Have you booked a flight to Milan? Well done, the northern Italian city is one of the emerging destinations in Europe. On the occasion of Expo 2015 the city has gained new public spaces that have joined its historical attractions.
We have prepared a route that touches (almost) all the points of interest. Read on and discover what to see and do in Milan.
Day 1: the essentials of the Lombardy capital
The first day's route starts at the foot of its most famous monument: the Duomo. Before discovering this Gothic jewel we will delight the palate with a good breakfast. Being in a tourist area you have to know which bars to avoid to avoid disappointment. Don't worry, there are dozens of options to choose from.
Start the day honoring tradition
Traditionally, in Italy breakfast is sweet and a stop at the bar necessarily includes cornetto and cappuccino. The "cornetto" is a croissant in the shape of a crescent that can be empty or filled with apricot jam, chocolate, Nutella, pistachio or pastry cream. To enjoy a good breakfast you can opt for the following options:
- Marchesi 1824, a historic Milanese pastry shop with two centuries of history. The jewel in the crown is the Torta Aurora, a sponge cake with Madagascar vanilla syrup and pastry cream topped with a veil of whipped cream, sponge grains and powdered sugar (Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II)
- Panini Durini, the breakfast that combines tradition and modernity. If you like pancakes, this is your ideal destination. There are also sweet toasts, yogurt and fresh fruit bowls, muffins and slices of cake (Via Orefici 5 and Via Giuseppe Mengoni 4)
- Caffè Carlino, a bar that offers a selection of delicacies made in the historic Pasticceria San Carlo. In addition to the croissants I recommend you try their krapfen (fritters filled with pastry cream) and kiffel, the ancestor of the cornetto (Via Giuseppe Mazzini)
- Iginio Massari, for the most demanding palates. It is named after its creator, a master pastry chef who won the World Pastry Cup in 1997 and the European Cup in 2002. He is a well-known character in Italy and has participated in several editions of Masterchef and other programs dedicated to pastry. It is not cheap but it is worth going in to try his most famous creations: maritozzo (a sweet roll filled with cream), setteveli (a cake with a soft hazelnut mousse, a crunchy cookie layer and red fruit garnish) and macarons (Via Guglielmo Marconi 4).
Stay open-mouthed at the foot of the Duomo
It is the icon of Milan and one of the most imposing monuments in Italy. This Gothic church leaves no one indifferent. The spires adorned with white marble statues are a delight to behold.
To enjoy the silhouette that we can appreciate today, the Milanese had to wait 500 years! In fact, the works began in 1386 and were completed at the end of the 19th century.
In fact, we can say that the construction never stopped. The Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo is the historical institution responsible for the conservation and improvement of the Cathedral.
It was inaugurated in 1387 by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the Lord of Milan. Every damaged statue or piece of art is restored or replaced by a team of professionals.
Crossing the threshold you will be amazed at the height of the ceiling. Its naves hide thousands of treasures and some curious details such as the San Bartolomeo Scorticato (a statue refiguring the skinned saint) or the Sacco del Giudizio Universale, a large sack hanging from the right nave that, according to popular tradition, will only fall at the end of the world. There are thousands of things to see and if you want to go deeper I recommend reading the article on what to see inside the Duomo.
Another highly recommended option is to climb to the roof of the Cathedral. You can admire the 135 spires, the Madonnina (the golden statue of the Madonna), the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and the rooftops of nearby buildings. On clear days, behind the skyscrapers you can see the Alps.
Also in this case I recommend you to read the post that explains how to climb to the terrace of the Duomo of Milan and the prices of each option.
Visit the Museo del Novecento
As the name suggests, this cultural institution focuses on the artistic production of the twentieth century. It occupies the interior of the Palazzo dell'Arengario whose terrace used to host Mussolini during his political speeches. The Museo del Novecento is a newcomer in Piazza del Duomo and is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10:00 to 19:30.
Among its most famous pieces it is impossible not to mention "Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio" (a sculpture by Boccioni), "Il Quarto Stato" ( a famous painting by Pellizza da Volpedo) and Picasso's "Femme Nue". The price of a ticket is around 10 €.
Look up at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
This majestic lattice structure of iron and glass was designed by the architect and engineer Giuseppe Mengoni.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Milan wanted to catch up with the great cities of Europe and decided to reorganize the area around Piazza Duomo. Where today stands a sumptuous covered passageway, in the past there was a pile of popular residences that were demolished to make way for modernity.
