Number one it’s hot. Number two it’s hot. Number three did I mention it’s damn hot. You get the picture, Milan is hot in July. Oppressively hot. I didn’t realise this fact before booking a holiday to Milan and Florence last July. Normally I am meticulous and thorough in my pre-travel destination research. However, on this occasion all I could think about was freedom from the 9 to 5 routine, a new European adventure, the possibility of seeing clear blue skies instead of the grey UK skies, and finally being able to tick Milan and Florence off my fashion-capital bucket list. Only when I started telling people about my impending trip were there hints of “don’t you know its hot in Milan that time of year?” “really, are you sure you want to go in July?” Too late. The flights and hotels were already booked and paid for. I’m an Aussie who grew up with 40+ degree celsius summer days, surely I could handle the European summer heat? Off I went to Milan with my summer dresses, flip flops and walking sneakers packed neatly in my suitcase, confident the European summer heat was nothing compared to the scorching Australia sun. My Lonely Planet guide tucked into my handbag ready for some Milan sightseeing and Italian fashion action.
On this trip I travelled solo. I was a little apprehensive arriving at the Milano Centrale railway station by myself, as at the time, the migrant crisis in Europe was just beginning to take hold. There were reports on the news of large numbers of migrants camping and sleeping in and around the railway station attempting to board trains into Austria and France. I arrived mid-morning to the huge and imposing architecture of the Milano Centrale station, apparently one of the most beautiful stations in Europe (of which I learnt after my trip). Taking a few seconds to grab hold of my bearings, I merged into the flow of passengers exiting the platform and headed out of the station onto the front steps. Surveying the scene in front of me in the Piazza Duca e’Aosta, there were groups of migrants hovering near suitcases, their belongings piled high. Young men were skate boarding in the open piazza, others were sleeping in makeshift beds or filling up water bottles from nearby taps. Rubbish littered the garden beds. At least there weren’t the massive crowds I had seen on the TV a few weeks earlier. Still concerned for my personal safety as I was travelling alone, I made my way around the edge of the piazza towards the wide boulevard ahead, which I hoped would take me to the hotel. Researching the route before I left, Google maps had so graciously informed me the hotel was at the northern end of central Milan and only a short 8-10 minute walk from the station. Easy done. Off I trundled, pulling my luggage behind me in search of my hotel – the ME Milan II Duca.
Arriving at the hotel I was greeted by gorgeous, young Italian men and women standing behind the reception desk. The hotel was brand new and had opened a few months prior in May 2015. It was amazing – a modern, stylish, cutting edge lifestyle brand hotel. I was ecstatic. My hotel room was huge. Large flat screen TV, sound system, coffee machine, comfy bed, spacious bathroom with separate tub and rain show. Heaven. What more could a girl want? I was soaking in the gloriousness of the room and unpacking my suitcase when this loud, piercing noise suddenly erupted. After my brain took a few seconds to register and interpret this unfamiliar sound, my body’s fight-or-flight system decided, ok, its time to flee. Grabbing my handbag and my passport, I headed out into the corridor to see if there were any other guests fleeing the same noise. Deserted. Fortunately a hotel employee near the lift and she confirmed that the noise was the hotel fire alarm system, but she didn’t think it was serious, not to worry. However, after working in the engineering construction industry for 10 years it was drilled into my DNA and flight response to evacuate, evacuate, evacuate. We made our way down to the ground floor. What I found were more hotel employees frantically trying to deal with the situation, all with confused looks on their faces. My first thought was they need fire drill safety training asap. Damn, I was supposed to be on vacation not thinking about work. Crisis finally averted and as much as I could have spent all afternoon in my fabulous hotel room, it was time to head out for a late lunch before exploring central Milan.
I didn’t notice the heat on the first day. Sure I registered it was warm. Warmer than the UK summer I had just left behind, more like an Aussie summer. Perhaps it was the excitement of being in a new city. I found a lovely little cafe for lunch near the hotel, Fioraio Bianchi and soaked in the foreign culture while enjoying a glass of wine, listening to unintelligible conversations in Italian and admiring the flower arrangements in the cafe window. Being the fashion addict that I am, the next stop was the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the worlds oldest shopping arcades in the heart of Milan. Today it’s famous for luxury brands and fine dining, and mainly seen as a tourist attraction. The architecture is awe-inspiring. Standing in the middle of the arcade surrounded by throngs of tourists, your head automatically tilts towards the sky and the soaring expanse of the iron and glass ceiling. Whilst the shopping and restaurants had more appeal to the other tourists, for me the best part of visiting the Galleria Vittorio was free – its architecture. A must see for the architecture alone. After wandering around this impressive building and taking a few snaps of the equally impressive Duomo, I made my way back to the hotel, detouring into the Quadrilatero d’Oro area along the way. My trusty Lonely Planet guide had informed me this quaint cobbled area was famous for Italian designers, luxury brands and people watching (especially spotting the odd model or two). Although the area and its narrow streets were quaint, I didn’t stumble across anything ‘wow’ or extraordinary, just every day Milanese (albeit with money) and the odd tourist or two out shopping the July sales. No supermodels or eccentric well-dressed Italians in sight. Perhaps they only come out on weekends? Or during fashion week? Or had escaped to Lake Como? Perhaps my expectations were too high? Several sales bags later gathered from a little shopping expedition down Via Monte Napoleone and the lack of people watching long forgotten, I was ready to meander back to the hotel and its rooftop bar to experience aperitivo, the famous Italian happy hour where at 6 o’clock cocktails are accompanied by tasty gourmet snacks.
