Some people love it and think it’s the only place in Italy where you can be really successful and live a glamorous and sparkling life, while others hate it thinking it’s cold, chaotic, hurried and rough. Anyway, it’s a special place both for Italians and tourists and it’s an unmissable stop of any trip to Italy to experience another facet of this diverse and varied Country.
In Milan, you’ll find ancient and precious monuments, churches and works of art, but also a lot of fun, entertainment and fashion!
We saved 4 days just to explore this dynamic and vibrant big Italian city!
We got there by Frecciarossa train, the high-speed train line connecting all the main Italian cities in just a few hours. We got off at the central station and we quickly reached our accommodation located in the modern Porta Nuova neighborhood. We chose this particular district both for its proximity to the city center and for its innovative look, which is the result of a recent urban redevelopment project. We only dropped our bags and we immediately started to explore the city.
We decided to head to the geographic and symbolic center of Milan: Piazza Duomo. We took the subway which is the ultimate way to move around: fast, cheap and efficient. After a couple of stops, we got off the train and we immediately saw the Cathedral (Duomo) in all its magnificence. This huge gothic cathedral with its iconic façade in white marble can accommodate more than 40.000 people and it’s the second largest Italian church after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We learnt that there are several types of tickets allowing the visit to one or more sites inside and around this architectural complex. We opted for the entrance ticket costing 3 euro and for the one allowing the access to the lift to the rooftop and costing another 14 euro.
At first, our sight fell on the ground where we saw a weird detail: a long brass band lined with the zodiac signs. We were surprised to find this kind of decorations in a church but we learnt that it was an ancient sundial dating back to 1786. On top of the right wall, there is a hole from which a ray of sun enters every day at noon lighting up a different zodiac sign. While we headed towards the altar, we spotted a red light above: it signals the place where a nail of the Cross is kept and it’s the main relic housed in the Cathedral.
We took the lift to the rooftop and we were surprised to see how large it is. Be prepared to spend at least 40-45 minutes up there, because the terrace covers 8.000 square meters and there are plenty of details to be noticed, not to mention the breathtaking views! We reached the symbol of Milan: la Madonnina. It’s a golden statue of the Virgin Mary protecting the city from above. We could also admire some beautifully decorated spires and some huge statues that looked much smaller from the ground!
We spent most of the afternoon in the Cathedral, but we still had some time for a short walk in the city center. We opted for a stroll inside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. It’s another iconic place, both for locals and tourists, and we got lost in the crowd of visitors, businessmen and businesswomen who had just left their offices at rush hour. The gallery is really nice and full of decorations and artistic details and it’s worth a stop and not just a quick look. It dates back to the end of the XIX century and it was built to celebrate the unified Country and its first king, Vittorio Emanuele II. We noticed a very funny scene: a group of people spinning around on one foot. We asked what they were doing and we were told it was a tradition bringing good luck. It consists in stepping on the private parts of a bull depicted on the ground…but why? Well, quite simple indeed: the bull is the symbol of Turin, which was the first Italian capital and therefore a lucky city!
We couldn’t miss a visit to the most famous art museum in Milan: the Pinacoteca di Brera. We reached it in about 15 minutes from our accommodation and we saw a large historic building dating back to the XVI century and looking like a monastery (it was once a Jesuit convent!). We couldn’t wait to admire the works of artists like Raffaello and Caravaggio but we got lost in the many rooms displaying the masterpieces of other artists too, like Tintoretto or Piero della Francesca. After a 2h visit, we explored the picturesque Brera neighborhood and we had a pleasant walk through its alleys and small squares enjoying their bohemian look. We found a lovely trattoria ant we had a “yellow risotto” for lunch.
After a morning full of art and culture, we decided to relax and experience some local glamour, so we headed to the so-called “Quadrilatero d’Oro” (golden quadrangle): via Montenapoleone, via Manzoni, via della Spiga and Corso Venezia. That’s the area of the city with the highest concentration of luxury boutiques and fashion brands and it’s the favorite place of both local and international celebrities. However, shopping there it’s not a great idea, unless you have an unlimited (or at least really high) budget!
A proper conclusion of this typical Milanese day was a night out in the best nightlife district in town: the Navigli neighborhood. There are countless restaurants, cafés, cocktail bars, pubs and trattorie for all tastes and budgets and it’s a really picturesque and vibrant place for your spare time.
What does “Navigli” mean? They are two artificial canals named Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese. In the past, there were numbers of artificial canals connecting Milan and other cities in the Po Valley to the Lake District (Maggiore Lake and Como Lake). For example, these canals were used to transport the construction materials used to build the Cathedral. One of the most famous engineers in history also worked on this ambitious project: Leonardo da Vinci! At present, the majority of the canals are underground, but these 2 survived, together with two other shorter ones named Naviglio San Marco and Naviglio della Martesana. But when you hear about “I Navigli”, just think about the area of the city between Porta Ticinese and the Docks.
