The Top 10 Free Things To Do in Milan

The Duomo in Milan can hold 40,000 people and offers free admission
The Duomo in Milan can hold 40,000 people and offers free admission | © Piero Cruciatti / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Maggie Harris
4 February 2020

When you think of Milan, fashion and finance probably pop into your head. However, whether or not you’re a fashionista or investment banker, there are plenty of things to do and see in this northern Italian city. Better yet, many of them are free.

Il Duomo di Milano

Building, Cathedral, Church
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Milan Cathedral, Duomo di Milano, Italy, one of the largest churches in the world on sunrise
© Boris Stroujko / Alamy Stock Photo
There’s a reason the Duomo is at the top of every list of must-see sights in Milan. The impressive Duomo di Milano is one of the largest churches in the world and can host up to 40,000 visitors. Its Gothic style is at once enchanting and eerie. Admission to the church is free, although there’s a small fee if you’d like to climb to the roof (which admittedly is worth it if you can spare a few lire). Be prepared to queue for this attraction, as it’s the first thing most visitors to Milan will try to tick off their lists. You might even catch a glimpse of the current Archbishop of Milan (Mario Delpini), as this is his official seat.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Shopping Mall
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Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, Italy. Image shot 11/2015. Exact date unknown.
© Horizon Images/Motion / Alamy Stock Photo
If you know your Gucci from your Giordano, a visit to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in the heart of Milan is a must. And even if you don’t, the Galleria is also an architectural, artistic and cultural experience in itself. Whether or not the purse strings are tight, browse the glitzy displays of Prada, Versace, Montblanc and Ferrari, and stop for an espresso at one of the many (overpriced) cafés, just for the pleasure of the people-watching experience. Go in search of the bull mosaic on the pavement; legend has it that if you stand atop it and spin three times on your right foot, it’ll bring you good luck. There’s no need to worry that you’ll look like a bit of a nut doing it, as there are likely to be a handful of other visitors lined up to have a go.

Parco Sempione

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Sforza Castle (Castello Sforzesco), view from Parco Sempione, (Sempione Park), in Milan, Italy.
© FABRIZIO ROBBA / Alamy Stock Photo
While much of Milan is grey marble and stone, there are pockets of lush greenery to be found. Right in the centre of the city is the enormous Parco Sempione. Spanning some 39 hectares (96 acres), it’s the largest park in Milan and host to some unique attractions. Join many of the residents on warm days for a picnic on the grounds, or take a walk around the footpaths to stumble across the Napoleonic Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace), the beautiful central lake, a smattering of museums and more. It’s quite easy to spend an entire day meandering around this place, so bring your most comfortable walking shoes.

Castello Sforzesco

Historical Landmark
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Fountain In Front Of The Entrance To Castello Sforzesco, Milan, Lombardy, Italy
© Wojtkowski Cezary / Alamy Stock Photo
Castello Sforzesco is one of the many attractions nestled within the vast grounds of Parco Sempione and is among the most-visited places in Milan. While there are swarms of tourists, the site is so huge that it’s easy to find yourself alone as you wander around the perimeter. Constructed in the 1300s, the castle was severely damaged throughout the years after multiple attacks on the city, and Francesco Sforza, the duke of Milan at the time, commissioned a new structure in the 15th century. After several expansions in later centuries, it became one of the largest citadels in Europe. Entry to the castle proper is free after 2pm on the first and third Tuesday of every month.

Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio

Church, Monastery
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Exterior basilica of Sant Ambrogio in Milan, Italy
© Luca Ponti / Alamy Stock Photo

Not only is this basilica the heart of Milan’s spiritual life, it’s also a homage to the much-admired fourth-century bishop of Milan. Saint Ambrose was a Roman governor who was made a bishop by popular vote back in AD 374, and although he refused the prestigious appointment at first, he was pressed into acceptance of the role, upon which he gave up all of his lands to support the poor. Now the patron saint of Milan, his remains are interred within a crypt in the basilica. Take a guided tour of the premises to learn more about this bishop and saint, or wander around at your own pace (for free) to marvel at the dazzling mosaics, which mount the otherwise minimalist halls of this red-brick cathedral.

Orto Botanico di Brera

Botanical Garden
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Orto Botanico di Brera, botanical garden, University of Milan, Milan, Lombardy, Italy, Europe
© REDA and CO srl / Alamy Stock Photo

For another tranquil retreat away from the bustling crowds of Milan, visit the local botanical garden. Tucked away up a private street and just a short walk from the Duomo or Parco Sempione, the Orto Botanico of Brera is a leafy oasis that was once a scientific institution. The 18th-century garden was designed to help educate medical and pharmacy students, as well as being used to grow medicinal plants. Today, it’s a beautifully maintained attraction for plant lovers and those looking to take a break from life. Find one of the many benches dotted around the grounds and relax until you’re ready to face the outside world again.

Free dinner in Navigli

Bar, Italian
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They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch; however, they clearly haven’t been to Milan. Among the most famous areas of Milan is Navigli, known for its picturesque canals, hip bars, restaurants and the cultural phenomenon, aperitivo. Strictly speaking, aperitivo means a pre-meal drink, but here in Navigli it’s also code for ‘free dinner’. Purchase any beverage at one of the many canal-side bars around sunset (look for a buffet table inside, and you’ll know you’ve arrived), and you’ll be treated to an all-you-can-eat treat. Each of the bars has unique specialities, but you’ll usually find cold cuts, bruschetta, bread, cheeses and salads. Sip your drink as slowly as you can manage, and you can spend a happy evening munching away for free while you watch the world go by.

Cimitero Monumentale di Milano

Building, Cemetery
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In case the name didn’t give it away, Cimitero Monumentale is a giant cemetery. Covering over 25 hectares (62 acres), it’s the second-largest cemetery in Milan, but definitely its most captivating. Boasting over 15,000 statues, the graveyard is also home to some of Milan’s most famous buildings, including the Famedio (or Pantheon), which is the final resting place of some of the city’s most legendary writers and politicians. Wandering through the laneways of graves is a unique, albeit slightly spooky, experience – you’ll be spellbound by some of the most artistic and decorative tombs in Italy.

Leonardo’s Horse

Historical Landmark
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Leonardo's horse at the Hippodrome of San Siro, Milan, Lombardy, Italy.
© Wire.Dog / Alamy Stock Photo

Unlike The Last Supper (for which tickets must be bought up to four months in advance), you can check out this Da Vinci masterpiece for free at any time of the year. Leonardo’s Horse, also known as Gran Cavallo, was commissioned in 1482 by Ludovico il Moro, who later became the duke of Milan. Some seven metres (24 feet) long, the sculpture is enormous and imposing. While Da Vinci never finished the statue, only designing it in clay, his plans were later used to forge the monument in a much more durable bronze.

Take a street-art tour

Art Gallery
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Milan is thought to be the birthplace of fascism, and so it’s not surprising that an anarchic underground movement is also deeply rooted in the city. Graffiti is one of the oldest forms of street art and an inherently rebellious anti-establishment form of expression, which has a rich history in Milan. All over the city, you’ll find both large and discreet artistic installations, from huge building-side murals to tiny, decorated manhole coverings. For a concentrated burst of creative statements, visit the Leoncavallo area. In this public space, which plays host to everything from music events to protests and community gatherings, you’ll find wall paintings from some famous artists, including MR BLOB. Afterwards, catch a tram or bus to the Isola neighbourhood for more subtle yet equally striking pieces.

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