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For many tourists Milan is the gateway to the North Italian lakes, but this city, Italy's second largest, has a great deal more going for it.
Milan is rightly famous for the latest fashion in clothing. Passengers on flights to Milan, are left in no doubt as to this when they step off the plane - advertising hoardings all over the airport will remind them that they have arrived at the spiritual home of Versace, Armani and Gucci. But the pursuit of 21st century consumerism is not the only reason to visit Milan. The city has many other attractions besides shopping, although it has to be said Milan is a retail paradise.
In the last decade budget airlines have offered cheap flights to Milan, which has made the city a popular choice for a weekend break. There are two airports serving Milan, Linate and Malpese - most of the cheap flights to Milan land at Linate, which is much closer to the city.
Bus and rail links into the city are numerous and the service is frequent. Arriving at Milan's Central Station could be classed as the first sightseeing opportunity. The station is an emporium of classic 19th century architecture, modernised in the 1930's, so with a distinct leaning towards Art Deco neo-classicism. It's a railway station with attitude.
Milan is a modern city, but there is still plenty to interest the historian. Apart from the station there are many more historic buildings but there are two that must not be missed.
The number one tourist attraction in Milan is the Da Vinci depiction of the Last Supper, at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. To view this iconic wall fresco involves some forward planning. As it's so popular tickets must be purchased in advance. They can be ordered online, and are issued to a strict timetable. You will be taken in by a guide as part of a group and the viewing will last 15 minutes. You are asked to sit and contemplate the fresco, so as it is rather formal it's perhaps one to miss if you have small and active children.
The cathedral, or Duomo, is one of the best in Italy. Even if you have no spiritual inclinations the building is breathtaking in its exterior splendour. Inside it's cool and relatively quiet, unlike many Italian cathedrals on the tourist trail. There are English language audio guides to help you and a lift to the top of the spires, which give you a magnificent view of the city. Of particular note are the stained glass windows and the patterned marble floor.
Of course, eating out and shopping can't be left off the tourist list. And Milan isn't short on either.
For shopping, either real or window, the Galleriea Vittorio Emanuele II in the Piazza del Doumo (the square in front of the cathedral - a typically Italian blend of the spiritual and the corporate) is the place to go. It's a belle époque fantasy - a 19th century shopping mall that is noisy, colourful and teeming with activity. Don't bother with the shopping - take a seat at one of the many outdoor tables, order a coffee, or a Campari and people watch - one of the best and cheapest forms of entertainment in Italy.
Milan isn't short of good restaurants offering great Italian specialities, but as in all major tourist hotspots, there are good and bad. Take your time in choosing where to eat; go for the one that suits your budget and has a good crowd of locals in it. The real Milanese knows where to eat - the restaurants that offer the best food and value for money. Don't be led astray by a swanky wine list, order the house wine, have a look at what the rest of the customers are ordering and go with it.
Milan is synonymous with fashion. It's a Mecca for designers, models and journalists during the spring and autumn fashion weeks. If clothes aren't the be all and end all of your life, check when the shows are on and avoid those dates: flights and accommodation will also be at a premium during that time.
Any other time of the year is fine, apart from the depth of winter, when Northern Italy can be very cold. But the city is quiet - hotels and museums less crowded - and if you're a football fan you could watch Inter Milan at the magnificent San Siro Stadium. Just remember to pack the thermals.
The next time you book flights to Milan, en-route to the countryside, linger awhile and take in some of the sights and flavours of this exciting metropolis. You won't regret it.
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