We arrived in Milan late on a Thursday evening and spent three days exploring this city of 1.3 million. In early September the weather was still very warm, with one spectacular thunderstorm for variation.
From our brief experience, the best way to see Milan is by bicycle. We walked everywhere the first day, took full advantage of the extensive tram and subway network on the second day, but neither were as satisfying as our third day using the city’s BikeMi network. For a daily subscription of €4,50 (cheaper by the week or month) and a small charge for trips longer than thirty minutes, we took our pick of standard or electric bikes from the dozens of bike racks across the city. The terrain in Milan is uniformly flat and there are a lot more cyclists than in any New Zealand city; we never felt threatened by other road users. And if you’re planning to drive in Europe, starting on a bike is a good way to get used to driving on the right.
As we’ve found on previous trips, Italians are unfailingly friendly. In larger centres like Milan, English is widely spoken; a mixed blessing for those of us working on our Italian. The food is great, although we found the scale of serious restaurant meals a bit much; we fared better with cafe food. And the breads, cheeses, cold meats and fresh fruit are fantastic when we’re self catering.
At street level much of Milan can seem grey and uninviting, a monotony of five story apartment blocks. But through the archways that provide access to the inner courtyards there are green private spaces. And apartment blocks old and new feature surprising amounts of greenery. We saw fully grown fruit trees seven floors up, and some stunning new blocks at Porto Nuovo that look like vertical gardens.
Shopping in Milan is fantastic if you have the stamina. Via Buenos Aires is the primary fashion strip, with labels and chain stores for miles. When I moved beyond this cosmopolitan mecca I found smaller stores selling unique designs, and family businesses offering quality Italian-made products. These were my preference.
Things to see? The Duomo and its precinct is certainly worth visiting, as are those parts of the Navigli canal system still above ground. But these sights are overrun by tourists: the jostling isn’t pleasant, and it’s necessary to be constantly vigilant for pickpockets.
Personally I preferred getting off the tourist trail and exploring the small streets and squares, the almost rural canals north-east of the city centre. I’ve always found my most memorable experiences in areas where people notice I’m not a local, bumbling my way through purchases in stores where no-one speaks English, ordering a coffee in a small suburban bar, watching children playing in a local park.