Around the world and back
Our first Chinese experience

Angela and I recently completed a lengthy trip that covered most of the circumference of the Earth and visited a variety of distinct locations. Over the course of three weeks, we stopped in Houston, London, Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Lucerne, Zurich, and Milan before returning home. To illustrate our route, here’s an image displaying the different legs we flew (divided by stopovers of greater than 24 hours). Click the image for a larger version with more detail.

The trip was somewhat involved to plan and prepare for, but it was well worth it. We accomplished what we wanted and saw things that I would have considered pipe dreams only a few years ago. We also learned a lot about ourselves and our personal priorities and what that means for our future travel.

I won’t be discussing the booking for this trip as there’s not much interesting to be said. I found great cash rates on several different fares through the FlyerTalk Premium Fare Deals forum and nested them to create our trip. For one-way hops, I used airline miles to book what would otherwise be oppressively expensive fares. For the hotels, I found properties with the amenities I wanted in convenient locations and booked the cheapest refundable rate, checked back every week to see if the prices had decreased, and rebooked our room if they had.

Our start in the Lone Star State

The fare I booked to get us from the United States to Europe originated in Houston. Luckily, we have family in the city so we flew in a day early to ensure that we’d have some time to spend with them. After a night at the Houston Airport Marriott at George Bush Intercontinental, we were picked up by the Young family and took to breakfast for a morning of high-spirited conversation and catching up. It was so nice to see members of our extended family, even if it was only for a few hours. Unfortunately, in all our frivolity we forgot to take any pictures of our small family gathering!

From Houston, we flew to London via Dallas on American Airlines. The flight was a delight, with comfortable seats and relatively good service. I would say that American Airlines’s business class seats on their 77W are in the top three of all business class seats we’ve flown and would recommend them to anyone. I’d go so far as to say they might be superior to the 77W first class seats in many ways.

A delicious start in London

Once in London, we checked in to the Moxy London Heathrow, rested for a bit, and then headed into the city center for some delicious food at Dishoom. We specifically visited this restaurant after seeing several mentions of it across social media it did not disappointed. It is said that the second best place to get traditional Indian food is London and, if Dishoom is any indication, that consensus isn’t wrong. We enjoyed lamb biryani, chicken ruby, garlic naan, and a delicious rice-based dessert.

One caveat is that we did have to wait for about an hour for our evening meal at the Covent Garden location. The restaurant’s servers were happy to ply us with warm drinks to make the wait more palatable, though, and the food was good enough that I’d wait again.

Art and afternoon tea, a delightful combination

Our second day in London started at The National Gallery, yet another treasure trove of European art. We enjoyed wandering the galleries and discussing our favorites. The artwork on display ranged from late-medieval to the modern era.

The National Gallery isn’t The Louvre or The Uffizi, but it is worth a stop if you’re an admirer of the visual arts and I’m glad we visited it.

After leaving the gallery we walked to The Ampersand Hotel for their themed Science Afternoon Tea. The Drawing Room restaurant, where we took tea, was beautifully eclectic with interesting art and eye-catching decor.

The star of the show, though, was the tea service itself. It was fun and tasty and a great twist on a classic British experience.

After our treats, we headed north to walk through Hyde Park and work off some of the calories we’d just consumed. We stumbled upon the Albert Memorial shortly after entering and spent a few minutes admiring the symbolism contained therein.

We walked along The Long Water, a hilariously British name for a body of water, and around the Princess Diana fountain. We were lucky enough to spot a few dachshunds, along with many other good dogs, along the way. Eventually, we exited and returned to our hotel for a workout and a good night’s sleep to prepare for the continuation of our journey.

Off to China (via Frankfurt)

We awoke bright and early for our one-stop flight to Beijing. Skipping breakfast at the hotel, we visited the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge at London Heathrow which had a fairly standard array of breakfast items. While we had access to the Senator Lounge, on account of our first class connections, we skipped it because it was much more crowded than the Business Class Lounge and didn’t offer anything exclusive in terms of food or beverage.

