It’s been a month. Yes, a month, since I got back from my latest trip around the lovely land of Italy. My best friend, Angela, and I left to explore the most beautiful country in the world on Sept. 19, and returned 10 days later with a sense of exhaustion and wanderlust that you can only experience when you travel. We booked our plane tickets back in March, and our Airbnbs only a few weeks before departing. After coming to the realization that our semester abroad in Florence was nearly three years ago, a trip back was long overdue. But, yeah. It’s been a month, and a sweet month of soaking in home — both on the East Coast, and the one that we visited on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s always wild to me how you can anticipate an adventure for so long — and then in a blink of an eye, it’s just done. You land back at the same airport that you started, changed in a way, but standing on the tile floor with the same suitcase in hand. At that point, you’re ready to give your bags to anyone or anything, and shed the layers that have been on your back since day one. The jean jacket, the backpack full of cameras, and the sneakers that are scuffed up with dust and daunting memories of lugging your luggage up flights of stairs. Why do we love to travel again? Oh, there are a thousand reasons. Don’t even get me started.
One of the most beautiful parts of travel to me, though, is always the after-effect. Your destination is home, and you’re a bit melancholy about it. But, the second you walk through the gate, you spread that sense of wonder and inspiration onto the next person or moment in your life. You post photographs, and share stories of unexpected things that happened while you were abroad. And the trip seems to linger past the 10 or so days that you were there and living on the edge of the world. Yes, it can be incredibly bittersweet — I mean, you’d rather be eating spoonfuls of that olive oil from Sirmione, than staring at your screen and contemplating the next adulting thing you have to do. But, per usual, I’m choosing to focus on the sweet. (I’m currently unwrapping a Kit-Kat bar. That might have something to do with it.)
THE LOOK: Periwinkle blue midi-length dress (Urban Outfitters, $79, Something similar here.); Grey sandals (Steve Madden at DSW, $60, Something similar here.); Gold choker; Gold and white beaded wrap bracelet (ME to WE, $10); Seed Bead Ice Cream Anklet (Pura Vida Bracelets, $24)
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When you’re rushing from one excursion or sight to the next, you don’t always realize what you’re experiencing. And the more you travel, the more you’re seemingly desensitized to the concepts of “famous” or “historical.” You see a painting that’s been talked about for centuries, and understand its rich context, but you’re not phased by being in its presence. That’s when taking the time in the afterglow of a trip to soak it in, and getting off the beaten path become more of a priority. You have to leave your tourist wonders behind for afternoons spent in markets with fresh fruit, and talking with solo travelers from Brazil. (Yup, that happened.) Then, your trips become a mix of seeing the world, and finding your own niché corner in it. So, that when you do go back, you’re comfortable and curious to see those same spots again.
Toward the end of this trip, I realized that I’ve been to Milan on four separate occasions now. I’ve taken a countless number of trains in and out of Milano Centrale, and seen the intricate details of the Duomo di Milano multiple times, each just as stunning as the last. I’ve gotten lost on the subways just below the not-so crowded streets, and wandered into the touristy spots slightly after-hours. So, I guess this makes me somewhat qualified to give you a checklist — five spots that are must-sees in Milan. Some being more central and obvious attractions, and others being off the beaten path, like those quaint and artsy districts that were found on a whim. Traveling and exploring this world the “right” way (that is purely an opinion, but one that I will stand by), require a bit of both.
1 // Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral)
There are some touristy spots in Milan that are absolutely worth seeing. The Duomo di MIlano, or Milan Cathedral, is one of them. Located right in the heart of the city, this building has the most intricate architecture that I’ve ever seen. The stone is warm, and detailed no matter where you look on the facade — according to my classes back in college, it’s typical style of the Gothic era. (Sorry, this isn’t advanced placement history. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.)
Although you can climb to the top of the building, and be on the same level as the spokes, I wouldn’t suggest it. Grab a ticket for the inside, and take a solid half hour or so to soak in the colorful floor tiles and mosaics on the wall. But then, get outside and experience this sight in the daylight. Around golden hour, you can get a really nice purple haze for photos, or wake up early in the morning and beat the rush of tourists. My favorite view is coming out of the subway station that’s right in the square. From the steps that lead up to the ground level, you can get the slightest peak of the Duomo, and it’s truly magical.
2 // Naviglio Grande
Although we didn’t get to Naviglio Grande on my latest trip to Milan, it’s still a must-see. Out of all of my experiences with this city, this spot was cute and rather unexpected. Milan is pretty metropolitan and modern, compared to the rest of the major cities in Italy. The cable cars and metro stations remind you of San Francisco, and there are some areas that when you’re walking around, you could easily mistake for London. Unlike Rome, there isn’t a deep history that attracts tourism here — and unlike Florence, this city isn’t the living and breathing version of the Renaissance. No, it definitely has its own vibe, that’s trendy and classic all at the same time.
Naviglio Grande is a large canal just southwest of the center of the city, that’s lined with local-style restaurants and places for aperitivo (the Italian version of happy hour, but better in every way possible.) When you’re walking along the streets in this area of town, you get glimpses of what Venice is like. A gondola being the only thing missing from the vision. You wouldn’t entirely expect that scene to be in such a bustling city, which makes it worth the visit that much more.
