Milan was a city of many firsts for me. First stop on my first journey to Europe. First city I visited in Italy. First time I saw a true Duomo. The first time I ate real Italian gelato. The first time I experienced the northern italian tradition of aperitivo. The first time I felt the true rush of adventure that only traveling on your own can bring. It was this feeling that is the most memorable to me about my time in Milan. I can only compare it to moments in my life where I’ve felt similarly – moments where I have begun anew, had a fresh start – a blanket slate. Like starting a new book, moving to a new place, or starting a new semester or class. A chance to learn something new and start a whole new story with an unwritten beginning or end.
Phase 1: Choosing where and how to get there
I chose to visit Milan for multiple reasons but mostly I pulled the trigger for two reasons – convenience and budget. A good friend of mine from college was doing her masters in a nearby city. We had tossed around the idea of doing a euro-trip together during that summer but the idea did not become a real possibility for me until I asked myself this question. When will I again have all these cards in my favor? A friend geographically stationed in the very country I had itched to study abroad in, in college or even more so willing and able – to spend the time, money to trek it around Europe with me. As corny as it sounds I felt as though the universe was telling me something – telling me to go – that this was my chance.
I had never done a big vacation like this on my own dime. Even growing up the vacations I did go on were never purely vacationary. By this I mean every vacation i’d ever been on had had a family obligation attached to it. Growing up, I spent most summers in Ecuador with my mother and her family, which may sound marvelous, but to me, it was a time of year I dreaded to some degree. I was away from everything I knew for 3 months, and felt like an outsider always. Beach getaways, lavish birthday party’s every year with a custom made dress, beautiful cake and decorations galore, being carted around to all sorts of different get together’s my mother was invited to where there was always a ton of kids for me to hangout with – sounds pretty awesome right? It was, sometimes, but more often than not, this constant sense of being catered to made me feel like an outsider, surrounded by strangers who were supposed to be my family, my community, my norm in this place. Instead these people who were my moms friends and acquaintances and even my own family felt like strangers. I distinctly remember a number of occasions where I was carted around to those different get together’s my mother was invited to, and how annoyed I always was that my mom and other adults assumed just because we were kids that playgrounds and playrooms were some sort of universal place of ‘understanding’ or ‘sanctuary’. That if they stuck us all in there we’d all get along and play – but even kids can spot an outlier and I was that outlier. The more they and my family tried to ‘include’ and cater to me the more on the periphery I felt.
Those summers in Ecuador – I do have fond memories of but I also have memories of the constant feeling of a being an outsider on the in. This outsider on the in theme has been a recurring theme in various aspects of my life up until this point. In this particular case though, friends and family always speaking of their travel adventures and journeys to far and away places I had dreamed of visiting, living, being in – reading, researching, and admiring always but never experiencing as they had – i felt robbed, robbed of something I probably cared about more deeply than them but didn’t have the opportunity to experience because up until this point I was financially dependent on someone else. That limit no longer existed. This was my opportunity to become an insider on the in.
What other excuse could I possibly come up with to not to do this? I had the time, money, and no other obligations that demanded my attention. The universe was right this was my chance. So I took it. On a random night that Spring, I grew a pair, looked up flights, messaged my friend asking her what dates worked for her, against the flights and dates I was looking at in August. We coordinated – I pulled the trigger – and booked the flight in all but a matter of minutes.
Booking that flight – that moment – nothing incredibly special or dramatic happened but it was a defining moment in my life. A moment where I felt like I was truly my own person. I wasn’t under somebody else’s chosen course for me anymore. I felt like I was in control of my own path and my own story.
