Shopping heaven in Milan

Shopping in Milan has got to be the ultimate female shopping experience and perhaps male experience too!  I’m just back from two days in Milan, one of the shopping capitals of the world. If you are looking for high-end designer purchases this is the place to be.

Quadrilatero della Moda is the place to head for – it’s set amidst four of Milan’s most expensive and prestigious shopping street such as via Montenapoleone, via Monza, via della Spigna and corso Venizia. It’s on these streets that the most important fashion designers offer their goods to discerning shoppers.

Open 7 days a week, the Brian & Barry Building San Babila is a cult destination for shopping in Milan. There are 12 floors and the ground floor with its gallery experience offers a sneak preview of what you can find on the other floors.

Where to stay in Milan

There are plenty of good hotels in Milan but if you really want a luxury hotel experience for your shopping trip you could stay at the 5 star Armani Hotel which is only a 12 minute walk to Milan Cathedral.

Entertainment in Milan

When the shops close you will not be short of exciting entertainment in Milan. You can walk through the streets near the Duomo but you should head for the Navigili district where you will find countless waterside bars and restaurants where there is live music and a buzzing atmosphere.

I took these photos at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping centre next to Milan Cathedral.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping centre in Milan
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Designer shopping in Milan
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Louis Vuitton shop in Milan

The Vatican Museums – How to beat the queues

When in Rome, everyone eventually heads for the Vatican City and this is where you will find St Peter’s Square and The Vatican Museums.

Vatican Museum
Vatican Museum exit

Pope Julius II founded the Vatican Museums in the early 16th century and the museums contain many works of art that the popes have collected over the years. Most people visit to see the Sistine Chapel with its ceiling painted by Michelangelo and it is magnificent, however, it’s a very busy place and you can’t hope to spend any time looking at the exhibits because you will find yourself swept along with the vast crowds, as you catch a fleeting glance of the passing masterpieces.

How to beat the Vatican Museums Queues

So, you have decided to visit The Vatican Museums, which is great, but the queue is likely to be very long. On my recent visit to The Vatican Museums in August 2016 the queue was about 200 metres long. I walked straight past this huge queue and walked straight in! Why waste time queuing in 35C summer heat when it’s easy to beat the queue?

We paid 33 Euros each for the Vatican Museums and audio guide ticket, however, we didn’t use the audio guide and you can save 7 Euros if you don’t get the guide. You can buy official Vatican Museum tickets online or pay at the museum and the cost is 16 Euros plus a 4 Euro booking fee. Beat the queue tickets are twice as much as tickets bought at the museum but take my word for it, they are well worth it to avoid the very long queue.

Where to buy ‘beat the queue’ Vatican Museums tickets?

Always buy your beat the queue Vatican Museums tickets from an official vendor. As you walk around the Vatican City you will be approached by many people wanting to sell you tickets. Stay clear of these sellers. Although many appear to wear official lanyards and badges you can’t be sure that you are buying from an honest retailer. Instead, buy online before you arrive in Rome.

We bought our tickets online for The Vatican Museums before we travelled and the website we bought the ticket from can be found here. This company are an official Vatican ticket supplier but there are several more official retailers.

Other information about The Vatican Museums

No shorts, bare shoulders or miniskirts. This applies to both males and females. Even if you get through security, you will be turned away by the attendants at the door. Although this is the official rule I saw many people wearing shorts and they were allowed in. It might have been because the weather was over 35C.

Pushchair’s are permitted in the Museums.

It is forbidden to use flash photography inside the Museums and no photography at all in the Sistine Chapel.

It is forbidden to touch works of art.

Just a few of my photos of The Vatican Museums.

Spiral staircase at the Vatican Museum
Spiral staircase at the Vatican Museum
Vatican Museum
Vatican Museum
Vatican Museums Gardens
Vatican Museums Gardens, Vatican City

Lake Maggiore – What to do and where to stay.

I’m a big fan of the Italian lakes and I’m just back from a visit to Lake Maggiore and have previously visited Lake Garda and Lake Como. Lake Maggiore is in the northern Italian region of Piedmont and I arrived into Stresa, on the west coast of Lake Maggiore, by train from Milan, which took less than an hour. The lake is long and thin with beautiful scenery and views of The Alps. Lake Maggiore straddles both Italy and Switzerland. Other popular places to stay include Pallanza, as well as Locarno on the northern tip of the lake in Switzerland.

