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. The architecture of Milan is as varied as its museum and gallery offerings: from early medieval to mid century through to contemporary. Its design and fashion heritage also lend the city a cosmopolitan personality you won’t find anywhere else.
Building, Cathedral, Church, History Museum, Art Museum
Every major European city has an iconic architectural site, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Big Ben in London…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. Construction began in 1386 but took over six centuries to complete! Make sure you climb to the rooftop where you can take-in a panoramic view of the city and admire the intricacies of the architecture. To learn about the cathedral’s history visit the adjacent museum, Museo del Duomo.
After the Duomo, Castello Sforzesco is the next major ‘symbol of Milan’ and is the best place to learn about the city’s medieval and early modern history – the castle bore witness to Spanish, Habsburg and Napoleonic rule. The imposing fortress was built by Francesco Sforza (the first Duke of Milan) in the 15th century, but underwent several modifications in the following decades. It is worth allotting a large amount of time to visit the castle because it comprises multiple museums and galleries, including the Pinacoteca which is home to paintings by the likes of Bronzino, Tintoretto and Titian.
Just a short walk from the Duomo, this gallery houses a remarkable collection of 20th-century Italian art. Over 400 works are displayed chronologically giving visitors a great introduction to modern Italian art history. It begins in 1902 and travels through Futurism, Novecento, Abstraction, Art Informel, leaders of the 1950s and 1960s (including an entire floor dedicated to Lucio Fontana), Arte Povera and finishes with Pop Art. Learn more about the collection here.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is an opulent, covered pedestrian street connecting Piazza Duomo and Piazza della Scala. The Renaissance style structure is one of the most famous examples of European iron architecture and represents the archetype of the commercial retail space of the 19th century. It remains a host to elegant, high-end shops (Prada, Versace, Gucci…) and restaurants and cafés, some of which have been running since the building was inaugurated. The vaulted glass dome roof is awe-inspiring so it’s worth visiting for this alone. Try to get there first thing in the morning before the selfie-sticks and pigeons descend.
Teatro alla Scala is Italy’s premiere destination to watch opera, ballet and classical music. It plays host to leading operatic singers, ballet companies and symphony orchestras from around the world. The interior is suitably lavish with red and gold finishes. You can view the forthcoming programme on the theatre website – expect great classic such as Verdi’s La Traviata or an evening of Stravinsky.
Whether you enjoy dining out at restaurants or sampling salami at local macellerias, everyone can agree that one of the best things about travelling in Italy is the food. Peck is the ultimate gourmand destination in Milan. Peck opened in 1883 as a shop for fine smoked meats and salmon, and has since become the most prestigious delicatessen in the city. The abundant and colourful counters spread across three floors, offering everything from chocolate to crustaceans. And then there is the wine cellar. If there is no room in your suitcase to take something home, why not stop in the Peck café or restaurant to sample the produce instead.
This UNESCO world heritage site exemplifies Milanese Renaissance splendour and is home to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495–1498). Chiesa Santa Maria is also renowned for its false apse, an early example of architectural optical illusion attributed to Renaissance heavyweight Donato Bramante. Entry is only allowed every 15 minutes with a maximum capacity of 30 people at any given time so advance booking is recommended.
In 1482, at the invitation of Duke Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo da Vinci moved to Castello Sforzesco and began work as court painter. During his time in Milan, da Vinci created some of his most celebrated works, including The Last Supper fresco at Chiesa Santa Maria delle Grazie, and contributed to several other projects in the city, such as engineering new waterways in Navigli. To thank da Vinci for these efforts, the Duke gifted him a small vineyard opposite Chiesa Santa Maria delle Grazie. This plot is now open to the public as La Vigna di Leonardo, where you can visit the vineyard, garden and adjacent house-museum, Atellani House. It is a serene and evocative place to learn more about the unparalleled artist, engineer and scientist.
The Brera neighbourhood epitomises everyone’s romantic vision of life in a European city. The balconies and windows of the elegant apartment buildings are dressed with plants, and on the corner of every cobbled street is a charming café, indulgent bakery or chic retailer. In addition to the public museums Pinacoteca di Brera and Museo del Risorgimento, there are also many commercial gallery and design spaces. Nestled between Parco Sempione and Piazza della Scala, Brera it is a central location but with none of the chaos of the area surrounding Duomo. It is the ideal place to wander aimlessly until you sit down for brunch, lunch or dinner.
The Pinacoteca di Brera is a major public museum housed in a palazzo in the Brera district. It originated as a gallery to host the most important works of art from areas conquered by the French armies. Today it is a celebrated art collection in Italy, with a special focus on Venetian and Lombard paintings. Many of the works were looted from churches and convents so it is dominated by religious themes. Over the centuries the museum has grown its collection to include a strong modern wing, meaning you can enjoy masterpieces from the likes of Bellini, Caravaggio and Tintoretta, but also Boccioni, Modigliani and Severini. Highlights include Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin (1504) and Francesco Hayez’s The Kiss (1859). Admission is free every first Sunday of the Month.
