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By Rick Steves
Milan's immense Duomo
Milan's immense Duomo was built to hold 40,000 worshippers, the entire population of Milan when construction began in 1386.
Many travelers come to Italy because of its past. But Milan is today's Italy, and no trip here is complete without visiting this city. While overlooked by many, Milan is a hardworking, fashion-conscious, time-is-money city with plenty to see.
The importance of Milan is nothing new. Three hundred years before Christ, the Romans called this place
Milan's centerpiece is its magnificent cathedral, built from 1386 to 1810. Even though the Renaissance style -- with domes and rounded arches -- was in vogue elsewhere in Italy, conservative Milan stuck with Gothic, loading its cathedral with pointed spires and arches, and lots of marble. The church is a classic example of the flamboyant, or "flame like," overdone final stage of Gothic.
The church boasts a soaring ceiling supported by sequoia-sized pillars, brilliantly colored stained glass dating from about 1500, and more than 2,000 statues. Even more impressive is the roof. Walking through its forest of spires and statues, visitors enjoy great views of the church's statuary and the city. Crowning the cathedral is a golden Virgin Mary named La Madonnina, an icon of Milan.
The cathedral sits on Piazza del Duomo, Milan's main square. This classic European scene is a popular gathering point. Professionals scurry, stylish locals loiter, and teens hang out in the afternoons, waving at
The grand glass-domed arcade on the square marks the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Built around 1870, during the heady days of Italian unification, it was the first building in town to have electric lighting. Its art celebrates the establishment of Italy as an independent country while high-end shops, restaurants, and cafes reflect Milan's status as Italy's financial and fashion capital.
Behind the Galleria is one of the world's most prestigious opera houses,
But perhaps Milan's most famous resident was Leonardo da Vinci, the great painter, sculptor, mathematician, musician, architect, scientist, and engineer. The brilliance of da Vinci is celebrated all over town. The Leonardo da
At the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, the oldest museum in Milan, a long-running special exhibit centers around da Vinci's notebook, the Codex Atlanticus. Every three months until 2015, the gallery will display a different themed set of pages from the 1,100-page notebook.
Located on the outskirts of town, Leonardo's Horse is the largest equestrian monument in the world. Designed for the
Milan is also home to one of da Vinci's greatest masterpieces. Commissioned by the
Because of da Vinci's experimental fresco technique, the once-vivid work is now faded. To preserve it as much as possible, the humidity in the room is carefully regulated -- only 25 people are allowed in every 15 minutes, and visitors must dehumidify in a waiting chamber before entering. Visits are by reservation only and must be booked months in advance.
Even with all of this history, most of the locals seem oblivious to it. They just enjoy being who they are, living modern-day life to the fullest in this most vibrant of Italian cities.
© Rick Steves' Europe
Travel | Milan: A Big Italian Surprise