How to get to Lake Maggiore

There are frequent flights from the UK to Milan Malpensa or to Bergamo airport. It’s possible to drive using the A8 or travel by train from Milan Central station.

Trains are frequent and easily bookable through the Italian trains website Trenitalia. A one way train journey between Milan and Stresa only costs about 9 Euros per person.

What to do on Lake Maggiore

If you want to visit the main attraction on Lake Maggiore, the Borromean Islands, they are easily accessible by boat from Stresa. The Borromean Islands consist of Isola Bella, Isola Dei Pescatori and Isola Madre.

Isola Bella is the star attraction. On the island you can see an amazing 17th century Baroque palace and elaborate gardens. Construction took 40 years and the palace and gardens are built like a huge ship with stunning views of The Alps in the distance. I really enjoyed ambling around the back streets where you will find little restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. Isola dei Pescatori still maintains its traditional way of life. Most people go for day trips but there are two hotels on the island if you want to stay longer. Take a look at the Hotel Belvedere if you are interested in a hotel stay on Isola dei Pescatori.

For amazing views of Lake Maggiore take the cable car to the top of Mount Mottarone. It takes 20 minutes to reach the top and the summit at 1,491 metres above sea level is another 15 minutes walk. The walk is worth it though because you can see 7 lakes – Lake Maggiore, Lake Orta, Lake Mergozzo, Lake Varese, Lake Comabbio, Lake Monate and Lake Biandronno. A return ticket costs 19 Euros for adults and 12 Euros for children.

Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore.
Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore.

Where to stay on Lake Maggiore

There are many towns and villages around the shores of Lake Maggiore where there are plenty of places to stay. I stayed in the busiest of the Lake Maggiore towns, Stresa. Stresa offers easy access by boat to the popular tourist attraction of the Borromean Islands and there are plenty of places to stay to suit most budgets.

For those visitors looking for lakeside 5 star luxury then you might want to consider the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees. Lake luxury like this though does not come cheap at £1,700 for two people for a one week stay.

Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées
Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées, Stresa, Lake Maggiore.

As a vistor with a more sensible budget I stayed at the 3 star Hotel du Park. It’s not lakeside, being about a 2 minute walk from the town centre, but it was comfortable and convenient. The hotel is furnished in a 1920’s style although the bedrooms are somewhat more modern! One week at the Hotel du Park for two people costs about £700 based on an October stay.

Hotel du Park
Hotel du Park, Stresa

Where to eat in Stresa

Stresa has a multitude of places to eat. In peak season it can be difficult to find a table in one of the restaurants. We ventured out at around 7.30pm one evening to try and find a restaurant to eat in and it was difficult to find somewhere. We eventually stumbled across a delightful restaurant called Trattoria due Piccioni. The menu was limited but the food was of very good quality. I can highly recommend the risotto!

Trattoria due Piccioni
Trattoria due Piccioni, Stresa, Lake Maggiore

How to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper painting.

Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper is one of the world’s greatest pieces of art. On a recent visit to Milan I visited this amazing masterpiece and I’ll share with you my top tips on buying tickets and information about this world-renowned work of art.

About Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper

The Last Supper was started by da Vinci in 1490 and the painting focuses on the moment of identification of the traitor, Judas, who in an isolated position with respect to the other apostles, receives a piece of bread from Christ and dips it into his dish. It’s actually a miracle that The Last Supper painting still exists because it has been badly damaged over time and has had several restorations. The painting has suffered vandalism, has been stored outside and the building where the painting is stored was once used as the headquarters for the fire brigade and as a military barracks.

Where can you see da Vinci’s Last Supper?

The Last Supper can be found in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. It’s a short walk from the city centre or you can also catch the Metro. The room where you can see the painting has an elaborate system in place to keep the room at a constant cool temperature in an attempt to preserve the painting.

How to book tickets for the Last Supper?

Don’t try to book tickets at the museum on the day because there won’t be any available! Da Vinci’s Last Supper is the painters most visited painting, so you need to buy your tickets in advance. Tickets are only on sale two months before you want to go so you need to be quick off the mark. Only 25 people in a group can visit the painting and each group is allowed 15 minutes to view the painting. I found the whole experience surreal and peaceful because the painting is in a big room so that gives you plenty of time to study the painting. Even though the painting is not in good condition it’s still a fascinating painting to look at.

