10 things to do in Milan during Christmas time

10 things to do in Milan during Christmas time

things to do in milan
Things to do in Milan
Traditionally, Milan’s festive season kicks off in the second week of December. Last weekend, aka Il Ponte, marked its start. That is because that week boasts two religious holidays: Sant’Ambrogio (patron saint of Milan) on December 7th, and the Immacolata, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, on the 8th. Being two consecutive dates, it is easy to mould them into a longer holiday, which in Italian is called fare il ponte (making a bridge). So how do the Milanese celebrate the holiday season? Here are 10 things to do in Milan to get into the Christmas spirit!

1. Take advantage of the Ponte and leave for a Settimana Bianca

Settimana bianca is how Italians call a skiing holiday. The ponte di Sant’Ambrogio is traditionally the first occasion to leave the city for the ski slopes. Back in the 80s and 90s, the golden age of Milan, every Milanese worthy of the name owned a holiday home in Courmayeur, Cortina or Saint Moritz. Today, new generations own fewer holiday houses but haven’t stopped skiing. That’s why airb&b is thriving even on the Alps!

2. Enjoy Bombardino on the ski slopes

Bombardino is the traditional shot Italian skiers drink to warm themselves up between runs. It is made of Vov (an egg-based liqueur) and is served hot with whipped cream on top. The perfect way to boost your energy even on the coldest of days!

3. Decorate the Christmas tree on your return

Traditionally, the Milanese decorate their houses for Christmas during the Sant’Ambrogio weekend. Nowadays, almost everyone has some kind of Christmas tree in their house.  Historically though, Italians celebrate the Nativity with a crèche. The representations of the birth of Jesus can be made with hundreds of tiny statues and even a fully-fledged theatrical set with waterfalls, fairy lights and moving parts. If you want to build a proper Italian crèche, don’t forget that baby Jesus must only be placed in the manger on Christmas Day!

4. Enjoy caldarroste in Piazza Duomo

Roast chestnuts, or caldarroste, are the typical wintery street snack of Milan. Strolling around in Piazza Duomo, you may notice that there are small food stalls at every street corner. They sell sweets, drinks and paper cones full of steamy chestnuts. A must in the cold season!

5. Browse the Milanese Christmas Markets: the Oh Bej! Oh Bej!

The Oh Bej! Oh Bej! are the traditional Christmas markets of Milan. The food and crafts stalls have stood around the edge of the Castello Sforzesco and Parco Sempione each year for more than 500 years! This year, from December 5th to the 8th you will find florists and artisans, prints and books sellers, clothes stalls and plenty of toys and balloons.

Things to do in Milan
Things to do in Milan

6. Buy the right Panettone

The favourite dessert of the Milanese during this time of the year is undeniably the Panettone. The word “panettone” derives from the Italian word panetto, a small loaf cake. In 1919, Angelo Motta revolutionised the traditional panettone, giving it its tall domed shape by making the dough rise three times, for almost 20 hours, before cooking, giving it its now-familiar light texture. The historical Milanese pasticceria where you can buy a traditional Panettone to make a bella figura (a good impression) with your Italian friends is Cova, via Montenapoleone, 8. Panettone (or Pandoro, the version without candied fruit) is usually served with a mascarpone cream of which you can find the recipe here. Otherwise you can also try the German version that we collected in our international recipes here.

7. Drink some Vin Brulé in the churchyard after the Christmas Eve mass, listening to the Zampognari

A religious tradition in Italy is to attend the midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Traditionally, it is a very special mass, with a choir singing Christmas songs and a live Nativity scene. At the end of the mass, people usually linger outside the church to exchange wishes and toasts. Vin Brulé -spiced wine- and the traditional Panettone are usually served in exchange for a small offering. If you are lucky there might also be a group of bagpipers playing the Christmas carols (aka the Zampognari).

8. Lose money while playing Mercante in fiera

Every Milanese kid has played Mercante in Fiera (Merchant at the Fair) at least once in their life. This card game is very popular in Italy, especially during Christmas time. I won’t try to explain it here, firstly because there are already some pretty decent English guides online and secondly because half of the fun comes from your tipsy Italian friends trying to teach it to you!

9. Dress up for a Christmas concert in Brera

Every year, the Accademia musicale di Brera performs a concert of Christmas songs. A must-do for anyone wanting to enjoy a Christmas-themed night out in one of the fanciest districts in town.

10. Ice skate in Gae Aulenti

Spend an afternoon ice skating with the kids in between the Milanese skyscrapers in Gae Aulenti Square.

Travel back in time in this 8 wicked locations around the world

Travel back in time in this 8 wicked locations around the world

One of the things that really thrills me when it comes to travel, is the feeling of going back in time. I love the poetry of places that have kept strong customs and tradition for centuries. Those which stay true to their culture, either because of the scarcity of contact with the outside world or for the pride of their people. This is pure travel magic for me.
Today I collected eight of this magical places. Some are easy to reach, while others are hidden corners of rural regions that I found strolling around with a motorbike and that I would struggle to place on a map myself. Or maybe I just want to keep them secret for a little bit longer. But you can read their story and see some pictures further below. So keep on reading and follow me in this very special trip back in time.


Places to travel back in time

1. The holy city of Varanasi, India

Varanasi is a place of life and death. India’s oldest and holiest city, it has been sitting on the sacred waters of Ganges since 1200 BC. The ones who get cremated on its shores attain peace, stopping the endless reincarnation cycle. Varanasi is quintessential India: sharp contrasts, devoted spirituality, dirt, flowers, life, sickness, death. Everything happens under the sun: the funeral processions, the chanting and the burning never stop. The codified movements of the low cast wood porters and the experienced acts of the corps burners have been unchanged for centuries. The same goes for the traditional wooden boats, the crumbling temples and buildings, the sunset puja ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat, the sadus, the pilgrims bathing just a few meters downstream of the burning ghats, the ladies washing their laundry, the lepers, the wandering cows, the stray dogs and the goats. Everything is timeless.


