Milan moves fast and looks to the sky. It’s Italy’s most modern city, boasting innovative architecture and edgy design at every corner. And yet the past is everywhere, because Milan, sitting right in the middle of the Po Valley, has truly seen it all in its millennia-long history.
So forget all the stereotypes you may have heard about Milan being industrial and boring, and get ready to explore a city that is bursting with vibrancy – starting with these unmissable sights and activities.
The Duomo di Milano, or Milan Cathedral, is the very symbol of the city – it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s top of our list. The stunning work of Gothic architecture also happens to be Italy’s largest church (St Peter’s Basilica is in the Vatican State). It’s sure to leave you breathless with its intricately decorated façade and multitude of spires. And sitting right on top of it is the famous golden statue of the Virgin Mary, the Madonnina, another everlasting symbol of Milan.
The square just in front of it, Piazza Duomo, is also pretty important since it could easily be dubbed the heart of the city. Once you’ve taken some pictures with one of the best backdrops Italy has to offer, all you need to do is look around Piazza Duomo and in every direction you’ll find something incredible to head off to.
While the Duomo might be the chiefest among the Milanese churches, it’s definitely not the only one. You probably can’t expect to visit all of them, but you should consider dropping by the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, one of the oldest in Milan and also the one dedicated to its patron saint. Another favorite is the Chiesa di San Maurizio, also known as the “Sistine Chapel of Milan” because of the vast frescos that decorate its entire ceiling.
Leonardo’s Last Supper
It’s yet another church, but Santa Maria delle Grazie has a secret weapon up her sleeve – the fresco of The Last Supper, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous masterpieces. The fresco can be found on the wall of the refectory of the church’s monastery, and it’s very well worth the visit by itself. But it just so happens that the rest of the church is also filled with artistic treasures and that the whole complex is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
When Italy was divided into myriad little princedoms and dukedoms and free cities, Milan was ruled by the Sforzas – right from the Castello Sforzesco, which was, of course, named after them. One of the largest castles in Europe, as well as a military citadel of major importance during the Renaissance, today it houses 10 museums dedicated to various subjects, like furniture, musical instruments, sculpture and paintings. All of this in a setting that is already filled to the brim with history and artistic significance, just as much as any "traditional" museum.
If you leave Castello Sforzesco and feel like you need to relax for a moment to consider all the beautiful art you’ve seen, then all you need to do is look behind it: there lies Milan’s main green area, Parco Sempione. The perfect spot to stop and enjoy nature even in the middle of Milan’s infamous traffic, Parco Sempione also becomes the venue for outdoor festivals and events during warm months.
It’s also a really nice place for a romantic picnic. All you need to do is find the Ponte delle Sirenette with its four little mermaid statues, believed to be one of the most romantic spots in the whole of Milan.
Pinacoteca di Brera
Milan is home to many incredible museums, but if you have time to visit only one then your choice should be the Pinacoteca di Brera – a stunning collection of Italian painting through the centuries (one of the best in the country, in fact), featuring masterpieces from Caravaggio, Raphael and Mantegna.
And once you’re out of the museum, you can take some time to explore the neighborhood surrounding it – a chic and artsy side of the city, with cobbled streets, literary cafés and romantic corners all around.
If you happen to have more time to dedicate to museums beyond the Pinacoteca, then your only problem is to decide what you want to hit second. You can’t say no to a good old art gallery? Then try the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Want to add some sculpture into the mix? Then it’s the Museo del Novecento or the Museo Poldi Pezzoli for you. Or maybe something else entirely? You could consider the Museo delle Culture, dedicated to foreign cultures and featuring artifacts from all over the world, or the Triennale di Milano, dedicated to Italian design. And if you’re traveling with children and would like something that features activities meant for them, then the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia and its interactive labs are what you’re looking for.
The Navigli – artificial canals that were meant to connect Milan to the great lakes of Lombardy and the other rivers of the area – are today a staple of Milanese lifestyle. Perfect for everything – from a simple stroll up and down the waterside and an aperitivo at the end of a long day, to starting a night out the right way – the Navigli are never empty of people and are the place to be if you really want to experience Milan like a local.
If shopping is what you want, then you’ve come to the right city. One of Europe’s fashion capitals, with its famed Fashion Week and high-end shops, Milan will offer you every chance to whip out your wallet. Among the locations you have to hit up for some luxury shopping are the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, right on one side of Piazza Duomo, and the famous Quadrilatero d’Oro.
There’s more to life in Milan than couture fashion, and if going in and out of boutiques and showrooms isn’t exactly your favorite activity, then all you have to do is simply change neighborhoods to find a completely different vibe. There’s Brera and its literary cafés; Porta Venezia and its buzzing nightlife and thriving LGBTQI scene; NoLo and its international, young population; Isola with its hip shops and vertical forests; Citylife and its luxury condos. Strolling around each of these neighborhoods almost feels like discovering a whole different city every time.