Milan and Lake Como

No trip to Italy is complete without Milan and Lake Como. In Milan we'll take a peek at Italy's highest fashion, fanciest delis, grandest cemetery, and greatest opera house…not to mention Leonardo's Last Supper. Then we'll cruise along Lake Como, settling down in the lakeside village of Varenna…classic honeymoon country, where Italy meets the Alps.

Travel Details

Milan's Monumental Cemetery

Europe's most artistic and dreamy cemetery experience, this grand place was built just after unification to provide a suitable final resting spot for the city's "famous and well-deserving men" (free, closed Mon, ride Metro purple line 5 to Monumentale, tel. +39 02-8846-5600).

Peck Deli

Peck is an aristocratic deli with a pricey gourmet grocery, rosticceria, and pastry/gelato shop on the main level; a fancy restaurant upstairs; and an expensive enoteca wine cellar in the basement. Even if all you can afford is the aroma, peek in. Check out the classic circa-1930 salami slicers and the gourmet assembly line in the kitchen in the back. The rosticceria serves delectable fancy food to go for a superb picnic dinner.

The Last Supper

Decorating the former dining hall (cenacolo) of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, this remarkable, exactingly crafted fresco by Leonardo da Vinci is one of the ultimate masterpieces of the Renaissance. Reservations are mandatory and should be booked three months in advance, either online or by phone (from the US dial 011-39-02-9280-0360, office open Mon–Sat 8:00–18:30, closed Sun; the number is often busy — once you get through, select 2 for an English-speaking operator). If you can't get a reservation, you can book a more expensive walking or bus tour that includes a guided visit to The Last Supper; both Veditalia and City Wonders have good guides and solid reputations. Ideally book these at least a week in advance, but it's worth a try at the last minute, too. (And Last Supper visits can't be reserved ahead for the first Sunday of the month, when admission is free — show up in person by 8:00 to reserve a time slot for later that day.)

La Scala Opera House and Museum

Milan's famous Teatro alla Scala opened in 1778 with an opera by Antonio Salieri (Mozart's wannabe rival). Today, opera buffs can get a glimpse of the theater and tour the adjacent museum's extensive collection. The opera house also hosts ballet and classical concerts. There are performances in every month except August, and show time usually is at 20:00. While tourists are usually keen on seeing an opera in La Scala, note that many of the performances are actually in a second hall, the Arcimboldi Theater.

Risorgimento Museum

With a quick 30-minute swing through this quiet one-floor museum, you'll get an idea of the interesting story of Italy's rocky road to unity: from Napoleon (1796) to the victory in Rome (1870). You'll see paintings, uniforms, monuments, a city model, and other artifacts. But limited English makes this best left to people already familiar with this important period of Italian history.


See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

Hi I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're in north Italy — enjoying the lofty and inspiring heights of...Milano. Thanks for joining us.

Many tourists come to Italy because of its past. But Milano is today's Italy, and no Italian trip is complete without visiting this city. While overlooked by many, Milano has plenty to see and is a joy to visit.

In Milano we'll soar on the rooftop of one of Europe's grandest Gothic cathedrals, window shop in Milan's fashionable neighborhoods, visit the world's most famous opera house and admire a Leonardo masterpiece before relaxing in the 19th century charm of Lake Como.

Italy hosts millions of visitors every year. But many miss the highlights of the north. In this progam we tour Milano and side trip into the Lake District exploring my favorite — Lake Como — specifically the towns of Varenna and Bellagio.

They say that for every church in Rome, there's a bank in Milan. Italy's second city and the capital of region of Lombardy, Milano is a hardworking, fashion-conscious, time-is-money city of nearly a million and a half.

And the city is a fascinating melting pot of people and history. Italy recently surpassed Britain in per capita income and that didn't happen because of its cute Riviera ports and Tuscan hilltowns. The economic success of modern Italy is driven by this city of publicists and pasta power lunches. Milan is Italy's industrial, banking, publishing, and convention capital.

As if making up for its blocky architecture, its people are works of art. Milan is an international fashion center with a refined taste. Window displays are gorgeous. Yet, thankfully, Milan is no more expensive for tourists than other Italian cities.

The importance of Milano is nothing new. Three hundred years before Christ, the Romans called this place Mediolanum, or "the central place." By the fourth century AD, it was the capital of the western half of the Roman Empire. It was from here that Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity in the year 313.

After struggling through the early middle ages, Milan rose to prominence under the powerful Visconti and Sforza families. By the time of the Renaissance, the city was called "the New Athens" and was enough of a cultural center for Leonardo da Vinci to call home.

