As I officially passed the last exam from my bachelor studies today, it is official – I am leaving Milan by the end of the month and starting anew in September! So, as I have obviously no better things to do in life now (beside writing my thesis, but that’s another story), I decided that I am going to do an overview of all aspects of Milanese life as a farewell and a sort of a “gift” from me to the city of Milan.
So, here it goes!
1. Discover the Navigli Canals
Canals? In Milan? Yes, you’re reading that right. In fact, not only are there canals in Milan, one of them was designed by none other than Leonardo da Vinci himself. Now, I don’t advise you to be dreaming of the kinds of canals which Venice or even Amsterdam is famous for because you’ll be disappointed, even though Milan once was a trading center through those same canals. The Navigli district of Milan has two – count ‘em, two – canals, and you can walk around much of the district without even seeing them. But in the summer months you can take boat tours on the canals, and they’re certainly an unexpected thing to come upon in the middle of such a concrete-filled city. This is also one neighbourhood that’s well-known for its nightlife, so if it seems too quiet during daylight hours just come back after dark.
2. Panoramic view of Milan from Duomo rooftop
This one is kind of a no-brainer, because the famous Duomo in Milan is the center of tourist activity in the city. But while a visit to the interior is easy and free, not everyone knows that you can take an elevator up and walk around on the cathedral’s roof. Now, Milan is notoriously smoggy, so even on a clear day you’re not guaranteed a good view of the nearby mountains, but in my opinion there’s almost no better way to spend an hour in Milan than by wandering around on top of the Duomo. If you think all those spires look impressive from the ground, you’ll be thrilled to walk around with them within reach. And it’s only by walking up the last couple flights of stairs to the tippy-top that you can get an up-close (well, up-closer) look at the city’s symbol – the golden Madoninna, or little Madonna, who sits atop the Duomo’s tallest spire.
3. Spin on the Bull’s balls (pardon my French)
Kind of pretty self-explanatory, the video itself gives you some basic idea about what’s going on in the heart of Milan. In the center of what I think is the world’s prettiest mall is a tile image of a prancing bull who, if you look closely, is missing his private parts. They’re missing because in their place is a rather pronounced hole. What gives, you ask? Well, the tile floor at the center of the gorgeous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II bears the insignia of four prominent northern Italian cities. The bull represents nearby Turin, and for some reason the tradition developed that spinning on the bull’s balls would give the spinner good luck. The practice persists to this day, and you can’t walk through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II without stopping for a spin. This Milanese tradition isn’t just for tourists, either. In fact, if you stop and watch passers by for awhile, you’ll notice people who do a twirl on the poor bull’s balls while in mid-conversation, then just keep walking and talking to their companions. And the fact that the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is right next to the Duomo means it’s easy to swing through and do the twist even on a tight schedule.
4. Eat a panzerotto from Luini
All Italian cities are known for a particular local culinary treat, and Milan is no different – take a stop at Luini for a panzerotto and you will not regret it. This hard-to-describe treat is a favorite with locals, who line up outside the shop year-round, although its origins are much further south. You might be tempted to call it a calzone, but it’s not. After tasting it, you might be tempted to call it a donut. But it’s not that, either. It’s essentially a slightly spongy piece of special bread that’s had a nice layer of mozzarella and tomato sauce slathered on it before being folded in half and deep fried. ( I never said this was health food). There is also a healthier option though, which allows for baking the panzerotto instead of frying it. From salty to sweet there are a million options to experience this lovely treat for the tummy. As it dates back to the end of the 19th century, it is essentially a small shop just in a narrow street beside Duomo and there’s nowhere to sit, but it doesn’t stop anyone to enjoy a panzerotto sitting in front on the sidewalk. And, at roughly €3 apiece, it’s an ideal lunch for the budget-conscious traveler.
5. Do an aperitivo crawl
There are plenty of places in Italy where the main to-do on a foodie’s travel itinerary is to sample the local signature dish. Milan has signature dishes (ossobuco,risotto alla milanese), but I’d argue that the city’s best contribution is a kind of dining experience rather than a particular dish. Aperitivo, the practice of enjoying a drink or two with friends and colleagues between work and dinner, is found in multiple Italian cities, but it’s been perfected in Milan. The city’s best aperitivo bars overflow with people and a convivial atmosphere, which is due in part to the all-you-can-eat buffets that are laid out. The drinks may be a bit more expensive than they normally would be, but the buffets are free – and for a traveler, it’s an excellent excuse to stroll from one bar to the next. Hang out, do some people-watching, have a cocktail or a glass of wine, and eat dinner buffet-style. An apertivo crawl is the Milanese (i.e. glamorous) version of a pub crawl, and it’s oh-so-Milan.
6. Visit da Vinci’s Last Supper
Few people know that the original masterpiece by da Vinci, “The Last Supper” or Cenacolo Vinciano is actually in Santa Maria delle Grazie, a lovely church in Milan. It is one of the world’s most famous paintings, and one of the most studied, scrutinised, and satirised. A bit of history: during World War II, on the night of 15 August 1943, bombs dropped by British and American planes hit the church and the convent. Much of the refectory was destroyed, but some walls survived, including the one that holds the The Last Supper, which had been sand-bagged in order to protect it. Some preservation works are done to maintain it for the future.
Author Mary Shelley describes her impression of the painting in her travel narrative, Rambles in Germany and Italy published in 1844:
“First we visited the fading inimitable fresco of Leonardo da Vinci. How vain are copies! not in one, nor in any print, did i ever see the slightest approach to the expression in our Saviour’s face, such as it is in the original. Majesty and love — these are the words that would describe it — joined to an absence of all guile that expresses the divine nature more visibly than I ever saw it in any other picture.”