Travel: More to Milan than Da Vinci

Published in International Living and sister publication, The European, December 2006

More to Milan than Da Vinci
by Lori Hein

Call it the Da Vinci Code effect. Viewing Leonardo’s Last Supper at Milan’s Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie can require a minor miracle. Reservations are mandatory, and tour companies buy blocks of tickets, reducing the number available to solo travelers. And, even if you score reservations, expect big lines and long waits. If you can’t see the famed fresco, head instead for Milan’s historic core for the best of the rest of Lombardy’s lively capital.

Milan’s most glorious sight is the duomo (cathedral). Rising like a great Gothic wedding cake from its namesake piazza, the colossus, which Mark Twain called “a poem in marble,” brims with belfries, buttresses and towers. A slow walk around the exterior puts you in the middle of a riot of arches, vaults, statues and tracery. Inside, magnificent floor-to-ceiling stained glass will dazzle you, and you can ride an elevator to the roof to a forest of intricately sculpted stone spires. Although the cathedral’s brilliant facade is half-hidden behind scaffolding as major restoration work continues, you can still spend hours here.

Renovation’s always going on somewhere in Milan, so don’t let it keep you from visiting. Roberto Peretta, who runs the website, says of the restoration, “In Milan, the saying ‘lungo come la fabbrica del Duomo’ or ‘as long as the building of the duomo,’ means that something never ends.”

Nearby, the soaring Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a glass, stone and wrought iron confection begun in 1877 and arguably the world’s most elegant mall, attracts Milanese and visitors. Look for the floor mosaic depicting a bull under the galleria’s central dome: Tradition says that a twirl on the bull’s nether parts brings good luck.

The galleria’s side portal opens to the venerable La Scala Theater. A facelift has the 250-year-old grande dame looking good, and her acoustics are perfect. The adjacent museum’s collection of costumes, sets and instruments is a journey into La Scala’s rich past. Backstage tours can also be had.

A few blocks west is the red-orange Castello Sforzesco, the Renaissance fortress that served as seat of the Sforzas, Dukes of Milan and now houses an impressive art collection that includes a Michelangelo Pieta. In good weather people relax in the green Parco Sempione outside the castle walls.

Some of Milan’s best sights move. About 20 tram lines serve Milan and environs, but several historic liveries with some 150 vintage trolleys run through the old city on iron rails laid into the pavement. Buy a hop on/hop off tram pass, settle into the shiny, varnished wooden seats, and enjoy a rolling tour of Milan’s historic heart.

What to see:

For Last Supper reservations, visit or call +39 (0)28942-1146. Closed Mondays, entry: 14 euros.

The Duomo is open daily 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. No shorts, short skirts, or sleeveless shirts.

La Scala performances can be booked via La Scala Museum hours: 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m.-5 p.m. Closed Mondays, backstage tours Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Castello Sforzesco ( is free and open daily. Entrance to the museum, open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. except Mondays, is 3 euros.

Touristic Tram Tour tickets are sold at the tourist office on Via Marconi, Piazza del Duomo. 20 euros for an all-day pass. and have information on hotels, restaurants and sights.