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Milan Duomo, Italy | Monika Prokůpková / © Culture Trip
Milan Duomo, Italy | Monika Prokůpková / © Culture Trip

13 Reasons Why Everyone Should Visit Milan at Least Once in Their Lifetime

Picture of Raphaele Varley
Updated: 9 January 2018

Milan is a polluted, ugly city with tough, rude people, they say. Well, ‘they’ clearly don’t understand it! Milan is attractive and charming with a vibe that balances old-world romance and history with urban grit and cosmopolitanism. Plus, it is surrounded by some of central Europe’s most beautiful countryside. From the architecture to the food, discover what gives Milan its unique character in our list of reasons to visit the city.

It’s less touristy than Rome, Florence and Venice

When planning a city break in Italy, most people probably pick Venice, Rome or Florence, and that’s exactly why you should visit Milan instead. Of course, there are still crowded tourist hotspots, but most of the city still feels truly Italian. You can roam the streets in peace and pretend that you live there!

For the beautiful and diverse architecture

Milan’s illustrious history and modern status as the financial capital of Italy, means there is an abundance of beautiful buildings and some of the world’s finest architects have contributed to the city. Unlike many other cities in Italy, which seem to be dominated by one particular architectural period – like medieval Bologna or Siena – Milan has exemplary architecture from all periods. For example, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Chiesa Santa Maria Della Grazie, exemplifies Milanese Renaissance splendour and is renowned for its false apse, an early example of architectural optical illusion attributed to Renaissance heavyweight Donato Bramante. While the opulent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the most famous examples of European iron architecture and represents the archetype of the commercial retail space of the 19th century.

All over the city, but particularly in Navigli, you will spot charming yellow case di ringhierathe traditional workers’ houses, characterised by iron railings that date from the turn of the 20th century. The Porta Venezia neighbourhood is celebrated for its many Art Nouveau (‘Stile Liberty’) buildings; geometric stained glass windows, plasterwork with floral motifs and curvaceous ironwork decorate the elegant townhouses.

Chiesa Santa Maria Della Grazie, Piazza di Santa Maria delle Grazie, 20123 Milano MI, Italy, +39 02 467 6111

Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, Italy | © Karol Kozlowski/Shutterstock

Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, Italy | © Karol Kozlowski/Shutterstock

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Piazza del Duomo, 20123 Milano MI, Italy, +39 02 8845 5555 

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, Italty | Monika Prokůpková / © Culture Trip

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, Italty | Monika Prokůpková / © Culture Trip

Porta Venezia, Bastioni di Porta Venezia, 1, 20121 Milano MI, Italy

Brutalist icon Torre Velasca dominates Milan’s skyline; its rational design (allowing more space at the top of the building) is also said to encapsulate the strength and rationalism of Italy in the post-war years of reconstruction.

Torre Velasca, Piazza Velasca, 3/5, 20122 Milano MI, Italy

Brutalist building Torre Velasca, Milan | © David Orban/Flickr

Brutalist building Torre Velasca, Milan | © David Orban/Flickr | © David Orban/Flickr

Art museum Fondazione Prada is a contemporary masterpiece; designed by the OMA architecture studio led by Rem Koolhaas, the site marries existing industrial distillery buildings with esoteric new spaces, including a tower clad in gold leaf.

Fondazione Prada, Largo Isarco, 2, 20139 Milano MI, Italy, +39 02 5666 2611 

Fondazione Prada in Milan, Italy | © Maria Rom/Shutterstock

Fondazione Prada in Milan, Italy | © Maria Rom/Shutterstock

And Milanese architect Stefano Boeri’s ‘vertical forest’ residence looks to the future; it is a project for metropolitan reforestation designed to the regenerate urban biodiversity – 800 trees, 4,500 shrubs and 15,000 plants cover the luxury apartment buildings.

