In the European summer of 2013 I made my first foray into solo travelling. I had four days to fill somewhere in Italy between the day my family returned home to Australia and the day I would be meeting up with a friend in Germany. So where to spend it? Northern Italy was my preference, in order to avoid the heat of the south and lessen my travel time between Italy and Germany. I quickly ruled out a beachside location, as going to the beach is never as fun without friends. I wanted to go somewhere with a focus on culture and plenty of indoor activities and attractions, as I find that these are often more enjoyable solo than outdoor adventures. After much thought, I eventually settled on Milan. I am so glad I did. Milan, in my opinion, is a perfect destination for the solo traveller. To put it simply, Milan has it all.
Milan has stunning architecture. There is no denying, in my book, that the Duomo di Milano (pictured above) is one of the most glorious cathedrals in the world. All those gleaming white spires, the magnificent symmetry… Divine.
My first experience of the Duomo came as quite a surprise to me. I had just arrived in Milan on the train, dropped off my suitcase at my hotel and bought myself some salami and grissini at the nearby supermarket for lunch. I was wandering in the general direction of the centre of town, looking for somewhere to sit and eat. Imagine my surprise when I rounded a corner and found myself in the Piazza del Duomo! I was stunned by the sheer size and meticulous detail of the Duomo and, in true touristic fashion, sat myself down on the nearest empty stretch of curb. This was somewhat more difficult than it sounds, as much of the curb was already occupied by footsore tourists. And so I ate my frankly rather uninteresting lunch while starting at the glorious Duomo and the huge crowds of sightseers milling around it.
If it’s architectural grandeur you’re after, you’ll also want to check out the Duomo’s next-door-neighbour, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. This enormous building, named after Italy’s first king, is one of the oldest shopping arcades in the world. Filled with luxury stores, it’s perfect for a little window shopping!
Aside from architecture, Milan has music. Wandering through the Galleria from the Piazza del Duomo will bring you out on the Piazza della Scala. La Scala (or, properly, Teatro alla Scala), located on this piazza, is one of the most famous opera houses in the world, making Milan, in some ways, opera’s spiritual home. On my first day in Milan I discovered La Scala more-or-less by accident on my wanderings and took a look around the museum attached to the side of the opera house. Posters from old premieres, paintings and outrageous costumes from La Scala’s history were all on display. I was captivated. The next day I bought myself a ticket to the opera. I found that tickets can be purchased at a surprisingly reasonable price at short notice if you are not concerned with getting a ‘good seat’.
This purchase of an opera ticket brought its own issue. I was certain that shorts and a t-shirt were not suitable attire for an evening at one of the world’s foremost opera houses. I needed to buy a dress. Luckily, Milan has fashion. I guess this is stating the obvious, as Milan is known worldwide for its fashion scene, but how could I write about Milan without mentioning it?
I am not, in any way, shape or form, a fashionable person. I also rather dislike clothes shopping. I did, however, somewhat enjoy shopping in Milan. Perhaps it was the fact that I was living out an exotic cultural stereotype (shopping seemed to me to be a very Milanese thing to do). Maybe it was internally laughing at all the ridiculous designs in the high fashion couturiers’ windows. Hidden in amongst the eye-wateringly expensive designer stores of Milan’s ‘Golden Triangle’, otherwise known, confusingly, as the ‘Quadrilatero d’Oro‘, I discovered COS, a shop that sold classy, stylish, but most importantly wearable clothing. I picked out a stunning black dress – very simple, very elegant – and was pleased to find it was extremely affordable, considering the location. A reasonably-priced dress to go with my reasonably-priced opera ticket. Win.
And so I made it to the opera, dressed appropriately. I was really glad I’d put in the effort with the dress shopping, as the Milanesi really know how to get dressed up for a night at the opera! The opera in question was Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera – A Masked Ball. No, I hadn’t heard of it either, but it was an amazing show and I thoroughly enjoyed it (despite not realising that it was possible to change the electronic subtitles for my seat into English until the third act). I discovered that the likely reason my ticket had been so cheap was that my seat was located almost directly behind a pillar, so that I had to lean somewhat precariously into the aisle to get a good view. I was not overly concerned by this, however. I was just pleased to be there.
Along with everything else, Milan has the great outdoors. Well, to some extent. To be honest, it probably has more great outdoors than I give it credit for, but since I was all for avoiding the heat that hit you like a furnace every time you left the air-conditioning, my experience of Milan’s green spaces was limited to the Parco Sempione. But what a great green space the Parco Sempione is! This enormous park in the heart of Milan is an oasis of peace and fresh air in amongst the bustle of the city. I took a picnic lunch to the park one day and ate in the shade of an enormous tree, escaping the heat and watching the Milanesi going about their business. Wandering through the park brings you to Castello Sforzesco, a 15th century citadel built by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, the first of the Sforza dynasty who ruled Milan for a century. It is now home to a number of small museums, including the Museum of Musical Instruments and an Egyptian museum, among others.
I headed to the Pinacoteca di Brera, because I’d heard that Milan has art. The Pinacoteca is a huge art gallery full of paintings of many kinds, centred around a colonnaded courtyard. A large proportion of the artworks were religious scenes – Madonna and Child, various saints, and so on. My greatest fascination lay in the way that, as far as I could see without exception, Jesus was depicted by each artist as if he lived in that artist’s own time. I was left wondering how Jesus might look if painted today!
Art is often caught up with history in Milan, and, like pretty much everywhere else in Europe, Milan has history. The historical side of my time in Milan mostly revolved around that Renaissance man of all Renaissance men, Leonardo da Vinci. His ‘Last Supper’, known as the ‘Cenacolo Vinciano’, or just ‘Il Cenacolo’, graces the wall of the convent refectory at the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, and pages from his Codex Atlanticus are on display at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. In order to spare you a further five paragraphs of ecstatic raving on da Vinci’s genius, I have decided to allocate my description of these wonders to a future post!
And thus it is that I state my case for Milan as the perfect solo travel destination. Architecture, music, fashion, nature, art, history – what more could you ask for? I’m taking it as proof that some places really do have it all.