While every major city in Italy offers a wide range of must-see attractions, no city on the peninsula mixes ancient and modern better than Milan. This intersection of world-class art, high fashion and stunning architecture is brimming with attractions that will help you understand how Italy’s past continues to influence its present.
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Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy is entwined with the history of Milan. The multifaceted polymath lived there for much of his life, leaving behind masterpieces like ‘The Last Supper’ as part of the city’s heritage. Celebrating the life and creativity of its eponymous subject, the interactive museum presents working models of da Vinci’s designs for flying machines, submersibles, as well as digital renditions of his most famous artworks so visitors can delve into the secrets behind his genius.
Torre Branca, the Branca Tower, isn’t the largest or oldest structure in Milan, but a walk along its perimeter allows you to journey through Italy’s recent history. Located in the Parco Sempione, the tower is a prime example of the design sensibilities of Gio Ponti, who dominated the Italian architecture scene during the time of Benito Mussolini’s fascist government. You can take an elevator to the top for unsurpassed panoramic views of Milan and the Lombardy countryside.
Pinacoteca Ambrosiana & da Vinci Codex Exhibition
As one of the wealthiest cities in Italy’s history, Milan has been home to numerous influential art patrons throughout the centuries. One of the most important was Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who, in 1618, used his personal art collection as the seed of an art gallery and design school (the school is still running today out of the Brera). The collection at Pinacoteca Ambrosiana & da Vinci Codex Exhibition includes numerous Flemish and Italian masters, including works by the likes of Caravaggio, Raphael and the Venetian artist Titian. Renaissance art enthusiasts will particularly enjoy this attraction as it also showcases original drawings by da Vinci.
Duomo di Milano
If there’s one attraction that represents the spirit of Milan and all its rich history, it’s the Duomo di Milano. This cathedral, which took nearly six centuries to finish, possesses an undeniable beauty. The Duomo’s most popular feature is its rooftop where dozens of visitors are usually gathered for anything from spiritual contemplation to enjoying the view over a cup of espresso.
This castle’s origins can be traced back hundreds of years to its construction under the watchful eye of mercenary-turned-politician Francesco Sforza. Today, the Castello Sforzesco features walkable grounds and an interior that visitors could get lost in for days on end. Art masterpieces line the walls of every hall, bedroom and study. This compound is massive, so the best way to plan your visit is by going to the website and viewing which works are currently on display and which special exhibitions are ongoing.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Named after the first king of a unified Italy (the country was split into multiple nations until the second half of the 19th century), Galleria Vittorio Emanuel II is the oldest shopping mall on the Italian peninsula. Today, its spaces are occupied by luxury brands and high-end retailers that highlight the Milanese commitment to living with panache.
Teatro alla Scala
Teatro alla Scala is Milan’s premiere destination for enjoying opera, ballet and all things high-culture. The historic opera house replaced the city’s previous theatre, which burnt down in the mid-1700s, and can house over 2,000 people. Performances still occur regularly throughout the year and are always a major event for both Milanese and visitors. Guests interested in learning more about the history of the building can take part in tours that show how the theatre has changed over the years, as well as a few tidbits that linger from the past.
Santa Maria delle Grazie
Few artworks have captured the world’s collective imagination quite like da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’. This fresco, located in the Santa Maria delle Grazie, has been featured in works of fiction and films, giving it an aura of mystery that makes it a must-visit on any traveller’s itinerary. Art lovers will want to make a point of visiting this iconic painting.
An elegant district, the Brera is where travellers go to get a sense of what’s fashionable today. Boutiques, shoe shops, trendy tea houses and jewellers line the streets offering endless shopping options. The vendors and storekeepers welcome visitors and revel at the chance to describe why their wares are so special. Be sure to bring comfortable shoes and a reusable tote to get your shopping haul back to the hotel, not to mention a credit card.