And then came four centuries of foreign domination: Spain, Austria, France, and more Austria. In the 19th century, Milano became a center of revolution against Austrian rule and then helped spearhead the movement for Italian independence and unification.

In the 20th century, Mussolini left a heavy fascist touch on Milan's architecture. Il Duce, himself, made grandiose speeches from these balconies.

And Milan's immense train station thunders fascism. Every time I pass through I imagine the rush the fascists must have felt on the day in 1931 when the grand renovations of this station were unveiled. It's designed to make you feel small...too small to question Mussolini and his government's right wing agenda.

Mussolini's excesses also led to the bombing of Milan in World War II. But Milan rose again. The 1959 Pirelli Tower was a trendsetter. Today, Milan is dynamic and a commercial powerhouse.

The city's centerpiece is its magnificent Duomo or cathedral...the fourth-largest in Europe.

Back in the 14th century when Europe was fragmented into countless little independent states, the dukes of Milan wanted to impress their German and French counterparts. To earn their respect they built this huge and richly ornamented cathedral.

Even though the Renaissance style — with its domes and rounded arches — was in vogue elsewhere in Italy, conservative Milano stuck with the Gothic style. The dukes — thinking northerners would relate better to Gothic — loaded it with pointed spires and arches. And everything's made of marble.

The statues on the tips of the many spires seem so relaxed — like they're just hanging out, waiting for their big day. The fanciful gargoyles, functioning as drain spouts, are especially imaginative. The church is a good example of the flamboyant, or "flame like," overdone final stage of Gothic.

Step inside and you're struck by the immensity of the place. The soaring ceiling is supported by sequoia-sized pillars. Started in 1386 and not finished until 1810, this construction project originated the phrase Italians use to say "never-ending": "like building a cathedral."

Much of the brilliantly colored stained glass dates from about 1500. So does the fine inlaid marble floor. After 500 years of wear, you can tell that the black marble is harder then the rest. A grotesque 16th-century statue of St. Bartolomeo, a martyr skinned alive by the Romans, wears his skin like a robe. You can actually see his limp feet, and dangling face. It was sculpted by a student of Leonardo, who picked up his master's passion for human anatomy.

Cap your visit with a trip to the rooftop. Walking through its forest of pinnacles and statues you enjoy great views of the church's statuary as well as of the city. And, crowning the cathedral, a golden Virgin Mary overlooks the city. La Madonnina, as she's called, is an icon of Milano.

Milan's main square is a classic European scene and a popular local gathering point. The statue is Victor Emmanuel II, first king of Italy. He's looking at the grand Galleria named for him. The words above the triumphal arch entrance read: "To Victor Emmanuel II, from the people of Milan."

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is the pride of Milan. Built during the heady days of Italian unification, around 1870, it was the first building in town to have electric lighting. Its art celebrates the establishment of Italy as an independent country. Around the central dome, mosaics symbolize the four major continents. The mosaic floor is also patriotic. The she-wolf with Romulus and Remus honors Rome, the national capital.

A favorite is the torino...or little bull. While it represents the city of Torino, for's a source of good luck. They can't resist stepping on his little testicles. Locals claim it works better if you give it a spin.

Milan's immense Sforza Castle tells the story of the city in brick. It guarded the gate to the city wall and defended the ruling family from threats both domestic and foreign.

In the 1500s, the entire city was circled by a state-of-the-art walls — of which this castle was a key element. It's apparent from the enormity of this fortification that Milano was a strategic prize. Today, while the walls are long gone, the massive castle survives leaving the city with an inviting and well used public space.

Locals and tourists alike enjoy strolling its expansive grounds.

A short tram ride away takes you to a different kind of public place...Milan's Monumental Cemetery.

While there are many evocative cemeteries in Europe, this one — with its emotional portrayals of the departed and their heavenly escorts — in the melodramatic art styles from late 19th and early 20th centuries — is in a class by itself. It's a vast garden art gallery of proud busts and grim reapers, heartbroken angels and weeping widows, soldiers too young to die...acres of grief...hope...and memories.

The grand, pedestrianized Via Dante leads from the Sforza Castle toward the town center and the cathedral. It was carved out of a medieval tangle of streets to celebrate Italian unification. Because of that, the facades lining it are relatively new dating from the late 1800s. Over the vigorous complaints of merchants, the street became traffic-free in 1995. Today, they'd have it no other way.