Bosco Verticale, 20124 Milan, Metropolitan City of Milan, Italy

Bosco Verticale in Milan, Italy | Monika Prokůpková / © Culture Trip

Bosco Verticale in Milan, Italy | Monika Prokůpková / © Culture Trip

For the masterpiece art works

Milan was at the centre of some of Europe’s most historically significant art movements – from 14th-century Gothic art under the Visconti family, to Futurism at the beginning of the 20th century – and this is reflected in the quality and breadth of its museums and art galleries. It is home to one of the most famous Renaissance paintings in the world – Leonardo di Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ (1495–1498) and unrivalled collections of Italian modernism, featuring masterpieces from the likes of Umberto Boccioni and Lucio Fontana. Read ’10 Masterpieces You Can Only See in Milan’ here.

To sample traditional Milanese cuisine

The food in Milan draws on the bounty of the surrounding mountains, coastline, lakes and verdant farmland. It is rich and hearty with meat and rice taking centre stage. Signature Milanese dishes include saffron risotto (Risotto alla Milanese), breaded veal cutlet (Cotoletta alla Milanese) and the traditional Christmas loaf, panettone.

 

To enjoy aperitivo in the city of its origin

It is widely thought that the aperitif drink was invented in the 18th century in Turin, by the creator of vermouth. However the concept of aperitivo hour did not take off until the 1920s in Milan. Indeed, it was in Milan that Gaspare Campari started mixing cocktails that ultimately led to the production of the bitter spirit that is now synonymous with aperitivo.

You can enjoy aperitivo all over Italy, but in Milan it as a ritual and they do it best – between the hours of 6pm and 8pm, the whole city seems to be enjoying a drink and light snack before heading home or out to dinner. Go low-key at a typical café and join locals as they drink standing up at the counter and nibble on crisps and olives, or go grand and settle in at a stylish bar that serves drinks alongside fine meats and small plates.

"Camparino in galleria" cafe in Milan, Italy | © pcruciatti/Shutterstock

“Camparino in galleria” cafe in Milan, Italy | © pcruciatti/Shutterstock

To stand on the roof of a cathedral

Every major European city has an iconic architectural site: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Big Ben in London… and in Milan it is the majestic Duomo, situated at the very centre of the city in Piazza del Duomo. Built with pink-hued white marble from the quarries of Lake Maggiore, the cathedral is the biggest and arguably the most elaborate Gothic building in Italy. Unlike many other sites where you climb to the top of a tower or viewing platform, with the Duomo, there is the novel experience of climbing directly onto the rooftop. Here you can take in a panoramic view of the city while also admiring the intricacies of the architecture.

Piazza del Duomo, Milan, Italy

Duomo in Milan, Italy | Monika Prokůpková / © Culture Trip

Duomo in Milan, Italy | Monika Prokůpková / © Culture Trip

Because it’s the best place to learn about modern Italian history

Rome might hold all the secrets to Italy’s ancient history, but Milan is the best place to learn about its more recent past. The Royal Palace and Castello Sforzesco provide insight into the Age of the Commune and the medieval dynasties that ruled and feuded in Lombardy and beyond.

The Royal Palace, Piazza del Duomo, 12, 20122 Milano MI, Italy, +39 02 8846 5230

Castello Sforzesco, Piazza Castello, 20121 Milano MI, Italy, +39 02 8846 3700

Castello Sforzesco in Milan, Italy | Monika Prokůpková / © Culture Trip

Castello Sforzesco in Milan, Italy | Monika Prokůpková / © Culture Trip

Museo del Risorgimento illuminates the period of Italian history between the first campaign of Napoleon Bonaparte in Italy (1796) and the annexation of Rome to the Kingdom of Italy (1870) aka Italian Unification.

