Things to Do in Milan
Milan’s Cathedral, or Duomo, is a much-loved symbol of the city. The most exuberant example of Northern Gothic in Italy, its spiky spires and towers dominate Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s beating heart.
The Duomo’s exterior is an upwardly thrusting collection of pinnacles, elongated statues and buttresses. The central spire is topped by a gilt statue of the Madonna, called the Madonnina.
Inside one of the world’s largest churches, it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to the candle-lit ambiance as you take in the cathedral’s nave, altars, aisles and stained-glass windows.
One of the highlights of a visit to the cathedral is the view from the roof – on a clear day you can see the Italian Alps. Take the steps if you’re fit (or the lift if you’re not) to peer over the city of Milan, surrounded by statues and spiky towers.
La Scala is one of the world’s great opera houses. Built in Milan a stone’s throw from the Duomo in the late 1770s, the theater has seen premiers of some extraordinarily well-loved operas, including works by Rossini, Puccini and many by Italy’s beloved Verdi. The word “scala” means “staircase” in Italian, but the theater gets its name because it was built on the site where the church of Santa Maria alla Scala once stood.
The theater at La Scala holds more than 3,000 spectators, and the walls are adorned with gold and the boxes are lined with red velvet.
Although La Scala’s opera season isn’t year-round you can still get a peek inside. Plan to visit La Scala’s museum, which is inside the opera house. If your museum visit doesn’t coincide with a rehearsal on the main stage then you get to walk into one of the theater’s red velvet boxes for a few minutes.
Most visitors seek out the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie to pay their respects to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The famous mural is housed in the refectory of the adjoining Dominican convent.
Visitors who take the time to explore the convent’s church, however, will be rewarded with a stroll through an impressive Renaissance building.
The church was built in Gothic and Romanesque styles by Sforza duke in 1490, and is believed to have been partially designed by Bramante.
The exterior is decorated in a restrained pattern of pilasters and circles, and the design features a lovely, tranquil cloister. Inside, the Gothic nave is decorated with beautifully restrained patterned details.
Milan is home to two major soccer teams and Italy's largest stadium – San Siro Stadium – where both of them play their home games. San Siro was built in 1925, originally home to just the AC Milan team. In 1947, AC Milan's rivals, FC Internazionale, also moved in. In addition to these top-tier teams, the Italian national team also plays games at San Siro, and it's frequently used as a concert venue for big touring bands. As a football stadium, the capacity of San Siro is now just over 80,000, Italy's largest stadium.
There is a museum at the stadium dedicated to both AC Milan and FC Internazaionale, and when you take a guided tour of San Siro you get to visit each team's locker room.
In a city of many trendy neighborhoods, the Brera district in Milan is one of the most charming. Located very close to the Duomo in the historic center, this is the part of Milan that might make you forget about the city’s hustle-bustle reputation.
The Brera neighborhood is a maze of narrow, cobblestoned streets lined with boutiques and cafes - during nice weather, cafe life spills onto the sidewalks and makes for an excellent place to do some serious people-watching. The designer shopping district called the Quadrilatero d’Oro is nearby, so you can get a peek at some of Milan’s shopping class making their rounds, too.
Aside from just wandering through the Brera and enjoying the scene, the main attraction in the neighborhood is the Pinacoteca di Brera, a fantastic art museum with works by Botticelli, Raphael, Hayez, Titian, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Rembrandt, and Rubens.
Lying on the western flank of thin, wispy Lake Maggiore, Stresa is an elegant resort backed by the Alpine foothills of Monte Mottarone and beloved of travellers for the grandiose hotels spread along its tree-lined promenade. Summer sees lidos bordering the lake and visitor-thronged craft markets on Thursday afternoons; come the balmy evenings the cobbled streets of the town are equally packed with locals and tourists alike enjoying a passeggiata (nightly stroll) before they settle down to dine al fresco in leafy Piazza Cadorna.
Once the hang out of literary stars Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway, the jewels in Stresa’s crown are undoubtedly the three miniature Isole Borromee (Borromean Islands) just minutes away across Lake Maggiore by ferry. Owned by the all-powerful Borromeo clan since the 12th century, today they exist in a Baroque time warp; while Isola Bella and Isola Madre both boast extraordinary 17th-century palazzi.
