Fashion capital of the world, economic hub and my preferred base from which to explore the fifth most visited country in the world.
Locals say that towns outside of the city centre, regardless of the shortest distances, are like a different world. If you’re in Milan for longer than one week with a bit of spare time, use the two world-class train stations to write the chapters of your own ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ adventure.
Just for the afternoon…
PAVIA – The town of 100 towers
20 min by train (Central Station)
This enchanting town casts my mind back to childhood fairytales with vivid images of Rapunzel’s long locks flowing from the tall, face-brick towers which sprout around every corner. Legend has it that during medieval times, the family with the tallest tower was believed to be the most important because they were closest to the heavens and thus closer to God, so competition was rife with families constantly trying to build higher turrets than the next. On closer inspection, I was amazed to discover that most of these towers are in fact completely hollow and serve no real purpose except to stripe the skyline with mystery and intrigue, and give shelter to chirping green parakeets. However, beyond the fascination with these window-less structures and the bridges which offer breathtaking views of the Ticino River, the town retains prominence with its renowned university where Alessandro Volta’s statue stands, the Visconteo Castle as well as an abundance of fresh agricultural produce like cheese, pure honey and wine.
Read the entire experience of Umayya Theba on her magazine!
SARONNO – Stepping stone to the north
40 min by train (Cadorna Station)
A precious stepping stone conveniently placed between Milan and Malpensa Airport as well as Milan and the Northern lakes, a visit to Saronno will provide insight into the daily life of commuters who miss the limelight of the fashion capital. Having been there both on a Sunday and on a working day, I would suggest avoiding weekends since locals tend to take a longer to awaken from their slumber. The Church of St Francis of Assisi greeted me before arriving at the pilgrimage church, Madonna de Miracoli and the Giuseppe Gianetti Museum filled with 18th century ceramics and porcelain.
MONZA – Formula One Italian Grand Prix host
15km north-east of Milan
20 min by train (Porta Garibaldi Station)
Motoring enthusiasts flock to this town every September to watch the Italian Grand Prix at the world-famous Autodromo Nazionale Monza motor racing circuit situated in Parco di Monza, a grand green patch that stretches to double the size of NYC’s Central Park. But whether or not you have the need for speed, Monza still has so much more to offer. After feasting on risotto and polenta dishes typical of the north, I checked out the gothic Cathedral of St John followed by the chapel of Theodelinda where a nail used during the crucifixion is kept, as well as the Royal Villa built during Austrian rule.
Spend a day in…
BOLOGNA – Source of the Bolognese sauce
1.5 hours by train (Central Station)
Thanks to careful conservation, Bologna is often voted as one of the top Italian cities to reside in and boasts a rich historical centre with Medievel towers and old buildings including works of period art. Have your fill of original Bolognese sauce before following my tried and tested itinerary; The University of Bologna, the oldest university in the world which still operates; “due torri” – slightly leaning towers which are symbolic of the city, and Piazza Maggiore where the San Petronio Basilica and town hall are found. Soak up some sunshine in Piazza Santo Stefano where antique markets are held and elegant porticoes – covered porches with pillars – lend elegance.
VERONA – Romeo & Juliet
1.15 hours by train (Central Station)
The setting for one of William Shakespeare’s most renowned plays, there’s more to Verona than Juliet’s balcony. Sliced by the Adige River, this UNESCO World Heritage site remains a cultural gem with the Roman-built amphitheatre ‘Arena’ hosting magical operas, and the Ponte di Pietra, an original stone bridge which still stands to this day. Despite little belief that I would get a response from the ill-fated Juliet, I joined the horde of other hopefuls who leave letters at her family residence on Via Cappello before spending some time in Piazza dei Signori and Piazza Erbe to see the 84m high Lamberti Tower initiated in 1172 and finally completed in 1779.
Lake COMO and surrounding towns – A little piece of paradise
30 min by train (Cadorna Station)
Enter the playground of the rich and famous. Not just a pretty glacial lake, the mass of glistening water close to the Swiss border is surrounded by serene greenery and the most gorgeous little towns dotted along the edge. First, I enjoyed a seafood lunch in Como’s Piazza Duomo before wandering through the shop-lined cobbled streets for top quality silks which the town is famous for. To circumnavigate the lake, feel the wind through my hair and admire the picture-perfect villas along the way, I bought a 1-hour ferry ticket which allows tourists to hop on and off in five towns. Cernobbio is an unspoiled jewel. Take in the scenery from a bench under a grove of trees, pose around the centre fountain and cool down with delicious gelato. Consider touring Udine and Torno too, or return to Como and ride the Funicolare up the mountain for a cappuccino and the most incredible view of the town and lake below.
Enjoy a weekend away…
ROME – The Eternal City
3 hours by train (Central Station)
Aah… Bella Roma, my favourite city in Europe where sun-tanned Gods walk the cobbled streets and evidence of the great ancient empire still stands remarkably well-maintained. With so much history to absorb in a short time, I chose to ride the convoy of double-decker tourist buses which follow a precise, interesting route through time. St Peter’s Basilica is a must-see starting point, especially on a Sunday when the pope appears at his window for the mass service at noon. Marvel at the detailed tapestries and the Sistine Chapel within the Vatican Museums, skip the queues with a guided tour through the Colosseum, and use your right hand to throw a coin over your left shoulder into the Trevi Fountain before walking up the Spanish Steps for a splendid bird’s-eye view of the main shopping street, Via Condotti.
VENICE – A water wonderland
2.30 hours by train (Central Station)
The 118 tiny islands that collectively make up Venice are a must-see especially since the museum-like city is sinking at an average rate of 1 – 2mm per year. Arriving at the train station is like a movie scene with an unreal sense of drama. Block out the strained engine hum of the vaporetto (waterbus) as you cruise through canals passed the antiquated palaces and just imagine the mischievous Casanova dashing across the bridges that connect the islets. I shared the gondola expense for a guided tour under the Rialto Bridge before feeding the doves in San Marco Square where music bands at the cafes serenade their patrons. The islands, Murano and Burano, were my next port-of-call to watch authentic glass-blowing and lace-making in action before collecting seashells on the beach at Lido.
FLORENCE – Birthplace of the Renaissance
1.5 hours by train (Central Station)
The birthplace of Pinocchio, the Renaissance and designer brand ‘Gucci’, Florence is a compulsory destination for art, leather and fashion fanatics. I did make it into the Galleria Dell’Accademia to admire Michelangelo’s larger than life David statue, but if you don’t have the patience to queue, inspect a good copy of the sculpture in the 14th century Piazza della Signoria, a central gathering point near the Uffizi Gallery, Loggia della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio. Make your way to the Galileo Museum before crossing the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) which is lined with historical jewelers whose windows are dripping with gold. On the other side, Palazzo Pitti beckons. This magnificent museum showcases the evolution of clothing and exquisite gowns by famous Italian designers, while the cascading gardens can be explored all the way to the highest point for the most picturesque panoramic view of the city’s rooftops.