The time of year I chose to travel was at the tail end of August through the second week of September. I chose this time frame mainly because I wanted to take advantage of labor day and the time off my friend had from school. Not sure why but Alitalia for the last year and a half has been doing heavy promotions to and from Milan from NYC. My RT flight was around $650 which is pretty incredible for direct each way and that time of year. The only thing i wish i would have done differently was the time of day I departed. I made the mistake of booking a time that yes did get me in mid-day to Milan but I had lost the previous day traveling to. If you haven’t gotten a sense from my other writings, regarding matters like this, that’s a big no no with me. If I can avoid the loss of time traveling from point a to point b (i.e. red eye), I will prioritize flight times that avoid said lost time. Beyond the logistics of major flights and lodging – as I boarded the plane to Milan – I had planned very little. I didn’t do any of the American things I think many people stereo-typically think they should do. I didn’t study important phrases and words out of one of those tiny dictionaries (there’s an app for that now), I didn’t plan anything that we would be doing or seeing, I hadn’t even really laid out how I would be getting to my friends in Pavia from the airport. Sometimes I wonder why I did that and as I write this now I realize why. For so many years and even in my present life I plan, plan for everything. I’d been planning for years every aspect – my own life, of my parents lives, of my friends lives – and I was tired. Here was an opportunity where I felt someone knew more than me – where I could let go of the control and let someone else take the reins and be ok with it.To some calculated degree I felt I was letting the wind take me where it may. So I left the trip planning to my friends because I had faith their part time travels between studies had seasoned them enough to be better planners than me for our European travels together. As I had immersed myself in the city I live in – I went with the assumption that they too had done the same with Italy. Here’s the latest promo I was alerted to by the flightdeal through American …
Once we touched down in Milan there were 2 options I had a general sense of on how to get to Pavia. The Rail System or a Shuttle coach bus system (multiple servicer’s available). Thank God there was WiFi in the airport I arrived into because I hadn’t exactly secured with my friend what stop I should be getting off at in Pavia (bus makes multiple stops along the way). From what I could tell there was no DIRECT line to Pavia as it is a smaller residential city. Regardless I was able to buy the ticket with a couple of euros (money I had exchanged in the US just to have some cash on me when I arrived). The cost of the bus I believe was between 10-15 euros.
Now here’s a tip I’m going to call out because I had to do quite a bit of research on it before leaving.
Money Exchanging. Here are a couple of do’s and dont’s on what makes the most sense and gives you the most bang for your buck.
- Don’t do the currency exchanges at the airports its a rip off
- Do call your bank and let them know you’re traveling abroad
- Do just do currency exchange via any bank ATM abroad (not convenience ATM’s – i.e the ones in bars and convenience stores). You’ll get the best exchange rate taking out as you need in large sums.
- Do get a credit card that is good for travel so you don’t get dinged with foreign transactions fees when you make purchases abroad in a foreign currency (i.e chase sapphire, or capital venture)
- Do use the foreign currency not the USD conversion option when purchasing with debit card or credit
If you do want the security of having some cash on you and not showing up empty handed – your bank may be able to offer you a decent exchange rate. I found this not to be the case though. I am fortunate enough to live in a very international city where different currencies are constantly floating around, so I was able to find a small boutique currency exchange that offered me the best rate.
Now back to our regularly scheduled blogging.
As the bus started moving I do what I always do on a ride anywhere. I stared out the window. Stared out into the abyss filled beauty of the Northern Italian countryside. About an hour later – I arrived in Pavia a friend of my friend picked me up and picked me out quite easily. As I was, quite so, a bit of a ridiculous site to behold. Small girl in stature – standing at 5’2” + 1/2 feet in height (yes the 1/2 inch counts) with a bag strapped to my back nearly the same size as me – trying to effortlessly balance the weight of a clearly overpacked travelers backpack on nearby raised ledge. He laughed and offered to help but I knew, as Cheryl Strayed did, that my body needed this time to adjust and learn how to carry my own personal monster with me – so it would become a part of my being for the next two weeks.
As we made our way through the calm narrow streets of Pavia I felt warmth of family and community the city seemed to have. It appeared to be one of those places where neighbors knew eachother, a place where people gathered in the piazza’s – a place where community was truly celebrated. As soon as we made our way into her apartment, greetings and meetings were exchanged and then we were off to the races – grabbing some lunch before heading off to Milan. Though I felt exhausted at this point I knew I had to power through the rest of the day so that the jet lag and time difference wouldn’t throw me off.
We took the train from Pavia to Milan via the inter country rail line – which was about a 45 min train ride. The most important useful thing I learned about the train system was the importance of ticket validation.
