Boasting a reputation as the fashion capital of the world, Milan is a city where traditional charm meets modern innovation. There’s something for every type of traveller – from history, art and shopping to good food and sport. A trip to Lombardy’s capital wouldn’t be complete without visiting its breathtaking cathedral and Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic fresco, The Last Supper, but we’ve also rounded up the other must-see things to add to your itinerary.
Admire the Duomo
Building, Cathedral, Church, History Museum, Art Museum
The spectacular Milan Cathedral is arguably the city’s most impressive landmark. Dedicated to Saint Mary, construction on Italy’s largest church began in 1386 and took almost six centuries to complete. Right in the centre of Milan, the elaborate Gothic cathedral is swathed in luscious white and pink marble, and features more sculptures than any other building in the world – 3,159 in total. After marvelling at the façade, explore the interior and then head up to the roof for an up-close experience among the ornate spires and gargoyles (and one of the best views of the city).
Take some time to study one of the world’s most famous artworks, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, in person. Located in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the painting was completed around 1498, and portrays the reactions of the 12 apostles from the Bible after Jesus tells them that one of them will betray him. Perhaps no other work of art has caused as much speculation and theorising about hidden messages left by the artist. Make sure to book well in advance, as tickets have been known to sell out up to three months ahead of time.
Even if you’re not a fan of opera, you won’t regret buying a ticket to see a show at Teatro La Scala. Commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the extravagant theatre was constructed in the 1770s, but also underwent major renovations after being bombed during WWII. The opulent interior is a sea of red velvet, silk brocade and gold stucco, and in the centre of the performance hall sits a magnificent chandelier made up of nearly 400 lights. With regular performances by world-class musicians, singers, dancers and actors, a trip to Milan wouldn’t be complete without stepping inside the famed opera house.
Renowned as Italy’s most stylish city, it’s not surprising that Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is not your typical shopping mall. One of the world’s oldest, the grand building consists of a four-storey double arcade (covered passageway) with a glass-vaulted roof. In the 1860s, the city held competitions to modernise Piazza del Duomo and connect it with Piazza della Scala. Architect Giuseppe Mengoni won, and construction was completed in 1877. Today, the Galleria is often referred to as il salotto di Milano, or Milan’s living room, due to its regular use by locals as a meeting spot. Window-shop at Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton, or savour a decadent cake at the Milanese institution, Pasticceria Marchesi 1824.
For centuries, the people of Milan considered Sforza Castle a symbol of tyranny and foreign domination. It wasn’t until the unification of Italy in the 19th century that this huge fortress became a revered cultural centre. The vast complex includes numerous museums and an impressive collection of art, with paintings by Andrea Mantegna, Titian, Tintoretto, and Michelangelo’s last sculpture. And it doesn’t stop there – in 2012, historians even discovered lost drawings and paintings by Caravaggio on-site.
With its elegant canals and vibrant bars, the Navigli district is one of Milan’s most charming neighbourhoods. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci initiated the complicated system of dams. Construction of the waterways lasted seven centuries, ultimately connecting Lakes Maggiore and Como with the Ticino and Po Rivers. Start your evening with a passeggiata (a traditional early evening stroll), before grabbing a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants lining the canals. After dinner, make like the locals, grab a cheap Aperol Spritz (or two!) from the waterside vendors and set up camp on the edge of the canal to people-watch.
Spend a day immersed in art at the Fondazione Prada. Open since 2015, the striking site designed by Rem Koolhaas is comprised of 10 buildings, including a tower covered in shimmering gold leaf. With imposing large-scale installations by 20th- and 21st-century artists including Dan Flavin, Jeff Koons and Louise Bourgeois as well as temporary exhibitions by international artists, there’s no better place in Milan to get your culture fix. Afterwards, rest your weary feet with a drink and snack at Bar Luce, a quirky an Instagram-worthy café inside the museum, designed by film director Wes Anderson.
More like an open-air museum than a cemetery, Cimitero Monumentale is where Milan’s leading figures and families have been buried since 1866. Get lost amongst the rows of sculpture-adorned tombstones and magnificent mausoleums while keeping an eye out for some famous names. Milanese legends including novelist Alessandro Manzoni, footballer Giuseppe Meazza and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist movement, all of whom have their final resting places here.
Aperitivo is the Italian version of happy hour – only better. A tradition that started out as a pre-dinner drink served with a few simple snacks has developed over the years into a veritable feast. Depending on how ritzy the bar is, between about 6pm and 8pm, if you order a cocktail, beer or glass of wine, you’ll be offered some form of food. It could be a few nuts and olives, or you could end up with a generous complimentary buffet spread, with dishes such as pizza, cured meats and cheeses.
It’s a well-known fact that many Italians love their football, so don’t miss out on this vital part of Milanese culture. You can catch a cheap game between smaller local clubs or splash out to see the heavyweights – Cristiano Ronaldo has often played here for his team Juventus, as well as the highly competitive local derby between Milan’s oldest teams: F.C. Internazionale Milano (Inter) and A.C. Milan. With seating for more than 80,000 fanatic supporters, the atmosphere during a game is electric.