Unlike the Brera, the Navigli district is largely a refuge for locals looking to escape the bustle of the city centre. It’s located just south of the nerve centre of central Milan along old canals that once connected the city and its goods to the larger world. Airbnbs have popped up like weeds in this neighbourhood in recent years making it an ideal place if you’re looking to rent a home rather than staying at a hotel. If you’re looking for an authentic Milanese experience with a few creatures comforts from home, this is one of the best areas to look for a room to rent (and often, one of the cheapest).
Museo del Novecento
Located inside the Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo, this museum hosts a comprehensive collection of more than 4,000 works that highlight the development of 20th-century Italian art. Here you can find some of the artwork that is at the core of the Italian cultural and artistic heritage of that century, such as Il Quarto Stato (The Fourth Estate) by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, and the Neon Structure by Lucio Fontana, an internationally acclaimed Milanese artist.
Pinacoteca di Brera
In operation since Napoleon Bonaparte helped establish it in 1809, the institution is an art lover’s dream gallery of pan-Italian painting stretching back to the Renaissance. All the big players are present, from Caravaggio to Raphael, and it houses many important paintings, such as Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, by Andrea Mantegna.
Near the Castello Sforzesco, with its aquarium, the Torre Branca and other attractions, the expansive Parco Sempione packs multiple sights into a single destination. Before becoming a park in the early 19th century, the area was a forest preserve that the Sforza family stocked with exotic wild animals. That wild spirit still permeates the area and helps make any time spent here worthwhile.
San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore
Located roughly halfway between the Duomo and the Parco Sempione, San Maurizio church could be just the attraction to turn a trip around the Milan city centre into a day of jam-packed touring. This church stands out from so many others in Milan for its series of paintings that depict the life of Saint Maurice. The paintings cover almost every square inch of wall space turning the interior into a Technicolor maelstrom.
The Monumental Cemetery, also known as Cimitero Monumentale is not the largest cemetery in Milan (that honour goes to the Cimitero Maggiore), but it does host some of the most beautiful tombs of any cemetery in the world. These carved wonders are large, complex and as artistically satisfying as any sculpture found in Brera or the churches in Milan’s city centre.
The Prada Foundation in Milan is really difficult to miss. Located in a former distillery, one of the towers appears to be solid gold while the other is white with harsh lines and greenish glass accents. Inside the campus, the foundation displays sculpture that at once interacts with and challenges the space it occupies. Programming offers a vital and healthy mix of inspiration from the Western canon and works that are firmly rooted in the avant-garde.
Located near the Duomo, this architectural wonder incorporates medieval Italian aesthetics from a midcentury perspective that have resulted in a historic landmark. Milan led postwar Italy in determining an architectural aesthetic that left the fascist past behind. The 330ft (101m) Velasca Tower looks over the city centre skyline and – when compared with the Duomo – exemplifies Milan’s position as Italy’s city of past and present, ancient and modern.
The Milan Tram
Milan’s trams are the Italian version of San Francisco’s trolleys, London’s double-decker buses and New York’s taxis. The tram system has been around for more than 100 years and, while commuters use it daily, riding remains a must for every visitor to Milan. Besides being fun, it is also hyper-efficient and runs late, in case you’re planning on staying out.
Just outside the city centre, Corso Como is an area geared towards pedestrians who want to stroll around, eat well and take in the more luxurious side of Milan. It isn’t unusual to spot celebrities here, in the same way, that it isn’t unusual to spot shoes with a four-figure price tag. Deep-pocketed tourists may not care about the high costs, but most of us will have to remain content with window shopping.
Peck, Via Spadari
Opened in 1883, Peck is a high-end grocery store that caters to the kind of crowd that want the very best without compromise or delay. From the wide array of chocolate to the large selection of wine, this historic landmark has something for everyone. From cured meat packed with flavour to readymade meals using the finest ingredients, each item in this store is chosen with the kind of care and passion that translates into any language.
Heading to Italy’s northern capital? Be sure to check out the city’s coolest neighbourhoods. Looking for a place to stay? Book directly with Culture Trip from our pick of where to stay in the city, as well as the best hotels in Milan, including boutique accommodation, luxury hotels, budget stays and relaxing spa offerings.
This article is an updated version of a story created by Raphaele Varley.
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