The Spell of Florence

FLORENCE, ITALY: I don’t think I need to say much about Florence…after all, Florence is Florence. It’s not only the capital of Tuscany but it’s also the capital of Renaissance art and rich culture. In fact, Florence was the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and was the most important city in Europe for couple centuries in the Middle Ages. Florentine architects from that era also invented Renaissance and neo-Classical architecture which later gained much popularity in whole Europe. Scientists and explorers like Galileo and Amerigo Vespucci are just to name some more Florence’s talented sons. This is also the city where Opera was invented. And finally, dominating artists like Leonardo and Michelangelo called Florence or Firenze their home.

Florence or Firenze in Italy by River Arno

Florence or Firenze in Italy by River Arno

Located in Italy’s irresistible region Toscana (or Tuscany) and by romantic Arno River, Florence is a city with endless enchantment sites and timeless tranquility. It’s not easy to escape the spell of Florence when you are surrounded by such astonishing culture. It is one of those places that offers too much to its visitors and one of those cities that is sophisticated with very down to earth mood. When you enter Florence, you enter the Renaissance time…that connection with time is made instantly and involuntarily. It’s hard not to wander off and be distracted with Florence’s mesmerizing history and atmosphere.

Florence can be a great point to start off your Tuscan journey or it can be a perfect base to tour around this region. Making day trip to Pisa, Siena, San Gimignano, or other close by towns are very easy if you have your own car or if you take help of public transportations. Old part of Florence has several parking garage surrounding its city center and closer to the main sites. We parked our car in Garage Giglio where we kept our car for the whole day for a reasonable amount of fee.

Piazza della Signoria - one of the most energetic squares of Florence in Italy

Piazza della Signoria – one of the most energetic squares of Florence in Italy

TIME of TRAVEL: It was our second time visiting Florence. First time we were in Tuscany was in February of 2012. Winter was bad in whole Europe that year, even in Tuscany, which was very rare. It was not really enjoyable walking in below freezing temperature for us. During our next visit in October of 2013, the weather was perfect and the summer tourists were almost gone. We still carried a light sweater for the evenings, but walking under the sun during day time was pleasant.

OUR HOTEL: First time we were in Florence, our hotel was Hotel Castri in Piazza del Independenza. It was conveniently located within walking distance from Florence Duomo and all the other attractions. Second time, we stayed in “My One Hotel in Radda” for the whole time in Tuscany. It’s located in the hills of Chianti…a place which is not only famous for its wine, but also for its art, history, natural beauty, and simplicity. This was a 4 or 5 star resort. We had free grand breakfast buffet, spacious room, clean linens, and excellent customer service. But above all of those, the best part of it is the view from our balcony or from the hotel terrace. Standing on the upper terrace one early morning, I got the perfect glimpse of Tuscan hills and trees hugging the autumn clouds…it was a breathtaking feeling. I felt like I didn’t need to get out, I could have just sit in my hotel balcony all day and enjoy Tuscany right from there. Florence was about an hour drive from our hotel in Radda in Chianti.

View Chianti from our hotel terrace in Radda in Chianti, Italy

View Chianti from our hotel terrace in Radda in Chianti, Italy

EATING and SHOPPING: When in Florence, you would want to try almost everything from street food to fine Italian gourmet cuisines. If you are yearning for something extraordinary, treat yourself in a dinner theater with good food and good time. Visitors don’t have hard time finding a place that will serve delicious food with local colors, aromas, and flavorings. Don’t forget to enjoy some gelato afterwards or stop at local bakeries for divine Italian desserts.

You will never regret buying anything like honey, trendy jewelries, and leather boots from Florence. All the pasta packets, olive oil bottles, leather goods, brand name shops, ceramics, potteries, scarves, shawls, and jewelries got me over excited for some little shopping in Florence.

