Welcome to the vibrant and cosmopolitan spirit of Milan - a city that knows how to captivate like no other! As the Lombardia region's dazzling capital in the North of Italy, Milan has mastered the art of standing out and forging its own unique identity in a blend of history, culture, and glamorous charm! Today, this industrial dynamo has become a magnetic force in the realms of fashion and design, but the beating heart of Milan still thrives with majestic monuments and artistic wonders that will leave you wide-eyed and eager for more.
Pour yourself a refreshing aperitivo and join us on a wonderful journey through the 10 best things to do in Milan!
Visit the Duomo and admire the view from the Terrace
The unquestionable symbol of Milan, the Duomo di Milano, is a remarkable monument representing the city's rich history and artistic heritage. It is one of the biggest churches in the world, making it significant in terms of both size and historical longevity. Its construction started in 1386 and lasted for over six centuries, keeping a predominantly Gothic style, that also incorporates elements of the Renaissance and neoclassic. The exterior is made of the magnificent Candoglia white marble, with some pink hues, and is adorned with a staggering number of statues and spires decorating its façade. The inside is also stunning, featuring five naves, intricately designed stained glass windows, and a vast array of artworks.
But if you want to be truly amazed, go up to the terrace – the Terraza del Duomo will take your breath away! From there you can witness how the city’s historic buildings blend harmoniously with modern construction and, if the weather allows it, you can even appreciate the majestic Alps and their snow-capped peaks.
Apart from the spectacular views, the terrace is an architectural masterpiece with intricate spires adorned with statues of saints and gargoyles. Take your time to explore the nooks and crannies, observing the intricacy of the cathedral's construction up close. Atop the highest spire of the Duomo stands the Madonnina - a golden statue of the Virgin Mary that is one of Milan's most recognizable symbols.
Marvel at the “Last Supper”
Leonardo da Vinci's “Last Supper” is located in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. This is one of the most renowned masterpieces in the world and holds a special place in the realm of art and history. Measuring approximately 4.6 meters by 8.8 meters (15 feet by 29 feet), the mural covers the entire wall behind the dining table, capturing the emotional intensity of the final meal of Jesus and his disciples. The genius Leonardo da Vinci painted it in the late 15th century and it is a true testament to its artistic brilliance, showcasing his mastery in capturing human emotions, intricate details, and innovative techniques.
Due to its delicate state and high demand, access to the painting is strictly regulated. To ensure an opportunity to see the “Last Supper”, it is crucial to make a reservation probably several months in advance.
Alternatively, you can visit the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, an art gallery in Milan, and one of the oldest public art collections in the world. It houses a remarkable assortment of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and manuscripts from various periods and styles. Some of the highlights include a notable collection of Italian Renaissance art, featuring works by renowned artists such as Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch “Portrait of a Musician".
Admire the Teatro alla Scala
This is another must-see in Milan! With its rich history, magnificent architecture, and world-class performances, the iconic opera house Teatro alla Scala became synonymous with excellence in the world of opera.
Inaugurated in 1778, it is named after the original church that stood on the site, which was dedicated to Santa Maria alla Scala. The original structure was redone in 1907 and again in 1946, after the severe damages of World War II. It was renovated again in the 2000’s, when the carpets and paintings that hid the original marble were removed and, as far as possible, the 18th-century decor was recovered. It is a majestic theatre, boasting a luxurious and opulent ambiance.
La Scala stands as a shining jewel in the realm of opera, captivating audiences with its timeless beauty, remarkable performances, and unwavering commitment to artistic excellence. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium is famous for its excellent acoustics, ensuring an unforgettable auditory experience for the audience. It was the scene of several famous operas, had a very special relationship with the composer Giuseppe Verdi and was where Maria Callas's incredible talent was widely recognized!
The La Scala has a museum featuring a large collection of paintings, busts, clothes, and different elements related to the world of opera. The visit to the museum includes a tour of the great vestibule of the theatre and access to the glamorous, small, red velvet boxes. But for the perfect La Scala experience you should book a ticket and watch an opera show. It will be an unforgettable experience!
Explore the Castello Sforzesco
Along with the famous Duomo, the Castello Sforzesco is one of the most loved monuments by the Milanese. Its name is a reference to Francesco Sforza, who in the 15th century decided to rebuild it, but in fact, its origin is even older: its construction began in the second half of the 14th century, as a fortress, by the Visconti family, the ruling dynasty of Milan at the time.
Castello Sforzesco is a captivating architectural marvel. Its imposing brick walls, fortified towers, and elegant courtyards stand as a testament to the military prowess and strategic vision of its builders. Strolling through the castle grounds, you can't help but feel a sense of awe at the sheer scale and grandeur of this majestic structure. The interior was adorned with exquisite frescoes, intricate tapestries, and ornate furnishings, creating a lavish and opulent ambiance fit for the noble Sforza dynasty. One of its highlights, when available to the public, is undoubtedly the Sala delle Asse, or the Room of the Wooden Boards, which was personally decorated by the great Leonardo da Vinci with a breathtaking ceiling depicting intertwining branches and delicate leaves – it is another testament to da Vinci's unparalleled mastery of perspective and his fascination with nature.
