My first time visiting Italy was really not how I had ever pictured it. Growing up in Nova Scotia means a trip to Europe (well, to anywhere, really) is costly and takes a lot of thought and effort into planning. I always thought I would spend a couple weeks there, visiting multiple cities and making the most of my time there. Instead, I booked a flight to Milan as a last minute “Hey, we’re all off for a long weekend, we should go somewhere!” trip, involving a very quick search on SkyScanner: “flights from East Midlands to everywhere”, and picking one of the cheapest flights on the list.
To be completely honest, I didn’t think I would really enjoy Milan. At least, not as much as I did. It’s known for being a city of high fashion and high-end restaurants, and growing up on a dairy farm didn’t exactly lead me to a life of haute couture. However, I’m always up for travelling anywhere and with ticket prices as cheap as they were, I couldn’t not go.
So, we booked a little Airbnb – I always get so excited for them, seeing genuine apartments and houses in different places, rather than your standard hotel rooms. Bit riskier, sure, but almost always more rewarding (in my humble opinion). Our entrance alone was worth it to me; this tiny little half-door in a massive one:
Which led us to a lovely little courtyard and old but unique apartment with a loft.
It was in a great spot – nestled along the Naviglio Grande canal about a half hour walk from the city centre. Historically speaking, the canal’s construction began in 1179 for commercial use as well as to facilitate transport of marble for the building of the Milan cathedral.
Translating to ‘big canal’, the man-made river has played an important role in trade and transport for over 800 years. Nowadays, it’s a picturesque area with a host of bars, restaurants, and shops – perfect for romantic strolls (had I not been third-wheeling my friends and ruining the romance for them; oops).
The Naviglio Grande is slightly off the beaten track, but worth it for the electric atmosphere in the evening especially, with the lights strung across the canal and the live music and entertainment dotted along the street.
We were only in Milan for two nights, getting in late in the afternoon on a Thursday and heading out midday on the Saturday. So Thursday evening was spent wandering around the Navigli area, stopping at a few different bars and trying not to shiver too much in the cold outside – note: Italy gets really cold in the winter months. It was late November, and I really didn’t expect to feel so cold; I’m from Canada, we’re supposed to be able to tolerate chilly weather. But alas, I am a wimp and actually had to break down and buy some gloves while we were there.
Friday morning, I awoke earlier than my travel buddies, so I headed out on my own for a stroll. I carried on down the Naviglio Grande to the heart of the Navigli District to the Darsena del Naviglio, where Naviglio Grande meets the Darsena (the city’s port) and Naviglio Pavese (another canal in the Navigli system).
The Arco di Porta Ticinese sits at the end of the Darsena, marking the gateway to Milan for visitors arriving from the south by road as well as water. The arch is a 19th century neoclassical city gate honouring Napoleon’s victory in Marengo which replaced the old 16th century gate along the Spanish Walls. I took a minute to sit and people watch here, soaking up the little bit of history and buzz of the locals’ Friday morning commutes around me before carrying on my morning wander.
Nearby is the Basilica di Sant’Eustorgio, a Romanesque-style Catholic church built in the 4th century to house the bones of the Three Kings. It is one of Milan’s oldest churches and its 73-metre-high bell tower is the tallest of the city. The quick story of this church’s claim to fame goes something like this:
Bishop Eustorgius received the relics of the Magi from the East on his journey to Constantinople (now Istanabul) as a gift. When he reached Milan, the donkey hauling the cart carrying the relics refused to carry on any further. Eustorgius took it as a sacred sign and erected a church at this exact point. The relics were placed in a coffin in this church where they remained for 700 years, until the church was plundered and almost completely destroyed by Barbarossa when he invaded Milan in 1164. Barbarossa then kidnapped the bones and relics of the Magi to Cologne, where they’re located today in the Cologne Cathedral, built for this reason.
The church is set in a lovely little park in Milan, the Parco Giovanni Paolo II (Pope John Paul II Park). Also known as the Park of the Basilicas, this small urban green space is home to two basilicas: the second one being the Basilica San Lorenzo Maggiore at the other end of the park. Built in the 4th century, this is Milan’s oldest church and is an early-Christian church with an octagonal chapel.
Although the park is beautiful and relaxing now, it has a dark history of being the site of burnings, hangings, and torture. The gallows here were eventually replaced by a cross dedicated to St. Lazarus (protector of the suffering), then replaced by a statue of the same saint.
