travel diary

First impressions of Milan, Italy

Standing in the piazza in Milan, the Duomo is impressive structure… perhaps too impressive. It makes me feel like the power and might of the Catholic Church is towering above me, slowly pressing down on me, gradually crushing me. I’m not sure I like it.

Inside is beautiful and grand, just like you would expect. There’s stained glass and icons and candles burning at Mary’s altar. And, even though it’s only late April and still morning, there are way too many people and camera flashes for my liking. It feels like blasphemy.

Outside a tour group arrives, along with more tourists. Still jetlagged and disoriented, I sit on a step while Matt takes photos, and I end up chatting to one of the hawkers. He ties a bracelet around my wrist and I belatedly realise it's a scam. When he asks me to pay, I smile and ask him to take it off. We stare at each other for a moment, then he laughs and tells me to keep it.

Matt comes to collect me and we are stopped by numerous people trying to sell us things, including corn to feed the pigeons. It’s getting a little loud and the pigeons look rather pudgy. It’s time to head away.

The interior of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Italy's oldest shopping centre, is lovely – high arched ceilings with sparkling light filtering through, carefully dressed people sipping coffee, only the occasional tourist (the rest are still congregating in the square), very expensive shops. My first thought is that this is the church of shopping, but I still enjoy looking at it.

We also stop to see the mosaic under the central dome. It includes the Savoy coat of arms and a number of animals which represent Italian cities. On New Year’s Eve, people step on the testicles of the bull with their right foot and turn around with their eyes closed. It's said to bring good luck for the year ahead and the quirkiness of the tradition appeals to me.

A pedestrian street in Chinatown, Milan

I like Milan. As we arrived at night, we stay in a hotel near the train station and explore from there. We walk down streets, through parks and stare in shop windows. The city is old and big and seems confident in itself. The people we see live here and work here. And, as we wander just a little further, we soon find ourselves relying on our rather scant knowledge of Italian. Still, Matt manages to get a decent haircut in Chinatown and we have pizza and wine for lunch (eight euros for the haircut and six for lunch; prices seem to drop considerably a bit out of town).

During our walk we eventually and perhaps predictably manage to get lost. We haven’t gotten data working on our phones yet, so we look at the map our hotel gave us. We can’t find the street we’re on – it turns out we’ve walked off the map. We look at the street signs, get vaguely confused and eventually consult a compass (yes, Matt has a compass app on his phone) to figure out how to get back.

A main reading the paper in Milan, Italy

As we make our way back to the hotel, we notice that people have stopped looking at us and when people ask us to buy something or sign a petition, they ask us in Italian. That’s when we realize that because we’re rushed and slightly grumpy, we suddenly don’t look like tourists anymore. It’s a little sad… like in any big city, all you have to do is look tired and a little stressed to belong.

Planning a trip to Milan? Read our Northern Italy itinerary.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 21 April 2022


Italy is one of those countries that has something for everyone, from food, beaches and mountains to art and ancient history.