Purse vendors in Florence, Italy

Purse vendors in Florence, Italy

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: It was the second time we were in Florence. First time we visited few medieval churches and piazzas mostly. Second time we visited more churches, and other sites. But Florence is a city where you can spend weeks visiting museums and still be longing for more. Its churches are stuffed with some of the finest arts in the world and the art galleries are packed with brilliant paintings and most famous pictures. While Uffizi Museum is probably the best one to visit, many basilicas, medieval churches, artistic fountains, art galleries from different eras, outdoor markets, more than 80 museums, numerous historic buildings and palaces, public parks, and finally relaxing piazzas can keep any visitor busy for a long…long time. Walking along River Arno or crossing any of its bridges can be nice if you have some extra time. If you are in a tight schedule, best thing is to pick up a map from your hotel or a local store, see which sites interest you the most, and plan your trip accordingly.

Walking by River Arno in Florence, Italy

Walking by River Arno in Florence, Italy

We explored Florence mostly on foot without using any public transportations. It was a bit exhausting but we got to see more of the city that way. It’s always better to park your car outside the historic center and take on from there.

1) BASILICA SANTA MARIA NOVELLO: After parking our car, we crossed a big road to come to this bold edifice. This bigger version of an original church begun in 1279. Its internal structure resembles that of Cistercian Gothic churches. The major 14th-century decorative schemes date from the years after the Plague of 1348. Among many beautiful frescoes in this basilica “Last Judgement Hell”, “Paradise”, “Trinity with the Madonna, “Scenes from the life of Noah” are to name some and most of these frescoes are from the 14th and 15th Also, look for the fresco “The Passion and Resurrection of Christ” from 1367. Some of this basilica’s key attractions are its high ceiling, many over-sized medieval paintings and artworks, tombs of some famous Florentine sculptors and bishops.

 

Basilica Santa Maria Novello in Florence, Italy

Basilica Santa Maria Novello in Florence, Italy

Don’t forget to spend some time in its cloister, few courtyards with old paintings, tombs, and museums which are beside the main church. Chapterhouse from 1355 is also accessible to the tourists. The square in front of the basilica, Piazza Santa Maria Novello, is a tourist-packed center with hundreds of pigeons.

 

Main altar of Basilica Santa Maria Novello in Florence, Italy

Main altar of Basilica Santa Maria Novello in Florence, Italy

The church is open until 5 pm everyday. Guided tours are available Saturday, Sunday, and Monday at 2pm and 3:30pm. Ticket is 5 euros for anyone above 8 years.

2) BASILICA di SAN LORENZO: Basilica di San Lorenzo is known to be the first cathedral of Florence from 393 A.D. and another haven for Renaissance neo-Classical splendor including few Michelangelo sculptures.

San Lorenzo was consecrated in the year of 393 by St. Ambrose of Milan. Rebuilt in the 11th century, it was completely restructured in 1418 and finished in 1461. Michelangelo’s New Sacristy can be reached through the Chapel of the Princes. Don’t forget to pay a visit to the 15th– century cloister. This is a big basilica with beautiful golden and white ceiling, nice artworks, gorgeous dome, and frescoes from the 15th century. Donatello’s last work of art, the bronze pulpit from 1465, is a must-see treasure here.

Inside Basilica de San Lorenzo in Florence, Italy

Inside Basilica de San Lorenzo in Florence, Italy

The basilica is open from Monday to Saturday from 10 – 5pm. Entrance was 4.50 euros per adult and free for anyone 8 years or below. The ticket includes church, cloister, and museum. Library beside the basilica needs separate ticket. Audio tour costs extra but worth it. Photography isn’t allowed inside San Lorenzo. Once you are out of the church, indulge yourself in the leather stores for jacket, purses, boots, and etc.

3) CATHEDRAL di SANTA MARIA del FIORE or FLORENCE DUOMO: Duomo di Firenze in Piazza del Duomo is the iconic landmark of Florence and number one attractions for any visitor. The Renaissance dome of it is the third largest in the world and dominates Florence’s skyline. The construction started back in the 1200s. An excavation from 1965 shed some light to the ancient basilica of Santa Reparata which today can be visited more than two and a half meters below the floor of Santa Maria del Fiore.

If you ask me, Florence Duomo has a grand interior like many other cathedrals in Europe, but may be not as fabulous as its outer appearance. Its signature stripes all over the outer wall instantly catch everyone’s attention. Inside the basilica, the frescoes on the main dome and its marble floor are elegant and fiery. Be sure to visit its crypt which is an important archeological site in Florence.

