The second city in Italy
(after the capital Rome
), but quite probably the design capital of the world, and, together with Paris
, the epicentre of the world of fashion. Yet there are a few points of particular interest to the dark tourist as well – even including what is normally regarded as the city's No. 1 mainstream tourist sight (namely the cathedral, or 'Duomo
'), plus one of the greatest cemeteries
on Earth as well as a couple of WWII
What there is to see: four places in Milan warrant their own separate entries:
In addition, there are a few more places worth mentioning: one is Piazzale Loreto
, the square where on 29 April 1945 the dead bodies of ex-dictator Benito Mussolini
, his mistress and a few of his fascist comrades were hung upside down from the roof of a petrol station after they had been captured and shot by partisans (at Lake Como, north of Milan). The brutal images of this have become iconic for Italy's final dealings with its own form of fascism at the end of WWII
The petrol station is long gone; in its place stands a featureless modern high-rise building (with a branch of the world's No. 1 fast food chain on the ground floor). But one building you can see in the background on some of the famous images of the body display is still there, on 88, Corso Buenos Aires.
On the western end of Piazzale Loreto, at the end of Via Andrea Doria, stands a memorial monument for the partisans killed by the Nazis
in August 1944, whose bodies had also been put on public display here. (This may have been one of the reasons why Mussolini et al were brought here in 1945.)
More memorials and plaques can be found all over the city. Amongst the more noteworthy is the one commemorating the dead of the Italian Resistance in Milan that is located at the Palazzo della Ragione
(on Piazza Mercanti) just west of the Duomo
Round the corner from here, at No. 6 Via Santa Margherita, a plaque serves as a reminder that it was here (at the former Hotel Regina
) that the SS
and SD headquarters used to be located during the occupation of northern Italy
by Nazi Germany
. That is, it was also from here that the deportation of Milan's Jews was organized in the later stages of the Holocaust
Related to this (in addition to the Shoah Memorial
at the Central Station) is also the San Vittore prison
(Carcere di San Vittore) to the west of central Milan. It was here that the Jews of Milan and the region were first imprisoned before their deportation to the concentration camps
. It's an imposing pile with six wings arranged star-shaped around a central hall in the classic design.
The prison is still an active penitentiary, so you can't visit it as such (unless you have a relative who's an inmate inside, of course). But you can walk around the edge of it and have a look at the main administrative wing on Via degli Olivetani, where there are a few plaques on the outer walls. The main prison complex can only partly be seen, as it is ringed by a 30 foot (10m) concrete wall. There are guards at the top of the wall and a police car is constantly on patrol circling the prison complex, so it is probably advisable to be discreet with photography.
The newest addition to Milan's portfolio of official commemoration is the Casa della Memoria, which was officially opened on 24 April 2015. When I was there, however, it was firmly shut (it was a public holiday) and there was very little to be found out about what might be inside. Peeking in through the glass doors I could only make out some sort of lecture theatre, but no exhibits. It is probably an administrative building for the various organizations that have moved here (associations for former deportees, partisans, terrorist victims, etc.).
There is only a small plaque by the entrance that specifies various relevant events, from partisans' gatherings to acts of terrorism and student protests (all in Italian only). Most remarkable from a distance is the facade on which bricks of different colours render black-and-white images of people and protest rallies like murals on the wall. Whether more commodification (also catering for foreign visitors) is to be developed here remains to be seen.
Speaking of protests: when I was in Milan, the Expo 2015
was just being opened, on the 1st of May, i.e. International Labour Day. Bad timing, that. The Expo had already attracted a lot of severe criticism on the part of anti-globalization campaigners, old-school communists
, anarchists and the like, so letting the event coincide with what is traditionally a day of demonstrations anyway, only made matters worse.
And so it unsurprisingly went the way it only could go: violent rioting and clashes with the police and security forces. I saw only an as-yet comparatively peaceful demonstration in the city centre on 30 April. But the next day, when the shit really hit the fan, I was outside the centre. All I noticed about the disruption caused by the riots was that none of the trams going through the centre were running for a few hours (so I had to take the metro instead). The next day, on my way to the station, I then saw all the smashed-in windows (of banks in particular) and fresh graffiti everywhere. When I looked up the images of the street-fighting on the Internet later, it looked like scenes from a war zone. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be in the midst of it.
