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After our day in Avignon, Leslie and I took an eleven hour train ride to Italy. Unbeknownst to us, we actually visited another country on that train ride—I didn’t realize until just now, as I looked up the train route on a map, that we crossed the border into Monaco! How about that?
The scenery along the way was stunning, too. I loved seeing the fog in the mountains in the morning, and the afternoon sun lit up the landscape like a postcard.
Our first stop in Italy was Milan, that northern metropolis bursting with fashion and culture. Unfortunately, the metros are also bursting with people. The M1 line, which we took from the train station to our rental apartment, was so full of people that I didn’t think we’d ever fit, especially not with our big packs. Leslie had to pull me onto the train car as we squeezed ourselves in like sardines. And then, two more people got on after me and spent the whole ride complaining about my bag. They asked me to take it off and put it on the floor—which I have since learned is the common custom on trains in Italy—but there was no room to maneuver it without giving someone a black eye. UGH.
We finally made it to our rental apartment and discovered that our host had sent a friend to hand over the keys. This nice gentleman was actually from Spain, not Italy, and spoke no English. Our rudimentary Spanish skills didn’t cover things like “how do we pay the balance of our booking fees?” and “Oh. You only take cash. Where is the nearest bank?” so getting things squared away was a bit stressful. By the time all was said and done, we were exhausted, and ready for bed.
But as frustrating as our first impression of Milan was, she more than made up for it the next day. Early the next morning, we made our way over to the Duomo di Milano, the most impressive Gothic cathedral I’ve ever seen. Leslie had read that the roof offers spectacular views of the city, so we opted for the ticket that would take us to the top.
The climb up to the roof was a workout, but 120,000% worth it. The details were incredible, and it’s no wonder that it took almost 600 years to build. Six. Hundred. Years. It always makes me a little teary-eyed to think of these artists and architects who worked on something they may never live to see completed. Talk about dedication.
And the building is enormous, so there is plenty of room for all that detail. In fact, it’s the fifth largest church in the world!
And the view from the top was as incredible as the internet promised. We could see for miles and miles and miles, and there was a surprise modern art exhibition being held up there. It was a little disconcerting to be walking around on top of a church and I’ll be honest: my fear of heights prompted a couple of scary thoughts about what would happen if the marble under our feet suddenly decided it had had enough of being a roof and wanted to trade places with the floor. But it was still awesome, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
After we climbed back down, our exit path took us through the interior for a very brief glimpse. We decided against buying a second ticket to tour the insides, so we were grateful they let us have a quick peek. I especially loved the columns and the stained glass.
Leslie: This is a must see! It’s a famous building for a reason: not only is it amazing from every side when you’re on the ground and inside, but I loved seeing the details up close when we went up to the terraces, and I was not expecting the statues and stuff on the top terrace. I loved this!
- Duomo di Milano Terraces
- Official Site
- Price: €9 by foot, €13 by lift
- (5 / 5)Our Rating
Directly across from the Piazza del Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a super fancy shopping arcade.
Like, Louis Vuitton and Gucci fancy.
Leslie: It’s fun to window shop at designer stores for a change of pace.
The floors were lined with mosaic tiles that were breathtaking—and impossibly difficult to get a picture of.
Leslie: The mosaic floor was eye-catching, but I really loved that it was three or four stories high and glass covered. Such a pretty shopping area!
We also spotted an intriguing trio in the center of the galleria—a woman in a lovely outfit, pushing a bike and accompanied by two men with large cameras. Was she a model? An Italian movie star? Some fashion mogul’s daughter?
Leslie: I still wish I knew what she was doing…
Our walk through the Galleria took us right to La Scala Theatre, an opera house that opened in 1778. It is widely regarded as one of the premier opera and ballet institutions in the world. I had never heard of it before (yes yes, I’m an uncultured swine…), but Leslie was super excited to visit.
Leslie: This was such a beautiful theatre, inside and out! I was bummed that circumstances wouldn’t allow us to see Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky is my favorite composer), but we certainly lucked out at being able to watch some of the dress rehearsal while we visited the day before opening night, so I was happy with that! And who knew that opening night was a black-tie affair… Definitely wouldn’t have had the proper clothing in my backpack! But it was worth the few Euros we paid to see the opulent insides and get the sneak peek of the show.
They also had a museum all about the history of music and dance at La Scala, and an exhibit full of past costumes and sets. It was brilliant!
- Teatro alla Scala
- Official Site
- Price: Adults €7
- (4 / 5)Our Rating
Our next stop was Sforza Castle, a 15th century castle that was once one of the largest citadels in Europe. It’s now home to several museums, but it’s also a fantastic place to just sit and enjoy the sunshine.
Leslie: I thought this castle was really different. It reminded me more of ramparts with an open inner courtyard than an actual castle. I remember thinking how neat it is that all those people had such a cool place to eat lunch in the middle of their work day. The main Italian stock exchange is located in Milan, near to this castle, and it seemed that plenty of men in suits were walking by or eating, enjoying a break outdoors.
We also happened upon a free concert held inside the world’s largest violin.
You read that right.
They had erected false walls in the shape of a violin, split the space with a tall wooden bridge, and strung nylon wires from one end of the room to the other. They wouldn’t let us take pictures inside (because of the concert and all), but Leslie snapped a sneaky shot from outside. The performer was a violinist studying at a nearby university, and they also had an exhibit about the life of Antoni Stradivari.
And then, as if the thereminist and La Scala and a giant violin weren’t enough, we were treated to yet another musical treat upon exiting the castle. While wandering the park next door, we stumbled upon a duo playing these strange UFO-shaped metal drums. We had no idea what they were, but ever the audio hero, Leslie got a quick recording of their sweet tunes, which you can hear below:
Turns out, they are called “Hangs”, and they are sort of like a steel drum modified to be more resonant. I find the music really relaxing, so I’m going to have to add some to my yoga playlist. You can see a video of them being played here.
Our very last adventure of the day took us to the Santa Maria delle Grazie (Church of Mary Holy of Grace), a Dominican church and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also home to DaVinci’s masterpiece painting of the Last Supper, but we weren’t able to score tickets to see it. What a bummer.
- Santa Maria delle Grazie
- Official Site (Italian)
- Price: Free to visit just the church. Tickets to see the Last Supper vary by tour company.
- Note: DEFINTIELY buy your tickets in advance if you want to see the painting. There are several companies that offer combo tickets and walking tours, so be prepared to do some research to find the best option for you.
- (2 / 5)Our Rating
Still, the church was pretty, and we enjoyed our stroll between the park and the church. We spotted some young people running around with laurels on their heads and we were very confused until we saw one who was also wearing a graduation robe. After that, we saw several families gathering to celebrate with wine and huge bouquets of flowers. I hadn’t ever really thought about graduation traditions being different around the world, but the laurels was definitely way cooler than mortarboard caps.
Leslie: I liked that our time in Milan was just slower paced and relaxed, rather than stuffing in lots of sightseeing like we did in other cities.
Agreed. For having such a stressful start, Milan sure ended up being a beautiful city to explore and enjoy.
Read more about my trip with Leslie here.
 Although, to be fair, the list has a decidedly narrow definition of both “church” and “Christian.” The LDS Temple in Salt Lake is quite a bit larger than this cathedral.
 Turns out, the ticket office misled us. They made it look like you had to buy a pass for €16 to go up top and see the inside, but the official site says differently… Boo.