After a short hop to Frankfurt, we were invited to the First Class Lounge nearby the gate where we landed. We were greeted by name, informed we’d be driven to our plane at boarding time, and invited to enjoy the amenities of the lounge. The First Class Lounges in Frankfurt all have spas, shower rooms, resting rooms, and full restaurants. We were asked what we’d like to drink, ate some good food (although my steak was overcooked), and had deep conversations about the philosophy of life before Angela went off to grab a nap while I did some work.

Before long, it was time to leave for China. A lounge attendant found us and led us to a Porsche for transport to our flight. After waiting a few minutes for another passenger, we were driven directly to an elevator that deposited us in front of the boarding door.

We entered, took our seats in the nose of the 747-8i, and started enjoying Lufthansa’s first class experience. The flight was great from start to finish and is a touchstone experience that I will be unlikely to forget. I particularly enjoyed the caviar service prior to dinner and the bedding that allowed us to get a good five hours of sleep during the relatively short flight.

We were met at the gate upon exiting the plane, whisked through customs (where our Chinese visas were carefully checked), and into a car to take us to the JW Marriott Hotel Beijing Center, our home for the next five nights. We had intended on hitting the ground running in China, but the ride to our hotel took longer than anticipated and we were both somewhat tired, so we spent the afternoon and evening resting.

Visiting the Summer Palace, our first exposure to Chinese tourism

We were up early the next morning, ate a deliciously varied breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant, and headed out for our first stop, The Summer Palace. We walked to the subway stop nearby our hotel, bought our single ride tickets, and then encountered a security checkpoint for the first time. Luckily, these checkpoints didn’t slow us down in any meaningful way – a simple bag scan and wanding with the metal detector and you’re through.

We arrived at The Summer Palace right around opening and I’m glad we did because we beat the mass of people who would arrive later. We bought tickets and headed inside where we slowly made our way around the circumference. We enjoyed the Chinese architecture, including several temples and pagodas. Much of The Summer Palace had to be rebuilt in 1860 after China’s defeat in the Second Opium War so very few of the structures were original to the initial construction.

Of particular interest on the grounds is the famed Marble Boat, a lake-side pavilion. The construction of this particular structure was fraught with acrimony as state funds meant for naval forces were diverted to build it.

The man-made lake that occupies three-quarters of The Summer Palace is impressive in size and scope and, on most days, offers pleasure cruises and paddle boat rides. Unfortunately, there was a wind gust warning for the day we visited and we were unable to get out on the water. We did enjoy sitting alongside it, though, and taking in a peaceful view of the lake and the surrounding scenery (even as a ton of people passed behind us).

We learned a couple of important things in our five hours at The Summer Palace. First, it was going to be hot and humid with little relief during our stay in China and it was definitely going to affect how we structured our days. We were beat after the first half day of tourist activities! Second, we were going to be much closer to many more people than we are used to in our day-to-day lives.

Cognizant of our plans for the following day, we decided to head back to the hotel in the early afternoon, get a work out in, get some work done, and grab a bite. We were asleep shortly after dinner and looking forward to the next day.

A hike to the Great Wall and some traditional Chinese food

I wanted us to have a unique experience with the Great Wall of China. After combing through various options, I eventually found Wild Great Wall, a tour company specializing in single and multiple day trips to the Great Wall from Beijing. I contacted them to get a recommendation for an adventure and, after some back and forth, we settled on a one-day guided tour from Jiankou to Mutianyu.

After breakfast, we met our guide for the day, Tony, and set off on our way. Our first stop was the base of a mountain about two hours from Beijing. Apparently, hiking the non-restored sections of the wall isn’t legal, but our guide assured us that it was only a “small crime.” Of course, this “small crime” had a giant sign associated with it.

We hiked upwards for about an hour before reaching the first guard tower of our visit. At the guard tower, we climbed a ladder made of wooden rods lashed together with some thin wire. It was a little scary to feel that ladder flexing underneath me in a way that it didn’t underneath Tony or Angela.

Following a short ascent, we were on top of a guard tower pretty high up in the hills with an incredible view of the surrounding landscape, including several distinct sections of the Great Wall. We stopped to take plenty of pictures before continuing on our way.

Our walk on the Jiankou section of the wall was adventurous. The wall is not dissimilar to a pile of rubble in many places and we found ourselves walking through a small jungle bursting through a pile of bricks at times.

