Milan was one of the few Italian Cities I didn’t get chance to visit on my European Inter-Rail trip as a teenager, so when I stumbled across cheap flights over the Easter Bank Holiday it was a no-brainer.
The first point to mention is that with it being fairly last minute I wasn’t able to get tickets to see The Last Supper. Tickets sell out weeks and even months in advance so if you are planning to visit it’s advisable to get your tickets booked as soon as possible. You can do that here
Day 1- Milan Parks & Shopping
After an early flight we touched down at Malpensa Airport just after 10Am local time. Having negotiated the labyrinth of the airport we boarded the Malpensa Express for the 50 minute journey to Milan Central Station, passing farmland, industrial buildings, coloured apartment blocks and the obligatory Italian trackside graffiti.
Our hotel was just a few metro stops from the station so we dropped our bags and set out to explore the city. We stayed here and I would highly recommend it; a classy hotel in a great location steps from the metro.
After a quick lunch our first stop was to the Giardini Pubblici where we spent some time relaxing and planning the rest of our day whilst the people of Milan went about the daily business, jogging and walking dogs.
For the next few hours we wandered the streets of the Quadrilatero d’Oro (Golden Quad), the home to the designer labels of Milan, with a Dolce & Gabbana on every corner.
Having tired of window shopping we boarded the metro to Parco Sempione, to the North East of the city centre. The city’s largest park is home to the Castello Sforzesco; an iconic red brick castle built in the 15th century and now home to many of the city’s Art Galleries & Civic Museums.
Not ones for wandering round museums we explored the Castello and then spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the weather in the park, walking up to the Arco della Pace; Milan’s answer to the Arc de Triophme commissioned by Napoleon in the 1800s.
In the evening we dined here; a great local pizzeria which I would recommend if staying nearby.
Day 2- Lago di Como
On our first full day we were up early for our day trip to Lake Como and boarded the train at Milano Celntrale, bound for the small town of Varenna on the Eastern Shore of the lake.
Traveller Tip: Always remember to validate your ticket before boarding. We bought first class tickets as the price difference was minimal but to be honest there seemed no difference in the quality of coaches so it’s probably not worth it.
The hour long journey is picturesque, with snow capped mountains on one side and the lake at the other. Arriving at Varenna we headed down to the lakeside and bought ferry tickets to Bellaggio- our main destination for the day. The journey to Bellagio takes only around 15 minutes and costs just under 20 euros for a return trip for two people.
Bellaggio itself is a beautiful little town and whilst there are no specific attractions you can easily spend the day here ambling through the cobbled streets and enjoying the views of the lake from one of the many lakeside bars and restaurants.
The tourist season was yet to fully ramp up so a lot of the shops and restuarants weren’t open but we still managed to spend most of our day here, stopping for lunch and a few drinks and gelatos overlooking the lake before heading back to Varenna on the ferry.
There is a much smaller choice of restuarants and things to do in Varenna but the train station means it is a great starting point for a day trip to the lake, and its ferry connections makes it a great base for exploring all the different towns and villages along the lake over a longer period.
We spent a few hours here, stopping for a Spritz and then dinner as we watched the sun set over the lake before heading back to Milan.
Day 3- Duomo
With our last day earmarked for Lake Maggiore we had one full day to see the remaining sights of Milan. Our first stop was the impressive Duomo, which we arrived at just as it opened and climbed the 165 steps to the roof for fantastic views across the city and of the impressive Cathedral itself.
Traveller tip: Watch out for the hustlers who wait for tourists exiting the metro in Piazza Duomo. Queues for tickets can get fairly long so it’s best to arrive fairly early if you want to avoid these. It’s 8 euros to visit the roof via steps or 13 euros via the lift- the steps are more then manageable and queues for the lift can be pretty long so my advice would be to save some cash and take the steps.
Wandering the roof and then the inside of the Duomo itself (ticket 2 euros) took us a few hours and is a must do on any visit to Milan. We left the tourist crowds behind and grabbed a Panzerotti for lunch; a cross between a donut and a panini and definitely worth a try, before heading to the Navigli neighbourhood.
Named after the canals which it surrounds, Navigli reminded me of Milan’s answer to the London area of Camden, and there are a range of decent bars and restaurants to try. Unfortunately the canals had dried up and being Good Friday a lot of places were closed so we maybe didn’t get to experience Navigli in all its glory but stopped off for a Spritz at one of the bars with outside seats along the canal.
There didn’t seem that much to do in Navigli but if you were staying locally and were looking for good places to eat and drink you would be spoilt for choice heading here.
After a few hours spent looking round the shops in the Cairoli and Cadorna areas of the city we boarded a city tram headed for the Cimitero Monumentale; a strange destination but one that had been recommended by my guidebook.
Wandering the cemetery was quite surreal experience, looking at all the grand sculptures commissioned by the families of Milan to commemorate their loved ones, and we spent around an hour here before heading back to the hotel.
In the evening we dined here– a fantastic restaurant popular with the locals and deservedly so. By far the best food we had on our whole trip. We also called here for the “eat and drink” recommended in my guidebook, a huge glass of strawberries, ice cream and amaretto liqueur topped with chocolate sauce.
Day 4- Lago Maggiore
For the final day we visited Lake Maggiore, to the North West of Milan and took a train to the tourist town of Stresa on the Lake’s Western shore.
Now is the point to admit that I made a few blunders in the planning of this day. Recommended in my guidebook were the three Borromean Islands in the Lake, a short boat ride from Stresa, and in particular the grand palaces built on two of these. The guidebook made it seem that the palaces were pretty much the islands themselves, and so with little interest in viewing the palaces or their gardens I opted to instead visit the also recommended Stresa cable car to the top of Monte Mattarone and also buy a ferry ticket to the town of Verbania, across the lake.
Unfortunately having walked the ten minutes along the coast to the base of the Cable Car we discovered it has been closed for maintenance work which is not yet even scheduled, so something to scratch off any plans for the foreseeable future.
After lunch by the lake side we boarded the ferry to Verbania, and it was on the journey as we called at all 3 of the Borromean Islands that I realised my mistake. The islands look fantastic and I would thoroughly recommended them to any visitors to Lake Maggiore, whether you are planning to pay and enter the Palaces or not.
Verbania was a pleasant enough town but offered little in the way of things to do and isn’t somewhere I would especially recommend. We spent a quiet few hours here relaxing by the lake, returning later to Stresa for dinner in the main Piazza and heading back to Milan to round off a great 4 day trip.
If I’m being completely honest i was a little disappointed by Milan, and felt it was lacking something in the way of identity and much to appeal to visitors.
Other places in Italy I have visited offered far more. If you want history it’s Rome, Architecture it’s Florence and Culture it’s the Amalfi Coast for example.
Milan is however great for designer shopping and if you have a love for museums. It’s also a good base for exploring both the Lakes and is a safe city with a great transport network, but personally it’s not a place I had a huge desire to come back to.