You can buy tickets online at a cost of 36 Euros or you can book a Last Supper and Milan Walking Tour with a tour guide that lasts 3 hours and starts from Piazza del Duomo. I paid £55 per person for the 3 hour tour.

My photo of The Last Supper

The Last Supper
The Last Supper by Leonard da Vinci

The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan

The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan
The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan

Take a short break in Venice

Valentine’s Day may be a while off yet but impatient lovers who can’t wait to get away for a short break will find no better hide-out than the charming waterways and cobbled streets of Venice. So, why take a short break in Venice?

Many famous couples take a short break in the historic city of Venice. Elton John and David Furnish  took a honeymoon break in the beautiful floating city and they visited the amazing Saint Mark’s Square.

Other celebs who have escaped the media’s glare in Venice’s soothing canals include Nicole Kidman, Helen Hunt and Woody Allen.

It only takes visitors a few seconds wandering down the mysterious back streets of Venice to fall in love with its delicate charm. From the strikingly beautiful central sights of the Piazza San Marco to the hushed ristorantes of its mazy old alleys, the city will pluck at your heartstrings for every waking moment.

Music may be the food of love but seafood is a damn fine alternative, and Venice boasts a huge variety of juicy dishes as you’d expect from a city surrounded by waters. Squid, cuttlefish and octopus are cooked in simple but tasty herbs and spices to indulge the most demanding palette.

And then when you’re woozy with food and romance, step out and sip fine wines in the rustic Al Bottegon cellar or wheel to the jazz of Al Vapore’s bar.

Taking a short break in Venice in the summer months is great for the weather but the city can become thronged with sightseers and tourists, but if you want the city to yourself then the best time to visit is between October and April when the weather is cool and their are less crowds. Watch out though for the Venice floods. The city has a history of flooding in Winter and you may need to take your wellies.

When I  last took a short break in Venice it was hot and sunny and full of people but most tend to be day trippers and the city is quieter in the evenings. The first time I visited Venice I was worried that I was going to get lost because the streets are narrow and some parts of the city are like a maze. Getting lost though is just part of the fun and you will never be too far from a canal to help you navigate with the help of a good map.

Whilst on your short break in Venice, make sure you catch the water bus to Burano with its beautiful coloured houses and, of course, Murano, famous for Venetian glass.

I took these photos on a recent visit to Venice.

IMG_3509
Water bus on the Grand Canal in Venice.
Water taxi on the Grand Canal in Venice
The busy sea front in Venice
20150727_111705
Gondola station in Venice
Grand Canal, Venice
Colourful properties on a canal in Venice

Related travel articles about Venice

Venice – Enjoy getting lost

Venice – Just amazing – Holiday Review

Cruise ships in Venice

Venice is one of my favourite cities. Where else in the world can you get lost in a cities streets and not have to worry about finding your way back to your hotel?  Which other city has no roads so you stand more chance of drowning than you do of being run down by a car? Venice is an eclectic mix of bustling alleyways, fantastic but often expensive cafes and restaurants as well as awesome architecture and culture. If you have never been to Venice then you should because it’s unique, and it’s not true that the smell of sewage is overpowering. In fact I have been to Venice several times and I have never smelt sewage!

One downside of Venice though is that it is very very popular. 20 million tourists visit Venice every year but only half sleep there. It’s a city of daytime visitors, many visitors arriving in the city by cruise ship. Venice is in fact the cruise capital of Europe. These tourism visitors bring in much needed tourism employment and other tourism earnings but the result is that few Italians can afford to live in Venice full time because property prices are so expensive. The population of Venice is declining and many residents are converting their apartments into holiday apartments and renting them out through agents such as the online agent Airbnb. Property prices in Venice are so expensive that even gondaliers who earn on average £95,000 a year can’t afford to rent a decent sized apartment. Thirty years ago 120,000 people lived in Venice but that figure has now dropped to about 55,000.

Many people are also worried about the environmental effects of tourism on Venice, especially from those tourists arriving by cruise ship. In 2014 cruise ships were banned from entering the Venice Lagoon but this decision was overturned several months later. Venetian officials are involved in a corruption scandal so the decision might well change again although there is no denying that cruise ships spoil the skyline as they sail very close to St Marks Square itself. Some would say that it’s a spectacular sight but other critics say that cruise ships are speeding up the destruction of Venice which experts say might well be fully underwater in 80 years time despite the Venetian authorities spending 5 billion Euros on flood defences.