Fashionistas love Milan's world-class shopping zone, a neighborhood called the "Quadrilateral." This elegant, high-fashion district was the original Beverly Hills of Milan. Over seeing the shopping action are the exclusive...and illusive penthouse apartments with their plush roof gardens. Since the 1920s, this has been the place for designer labels. In this scene, the people-watching is as entertaining as the window-shopping.

For edible fashion, check out one of Milano's gourmet Peck. If ever you wanted to have a picnic meal and not save it here. Everything's impeccable...from the staff to the lavish displays. The busy kitchen is like a gourmet assembly-line. Posh markets like this serve fine food to go to both Milan's busy professionals and its well-to-do.

And if you're going to spend half your budget on a might as well ride the elevator into the cellar for a bottle of wine to match. Catering to people with good taste and more money than time, places like this put a elegant twist on fast food.

500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci contributed to the city's reputation for design and aesthetics. In fact, he's identified with Milano more than any other Italian city. This is where he spent some of his most productive years, enjoying the generous patronage of the Sforza family.

Leonardo was the epitome of a Renaissance genius — that means he was well-rounded: he was a painter... sculptor...mathematician, musician, architect, scientist and name it, he did everything. And he did it well. This statue shows the many ways Leonardo contributed to the city of Milan during the years he lived here.

The relief's recall Leonardo's varied professional triumphs. Leonardo, wearing his hydro-engineer hat here, re-engineered Milan's canal system complete with locks. Until the 1920s, Milan was one of Italy's major ports, with canals connecting the city to the Po River and to the Mediterranean beyond .

And Leonardo designed the largest equestrian monument in the world for the Sforza family. Though the original was destroyed in 1499 by invading French troops, who used it for target practice, the giant horse was rebuilt in 1999 by American artist Charles Dent, from Leonardo's drawings.

One of Leonardo's greatest masterpieces decorates the monks dining hall adjacent the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Visits to see the Last Supper are by reservation only and spots can be booked up well over a month in advance. Good guidebooks explain the process.

Because of the fragility of the much-loved Renaissance masterpiece, the humidity is carefully regulated. We're enjoying a private visit with our TV camera. Normally, groups of 25 visitors are allowed in each 15 minutes only after dehumidifying in this waiting chamber.

Seeing the Last Supper, one of the greatest works in art history, is well worth the hassle. Leonardo portrays the last dinner Jesus had with his disciples before he was crucified.

The composition is dreamy. Leonardo captures the psychological drama as Jesus says, "One of you will betray me," and the apostles huddle in stressed-out groups of three, wonder, "Lord, is it I?" Some are scandalized. Others want more information. In this agitated atmosphere, only Judas — clutching his 30 pieces of silver — is not shocked.

Leonardo employs his understanding of perspective to give the fresco added punch. The building's lines of perspective converge right on Christ. The viewer doesn't understand the mathematics, but, sub-consciously, it's clear to anyone enjoying this masterpiece that Jesus is the powerful center of it all.

Because of Leonardo's experimental fresco technique, deterioration began within six years of its completion. The church was bombed in World War II, but — miraculously, it seemed — the wall holding The Last Supper remained standing. A recent restoration peeled 500 years of touch-ups away, leaving a faint yet vibrant masterpiece.

The room depicted in the painting seems like an architectural extension of the actual room. Leonardo even painted as if the light from the real windows hit the fresco from the side. Jesus anticipates his sacrifice — his face is sad, all-knowing, and accepting.

Like any big European city, Milano's public transit is first class...but only if you use it. Trams screech and glide everywhere. The old and new share the well worn tracks. The modern underground makes this sprawling city much easier to manage. While most of the sights are within walking distance, your day goes easier — especially in the heat of the summer — when you use the metro.

Milan is home to possibly the world's most prestigious opera house, La Scala. While tickets are pricey and tough to get, anyone can visit the museum which comes with a peek at the plush theater often getting set for the next performance. Since it opened in 1778, La Scala has been committed to hosting the grandest of operas in all their intended glory.

The La Scala museum collection features things that mean absolutely nothing to the MTV crowd: Toscanini's eyeglasses, well-worn batons, Caruso's bust, original scores, and more. The halls are alive with memories of the great composers and musicians that made this the ultimate opera scene. For over two centuries, Milan's glitterati has enjoyed breathtaking performances by the biggest names in opera from Maria Callas all the way back to Verdi.

Giuseppi Verdi was the greatest of romantic Italian opera composers. And in the 19th century, his name meant far more than music. He was a symbol of the movement toward Italian unification. Back when flying the Italian flag could get you in trouble, Verdi's arias served as virtual national anthems.

