While every major city in Italy offers a wide range of must-see attractions, no metropolis 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.
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 (Branca Tower) isn’t the largest or oldest structure in Milan, but a walk along its perimeter allows travellers to journey through Italy’s recent history. Located in the midst of Milan’s gorgeous 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. The top of the tower can be reached by elevator and offers unsurpassed panoramic views of Milan, and the larger Lombard countryside.
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.
If there’s one attraction that represents the spirit of Milan and all its history, it’s the Duomo di Milano. This cathedral, which took nearly six centuries to finish, allows visitors to congregate, commiserate and bask in the magnificence of the structure’s inherent beauty. The Duomo’s most popular feature is its walkable 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, every bedroom and every study. This compound is massive, so the best way to plan your visit is by going to the website and viewing what works are currently on display and what special exhibitions are ongoing.
Named after the first king of a unified Italy (the country was split up 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 well and living modern amid the ancient excesses of Italy’s past.
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 after it burned down in the mid-1700s and can house up to 2,030 people. Performances still occur regularly throughout the year and are always a major event for Milanese and visitors alike. 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.
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 importance that makes it a must-visit on any traveller’s itinerary. Art lovers will appreciate this piece of art. Additionally, Milan is not exactly known for its public art in the way that Italy’s other major tourist destinations are.
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 special (and, often, worth a premium price). Be sure to bring comfortable shoes and a reusable tote to get your shopping haul back to the hotel.
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).
Located inside the Palazzo dell’Arengario in Piazza del Duomo, this museum hosts a comprehensive collection of over 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 international acclaimed Milanese artist.
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.
Nearby the Castello Sforzesco, and containing an aquarium as well as 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.
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 big, 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 bright 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 330-foot (101-meter) 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.
Milan’s trams are the Italian version of San Francisco’s trolleys, London’s double-decker buses, and New York’s Checker Cab. The tram system has been around for more than 100 years and, while commuters are on it daily, riding it is a must-do on every visitor’s do list when travelling through Milan (it also helps that the 90-minute tickets are only €1.50 £1.30). 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 people will have to restrict their purchases to window shopping due to high prices.
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. Every cured meat is packed with flavour. Every readymade meal is made from the finest ingredients, and each item in their store is chosen with a kind of care and passion that translates into any language.