Milan’s largest green space, Parco Sempione offers respite from the buzz of the streets. Take a stroll with a coffee from one of kiosks and enjoy people (and dog) watching. Within the park grounds are the historical Castello Sforzesco and contemporary art centre La Triennale di Milano. Exit via the monument L’Arco della Pace (the arch of peace) and you can easily make your way to Corso Sempione – a grand, leafy avenue lined with restaurants and bars. Visit early in the morning or in the low-afternoon sun for the best views.
Just a short walk from the Duomo and Castello Sforzesco, Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore is the most important Benedictine monastery in Milan. It is worth visiting for the rich and detailed cycle of frescos nicknamed ‘The Sistine Chapel of Milan’. The spectacular interior marks the evolution of painting in Lombardy throughout the 1500s, with contributions from Bernardino Luini and his sons Aurelio, Evangelista and Giovan Pietro, Boltraffio and Simone Peterzano.
In 1939 Mussolini’s fascist regime inaugurated Milano Centrale Railway Station, which is still the main entry and exit point for people travelling in Northern Italy and beyond to middle Europe. If you find yourself passing through the station, take time to admire the architecture. Construction started in 1906 but was delayed due to World War I, resulting in a bombastic fusion of Romanesque, Art Deco and fascist design. You can spot decorative symbols and imagery relating to Mussolini’s Partito Nazionale Fascista, such as the fasces (a bound bundle of wooden rods and an axe) that adorn the exterior corners. Or look up to the curved glass roof of the main atrium which is over 200 metres long and illustrated with cityscapes of Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, Bologna and Turin.
10 Corso Como is Italy's beloved concept fashion shop with food and design all around | Courtesy of 10 Corso Como Café
A must visit for anyone travelling to Milan for its fashion and design heritage. This concept lifestyle store is the brainchild of the renowned publisher and editor Carla Sozzani; it is as glamorous and cool as she is. 10 Corso Como brings together fashion, food, art, design, publishing and music in a beautifully designed and very Italian setting. Sit under the canopy of vines in the courtyard café before perusing the bookshop, visiting an exhibition at the gallery or trying clothes by the most established or newest names in fashion. Instagram at the ready!
Situated in the north of the city, Cimitero Monumentale is a beautiful and fascinating place to reflect on Italian history and the many personal narratives that belong to it. The vast cemetery building dates from the late 19th century and reflects the eclectic tastes of the time, with nods to Gothic, Romanesque and Byzantine design. Many illustrious characters linked with Milan’s political and civic history are buried here, including the Campari family who invented everyone’s favourite aperitif. Look out for memorials created by celebrated Italian artists such as the impressionist sculptor Medardo Rosso (1858–1928).
Navigli is an area in the southwest of the city formed around a group of canals (with Navigli Grande at the centre) dating from as early as 1179. Historically the waterways were used for trade, but today they bustle with the sound of the many bars and restaurants that line the pavements. This part of the city has a different feel to the centre of Milan – the buildings are painted in rusty hues of yellow and pink, and narrow side streets can lead you to both vine covered courtyards or graffiti covered walls. On the first Sunday of each month Navigli Grande is transformed into a thriving antique market selling everything from furniture to comic books. Otherwise it is a wonderful place to stroll and enjoy an aperitivo. Be wary of the tourist bars where the aperitivo snacks are plentiful but not the best quality.
The architecture of Fondazione Prada distinguishes it above all other venues to experience modern and contemporary art in the city. Designed by the OMA architecture studio led Rem Koolhaas, the site marries existing industrial distillery buildings with esoteric new spaces, including a tower clad in gold leaf. Visit the permanent collection or temporary exhibitions to see art by leading artists of the 20th and 21st Century, such as Louise Bourgeois, Dan Flavin and Anish Kapoor. The arts centre also houses a cinema and a kitsch Milanese–American café designed by film director Wes Anderson. Go to the foundation’s website to check out what will be on view during your visit.
This imposing Brutalist icon dominates Milan’s skyline. Designed in 1955 by BBPR architecture studio, Torre Velasca stands as a modern counterpart to the city’s medieval Castello Sforzesco. The tower is constructed in an area of central Milan that was heavily bombed during World War II, and is therefore considered a symbol of Milanese economic development and growth. 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. Abhorred and adored in equal parts, the tower’s aesthetic is divisive. Take a look and decide for yourself.
While a mode of transport and not technically an attraction, the yellow tram is definitely one of the symbols of the city and worth looking out for. 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…
San Siro football stadium is a worthwhile trip for any football fan, but a must-visit for supporters of Inter and AC Milan. The stadium operates a tour where visitors can enter typically inaccessible areas of the arena, such as the changing rooms and champion tunnel. There is also a museum that showcases memorabilia to tell the story of the city’s two teams. Check out this this article for advice on where to eat nearby.