So again another important note. The metro line within the country is convenient – SLOW – but convenient. You can travel to the biggies as well as the more obscure cities via this mode of public transport. When buying tickets you enter your destination print the ticket. Before entering the platform, you’ll come across ticket validator which is a scanner/punch machine of sorts, scan (validate) your the ticket – before heading to the platform. Once we boarded and sat down I vigilantly waited for our tickets to be checked. They never were. From what I gathered my friends said this was a crapshoot, sometimes they did sometimes they didn’t. Another thing I noticed while on board, was the state of the train. I was expecting modernity, what I got was old, dilapidated, dingy, and slow (LI railroad slow or perhaps slower). I think the image i’d had confused them with was euro rail system – ultra fast state of the art trains that run between countries in the EU. Regardless of the snails pace we were moving at – the sun was shining, I was in good company and was on my way to the beginning of a new chapter.
As we pulled into Milan my plan was no plan. I had left what was ‘important’ to see and taste up to my friends. Fashion and finance were the only things I had ever read or associated Milan with, but I knew, as many cities in Italy are, there was history to beholden. So we did some history and then we ate, did some more history and ate some more.
PHASE 2: CHOOSING WHERE TO STAY
As you’ll note from the above, I did not stay in Milan because I was crashing with my friends in Pavia (about an hour outside of Milan). Listed down in the Short Story Section though you’ll find a number of recommendations based on my criteria for lodging when I travel/stay anywhere.
PHASE 3: WHAT TO DO & WHERE TO EAT
What to eat and where I ate. Two first timer eating experiences occurred for me in Milan. Gelato & Aperitivo. I’m sad I couldn’t eat my way through more of the city as there were some typical dishes I would have loved to have tried but we just didn’t have that time. I’ll note one thing I came across heavily in my research that you must must try is the Risotto Milanese. It seems like quite a bit of milanese cuisine tends to be very colorful. This dish is a perfect example of this. It is a saffron based risotto dish with a pigmentation you’ll notice from afar and a staple of milanese culture. Below in the Short Story section i’ve listed a couple of good places ive researched to try that in the traditional style.
The Gelato. I’m sure if you’ve read my about page – it will come to as no surprise to you that gelato was number one on my list of confections to try in Italy. If you haven’t read it – here it is – I love, no I am OBSESSED with sweets. Its my achiles heel. Candy, ice cream, cakes, baked goods of any sort, chocolate – when it comes to sugar in any form – I don’t discriminate. Gelato was first priority in terms of eats when I arrived in Italy and I made sure to make it a point during our train ride into Milan. After some sight seeing we perused around and headed to a gelato shop a little bit off the main tourist path. Cioccolatitaliani. The place was packed full of tourists but Italians as well. Luckily to create a method to the madness there was a ticketing system (like at a deli). We paid first then played the waiting game until our numbers were called. It wasn’t too long and when our numbers were called I was completely giddy. You know that saying like a kid in a candy store – I felt that child like excitement about having my first real Italian gelato. Man it did not disappoint.
I ordered what I wanted with full Italian pronunciation. I watched vigilantly as the man grabbed a cone and then carefully lifted the lid of one those shiny silver cylinders filled with beautiful sweet gelato goodness. I watched him artfully fill my cone with motions that seemed like a gelato dance – a show seemingly a part of the craft of serving gelato. Because I had my eyes fixed on him and my gelato – I didn’t take notice if this hand gyrating little dance of his in filling the cone was simply just his style, or if this was step was some sort of motion to enhance the taste – regardless it was clearly memorable enough for me to write it here. As he passed me the cone I jumped forward quickly to the counter, grabbed the cone, wasting no time waiting for my friends to get their cones – I started consuming it immediately. I had had gelato before but never gelato like this.