After about an hour and a half, we found our way to the intersection of the Jiankou and Mutianyu sections of the wall. In order to transition between the sections, we shimmied along a five inch wide ledge around a guard tower and walked through a very narrow passageway that might have been related to water runoff.

From there, we were no longer alone as the Mutianyu section is much more popular with tourists given that it is rebuilt and safe. We walked down the Stairway to Heaven, through a crowd of people gathered at each of the next six guard towers, and made the decision to descend the rest of the way via cable car. After queueing for about twenty minutes, we were lucky enough to get into the car that Michelle Obama rode on her visit to the Great Wall. The views on the way down were great and both Angela and I were happy to not have to walk anymore given we had a lot of vacation left.

We met our driver at the parking lot outside the main entrance and were whisked off to a local restaurant for lunch. We hadn’t planned on having lunch as part of the trip given how hot we were, but it was included so we decided to give it a shot. I’m glad we did because it was absolutely delicious. Our guide brought us to a family restaurant (after asking us “Do you like Chinese food?” as if we were going to say no) where they served us huge portions of a few delicious dishes.

After lunch, it was a smooth two hour ride back to the hotel. We talked to our guide about China and what he thought about the United States. He said he’d like to visit, but doesn’t like that there are guns everywhere and that the police torture black people. That informed my understanding of how Chinese people view the United States.

Visiting the Forbidden City, a failed attempt

We awoke early and ready to tackle the Forbidden City. After a delicious breakfast, we hopped on the subway and headed to the station directly south of Tiananmen Square. We exited into a huge mass of people at 07:30 and stood in line for about 45 minutes to get through a security check. After security, we headed straight to the Forbidden City as I knew tickets could sell out, but I figured if we got there within five minutes of opening we’d be able to score some.

To make a long story short, we did not procure entrance tickets on this day and, while I knew that was a possibility, I was very disappointed. I resolved that we would get there earlier the next day and make sure we were one of the first ones to the ticket office. Why didn’t we buy tickets in advance? You can only buy tickets in advance through a Chinese language website with a Chinese bank account and, unfortunately, that made the whole process untenable for us. While you can purchase tickets through an agency like Viator or Trip.com, I did not feel like paying a ridiculous upcharge to include a tour I wasn’t really interested in. In retrospect, I should have just asked the concierge to purchase them and charge them to my room, but hindsight is 20/20.

We exited the Forbidden City to the east and walked directly north to Jingshan Park. After paying a very small entrance fee, we wandered the park for a couple of hours, spending quite a bit of time at the Wanchun Pavilion that overlooks the Forbidden City. The vistas were fairly incredible as it gave you a full view of the scope of the Forbidden City.

We admired the architecture of the five pavilions in the park before walking several miles through Beijing back to our hotel. It was hot and humid, but I always love the opportunity to ambulate through a new city. I took some pictures of the government buildings I found interesting.

We stopped at Starbucks to see what their regional specialty drink was in China and ordered some fizzy fruit refreshers with boba tea balls in them. They were pretty good. Angela then successfully negotiated ordering an ice cream cone – who says language barriers have to mean anything? After all that, it was up to our room to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for an even earlier day the next morning.

Visiting the Forbidden City, a success story

Knowing that we had to be at the Forbidden City early, we took a different route through a smaller security line. We got off the subway at Tiananmen West station and made it through the checkpoint in about two minutes, considerably shorter than the previous day. We headed inside to the ticket area and were herded into a crowd of, conservatively, 750 individuals. We were packed like sardines with others physically trying to move us or refusing to scoot backwards as police officers attempted to force us into straight lines. It was a distinctly uncomfortable experience – hot, sweaty, in a crowd of a ton of people who do not care to leave any space at all between one another – but it was necessary to get what we wanted.

At precisely 8:30, police officers opened the gates and directed people in a surprisingly orderly manner into the Forbidden City. We were the tenth people in line for tickets and were able to secure them without any issues. Interestingly, you’re not issued actual tickets – the agent just types in your passport number and then, when you go to the entrance, they type in your passport number again before letting you in.

Anyways, we headed inside the Forbidden City and it was just as massive as promised. We wandered for hours, snapping photos and admiring the layout and architecture of the Imperial residence. A huge section of the complex is devoted to the Empress Dowager Cixi, who lived within its walls while her son was emperor. Talk about being a mama’s boy.

