This fashion-focused city may be Italy’s most expensive, but that doesn’t mean it has to hit your wallet hard.
Look past the posh exterior, and you’ll see that Milan is brimming with sights that won’t cost a cent, from glorious churches to exceptional architecture to unusual museums. Here are the best free things to do in Milan.
The city’s famous Duomo is no longer free to enter, but that’s not to say you can’t enjoy it from the outside. Not only is it a pearly vision in Candoglia marble, it’s also covered in over 3000 statues and gargoyles. Look for such unusual figures as a mini Statue of Liberty (above the front entrance), said to be one of the sources of inspiration for the American one we know so well.
2. Quadrilatero d’Oro
Fashionistas, gawking tourists and well-heeled locals… No one can resist the lure of the Quadrilatero d’Oro, one of the world’s most famous fashion districts. It won’t cost you a cent to gaze at the extravagant shop windows, nor the equally extravagant divas walking by.
3. Piazza Gae Aulenti
Inaugurated in 2012 and arguably the main symbol of modern Milan, the sleek design of Piazza Gae Aulenti is something that you both can’t miss and can enjoy for free. With its skyline-defining towers and the three fountains that always have some sort of water feature going on, the square is the perfect place to sit down for a while, update your Instagram feed and get a sense of where Milan is heading in the future.
4. Cimitero Monumentale
One of the largest cemeteries in town, Cimitero Monumentale is impossible to miss. Opened in 1866, it’s a majestic complex in bi-colored marble designed by Carlo Maciachini. Admire the impressive sculptures, Greek temples and the tombs of the city’s most illustrious in the Famedio (aka hall of fame).
5. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Italy’s oldest shopping gallery, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, is known for its soaring vaulted glass arcades and timeless elegance. But did you know that spinning with your heel on the balls of its mosaic bull will grant you good luck? So legend has it. You’ll find the bull in the center of the gallery surrounded by a small crowd.
6. Bosco Verticale
These towering high-rise apartments overflowing with green in the Porto Nuovo district are known as Bosco Verticale (the Vertical Forest). Standing 111m (364ft) high, each tower has balconies loaded with hundreds of trees, plus shrubs and plants in their thousands. Part of an extensive redevelopment project, the towers have become models for sustainable living.
7. Naviglio Grande
The city’s main canal makes for a picturesque stroll at any time of day. To really get a taste of what “old Milan” used to look like, head to Vicolo dei Lavandai – where writers like Georges Simenon came in search of inspiration. Plus, on the last Sunday of the month, the whole Naviglio gets taken over by the Mercatone dell’Antiquariato, a lively flea market selling antiques, vintage furniture and homewares, books and secondhand clothing.
The international event known as Fuorisalone sees design enthusiasts from all corners of the world crowding the city for good reason; for one week in April the city runs amok with free design events, large-scale installations, exhibitions and epic parties.
9. Parco Sempione
Once the hunting ground for the royal Sforza family, now the city’s green lung is open to all. Parco Sempione is an English-style garden with lush lawns and dreamy ornamental ponds, which also features important sights such as the Castello Sforzesco, Arco della Pace and the imposing Arena Civica.
10. Casa Museo Boschi-di Stefano
The private art collection of a Milanese couple is open to the public in their former home at Casa Museo Boschi-di Stefano. The impressive collection of 20th-century Italian art, which includes big names such as Giorgio de Chirico and Piero Manzoni, is second only to the exquisite art deco features by cult Milanese architect Piero Portaluppi.
11. Via Lincoln
Not many people know Via Lincoln, but it offers definite proof that Milan isn’t as grey as the rumors say. Planned in the 19th century as a neighborhood for the factory workers of the area and their families, Via Lincoln and its colorful houses have turned into a quirky and exclusive corner of the city that is still waiting to be discovered.
Winding cobbled streets dotted with furniture stores, boutiques and the odd old lady in a shawl reading palms – this historic district never fails to charm with its romantic touch of old Milan. Don’t forget to duck into the Pinacoteca di Brera to marvel at its imposing courtyard and the hidden garden Orto Botanico.
13. Museo Civico di Storia Naturale
Learn about everything from the history of mankind to the evolution of plants at the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale. The neo-Romanesque and neo-Gothic building from 1844 makes for a storybook setting, while the lifelike dioramas add a touch of kitsch to the experience. Admission is usually €5 but it's free the first Sunday of the month.
14. Chiesa di San Maurizio
The nondescript exterior will in no way prepare you for what’s inside the Chiesa di San Maurizio. Resplendent frescoes and paintings seem to cover every inch of the walls of this 16th-century chapel that was originally part of the Monastero Maggiore, a former convent of Benedictine nuns.
15. Palazzo Morando
For a glimpse of aristocratic life during the 18th century, wander around Palazzo Morando. Housing the personal collections of Countess Bolognini, the apartments are also hung with the city’s civic art collection, which provides a picture of Milan as it was during the Napoleonic era.
16. San Lorenzo Columns
It has to be one of the most atmospheric settings for a drink: beneath towering columns from the Roman era. Bring your own or buy a drink-to-go from the bars surrounding the San Lorenzo Columns and enjoy the sprawl of young folk, amateur guitar players and maybe some BMX bikers.
17. Chiesa di San Bernardino alle Ossa
Chiesa di San Bernardino alle Ossa has an ossuary decorated entirely with the bones of the dead, which looks like something out of an Indiana Jones film. It’s said the adjacent cemetery was running out of space, so they decided to store the bones in an oddly decorative manner in this nearby church.
18. Acquario Civico
On the edge of the city’s sprawling Parco Sempione, you’ll find the third-oldest aquarium in Europe. As might be expected, the Acquario Civico is somewhat outdated. The selection of sea life is small, but the charm of this Liberty-style building with a grand Titan statue at the entrance more than makes up for it. It’s free on the first and third Tuesday of the month after 2pm, and all day on the first Sunday of the month.
19. Castello Sforzesco
Originally a fortress, then later the royal residence of the Sforza dynasty and finally a cultural institution, the mighty red-brick Castello Sforzesco has seen many transformations in its time. It hosts several museums that allow you to delve into its history. It’s free every first and third Tuesday of the month from 2pm.
20. 10 Corso Como
On the top level of fashionable 10 Corso Como, you’ll find a space entirely devoted to photography. It has a revolving program of curated photography exhibitions that often feature niche themes or unusual early works of famed photographers such as Annie Leibovitz or Helmut Newton.
21. Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie
Most visit the basilica’s refectory for The Last Supper, without sparing a look at the rest of this Unesco World Heritage site. Designed by Guiniforte Solari and completed in 1469, the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie is an exceptional example of Renaissance architecture. Inside you’ll find impressive works by Titian, Gaudenzio Ferrari and Bramantino.
22. Pirelli Hangar Bicocca
In an industrial area once dominated by the Pirelli factories lies Hangar Bicocca, a unique space for contemporary art. Known for its permanent work The Seven Heavenly Palaces, which involved huge towers of concrete created by German artist Anselm Kiefer, it also features edgy temporary exhibitions that will challenge your expectations.