Located in Lombardy in Northern Italy, Milan is the country’s financial and fashion capital. It’s a sophisticated metropolis, a city with a forward-looking attitude that never forgets its past glories. Home to designers like Prada, Armani and Versace, Milan’s impressive shopping centers attract nearly as many visitors as the city’s centuries-old cultural institutions. With attractions in Milan like the Duomo Cathedral, La Scala and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper it’s no wonder that Milan is Italy’s third most visited city after Rome and Venice.
When planning a trip to Milan, tourists should consider the fact that many businesses and shops close during the month of August. As this tends to be the country’s hottest time of the year, many locals and proprietors go on holiday during this time.
The administrative center of the city during the Middle Ages, the Piazza Mercanti offers visitors a glimpse of Medieval life in Milan. The square is smaller now – the 13th-century Broletto Nuovo that once stood at the center of the piazza now marks the square’s northeast boundary – but the buildings look much as they did centuries ago. On the southeastern side is the Loggia degli Osii where the city’s authorities once addressed the populace from the structure’s balconies. During the winter holidays, the square is turned into a lively Christmas market.
Thanks to Napoleon, who confiscated much of Italy’s best pieces of art during the 18th century and deposited them in Milan, the Pinacoteca di Brera is a world-class museum with an astonishing assortment of fine paintings. Housed in more than 40 rooms, the collection is located upstairs from the Accademia di Belle Arti, a still-operating art school founded in 1776 by Maria Theresa of Austria. Works by Italian painters like Raphael, Tintoretto, Veronese and Caravaggio are featured in the collection. European masters like Rembrandt, van Dyck and Goya are well represented as well.
Second only to the Duomo di Milano in importance, the Basilica di Sant’ Ambrogio is named after its founder, the 4th-century bishop of Milan and the city’s patron saint. Ambrose’s remains are still housed in the church. While there’s little left of the original structure, the current church dates back to the 11th century. Treasures of the basilica include a gold altar added by Charlemagne, a 10th century marble pulpit and an atrium lined with columns made to look like tree trunks. A small chapel off the right aisle of the nave known as the Sacello di San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro features 5th century mosaics.
Milan’s Navigli, or canals, date back as far as the 12th century when they were constructed to facilitate irrigation. In the 1300s, the canal system was expanded for the transportation of goods, a use that continued well into the 19th century. Today, visitors to Milan can enjoy a 55-minute cruise along the remaining Navigli Lombardi. Tour boats depart from the point where Darsena, the city’s historic port, and the Naviglio Grande, Milan’s most important canal, meet. Strolling along the narrow towpaths is a popular way to explore the Navigli neighborhood too.
One of the best known tourist attractions in Milan, La Scala has enjoyed a reputation as a premier opera house since its first performance of “L’Europa Riconosciuta,” by Antonio Salieri, in 1778. Designed in the Neoclassical style by architect Giuseppe Piermarini, the red-and-gold theater is famous for its superb acoustics, which reveal the true abilities of a singer so accurately that a performance at La Scale is viewed as a trial by fire.
The Sforzesco Castle exemplifies the fierce rivalries between families in Renaissance Italy. Built as fortress during the 14th century, the structure became a showcase of power and prestige. Among the castle’s most famous inhabitants were Ludovico il Moro and Beatrice d’Este, a couple who filled the Sforzesco with fine art and furnishings. Today, the castle is home to the Museo d’Arte Antica, which features the Pietà Rondanini, Michelangelo’s final masterpiece. An extensive display of Egyptian art is on display in the castle’s former ducal apartments.
Also known as the Quadrilatero della moda, the Quadrilatero d’Oro is not only Milan’s most exclusive shopping district but one of the world’s most important centers for fashion as well. The “Golden Quadrilateral” encompasses several city blocks, most of which are ornamented with Neoclassical architecture. Via Sant’Andrea features some of the brightest luminaries of the fashion world, including Hermès, Armani, Chanel and Michael Kors. The fashionable Via Manzoni boasts architectural gems worth visiting too, including the elegant Grand Hotel et de Milan where Giuseppe Verdi died in 1901.
Built during the late 1800s, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the oldest enclosed shopping malls in the world. With its blue glass vaulted ceilings, mosaic flooring and towering central dome, the mall’s architecture is as stunning as the high-end couture offered in its shops, which include Louis Vuitton, Borsalino and Prada. The shopping center’s popularity as meeting place as earned the Galleria the nickname “il salotto di Milano,” or Milan’s drawing room. Tradition has it that turning on one’s heel over the mosaic bull under the central dome brings good luck.
Designed and built in the late 1400s by renowned Renaissance architect Donato Bramate, the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie is best known for its most famous artifact: The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. Despite a 21-year-long restoration process completed in 1999, the painting gives only hints of its original glory, yet its artistry is so great that viewing it is still a powerful and moving experience for many visitors. Only 25 visitors are allowed to view the masterpiece at a time, making reservations mandatory for the must-see masterpiece.
One of the most elaborate Gothic cathedrals in Europe is the Milan Cathedral, also known as the Duomo di Milano. Dedicated to Saint Mary Nascent, this cathedral is the largest cathedral in Italy, and the fifth largest in the world. It sits in the center of Milan, with the streets radiating from it or encircling it.
Bishop Antonio da Saluzzo commissioned the Milan Cathedral in 1385. The first Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo, supported this project, gave builders access to his marble quarries and invited architects from around Europe to help with the project. Construction of the cathedral began in 1386 and it was consecrated in 1418. However, it was not until 1965 that the finishing touches were applied to the building. This long construction period led to the use of various building styles, resulting in a masterpiece of architecture and art.
The cathedral building itself is a work of art, filled with numerous smaller artworks. These include a vast number of statues as well as half-bust sculptures. There are 3,159 statues adorning the building, more than in any other cathedral. Of these, 2,245 are on the outside of the cathedral along with 96 gargoyles. The cathedral is also home to many stunning stained glass windows.
The interior of the cathedral is large and quite dark. It includes five naves that are divided by fifty-two pillars, one for each week of the year. These help support the ceiling.
There are numerous pieces of art within the cathedral. These include a wonderful sculpture of St Bartholomew. Three impressive altars designed by Pellegrino Pellegrini include some fascinating designs. In addition, in the right transept of the cathedral there is a marble altar with carvings of vegetables, vines and imaginary animals. A nail supposedly used in the crucifixion of Jesus is said to lie in a spot above the apse. A red light bulb marks it. While the interior of the cathedral is a beautiful sight, a trip to the roof is even more breathtaking.
One must use the steps or the elevator to reach the rooftop. The entrance to this is on the north side of the building. These steps lead to a terrace on the roof, where 135 massive spires stretch upward. Numerous statues adorn the these amazing sculptures. The most well-known statue is the Madonnina (Little Madonna). It is a statue of the Virgin Mary covered with 3,900 pieces of gold leaf. It is nearly 4 meters (14 feet) long, and sits on top of the tallest spire. From this vantage point, one can also view the rooftops of homes and buildings in Milan, as well as the mountains in the distance.
The Milan Cathedral is the first cathedral to light its magnificent stained glass windows from the inside. The lighting system, donated by the Municipal Electric Company, makes it possible for one to view the sacred designs in the night as well as in the day.
There are many other unique aspects of the Milan Cathedral in addition to those mentioned above. Visitors from all walks of life will find something that will pique their interest, whether it is the architecture, the art or just the environment of the cathedral and its surroundings. It is no wonder that the Milan Cathedral is one of the most popular sites in Italy.