Magnificent edifice of Florence Duomo in Florence, Italy

Magnificent edifice of Florence Duomo in Florence, Italy

Although we didn’t do it, climbing the Dome of this cathedral or Giotto’s Bell Tower offers some spectacular views of the city with a small fee. Just keep in mind that you have to climb 414 steps to get there and there is no lift. In front of the dome, in Piazza San Giovanni, is the medieval Baptistery which is famous for its bronze doors from the 14th century. Decorations for both of these buildings are examples of transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

It is free to enter the cathedral itself, have to pay extra to visit the dome, tower, Baptistery, or the museum. Audio tour is highly recommended and costs only few euros.

4) CHURCH of ORSANMICHELE: Another of Florence’s old church is Orsanmichele. The origins of this building go back to the 8th century but was demolished in 1239. The present look is from 1337 and the image of Madonna and Child which gained much attention those days is from 1346. It is a small church with gorgeous interior and exterior. No photos are allowed inside the church, but it is free to enter and look around.

5) PONTE VECCHIO: Surrounded by the ultimate grandeur Ponte Vecchio is the oldest and most famous bridge over River Arno. It’s a pedestrian bridge with beautiful views of River Arno on the both sides, if you can manage to see the river over the countless jewelry stores and tourists.

 

Ponte Vecchio over River Arno in Florence, Italy

Ponte Vecchio over River Arno in Florence, Italy

This bridge was probably the successor of an ancient Roman bridge that, some believe, was a bit further upstream. The first mention of the bridge dates from 996 A.D. It was ruined by floods several times, especially the collapses from 1117 and 1333. Finally in 1345, it was rebuilt so sturdily that it has survived to the present intact. The bridge belonged to the Woolmakers’ Guild, butchers, and green grocers until the end of the 16th century when the Grand Duke Ferdinando I ordered that they be taken over by gold and silversmiths which it continues even today.

Standing on Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy

Standing on Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy

The uniqueness of this bridge come from the small, projecting shop windows featuring jewelry with their old-fashioned shutters and doors. This was the only Florentine bridge that survived WWII bombing raids, but the two areas at either end were destroyed.

6) SANTA CROCE: Santa Croce is one of the finest Gothic churches in whole Italy and a must-see in Florence. It shelters numerous masterpieces, like 14th century Florentine paintings, 15th century sculptures, and funeral monuments of great Italians.

Santa Croce in Florence, Italy - the final resting place for Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, and many more Florentines

Santa Croce in Florence, Italy – the final resting place for Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, and many more Florentines

The present basilica was built in 1295 on the site where the first Franciscan friars to arrive in Florence had a small oratory. Upon entering this Florentine Gothic style basilica, the attention immediately is drawn towards the stained glass windows piercing the walls. One of the fundamental features of early Franciscan style that this basilica carries is the frescoed narration including stories of Christ, St. Francis, and other saints. The carved Renaissance pulpit from 1475, with Scenes from the Life of St. Francis, is one of the most beautiful in Florence. Of the great 14th century Florentine frescoes survived ‘til today and can be seen in Santa Croce. Some of the 14th century paintings can also be seen inside this basilica. Pazzi Chapel from 1429 is a great example of harmonious building of the Florentine Renaissance. Other Renaissance architecture and works include Annunciation and Crucifix – both by Donatello and Madonna of the Milk by Antonio Rossellino. The Statue of Liberty that illuminates New York with her torch, has a precursor in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. But this Florentine statue represents The Liberty of Poetry, and thus the freedom of art and of creative genius in general.

 

Inside Santa Croce in Florence, Italy

Inside Santa Croce in Florence, Italy

It is significant that Santa Croce, which was to become the resting place of so many great Italians, has the first truly Renaissance funerary monument in Italy. Sepulchers and memorial tombs include many notable Italians like Leonardo Bruni, Chancellor of the Republic Rossellino, Galileo Galilee, Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo, and so many others.

 

In the courtyard of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy

In the courtyard of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy

During our visit the altar of Santa Croce was under renovation. The church museum and many of Santa Croce’s chapels house countless centuries-old artifacts. The attached cloister is magnificent to tour also and the plaza right in front of Santa Croce is a bustling section of Florence.

The basilica is open from 9:30am to 5:30pm from Monday to Saturday. 6 euros entrance fee gives you access to all the areas of the complex.

