Not that we think Milan deserves only one full day. Milan is so underrated as a tourist destination. It has enough to offer for a full week, at least, and we mean it, especially if you’re interested in art, as the museums are numerous and huge. But if we had just one full day to spend in Milan, or if we were taking a daytrip by train from one of Vacanza Bella’s lake district vacation villas, we would concentrate on these five sights. You’ll want to do these on any day of the week OTHER THAN Monday and Tuesday, when at least one of them is closed.
1. The Cimitero Monumentale. 90 minutes. A cemetery as the top sight in a city like Milan???? Yes, it’s true! A veritable outdoor museum, Milan’s principal cemetery is well worth two full hours of your time. Not because of who’s buried there, though you will find here the graves of such celebrities as Manzoni (author of The Betrothed, Italy’s most celebrated novel, which we highly recommend to you; conductor Arturo Toscanini and his son-in-law, incomparable pianist Vladimir Horowitz; renowned tenor Franco Corelli, who made his Metropolitan debut the same evening as another great, the legendary Leontyne Price; and many more.
No, it’s not the famous people buried at the Cimitero Monumentale who make it so special. Rather, it’s the monuments themselves, truly stupendous representations of inconsolable grief in combination with the incredible wealth it must have taken to put them up. It’s an entirely different concept from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery, where restraint is all-important. We could not believe our eyes when we visited the Cimitero Monumentale for the first time more than three decades ago. Do not think that our recommending the Cimitero Monumentale is another of Vacanza Bella’s eccentricities: This is, after the Duomo, THE most visited site in Milan! But it’s so huge you don’t notice other visitors.
Easily reachable from the Duomo by the number 2 and 4 trams (Farini stop) or 12 and 14 trams (Bramante stop). Closed Mondays. Otherwise open 800-1800.
2. La Scala. 60 minutes. You may not be lucky enough to secure a seat at Milan’s world-famous opera house, but you can at least see the interior of the theater by visiting its delightful Museo Teatrale alla Scala. Charming memorabilia of the entire history of the Italian musical theater, in a lovely, old-fashioned setting. Open every day, with a few holiday exceptions, 900-1200 and 1330-1700.
If you do want to attend a performance, visit the La Scala on-line ticket office months in advance, and try your luck. Tickets are not cheap, and many of the seats in the boxes on the sides have limited or no visibility. The system does allow you to see the view from the seat you’ve selected before you proceed to payment. So beware!
3. Duomo. 90 minutes. The Duomo, or Cathedral, of Milan is the symbol of the city, and the Piazza del Duomo, just down the street from La Scala, is the center of the action. The Duomo is a truly spectacular building, inside and out, and visiting it is free. But you have to pay extra for what’s even more spectacular: the walk on the Duomo’s roof terraces. Not only do you get a fantastic view of the city, but you can see up close all of the incredibly elaborate sculptural decoration: towers, arches, gargoyles, and the guglie, or spires. This is a unique site well worth the admission price, and you can now avoid the ticketing queues by booking a ticket on-line via the Duomo’s user-friendly website. There are two prices, one for taking the lift, the other for hoofing it up the stairs, and there are reductions for children and seniors. You pay a service charge for booking on-line, but to us it’s worth it to avoid the lines at the ticket counter. The Duomo is open every day from 700 to 1840. The terraces are open from 900 to 1900, with the last timed ticket at 1800. From May to mid-September, on Fridays and Saturdays, the terraces are open until 2200, with the last ticket timed at 2100. You should re-check these opening times on the Duomo website.
4. The Poldi-Pezzoli Museum. 90 minutes. The Poldi-Pezzoli house museum, just up the street from the Duomo and practically across the street from La Scala, must be one of the most exquisite house museums in the world. It reminded us of New York’s Frick Collection or the Marmottan in Paris. The art collections are, like the Frick’s, magnificent and beautifully selected and displayed: Botticelli, Pollaiolo, Mantegna, Raphael, Crivelli, Bellini, Canaletto, Guardi, Cranach, and more. There are enough of them, but not too many to wear you out.
Even better than the art works, though, are the collections of exquisite small “things”: sundials, armor, ceramics, porcelain, cameos, and drawings. Our personal favorites are the small clocks, truly outstanding, and most of all the unexpected, recently acquired collection of wonderful Japanese netsuke.
The Poldi-Pezzoli Museum is an unforgettable, quiet oasis in the absolute center of the hurly-burly which characterizes Italy’s business and financial capital, Milan.
Closed Tuesdays. Otherwise open 10-6, with certain holiday exceptions.
5. The Last Supper and the adjacent church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. 60 minutes. In reality, the order of these should be reversed, as the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, one of the most supremely beautiful in all Italy, should take pride of place. For that, you can just take bus number 16 from the Duomo, which will let you off right on front of the church, which is magnificent both outside and in. The combination of the stucco and brick is perfect. Open 700-1200 and 1500-1715 weekdays, slightly different on Sundays and holidays.
The Last Supper? Well, it’s what everyone who goes to Milan wants to see, and I guess it’s worth being herded through in 15-minute slots. You can try to make a reservation on-line; tickets are generally available 2 months in advance. For example, on September 2, 2014, tickets go on sale for all dates in November and December. There are very few spaces remaining on single days in September and October.
Otherwise, you can call the Vivaticket call center at 02-92800360 and see what they have to offer. The slots at 930 and 1530 are English-language guided tours. The first Sunday of each month, admission is free, though a slot reservation is still required.
We repeat: Even if you can’t get in to see The Last Supper, the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is one of our Top Five Milan Sights anyway. Just take a look at these images.
Beyond the Top Five. What’s left out of the Vacanza Bella Top Five?
Shopping – at least a full day, with credit card(s) in hand, in and around Via Montenapoleone
Art – the Brera, the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, the museums in the Castello Sforzesco, the Museo del Novecento — if you’re an art fanatic, those alone will occupy a minimum of 2 exhausting days
Neighborhoods – in particular the Navigli canal district south of the Duomo: experience Venice in Milan!
Churches – especially Sant’Ambrogio and Sant’Eustorgio
Eat – Milan has some of Italy’s most cutting-edge eating palaces, as well as excellent, more traditional restaurants and trattorie
Parks – the Giardini Pubblici and the Parco Sempione in particular