When you think about Milan, you imagine the towering white marble cathedral that is the Duomo. Even if you don’t happen to know about the Duomo beforehand, when you visit, it’s very difficult to miss! It is very easily accessible by public transport from most places within Milan, and it’s also a great landmark to help determine your location in the city centre. It will lead you back to the square because you can see its spires from almost anywhere, so no need to worry about getting lost in the shops and streets. It is, for sure, the heart of Milan and a beautiful sight to behold with its bold Gothic architecture and sheer size. No visit to the city would be complete without having a good look around the cathedral; outside, inside, underneath and on top!
It is one thing to see the cathedral in all its glory from the square, with over 3000 figures and statues decorating it and the second largest door in the city – Banca d’Italia has the largest door of course, because a lot of people need religion, but everyone needs money! You could stare for hours and still discover more detail in the marble. Look carefully above the door and you’ll see a figure that looks suspiciously similar to the statue of liberty (which is much younger than the cathedral…). If you get a bit closer, you’ll be able to see the shiny brass leg on the door that everyone rubs for good luck, apparently no good story behind that one, it just caught on. But our must do for the trip to Milan was climbing the cathedral and watching sunset from the terraces on the roof. Upon recommendation from our free walking tour guide, we set off to the ‘secret’ ticket office buy our way to the top.
The queue for passes is huge at the main ticket stand (this is the large one on the south side of the cathedral opposite the Duomo museum). You’ll be in line for at least half an hour at most times of the day. But if you wander around the corner, almost directly behind the cathedral, you’ll see maroon and white flags indicating a ticket office – this is the place you want to go to get your tickets. We checked throughout the weekend, and there were never more than 4 or 5 people in line here (you’re welcome). We decided on the Duomo pass B, and practically threw our euros at the (rather melancholic) cashier in excitement.
With a few hours to go before sunset, we spent the afternoon exploring the other areas included in the pass, starting with the inside of the cathedral. The stained glass windows, pillars and organs were all beautiful pieces and worth a good look, but don’t forget to look down. The best part of the inside of the cathedral is the floor, a mosaic of hand cut marble in all different colours covers the entire area, it is simply stunning. From inside the cathedral, we had access to the excavated archaeological site of the Baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti – this was a wee hidden gem, be sure to follow the path all the way around. There is a lot of information to take in, but it is truly fascinating if you’re into European history. We didn’t have enough time to see the museum (also included in the pass) before heading towards to terrace entrance, but the passes are valid for 72 hours, so you don’t have to do everything in one day.
Being late afternoon on a Sunday, we didn’t have to queue behind a single person at the entrance and went straight through the security scan. After a quick bag and ticket check, we were stepping onto the narrow stairway ready to ascend. The climb was a winding one, the kind where you hold yourself steady with your hand against the inside wall and you get a bit dizzy walking in circles all the way to the top. As the passage is only wide enough for two, you have to stop every so often and squeeze into corners and walls to let people coming in the other direction pass by, exchanging the usual awkward smiles, apologising and averting your eyes of course. It’s one of those climbs where you’re going round and round, and it’s like you’re not even going upwards, but you definitely are because you’re huffing and puffing and can feel the burn coming on in all those muscles you haven’t been working out enough…or is that just me? It is actually a relatively easy climb to the top with only 261 stairs, but even if you are a little worn out when you get there, the hard work is worth it.
Not only have you saved €4 by choosing the stairs over the lift, but right away it’s like being transported to the middle of a white marble forest, fully engulfed in the Gothic architecture that you have only admired from the crowded square until now. And let me tell you, it is so much better up close. I would liken the first look, down the length of the cathedral, to being inside a kaleidoscope, the spires and arches with their edges a mixture of soft and sharp, create different patterns with the slightest tilt of your head – each angle as beautiful as the last.
We spent a lot of time wandering along the north wall, stopping to admire every detail put into these beautiful terraces over the 5 centuries it took to complete them. We were leaning over ledges, peeking into windows and standing under archways. The only rule on the roof is that you can’t sit down. As you reach the far end of the wall, stand on the last little balcony for an awesome shot of yourself, the Duomo spires and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, this pretty much sums up Milan’s centre in one photo! From here, there were a few more stairs to get us to the upper terrace, but not very many. Like the rest of the cathedral, they are completely made of marble, and as the light shines differently towards sunset, you can start to see the flecks of pink and yellow in the stone – let this be a distraction and you will be at the top in no time.
On the roof, the space opens up a lot and you will now have an almost 360 degree view over Milan. To the north, you can see the alps which look close enough to reach out and touch. Looking east towards the back of Duomo, the view is only interrupted by the cathedrals tallest spire with the golden statue of Saint Mary right at the tippy top. Access to the view over the front of the cathedral is a little more difficult as there is safety mesh and glass behind most of the facade (for obvious reasons), but put your eye or phone camera up to a hole in the mesh and you still get a birdseye view of the bustling square below. The south side offers great views over the older part of the city. You can make out the spider web design of the streets and how they all lead back to the main square and cathedral. On the same wall, there are window like gaps in the facade and more of the little balconies dotted along, we tucked ourselves into one of these for an almost private viewing of the sunset.
We had gone up a little early to make sure we could explore every corner and still be ready in time to get a good spot for the main event, so we had spare time to bask in the romance, enjoy each other’s company and take loads of funny faced pictures of course! A little after 5, we were cosied up, drawing into our coats as much as possible to keep the chill out, watching a sunset that would melt the heart of even the grumpiest person in whole world. We saw the pinky-orange glow fall over the city for miles and all the hidden colours in the cathedral marble shone through in the lowering light. The shadows grew longer and the air cooled quickly, but because we had had such a lovely clear day, the sunset lasted so long. Even after it had dipped below the horizon, there were still plenty of rays and colour lighting up the sky for a good long while.
Only when the lights had completely disappeared and the chill in the breeze was getting too much, did we decide to leave our little balcony and make our way back down to the square. The plan was to find somewhere warm to eat, drink and chat – we ended up finding the best pizza in Milan – Feeling giddy with accomplishment, we toasted to another experience ticked off the bucket list and began planning the next!
What are some other epic sunset spots? Where was the best sunrise/sunset you’ve seen?