7) PALAZZAO VECCHIO: This used to be the City Hall of Florence at one point. With its gorgeously adorned exterior, a replica of Michelangelo’s David stands outside by the main façade. Also known as Palazzo della Signoria, Palazzo Vecchio is a sleepy beauty with aristocratic homes and many fashionable apartments in Piazza della Signoria. This place exhibits some of the greatest pieces of art of all time and many important collection of Renaissance paintings, sculptures, and arts. You will see sculptures by Verrocchio – a Florentine artist and sculptor who was much appreciated by the powerful Medici family. The ceilings, hallways, and old furniture in each section are something to admire. You will find many old maps in the archive too.

Entrance of Palazzo Vecchio  in Florence, Italy

Entrance of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy

The Palazzo is open until midnight and charges 10 euros per adult. It didn’t take us more than an hour for the whole palazzo. One thing to keep in mind is that every information here is in Italian, so may be getting an audio-tour would be helpful.

 

One of the grand rooms of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy

One of the grand rooms of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy

The piazza itself is a big place to hang around while enjoying few statues, fountains, and old buildings. Day or night, this place can be a nice spot to relax or stroll.

8) PIAZZA della REPUBLICA: This was one of many piazzas of Florence and a beautiful one too. We were there around evening, after visiting all the above places. While my girls hopped on to the merry-go-round, I went around the square to enjoy some live music. There is a big arch/gate at one side of the square. I found many cafes, restaurants, and shops where I only wish I could spend hours…only if I had that much of time.

 

Piazza della Republica at night in Florence, Italy

Piazza della Republica at night in Florence, Italy

 

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Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

We were lucky enough to get many chances of visiting Amsterdam from time to time. Different times we visited different sections of this city. Last time we were in Amsterdam was when we took Baltic Sea cruise in August of 2013. Our ship was docked near the city for few hours and we managed to visit only this museum which I’ve been longing for quite a while.

Van Gogh Museum is a must see when in Amsterdam, even if you are not into arts and paintings. It has the largest collections of world-famous Dutch artist Van Gogh’s many early works and iconic well-known paintings which he painted before his death. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see his famous “Starry Night” here (it’s in a museum in New York), but some of his other famous works, such as “Almond Blossom”, “The Potato Eaters“, “Sunflowers”, and many others are hanging in this museum walls of Amsterdam.

Last self-portrait by Van Gogh painted in 1888 in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Last self-portrait by Van Gogh painted in 1888 in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
      

To give you a little bio on this famous artist of all time, Van Gogh was born in 1853 and was only active as an artist for 10 years, from 1880 until his death in 1890. In those 10 years he produced about 800 paintings and more than 1000 drawings, as well as large number of watercolors, lithographs, and sketches in hundreds of letters that he wrote to his brother, Theo. He was a self-taught painter with few art lessons from Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium. His dramatic life story, unhappy romances, apparent lack of recognition, illness, and finally his attempt of suicide are some of the events that were great deal of interests after his death, as well as his exceptional use of colors and characteristic brushworks.

"The Potato Eaters" by Van Gogh from 1885 in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
“The Potato Eaters” by Van Gogh from 1885 in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
     

It’s a very organized museum with information written both in Dutch and English. It’s a wonderful place to get to know Van Gogh up close and personal. His depressed life, incomplete education, what inspired him, love and relationships, and finally why he was dead at such an early age…all are portrayed here in a very nice sequential way.

Another famous painting by Van Gogh "Almond Blossom" from 1890 in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Another famous painting by Van Gogh “Almond Blossom” from 1890 in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
     

The museum is located in Museumplein near the city center of Amsterdam where you will find many other different types of museums. Our taxi charged 20 euros for one way from Amsterdam cruise port to the museum. It’s open daily from 9 am – 6 pm. Be ready to stand in the ticket line for a LONG time. We were standing there about half and fifteen minutes, even those who bought tickets online were moving like sloths. Ticket is 15 euros per adult and kids visiting below 17 years are free.

Dusseldorf, Germany

DUSSELDORF, GERMANY: Düsseldorf is another Rhenish city of Germany situated by River Rhine. This is a Mecca for arts, culture, and shopping. Just enjoy, relax, and go for a stroll by the river or get lost in the windy streets of old town. Promenade is the trendy place to look over the pretty water body. Visit Gehry buildings in Media Harbor to see some masterpiece transparent architectures with bold curves and cubes.

