Full disclosure: Milan was not my family’s first choice of a destination in Italy. In fact, we flew to Milan because of exceptional airfare deals that were literally too good to miss. (How good? See the “Insider Travel Tip,” below). We figured we’d make a pit stop in Milan and then head elsewhere, never to think of what we assumed would be a gray, industrial city again.
We were wrong – Milan is fantastic family destination, a non-touristy (well, maybe not this summer with the World Expo taking place, but in general), walkable city with history around every corner, mouth-watering restaurants, and, of course, the most fashionable retail shops in the world.
Heading to Italy? Here are a few of my family’s Milan highlights:
* Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper – I’ve been to Italy before, and I’m a professional travel writer, and yet, I could have sworn that this masterpiece was tucked away in Florence or Rome. Nope. Right here in Milan. It easily ranks as one of the top art highlights of my life. Which is good, because it’s not easy to see. Visits are by timed ticket only, and these go on sale 3 months in advance on the web site and by phone. I did not manage to get a golden ticket, even with multiple efforts to figure out the ancient web page and even calling repeatedly.
Here’s what we did, and what I suggest to anyone visiting Milan: Book a guided tour. Although it was pricey, on our 3-hour tour, we also visited Da Vinci’s Codex sketches and had a walking tour past Roman ruins on our way to Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie, where the mural is located.
Although I wouldn’t recommend my particular guide, he did make the 15 minutes in front of the Last Supper come alive, with so much reference and background info that my son Aidan was able to refer back to it throughout our trip in Italy.
* The Duomo – A MUST VISIT in Milan. The third largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, the interior is as beautiful as you’d expect. But it’s not the interior that makes a visit here magical; it’s what’s outside. More specifically, the roof (or terraces as they’re referred to).
An escalator whisks you to the top of the Duomo (there are stairs up as well – if you have kids you’re going to want to skip that and save your energy) where you can then walk around the entire rooftop, examining statues, fretwork, and intricately carved spires for as long as your interest holds out. (Aidan spent an hour sketching the view.) Before you end, you ascend even higher up to the roof’s pinnacle, where during our stay there was a modern sculpture exhibit and a stage being set up sky-high in the clouds.
Where to Stay and Eat:
Carlton Hotel Baglioni – This boutique hotel is family owned and perfectly located, surrounded by chic shops and just a 10-minute walk to the Duomo. Although it has a sophisticated interior of polished wood and plush furnishings, the attentive staff welcomes families, and had a true single bed (not a crummy cot) already made up and waiting for Aidan in our room when we checked in, along with three robes hanging in the bathroom. The concierge pointed us to what became our favorite restaurant in Italy, made us tour reservations before we arrived, and knew us by name when we returned to the hotel a week later (yes, we booked another night so we could spend more time in marvelous Milan).
Paper Moon, tucked away on a side street near the central shopping area, this upscale trattoria is filled with a boisterous mix of businesspeople, fashionistas, and local families with their dogs, dining on elevated trattoria staples such as pappardelle with porcini mushrooms.
Princi Bakery –With four locations in Milan, including one on the same street as the Baglioni, this is a perfect stop for peckish families. It offers coffee and rich pastries in the morning, upscale squares of pizza sold by weight during the day, and in the early evenings an “apertivo” hour where for the price of a drink you also have access to a full buffet of pizza, pasta, and sandwiches. My kid fell head over heels for it — much the way the whole family fell for Milan.
Insider Travel Tip: Milan for the Price of Miami
This past April, my family of three flew to Italy for spring break for the price of what it usually costs for one cross-Atlantic ticket. I’ll save you the reading. Here’s the secret in a nutshell: UAE carriers are offering amazing deals to fly to Milan out of JFK.
Here’s how it worked for us:
Because I sign up for every travel alert and deal, my inbox is always full of special fares, but this deal made me stop in my tracks: $799 for two people, roundtrip, all-inclusive, from JFK to Milan on Emirates.
That’s $400 per person; roughly what I pay to fly to Miami during peak times. Better yet, when those fares were gone, Alitalia, which is now partially owned by Emirates competitor Etihad, matched fares, which is what my family bought. AND you can use American Express points on both airlines.
Emirates flies some of the newest planes in the sky, and is known for their attentive service, comfortable seats, and great inflight entertainment and dining. Alitalia’s reputation isn’t quite as good, but we were on a brand new plane for our 7.5 hour flight to Italy, and on a similarly modern plane on our flight home. Food was fine as was entertainment (the seats and leg room were tight, but that’s to be expected with modern flying).
Milan is currently hosting the World Expo until October 21, 2015, which makes it a popular destination for the summer. There’s still great deals to be had though; a friend I shared this tip with booked tickets in prime August travel season for $675 per person on Emirates; nearly half of what other carriers were charging. Although she needs to be in Rome, the savings allows her to rent a car (AND bring her whole family). My family also used the efficient Italian train system to spend time in Venice with our savings.