We continue our feature on doing Milan in a weekend. If you haven’t seen Day One, read it here.
The best way to start the day is to do as the Italians do and get a quick coffee. The Italian way is to have strong espresso with sugar, standing at the bar of the coffee shop. In fact, if you sit, you pay extra. There are many cafés, and they are by design local establishments, but one worth a trip to is Cova. Founded in 1817, it is one of the oldest in the city, and conveniently for the shops its located on Via Monte Napoleone (more on this later).
Breakfast dealt with, it’s off to The Last Supper. As one Milan-based friend of mine laments, the city’s history means it doesn’t have much in the way of good art. He’s right – the lack of a long-ruling dynasty has meant the city never had much great art commissioned over its long history, compared to so many other cities in Italy. Instead it has been more militaristic and industrial by way of survival. There are exceptions of course, especially if you’re a fan of early twentieth-century modernist Italian art, but the one piece that must be seen is Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper.
Commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the most famous Duke of Milan, to adorn the wall of the refectory at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (well worth a visit itself), it was probably painted between 1495 and 1497. Due to the experimental technique used by da Vinci the mural has slowly been decaying ever since, and access is strictly controlled. To visit you must book, and this is best done as far in advance as possible. While you should view the mural up close to see the detail, don’t forget to stand in the back half of the room and view it from there, as the perspective da Vinci uses is designed to be viewed at a distance. It’s at this point that the full effect of the work’s majesty is clear.
Make your way back to the Piazza del Duomo via the Sfroza Palace, and go in if you like, but it’s only worthwhile if you have lots of spare time, San Lorenzo Maggiore, Civico Tempio di San Sebastian, and Santa Maria Presso San Satorio, three churches worth seeing.
Dating from when Milan was the capital of the Western Roman Empire, San Lorenzo Maggiore is one of the oldest round churches of western Christendom and houses some of the finest fifth-century mosaics in the attached Cappella di Sant’Aquilino. Santa Maria Presso San Satorio, set off a busy main road, is a haven of tranquillity and full of artistic gems and trickery. A must-see. In contrast, just down the road is the later, plainer and circular Civico Tempio di San Sebastian built to celebrate the citiy’s deliverance from plague in 1576. It may be something of a roundabout route back to the Piazza del Duomo but it allows you to take in another area of the city and these wonderful churches.
If you have time before lunch you might also consider visiting Sant’ Ambrogio, where the who’s who of Milan celebrate the major events in their life. Dating from 379 and built to recognise Christianity in Milan during the Roman Empire, it has been expanded over the centuries but features many clues to its Roman and medieval past, with its Romanesque interior, mosaics and Roman porphyry columns supporting the altar’s golden canopy.
Have a leisurely lunch – head to Trattoria da Pino or Ristorante a Santa Lucia.
You’re in the fashion centre of Italy, so you can’t visit without hitting the shops. Like any city, Milan has its department stores, but there are two that I think are worth mentioning here – la Rinascente and Excelsior, both of which are near the Duomo. La Rinascente can best be described as the Selfridges of Milan; within you will find all the great fashion names of the west and a home décor department to help you kit out your home in the same style as the trendy Milanese. More avant-garde and design-orientated is Excelsior, which is reminiscent of an Italian Harvey Nichols. Rather than having a ground floor selling cosmetics, it offers the latest watches, design books, sunglasses, gadgets and the most incredibly wacky smart phone cases, while the upper floors are given over to more fashion forward cloths from top designers. The two basement levels are temples to the Italian love of food. One stocks cookery implements and cookware, while the lower level is a food hall not just beautiful for the quality of its fine Italian produce, but for the artistry in the way it’s displayed.
Corso Vittorio Emanuel II and the surrounding streets just behind the Duomo are home to the high street and upper middle brands. However, the home of the top designers, brands and boutiques like Chanel and Moschino can be found on and within the streets of a square area bordered by the four intersecting streets of Via Alessandro Manzoni, Via Della Spiga, Via Santa Andrea and Via Monte Napoleone. Among the international designers, you’ll find Italian designers and shoe stores offering up fine wares such as calfskin shoes so soft and light they have to be touched to be believed. What all the shops have in common, international brand or not, is that their offering is distinctly Italian in style – different to what they might offer elsewhere.
Milan has a number of outlet stores selling top designers at incredible discounts, often over fifty percent. Among the best outlets are the Dmagazine Outlet on Via Alessandro Manzoni, and il Salvagente on Via Fratelli Bronzetti. Also keep an eye out for pop up outlets, especially around the Via Santa Andrea – I have run into a couple in the area.
If you have enough time before heading to the airport, why not round off the weekend with one more drink at one of the terrace bars overlooking the Duomo.
As with any Italian city make sure you keep an eye out and look though gates into courtyards, as they are often hidden gems. Don’t worry about just wandering off with only a map and no real plan, as it’s a great way to get to know the city and discover the bits only the locals know about. In this guide I have tried to balance the touristy with the adventure of just wandering, but with such a short time frame to see a city it’s hard to fit in as much as one would like to. If you can manage an extra day do so – and I’d recommend just getting lost, and exploring on a whim.