Group tours can be a mixed blessing. Your accommodations and transportation are usually covered, which is great. But you’re also at the mercy of someone else’s schedule.
This can be especially challenging when you have short stopovers in large cities, and limited time to see the sights. And if you happen to get dropped off in the middle of a European city on a Sunday or Monday, you may find that a lot of attractions have short hours of operation, if they’re open at all.
Mark and I found this out on our very first trip to Europe back in 2006, when we toured Italy through Contiki. We had a short five-hour stopover in Milan on our way to Venice. But, we arrived on a Sunday, so many sights were closed. However, we did find several cool things to see that were open. Better yet, they were all in close proximity to each other, so we were able to make the most of our brief excursion to Milan.
Milan Cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo
This cathedral, of course, is the most iconic in Milan. Construction of this massive Gothic church spanned about 600 years – between 1386 and 1965. It’s the largest cathedral in Italy, and the fifth largest in the world. It’s dedicated to St. Mary of the Nativity.
The main facade was under renovation between 2003 and 2009. As you can see, we visited right in the middle of the work!
Here is the cathedral from another, less obstructed angle. The church boasts 135 spires!
The interior is as ornately decorated as the exterior. The cathedral can hold about 40,000 at a time! You can’t see it in this photo, but in the dome above the apse, there is a small red lightbulb. This reportedly marks the spot where a nail from Crucifixion of Christ has been placed. It’s taken out once a year during the Rite of the Nivola and displayed to the public.
You can also ascend to the top of the cathedral, either by lift or by climbing the stairs. This is a great way to get up close to some of the 400 statues, 96 gargoyles and 700 figures that decorate the cathedral facade!
The cathedral is open daily from 8am to 7pm.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
This is one of the oldest shopping malls in the world! It was built between 1865 and 1877, and was named after the first king of the kingdom of Italy. The covered arcade connects the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Scala. The galleria is primarily filled with luxury brand name shops.
Although we didn’t do any shopping here, we did stop for lunch.
Yes, we ate at McDonalds. By the way, we never eat at McDonalds when we’re at home. But frankly, this was day 8 in Italy, and we had grown tired of the Three Ps – pizza, pasta and panini. McDonalds is one of those saving graces on vacation. When you need a change from the local cuisine and want something familiar, find yourself a Mickey Ds. The food tastes the same anywhere you go, so there’s a built-in comfort level there.
Interestingly, in 2012, McDonalds was denied the right to renew its lease of this space. A Prada store now occupies this space.
The galleria presented particular architectural complexity due to its immense size. Looking at the glass dome covering the center of the building, one can only imagine the challenges it created for the artisans who built it!
The original castle and fortifications were built on this site in the 14th Century. Castello di Porta Giova was the main residence for the Visconti lords. The castle was destroyed in 1447 and the lords ousted by the Golden Ambrosian Republic. Sforza Castle was built on the ruins in the 15th Century.
In 1450 the senate entrusted the duchy to Francesco Sforza, who ordered the reconstruction of the castle. Below is the courtyard and the Torre del Filarete, the central tower of the castle.
The tower is a modern reconstruction, as it was damaged several times through the centuries:
In the 1500s, Italy fell under Spanish rule, and the castle became a citadel. In 1550, the castle took on this hexagonal star fort design.
The castle grounds are interesting to walk around, as they littered with various architectural and sculptural remnants.
This collection was derived from a need to preserve the city’s historical and architectural past. Unfortunately, the origins of many of these pieces have been lost.
The castle also houses several museums of art, archaeology and antiquities, which are open on Sundays but closed on Mondays.
Sforza Castle is open daily from 7am-7:30pm. The castle museums are open Tuesday-Sunday from 9am-5:30pm.
Simplon Park was created in 1888, and is adjacent to both Sforza Castle and the Arch of Peace. This is a great place to get away from the crowds, grab a gelato and just relax.
The Civic Aquarium, Civic Arena and Branca Tower are also on the park grounds. Branca Tower is a 108.6 m high tower affording panoramic views of Milan. We just enjoyed the laid-back vibe and people-watching in the park itself though.
The Arch of Peace
This triumphal arch stands roughly where an original gate once stood as part of the ancient Roman wall. The current arch was built under the rule of Napoleon in 1807. The arch marks a road that connects Milan to Paris via the Alps.
The bas-reliefs and statues are made out of several materials, including marble, wood, bronze and stucco.
So, while 5 hours may not seem like a lot in a new city, as long as there are several attractions in close proximity, you can cover a great deal of ground in a short time!