Walking out of the park, I came across the Porta Ticinese… but not the same one I’d encountered earlier. This one looks completely different than the massive arch of the previous one; older and more like your classic fortress-like walls.
So, I had to do a bit more Googling. Turns out, there are three gates with the Porta Ticinese name, all lined up along an ancient route along three successive historical city walls – Roman, Medieval and Spanish Habsburg.
The walls are no longer complete, but the traces of them form concentric rings around the city which show Milan’s growth, spanning over 2000 years. The first one I came across was the newest, (part of the Spanish Habsburg wall), and this one part of the Medieval one. The Medieval Porta Ticinese is from the 12th century, when the Medieval Walls were built mostly as a defence against Barbarossa.
The only standing remnant of a Roman city gate is a tall Roman tower that formed part of the old gate, which is hidden from street view. These walls were built during the times of Julius Caesar in the mid-1st century, when the city’s name was Mediolanum and was the capital of the Roman Empire of the West.
I didn’t get the chance to go search for it, but if you go to the corner of via Torino with via del Torcchio, near Carobbio, you can find the remains of the Roman Porta Ticinese.
As seen on the Milanfinally interactive ring roads map on Google maps, here are the three rings of walls: Roman in yellow, Medieval in red, and Spanish Habsburg in purple.
Anywho, back to my stroll. So, I went through the Medieval Porta Ticinese and found the Colonne di San Lorenzo (Columns of San Lorenzo). This is a group of ancient Roman ruins located directly in front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo – the opposite side of the same basilica I found in the park.
The colonnade consists of 16 tall Corinthian columns in a row, which were moved here in the 4th century after removal from possibly a 2nd century pagan temple or public bath house structure. These columns are some of the most important remains of Mediolanum, serving as the portico for the church.
Walking through the Medieval gate was a bit like stepping back in time; seeing these columns and the wings which flank the entrance to the basilica create a bit of an atrium… was a completely different vibe than the one I had sitting near the Naviglio Pavese. I went from watching people bustling about, wondering where they were headed, to feeling like time stopped, imagining all the events these columns have witnessed over the past 1700-odd years.
This was one of the many humbling moments I’ve had since moving to Europe; one of those “Damn, I’m just a little blip in the universe” kinda times that I actually love. It’s just an incredible thing to witness up close and personal, something that has withstood centuries and centuries of events… Maybe it’s strange, but I just love that feeling of insignificance; it’s one of the few times I can truly shut off my worries which really don’t matter in the big scheme of things.
And so, back to current times. After having breakfast, we headed to check out Castello Sforzesco (Sforzesco Castle) in the city centre. The origins of the castle date back to 1368, when the lord of Milan commissioned a fortified structure be built inside the city’s walls, but this was partially destroyed then rebuilt in the 15th century. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was one of the largest citadels in Europe, but during the 19th century, the castle served as barracks, storage and stables for foreign armies. Lots of ups and downs over the years here.
The castle has a long, complicated relationship with the people of Milan. For hundreds of years, the Milanese attempted to assault and demolish the fortress as they considered the castle to be an emblem of both tyranny and foreign domination; Milan had to deal with changing occupancy from French to Spanish to Austrian to French again, and so on over the years. And so, it wasn’t until the unification of Italy that the people of Milan began to have love for the castle. It became a symbol of the city as the castle was transferred from military use to the city of Milan, who took to restoring the castle.
In 1494, the lord of Milan called various artists to work on decorating the castle, including Leonardo da Vinci and Donato Bramante. There is now a science and technology museum at the castle dedicated to Leonardo, which is the largest science and technology museum in Italy.
There are many museums at the castle, housing a multitude of different items. The Museo Pieta Rondanini is home to Michaelangelo’s last sculpture; there’s an antique furniture and wooden sculpture museum; a vast collection of art including ancient art, applied arts, armory, tapestries, and funerary monuments; a museum of musical instruments; an Egyptian museum; and the Trivulziana Library, which holds Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Codex Trivulzianus’ manuscript. So, lots of stuff to see at this castle.
One of my favourite discoveries here was this ancient map. I have a love for old maps and globes anyway, but this one I found a bit more special as Scotland is marked as Scotia; the first time I’d ever seen a map labelled as Scotia. It also shows how huge Lithuania used to be, so I had connections to my home, Nova Scotia and my boyfriend’s home, Lithuania.