Now I know I have a flare for dramatics when I get to talking about food but I find this is only the case when its impressionable and this gelato was impressionably delectable. Living in NYC I have access to breadth and quality when it comes to food options. Especially when it comes to Italian. I also at a point in my life lived with my best friend and her family who were deeply entrenched in their Italian roots and experienced some of the best italian eats with them. But never had I experienced gelato like this. Airy, creamy, heavy and rich but not overwhelmingly. Also at the bottom of the cone there was a hardened chocolate filling – thats my definition of a happy ending. It was perfection. I would HIGHLY suggest visiting Cioccolatitaliani if you find yourself in Milan – its worth the wait. There are of course many other good place’s I have researched around the city feel free to jump down to the Short Story section to get more detail.
The Dining. Aperitivo. We did this dining style before treking it back to Pavia. Apertivo was not something I had read or heard about before my visit to Milan. From what I gathered it seems mainly be a Northern Italy thing. The closest thing I can compare it to is like an all inclusive happy hour minus the discounted drinks part. What I learned was that for Italians Aperitivo is those few hours (b/w 7 pm & 9 pm) — when they unwind post work over a glass of wine and some snacks while also working up an appetite for dinner (which typically isn’t until around 9 pm). Instead of cheap drinks, the bonus is access to a buffet of food. As we walked along the canal in Milan, a popular spot to dine, I noticed a variety of prices, but in general, an aperitivo including food and a glass of wine ranged between 8 and 10 euros. We winged it and decided on a place that was a bit pricier but offered a range of cocktails over just wine and had a big assortment to their buffet (serve yourself and things that could be made to order). More commonly though it seems for aperitivo, more often than not, the food is simply a plate of small nibbles like bruschetta, focaccia, or even meats and cheeses. Our experience though, was a buffet, where you got to choose an array of food from light pastas to salads and a variety of other things I didn’t expect. All in all though this dining experience was underwhelming I enjoyed the idea but less so the meal and the options it was like many buffets – when things are done in quantity quality is often lost.
*Rule of thumb though – an aperitivo buffet is not like an american style buffet to be gorged on one drink means one plate of food. If you want more food, buy another drink! http://www.walksofitaly.com/blog/food-and-wine/italian-aperitivo Lunch: For additional dining recommendations i’ve listed a variety of options down in the Short Story Section
What to do & what I did. We found ourselves in Milan very briefly. My friends had already been a number of times and my desire to visit was limited to purely where ever they thought best to take me. Here is where we landed.
Duomo of Milan
Emanuele Vittoria Galleria II
The Sforzesco Castle
The Duomo of Milan. It was the first of countless churches I saw in Europe but it was certainly one of the most impressionable. Throughout my life I’ve seen grand churches. Attending Sunday masses during my summers in Ecuador, a country once colonized by the Spanish, big, beautiful, gothic, ornately styled, lavish churches – was nothing new to me. But the style and detail I had read and seen in my Art History textbooks, about Italian churches , and was now seeing in person, solidified how much Italian churches were truly in a league of their own. The Duomo of Milan’s grandeur was like nothing I had ever seen before. I am not particularly religious so for me going to visit all these churches was about two things.
1. Seeing and connecting with what I had learned at such length during my Italian Renaissance Art history course in college and …
2. Being able to admire history and a level of detail that no longer exists
If you find yourself in Milan please make sure you come here before you cross over Emanuele Vittoria Galleria II.
Emanuele Vittoria Galleria II.This is a grandiose very beautiful luxe strip mall. I hate using the word strip mall but that’s truly what it was. Only the architecture gave it more life and made it truly a destination outside of shopping. The entryway was that of an old Roman city – a double arcade with enormous columns. The detail inside was just as grand and detailed as the entrance that houses it. A beautiful glass roof covers the entire strip of shops with an over arching dome at the epicenter. Exquisite crown molding line the exteriors of every building and fresco artwork can be found right below the glass ceiling – honoring Italian artists and scientists of the past. Beautiful cast iron lighting fixtures and tiled mosaics – things like this are simply not constructed in this manner anymore. Built in the late 1800’s during a ‘turbulent’ unification period in in Italy’s history, the Galleria symbolized Italian unity and self-confidence, so it is no surprise that the arcade is decorated with plenty of patriotic symbols. Mosaics on the floor below the dome depict the coat of arms of Savoy and Italian cities are allegorically represented: a wolf for Rome, a lily for Florence, a bull for Turin and a white flag with red cross for Milan.