So even though I “missed” the worst of these events, I thought I should mention this latest dark chapter in Milan's contemporary history and include a representation in the photo gallery as well. By the way: I do not have any strong opinions on the issue myself – I've heard of allegations of corruption and bribery, but the theme or motto of the Expo appears to be rather green and forward-looking: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” … but that may only be glossy PR. What it really means, concretely, I do not know.
in the north of Italy
, just below the foothills of the Alps, some 125 miles (200 km) north-west of Bologna
, ca. 300 miles (500 km) north of Rome
. And 150 miles (250 km) east of Geneva
Co-ordinates and Google maps locators:
Palazzo della Ragione
San Vittore prison
Casa della Memoria
Access and costs: easy and affordable to get to and around; but accommodation is expensive.
Milan is a main transport hub in northern Italy
; major roads and train lines lead to it, and its international airport has plenty of connections, including ones with quite affordable ticket prices. For travel to/from other cities within a few hundred miles range, modern high-speed trains are an excellent alternative to flying or driving by car in Italy!
Getting around within Milan is also quite easy, and relatively inexpensive when compared to other metropolitan areas of this calibre. Single rides on the metro, trams and buses cost only 1.50 EUR, and there are multi-ride booklets of tickets and 1-3 day passes that make the use of public transport even cheaper.
The metro is naturally the fastest and in that sense most convenient mode of transport, but trams/buses, though slower, are more enjoyable in that you can see more en route. Some tram lines (esp. No. 1) are serviced by cute veteran cars that are an attraction in themselves!
The website of the operator, ATM, has detailed info and also offers network maps and smartphone apps for download. The whole system is impressively efficient.
Accommodation is notoriously expensive in Milan. And at certain especially busy times (trade fairs, fashion shows/festivals) prices get inflated even more. Plan, search and book well ahead of time!
Food & drink
can be excellent, as you would expect in Italy, but local specialities are not geared towards vegetarians … even carnivores may shy away from some of the offal dishes so beloved by the Milanese. But there's always the cuisine of other (esp. southern) parts of Italy to fall back on, and increasingly also non-Italian options (sushi seemed to be a particular craze at the time I was in Milan in spring 2015).
One trend going strong in Milan more than anywhere else is the so-called “aperitivo”. Originally this did indeed mean just an aperitif, and at best a few nuts or olives served with it for free. Then it developed into an excessive version of “happy hour”, except that: A) it can last significantly longer than just a single hour – from 6 to 8 or even 9 p.m. is quite common. And B) it's not the drinks that are cheaper (in fact they may actually cost slightly more than normal then) but a full-blown buffet of food is thrown in for free.
The cocktails (it seems to be mostly cocktails, hardly ever wine or other non-mixed drinks) that qualify you for the free food needn't even be so expensive themselves, nor would they have to be of the watered down quality you may be ready to expect. I had a pretty potent Tom Collins at a bar in the Naviglio area for just 8 EUR – and could stuff my face from the free buffet, so that there was no need at all for any dinner later on in the evening. Of course, you can't expect spot-on freshness and super quality from such buffets, but for those on a tighter budget it's a brilliant way of saving money.
Needless to say, at the other end of the price/quality scale, the sky's the limit.
Time required: To see all the dark-tourism sites in Milan listed here, you could at a push make do with just two days. But if you want to take it at a more leisurely pace and see some of the non-dark splendours of the city too, a couple more days can easily be filled.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Not far from Milan, some 10 miles to the north, is a place with an infamous name: Seveso
– site of possibly the worst chemical industry disaster in Europe, which occurred in July 1976. However, the whole plant has been demolished and replaced with a park and sports facilities and there is absolutely nothing to serve as a reminder of the tragedy. So there is little point going there (hence Seveso
is filed here under places not to visit
In the south-easterly direction, however, there are a few really significant dark places that do offer sufficient commodification to warrant a visit. Easiest to reach (by high-speed train or by road) is Bologna
En route, a short drive branching off the main motorway can take you to the site of the former transit/concentration camp of Fossoli
as well as nearby Carpi with its deportation museum
See also under Italy
Combinations with non-dark destinations: With Milan being such a cradle of the design and fashion industries, it's no great surprise to find that it is an excellent place for window shopping.