After we exited the palace, we walked back to the subway and headed to the hotel. Now is a good time to mention that, in Beijing and Shanghai, there are a lot of electric scooters and they believe that they qualify as pedestrians so you’re constantly dodging them as you’re walking on the sidewalks. It was fairly unpleasant, but better than gasoline motors, I suppose. Anyways, Angela had to literlaly stiff arm a scooter who wasn’t looking and almost accelerated directly into her. It was sudden, and she handled it like a Heisman trophy winning running back.

We decided to try Chinese KFC because we’d heard that it was different than back in the United States and because it is somewhat of a cultural touchstone as the most popular fast food restaurant in the country. We both ordered the Dragon Twister, a tortilla wrapped piece of fried chicken with cucumbers vegetables and duck sauce. I was surprised by how tasty it was! Angela also ordered an egg tart and enjoyed it.

Off to Xi’an on China’s high-speed rail

To get around within China, we opted to use the high-speed rail system connecting the major cities. I purchased our tickets in advance from China Highlights and had them delivered directly to our hotel. There were three classes for the trains we were looking at: Second Class, First Class, and Business Class (in ascending price order). The Second Class and First Class were both standard commuter train seats in more and less dense configurations, respectively. The Business Class seats were more like little pods with padding that could be configured as seats or beds. It was a bit of a splurge, to be quite frank, but it was worth it to be comfortable on the 4.5 and 6.5 hour rides that we had.

Anyways, we took a taxi from our hotel to the Beijing West train station, quickly passed through security (once we figured out which desk we were supposed to go to), and relaxed in the business class lounge while we waited for our train. We were able to exit to the platform directly from the lounge and walked all the way to the end of the train to board our coach.

The seats were very comfortable, we were served green tea almost immediately, and were given a snack box full of small delights. The ride passed without incident and, before long, we were in Xi’an.

We again grabbed a taxi from Xi’an Bei to our hotel, the Renaissance Xi’an where we checked in and were surprised with an upgrade to a Junior Suite from a base level room. Incredibly, we were treated to the single biggest hotel room we’ve ever stayed in. It was definitely the nicest room I’ve ever inhabited outside of a super luxury property. While we were thinking of getting out into Xi’an that evening, we decided to take advantage of our luck and relaxed in our room to rest for the next day’s activity.

Experiencing the Terracotta Army

After a tasty breakfast in the lounge, we met our guide for the day in the lobby. She escorted us out to our car and relayed to us a brief history of Xi’an and a contemporary reading of the city and its province during our hour long ride to the Terracotta Army Museum. The guide secured our tickets and escorted us to the museum complex itself.

As with the other tourist destinations we visited in China, this place was packed with visitors, mostly domestic tourists. Almost everyone was in a tour group of some kind so the whole area was saturated with flapping flags and hanging stuffed animals as the groups were ushered from place to place. After wading through the herd, we eventually made it into the first pit complex (and were presented with another mob of people).

It was much larger than we expected it to be, spanning the length of multiple football fields. The figures within the pits were incredible in their variety and number. It seemed like about 20% of the pits had been escavated at this point, with many of the figures having been restored or reconstructed.

There are five statues, in particular, that were discovered in excellent condition. They are displayed separately in secure display cases. Our guide told us about each in turn so we didn’t have to fight through the crowd to try to read the signs.

We visited the remaining pits and saw the command cadre and more statues from the army. It is hard to describe, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

At the end of the day, we left the museum complex and walked through a small market area (promoted by the region, apparently), and were driven back to our hotel. Again, we decided to spend the early evening relaxing in preparation for our upcoming travels. However, we came to the conclusion that we’d definitely return to Xi’an in order to enjoy the other sights.

Another trip on the tracks – off to Shanghai

Our next destination was Shanghai, the cosmopolitan city on the coast and a modern metropolis. We took a taxi to the train station we’d arrived at two days prior and hopped on another high-speed train. From this train station, we took a taxi to our hotel in the middle of Puxi, the JW Marriott Hotel Shanghai at Tomorrow Square.

