The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is a curious specimen on the World Heritage list. It is not altogether unremarkable, but also not in any sense surpassing to warrant special recognition. And although its name is fully spelled out on the entry to the list, the inscription is entirely devoted to the famous painting that adorns one of the walls of the adjoining convent’s refectory.
I first stopped by the church more than five years ago. My best exterior picture of it remains from that visit.
This uninspiring interior shot from the most recent visit is indicative of the fact that I did not find the church extraordinary.
Since that previous visit did not include viewing of Leonardo’s The Last Supper, I could not count the World Heritage site as visited. For this trip to Milan, seeing the painting was a priority.
It is not a trivial exercise. Access to the painting is allowed at 15-minute intervals for groups of 30 people. Demand is always significant, so it is impossible to just show up and get in. Prior reservations are essential. I made ours full 3 month in advance.
The access procedure is a bit grotesquely over-secure. Large bags need to be placed in lockers at the ticket office and you have to go through a metal detector at the visitor entrance, which nowadays is par for the course at many important museums. But then you and your group of visitors are ushered through a series of automatic glass doors, which only open once the previous ones have closed behind you and the way forward is deemed clear by an invisible dispatcher. The last set of doors is to the refectory itself; until the previous group completely clears the space and the exit doors are closed behind them, you are not granted entrance.
Before entering, you are warned that taking pictures is not allowed, “because of the copyright”. The staff did not speak sufficiently fluent English to be able to explain who has the copyright and why. The bottom line is that I do not have any shots of my own of the famous painting. All I can offer is this picture of the entrance to the museum.
You end up with roughly those 15 minutes to admire The Last Supper (and one other Leonardo’s work on the opposite wall). For a true connoisseur, the time is clearly inadequate. For a layman admirer, it feels about right, but raises an obvious question whether the time and effort spent was worth of, in effect, one single painting, however remarkable.
The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is either within walking distance or a few stops of the tram away from any location in central Milan. The church itself is free to enter.
To see Cenacolo Vinciano, you can make a reservation for a specific day and time over a phone (the ticketing website proved to be largely useless); if the day of your visit is not flexible from your point of view, you should plan to make this call around 3 months in advance. If calling from the US, get up in the middle of the night to ensure that you can get through to the reservation line at the start of the business day European time; none of my attempts to call when it was already afternoon in Italy were successful.
You can also buy tickets to one of the multitude of Milan walking tours that include the viewing of the painting on itineraries; such tours apparently buy viewing slots wholesale and may have remaining availability much closer to your desired date; the cost, of course, will be significantly higher, but if you are interested in a group walking tour anyway, it might be just an option for you. The tours release their unused tickets back to the general ticket office, which affords a final option for those who do not plan much ahead: either check the last-minute availability by phone (or on the ticketing website – the only time it is useful is for these final-availability purchases) or simply stop by the ticket office and see if anything is available during your stay in Milan – you may get lucky for later the same day or one of the following days if you have time and flexibility of schedule.