The QC Terme company (founded by the Quadrio Curzio brothers) operates a chain of wellness spas in Italy, including QC Termemilano. Milan isn't known as a relaxing place, but right in the heart of the city QC Termemilano offers a place to escape the city. The day spa occupies a 19th-century former tram station, when the trams were led by horses. The QC Terme chain continues the belief that thermal baths offer unique therapy for ailments, and they are also a place for community to gather.
The facilities at QC Termemilano include saunas, whirlpools, steam baths, water massages, mud baths, and more. The healthy atmosphere extends to the buffet, which features fresh fruit, yogurt, and pastries. There's also an aperitivo buffet every day at 5:30pm.
More Things to Do in Milan
Milan is a busy, modern city that - when you’re really yearning for Italian medieval hilltop towns - can feel a little hard to love. At those times, it’s important to do as the Milanese do and escape the city (even for just a little while) in one of the big green spaces. One of the most popular is Parco Sempione in central Milan.Parco Sempione covers 116 acres in the city center, just behind the Castello Sforzesco. It was laid out in the late 1800s, and received a major facelift in 1996. The grounds include gravel paths for walking or jogging, a triumphal arch at the far end of the park, a lake, and even a small arena used for concerts and some sporting events. There’s also a tower in the park - the Torre Branca - built in 1933 and offering views over the entire city.
One of the most famous attractions in Milan, the thing that nearly everyone wants to see even on a short visit, is Leonardo da Vinci's “The Last Supper” fresco in the Santa Maria della Grazie church. That's not the only thing to see in that church, however. You can also visit the beautiful Bramante sacristy, designed by the Italian architect Donato Bramante in the late 15th century.
The Duke of Milan hired two of the best artists of the time to work on expanding and beautifying the existing Santa Maria della Grazie convent. Leonardo da Vinci was asked to paint a fresco on the wall of the refectory, while Donato Bramante was asked to build a new sacristy. Bramante's sacristy was built a short distance from the church, and the architect connected the two with a pretty cloister.
The Bramante sacristy is a long, rectangular room with a small chapel-like space at one end.
Milan's fashion sense is world famous, and one of the streets to visit to see where the locals buy their designer brands is Via della Spiga. Along with other nearby streets such as Via Monte Napoleone, Via della Spiga is considered to be part of the Quadrilatero della Moda, or “fashion quarter.” Via della Spiga forms the northeastern border of the quarter.
Some of the designer names you'll see along Via della Spiga are Prada, Bulgari, Tod's, Armani, Hermes, Tiffany, Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, and Moschino. It's a pedestrianized street, making it a pleasure to wander – even if you're not planning to buy.
Step inside Pinacoteca di Brera, a historic 17th century palace, to see one of Italy’s most impressive collections of medieval and Renaissance artworks.
The Pinacoteca di Brera's star is The Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna, a Renaissance/Mannerist excursion into weird perspective. You’ll also see works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Van Dyke. The baroque Palazzo di Brera has a lovely neoclassical cloister lined with arches, and a suitably grand interior.
While the Piazza del Duomo is the most important square in central Milan today, that title went to the Piazza Mercanti in the Middle Ages. The Piazza Mercanti, or Merchants Square, is in Milan's historic center, a short walk to the northwest of the Duomo. The square originally was much larger than it is today, once occupying part of present-day Via Mercanti. Some of the buildings on the square date from its heyday, including the 13th century Palazzo della Ragione (essentially Milan's city hall at the time) and the 14th century Loggia degli Osii (another administrative building).
In the center of the piazza is a 16th century well that was later fitted with two columns in the 18th century. It's covered and unused today There was a stone found nearby upon which merchants found guilty of cheating – or bankruptcy, depending on the story you read – were punished by public shaming, forced to stand on the stone with their pants down, before being sent to jail.
The Romanesque Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio is dedicated to Milan's patron saint, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who founded the church in the 4th century. Dressed in his bishop's finery, the saint's skeleton is displayed in the basilica's crypt.
The church embraces a mix of styles, having been rebuilt in the 11th century and much restored since then. The building has a squat, medieval Lombard facade thanks to its elongated atrium dating back to the year 1098.
Byzantine reliefs crown the 6th century capitals, and a graceful loggia lined with arches leads to the basilica's entrance. Two towers of different heights flank the atrium.
