Let’s face it, Milan is likely not on the top of most lists for first-time visitors to Italy. In fact, most tourists think there is little of substance to see in Milan and inevitably avoid Italy’s second largest city. It’s hard to argue with this thinking when Rome, Florence, and Venice draw most visitors looking to experience Italy for the first time.
It took us five visits to Italy to finally find our way to Milan. And while it does not have the depth of sites and experiences that some of Italy’s other highly acclaimed cities offer, it does hold its own with plenty of historical sites, museums, culture, and history. In no particular order, these are my top ten sites and experiences to check out while visiting Milan.
Cathedral of Milan
When it comes to Cathedrals, it doesn’t get much grander than the Duomo di Milan. Billed as the third largest cathedral in the world, this 650 year old Gothic masterpiece of Milan is the hub of activity in Italy’s most modern of cities. With its 135 spires and over 2200 statues gracing the exterior, you simply cannot visit Milan without seeing its massive Gothic cathedral.
Started in 1386, and not officially completed until 1965, the Duomo of Milan is Italy’s largest cathedral. Remember, St Peters is located in Vatican City, which is not technically Italy. While viewing the cathedral from ground level is inspiring, head to its rooftop terrace for one of the truly most magnificent views available. The 360 degree panorama takes in the entire city of Milan as well as the Alps just to the north. Reaching over three hundred and fifty feet tall the cathedral is topped by the golden statue of Madonna gazing toward the heavens
The rooftop terrace is reached by either stairs or the elevator, and once on top you are free to spend as much time as you wish. The photo opportunities are endless and the exquisite detail of the building with its numerous statues is clearly evident as you make your way to the terrace. This is a must see on any visit to Milan
La Scala Opera House
Considered the world’s most famous opera house, La Scala is another must-see on your visit to Milan. If time and resources afford taking in a performance then certainly go for it. Otherwise, the next best thing is a visit to the La Scala Museum, which will afford you a peak at the four tiered opera house or even a rehearsal session from one of its plush opera boxes. Built in 1778, La Scala has hosted some of the world’s most famous composers including the likes of Verdi, Puccini, and Rossini. Even if you are not a fan of the opera a visit to this historic building should not be missed.
Open daily from 9am to 5:30pm. The cost is 9 euro per person, 6.50 euro for age 65 and older, and just 3.50 euro for schools. La Scala is located just a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral.
Da Vinci’s Last Supper
Considered one of the most recognizable paintings in the world, the Last Supper, by Leonardo Da Vinci is located in Milan in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Although time has not been kind to the painting, and it is but a fragment of its original self, it is still considered one of the most important works of art by Da Vinci. Nearly destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, it is but a miracle that the wall upon which the mural was painted is still standing.
RGetting an opportunity to see the Last Supper will definitely take some work and planning. Only thirty visitors are allowed to see the painting at a time and only for fifteen minutes. The entire process is strictly controlled, and to be honest it works perfectly, preventing mob scenes like the one encountered while trying to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. That said, be prepared to wake up early and hit the repeat call button while trying to get through to the ticket office. You can certainly hire a guide to get you in, but be prepared to pay for it.
Otherwise, the method we used was through the official ticket site. When searching you are going to find a lot of websites that look and act like they are the official ticket site for the Last Supper. This is the one and only official site. You can try and order the tickets utilizing the website, which can be confusing, or you can just call, which I highly recommend. Tickets are 10 euro with a 2 euro advance booking fee.
For a few extra euros (3.50) you can arrange for an English speaking tour given twice per day at 9:30 am or 3:30 pm. We did manage to get tickets for the early English speaking tour, and I must say it was definitely worth the effort. This was one of the highlights of our visit to Milan.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is noteworthy because it is the oldest shopping mall in the world. Built in 1861, and named after the first king of Italy, the arcade style building is an impressive structure. Connecting two of Milan’s most famous landmarks, the Cathedral and La Scala, it forms the historic center of Milan and as such draws plenty of visitors.
The mall is four stories tall and topped by an impressive glass-vaulted ceiling with a glass dome at the center. Inside are plenty of pricey shops and restaurants and some of the oldest retailers in Milan. Near the center of the mall are four floor mosaics, one of which has become quite a tourist attraction.
The mosaic of the bull, which is the coat of arms of Turin, draws visitors to spin on the bulls genitals, which supposedly brings good luck. It also draws the tile repair man to repair the worn tiles, most likely drawing the scorn of local officials.