Tons of high end shops and eateries can be found here – that of course cost a small fortune to shop/dine at but if you’re looking for that experience you can find it here.
Do this. On the ground of the central octagonal, there are four mosaics portraying the coat of arms of the three capitals of the Kingdom of Italy (Turin, Rome, & Florence) plus Milan’s. Tradition says that if a person spins around three times with a heel on the testicles of the bull from Turin coat of arms this will bring good luck. This practice causes damage to the mosaic: a hole developed on the place of the bull’s genitals. It has not been roped off even though so if you’re there i’d do it – its just one of those fun kitschy things to do. The other place we made our way over to was simple walk from the duomo’s piazza and the galleria is…
Sforzesco Castle an impressive castle of the Renaissance time period .The Sforzesco family that once ruled Milan. It now hosts a collection of civic museums and offers access to the large Sempione park. We just wandered through the courtyards and admired the architecture but you can pop into different museums that exhibit and feature important Italian artists and works of art like Michelangelo’s and Leonardo da Vinci. The castle is worth a visit even in you are not going to the museums.
I wish i would have done this…
The Last Supper painting. Even if you’re not catholic or of the christian faith you know this depiction by Da Vinci. If you have the time in Milan make this a must.
I’ve listed only a couple of major things to do here but after scouring this web – I came across Skyscanner’s awesome roundup of top things to do in Milan. Check it out by clicking the following link 10 Best Local’s Guide to Milan
All in all Milan – my city of many firsts – was more than what I was expecting it to be. I would say you don’t need more than a day here but if you want to stroll at a leisurely pace 2 days at most. Visit the Duomo, peruse the Galleria and the Sforzesco Castle, snack on some gelato (after every meal), and wet your appetite with some aperitivo before enjoying a plate of Milanese Risotto.
Thank You Milan – my city of many first’s – you were an amazing first chapter.
WHERE TO STAY
Listed below are a number of accommodations I would choose for myself depending on the experience I wanted.
1. Ostello-Bello-Grande: from what i’ve read on top of all the typical amenities i look for in a hostel this place gives you awesome addition little things like the follow which totally has me sold if i ever make my way back i’ll be staying here.
2. Ostello Bello
– Free flow Breakfast anytime you wake up
– Free Welcome Drink (pint of beer, glass of wine, coffee, cappuccino, juices, softdrinks…)
– Free Dinner at our typical Italian Aperitivo (7 pm-9 pm)
– 24 hours guests’ Kitchen with free food
– Free Tours and Infos / Free city maps
– By request: Free shampoos & soaps / Free earplugs / Free Hairdryer / Free Iron board
– 3 open air Terraces with hammocks, vegetable gardens and BBQ
From what I can tell these both are probably owned by the same company/owner so similar amenities with some variations here and there apply to the two below
Magna Pars Suites: this used to be an old perfume factory. Which is so neat – if you’re looking for something kitschy and different this place has amazing reviews and beautiful suites. Close to many good restaurants. A bit off ‘father than i’d typcally like to be from the city center but not too bad. 20 min metro ride to the Duomo.
All the accommodations listed above provide the following…
+ Centrally located/close proximity to…
+ Major tourist attractions
+ Good & Multiple Wi-Fi Hot Spots
+ Safety & Security
+ Good Reviews
HOW I GOT AROUND:
Milan’s public transportation system connects across the city center, making it easy to get around the city’s most popular attractions.
From Airport to City:
Malpensa Express Train. This runs from Milan’s main airport to the Cadorna FN, Stazione Centrale and Porta Garibaldi subway stops
Cost: €11 for a one-way ticket
Duration: takes about 40 minutes
Shuttle buses are a great option as well – though I did not take any into the city of Milan this was the option I used to make my way to Pavia from the airport and it was very comfortable and easy. Here are some good company’s to use depending on the airport you’re coming from….
Malpensa Shuttle to the Malpensa and Linate airports
Cost: €16 round trip
Air Bus Linate from the Linate airport to the Stazione Centrale
Cost: €9 round trip
Orio Shuttle ) from the Orio al Serio airport.