Places to travel back in time

2. The hill tribes’ villages around Kentung, Myanmar

The small town of Kentung is hidden between the mountains of Shan State, in the eastern Myanmar area known as the Golden Triangle, where China, Thailand and Myanmar meet. A place full of charm and history, once renown for the cultivation of opium and drug trafficking. The surrounding area is the home of more than 30 local ethnicities like Akha, Lahu, Wa and of course Shan. You can spot tribes people at the local market early in the morning, sometimes donning colourful traditional costumes. But the best way to meet them is hiking or biking to their hill villages. One of my biggest regrets is that the day of the hike I felt super sick, so I only have a few poor pictures and I couldn’t really hike a lot. We weren’t hiring any guide; we just went around the area with two local motorbike drivers. We met Akha ladies with black theeths, local men dragging huge logs for construction, armed hunters (with rifles dating back to the 50’s) and we crossed a couple of villages with wooden made aqueducts and every sort of wind chimes. Probably one of my best experiences in Myanmar.


Places to travel back in time

3. The hidden fishing island of Pulau Weh, Indonesia

Pulau Weh is a tiny island north of Sumatra. It’s the northern tip of Indonesia. Miraculously spared from the 2004 tsunami, Pulau Weh is a fishermen’s island slowly converting to tourism (the enforced Sharia law still keeps the crowds at bay). A mecca for divers, it still holds the feeling of a lost paradise covered in jungle. Riding a motorbike all around the island is an adventure in itself. The winding single track road crosses the thick jungle and the local monkey’s territory. Be mindful if you meet one sitting in the middle of the road staring at you, that’s their home and they’re ready to fight for it!


4. Folegandros, the forgotten Cyclade, Greece

This tiny pearl of the Cyclades is a couple of hour boat ride from crowded Santorini and Ios. Probably because of its famous neighbours, Folegandros has been spared by mass tourism. Its bare hills are mostly populated by goats and dotted with white and blue orthodox churches. Almost ten years ago, while hiking there with friends, I heard silence for the first time. Most of the fishermen live downhill, close to the port or in the Chora (the main village), a place where time seems to have stop fifty years ago. The cobblestone lanes are lined with white and blue houses decorated with colourful flowers. The local eateries often display the catch of the day, so it’s not rare to see octopus hanging on a line outside of a restaurant. The dream-like turquoise beaches are usually reachable only on foot, hiking for a good hour. If you get lost, do not fear: ask the local toothless men. Some of them are so old that they can still say a few words in Italian.


Places to travel back in time

5. The mountain district of Val Brembana, Italian Alps

The valley of the river Brembo, aka Val Brembana, connects the smooth Bergamo hills with the high peaks of the Italian Alps. This is a wonderful place to go hiking, with paths ranging from mildly steep to vertical ice peaks. The communities that live here are mostly tiny villages scattered on the slopes of the valley. A bunch of stone houses perched upon cobblestone lanes and an old church. The feeling of history and remoteness lingers there all year long, but the best time to visit is in summer, when communities are alive with local Patron Saint festivals, which usually include a Catholic rite, traditional dancing, music and a shitload of local tasty food. Unmissable.


6. The lush rural villages in Barisal region, Southern Bangladesh

This is an example of what I mean by not being able to locate a place on the map anymore. I went to Bangladesh in 2014, following my aunt while she was checking on the many projects she built there with her NGO. Southern Bangladesh is a thick jungle full of water and life. Rivers, ponds and lotus flowers are the typical rural scenario there. Following the maze of tracks that cross the rice fields and the fishing ponds, you end up in tiny villages made of straw huts. Their curious people can be Muslim, Indus or even Catholic. I was there just after the rice harvest. The grains were laid out on a cloth to dry in the sun. So were dung patties, used as a stove fuel.


Places to travel back in time

7. Hill tribe villages around Tham Lot, Northern Thailand

Another gem of the Golden Triangle is the Mae Hong Son region in Northern Thailand. Bordering Myanmar, for decades now it has been the home of local tribes as well as of refugies from Myanmar. From the lush village of Tham Lot you can start long hikes on the hills, were local families don’t wear the old costumes anymore but still keep their legacy alive, staying in traditional huts and living off farming and the spare cow or chicken.


8. Oudong, the former royal capital of Cambodia

I know that when thinking of timeless Cambodia, the mind goes straight to the centuries-old Angkor Wat temples. Which surely is a wonderful display of Khmer history, but it’s also jam-packed with tourists all year long, so that it’s not easy to feel the magic. A lesser known historical site is city of Oudong, the former royal capital of Cambodia, a few kilometers away from Phnom Penh. A complex of temples and palaces from the 19th century, nestled in a thick jungle inhabited by a band of monkeys. Climbing the 509 stone steps to the hill top temple will reward you with astonishing views of the surrounding countryside. That’s the thing, all around there isn’t any touristy infrastructure. Instead, the countryside is dotted with rural villages bustling with life. People going around for their daily chores in old Vietnamese bicycles. Kids going to school in outdated (but super cute) uniforms, chickens running, everyone shouting hello and eventually pointing in the direction of Phnom Penh for you: the dusty red tracks that connect one village to the other have no road signs. [SEE CAMBODIA GALLERY]