Sforza Castle and Sempione Park
The impressive Sforza Castle is located in the botanical jewel of Milan, the Parco Sempione. If you are looking for a break from churches, shopping, and crowds head to the park. The 95-acre park is a great place for a picnic or to simply unwind after touring Milan. Established in 1888, the park contains two of Milan’s most prominent monuments, the Sforza castle, and the Arch of Peace, which was constructed under Napoleon's rule in 1807.
Built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza as his residence, the castle was fortified into a citadel in the 16th century when it came under Spanish rule. Today the castle is a major tourist attraction and houses a number of museums including the Museum of Ancient Art, and the Archaeological Museum of Milan. The castle is open from 7am to 7pm and admission is free. Admission to the museums is a mere 5 euro, and this will get you into all of the castle museums.
Known as the Milanese Montmarte, referring to the artsy neighborhood of Paris, the Brera district is home to the Brera Art Gallery and the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, which are both located in the Pinacoteca di Brera. Known for its narrow, cobblestone-streets, this district is located just to the north of the Piazza Duomo, and borders the Sforza Castle and Parco Sempione.
It’s a great place to wander aimlessly and its charming neighborhoods contain some of Milan’s finest shops, cafes, bakeries and restaurants.
With its artistic flair intact, it is also a great area for window shopping and you will perhaps pass many a colorful fortune teller ready to read your palm, tarot cards or your mind, for a fee of course. Don’t be alarmed, they are harmless and are actually licensed to sell their services.
For a look at one of Milan’s oldest and finest districts plan to spend some time getting lost in Brera. It’s a short walk from the cathedral and is actually one of Milan’s more well-to-do neighborhoods with well-kept apartment buildings often adorned with flowers.
Day Trip to Lake Como
While there are plenty of things to see and do in Milan I must say that one of the highlights of our visit was the day-trip we made to Lake Como. The lakes region is stunning and there are plenty of options available should you venture north. For our day we took the train to Varenna, then ferried to Bellagio, followed by the ferry to Como. From Como it’s a mere thirty minute train ride back to Milan.
While all of the lake front communities are sure to be scenic you will have to pick and choose what you want to see if you are only visiting for a day. Varenna was beautiful and they have a wonderful lake front path that you can follow. Personally, I think Varenna would make a great place to stay for a few nights while touring Lake Como, given its quiet and laid back vibe. Bellagio, our next stop was a surprise to me. We spent the afternoon walking its narrow streets, had a great lunch, shopped, and toured as many churches as we came across.
While Bellagio is certainly more crowded than many of the other lake front communities it’s easy to see why. Our time in Como, our last stop, was brief as we opted to take the funicular up the mountain to Brunate. The views were magnificent and we got to watch the sun set over the mountains, but the trade-off was that we did not have time to explore Como in depth.
My advice for anyone considering a day-trip to the lakes from Milan would be to start early and don’t try to see everything, it’s impossible.
So who knew that Milan had canals? It’s probably one of the lesser known facts about Milan. At one time Milan actually had many canals, but alas, during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century they were deemed obsolete and were covered. Used primarily to move goods, especially the beautiful Candoglia marble used to construct the cathedral, the advent of rail cars and trams soon sealed the fate of the canals.
Today there are a few remaining, namely the Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio Pavese, which together form the trendy Navigli section of Milan. During the day the area is quite tranquil but after dark it comes alive with numerous nightclubs and restaurants drawing visitors and locals alike.
As the fashion center of Italy, and perhaps the world, there is plenty of shopping available across Milan. The Galleria Victoria Emmanuele contains some pricey shops but this is not your only option. The pedestrian area known as the Corso Como and the prestigious and very expensive Quadrilatero d’Oro, known as the Gold Quarter, offer plenty of other options. As a world class fashion center Milan has a number of events throughout the year related to design and fashion.
If this is of interest to you it may be worth timing your visit to coincide with one of the shows. Even if you are just a casual shopper visiting the city for its historical sites, you will inevitably find yourself drawn to window shopping.
Milan’s Modern City Center
Of all the cities I have visited across Italy I have never come across a modern, high-rise, city center the likes of Milan. While the historic city center is what draws most visitors, we decided to explore the other side of Milan, the one resembling something straight out of Middle Eastern Dubai. With skyscrapers and modern high-rise apartment buildings you may wonder if this is the same Milan you visited the previous day. To be fair, Milan was bombed into submission much more than any other Italian city during World War II.
And with that burden came the opportunity to rebuild oneself. While Milan has managed to retain its historic heritage, it has taken the necessary steps to proudly portray itself as the financial, fashion, and business capital of Italy. Check it out and you’ll see what I mean.