Milan is Italy’s second largest city and the biggest in the northern part of the country. It may not have as many jaw-dropping tourist sights as Florence, Venice and Rome, but it sure has enough interesting places and attractions to fill a weekend.
It’s often dismissed as a grey, unattractive industrial city – yes, in the 1970’s maybe it was. Nowadays, Milan is one of the world’s fashion and design capitals, it has several museums, beautiful parks, great street art and it’s one of the most culturally diverse Italian cities.
Most travelers just breeze through Milan on their way to Cinque Terre, Venice or Lake Como. True, the city may not be as cute as a quaint Italian village, but it does have a lot to offer – and it doesn’t need to be expensive. Check out our 10 free things to do in Milan if you’re on a budget, and our Milan street food guide if you’re a street food lover!
So, without further ado, here are the best things to do in Milan, Italy:
Insider Tip: If you plan to do a lot of sightseeing while in Milan, you might want to get the Milano Card. The pass gives you discounted or free entry to the city’s world-class museums and monuments, as well as free access to public transportation.
Duomo di Milano
If you only have time for one sight in Milan, make sure it’s the Duomo. Milan’s Cathedral is a Gothic extravaganza, a pink-marble wedding cake of spires, columns and statues, overlooking the huge square of the same name.
Make sure you tour the dimly lit interior and marvel at the beautiful stained glass and lofty ceiling before climbing to the rooftop for a view that’s to die for.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele
On your left hand side facing the Duomo, this elegant shopping arcade is known as “Milan’s drawing room”. It’s lined with luxury shops and luxurious cafés, where a cappuccino usually costs more than 5 euros.
Guidebooks read, “The Galleria is where well-heeled Milanese head for an aperitivo before an evening at the Scala”. Yes, maybe that was true 50 years ago. Nowadays there are just tourists at the tables. But nevertheless, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is lovely for a stroll – check out the lovely Prada shop windows, the mosaic floor and the stained-glass ceiling.
You’ll probably notice a small crowd on the left hand side of the Galleria coming from Duomo. People will be taking turns to spin on the balls of a mosaic bull on the floor. If you manage to complete three spins on your heel, you’ll have good luck for the rest of the year!
La Scala Theatre
One of the most famous theaters in the world, a night at La Scala is a must if you’re an opera, ballet or classical music lover. Make sure you dress nicely – no shorts or flip-flops please!
If you don’t want to buy tickets through an agency, you can do so via the theater’s website. Tickets usually go on sale 2-3 months before the performance – be online as soon as they do because they’re snapped rather quickly!
If you fail to secure a ticket in advance, you can queue up on the day of the show for standing tickets (usually costing €10-20) at the evening box office in Via Filodrammatici, right next to the theater. The box office opens between one and three hours before the performance, but start queuing by mid-afternoon to maximize your chances.
Castello Sforzesco & Parco Sempione
This is another one of the best things to do in Milan, a huge castle surrounded by the city’s best park, right in the center of town. You can walk through the castle’s courtyards before reaching the park, or visit one of the 6 museums housed in the castle itself – don’t miss seeing Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Pietà Rondanini.
Parco Sempione is a great place for a run or a picnic, and it includes some real architectural gems – Triennale and Torre Branca, great examples of Fascist architecture, pretty Acquario and its art nouveau exterior, and De Chirico’s Mysterious Baths Fountain.
Leonardo’s Last Supper
This fresco is one of Leonardo’s masterpieces; Jesus’s expression (halfway between contemplation and sadness) has baffled historians for centuries.
The Last Supper can be found in the Santa Maria delle Grazie church – the fresco is badly damaged, so attendance is restricted to 15 people at a time. Buy your tickets in advance – or try your luck rocking up without a booking first thing in the morning, when unsold tickets are released at the box office. It usually works unless it’s very high season.
If you fancy a stroll through an alternative and vibrant part of town, walk down Via Torino from Duomo and take a left down Corso di Porta Ticinese. There you’ll find indie shops, lots of affordable restaurants, street art and the Colonne di San Lorenzo, a Roman ruin opposite San Lorenzo church where young Milanese gather at night.
Behind San Lorenzo church there’s Parco delle Basiliche, another great place for a sit down or a picnic. It used to be the location of Milan’s gallows, but things have brightened up considerably since then.
Keep walking down Corso di Porta Ticinese until you reach Piazza XXIV Maggio. There you’ll find the Darsena and Navigli, whatever is left of Milan’s waterways. This area is another great spot for a (pricey) aperitivo, dinner or drinks – but it’s really lovely, especially in the summertime.
Isola (M5 Isola or Garibaldi) is a former working-class district, now an up and coming hipster hangout, where you can find many independent shops, some great examples of street art (keep your eyes open for C215 on mailboxes!) and a little-visited, but stunning church called Santa Maria alla Fontana.
Porta Nuova is a new steel and glass district, Milan’s very own Canary Wharf. Piazza Gae Aulenti, the centerpiece of the development, is a modern take on a traditional Italian square, complete with futuristic benches and fountains. Right behind you’ll see Bosco Verticale, two award-winning residential buildings with native trees and shrubs on each balcony.
I hope my list of the best things to do in Milan was helpful in planning your trip to this beautiful city and if you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask
Margherita is a cat lover and mountain junkie, and the writer of The Crowded Planet. Coffee, street food, sleeping in and running are some of the things she loves.
Tours You Might Enjoy
Below are some popular tours in Milan that you might enjoy doing.
- Milan City Hop-on Hop-off Tour
- Swiss Alps Bernina Express Rail Tour from Milan
- Lake Como Day Trip from Milan
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