Old town of Dusseldorf, Germany
Old town of Düsseldorf, Germany
   

This makes a great day trip from cities like Cologne, Bonn, or Frankfurt. The city is known for its bustling night life, many events/fairs, and fine shopping experiences.

TIME of TRAVELING: We took a mini-Germany trip in a long-weekend of May, 2013. My aunt was here with us from Baltimore, MD. Düsseldorf was our first city to visit in this trip, later we visited Bonn, Frankfurt, and Heidelberg. Luckily that day turned out to be a nice one with some sun shine and without black clouds. Düsseldorf is only a little more than 2 hours of drive from Tervuren, Belgium…so close, but never made it there in the last 2 years of our stay in Europe.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed about 15 minutes walking distance from the old town. It was called A&O Hotel/Hostel. It was like a in between a hotel and a hostel. But the setting was really except my aunt complained that she had hard time sleeping for too much outside noise. It didn’t have breakfast or free Wi-Fi in the room, nor a restaurant in the building. It looked like a place for the young travelers with pool table and some other activities in the lobby. Our room was nice and clean with moderate space.

EATING and SHOPPING: Old town is definitely a great place for meals or drinks, especially area around Schneider-Wibbel-Gasse. We didn’t sit down for anything here, was only drooling by looking at those . Same with shopping, old town had many boutiques and unique stores. Koningsallee is another perfect place for shopping if you have few hundreds of euros to spare in your pockets…it’s the fashion district of Düsseldorf with many upper-class exclusive shops.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: I wouldn’t stay all the attractions in Düsseldorf are within walking distance. If you are into just old town, like us, then it’s all good. But other sites are scattered all around the city. We only had a day to spend here. It wasn’t enough but we only concentrated on the old town this time which was a fantastic experience.

Walking towards the old town of Dusseldorf, Germany.
Walking towards the old town of Düsseldorf, Germany
    

1) OLD TOWN: The old town of Düsseldorf was heavily destroyed during WWII and was later rebuilt according to the original plan. Therefore, the old district looks historic but with a hint of new attitude.  For the tourists, don’t forget to look around and check every corner for beautiful buildings, statues, and street performers. This place has many small alleys which are loaded with tons of shops, cafes, restaurants, and pubs. Düsseldorf old town is very big compared to many other old towns in Europe. You can spend hours just wandering around in its cobblestone alleys eating, shopping, or just getting lost.

A statue, known as "Conflict", in the old town of Dusseldorf, Germany
A statue, known as “Conflict”, in the old town of Düsseldorf, Germany
            

2) ST. ANDREAS CHURCH: This was our first stop in the old town. It wasn’t in our to-see list. It was free to enter, so we just took a chance of going inside. This Renaissance style church was founded in 1629. Interior is pleasantly decorated with all whites.

3) SCHNEIDER-WIBBEL-GASSE: This is a small lane in the old town which is packed with restaurants and bars. All the old buildings here were turned into restaurants, most of which offer Spanish or Latino food. Looks like the cool crowd of Düsseldorf love to gather here for fun…absolutely the best place for meal.

Schneider-Wibbel-Gasse in Dusseldorf, Germany
Schneider-Wibbel-Gasse in Düsseldorf, Germany
                  

4) CASTLE TOWER in BURGPLATZ , CARTWHEELERS’ FOUNTAIN, and CITY MONUMENT: Burgplatz or Castle Square is a big and lively square near St. Lambertus Basilica in the old town next to River Rhine. Once there stood a Baroque castle which was burned down in the late 19th century leaving a tower behind intact. Castle Tower or Schlossturm, now a navigation museum, is located in one side of the square.

Castle Tower or Schlossturm in Burgplatz of Dusseldorf, Germany
Castle Tower or Schlossturm in Burgplatz of Düsseldorf, Germany
                             

Cartwheeling is a popular activity among the young crowds here…they even have annual competitions of this “sport” in Düsseldorf. There is a Cartwheeler’s Fountain in Burgplatz which is about a little boy cartwheeling while another one watching him.

