Milan is commonly known as the economic capital of Italy, a definition that seems to underline that there is a lot of money going around, but there is little interesting to see. And instead of things to do and see in Milan, there are many: you can start from the Milan – Postcard, the one in Piazza Duomo, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and the Castello Sforzesco, symbols of Milan’s ancient wealth.
Then there is the Milan of Leonardo Da Vinci, who put his genius as an architect to work to make the recently recovered and fashionable Navigli (canals) navigable. Leonardo also donated one of his greatest masterpieces to Milan: the Last Supper painted in the refectory of Santa Maria Delle Grazie. Then there is the international Milan, the one that attracts wealthy people from all over the world: San Babila with its beautiful church in neo-Romanesque style. Still, above all with the fashion streets, the shop windows of the big brands, the models around and the custom-built shops parked. In short, the things to do and see in this city are certainly not few, to which we must add the charm of a great European metropolis and a cuisine unfairly underestimated compared to that of Rome, Naples or Florence. So here are ten things to see in Milan to start discovering this vast and beautiful city, even just in a weekend.
Things to do in Milan
1. Milan Cathedral – Duomo di Milano
What could be more representative of Milan than the Duomo? The church dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente, built at the behest of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, is the symbol of the city and one of the first things to see as soon as you set foot in Milan.
The works for the Duomo of Milan began in 1386 and favored the birth of a wonderful monument, with wonderful stained glass windows and beautiful carved decorations. This majestic structure is the most significant testimony of Gothic architecture, which leaves no room for doubt. In essence, it is the only one in which Nordic characters and Lombard elements blend. The beauty of the Duomo is completed by the main spire where the famous Madonnina, a gilded copper statue 4 meters high, dominates. If you visit the church on a beautiful sunny day, you can enjoy a wonderful view of the city and the Alps from the terraces. Inside you must not miss the presbytery area, which was renovated in the second half of the 16th century. At the apex of the apse vault, there is the relic of the Holy Nail of the Cross. Just to give some numbers know that: in the Cathedral, there are 3,500 statues, including the 96 gargoyle giants, and that the structure is 157 meters long, 92 meters wide, and the spire is 108.50 meters high.
2. Museo del Novecento (Twentieth-century Museum)
A few steps from the Duomo there is the Palazzo dell’Arengario with the wonderful Museo del Novecento.
A collection of more than 400 works of Italian art arranged in chronological order. In essence, it starts immediately with “Quarto Stato” by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, to whom an entire room is dedicated. Among the authors of the early ‘900, we meet the works of Picasso, Braque, Klee, Kandinskij, and Modigliani. We then move on to Futurism with Balla, Boccioni, Carrà, Depero, Severini, and Soffici. The 1920s and 1930s are represented by de Chirico, Morandi, and an entire space dedicated to Marino Marini. On the third floor, there are works by informal artists (Burri, Vedova, Licini, and others) and the 50s and 60s with Piero Manzoni and artists from Azimuth. The fourth floor is all for Lucio Fontana with the large “space ceiling” of 1956 (from the Hotel del Golfo dell’Isola d’Elba), the Neon and the Space Concepts of the 50s. The large room dedicated to Fontana has large windows that allow a spectacular view of the Duomo. The suspended walkway leads to the Royal Palace with works from the 60s to the 80s: Kinetic and Programmed Art, Pop, analytical paintings, and conceptual art with Kounellis, Paladino, and others.
3. Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan
Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is jealously guarded inside the refectory of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan. Leonardo created this work of surprising beauty on the north wall of the great hall between 1494 and 1498, during the rule of Ludovico il Moro.
The brilliant Leonardo executed this masterpiece “dry” instead of the fresco technique usually used for wall paintings. Unfortunately, over time, due to environmental conditions and historical events, the work has suffered substantial deterioration and can only be seen in part. Numerous restoration works have been carried out on the Last Supper, and in particular, that of 1999 restored the painting to its original colors and removed the previous painting interventions. To avoid that the painting can still be damaged, it is preserved in particular environmental conditions, determined by air treatment. It can only be visited by groups of maximum 25 visitors at a time, every 15 minutes.
4. Art Gallery of Brera ( Pinacoteca di Brera )
Pinacoteca di Brera was founded in 1776 and as a collection of significant works intended for the training of students of the Academy of Fine Arts.
When Milan was proclaimed capital of the Italian Kingdom by Napoleon, the paintings confiscated from churches and aristocrats (those not brought to Paris) arrived at Brera. The Pinacoteca di Brera, therefore, differs from other prestigious Italian museums because it does not originate from the private collecting of the aristocracy and princes, but from that of State and politics. The collection is very rich with some of the most famous works in the world: from Caravaggio’s Dinner at Emmaus to Mantegna’s Dead Christ, from Piero Della Francesca’s Pala Brera to Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin. Next to these famous works, there are many others, exceptional even if less known. One of the symbols of Brera is the painting of Romanticism par excellence: the Kiss of Hayez. The collection goes back to the 20th century with works by Braque, Modigliani, Picasso, Morandi, De Chirico, and many others.