Inside you will find stores of the most prestigious brands, restaurants, bars and a historic art bookstore: Libreria Bocca.
If you visit Milan at Christmas time, you will see the splendidly decorated tree in the center of the covered passageway. As usual, all Christmas decorations are officially lit on December 7, the day of Milan's patron saint: Santo Ambrogio.
Make a stop at the Teatro alla Scala
Leaving the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele you will reach Piazza della Scala. You will recognize it by the marble statue of Leonardo da Vinci.
A few meters further on is the temple of opera: the Teatro della Scala. It was founded by the will of the Empress of Austria Maria Theresa to replace the ducal theater that had been destroyed by fire.
This emblematic place bears the signature of Giuseppe Piermarini, a very active architect in the region. He also designed the elegant Palazzo Belgioioso (Piazza Belgioioso 2), the Villa Reale of Monza (his masterpiece), the Palazzo Ducale and other buildings. La Scala has always hosted the world's most famous opera masters and dancers.
The acoustics, already excellent, were improved in 2006 with the implementation of new mechanized soffits and front walls. You can take the opportunity to see the billboard and book a show. For more information I recommend you read the post about tickets and how to visit the Teatro della Scala.
Reach the Sforzesco Castle
Visiting the castle of Milan is almost a must. This fortress is majestic and if today we can appreciate it in all its splendor, the merit is the architect and art historian Luca Beltrami. He recovered the original elements and eliminated the additions that hindered the construction.
The main entrance is located in Piazza Castello, a few meters from Piazza Largo Cairoli. To get there from La Scala, a ten-minute walk is enough. Upon arrival you will see a fountain and the silhouette of the Torre del Filarete.
To discover its stories I recommend booking a guided tour that includes access to the Museum of the Pietà Rondanini and the Museum of Ancient Art. Alternatively, you can visit it freely from 7:00 to 19:30.
Take a break at Parco Sempione
After visiting the castle you can relax for a while in the dean of Milanese parks. It is the green lung of the center since 1893 and an ideal place to rest.
You will pass by the Aquarium and the Arena civica Gianni Brera, a former stadium that was the home of F.C. Inter until 1947. Formerly, this area dotted with woods, green meadows and small streams was Milan's parade ground.
Have an aperitif at Arco della Pace
A few meters from the park is a large monumental gate: the Arco della Pace. Its construction began in the early nineteenth century when the city was subject to Napoleon's power. However, the works were completed in 1838 when Milan had already returned under the influence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Around it are dozens of bars where you can enjoy a good aperitif - in some places they are like dinners! You can choose one of these establishments:
- Living Liqueurs & Delights, a bar with an extensive selection of vodka. It is characterized by the elegant atmosphere and a modern cuisine that proposes tasty and original snacks. It is also a recommended choice for brunch (Piazza Sempione 2)
- Deseo, a reference in Milan. It has a rich happy hour with buffet and both classic and original cocktails. It is recommended to book well in advance (Corso Sempione 2)
- Jazz Cafè, a charming place. Its offer for appetizers is very varied and also includes sushi roll and pizza. Later in the evening, a dj set entertains (Corso Sempione 8)
- Parco Milano, a bar a stone's throw from the Arco della Pace. With a little luck you can find a seat at the outdoor tables and enjoy the view. Wait for a tram to pass by for more evocative photos (Piazza Sempione 5)
- Tutto bene, a paradise for cheese and cured meats lovers. During the aperitif you can try the "Tagliere misto", a board with salame felino (a typical salami from the province of Parma), prosciutto crudo (cured ham), Sardinian pecorino (cured sheep's cheese) with honey and other delicacies (Via Luigi Cagnola 4).
Day 2: modernity and history
The second day's route starts in the most modern area of Milan: Garibaldi - Porta Nuova. After a major urban redevelopment project, the area has been reborn thanks to buildings and urban spaces signed by architects of the caliber of Cesar Pelli and Stefano Boeri. The works have also revitalized Isola, a historic and popular neighborhood.
Discover Garibaldi - Porta Nuova - Isola
As I said before, the Porta Nuova urban planning project has revolutionized these neighborhoods. This area used to be the site of a disused train station. For many years, the area was abandoned.