We started our 3rd day with the most awaited visit of our trip to Milan: the Cenacolo and Leonardo’s masterpiece “The Last Supper”. It is located in the dining room (“cenacolo” in ancient Italian) of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which is easily reachable by subway. Make sure to carefully plan this visit, because the Cenacolo is only accessible a few days a week and to a restricted number of people, so you’ll have to book well in advance! The church is beautiful, but when we reached the Cenacolo we thought it was one of the highlights of our whole trip to Italy. The painting is 8m long and 4m wide, so it’s bigger than we thought and it’s even more impressing, since the entire room is empty making it stand out even more. Leonardo da Vinci painted it between 1495 and 1498 and we thought it was a fresco, but we were wrong! It was made with a new tempera technique that did not work as the artist had imagined: after a few years, the painting started to deteriorate and it had to be (almost) constantly maintained and restored!
We walked a bit and we reached the “green lung” of the city: Sempione Park. We really enjoyed some nature and fresh air in the middle of all that traffic and we decided to stop there for lunch. We spotted a tall iron tower named Branca Tower. We realized we could climb to its top to enjoy the view of the Alps and we jumped on that occasion! The tower was built in 1933 during the Triennale Exhibition of Decorative Arts and it’s been standing in the park since then, just like the Eiffel Tower!
In the afternoon, we visited the Sforza Castle, a beautiful medieval castle dominating the park. It dates back to the XIV century and it houses 9 museums. It’s impossible to visit them all, so choose a panoramic tour or a guided tour of just 1 or 2 exhibitions. We opted for a guided tour of the crenelated walls (“merlate”). For 1h, we wandered along the walls watching the castle and the park from above and imagining what was like being a guard patrolling at night. It looks like a movie set, but it’s all authentic and we could also see the rooms where the weapons were kept and were the guards could rest.
To end our day, we had a booking for a night out at La Scala Theater. We dressed up and we showed up at the entrance like we were local celebrities. You might think it was a really expensive experience…well, it usually is, but not if you know a trick: there is a special circuit named “ScalAperta” selling cheap and discounted tickets for some selected shows!
We had a flight in the afternoon, so we could only spend a couple of hours wandering close to our accommodation. But it was worth it, since we got to see the most modern and innovative area of the city! The heart of the neighborhood is Gae Aulenti Square, a round plaza designed by the Argentinian architect César Pelli in 2012 and dedicated to one of the most famous Italian architects, Gae Aulenti. This place has recently become the symbol of modernity and internationality. If you like skyscrapers and futuristic architecture, you’ll surely love it, otherwise, you’ll think it’s just a mass of concrete: like everything else in Milan, it usually receives mixed reviews. We moved on to reach another recent attraction named the Vertical Forest: it’s a luxury residential complex dating back to 2014 and designed by Stefano Boeri. It aimed to make the city greener and more sustainable and it received a lot of international recognition. Just another short walk in the vibrant Corso Como for some more window shopping and it was time to head to the airport and say goodbye to Milan.
Best period for your visit
May – September to find sunny and warm weather
Where to stay
- City Center: you’ll have all the main attractions within walking distance, but it’s definitely expensive
- Porta Nuova: modern, innovative and close to the city center
- Brera: picturesque and bohemian
- Chinatown: vibrant, colorful and cosmopolitan
- Città Studi: full of students, with a great variety of restaurants and bars
What to taste
- Risotto alla milanese: also called “yellow risotto” because of saffron, which is its main ingredient together with beef broth and marrow
- Cotoletta alla milanese: it’s very similar to the Austrian Wiener Schnitzel and it’s a breaded and fried veal steak
- Ossobuco: cross-cut veal shanks cooked in white wine and beef broth. You shall also eat some marrow inside the bone, which is the gourmet touch of this dish!
- Plan your visit on the first Sunday of the month, when museums are free
- You shall absolutely try an aperitivo (happy hour): it’s a real Milanese institution! Blend in with local office workers at the end of the day and sip a cocktail in one of the trendy bars of the city center!
- In Milan, everybody is in a hurry, so be prepared to run and do everything in a rush
- Don’t expect the typical Italian lifestyle nor atmosphere: Milan is another world…it’s up to you to decide whether it’s something positive or negative!
- Stay for just 1 or 2 more days to also enjoy some day trips: Lake Como, Monza, Bergamo, Pavia and Valtellina mountains are just a few nice destinations close to Milan!