Shoestring Travel: Milan, Italy

Taking you to European destinations on a dime (5 of 7).

How Milan does shopping malls: the classical façade of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
  • How Milan does shopping malls: the classical façade of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

After traveling via train from Florence for two hours, we arrived safely in Milan. We were grateful that the city seemed much cooler than Italy's more southern cities we had recently visited.

While Milan is still a historically significant city, it is also Italy's financial center. You might find it isn't as swarmed with tourists as Italy's other top destinations like Rome, Venice and Florence.

We had packed in as many things as we could in Rome and Florence, and decided to take it a little easier here. It's the perfect city to do that in. On two occasions, we went to Sempione Park and just lay on the grass reading away the afternoon. Another day we went to Milan's free aquarium. While it's nothing in comparison to San Diego's Birch Aquarium, it was still neat to see. You could tell families really enjoyed the fact that it didn't cost anything to spend the day there.

Typical Milan alley (note your standard row of Vespas).

Typical Milan alley (note your standard row of Vespas).

Since we dedicated less time to standing in museum lines and more to wandering the streets, we were able to find Monopoli, which had the best Italian food we ate our entire trip. From pizzas to pasta dishes and salads, this local family establishment featured great prices and personable waitstaff. And to sweeten the deal, just a few blocks down you'll find Il Massimo del Gelato, the city's best gelato shop.

The impressive baroque Duomo di Milano cathedral.

The impressive baroque Duomo di Milano cathedral.

We spent some time walking around the Piazza del Duomo and inside the Duomo itself, which has incredibly intricate stained glass windows. After touring the Duomo, we headed over to the Venchi chocolate shop and chose from one of their gourmet gelato flavors. We then took our gelato and walked through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II to admire the spectacular glass ceilings overhead.

Another perk of wandering the streets is that you run across unexpected things like random church ruins sitting in the middle of a traffic square. The church, San Giovanni in Conca, was demolished in 1949 to make way for a new street. There is still an accessible crypt below that you can visit for free.

When we planned our trip to Milan, the biggest highlight of visiting the city was to see Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper. If you want to see the painting, make sure to book way ahead of time – tour companies snatch up most of the tickets fairly quickly. I booked ours one month before we left, and we still only had one time slot open during the three days we would be there. It's totally worth it to book in advance so you can guarantee you'll see it.

I was surprised to see how different the actual painting is from all of the touched-up versions you can purchase. The colors are incredibly faded and, in fact, began to fade only years after the painting was finished due to the techniques and wet plaster paint used. Even more surprising, in 1652, the church decided to increase the size of the doorway underneath the painting, cutting off a section of it that included Jesus' feet. I was shocked to find this out; all the images I'd seen had his feet intact. (They were added later from Da Vinci’s early sketches.)

Ominous-looking facade, to say the least, in San Bernardino alle Ossa.

Ominous-looking facade, to say the least, in San Bernardino alle Ossa.

Finally, before we boarded our flight to Spain, we made one last stop in an Italian church. While it may seem normal from the outside, San Bernardino alle Ossa has one very eerie feature: an entire chapel made of bones. Yes, human bones. Human skulls and various bones cover the walls from floor to ceiling.

I just stared dumbfounded at the chapel's décor and found that I left with more questions than answers. Where did these bodies come from? Why did people want their skulls on display? How did they get the skulls and bones clean?

In the end, I left Italy's churches awestruck, but also with many questions remaining about the creation of these incredible structures.

Check out the video below and "take a ride through Milan."

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