The Isola (island in Spanish) neighborhood owes its name to the isolation caused by the nearby railroad. The works have broken down the old barriers while giving new attractions to the city. Here are some of them:
- Piazza Gae Aulenti, the symbol of the Milanese Renaissance. It is located in a raised position and can be reached by escalators. It is topped by three infinity fountains and contemporary sculptures
- Corso Como, a pedestrian street that connects Piazza XXV Aprile with the Garibaldi railroad station. It is the Mecca of local nightlife. If you are interested in the subject, I recommend you to read the post about what to do in Milan at night
- Torre Unicredit, the skyscraper designed by the Argentine Cesar Pelli. It is an architectural jewel that stands out for its sinuous lines and for the iconic tower that rises in the sky above the city (Piazza Gae Aulenti 3)
- Fonderia Napoleonica Eugenia, an ancient bronze foundry that made bells and monuments for over a century. It now houses a museum dedicated to the art of metal casting (Via Genova Thaon di Revel 21)
- Bosco Verticale, a skyscraper covered with greenery. The work of architect Stefano Boeri is inspired by the policies of reforestation and renaturation of the edges of urban areas. In 2014 it won the International Highrise Award, a biennial competition that awards the prize for the most beautiful skyscraper in the world.
Stroll in the Alberi Library
Another milestone of the great Milanese transformation is the Biblioteca degli Alberi, an urban park designed by Dutch architect Petra Blaisse. The particularity of this green area are the 23 species of trees arranged in rings that form small forests.
In its perimeter there is also a labyrinth of bushes, a pond, two areas dedicated to dogs and hundreds of flowers and plants.
If you are looking for things to do in Milan with children, the Biblioteca degli Alberi is a must-see. You will find a dedicated area whose spongy surface hosts various types of swings.
A few meters further on you will also see an athletics track, parallel and training machines (Via Gaetano de Castillia 18/20).
Stand in front of the Stazione Centrale
About ten minutes walk from the park is the most important railroad station in the city. From here we will take the subway to reach the next stage and in the meantime, we take the opportunity to admire the silhouette of this imposing building.
It is difficult to say to which artistic current it belongs since it includes elements of Assyrian-Babylonian, neoclassical and modernist style. What is certain is that its size is typical of fascist architecture.
Enter the Church of San Maurizio
From Stazione Centrale, go down to the subway to take line 3 towards Abbiategrasso or Assago Milanofiori Forum. After five stops you will arrive at Cadorna.
As you go up on the surface you will see the sculpture depicting a needle and colored threads and a station behind the monument. By the way, trains depart from here to the north of the region. Excursions to Lake Como start here.
The church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore is a few meters further on. It is nicknamed "the Sistine Chapel of Milan" for the magnificent paintings that cover the ceiling and walls.
It used to house cloistered nuns and a partition called "Coro delle Monache" separates the public area from the one reserved for nuns. It can be visited from Wednesday to Sunday, from 10.00 to 17.30 (Corso Magenta 15).
Admire Santa Maria delle Grazie and its most precious jewel: The Last Supper
Once you leave the church of San Maurizio, follow Via Magenta in an easterly direction to reach another temple: Santa Maria delle Grazie.
This three-nave church is an example of the Lombard style of the early Renaissance. Its triangular silhouette and reddish bricks are its hallmark. Inside are 14 chapels that were used as burial places for the most prominent families.
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is one of his most famous paintings and is located in the dining room of the former Dominican convent attached to the church. It was commissioned by Ludovico il Moro and portrays Jesus with the twelve apostles.
To visit it is essential to book in advance or choose a guided tour. A guided tour of the church and the drawing usually costs around 90 €.
Discover Leonardo's garden
Just in front of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, at Corso Magenta 65, is a place that few Milanese know about: Leonardo da Vinci's Vineyard.
The Tuscan genius lived in the Lombard capital for 18 years and in this time he took care of various matters, from the reorganization of the canals to the paintings of the castle.
To pay homage to Leonardo, Duke Ludovico the Moor gave him a vineyard located in the garden of Casa Atellani, a rinascimental residence of rare beauty.
To visit these environments you have two options: a ticket with audio guide (10 € per person) or a guided tour in small groups (20 € per person). If you are interested in the figure of the Florentine polymath, I recommend a visit to the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Milan (Via San Vittore 21).