Cartwheeling statue in Burgplatz of Dusseldorf, Germany
Cartwheeling statue in Burgplatz of Düsseldorf, Germany
                            

City Monument at Burgplatz, near St. Lambertus Basilica, was a donation on the occasion of the 700th anniversary of town foundation. The monument is full of symbols and depicts some important histories of the city. Right beside the monument is a small river, Northern Dussel, which gave the city its name.

5) ST. LAMBERTUS BASILICA in STIFTSPLATZ: Stiftplatz is a calm and warm square that houses some nice old buildings and couple of cafes. Walk a bit further and you will see the Lower Rhine Gothic style St. Lambertus Basilica with its brick exterior and soaring tower. The basilica has some uniquely pattered stained-glass windows with elegant interior decorations. This is probably the oldest building in Düsseldorf, dating back to 1159 or even further back.

St. Lambertus Basilica in Stiftsplatz in Dusseldorf, Germany
St. Lambertus Basilica in Stiftsplatz in Düsseldorf, Germany
                                  

6) PROMENADE by RIVER RHINE: Promenade by River Rhine near old town is one of the most beautiful promenades in whole of Germany and a wonderful place to spend late afternoon. This is a long stretch of pathway…nice for a short walk. It offers an amazing view of the river, bridges, and Rhine Tower. This was our last spot in Düsseldorf. Sitting on the green grass by the river bank watching local crowds was a perfect way to end the day.

Rhine Tower and Promenade by River Rhine in Dusseldorf, Germany
Rhine Tower and Promenade by River Rhine in Düsseldorf, Germany
                         

7) MARKTPLATZ, CITY HALL (RATHAUS), and STATUE of JOHANN WILHELMS II: Marktplatz is located next to Burgplatz in the old town but not as lively as Burgplatz. The square houses the historic city hall of Düsseldorf from the 16th century. There is a guided tour available few times a week which we didn’t take.

Dusseldorf City Hall (Rathaus) in Marktplatz
Düsseldorf City Hall (Rathaus) in Marktplatz
                

Marktplatz is dominated by a monument of Johann Wilhems II (1658 – 1716) on horseback in front of the city hall. He is a beloved son of Düsseldorf who boosted the development of the city. The monument was raised in 1711.

8) KONINGSALLEE: This is the “Champs-Elysees of Germany” as some people refer this street to which is the shopping district of the city with high-end fashion stores (like Burberry, Armani, Tiffany, and Louis Vuitton etc.), many brand names shops, and few mid-range places… I am sure you can find something within your budget. Even if you don’t buy anything this street is a very nice one for taking a stroll by a small river. At one end of it has an entrance to the old town.

A lake/river by Koningsallee in Dusseldorf, Germany
A small river by Koningsallee in Düsseldorf, Germany
            

M for Milan…

MILAN, ITALY: I love going to Italy again and again, no matter which city or village or region. My idea of Milan didn’t really match with the actual city. Whenever I think of an Italian city, I imagine something very down to earth with lots and lots of history here and there. To my surprise, Milan is actually a very thriving cosmopolitan city with big financial districts, large urban and metropolitan areas, big brand names, and a true shopping paradise. Of course, Milan has its history too (may be not as visible as Rome) but the city strives to give you more of earthy pleasure like shopping, night-life, music, and entertainment than taking you back to ancient times.

Galleria Emanuele Vittorio II in Piazza del Duomo, Milan

 

TIME OF TRAVELLING: We flew to Milan around mid-June of 2012 from Brussels. The flight was only little more than an hour. Although it was 85 degrees outside and we were sweating like anything, it felt awesome just to be there with my family. My 6 years old daughter was complaining left and right about the heat, so we had to keep her happy by giving lots and lots of gelatos, popsicles, and cold juices.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Idea Hotel Milano Lorenteggio in Milan. It didn’t have free Wi-Fi but had free breakfast with great customer service, just don’t eat in their restaurant…all the dishes were way too salty. The location of the hotel was not that great, kinda far from the main attractions. The good part was that we used to take Bus 50 from other side of the street and that would take us right to the Castello Sforzesco in about 25 minutes.