The nearby Risorgimento Museum tells the story of Italy's unification. It helps us imagine the excitement in Europe during the mid-1800s as the modern nations of Italy, Germany and others were being born. Back then, a few royal families—such as the Habsburgs, Bourbons, and Romanovs — ruled Europe without regard to nationality. And none of them wanted to see the emergence of modern nation states. Even without really understanding the details, just pondering the stirring paintings here makes it clear there are Italian equivalents to our battles of Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and Yorktown.

After four centuries of foreign rule, Milan helped spearhead Italy's road to unity. Step by step — whether in bloody battle or by popular vote as was the case of Venice, Italy went from a peninsula of colonies and small states in 1850 to one united country in 1870.

Italy's heroic battles were led by patriots whose names are household words today. Mazzini — the intellectual spread the notion that Italian-speaking people should be one nation. Garibaldi — the guerilla war hero who's feisty little army of red shirts brought Sicily and Southern Italy into the fold, and Victor Emmanuel, the only Italian blooded king, who, upon unification was the slam dunk favorite to be the first constitutional monarch of a new Italy.

Throughout Italy, the George Washingtons and Thomas Jefferson's of the Italian independence movement are celebrated. Squares, streets, and statues are named in honor of the founding fathers of modern Italy.

But to be honest, most Milanese seem oblivious to all this history. They just enjoy being who they are. The special Italian love of life is easy to feel in Milano's Parco Sempione. And in a scene like this, the traveler can glimpse another dimension of this city: its people at play.

Another favorite place for the Milanese, is an hour's train ride away.

Lombardy's seductively beautiful lakes district — where Italy meets the Alps — seems heaven sent for communing with nature. In this land of so many popular lakes, the million-euro question is: Which one? While all have their charms, Lake Como is my favorite. It offers the best mix of accessibility, scenery, and offbeat-ness with a heady whiff of aristocratic-old-days romance.

Lake Como is lined with elegant, 19th-century villas, crowned by snowcapped mountains, and busy with fleets of little ferries. It's a good place to take a break from the intensity of urban turn-style sightseeing. It seems half the travelers you'll meet have tossed their itineraries into the lake and are actually relaxing. Today the hazy, lazy lake's only serious industry is tourism. The lake's isolation and flat economy have left it pretty much the way 19th-century Romantic poets first described it.

Bellagio, the self-proclaimed "Pearl of the Lake" is a classy combination of Old World elegance and new world luxury. Spendy five star hotels give the well heeled traveler all the comforts they are accustomed to. Harborfront shops entice posh travelers with jewelry and accessories. The heavy curtains between the arcades keep the visitors and their poodles from sweating. The steep-stepped lanes rising from the harbor front lead to a tangle of sun-splashed squares.

Part of the fun of your lake visit is town hopping on the ferries. For me, the ideal home base for Lago de Como is 15 minutes from Bellagio...Varenna.

This town of 800 people offers the best of all lake worlds. Easily accessible by train from Milan, on the less-developed side of the lake, Varenna has a romantic promenade, a tiny harbor, and narrow lanes. These buildings are stringently protected. You can't even change the color of your home without asking permission. There are no streets in the old town...just characteristic stepped lanes.

It's the right place to savor a lakeside cappuccino or apperitivo.

Imagine this sleepy harbor two hundred years ago. It was busy with coopers expertly fitting their chestnut and oak into barrels, stoneworkers carving and shipping Varenna's prized black marble quarried just above town, and fishing boats dragged onto the cobbled beach.

Many Lake Como towns have a villa or two with their dilapidated 19th century elegance and wistful gardens open to the public — and even transformed into inviting hotels. In Varenna, the sprawling lakeside Villa Cipressi rents rooms and welcomes visitors — for a small fee — to explore its peaceful, terraced garden.

Albergo Milano, located right in the old town, is the kind of place I like to recommend. It's graciously run by Egidio and his Swiss wife, Bettina. Fusing the best of Italy with the best of Switzerland, the place manages to be both romantic and very well-run. Most of its comfy rooms offer dreamy lake views.

And Egidio is a fine chef. The limited menu changes daily according to the season and the chef's whim.

Varenna whispers luna di miele — honeymoon. And a good place to enjoy that romance is strolling along its passerella.

You'll pass by wisteria drenched villas, evocative vistas, and lakeside lovers embracing the moment.

It's places like this where I really feel the romance of Europe. I hope you've enjoyed our visit to Milano and Lago di Como. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time...keep on traveling. Ciao.