are also available in English.
At the Galleria’s northern exit is a small, interesting museum, Il Mondo di Leonardo (Leonardo’s world), devoted to Leonardo da Vinci. Here you can marvel at working models of his inventions, with video clips depicting the large-scale ideas in action and enjoy a few restored paintings by the master.
From Cathedral Square and metro station Duomo, the red metro line will take you west two stops, to Cairoli Castello. Cairoli is next to the affluent Brera district, an area with quality restaurants and impressive buildings.
Next to Largo Cairoli stands the Castello Sforzesco (6), the medieval fortress of Milan. The fortress was built by Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan in the 15th century and is one of the largest medieval defensive structures in Europe.
The touristic allure of the area is enhanced by several special libraries and an abundance of museums.
Bosco Verticale and the UniCredit Tower
The other attractions we recommend are a little way out of the centre.
First, from Cairoli, take the metro to Cadorna and then change to the M2 green line which will take you to Centrale—the main railway station of Milan (7). The station building is large, glamorous and meticulously maintained.
The vertical forest, Bosco Verticale (8), stands nearby, flanked by Via Gaetano de Castillia and Via Federico Confalonieri. The complex comprises two residential buildings, 111 and 76 metres in height, located near the opulent Porta Nuova district. With a mind-boggling GDP of €400 billion, in 2017 it was estimated that Porta Nuova is the richest district in any European city.
Each of the high-rises accommodates 900 trees, 5,000 shrubs and 11,000 other perennial plants. The dense vegetation muffles street noise, maintains a constant temperature inside, produces oxygen and mitigates the effects of smog. The ingenious design was conceived by the Boeri Studio and since its inauguration in 2014 has won several prestigious awards including the International Highrise Award (2014) and Best Tall Building Worldwide (2015).
Next to Bosco Verticale lies a newly built green leisure area city park, adjacent to the UniCredit Tower (9), which represents the new architecture of Milan. At 231 metres, it is the tallest building in Italy, but not the cheapest by a long shot, as the total cost of construction was just shy of €5 billion.
City Life and San Siro
From the park, you can walk to the Garibaldi station nearby and take the M5 lilac metro line to the Tre Torri, to discover the new, modern shopping district of Milan, City Life Park (10). The park covers around 170,000 square meters with many cycling and walking paths. The park was built following an international design competition in 2010.
City Life is the largest car-free area in town and, actually, one of the largest in Europe. The area is equipped with an extensive underground parking lot.
The shopping mall Viale Cassiodoro is not overly impressive, but the interior is rather interesting and large, the restaurant area is also well designed and hence—very popular.
Our final point of interest for this time is the Giuseppe Meazza stadium, which is legendary among football fans the world over, as it is the home to the AC Milan and FC Milan Internazionale football teams. Just take the M5 lilac metro line to its final destination, named San Siro Stadio. The San Siro stadium with a capacity of over 80,000, is one of the largest stadiums in Europe and the largest in Italy. Besides football, many large events and concerts are held here.
Souvenirs, sports jerseys, accessories, bags and many more items for football fans may be purchased in stores that are dedicated to promoting the afore-mentioned football clubs. On a guided tour, football fans will relish the experience of backstage visits to the locker rooms of both teams and the opportunity to walk along the corridor, which leads into the football pitch. A rare opportunity to see the stadium from the players’ perspective.
The museum recounts the stadium’s history and introduces visitors to Milan’s football royalty of today and yester-years. Both private and group guided tours are available.
Getting back to the centre is easy, just retrace your route via the San Siro metro station.
This has been a brief glimpse of just a handful of Milan’s interesting places. I have so much more to share with you about this city, which I have come to love. Check back soon for new articles on Italy, Finland and the Baltic States!
Kimmo Korpilahti is a technical designer dedicated to interior design and architecture but also involved in business life managing the chamber of commerce for seven years and running own international family business. He was born in Finland, but has been living abroad already for many years. Often spending time in Italy to gain inspiration from mountains, history, architecture, and lifestyle. Visit Floriance SIA, design, branding, sales.