Apart from its artistic treasures, Castello Sforzesco houses several museums that showcase an extensive collection of art and historical artifacts, and it is also a vibrant hub of cultural activities, with its vast grounds hosting concerts, exhibitions, and festivals throughout the year.
Escape the city life at Parco Sempione
Located near the Sforzesco Castle, Parco Sempione was a park used in the Middle Ages by the Visconti family to take their guests hunting. Since then, Sempione Park has lost much of its green area extension, but it is still one of the largest green spaces in Milan and a popular recreational area for both locals and tourists alike.
Named after the nearby Porta Sempione, one of the historic city gates, the park spreads over an area of approximately 47 acres. Its design was influenced by English landscaping principles, featuring rolling lawns, tranquil ponds, and winding paths that invite visitors to explore its scenic surroundings.
Offering a harmonious blend of nature, art, and architectural landmarks, you can find the iconic Torre Branca, a steel tower at the heart of the park, that reaches a height of 108 meters (354 feet). This distinctive structure, designed by architect Gio Ponti in 1933, offers panoramic views of Milan's skyline, providing visitors with a unique vantage point to admire the city's architectural splendor. Other edifications include the Acquario Civico, the Arena Civica, and the Arco della Pace. As you stroll through the green alleys you will encounter art installations and sculptures peppered throughout the park, adding to its cultural ambiance.
Stroll along Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
In the center of Milan, sharing the spotlight with the wonderful Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. This elegant hall of the city is crossed by thousands of tourists and locals every day. Named after Italy’s first king, its construction only took 2 years and was inaugurated in 1867. It is a remarkable example of the architecture of the time, and the use of iron and glass served as inspiration for other great works in Europe.
In addition to the large iron and glass roof, the bezels below the large dome, decorated with mosaic, are one of the attractions of the gallery and represent 4 continents: Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia. On the floor, in the large octagon formed by the dome, are the coats of arms of the 3 capitals of the Kingdom of Italy: Turin, Florence, and Rome, and of the city of Milan. It is on the coat of arms of Turin, with a famous bull, that tourists will turn, stepping on its testicles. It is said to be lucky and the ritual is repeated by thousands of tourists every day.
The gallery has always been called by the Milanese "Il salotto di Milano", the living room of the city, due to its ideal of being the place where the bourgeoisie of the time would walk, meet, and dine after the shows at La Scala Theater. Some shops have been there since the opening or for over a century, like the Savini restaurant, the Biffi restaurant, the Camparino bar, and Prada’s first store: Fratelli Prada.
While the shops and their prices may be beyond some visitors' budgets, it is possible to enjoy the scenery by stopping for a coffee or visiting the Osservatorio Fondazione Prada – this is a photo gallery located on the top floor and gives you the opportunity to see the large roof structure from the outside.
Enjoy the art at Pinacoteca di Brera
Whether you are a seasoned art connoisseur or an admirer of beauty and creativity, you must visit the most prestigious museum in Milan: the Pinacoteca di Brera. With its impressive array of works by Italian masters, this gallery offers an appealing tour of artistic excellence.
Located on the first floor of the former Brera Palace, it is part of the complex that brings together other institutions such as the Academy of Fine Arts, the Braidense Library, and the Botanical Garden. Once a lively bohemian neighborhood, with bars and brothels, the Brera district is still a reference point for the Milanese, but now with a vibrant scene of art galleries and trendy shops that transformed it into one of the chicest in the city.
Born from a convent of Jesuits in the 16th century, the Brera Palace housed the Academy of Fine Arts in 1776 by the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. The Pinacoteca was created to constitute a collection of works (molds and paintings) for the students of the Academy. With the French Invasion, in the early 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the exposing of the most significant works from the territories conquered by the French army, particularly numerous paintings and frescoes that belonged to the churches and convents banned by the new government.
The Pinacoteca de Brera’s actual collection boasts an extraordinary range of paintings, spanning from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. As you step into the elegant halls, you are greeted by a captivating display of artistic brilliance that showcases the evolution of Italian art through the centuries. It is a journey of cultural enrichment and inspiration!
Taste the gastronomic specialties
Italy is renowned for its rich culinary traditions and the Milanese cuisine reflects the city's cultural heritage, offering a delightful array of dishes that go far beyond pizza or pasta. The most famous is the classic Ossobuco - a braised veal shank cooked slowly in a flavorful sauce.
