We arrived in Milan, Italy after a tiring travel day that began with the cancellation of our flight from Paris to Milan due to a strike at the Milan Malpensa Airport. A quick rescheduling by Viking Air had us flying into Milan LIN, but our first flight was delayed due to technical difficulties. Thankfully, Air France changed our connection, so we then proceeded to Rome and, finally, to Milan. All of this to say…Flexibility is always a key to travel—and it doesn’t hurt to keep a smile on your face and be nice to everyone.
The imposingly beautiful Milan Centrale Train Station was a short—5 minute—walk from our hotels, the Hotel Berna and IQ Hotel. (Because we used Milan as a base, we decided to try two hotels.) The easy-to-find platforms are well marked, and the convenient trains made it easy to reach our various locations, including San Marino and Lake Maggiore. (Seat61.com is a great resource for train info.)
We caught a great six-hour walking tour of Milan with Vetitalia which we scheduled through Viator. (Don’t panic. We did stop for lunch and several other breaks.) Our guide, Kiara, kept us entertained while educating us about the history and future of Milano. Our first stop was the Sforza Castle. One of the significant acts that the Sforza’s accomplished while in power was to hire Leonardo da Vinci and bring him to the city. Basically, da Vinci wrote Sforza a letter in 1482 introducing himself as a war engineer who could be very helpful to the Sforza family. Sforza hired him sight unseen—after all, cell phones and video calls had not been invented. Da Vinci spent 20 years in Milan and lived in the Sforza Castle. (There is a large Da Vinci Museum in Milan, but we didn’t have time to visit it.) He moved to France only when the Sforzas fell out of power.
As our walk continued, we stopped at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a beautifully arcaded shopping center built between 1865 and 1877. (It’s the oldest active shopping center in the world.) I can’t tell you much about all the stores in the arcade, because I was too distracted by everyone taking videos of their friends near the four beautiful mosaics on the floor. The mosaics are the coat of arms of Turin, Florence, Rome, and Milan, but the big draw is the mosaic bull of Turin. Legend has it that, if you stand on the testicles of the bull and turn around with your eyes closed, you will have good luck. I don’t think it’s such great luck for the bull, especially since the wear and tear requires annual replacement each year.
Next stop… the magnificent Duomo di Milano, the third largest Catholic cathedral in the world and the largest in Italy. (St. Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City is first while Catedral de Sevilla is second.) Milan’s Cathedral holds 40,000 people. Construction began in 1386 but was not completed until 1813 under Napoleon who was crowned king of Italy here. The impressive interior holds many surprises. On sunny days, light shines through a hole in the ceiling to mark the zodiac sign at solar moon. The awe-inspiring 16,000 pipe organ is the largest in Italy. Light streams in from many stained-glass windows which took their rightful place back in the Duomo after being removed during WWII for safe keeping. The statue of St. Bartholomew, who was tortured and killed for being Christian by being skinned alive. The sculptor used St. Bartholomew’s skin as his wrap with his face and hair visible in the back.
The Duomo is just one of many hidden beauties in Milan. Another is Teatro alla Scala, the theater which is rather plain on the outside but beautiful on the inside.
Another church hiding beauty within is the San Maurizio Church which also served as a Benedictine convent. The nuns were not allowed to be seen or see anyone, so a grate was built within the church to let them hear the music and sing but not be heard.
Milan also holds some funny surprises. For example, the gigantic statue in front of the stock market building is of a middle finger sending a clear message to the financial institution.
Finally, we arrived at the highlight of our visit to Milan—Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. From 1494-1498, Da Vinci painted in the Dominican convent refectory. In spite of the fact that this amazing art has not always been appreciated—Napoleon was said to have housed his horses and during WWII everything of the rooms was destroyed except the two pictures on either end of the long room—the work has survived.
The experience of seeing the paintings—make certain you look at both paintings while you are there—is very different than I expected due to the care needed to protect the art. The number of visitors is severely limited. You wait in a room until the doors open and then you have 15 minutes to see the room. At the end of the time, everyone must leave. Note: If you are booking The Last Supper on your own, get tickets waaay ahead. They were sold out for the following 3 months.
After this wonderful tour, we managed to eat more fantastic Italian food before wandering around this fantastic city. (Make reservations if you have a particular restaurant in mind.)
We used Milan as our base for a tour to Lake Como and Lake Lugano the next day. These lakes can be visited on your own via train, but we chose a tour since we were short on time. Taking a tour allowed us to bypass the 2-hour wait for the ferry on Lake Como and gave us some insight into various towns along the way without getting off the ferry.
We visited Bellagio for a few hours. It is a charming town but so crowded. If we go back to Lake Como, I would stay in some of the smaller, less known towns. Lugano, on the other hand, was also beautifully set on a lake, Lake Lugano, and was far more laidback and fun for us.
Of course, when we returned to Milan, we managed to find room in our stomachs for more amazing Italian food. (One of our favorite restaurants was Antica Osteria Cavallini, located near our hotel.)
And the next day, we were off to Stresa and Lake Maggiore for more adventures. We had decided to stay in Stresa for the night since it was on the way, via train, to Zermatt, Switzerland, which would begin our Switzerland whirlwind tour. (We had visited Switzerland before but that was an ever quicker trip.)
In Stresa we stayed at La Luna El Porto Hotel which was located on the waterfront and gave us a beautiful view of Lake Maggiore. We spent the evening eating, wandering and a little bit of shopping before settling in with coffee on the terrace overlooking the lake. The next morning, we caught the first ferry to Isola Bella, my must see for the area. (There’s no need to buy tickets before you go.)
Isola Bella is one of three Borromean Islands in the lake. This island features the Borromeo Palazzo, a 17th century villa begun by Carlo III for his wife. The villa and the gardens encompass almost all of the small island. The villa held several surprises. The proposed entrance, though not the one visitors now use, is a massively beautiful three-floor room meant to awe guests. The palazzo also includes several grotto rooms beautifully decorated with shells and black marble.
The garden is a masterpiece of design. Visitors are met with views of the multiple terraces, statuary, and white peacocks. Exploring the terraces with their views of the lake and Stresa was a wonderful way to spend time before heading back to Stresa to catch the train to Zermatt, Switzerland.
And we were off via train to Zermatt. Information about our stay in Switzerland will be posted here soon.
To see our visit from Milan to the beautiful country of San Marino, click here.
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