The highlight of the restrained interior in white and terracotta is the apse mosaic of Christ. You’ll also see carved pulpits and tombs, including the final resting place of Emperor Louis II.
The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio was heavily bombed during the Second World War and has been extensively restored.
The Arch of Peace is an arch of celebration in Milan, Italy. Originally called the Arch of Triumph, it was built in the early 19th century to honor Napoleon's victories, although it was not completed. Several years later, under Austrian rule, construction resumed in a few different phases and was finally completed as the Arch of Peace in 1838. The arch marks the place where the Strada del Sempione enters Milan. This road, which is still in use today, connects Milan with Paris. It was built using marble from the Swiss Alps, and at the top visitors can see a bronze chariot with six horses known as the Victories on Horseback. The arch was designed with a large central passageway and two smaller ones based on the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum. It's decorated with Corinthian columns and various sculptures, including reliefs that depict events in Italian history from the time after Napoleon's rule.
There are many important churches in Milan besides its famous Duomo, including the Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, also known as Chiesa di Milano. As the name suggests, it was once associated with a major convent, but that building is now used as Milan's archaeological museum. The church is still used as a house of worship, as well as a venue for concerts.
The church of Saint Maurice al Monastero Maggiore (in English) was built in the early 1500s, and it contains what is believed to be the oldest pipe organ in Milan. The organ was built in 1554 and has been unused for many years, so a new effort is underway to restore the organ to working order. There are also frescoes on the walls that date back to the 16th century, including a series that covers the life of the saint for whom the church is named – San Maurizio.
We’re all familiar with the canals of Venice - but did you know Milan has canals, too? Most of the city’s canals have long since been paved over, but a district to the south of the city center still has two that are visible. A canal in Milan is called a “naviglio,” so this neighborhood is the Navigli District.
Many years ago, the Navigli District was known as a gritty neighborhood with cheap rent. The low cost of living attracted artists, who set up galleries and shops, and now the neighborhood is no longer affordable for many of the artists who once called it home. The overall vibe of an artsy district that’s still a little rough around the edges remains, however. In addition to the galleries and art shops, the Navigli District is known now for its plethora of funky cafes, restaurants, and night clubs. It’s one of the best nightlife areas in the city, and on weekend nights it can get extremely busy.
In addition to fine artwork, great libraries are the mark of high society – so in the early 17th century Cardinal Federico Borromeo founded the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan (the Ambrosiana library and picture gallery, in English).
Cardinal Borromeo stocked his library with more than 15,000 manuscripts and 30,000 books that he and his employees had picked up all over Europe. The contents of the library included ancient Greek and Roman works, as well as some from the middle east. The first reading room of the Ambrosiana library was opened to the public in 1609.
Celebrity visitors to the Ambrosiana library included the poet Lord Byron and the novelist Mary Shelley, who came to see famous manuscripts like Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Atlanticus, the love letters of Lucrezia Borgia, and works of Petrarch.
Many churches in Italy are built on older worship sites. What makes the Church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro in Milan different is that the old church was incorporated into the new one, both in design and name.
The original church on this site was dedicated to San Sitiro (Saint Satyrus), built in the 9th century. In the late 15th century, the church was also dedicated to Mary. The name "Church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro" indicates that the new church was "staying with" (presso) the old one.
When the church got its additional dedication, it also got a bit of a redesign. The artist Bramante played a role in the renovation. One of the most interesting pieces of artwork at the church is Bramante's wonderful trompe l'oeil behind the altar; it looks like there's a series of columns that recedes into the distance, but it's just paint.
If 10 Corso Como sounds like an address, it is. It also happens to be one of Milan's most fasionable addresses, home to a number of attractions and shops.
10 Corso Como (it's Dieci Corso Como in Italian, as "dieci" is the word for 10) was originally an art gallery and bookstore, opened in a traditional Milanese building 1990 by Carla Sozzani. The complex grew over the years to include a cafe, a fashion boutique, a roof garden, and even a tiny hotel (with only three rooms) - all at the same address. The courtyard cafe at 10 Corso Como is particularly popular for aperitivo, and getting a table can be incredibly difficult. You can enjoy the "see and be seen" atmosphere simply by browsing the shops, however.
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