5. Navigli district Milan
You hardly ever think of Milan as a city of water, but it is. The Navigli system was born with the ambitious project to connect Milan with Lake Como, the Adda, Lake Maggiore, and the Po, arriving in northern Europe and then to the sea. The history of the Navigli began in the second half of the 12th century, with the construction of the first navigable stretch. The first canal, the Ticinello, was inaugurated in 1179, and with its 50 kilometers of length, the construction of the Naviglio Grande began. In 1457 Francesco Sforza entrusted Bertola da Novate with the construction of the Naviglio della Martesana, but it was with Ludovico il Moro that the real turning point came.
And what genius could complete such a complex hydraulic work if not Leonardo Da Vinci? With an ingenious system of locks, Leonardo da Vinci succeeded in connecting Milan with Lake Como. All that was missing was the connection to the sea via the Po: this was what Napoleon thought in 1805 when he completed the construction of the Pavia Naviglio. The Navigli have lived through alternate eras: they brought wealth but then suffered abandonment and pollution, a good part was buried. In spite of everything, the Milanese have always loved them, going for a walk or frequenting the taverns and clubs that grew up around them. Today they are experiencing a rebirth and are at the center of numerous redevelopment projects. In essence, the first one completed is the new Darsena, in the Naviglio Grande, which took place with Expo 2015. Cycle paths, boats, and relaxation areas are flanked by traditional taverns, boutiques, and artists’ shops.
6. Sforza Castle in Milan
Castello Sforzesco has accompanied the history of Milan for 750 years and has been a decisive place on many occasions. Galeazzo II commissioned the first construction, but it was Francesco Sforza (hence the name) who gave it its present form.
The Castle has almost always played the role of a military citadel and is, still today, one of the largest castles in Europe. Always a place linked to war, domination, and mourning, therefore loved and hated by the Milanese, in the twentieth century, the Castle changed its face and assumed the comforting aspect of a place of culture used to protect the testimonies of Lombard art. Currently, the Sforza Castle is full of museums. In essence, on the ground floor of the Ducal Court, there is the Museum of Ancient Art, on the first floor there are the furniture collection and the Picture Gallery, on the first and second floor of the Rocchetta there are the collections of Applied Art and the Museum of Musical Instruments, in the basement of the Ducal Court there is the Museum of Prehistory and Protohistory and the Egyptian Museum. The Castle contains some masterpieces of Italian art: the Rondanini Pietà by Michelangelo, the frescoes by Leonardo in the VIII room of the Museum of Ancient Art, the Madonna in Glory and Saints John the Baptist, Gregory the Great, Benedict and Jerome by Mantegna in the Pinacoteca and the extraordinary cycle of tapestries depicting the twelve months of Bramantino in the Sala Della Balla.
7. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the so-called living room of Milan, was built because in the first half of the 19th century, the city looked with envy at the urban evolution of the great European capitals and wanted to live up to it.
In 1859 the idea of a covered passage connecting Piazza Duomo and Piazza Della Scala became more and more concrete, and an international competition was launched to evaluate the proposals of various architects. As many as 176 architects proposed their ideas and among all of them the one by Giuseppe Mengoni, who thought of a long gallery crossed by an arm, with a large octagonal hall in the middle of the intersection. In 1865 work began with the laying of the first stone directly by King Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy, and two years later, the Gallery was inaugurated, although still incomplete and without the presence of the King. But the construction of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II has a tragic epilogue: its creator, Giuseppe Mengoni, died during an inspection of his “creature.” Many did not think of a casual accident, but of a real suicide due to the numerous criticisms of his work and the disappointment caused by the absence of the king at the inauguration: no one could have imagined that the king was in poor health and that he would die only a few days later. The Gallery is the good living room of Milan, where you can meet to be seen, to buy (at a high price), or simply have a coffee.
8. San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore Church
After 30 years of restoration work, the magnificent Renaissance church of San Maurizio is back to shine. Built in the early 16th century on the remains of an ancient place of worship, the church was annexed to the Major Monastery of the Benedictine order (demolished in 1799), of which today remains the entrance cloister, an integral part of the Archaeological Museum. The division of the interior space into two parts (one open to the faithful, and another, the rear, reserved for the nuns of the monastery who attended mass from a grate) testifies to the ancient destination of the structure.