Walk to the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio
Once out, take Via Bernardino Zenale and then turn into Via San Vittore, in a few minutes you will arrive in front of a church that often goes unnoticed: Sant'Ambrogio.
It is dedicated to the patron saint of the city who was born in Gaul in the fourth century and found fortune in Milan. To him we owe the foundation of the local diocese and the construction of four basilicas.
It is a very ancient place of worship as it stands on the foundations of an ancient early Christian church. After the death of the saint, the church was modified several times until it reached its present configuration.
Inside you can see the sarcophagus of Stilicho, a Roman general of barbarian origin who ruled the Western Roman Empire until his death.
It can be visited freely from Monday to Saturday, from 10:00 to 12:00 and from 14:30 to 18:00. On Sundays the opening hours are reduced: from 15:00 to 17:00.
End the day in the Navigli
No trip to Milan would be complete without a stop along the canals. In the past it was a small Venice in the middle of the plain, but today only the Porta Ticinese Dock (the old port of Milan, which remained in operation until the 1960s), the Naviglio Grande (a canal that starts in the Ticino River and ends in the dock), the Naviglio Pavese (reaching the city of Pavia) and the Naviglio della Martesana (connecting Milan to the Adda River) survive today.
Except for the last one, the other canals are concentrated in one neighborhood: Navigli. Take some time to stroll along the banks of the canals and admire some of the most authentic corners of old Milan: Vicolo dei Lavandai (a picturesque corner of the city of yesteryear), the Cortile degli artisti (a typical Lombard railed house overlooking the Naviglio Grande) or the Conchetta, a barrier that allowed boats to bridge the height difference between two canals.
In this area there are dozens of bars and restaurants. If you want to try something typical, you can book a table at Brellin, a tavern that offers traditional Milanese dishes.
I recommend you try the ossobuco (a portion of veal tibia with marrow cooked in a sauce based on lemon zest and white wine) and the cotoletta alla milanese (a veal cutlet on the bone coated in breadcrumbs and cooked in clarified butter). It is located at Vicolo dei Lavandai, Alzaia Naviglio Grande 14.
What to do in Milan in case of bad weather?
Winter in Milan is usually cold with precipitation. However, rain is not a problem. In case of bad weather, you can dedicate a day to the museums. In addition to those already mentioned in the article, you can choose one of the following options:
- Fondazione Prada, the citadel of art in the south of Milan. It hosts three permanent exhibitions - Atlas, Haunted House and Processo grottesco - and temporary ones. It is open every day except Tuesday. You can easily reach it by metro line 3 (Largo Isarco 2)
- Museo del Design Italiano, a space dedicated to the most important pieces of design of the transalpine country. It is located inside the Triennale, a museum near Parco Sempione and the Castle (Viale Emilio Alemagna 6)
- Fabbrica del Vapore, an industrial archeology complex near the Monumental Cemetery. What was once a factory is now one of the most important exhibition spaces in Milan. It is usually open from 8:00 to 19:30 (Via Procaccini 4)
- Museo Poldi Pezzoli, the art collection of Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli. The pieces are housed in an aristocratic Milanese residence of the late nineteenth century. Among the most outstanding works are "Pra della Valle in Padova" (Canaletto) and "Ritratto di giovane dama" (Piero del Pollaiolo). The cultural institution is located near the famous Via Montenapoleone (Via Alessandro Manzoni 12)
- Museo Mondo Milan, the space dedicated to the Rossoneri team. In the trophy room you can see the Champions League, Serie A cups and other trophies won in over 100 years of history. The museum is located in the adveniristica Casa Milan, the new headquarters of the club a short distance from the San Siro stadium (Via Aldo Rossi, 8).
Is it worth seeing the surroundings of Milan in a two-day trip?
In my opinion it is not worth it. A weekend is perfect to discover the essentials of Milan without having to speed up the pace of visits too much. There is one exception: if you visit the Lombard capital in summer, an excursion is more than advisable. In June, July and August, temperatures rise quite a bit in the city.
Fortunately there is no shortage of options to find cooler air. One of the most famous destinations is Lake Como. From Milan it is a short journey by train or car. On its shores you will find dozens of beautiful lakeside villages and boat trips to enjoy the scenery in comfort.