For most normal mortals it will only be window shopping (as opposed to proper shopping, i.e. actually making purchases), given the price levels at the top end of this retail world. But it can be very entertaining just to see. The shop window decorators really make an effort here. And some of the creations on display are truly flamboyant too. But that tends to be the case less so at the well-known really big names, whose displays I found to be comparatively bland and conservative. Outstanding glamour and extremely daring outfits can be seen a lot elsewhere, though. Also on some of the shoppers ... so people-watching comes as an extra bonus.
At the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
it is the architecture that lures your gaze away from the shop windows. Its glass roofs and central dome soaring high above make this a veritable cathedral of luxury shopping! Naturally, nothing in such a central location (just opposite the Duomo
) is cheap …
Just off the main high fashion streets, though, the district of Brera has a more quirky shopping scene, including second-hand and antiques shops as well as those selling all manner of bric-a-brac such as taxidermy specimens and medical-school dummies. So if you are in desperate need of a stuffed monkey or a model of a skinless arm, look in this part of town!
Leaving all those shopping streets aside, Milan obviously also has its share of architectural sights (the Duomo
claiming the top place) as well as museums, art galleries and other cultural attractions. Most famous of these is the Teatro alla Scala
, possibly the world's foremost opera house. You can visit it for just a look during the day – except when there are rehearsals – if you don't want to sit through an actual opera just to get a glimpse of the world-famous interior.
In the world of art, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece “The Last Supper” has to be Milan's top-ranking single piece of painting. It's so iconic you only need to think of it and close your eyes to see it clearly in your own head. If you want to see the real thing, however, you have to pre-book tickets online or by phone well in advance or go on an organized city tour that includes a short stop by it. In any case you'll hardly have it to yourself …
Milan has a few ancient Roman
bits and pieces too (though hardly enough to compete with Rome
itself), and also some much more recent buildings that will delight those with an eye for modernity.
The Bosco Verticale (vertical forest) is a notable very recent addition that won the International Highrise Award in 2014. It gets its name from its literally green design, involving hundreds of trees and thousands of other plants stacked on special balconies along all the facades of these twin towers.
The area around them and especially north of Porta Nuova is also undergoing a large-scale modernization project with lots of glitzy glass-and-steel highrises. But there is also another newly added green attraction: a field of wheat. Yes, that's right, just a field of wheat. It's supposed to be the work of an artist, but ultimately it's just a very odd bit of farmland within a densely built-up city and as such so unusual that it does indeed attract a lot of attention (which it would never get even on the outskirts of the city, let alone the countryside).
But what I found the best thing about Milan was just wandering a bit off the touristy centre. A particularly nice area – though no longer really a secret – is that around the Naviglio Grande
, the former main trading canal
just to the south-west of the inner city district. This is also a very good area to look for aperitivo (see above
) – also on the adjacent other canal, the Naviglio Pavese.
- Milan 01 - Piazzale Loreto
- Milan 02 - where Mussolini was hung upside down
- Milan 03 - memorial
- Milan 04 - resistance memorial in the city centre
- Milan 05 - some sort of military-peace memorial
- Milan 06 - San Vittore prison
- Milan 07 - main prison gate
- Milan 08 - high walls with guards at the top
- Milan 09 - Casa della Memoria
- Milan 10 - Duomo and Expo stage
- Milan 11 - bone of contention
- Milan 12 - heavy burden
- Milan 13 - Brera district
- Milan 14 - tribute to textile making
- Milan 15 - Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II
- Milan 16 - a cathedral of luxury shopping
- Milan 17 - grand old building
- Milan 18 - Bosco Verticale - award-winning modern highrise
- Milan 19 - Naviglio Grande
- Milan 20 - Porta Ticinese
- Milan 21 - Roman and church