WHAT TO EAT AND BUY IN MILAN: Other than Italian pizzeria and pasta, gelato bars are everywhere and in every corner in Milan. My husband and I had something called “Pizzarella”, which is a deep-fried pizza with tomato sauce and cheese inside a huge shell of dough. Last day in Milan, I tried a pineapple flavored gelato in a real pineapple shell and my daughter tried a lemon gelato inside a lemon for 6 euros each. They tasted like regular yummy gelato but just had a prettier face 🙂

Pineapple gelato in a shell of real pineapple

 

PLACES WE VISITED: We had 2 full days to explore Milan. I shouldn’t say it is enough if you want to visit every museum of the city.  Milan is like Rome in a sense that most of the tourist attractions are very spread out and you have to walk a lot in order to cover most of the popular spots. If you a big fan of Inter Milan or AC Milan soccer team, then taking a trip to their home ground San Siro may not be a bad idea. Followings are the places we visited during our stay.

A 16th century painting inside ‘Santa Maria delle Grazie

 

1) THE DUOMO (DUOMO di MILANO) & PIAZZA del DUOMO: This has to be the spot to hit if you have only half a day or a day to spend in Milan. This overly majestic cathedral with many spires stands facing Piazza del Duomo with Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in one side and the old Royal Palace (which now is a museum) on the other. Construction of this breathtaking edifice started in late 14th century and took nearly 6 centuries to finish. The main spire, built in 1769, is 109 meters high and has on top a golden laminated statue of Madonna. This is the 4th largest cathedral in the world and the largest one in Italy. Its eye-catching façade and gothic exterior with thousands of statues makes it the symbol of Milan.

The main facade of Duomo di Milano

Interior of Duomo is remarkably beautiful and it will make your jaw drop with its gigantic size pillars, thousands of statues, old mosaic floor, beautiful paintings, and fine-detailed stained-glass windows. After I entered the cathedral, it totally made sense why it took 6 centuries to build this magnificently ornate structure.

Inside Duomo di Milano

 

There is no fee to enter the cathedral. It is forbidden to take pictures inside, but everyone was taking pictures and no one really stopped them from doing so. Don’t forget to go downstairs to see an old chapel and tomb of a saint whose name I can’t remember now. And the best part of it is that you can go on top of the roof for a marvelous panoramic view of Milan between those gothic spires. You can either walk 250 steps for 7 euros person or take an elevator for 12 euros and free for 15 years or under. It will be a crime if you miss this chance.

Spires on the roof of Duomo di Milano

 

2) GALLERIA VITTORIO EMANUELE II: This is located right beside the Duomo in Piazza del Duomo that has Piazza della Scala on the other end. The two main entrances are marked by imposing triumphal arches. This is considered as one of the most representative architectural accomplishments of the city. Even if you don’t buy anything from this EXPENSSIVE shopping arcade, be sure to visit it anyway to experience this splendid 19th century mall. The arcade is decorated with stunning mosaic floor, arching glass and glazed cast iron roof (very similar to St. Hubert Gallery in Brussels, just a bigger version), and of course with big fashion names like Prada and Louis Vuitton.

Inside the mother of all shopping mall Galleria Emanuale Vittorio II in Milan, Italy

 

3) VIA DANTE: This is a famous and grand shopping street of Milan. This is a long and lively pedestrian avenue with many high-class brand-name stores along and local boutique shops along with many cafes and restaurants. When we went the street was decorated with flags of different countries for upcoming Milan Expo.  Via Dante stretches from Piazza del Duomo to a big round-about near Castella Sforzesca. If you are planning to have meal here, make sure to check the price before ordering something. We had our lunch all the way at the end of Via Dante that’s facing the Duomo. We ended up paying 10 euros for 1 glass of coke and 26 euros for 2 glasses of apple juice that were ordered for our daughters.

Milan’s fashion street Via Dante

 

4) PIAZZA della SCALA: This is rather a small yet impressive square on the other side of Galleria Vittorio Emanuel. A statue of Leonardo da Vinci was erected in this square in 1872 to honor this multi-talented man who was not only a painter, but also was master in sculpting, engineering, and architecture. Behind this statue is Palazzo Marino, which has been Milan’s City Hall (Citta Di Milano) since 1861. Facing the city hall is the most famous building in this square is Teatro alla Scala. Not sure how it looks inside this opera house, but outside didn’t really impress me much. But this is one of the most renowned opera houses in the world that dates back to 1778.

