Milan stands in stark contrast with the other Italian cities, or this seems to be what most people believe. While Rome, Florence and Venice get praise for being authentic cultural hubs and historically rich cities, Milan is often left aside as the city that has been taken over by modernism and contemporary culture - a lifeless concrete jungle of sorts. While I can understand where these sentiments come from, I wouldn't say that they are completely accurate. Yes, Milan is the commercial capital of Italy but it has still held on to a great deal of its cultural roots, evident by its large art museums and its iconic cathedral. The city has also evolved with modern times to become a global leader in the worlds of fashion and design. So agreed, Milan is different from your typical Italian city but a trip here is essential in understanding how Italians have internalised and interpreted contemporary culture. In contrast, visiting Lake Como felt like going back in time to a peaceful era where natural scenery was prioritised and technology wasn't so invasive in our everyday lives.
So in summary, I was in Milan for three days with a couple of friends and took a day out to visit Lake Como. As usual, all important details have been highlighted bold and the travel guide has been divided into three sections, namely, Art & Culture, Eating & Drinking and a step-by-step Lake Como day trip guide.
ART & CULTURE
- The Museo del Novecento is among Milan's most eminent art museums as it houses one of the largest collections of 20th Century Italian art in the city. The art museum is conveniently located near the Piazza del Duomo so you can head there after checking out the Duomo di Milano. In addition to showcasing some of the best Italian artistic talent, the museum also has on display impressive works by some household names including Picasso, Braque and Matisse. When I visited, I started off with a viewing of the Boccioni retrospective in the neighbouring Palazzo Reale then headed straight to the Novecento Museum afterwards.
- One cannot visit Milan without getting a feel of the city's contributions to the world of design so I made an effort to check out La Triennale di Milano - a contemporary design and art museum situated within the serene Parco Sempione. Luckily, I got the chance to view a spectacular exhibition there, simply called ROOMS. The exhibition, housing a collection of rooms designed by prominent contemporary artists, allows visitors to appreciate how interior spaces impact our daily lives seeing as we spend most of our time in them. The exhibition also tried to examine the concept of 'a room' from a philosophical perspective, using existentialist themes.
COOL STUFF TO SEE & EXPERIENCE
- The Duomo is to Milan what the Eiffel Tour is to Paris or what the Colosseum is to Rome. In other words, it's an absolute must for first-time visitors! The gothic cathedral, which took six centuries to complete, also features a stunning roof terrace where you can further examine the intricacies of the cathedral's gothic architecture and admire the great views.
- The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the world's oldest shopping malls and is also located on the Piazza del Duomo, right beside the Duomo and oppositely-facing the Museo del Novecento (so you can squeeze all these sights into one day). Although the mall is rather small and only features a select number of high-end stores, you can still enjoy the its distinct ambience and architecture.
- Milan is one of the world's foremost fashion capitals which makes its Fashion District home to the most innovative and legendary players in the fashion industry. Those on a low budget can glance at the impressive window displays while those on a higher budget can shop for the season's latest offerings. Stroll down Via Monte Napoleone, Via Sant'Andrea and the quaint narrow Via della Spiga to get a feel of the international fashion scene as well as the nuances of exquisite Italian craftsmanship. In my opinion, this area best summarised Milan - chic and modern but with a classic Italian charm.
- The Navigli district is definitely a must-do for first timers. It's a bit further out than the other places mentioned but the experience is worth it, especially for nightlife enthusiasts. The defining characteristic of this area is definitely the Naviglio Grande - a canal that runs through district. Here, you can enjoy a romantic stroll along the canal, savour a slow-paced meal at one of the area's noteworthy restaurants, or absorb the district's youthful and lively ambience in an intimate bar. There's a lot of character to this neighbourhood and that makes it the perfect compliment to a round of drinks either before or after a restorative dinner.
- Unfortunately, I wasn't able to visit Santa Maria della Grazie and see Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper because of a lack of ticket availability. However, make sure to learn from my mistake and book your ticket months in advance!
EATING & DRINKING
- Rovello 18 is where elegance meets simplicity; these two qualities were expressed in how the restaurant was laid out and what its dishes tasted like. The restaurant is also frequently featured in the Michelin guide which I'm sure has to do with the outstanding simplicity of the dishes, the uncompromising quality of the ingredients and the impressive wine list. You can also be mesmerised by the paintings that hang all over the restaurant's walls. At this point, who wouldn't be impressed by an informal dinner with food, wine and art?
- Da Giocomo is an iconic upscale trattoria in a calm residential neighbourhood known for serving fresh seafood and for catering to A-list guests in the fashion and movie industries. I would definitely recommend this place as a decent lunch spot.
- Pasticceria Marchesi is one of Milan's oldest pastry shops and is thus considered an institution among the Milanese. Marchesi recently opened a second shop in the fashion district backed by Prada but I would advise that you visit the original shop to get a feel of the brand's heritage and authenticity. All pastries are made by hand, using the freshest ingredients of course, and their espresso is probably the best that I have tried to date.
- Ceresio 7 is a trendy contemporary rooftop bar perched on top of the Dsquared² fashion label's design headquarters. Despite the horribly slow service, the rooftop offered the perfect vibes necessary for a summer aperitivo. This rooftop bar is also a place to enjoy fantastic views of the city among the locals. Lastly, ordering drinks comes along with supplementary small bites so at least you can warm up your taste buds before dinner.
LAKE COMO DAY TRIP
If you have enough days in Milan, spend one of them on a day trip to the legendary Lake Como! This place has long been described as a leisure destination for the rich and famous (and this may be true) but there is still a whole lot for the everyday cultural traveller to enjoy. Here's a step-by-step guide of how I went about my day there:
- Took a 45 minute train from Milano Centrale to the scenic town of Varenna
- Hired a water taxi to get from Varenna to Isola Comanica in order to make our lunch reservation at the iconic Locanda Dell'Isola Comanica restaurant. This restaurant is very unique in the sense that it's virtually the only establishment on this tiny island. The place offers a set lunch menu of five courses and unlimited wine for €73. The menu is characterised by the freshness of its ingredients and the simplicity of its dishes, from juicy tomatoes and roasted onions as starting courses to tender grilled salmon and crispy chicken as main courses. This is not to mention that the restaurant provides visitors with a magnificent view of the lake composed of azure waters, lush green hills and quaint little waterside villages. Also, say hello to the head waiter for me! He's probably been there for decades so he gets to take pictures with famous guests including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Oscar De La Renta and Barbara Streisand.
- Got on a ferry from Isola Comanica and headed to Bellagio. This little town is probably the most visited place in Lake Como. The village draws people in with its narrow cobbled streets, pastel-colour buildings and beautiful views. Similar to Sorrento in many respects, the town offers an authentic sense of classic Italian charm with elements of calmness and intimacy. Shop in the boutique stores to make some bargain purchases and stop for some coffee in one of the small cafés before leaving.
- Booked a private guided boat tour of Lake Como on the way back to Varenna. The tour mainly involved the guide pointing out what famous/rich person owns/owned which villa. I didn't mind though, especially because I was taken aback by the natural scenery. The setting of the sun created a lighting that wonderfully arrested the hills and the water, almost creating a dreamy haze and nostalgia-inducing sensations. Because of my experience in Capri last year, and my recent experience in Lake Como, I'm starting to think there's some undeniable value to nautical adventures in scenic locations.
- Retuned to Varenna, walked around for a while and boarded a train headed back to Milan.
*All photographs taken by me*