For the remainder of the trip the temperature was unbearable. I rose early the next morning to explore more of the city and the Castello Sforzesco before the sun peaked high in the midday sky. Being the avid walker that I am, I decided to forgo the metro in favour of my feet as transport. Google maps said it was only a 30 minute walk to the castle. Easy done. My trusty Lonely Planet guide suggested the nearby Princi as one of the best patisseries in Milan. It was the perfect place to stop for breakfast and a real Italian expresso with the most delicious marmalade brioche I have tasted in my whole entire life. Thank you Lonely Planet for the suggestions. I dreamt about this bricoche for months afterwards. After breakfast and detouring down side streets to admire the eclectic mix of modern and old architecture, I eventually made my way to the castle. By the time I reached the castle it was nearly midday and the sun was exhibiting its full strength, golden ray beaming glory. Yes, it was hot. Yes, I was overheating. Yes, I was seeking out every hint or speck of shade within the castle grounds.
Hot but not deterred, I pressed on with my city sightseeing adventure making sure to stick closely to the shadiest part of the street. I went in search of the basilica Santa Maria delle Grazie before circling back to the heart of the city. The most famous painting in Milan is Leonardo da Vinci’s Il Cenacolo (The Last Supper) which is hidden on a refectory wall within the basilica, of which I didn’t see. Tickets are sold out months in advance, so I had to be content with admiring the beautiful exterior architecture of the basilica itself. With the early afternoon sun becoming even more unbearable, the cool luxurious hotel room was luring me back. So at this point after walking about 10 km which felt like 50km in the 35+ degree celsius heat, I succumbed to the metro to carry my weary legs and body back to the cool air-conditioned hotel. The Milan heat had beaten this Aussie traveller and inflicted this strange redness on my calves which I had noticed throughout the day on the bare white legs of other tourists. It suddenly twigged, heat rash. For the first time in my life, I had heat rash. To sooth my heat battered body I stood under the rain shower and washed away all the sweat, pollution, and city grim from wandering around Milan on a hot summer day. Refreshed and revitalised, I was now ready for another aperitif or two at the rooftop bar.
To seek respite from the heat on my third day, I did what most people apparently do in Milan during the summer, escape to Lake Como. The deep blue lake, the lush green mountains, the colourful villages and houses dotted along the shoreline create this beautiful, tranquil scenery. The reality matched what I had heard from fellow travellers, seen in movies and read in travel guide books. The only thing that tainted this picture perfect Lake Como and its surroundings were the old ferry boats that constantly cart tourists and locals alike up and down the vast lake. Ferries with loud engines that billow dirty black smoke and fumes into the atmosphere and pristine view. I pity the poor people in their little leisure craft boats and canoes when one of these ferries pushes madly past them in a hurry to meet their relentless schedule. If you can put a box around this – Lake Como is beautiful. The day was a little overcast but I didn’t mind, being near the water was heaven compared to the hot Milan city streets. My heat rash was banished for the day. I took the ferry from Como up to the delightful village of Bellagio. Sitting at a lake side restaurant for lunch, I watched the ferries come and go, children swimming off a pontoon, clouds hugging the mountain tops, and cheeky little birds hopping on tables scavenging for crumbs. To truly soak up the tranquil atmosphere and leisurely lifestyle that wraps around shores of Lake Como, you really need more than one day. So many little villages, lakeside gardens, steep cobblestone shopping streets, and romantic restaurants.
And so my Milan journey came to an end just as it started, this time at the nearby busy Milano Porta Garibaldi railway station where I headed off on a fast train to my next Italian adventure – Florence. I came to Milan to immerse myself in Italian fashion and discovered its wonderful mix of architecture and oppressive July heat instead. Staying three days meant I only experienced a brief taste of all the wonderful things Milan has to offer: architecture, fashion, nightlife, art, food and a fast-past metropolis. Next time, my visit will coincide with the cooler spring or autumn months so I can wander aimlessly, exploring the city without the urge to escape into every air-conditioned building, cafe, or hotel lobby along the way. Milan in July is just too damn hot.
Read all about my Florence experience in 15 Surprising Things About Florence article.