Check out this area around dinner time, because the whole canal lights up. String lights line the few bridges that cross over the water, and the outdoor cafés illuminate the sidewalks and add aromas of seafood risotto into the air. Before grabbing a table anywhere, definitely consider trying out aperitivo (Yguana Café is fairly located to Naviglio Grande, and has been one of my favorite aperitivo experiences to date!) During my semester abroad, it was one of my favorite things, and my roommates would always get that text from me saying, “Hey, aperitivo tonight?” Yes. Simply get a glass of wine, spritz, or cocktail of some sorts, and then help yourself to a buffet of food. Typically, there are a bunch of different pasta salads, freshly-baked breads, and side dishes, and you can keep coming back for more. Convinced? Cool.
3 // Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Prada, Louis Vuitton, Versace. Pick a designer and they probably have a storefront in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Essentially, this spot is an outdoor shopping center. But, you don’t necessarily go there to swipe your credit card. Think of it like the 5th Avenue of Milan, with architecture and large windows instead of skyscrapers and taxis rushing by. Trade the traffic lights and stained sidewalks for Paris-style street lamps and flooring that’s a piece of art in itself. Staring in awe is acceptable here, just move to the side so that you’re not in anyone’s way.
There’s a giant indoor food court-market hybrid, and a bunch of trendy restaurants and bars on every balcony, nearby. Just roam around until you find something that fits your price range and taste. Only stop for a snack or a light lunch, though, because this is a touristy spot. (It's literally steps away from the Duomo and the center of Milan.) The best restaurants are always off the beaten path, and the Galleria is better for pictures and straightforward sight-seeing. Just look up.
4 // milano Centrale (Milan central train station)
I’ve had a lot of adventures in Milan’s central train station, Milano Centrale. After four different trips to this city, it was sort of inevitable — you know? But, the beauty and size of this place made every journey back to the platforms that much better. Those days on this latest trip when we were just passing through and running around with our suitcases, seriously covered in sweat, wasn’t so sweet. (That’s the side of traveling that you have to experience sometimes, but never gets documented in professional-grade photos.) Seriously though, this building made it better.
If you’re not planning on going to the station to catch a train to another city or town just outside of Milan, then don’t sweat it. There’s plenty to see and do, that you don’t need to go out of your way. But, if you do find yourself in the area or wanting to explore beyond what this one city has to offer, then give yourself some time. More often than not, it’s taken me a little while to navigate this station and the different tracks. There are a lot of levels and it’s arguably more confusing than Grand Central Station in New York City. You’re going to want that extra time just to get to where you’re going, but also so that a must-see doesn’t just pass you by.
5 // the Brera District
The Brera district was so damn cute. (That was originally just a note for myself, but I’m leaving it for you because — well, it’s true.) There’s nothing that I can think to compare it to, but the photos almost give you the idea of the warm atmosphere. During all of my travels, I’ve come to find that experiencing a place like a local would — living like a local — is the best thing to do. That came effortlessly in Brera because of the balconies, and restaurants with pesto and spinach risotto. I’d go back there in a heartbeat, and then leave Milan without seeing anything else.
Throughout this entire trip, we honestly lucked out with our Airbnbs. Granted, we took the time to find places that seemed like they were located in the ideal areas and had the right amenities. But, there’s always a level of uncertainty when you’re traveling, that forces you to get into that “go with the flow” mindset. Our accommodations in Milan were insanely better than we expected, though. Simply because the neighborhood was beautiful, quaint, artsy, and made for an experience. There was a fashion week show going on down the road, and too many outdoor cafés and markets to count. There were gelato shops, and interior design stores that you wanted to live in right away. And every once in a while, you saw a mint vespa parked in the middle of a square.
We only stayed in Milan for one night. Our flight was a red-eye that got in early in the morning, and after a train ride from the airport to the center of the city, we arrived a bit early. We sat a café near the Airbnb, and grabbed a panini and a cappuccino — our suitcases squeezed next to the table, and backpacks thrown on the bench. I didn’t feel any culture shock in this moment, which was slightly surprising, but the exhaustion was real. Soon enough, we spent the spare time and got checked into the little studio with bright yellow walls on the outside and lots of leafy plants. We finally showered, took an afternoon nap, and then walked around the rest of the district. No map required, just wandering. And we still somehow found our way back, to what instantly felt like home.
Honestly, if you can get an Airbnb or some other kind of accommodations in this area — do it. That cute little apartment was so ideal for a couple of nights in the city, and I’d leave the whole experience rave reviews. (The link to that listing and my discount code for Airbnb are below!) Where we stayed was only a short walk from the train station, and subway stations that could get us anywhere we wanted in Milan. Castello — a castle, that was also the location of a Milan Fashion Week show, during one of my previous trips — was also just a short distance away. And the cathedral and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was only about a fifteen-minute walk from this must-see.
Out of everything on this list, this is the one spot that turns this city from a tourist attraction to home. From the restaurants, to the light-hearted atmosphere, and faded pink buildings, the neighborhood of Brera brings a local touch to your trip. And that’s always a good idea. It’s slightly off the beaten path, and truly something that I shouldn’t have missed the first few times around. But, hey — now you know and that’s enough for me.
Love always, Marisa