The Executive Lounge featured an afternoon tea service, which we prevailed ourselves of on the first afternoon, and had views of Pudong, including the World Financial Centre and Shanghai Tower. The same views were present from our room.

We rested and prepared ourselves for the following day.

Two non-traditional museums, a temple, and getting accused of passing counterfeits

After a delightful breakfast, we headed off to our first destination, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center. This museum recounts the rise and development of Shanghai, from a sleepy fishing village to the mega city that it has become. It also spells out goals for the ongoing development of the city in the future, including sustainability, the expansion of urban green space, and stable population targets.

It was quite fascinating. We both particularly enjoyed the side-by-side photos of mid-century Shanghai and modern Shanghai.

Also, the scale model of the city was amazing.

Finally, there was an art exhibition inside of the exhibition center. We loved some of the art pieces and pictures don’t really do them justice.

After the exhibition, we hopped on the subway and headed to our next destination, the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. We walked towards the indicated location and eventually saw a sign pointing us into a residential area where we took some stairs down to a basement to buy tickets.

I saw on TripAdvisor a review that said “If this sounds like something you will enjoy, you will enjoy it.” I would say that is an accurate sentiment. The art was varied and interesting and encompassed various eras of Communist China, spanning Chairman Mao’s rule and that of his successors. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside. We bought a book, though, so if you’re interested in seeing some of the posters, please ask us!

While the museum was excellent, we were left with a sour taste in our mouth after visiting the shop. We purchased the book using a 100 CNY note and a 50 CNY note. The 50 CNY note had been handed to us as change when we bought our tickets. After handing over the notes and, as we were on our way out the door, we were stopped and told that we were trying to pay with counterfeit cash. I stated that was impossible as Angela informed me where we had received the 50 CNY note. We left without paying more, but the whole incident left me wondering whether they were trying to scam us or if it was truly coincidental.

With that incident resolved, we walked over to Jing’an temple, home to several notable statues of the Buddha, one of wood, one of jade, and one of silver.

From Jing’an, we took the subway back to our hotel where we went for a brief walk through People’s Park and got to pay witness to the marriage market, a vestigial remnant of old China where parents try to arrange marriages for their offspring.

After that, we got a great workout in – of course, we had to take a shot to prove it or you don’t get the gains.

A walk along the waterfront and dining with the locals

We enjoyed a filling breakfast and started off into the city to do our customary exploration on foot in spite of the air quality warning that we were dealing with. From our hotel, it was a short walk to the Huang Pu river and we slowly wandered west and then north along the natural bend, enjoying the parks along its banks. As we walked along the river on the Puxi side, we encountered the Monument to the People’s Heroes and saw The Bund, a sampling of colonial Shanghai, up close. We rounded the bend to the north and then took the subway under the river to the the Pudong side.

We continued our walk and marveled, up close, at the World Financial Centre and Shanghai Tower. We took many pictures of the Oriental Pearl Tower. We walked through a huge fancy mall looking for a doughnut shop that was not actually there. Eventually, when we had seen all we wanted to see, we headed back to our hotel to freshen up.

I didn’t want to leave Shanghai without eating their signature dish, xiaolongbao (soup dumplings). Before our trip, someone had recommend Jia Jia Tan Bao as the best vendor in the city, so we walked the half mile to the shop and got in line with twenty others, all of whom looked to be looks. When we reached the front of the line, there were only a few types left and we chose pork and egg yolk. We sat down at a table with some others and patiently awaited our dumplings.

They were absolutely fantastic. In fact, they were probably the best thing we ate the entire time we were in China. I wish we had ordered double what we did. I would go back and stand in line again without question. On top of the pork and egg yolk dumplings, we also got to try crab dumplings because our tablemates decided they were full and generouly offered them to us. They were good, too, but I definitely preferred the pork.

After that, it was back to the hotel to pack up and prepare for our onward journey out of China.

An afternoon in Hong Kong

We awoke early for a lengthy taxi ride to Pudong airport outside of Shanghai for the three hour flight down to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. Upon arrival we stowed our bags at the airport, purchased two round-trip Airport Express tickets, and set off into the city.

Our first stop was Yum Cha, where we visited on our previous trip to Hong Kong. We ate a wider variety of dishes on this visit, but I was happy to order, pose with, and eat the BBQ pork bun as before. The custard buns, which we did not order last time, were especially amazing.

