Already recognized as a world fashion capital, Milan is well on its way to becoming a major destination. And with airfare into its international airport — Malpensa — routinely coming in hundreds of dollars cheaper than surrounding airports, I think it may soon become a popular hub for European travelers.
More than just a place to fly into, however, Milan possesses history and charm all its own.
It probably wouldn’t have been on my list had we not discovered reasonable airfare here, but once it made its way onto our itinerary, I quickly realized how much Milan holds. From Italy’s largest cathedral to Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, “The Last Supper,” there’s more to Milan than shopping — although if that’s what you like, there’s plenty of that, too!
Check out my top three sights in Milan, and if you want more, view the gallery at the end with all the stops we made along the way.
Duomo di Milano: Italy’s largest cathedral
The most unmissable sight in the city is the Duomo di Milano, the largest cathedral in Italy and the fifth largest in the world.
Begun in 1386, this cathedral has long been a work-in-progress. In the early 1800s, Napoleon ordered the cathedral to be completed so that he could be crowned King of Italy there. While his efforts sped up much of the work, the last gate wasn’t inaugurated until 1965. And even with five hundred years of work put into its design, preservation is a constant effort, as with most cathedrals in Europe.
While this Gothic monstrosity is beautiful both inside and out, the best part for me was going up on the terrace, or terrazza.
Climbing the 200 stairs up to the terrace allows you to see the cathedral’s architecture up close while catching panoramic views of Milan. Not to mention you’ll be able to say you’ve walked the roof of a cathedral, an opportunity not frequently offered.
I love juxtapositions like this one: old monuments and new skylines.
Walking the roof of a grand, centuries-old cathedral on an almost cloudless day was a quintessential way to begin our European trip.
Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”
If you had asked me before planning this trip where “The Last Supper” was located, I doubt I would have guessed Milan. Yet this world-famous painting still rests in its original location, in a refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie, just a few minutes walk from the city center.
A small replica of “The Last Supper” used to hang outside the fellowship hall of the church I attended for most of my childhood. I believe it might have been the first major work of art with which I became familiar. From an early age, I’ve always been fascinated by it, and apparently I’m not alone, since entry to see the original can be sold out weeks, sometimes months, in advance.
While waiting for our entry time, we went inside the cathedral, which is free. Italy has more brick cathedrals than I’ve seen in other European countries, and I found them to be just as pretty as their stone and marble counterparts. Maybe that’s the Southerner in me since I grew up around a lot of brick, but I liked seeing it all the same.
Though I’ve always been interested in seeing “The Last Supper,” I wasn’t aware of its unique facets. For one, at the time that da Vinci started the piece, there were multiple artistic renditions of Jesus’ last meal, but most of them focused on the actual moment that Judas was identified as a traitor. Leonardo da Vinci instead chose to focus on the moment before that, capturing each disciples’ emotional reaction to Jesus’ words, “one of you will betray me.” That deviation makes for a richly complex work.
Another difference is that da Vinci rejected traditional frescoes for this work, and chose the innovative method of chiaroscuro, or dry fresco. This method gave him more time to work, and he took four years to complete it. While the dry fresco technique allowed for more detail and better use of light, it was fragile. The painting started showing signs of deterioration just a few years after da Vinci finished it. Its latest restoration took 21 years, and it is now sealed into its original location to protect it. You’ll notice if you go that you have to enter several sets of glass chambers before being released into the room where it’s actually housed, and that’s all part of the high-tech measures being used to keep the work preserved.
You’re only allowed to view it for 15 minutes, which is a shame. It’s massive and intricate, and I could have spent at least twice that long taking it in, if not longer. I mostly sat wondering why da Vinci chose to portray each disciple as he did. Each face is captured in a very detailed expression, and not always in line with what you might expect. You’ll likely walk away awed that it was finished in just four years, and very appreciative that it’s lasted these 500 years.
Milan’s Amphitheatre: A Hidden Piece of History
Next up, we saw what remains of Milan’s Amphitheatre, which has only recently begun to be uncovered. While it’s not nearly as stunning as I’m sure Rome’s Coliseum is (it’s a little hard for leftover foundations to compete with an actual standing structure), it’s still a reminder that the Roman Empire lives on, a thousand years later, everywhere you look in Italy. Before you go outside to see what’s left of the amphitheatre, there’s a small, but informative, museum where you can see drawings of what it used to look like (above) and view gladiator implements (below), along with other artifacts and historical information.
I found it incredible that the foundation of what was once a grand ampitheater sits next to a regular-looking apartment building. In fact, the picture below is the view for most residents who look out from their balconies. Modern, 21st century life is happening right next to where gladiators used to fight in an ancient structure. I guess it’s normal for most Europeans, but for an American who isn’t accustomed to much of anything being older than a hundred years or so, it’s such a novelty.
Blocked off from a small city park, you can view the foundations still set into the ground.
Maybe one day they’ll reconstruct this ancient piece of history that has been hidden for so long.
The rest of our Milan Adventures
From one of the world’s oldest shopping malls to a church built in the 300s to delicious food, the rest of our time in Milan was wonderful. Click any photo in the gallery to view it.