Sunday, 14 June 2015

How to visit Milan like a local

Mark Twain said "The Creator made Italy from designs by Michaelangelo". Giuseppe Verdi said "You may have the universe if I may have Italy." And when I Googled "Italy is beautiful", 280 million results appeared.

This is a remarkably picturesque country. But then there is Milan. And Milan is an anomaly.

People tell me the city I live in was charming before it was carpet bombed in World War II. Now, 70 years on, it's the most successful, efficient and modern city in the country. But it's also unmistakably plain.

So that you don't leave feeling underwhelmed, I've put together some of my favourite things to see and do here.


Brera's charming cobbled streets are home to many of the city's most rich and powerful people. How the high-heel wearers navigate the district's uneven surfaces without knackering their ankles will forever be a mystery. They like to say it's an Italian superpower.

The best thing to do in Brera is just potter about. It's a great place for people watching and window shopping. The creations in the fashion boutiques will either make you gasp with wonder or, more probably, shake your head with bemusement. I genuinely saw a dress made from carpet for sale last time I visited.

Beautiful Brera

Local tip: Caffè del Carmine is situated in one of Brera's most picturesque piazzas. I recommend stopping in to rest your legs and grab a well-deserved cocktail. However, avoid visiting the loo if you can. If you can't, you'll see why.


Milan's signature sight. Do you want to explore a building with 3,000 statues on it? Of course you do. Skip the inside of the cathedral and buy a €7 ticket to the roof instead. After you've climbed the stairs and wheezed your way onto the balcony, you'll be greeted by a mass of sculpted spires.

The sheer quantity of them is breathtaking, but as you make your way around the roof, you'll also notice the intricate details that have gone into each sculpture. These artisan touches are just as impressive as the vastness of the overall spectacle.

On a clear day, as you look out beyond the spires, you can see the Alps on the horizon. And as you look up to the golden angel on the roof's highest spire, you will see... scaffolding. Never mind. It's worth it anyway.

The Duomo

Local tip: Skip the long lines on the left of the cathedral by buying your ticket at the booth on the right-hand side.

Museo Novecento

Whether you want to or not, you'll see plenty of religious art while you're in Italy. And there's only so many frescoes it's possible to look at before you start thinking satanic thoughts. The Museo Novecento offers something different.

Ostensibly dedicated to the Novecento (900) art movement, which developed in Milan in the 1920s, the collection's scope is actually much broader. Other highlights include Picasso paintings, a strobe-based interactive exhibit that you have to sign a waiver to enter and an excellent view of the Duomo square.

As the museum costs just €5, and is located just two minutes from Duomo, there's little reason not to pop in while you're here.

Local tip: This neighbourhood is clotted with tourist traps, so you'll struggle to get reasonably priced food and drink. If you want a cheap lunch, local department store Trony (on Via Torino) offers coffees and piadinas on its third floor. It also has a free loo.


Castello means castle in Italian, and this one was built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan. Take a free stroll through the grounds, enjoying the elegance of the well-preserved building while turning down the numerous offers you'll receive to buy selfie-sticks.

The route through the castle grounds will lead you naturally onto Parco Sempione, Milan's most charming park. This is a great place to have a picnic, throw a frisbee or just watch the world go by.

Arco della Pace, Parco Sempione

Local fact: The gaps in the castle walls that look like arrow slits are actually holes to cope with the expansions and contractions of the brickwork as the weather changes.

Eat on a tram

If you're feeling decadent, you can wander back to the entrance to Castello and have dinner on a "1928-style" tram. It leaves from a stop near the fountain at Via Beltrami and winds its way around some of the main sights in the city centre over the course of a couple of hours. You need to pre-book and it's not cheap, but the food is excellent, the setting is elegant and the overall experience is unique.

Also, unlike all the other trams in Milan, they've spent money on the suspension so it doesn't vibrate like a washing machine as it moves.

The main course. Photo courtesy of @3taler.

Local tip: Get someone else to pay. It makes the food taste even better (Cheers Gareth).

Navigli canal

Navigli is Milan's best place for nightlife with a bohemian, studenty atmosphere. I've reviewed it before but parts of it have recently been revamped.

Have you ever wanted to be served a cocktail by a barman with blue dungarees and an unkempt beard? Me neither. But the new Mercato Metropolitano has brought hipster culture to the city anyway. To be fair, the atmosphere there is less up itself than you might expect.

UPDATE: As of 2016, Mercato Metropolitano has been closed. There are local rumours of financial mismanagement and other issues too libellous to blog about!

A couple of hundred meters away, the changes to the area by Darsena del Naviglio are unequivocally an improvement. A building site by the canal has finally been transformed into a peaceful grassy area. Bring a lover, a friend or a good book and take an hour to sit back and absorb the relaxed atmosphere.

Navigli canal

Local tip: Once you're by the Darsena, you're only a few minutes' walk from the Colonne di San Lorenzo, impressive Roman columns that look like this...

Colonne di San Lorenzo. Photo courtesy of Miss Ciao.

The Monumental Cemetery

If you want a couple of hours of quiet reflection, head to the Monumental Cemetery near Garibaldi Metro. Although this is where Milan's rich bury their dead, the craftsmanship that has gone into the graves ensures the cemetery's atmosphere is respectful without being sombre.

Tours are available if you like that sort of thing, but you don't need one. Just take a walk and see what you come across.

The cemetery entrance

Local tip: For something very different, nearby Corso Como is home to plenty of bars and clubs that tend to be more upmarket than Navigli.

The lake district

Yes Italy's lake district isn't in Milan, but it's about an hour by train so it's near enough. George Clooney has a house here. I'm not sure why.

I mean don't get me wrong, I like the lakes a lot. That's why they're in this list. It's just that if I could afford a house anywhere in the world, I'd buy one in Rio or Prague or Sifnos. I digress.

The beauty of the lakes is... well, their beauty. They mix charming, well-to-do towns with inviting islands and lush landscapes. And then there's the water itself... listening to its ripples lap at the shore on sunny days is like a spring clean for the soul.

Although Lake Como, Clooney's home, is closest to Milan, I prefer Lake Maggiore. It's quieter and taking a boat trip to its three islands is a captivating way to spend an afternoon.

Garda is another of the most famous lakes, but there are also smaller ones like Orta and Varese, so with a bit of research, you're sure to find one that suits you.

Peacock, Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore

Local tip: If you go to Como, Osteria di Via Monti is a few minutes' walk from the station and slightly off the beaten track, but sells excellent authentic food at good prices.

La Gelateria della Musica

I've reviewed this before. It's still just as good.

And the rest

I haven't even mentioned the Last Supper, the San Siro, the Scala or the Pinacoteca di Brera. There's more to see and do in Milan, and this is only intended to be a list of a few of my personal favourites.

A few more words of advice... if you visit between April and September, bring suncream (but know sun is far from guaranteed), bring antihistamines (for the crazy pollen levels) and bring mosquito spray. You will thank me.

Lastly, and most importantly, if you are not Italian, do not try to drink Negroni. It is not for you.

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Brera photo credit: <a href="">Brera - via Madonnina</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>
Other photos mine or as attributed.