After lunch, we went off in search of a book store and then multiple comic shops to try to find a Chinese language TMNT comic for one of our friends. Unfortunately, our search was for naught as we were unable to find one. With luck, though, we ended up nearby a top-rated egg waffle shop.

Mammy Pancake is a small vendor tucked away on a non-descript street. It is also Michelin star rated, and for good reason. The egg waffles we ordered, both plain and coffee flavored, were delicious and well worth going out of the way for. We ate them as we slowly walked back to the subway and headed back to the airport.

At the airport, we relaxed in the Singapore Krisflyer First Class lounge where we each enjoyed a much-needed shower after a day on the streets in Hong Kong. Before long, we were up in the air and on our way to Zurich in Swiss Airlines First Class. Angela and I both enjoyed dinner and then fell asleep for a majority of the flight to Switzerland.

A wonderful day in Lucerne and Zurich, Switzerland

On arrival in Zurich we were met at the door by a Swiss Airlines representative and escorted to a van with our fellow First Class passengers. The representative asked if we wished to enter Switzerland or go to the lounge for our entire layover. Given that our layover was 14 hours, we decided to enter the country for the day and hopefully see some pretty scenery.

The van we were in dropped some passengers off at the lounge and then took us to a special passport control desk. Our passports were stamped with entry into the Schengen Area, we returned to the van, and we were dropped directly at customs from which we walked out and to the train station.

We stowed our luggage in lockers at the train station, purchased two tickets to Lucerne, and got on our way. A little over an hour later we were walking out of the train station and into one of the most beautiful cities that we’ve ever been to. The view of the surrounding mountains was beautiful. The city was quaint and walkable. We saw the historic Chapel Bridge and the Lion Monument. We bought chocolate and ate half of it. It was an excellent journey.

We considered visiting Pilatus and taking The Golden Circle route there and back, but I didn’t want us to be rushed and decided we’d do it on a return trip to Switzerland (which I have since booked).

We got on the train back to Zurich airport, but decided to hop off at Zurich’s main station on the way to explore that city as well. Again, it was absolutely gorgeous. We walked from the train station, along the river, to Lake Zurich, crossing the river along the way for closer views of the Fraumunster and Grossmunster. We sauntered through the old city and came upon a fair before stopping at Movenpick for some of the best tasting ice cream I’ve ever had. Once we reached the Zurich Opera House, we doubled back and made our way to the train station and returned to the airport.

Once at the airport, we enjoyed our time in the First Class Lounge where we were treated to a delicious restaurant dining experience and all the cappuccinos I desired. Eventually, it was time for us to leave. We got on a plane bound for London, returned to the Moxy near London Heathrow airport for the night, and rested up for our trip to Milan the next day.

A luxury stay in Milan

We checked out early, grabbed some light bites at London Heathrow before our flight, and flew to Milan. Once there, we walked to the train station and took the Malpensa Express to Milan Centrale Station. Our base for the next few days, the Excelsior Hotel Gallia was directly across the street so we checked in, dropped our bags, and set off into the city to explore while we waited for our room to be ready.

Unfortunately, our first two days in Milan were also the apogee of an unfortunate summer cold for me, so I was having a rough go of it and looked a bit like Rudolph given my tissue usage, but I was determined to have a good time!

We walked through a park in the central business district on the way to Cimitero Monumentale di Milano, an ostentatious display of wealth and patronage from Milan’s leading families. The gravemarkers, tombs, and mausoleums were undeniably artistically and architecturally impressive, but the amount of wealth that was used for the preservation of the dead left both Angela and me with a bit of a conflicted feeling.

After wandering the cemetery for a couple of hours, we wandered around for a bit and, eventually, made our way back to the hotel. I hadn’t yet been notified that our room was ready so we sat in the bar and ate a pizza for lunch and Angela enjoyed her first Aperol spritz of the trip. Eventually our room was ready, and it was definitely worth the wait. Our suite had a separate sitting area and bedroom, an enormous bathroom with a soaking tub and shower with a steam unit, and enough closet space for both of us to store all of our clothing.

We had made reservations for the night, but decided to cancel them in the interest of getting to bed early and heading off any further illness. Besides, we had a big day the next day!

