A WINTER WEEKEND IN ITALY, PART I. MILAN
Buona sera, as they say in Milan! This past weekend, I escaped to Lombardy for a much-needed time of indulgence in good food and all things beautiful.
This is my first trip to Italy in a really long time. My previous and only visit, a bus tour through a few major Italian tourist destinations including Rome and Venice, as well as the French Riviera, took place a whole 13 years ago. To put that into perspective, it was my first trip abroad without my parents! While I've always wanted to return, I did not really plan to go to Italy anytime soon. But when the airfare drops to $90 round-trip, I simply cannot say no to such a deal (in case you did not know, Russian low-cost carrier Pobeda now operates flights to 11 international cities).
Due to work commitments, I could only go away for a weekend, but I made sure this couple of days would be action-packed. And by action, I mainly mean eating copious amounts of pizza. Other than that, I was planning to spend the first day in Milan, the following day on the shores of Lake Como, and the morning hours before my flight home in Bergamo.
Here is how my itinerary worked out.
I was due to get to Milan by 10:45 in the morning, but got stuck at the airport on arrival. Initially, I had hoped to catch up with the free walking tour and even emailed the tour guide beforehand to ask for their approximate whereabouts. As of today, all free walking tours of Milan start at 10:00 and go on for about 3 hours.) Even though I managed to find the group despite making it an hour later than anticipated, I ended up parting with them shortly after to go to the terrace at the top of Duomo, the cathedral church of Milan that took some 600 years to build (pictured above; click on the pictures to enlarge).
The largest church in Italy (unless we count St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican), Duomo is an absolutely fascinating construction. The cathedral is so big it can seat up to 40,000 people. Not only does it boast 3,159 statues, 200 bas-reliefs, more than 3,600 characters in 55 stained glass windows, 145 spires, and 155 gargoyles, there is also a sundial near the main entrance, It was placed there in 1768 by astronomers from the Accademia di Brera. And the sundial is still as precise - it regulates clocks around Milan to this day! Even if you do not get to see all parts of the cathedral, it sure will make quite the impression.
If you are short on time and/or on a tight budget, you might consider skipping either the interior of the church or the terrace. Entrance to the church is €11.50. Entrance to the terrace costs €9.50 if you go up on foot or €13.50 if you take the lift. Be sure to buy your ticket in advance (click here) in order to avoid long lines at ticket offices.
Another famous landmark of the Piazza del Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (leftmost picture above). Named after the first king of Italy, it is one of the oldest shopping malls in the world. The enclosed four-story double arcade, combined with its glass roof and intricate mosaics on the ground, makes this building a real eye-candy.
If luxury shopping is not on your agenda, there are a couple of other spots to check out in this area - and they are both about food! One of them is Luini, a bakery-turned-institution just next to the Galleria. This locals' favourite specialises in panzerotti - puffy fried dough pockets stuffed with tomato and mozzarella (the original), ricotta and spinach (the classic) or spicy salami (the extra yummy), all freshly made to order. Chances are, the place will be completely packed when you visit. Both times I walked by Luini, there were two queues going around the corner (picture in the middle).
The other spot is Spontini, a local pizzeria chain. They have 7 locations around Milan, so if the one by Duomo is crowded (and it will be), keep trying. The chain makes one and only one kind of pizza: "a new modern version of the thick Sicilian pizza, the sfincione, a specialty of Palermo with a light base", as described on their website. It comes only with three ingredients - tomatoes, onions, and anchovies. Your choice is limited to whether you want a normal or a large slice. Again, I lacked the patience to wait it out, so the picture above was taken at a random place at the Central Station (that pizza was still great though).
Mind you that in Italy, restaurants are closed between lunch and dinner. If you want to grab a bit during these off-hours, which are usually between 14:30 and 19:00, head to bakeries, bars or fast food places.
As I was visiting in January when the light hours are short, I decided to get on a hop-on, hop-off bus to cover as much of the city as possible before the sunset. It just so happened that I made it on time for the last bus of the day operating on the Blue route, You can get a full-price ticket (€22.00), which allows you to hop on and off any bus on the three routes, or you can catch the last bus of the day on one of the lines for €15.00.
Although Milan is not as rich in architectural beauty as other Italian cities, it still has interesting corners to discover and explore. For example, Castello Sforzesco (pictured above), a castle in the city centre that was built in the 15th century on the remains of a 14th-century fort. Nowadays, it houses city museums and art collections. Next to the castle is Parco Sempione, a great place to go for a walk and escape the hustle and bustle. The beautiful Arco della Pace, a triumphal arch, is situated at the end of the park and leads onto the street Corso Sempione, full of bars and restaurants.
If you are planning to use the metro more than a couple of times, consider purchasing a 24h/48h pass. Whereas one metro or tram ride costs €1.50, passes are only €4.50 and €8.25, respectively. For more information, click here.
One- and two-day passes are also included in the Milanocard package. This card helps visitors save money and time with many benefits such as free or discounted access to 20 museums and 500+ attractions in Milan, Venice, and Rome, discounts on high-speed intercity trains, and even 2 free Uber rides worth €15 each (only if you are a new user though). Unfortunately, I made little use of my card (due to the lack of time), but it does sound like a good deal if you like to plan your trip ahead.
As soon as I told my friends I was going to Milan, they mentioned the hostel Ostello Bello (in fact, there are 2 hostels - Ostello Bello, a 8 win walk from Duomo, and Ostello Bello Grande, a stone's throw away from the Central Station). Having looked at reviews on the Internet, I decided to go ahead and booked one night at each location.
The Ostello Bello's are on the pricier side - the cheapest dorm bed is about €32 per night. But don't be thrown off by the high price, because the perks easily make up for it: free flow breakfast that included scrambled eggs, pancakes, toasts, free welcome drink (a glass of wine or a pint of beer, as well non-alcoholic options), free use of laptops and WiFi modems that you can take out for a day, free Italian dinner, kitchen with even more free food (can never complain about this much free food even if you need to cook it first), outdoor terraces with hammocks, vegetable gardens, BBQ, free towels and toiletries, and much more. If you come to Milan and only have money to pay for accommodation, these guys will provide you with everything else.
What I did not like about these hostels as much was a general feeling of crowdedness. From the lack of curtains around beds and three-layer bunk beds in some rooms to the lobby completely packed with people many of whom are not even staying at the hostel (the bar is open to general public), you don't get much privacy here even by hostel standards.
The two hostels are very similar but not completely identical. The one close to Duomo is well-established and even well-known among the locals; they hold events such as live music and tastings. The one by the Central Station opened just last summer and, due to its not-so-central location, is not as popular among travellers.
Verdict: I would recommend these hostels.
Have you ever been to Milan? What was your experience like?
Disclosure: This post is NOT sponsored, but it contains affiliate links. This means that if you book flights or accommodation through some links on this page, I will get paid a small commission at no extra cost for you!