The simple and linear façade of the building on Corso Magenta does not bode well for the surprising interior full of wonderful frescoes that cover the entire architectural structure, from the walls to the vault, which is why the church has been called the Sistine Chapel of Milan. The brightly colored fresco decorations extend over 4,000 square meters. They are the work of some of the greatest masters of 16th century Lombard painting: Bernardino Luini, to whom we owe, among others, the “Stories of St. Catherine” (Besozzi Chapel), the “Stories of the Life of Christ” (nuns’ choir, partition wall); Simone Peterzano, master of Caravaggio, author of “The return of the prodigal son” and “Christ chasing the merchants out of the temple” which decorate the interior facade of the church; Antonio Campi to whom we owe the “Adoration of the Magi” on the high altar; Bergognone (choir); Lomazzo; Boltraffio, Leonardo’s pupil. Of great value in the cloistered choir, the organ made by Gian Giacomo Antegnani (1557) originally intended for liturgical concerts, and now used for concert events taking place in the city.
9. Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan
The church dedicated to the patron saint of the city is considered the second most important church after the Duomo. Founded in the 4th century at the behest of Ambrose, bishop of Milan (buried here in 397), in the area of the cemetery of the martyred Christians (it was originally called Basilica Martyrum), the church was rebuilt according to the canons of Romanesque architecture between 1088 and 1099.
Although considered the most important example of Lombard Romanesque architecture, the basilica owes its appearance also to the building interventions and adaptations carried out in the following centuries. The basilica, preceded by a four-sided porticoed atrium, has a gabled façade characterized by two overlapping loggias and is framed by two bell towers: that of the Monks on the right, dating back to the 9th century, and that of the Canons on the left, erected in the 12th century, with the exception of the last two floors added in 1889. The interior is divided into three naves, each of which ends with an apse and is divided into four square bays covered by cross vaults. Worth mentioning in the presbytery is the 9th-century ciborium, a Lombard-Byzantine stuccoed canopy resting on four red porphyry columns under which is placed the Golden Altar, a masterpiece of Carolingian goldsmithery, by Vuolvino. The early Christian sarcophagus known as Stilicone’s sarcophagus, dating back to the 4th century, is also of great value. Of particular interest is the Roman column on which rests a unique bronze sculpture, the so-called “serpent of Moses”: according to legend, the end of the world will be announced by the descent of the animal from the column.
In the underground crypt are preserved the remains of Saints Ambrose, Gervasius and Protase. Inside the Ambrosian basilica you can admire the small chapel (sacellum) of San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro built in the 4th century to house the remains of the martyr Vittore, famous for the presence of early Christian mosaics on the walls and in the dome depicting some saints, including St. Ambrose. Near the basilica of Sant’Ambrogio there is a Roman column on which there are two holes made, according to legend, by Satan. It is said, in fact, that the devil, having failed to seduce Ambrose, tried to pierce him but struck the column and got stuck there with his long horns. Angry, in the form of sulphur fumes, the evil one used those same holes to return to the underworld. So don’t worry if you smell a slight smell of sulfur coming out of those holes or if you lean your ear and hear strange noises coming from them…
10. What to eat in Milan
Like all Italian cities, Milan boasts a great culinary tradition. The real king of Milanese cuisine is butter, used in most dishes, from risotto to Milanese cutlet to panettone.
To begin with the traditional dishes, the best known is certainly the risotto alla milanese, made with saffron. The traditional one involves the use of ox marrow, but currently, not many people cook it in this way. Another typical Milanese first course is the “busecca” (hence the nickname “busecconi”), made with stewed tripe. Among the second courses, the best known and most appreciated is the Milanese cutlet, which according to tradition is made with veal, at least one finger high, and fried in butter, although today the healthier and less fatty olive oil or seed oil is preferred. Let’s not forget the Ossobuco (òsbus a la milanesa): a slice of veal shank or stewed beef. The “cassoeula” instead is a very rich dish, made with cabbage and the “poor” parts of the pig such as rind, head, ribs and feet. Turning instead to desserts, the panettone and the dove originate in the capital of Milan. Dairy products are instead among the typical products of the area: stracchino, mascarpone, grana di Lodi and, of course, gorgonzola.
11. Where to stay in Milan
No longer just a destination for managers and businessmen, Milan was already the arrival point of cultural tourism before Expo 2015: the relaunch of the Navigli, the multiplication of exhibitions, and the opening of new museums have attracted a large number of new visitors to the city.
Given a large number of people, Milan has had to expand its accommodation offers, and today, more than yesterday, is ready to welcome its tourists in its many hotels, bed & breakfast, apartments, and hostels, scattered in every area of the city. Alongside the large and luxurious hotel chains, you will also find more modest and welcoming hotels, comfortable rooms for rent, family bed & breakfasts, and even extravagant Art Nouveau houses from the early 1900s. It is not easy to find a room at a good price, especially in the city center and at international events. Prices start from 80 € per night in a 3-star hotel and then go up. The advice is to book in advance. All accommodations are perfectly connected with the center of Milan, thanks to an efficient and functional transport system, so if you want to save a little bit you can choose to sleep in the suburbs, without having to worry about travel.