Statue of Leonardo da Vinci and his 4 favorite students in 4 corners in Piazza della Scala, Milan

 

5) THE SFORZESCO CASTLE (CASTELLO SFORZESCO): This is a 14th century castle that once used to be the seat and residence of the Duchy of Milan. The castle was heavily damaged in 1943 during WWII and was later reconstructed by the city. There is no fee to enter its huge courtyard, where Ducal Court (Corte Ducale) and The Tower of Bona of Savoy stand. Presently, the castle houses several different types of museums and art collections, like Egyptian art, fine arts, applied arts, ancient art, and many more. Museums are open from 7-6pm everyday and closed on Monday. This is located very close to the last station of Bus # 50 (Cairoli) and situated in between Sempione Park and Via Dante.

Courtyard of Castello Sforzesco in Milan

 

6) SAINT MARY of the GRACES (‘SANTA MARIA delle GRAZIE’): This is another must-see in Milan. The church is well-known for housing Leonardo da Vinci’s undoubtedly one of the most famous paintings “Last Supper” (1494-1498). It is a UNESCO World Heritage site as it represents a unique masterpiece of man’s creative genius. It’s best to reserve the ticket (about 8 euros per person) couple months in advance to experience this truly marvelous piece of work, which can be done by phone or online. This mural (which came to me as a shock, since I always thought it was done on a canvas) is located in a temperature and humidity controlled room along with another famous painting, The Crucifixion, from 1495 by a Milanese painter Giovanni Donato da Montarfano. The painting was done with the city of Jerusalem in the background. According to tradition, the initial and final episodes of the Passion of Christ are represented in the Refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie with Last Supper on the north wall and The Crucifixion on the south.  Another interesting fact about Last Supper is that Leonardo da Vinci tried to capture the shock and emotion (body posture, hand movements, and facial expressions) of the apostles after Jesus pronounced “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” During WWII this whole building was badly bombed, fortunately, keeping both the wall of Last Supper (thanks to the protection put in place at the beginning of the war and prompt reconstruction work) and The Crucifixion intact with some light damage. Then from 1978-1999 the painting went through a heavy restoration process that took about 20 years to finish. Too bad we weren’t allowed to take picture inside the Refectory, but it will surely stay in mind forever.

A replica of Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci outside the Refectory, which houses the original version in Milan

 

The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is a historical site itself. It was built in Lombard gothic style between the years of 1463-1482. The scars of bombardment from 1943 are still visible in the church. Its marble floor, beautifully designed ceiling are very nice. Even though the interior is rather simple, but it has some great collections of paintings from the 16th century. The good part is that the fascinating history of each painting is written in English for your knowledge. There is no entrance fee for the church, but it opens and closes few times a day…you just have to check out the time outside the church and see which one suits you the best.

‘Santa Maria delle Grazi in Milan, Italy

 

7) SAINT AMBROSE (BASILICA di SANT’ AMBROGIO): This is an old, beautiful, and big Byzantic/Romanic church in the older part of Milan. This was founded by the Bishop Ambrose between 379 and 386 A.D. His body is laid on the small chapel under the high alter. The basilica houses some unusual and precious art objects. The outer courtyard is very clam and quiet which is decorated with many original tablets and wall pieces. History of this basilica is also displayed here in English.

Courtyard of Basilica di Sant’ Ambrogio in Milan, Italy
 

8) SEMPIONE PARK and ARCH OF PEACE (ARCO della PACE):Sempione Park is a big open space of green land right behind Sforzesco Castle. It is very popular among the locals for hanging out or having picnics. At one end of this park, in Piazza Sempione, stands a neo-Classical monument called Arco della Pace or Arch of Peace. What was originally to have been a “Victory Arch” celebrating Napoleon’s imperial accomplishments was later restyled “Arch of Peace” to mark the end of a period of blood wars in Europe. The arch is only 10 minutes of walk from the castle, great if you want to take a stroll through the park and visit this historical arch on the other side. There is a memorial behind the basilica called Tempio della Vittoria that comemorates Milan’s war dead.

Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace) in Sempione Park, Milan

 

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