I took this photo of a cruise ship sailing in Venice last year. Make up your own minds whether it’s a good sight or one that should be banned.

Cost cruises in Venice
A Costa Cruise Lines cruise ship enters Venice on its way to the cruise terminal.

I prefer to see Venice without cruise ships and this is a photo I took that shows Venice as it should be.

Gondola on the Grand Canal, Venice
A classic view of Venice without a cruise ship!

Tirano Italy. Start of the Bernina Express Rail Journey.

We arrived in the busy Italian town of Tirano in northern Italy by train from Menaggio on Lake Como. Tirano is actually on the Swiss/Italian border and it is the start of one of the most amazing train journeys in the world.

The Bernina Express starts from Tirano and travels through the streets of the town before heading over the border and climbing high into the Swiss Alps. Our journey was going to take us to the Swiss town of Chur, a journey of over 4 hours through and over some of the most beautiful Swiss mountain scenery.

Apart from the train service running from Tirano there is little else to see and do in Tirano. It’s a pretty place though standing at the foot of some fairly high mountains and you can see snow on the mountain tops even in summer.

There are not many places to stay in Tirano Italy so my advice is to book early. We chose a hotel called the Hotel Corona, which is located only about 100 metres from the train station. Sadly, the hotel is in need of refurbishment and our room was very basic and not the cleanest we have stayed in. There was a notice in the Hotel Corona reception saying that the hotel is to be re-furbished in November 2013 so I hope that makes a big improvement.

There are several places to eat in Tirano but we were there on a Monday and most places were closed in the evening. We found only one place open , a  Chinese restaurant , again this is one restaurant best avoided. We should have known better, Chinese restaurants in Italy are never good!

Before going to the station for the Berina Express which left at 14.10 we had lunch in the lovely Caffe Merizza in Tirano. The food and service was excellent and I can recommend this as a good place to eat.

Tirano is a unique town because the trains that depart from Tirano station actually travel through the streets of the town. It’s quite a sight watching the train go through the streets and I took a video of the train which you can see below.

When we arrived in Tirano there was a huge thunderstorm. The river that runs through Tirano from the mountains was in full flow and the sky was looking angry !

 

Tirano Italy

Watch my video of a train in the streets of Tirano Italy

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zk_mYj3HVL4]

 

Parma – Things to do and where to stay in Parma, Italy.

Things to do and where to stay in Parma, Italy.

 

I have just returned from a trip to Italy and one of the places I visited that I had never been to before, is Parma.

Famous, of course, for ham, Parma also has many reasons to visit. Parma has one of the oldest universities in the world and is also one of the most prosperous places in Italy.

Parma is a city in Emilia-Romagna but it’s only small and easily walkable. The first thing that struck me about Parma was the laid back atmosphere and the cafe culture. You can tell that Parma is a university town by the large number of people cycling around.

Parma has a large choice of places to eat and despite only staying one night we still had time to find a restaurant to try the local Parma ham and I can truly say that it was the most wonderful ham I had ever tasted! Parma ham or prosciutto di Parma is a natural product that uses only the best pork from the Parma region and then salted and left to hang. The methods used and the Parma breezes makes the product unique and very tasty as I can honestly vouch for.

The main reason, though, that we visited Parma was to see Parma Cathedral. This, in my opinion, has to be one of the most amazing cathedrals in the world. The style is Romanesque and the dome has an amazing fresco painted by Renaissance painter Antonio da Correggio. The original construction of Parma Cathedral began in 1059 but the original building was badly damaged in an earthquake. The Gothic belfry was also recently damaged by fire, and at the time we visited it was still being restored.

Whilst the exterior  is amazing enough it’s the interior that has the “wow” factor. As you walk into the cathedral you are immediately struck with the beauty of the intricate frescoes and you marvel at the time and energy that someone has spent creating these works of art.

Where to stay in Parma?  Well, on our visit to Parma we stayed at a very historic and stylish hotel. We stayed at a place very close to the Duomo in the centre of Parma called Palazzo Dalla Rosa Prati. The owner Vittorio Dalla Rosa Prati is very hospitable and the accommodation is excellent. I highly recommend staying at Palazzo Dalla Rosa Prati when you are in Parma.