Museo del Risorgimento, , +39 02 8846 4177

A painting preserved in Museo del Risorgimento representing Garibaldi and the Thousand departing from Quarto | WikiCommons

A painting preserved in Museo del Risorgimento representing Garibaldi and the Thousand departing from Quarto | © WikiCommons

Milan played an important role in Mussolini’s Fascist regime, traces of which are spread throughout the city – the architecture of Milano Centrale train station for example. Museo del Novecento houses a remarkable collection of 20th century Italian art, giving visitors a great introduction to modern Italian art history, in particular Futurism which was born in Milan. And those are just a few of the historical highlights on offer.

Milano Centrale train station, Piazza Duca d’Aosta, 1, 20124 Milano MI, Italy

Stazione Centrale in Milan, Italy | © Kirill Neiezhmakov/Shutterstock

Stazione Centrale in Milan, Italy | © Kirill Neiezhmakov/Shutterstock

Museo del Novecento, Via Guglielmo Marconi, 1, 20122 Milano MI, Italy, +39 02 8844 4061

Museo del '900 in Milan, Italy | © Bruno Mori/Flickr

Museo del ‘900 in Milan, Italy | © Bruno Mori/Flickr

Because of its fashion heritage

Some say that Paris is the fashion capital of Europe; those with edge argue Milan. If you lust after la dolce vita and favour the unadulterated glamour of Italian fashion, then you will love shopping here. Milan boasts so many of the biggest names in luxury fashion – Valentino, Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni (to name a few) – but it is also the country’s centre of emerging fashion talent, with amazing new brands continually emerging.

Because of its design heritage

Since the early 1900s, Italy has been a trendsetter in interior and furniture design , and since 1961 when Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano first launched, Milan has been the epicentre of design activity. Gio Ponti and Fornasetti are two historical designers synonymous with the city. For those wanting to buy, all of the leading design studios have showrooms and outlets here. Alternatively, pay a visit to the Triennale Design Museum.

Triennale Design Museum, Viale Emilio Alemagna, 6, 20121 Milano MI, Italy,+39 02 724341

Hall of La Triennale architecture, design and arts museum in Milan, Italy | © Paolo Bona / Shutterstock

Hall of La Triennale architecture, design and arts museum in Milan, Italy | © Paolo Bona / Shutterstock

For the people-watching

As Italy’s undisputed fashion and design capital, it comes as no surprise that Milan’s population dress well. From outlandish burgeoning fashionistas to slick old-timers, there is no shortage of style on the streets here. And because the city is relatively small, its many chic residents seem to be everywhere, which makes for brilliant people-watching.

To experience Italian opera in the legendary Teatro alla Scala

Teatro alla Scala is Italy’s premiere destination to watch opera (as well as ballet and classical music). It plays host to leading operatic singers from around the world in a decadent interior of red and gold. At La Scala, Gioachino Rossini conducted some of the finest operas ever performed and Giuseppe Verdi made his name here.

Teatro alla Scala, Via Filodrammatici, 2, 20121 Milano MI, Italy, +39 02 88791

To ride a design icon – the tram

The yellow tram is one of iconic symbols of Milan. Of course the vehicles have been replaced and updated over the years, but many of the trams running through Milan today remain in the early 19th- and 20th-century designs. They have a bright yellow carriage with a wood-panel interior; long benches line the inside and glass lamps are dotted along the ceiling; they even have sash windows. In certain areas, you can spot a classic tram and feel like you are in a bygone era. There is also something nostalgic about taking the tram – you wind slowly along the streets and avenues, with no one ever rushing to get on or off. Hop on and enjoy the city at a different pace.

Because it is a great base for exploring the rest of northern Italy

Northern Italy has an amazing train network of which Milan is the centre, making it a great jumping-off point for exploring. For example, Como and Turin are both reachable in one hour or less; Parma and Lake Garda in two hours or less; Venice in under three. If you have time on your hands you can also make it to the Alps or Dolomites. In most cases, driving is even quicker still.

Varenna town, lake Como, Italy | © Capricorn Studio/Shutterstock

Varenna town, lake Como, Italy | © Capricorn Studio/Shutterstock