Milan has often served as an arrival or departure city for Italy and nothing more. It seemed too big, confusing and modern for our tastes. But the last time we passed through, we had more time to explore the old city center and realized that we wanted to see more.
The bus ride from the airport can be intimidating at first. You enter this large and busy city from the frenetic freeway into the crowded and narrow city streets undergoing yet more reconstruction. But once you find your hotel and get your city map, you realize that it won’t be that difficult to get around. The city subway system covers the main attractions, such as the impressively large Cathedral and the La Scala Opera House. There are also many electric trolleys that run down the centers of the wider avenues. And now Milan offers well-equipped city bikes that can be picked up and dropped off at a variety of sites throughout the city. We also found it pleasant to walk from the city center to our hotel near the train station.
Although I had read that Milan was not a friendly town, we found it welcoming. Most of the merchants speak a bit of English and are very helpful. if you speak a bit of Italian, it’s all the better. This time around, we came during Easter week and the city was full of visitors, mostly from other Italian towns. When we arrived at the main cathedral, the Cardinal from Milan was saying mass and the church was packed. But they still allowed us tourists to come in and walk (quietly) around the perimeter of the church.
If you like to shop or eat well, this is the place to be. All of the major players are here—Gucci and Versace, Prada or Ferragamo. Shopping isn’t our favorite activity, but window shopping is quite enjoyable here because the Italians have truly mastered the art of window display. Another bonus is the fact that the fashion on the streets is often as good as the corresponding window being admired. There aren’t many bargains here, but people are still buying.
We decided to spend our money at the newly opened Palazzo Nazionale Museum, which was showing Modigliani and his colleagues from the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris. It was a wonderful collection of post impressionist art which included some familiar artists, like Utrillo and Vlaminck, and others who were new to us, like Utrillo’s mother, Suzanne Valadon and the Russian, Kikoïne. These smaller shows are real treasures that would cost twice as much to see in the U.S. and would be packed with people. Although there was good attendance by the local Italians, this show wasn’t as crowded as the major museums often are. Whenever we visit a larger city, we check the local TI (Tourist Information Center) to get the latest news on current exhibitions like these.
After our morning of walking we were ready to try some Milanese cuisine, but we found a cute lunch spot serving Sicilian food instead. Il Fornaio di San Francesco had big salads, fresh bread and very good arancini, a tasty rice ball filled with meat, peas and tomato ragu. They also made their cannoli on site, so we shared one after our meal. The staff were all very friendly and pleased that I wanted to take pictures of their operation. Then, when it came time to pay, we received a small discount, which Bob calls “the friends and family discount”. This often occurs after some friendly interaction with the Italians.
Our dinner that evening was more local cuisine—an excellent risotto. Our restaurant, recommended by our good friend, Gina, was a cosy place close to the hotel. It was a slow night, so the chef even came out and made his recommendations. We took his advice and had Rissoto alla Mozza, which was rice with saffron and sausage. Excellent. We also shared an appetizer of Eggplant Parmigiana, which was much lighter than our Italian American variety. We finished off with the best Tiramisu we’ve tried so far.
So, like New York, Milan has great shopping, plenty of good food venues and decent transportation. What’s not to like?