This is the only place to stay in Parma !

 Palazzo Dalla Rosa Prati

This is the amazing interior of Parma Cathedral with its Renaissance fresco

 Parma Cathedral Fresco Interior 1

This is a photo I took of the exterior of Parma Cathedral

Parma Cathedral Italy

Indulge in a love Trieste

Whilst the quaint city of Trieste is technically within the borders of Italy, those who visit tend to agree that its ‘feel’ is far from Italian.

Located between Venice and the Istrian Peninsula, at the north end of the Adriatic Sea, the city has suffered a turbulent history that has left it with something of an ongoing identity crisis. Until the end of World War 2 Trieste was not part of Italy but was part of the old Yogoslavia.

But its charm, mystery and natural beauties have all contributed to the city becoming one of the most fashionable tourist locations in Europe.

Home to 230,000 people, Trieste is the largest city in Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia Autonomous Region.

Indeed, its inhabitants are one of Trieste’s most fascinating features. Its setting, where the Germanic, Slav and Latin worlds all meet, has ensured a veritable melting pot of cultures.

And this is reflected across the city, be it in the language spoken – Slavic is commonly heard – or the architecture, where Austrian influences are prevalent.

Tourists are drawn to the city’s hill of San Guisto, featuring ruins of a Roman forum, a cathedral, and castle, while karst caves and landscapes highlight nearby natural attractions.

Furthermore, Trieste boasts an expatriate literary tradition, as the likes of James Joyce and Rainer Maria Rilke spent time living and working in the city.

All in all, Trieste is a city deserving of its reputation as an up-and-coming holiday destination.

Venice – Enjoying getting lost

I have been to Venice a few times and I can honestly say that it is probably the most unique city I have ever been to. Here is my advice for anybody thinking of taking a holiday or short break in Venice.

For many the joy of Venice is spoilt by the huge numbers of fellow travellers the head to the floating city to enjoy of its marvels.

However, while the great sites of San Marco’s Square, Rialto Bridge and the endless canals and bridges draw the crowds, by getting lost you can feel like your one of the first people to discover Venice

However you arrive in Venice from the mainland – by bus on the bridge, via vaporetto water bus or by private yacht – the city cannot fail to impress you with its unique character and architecture.

With the crowds in mind the best way to see the sites and not be flustered by the coach-loads is to arrive early, which is easy whether you are staying in Venice itself or in the mainland town of Mestre.

A great starting place is San Marco’s square. The sight of the Doge’s palace, the golden domes of Saint Mark’s Basilica and the surrounding colonnades cannot fail to impress. Looking out over the San Marco Canal and the entrance to the Grand Canal watching the main boats and gondolas you can find time slips away.

To first get your bearings – and an amazing view of Venice and its red tile roofs and churches – climbing Campanile di San Marco, the bell tower of San Marco, is a great idea. For those a little fazed by the innumerable steps there is a lift to the top. Beware though, as the bells strike every hour and Italian health and safety laws let you get a little to close for comfort.

If there are queues for the Campanile di San Marco, nearby down Calle della Vida, the Palazzo Contatini del Bovolo also offers a spiral staircase and some of the most romantic sunset views in Europe.

As the crowds at San Marco’s square start to arrive it is the best time to head out through Venice to discover what is on offer. Armed with a good map it’s almost impossible to get lost, but through the network of Calle you may find retracing your steps impossible. This is well to remember as unless you have a good guide or an impeccable sense of direction any restaurant you discover probably won’t be easy to find again.

As lunch comes the best place to head for to escape the obligatory tourist prices is the Jewish district of Venice. Not many tourists head up here and the restaurants tend to be family-run establishments with very warm atmospheres, a penchant for spoiling children and no menus in English.

The Jewish district itself is a delight, with washing hung between buildings over canals and the architecture quite different as the lack of space meant the only way for the growing population to be housed was through building up and up. The houses seem constantly on the edge of falling down.

Of the many galleries and museums to find in Venice, perhaps the most memorable is the Guggenheim Collection. The former home of Peggy Guggenheim still keeps is very homely atmosphere as you tour her bedroom, lounge, gardens surrounded by works by the greatest artists of the 20th century.

Looking down at a map of Venice you release by getting lost you’ll get a good feeling for the city, but in the end it is a place to return to again and again to get lost again and again.