Italy: Milan

Last year, I spent a busy, sunny week in Italy and got to visit half a dozen incredible Italian cities. Let's be practical and go in chronological order. First up: Milan.

Going into this trip, my knowledge and interest in Milan was relegated to Fashion Week. Luckily, a work colleague visited and recommended it. Thanks, Deb! Also: I did a day tour. I highly recommend doing a tour, primarily for "The Last Supper" guidance and insider info on the Duomo di Milano, which is awesome. As always, info comes from me, my guide, Lonely Planet's book on Italy, or Wikipedia.

First up, the Cadorna railway station. This was the kick-off spot for my tour. Also: this statue, "Needle, Thread, and Knot", is by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, to celebrate the city's impact on the fashion industry. The three colors represents Milan's three metro lines. They'll need to add blue, as a new metro line opens soon. Also, side note: Milan wasn't the easiest city for me to navigate. I said 'eff it', and took a cab multiple times, something I really try to avoid.

Just around the corner from the train station, San Maurizio Maggiore. This was my first day in Italy and I thought it was a lovely church. By the end of my week in Italy, churches had seriously lost their intrigue. This church is on UNESCO's list and was formerly a monastery. It was interesting to see the extreme division between the former nuns and the congregation. Also interesting: a centuries-old Noah's ark painting by someone who had not seen the majority of animals he was painting. Something I had never thought of!

Plenty of ruins around Milan. These were some former palace of some former Roman ruler. Cats don't care. Milan had a serious market on the vacationing cat lady. Cats everywhere!

Next up: Milan's stock exchange. Notice the statue in front. The ribbon is in honor of breast cancer awareness and is temporary.

Next up: Milan's castle, Sforza. It was built in the 1300s and now houses several museums. Unfortunately, no time to visit said museums.

I told you Milan was cat-friendly! These guys were hanging out around the castle. They were brought in by the castle keepers to control the mouse population.

Parco Sempione is right behind the castle. I love city parks and am bummed I didn't have time to explore this one - it looked lovely! The arch in the middle of the picture is the Peace Arch. It was built under Napoleon in 1807. It is on Strada del Sempione, which connects Milan to Paris.

Basically the reason I went to Milan. I've seen "Mona Lisa" in Paris but "The Last Supper" is so iconic, so replicated, I almost didn't believe it was a real, live thing. Here it is! The painting is housed in the Santa Maria delle Grazie church and convent, still in use today.

The painting again, without my face. It's huge. Restored several times, the darker colors are the originals by Leo. The lighter comes from modern restorations. The difference is maintained so we can see the original versus the restorations. It was painted in the late 1400s. Due to the methods used and the wall it's on, plus bombing in WWII, the painting has gone through serious damage over the years. The painting on the other side of the room, also by Leo around the same time period, is a true fresco and has weathered time much better. Today, both paintings are under serious protection. Visitors are only allowed in fifteen minute intervals. There's an interesting photo exhibit on the history of the painting before entering to see the real thing (images following the bombing in WWII were shocking - the painting was basically protected with a sheet) and a replica of the painting afterwards, which our guide used to point out additional tidbits once our fifteen minutes were up.

This has to be seen. You can't go to Milan and miss this one. It might be a hassle to figure out when and how to go but it's worth it, promise.

And now for something totally different: a super-fancy mall! The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was built in the 1860s and 1870s, making it one of the oldest. The mall has serious guidelines - shops can only use gold and black colors. Most fancy designers are here (Prada, Louis Vuitton, etc.), along with a crazy-expensive hotel and some really nice restaurants. It's worth walking through as it's next to same really popular sights. There are some lovely mosaics in the floor and the building itself is an impressive black and gold piece of architecture.

Just outside the mall, the church. Shop, then go ask for forgiveness for how much you spent.

As I mentioned, Milan hadn't been on my to-see list. I was just going wherever the tour guide took me. But this structure took my breath away when I first saw it. The Duomo was started in 1386 and one of the largest cathedrals in the world. The famous madonna atop the church must be the highest point in the city. Modern skyscrapers found a work around - each one adds its own madonna.

The church's square is a major part of Milan - lots of crowds and activity, plenty of nearby shops and restaurants.

The interior isn't bad to look at either. I really recommend a guide for this one. Ours had invaluable info on the various sculptures and glass within the church. An ornate, complex structure, like the city and country itself.