Because this castle is so large and full of so many things, we spent a few hours here. There’s just so much to see, so many artefacts and artworks and things I’d never seen before. I had never heard of this castle before visiting Milan, but was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed it – I loved this castle more than most I’ve been to, simply because of the amount of stuff there is inside of it. But the layout itself is unique, unlike any other castle I’ve visited.
Even if you don’t have time to go through the museums and library at the castle, it’s a nice walk through the grounds and you can check out the Fontana di Piazza Castello while you’re there, or the large Sempiano Park nearby.
The park is the largest and most-loved in Milan, covering 47 hectares and was established in the 1890s. It is a great spot to take in the sunshine in the summertime, or the changing colours of the leaves in the fall like we did.
While strolling through the park, we spotted this arch just peeking out between the trees in the distance.
So we had to go take an up close and personal look. The Arco della Pace, the Arch of Peace, looks quite similar to many other arches spotted through Europe (like the ones I found in Barcelona, Marseille, Munich…).
The first arch’s construction began in 1807 under Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule, to celebrate to the Napoleonic victory over Italy and be the new gateway to Milan. This was abandoned however in 1814 when the French kingdom fell to the Austrian Empire.
In 1826, construction resumed and the Austrian emporer changed the dedication of the arch to the European peace plan signed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. They also changed the position of the sculptures at this time; originally intended to face Paris, the horses were turned 180 degrees to face the city… and to mock the French by orienting their backsides towards France.
The arch was finally completed in 1838, just for Napoleon III to enter Milan triumphantly through it in 1859 following the Battle of Magenta.
So after our little park exploration and arch detour, we made our way to Piazza del Duomo. This is the main city square of Milan, named after the Milan Cathedral (Duomo). The piazza marks the centre of the city and was originially created in the 14th century.
The Duomo took nearly six centuries to complete, is one of the world’s largest Gothic cathedrals, and has 135 towers and over 2000 spires. It also is apparently the building with the most statues in the world, with 3400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 700 figures decorating it.
The cathedral is an impressive structure from the outside, but as I’d read in a few blogs, not worth the time queuing to get inside if you’re only in Milan for a day or two. So we admired from outside and carried on to grab a late lunch in the square.
We had this amazing charcuterie board with a bottle of rosé, followed by some gelato afterward in the square. The amount of pigeons here is just insane, but the number of people posing for pictures while covered in them is even stranger.
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is Italy’s oldest shopping mall and one of the most exquisite I’ve ever been in. Here you can find some of the most expensive fashion boutiques in the world, along with the flagship stores of Prada and Louis Vuitton. The two arcades here are shaped like a Latin cross, inspired by the Eiffel Tower and Crystal Palace in London.
Sadly, I have yet to win the lottery so we didn’t spend much time window shopping, but I must say, I did enjoy the architecture and the luxuriousness of the place – I can’t imagine I will ever visit a more magnificent mall in my lifetime.
Walking out of the gallery, we ended up in a smaller square, the Piazza della Scala. Here you can find a statue of Leonardo da Vinci in the middle and Teatro alla Scala, the Temple of Opera. As one of the most famous operas in the world, it’s one of the most popular tours in Milan, so book in advance if you want to have an official guided tour of the museum.
One of the most popular attractions in Milan is the famous Last Supper painting, housed at Cenacolo Vinciano. Because we booked this trip so last minute, we didn’t get a chance to go see one of da Vinci’s most famous paintings. Much like Teatro alla Scala, you need to book tickets months in advance.
We were in Milan for such a short time, we really only grazed the surface of things to see and do in the city. So for all things Milan, including lists of the top 10 and top free things to do in the city, visit the super useful Yes Milano website.
The good thing about Milan is that the old city centre is fairly small, so you can tackle a lot of sights easily in just one day. Plus, Milan’s public transport system is quite cheap and efficient, so you can pretty easily travel outside of the city centre as well. We purchased 48 hour cards for around 8 euros which gave us unlimited travel for our time in Milan, although we spent most of our time just walking from place to place anyway.
We did enjoy the tram system in Milan, which dates back to 1876 when the trams were horse-drawn. Some of the trams in circulation today are relics, like this one we were on from 1960!
We were here just long enough to get a good taste of the city and a lovely first impression of Italy, fueling my fire to go back and explore the country even more. So much so that I made my way to Venice just two months later… 🙂