Cost: €5 one way
Within the City:
I for the most part walked the city but based on the research i’ve done it seems like the public transportation options here are pretty convenient and useful. Particularly for getting around to the major tourist attractions.
Bus, tram and subway
Cost: prices for tickets and passes are valid for the subway, bus and tram
– €1.50 one way
– €4.50 for an unlimited day pass
– €11.30 for a weekly pass
Each ticket is valid for 90 minutes ** remember to always validate your ticket in the machine as soon as you step onto the bus or tram!
Important Things to Note:
Important points of Transfer: Milan has four subway lines. Each has a different color and number; transfers between lines can be made at the Cadorna, Centrale, Duomo, Loreto, Porta Garibaldi and Zara stops.
Timing: Subway trains usually run from 6am to 1am, but times may vary depending on the line.
Bus & Tram Recommendations:
Travel with the 94, it circles the city center and popular tourist highlights.
The 2, 4, 14 and 16 trams are the most central, all passing by Piazza Duomo.
Make Milan Your Base: Milan is a great base for discovering northern Italy by train. The lake regions (Lago Maggiore and Lago di Como) are easily reachable by the Trenord commuter rail from Cadorna FN and Stazione Centrale stations. You can also reach the nearby mountains, smaller towns like Pavia, Bergamo and Cremona, and larger cities like Bologna, Genova, Turin and Venice.
Click this link for more info from Walk’s of Italy
WHAT I DID/WHAT YOU SHOULD DO:
Sights you shouldn’t miss out on are listed below. Besides the Last Supper painting by Da Vinci I would highly suggest going on a guided tour of the city if you enjoy learning rather than just seeing. The following Free tour option is highly rated on TripAdvisor and covers the 3 places I visited + more. Here is the link Milan Free Walking Tour
1. Duomo of Milan
2. Emanuele Vittoria Galleria II
3. The Sforzesco Castle
4. The Last Supper by Da Vinci @ Santa Maria Delle Grazie: Visitors enter in small groups of no more than 25, pass through a humidity controlling chamber before entering, and are allowed only 15 minutes inside to view the painting. There are no other artworks inside, and there is no printed information inside about the mural. One is there only to view, and then one exits, first into a gift shop and then the street. Tickets must be purchased well in advance for a viewing. The official ticket site is http://www.vivaticket.it/. You will see a calendar indicating dates available. Tickets can be purchased three months in advance.
WHERE I ATE/WHERE I WISH I WOULD HAVE EATEN:
Breakfast: Grab a cappuccino and brioche at either of these place
— L’Antico Ambrosiano (Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 2, Milano, Italy) – Eat them at the counter though. Never sit at the tables because they will charge you for the service.
— Bastianello: cappuccino is highly praised for its creaminess and elegant presentation. Delicious brioches and biscuits as well.
Snack: You must try a Panzerotti. A Milanese treat – cross between a doughnut and pizza.
— Luini’s: they must be good if locals frequent and ive also read its very rare indeed for the queue not to stretch out the door and around the corner.
Gelato: always a must when you’re in any city in Italy.
— CioccolatItaliani: Located a few steps from the Duomo, this place stands out not only for its flavors, but also for the particularly tasty cone that is filled with dark, white or milk chocolate.
Here’s another good list if you’re looking for more options: Additional Gelato Suggestions
Aperitivo: Milanese style happy hour. This is definitely a must do dining style while in Milan. This is not where I went but I wish I would have. After reading up this seems to be a place locals suggest.
— Alchimia: It used to be a warehouse and they made it really hip. Now it’s a great place to hang out with friends. The happy hour is really good – very fresh,” he says.
— Rosso Pomodoro at Largo La Foppa 1 is on the MM green line near the Moscova stop and serves some of the city’s best pizza as well as having a great restaurant.
— El Brellin: has a typical Milanese setting on the navigli (canals) where it is lovely to walk. Some of the typical local dishes I would have liked to try…
Risotto Zafferano (saffron risotto, a typical first course)
Costoletta alla Milanese (breaded veal cutlet, a typical second course)
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