A guided tour through Milan’s most famous sites and sampling the signature dish

After an amazing breakfast, including multiple of the best cappuccinos either one of us has had, we set off for Santa Maria delle Grazie, the starting point for our half-day tour. The tour starts there because it is home to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, one of his most famous pieces. Our group eventually coalesced, our guide gave us a brief introduction, and we headed inside. It was a real treat to visit the church and see the painting, so unique for its time. Even through the damage and wear of so many years, you can see the masterpiece and imagine how stunning it must have been when it was first created.

After fifteen minutes, our time with the masterpiece was over and we headed out into the city itself. We walked through Parco Sempione on the way to the Sforza Castle where we walked through the courtyard and admired the architecture of this ducal home. After a brief break, we continued to La Scalla, the world famous opera house. From there, we journeyed through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an upscale shopping and dining center built in honor of the unifier of Italy, and arrived in Piazza del Duomo.

To say the Milan Cethederal is stunning is accurate, but insufficient. The large square gives you an incredible view of the building and our guide provided us with some background on its design and construction. We walked slowly around the edifice and our tour ended at the back. This was perfect, because Angela and I had purchased tickets to the cathedral’s rooftop and the entrance was directly adjacent to our final point on the tour.

We went through security and took the elevator to the top where we were treated to details of the wonderful architecture and some truly beautiful views of the construction and its encompassing square. We sat for a while on the rooftop just taking everything in.

We slowly circumnavigated the exterior before descending into the cathedral, admiring the architecture, visiting the Crypt of Saint Charles Borromeo, before finishing up in the archaeological area that exposed the ruins on top of which the modern cathedral was built. We also stopped in the Museo Duomo to examine some of the artifacts

After exiting, we headed back through the Galleria and stopped at Biffi for a late lunch to fill us up for the rest of the day. Angela and I both ordered the osso bucco and risotto ala Milanesa. The dishes were exquisite and the service was good. Generally, a place like that could be a tourist trap with an overpriced menu and mediocre food. We were very happy that wasn’t the case.

From there, we headed to La Scalla for our scheduled tour of the opera house. We arrived early and the tour was delayed due to ongoing rehearsals, so we spent our time perusing the on-site museum, popped out for some gelato, and then returned to join up with our guide. We were lucky to be able visit the royal box, box seats that had been left in their original condition during the latest restoration, and floor seats that gave a grand view of the stage. The guide also showed us the backstage area and described how the venue is able to exhibit so many performances every year due to its unique, and voluminous, area behind the curtain. The mechanics were absolutely incredible, in my opinion.

With that, our day was complete and the active part of our short stay in Milan was done. The following day, we consciously decided to enjoy our luxury hotel with a leisurely breakfast, some lounging in our room, a delightful workout in the on-site fitness room, and an evening of looking through the many pictures that we took, some of which are included in this blog post.

The long journey home

We checked out early the next morning, unfortunately having to skip breakfast (and the delicious cappuccinos) to get to our flight on time, and headed to the train for which I had bought tickets the night before. Unfortunately, all of the Malpensa Express trains were cancelled because of strike action, so we had to come up with another way to the airport. Our initial idea was to grab a taxi, but I noticed a sign for an airport bus, we headed that way, and were able to pick up a few tickets before stepping on. The bus got us to the airport earlier than the train would have, somehow, and we were on our way from there. It was a long day of travel that included several lounges, British Airways and American Airlines flights, security screenings, and, eventually, our home.

We had a wonderful trip and I was happy with the way things worked out. Some parts were more enjoyable than others, and China presented a culture shock that I was slightly unprepared for, but I think we both dealt with it as best we could. Was China our favorite place we’ve ever gone? I think I can safely answer no. We got to see the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army, two destinations that were on our personal lists of desired sights, and the trip was worth it for that fact alone.

Would I fly the long way to Asia again? I do not think so. We made a special exception in order to fly Lufthansa and Swiss First Class and experience their ground services, but now that we’ve done so, I wouldn’t do it again. On our next trip to China (or anywhere else in Asia) we’ll be flying TPAC with a stop in Japan, Hong Kong, Taipei, or Singapore on the way to our final destination.