The shanks are traditionally cross-cut, exposing the marrow-rich bone, which adds depth to the dish. The meat becomes tender and succulent as it simmers in a combination of white wine, broth, vegetables, and aromatic herbs. Ossobuco is often accompanied by saffron-infused risotto. This is the delicious Risotto alla Milanese that epitomizes Milanese gastronomy. It’s prepared by slowly cooking Arborio or Carnaroli rice with butter, onions, white wine, and a generous amount of saffron that imparts a vibrant yellow color and a delicate floral aroma to the creamy rice.
Cotoletta alla Milanese is a beloved Milanese specialty that bears a resemblance to a schnitzel. It features a breaded and fried veal. The meat is pounded thin, coated in breadcrumbs, and then fried to a golden crisp. The result is a tender cutlet with a crispy exterior.
Mondeghili are delicious meatballs that have a special place in Milanese cuisine. They are made from a mixture of ground beef and pork, combined with breadcrumbs, eggs, Parmesan cheese, parsley, and sometimes mortadella or salami. The meatballs are seasoned with garlic, nutmeg, and other herbs and then lightly fried or baked until golden brown. Mondeghili are often enjoyed as a part of an antipasto platter or served with tomato sauce as a main course.
Cassoeula is a hearty winter dish that originated in Milan. It is a stew made with pork cuts, particularly the less-refined parts like ribs, skin, and trotters, combined with cabbage and other vegetables. The long cooking process allows the flavors to meld, resulting in a comforting and flavorful dish. Cassoeula is often served with polenta - a cornmeal-based side dish - and enjoyed during festive occasions and cold winter months.
And finally, Panettone! This iconic Italian sweet bread has become synonymous with the Christmas season. Although it is enjoyed throughout Italy, Milan claims the birthplace of this festive treat. Panettone is a tall, dome-shaped bread filled with candied fruits, raisins, and sometimes nuts. It has a light and fluffy texture, thanks to the use of a natural leavening process. Panettone is typically enjoyed with a glass of sweet wine, such as Moscato or Spumante, and is a delightful treat during holiday gatherings.
Wander around the Navigli district in the evening
Known for its picturesque canals and lively atmosphere, the Navigli area has become a popular destination for one of the cherished Milanese customs: an evening walk along the Navigli canals.
The Navigli district was named after the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese - the two historic canals that were once essential for the city's transportation and commerce. While their primary purpose has changed over the years, the canals have retained their enchanting appeal. The area is now known for its numerous bars, restaurants, and gelaterias, offering a wide range of culinary delights; and by the evening the district truly comes alive! One of the highlights is the aperitivo tradition: a pre-dinner ritual where people gather with friends and colleagues to enjoy a drink accompanied by a selection of complimentary appetizers. In Navigli, many bars offer an extensive array of cocktails, wines, and spritzes, along with a buffet of delicious finger foods. This tradition allows you to immerse yourself in the vibrant Milanese social scene while savoring the flavors of the city.
As you stroll along the canals, you may come across various street performers, artists, and artisans showcasing their talents. On the last Sunday of every month, this neighborhood hosts a popular antique market that attracts collectors, art enthusiasts, and bargain hunters, offering a treasure trove of vintage items, antiques, and unique artifacts. A special opportunity to find an incredible souvenir from Milan!
Do some window-shopping at Quadrilatero della Moda
And if you want to do some shopping go for Quadrilatero della Moda! Also known as the Fashion Quadrilateral, this is an iconic and glamorous district in Milan that attracts fashion enthusiasts from around the world. Home to the most renowned luxury brands, designer boutiques, and high-end fashion houses, this district is a haven for fashion lovers and a paradise for window shopping.
The most famous street in the Quadrilatero della Moda is Via Montenapoleone, which is on the list of the ten most luxurious shopping streets in the world! And you know Milan is also one of the world’s fashion capitals. Here you will find iconic brands that have become synonymous with luxury and style and their window displays are meticulously curated to create an enticing visual experience. While actually purchasing these high-end fashion items may be a luxury for many, the joy of window shopping in Quadrilatero della Moda lies in appreciating the artistry and creativity displayed in each boutique's window which are a testament to the fashion industry's dedication to beauty and innovation.
Beyond this fashion houses, the district also features chic concept stores, trendy multi-brand boutiques, and avant-garde designers, adding a touch of diversity to the area. Exploring these lesser-known gems can uncover hidden treasures and introduce you to emerging talents and innovative designs.
A fusion of old charm and modern glamour
Whether you choose to be impressed by the majestic buildings or amazed by the historic masterpieces, watch an opera or wander in the park, stroll by the canals with a refreshing drink or indulge in delectable cuisine, or even explore high-end fashion stores or simply soak in the vibrant atmosphere, a trip to Milan provides a unique and unforgettable experience. It allows you to witness the fusion of old-world charm with modern glamour, showcasing the city’s unique blend of history, culture, and contemporary lifestyle. Are you already packing your suitcase?