14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Milan
While Milan (Milano) may not be the first city a tourist thinks of when planning a trip to Italy, it has more than its share of attractions, not to mention history. For all its workaholic reputation as the money and business center of Italy, it's a city with an influential past and a rich cultural heritage. Consider that St. Augustine was baptized in a basilica that stood at what is now Piazza del Duomo; artists Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, the composer Verdi, the great tenor Enrico Caruso, and designer Giorgio Armani all lived and worked here; Toscanini conducted regularly at La Scala; Napoleon was crowned (actually, he crowned himself) inside the Duomo;
Mussolini founded the Fascist party here, and the entire fashion world looks to Milan's catwalks twice a year for the season's fashions. All this history, not to mention the considerable wealth generated by its favored commercial position, has left Milan with an abundance of art, cultural, and architectural treasures for you to enjoy.
See also: Where to Stay in Milan
1 Il Duomo (Cathedral)
The massive Cathedral of Santa Maria Nascente, which the Milanese call just "Il Duomo" is among the world's largest (it holds up to 40,000 people) and most magnificent churches, the ultimate example of the Flamboyant Gothic style. It was begun in the 14th century, but its façade was not completed until the early 1800s, under Napoleon. The roof is topped by 135 delicately carved stone pinnacles and the exterior is decorated with 2,245 marble statues. The dim interior, in striking contrast to the brilliant and richly patterned exterior, makes a powerful impression with its 52 gigantic pillars. The stained-glass windows in the nave (mostly 15th-16th centuries) are the largest in the world; the earliest of them are in the south aisle. Highlights include the seven-branched bronze candelabrum by Nicholas of Verdun (c. 1200) in the north transept, the 16th-century tomb of Gian Giacomo Medici, and the jeweled gold reliquary of San Carlo Borromeo in the octagonal Borromeo Chapel leading off the crypt. Behind the high altar, the choir has deeply carved panels, and misericords under the seats.
In the south sacristy is the treasury with gold and silver work dating from the fourth to the 17th century. A walk on the roof of the cathedral is an impressive experience, offering views across the city and extending on clear days to the snow-covered Alps. (An elevator ascends all but the last 73 steps to the platform of the dome). At the front of the Duomo, near the central doorway, you can descend under Piazza del Duomo into the foundations of the Basilica di Santa Tecla (fourth-fifth and seventh century) and the fourth-century baptistery, Battistero di San Giovanni alle Fonti, which were discovered during the construction of the Milan Metro system.
Address: Piazza del Duomo, Milan
2 Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper
The Gothic brick church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in the Corso Magenta, was begun about 1465, and its massive six-sided dome in the finest Early Renaissance style was designed by Bramante, one of Italy's most influential Renaissance architects. The church - and adjoining refectory, which holds Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper - were badly damaged in World War II, and during the repair work, old sgraffito paintings in the dome were brought to light. At the end of the north aisle is the Baroque chapel of the Madonna delle Grazie, with an altarpiece of the Madonna.
But the reason most tourists visit Santa Maria delle Grazie is to see da Vinci's most famous work, painted on the refectory wall of the former Dominican monastery. The Cenacolo Vinciano, as it is called here, was painted on the wall in tempera between 1495 and 1497. Instead of earlier static representations of Christ's last meal with his disciples, Da Vinci presents a dramatic depiction of the scene, which was quite novel and marked an important new stage in the development of art. The painting, which had already begun to flake off before the destruction of part of the room left it exposed to weather, has been restored several times, a process which will probably never be fully completed.
Address: Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie 2, Milan
3 Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II: Luxury Shops and Elegant Cafés
Forming one side of Piazza del Duomo and opening on the other side to Piazza della Scala, the grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was designed by Giuseppe Mengoni and built between 1865 and 1877. It was then the largest shopping arcade in Europe, with a dome soaring 48 meters above its mosaic floor. Marking the beginning of modern architecture in Italy, today it stands as a splendid example of 19th-century industrial iron and glass construction. And it's still a beautiful, vibrant place where locals meet for lunch or coffee in its elegant cafés and browse in its luxury shops. It is so much a part of local life that the inhabitants of Milan refer to it as "il salotto" (the salon).
Address : Piazza del Duomo, Milan
4 Opera at Teatro alla Scala
Considered the most prestigious opera house in the world, La Scala has rung with the music of all the great operatic composers and singers, and its audiences - the theater seats 2,800 people - are known (and feared) as the most demanding in Italy. The season begins in early December and runs through May, but tickets are often difficult to come by. The best way of getting tickets is through your hotel concierge, but it's worth checking at the box office. In the same building is the Museo Teatrale alla Scala, where you'll find a collection of costumes from landmark performances and historical and personal mementos of the greats who performed and whose works were performed at La Scala, including Verdi, Rossini, and the great conductor Arturo Toscanini. If there is not a rehearsal in progress, the museum offers access to see the inside of the opera house itself, one of the world's grandest.
Address: Piazza della Scala, Milan
5 Castello Sforzesco
The Castello Sforzesco, held by the Visconti and the Sforza families who ruled Milan from 1277 to 1447 and from 1450 to 1535 respectively, was built in 1368 and rebuilt in 1450. The 70-meter Torre de Filarete is a 1905 reproduction of the original gate-tower. The Castello houses the Musei del Castello Sforzesco, a series of museums, one of which features sculpture. The collection includes the Pietà Rondanini, Michelangelo's last masterpiece, brought here in 1953 from the Palazzo Rondanini in Rome. Other museums feature a collection of decorative art, prehistoric and Egyptian antiquities, a collection of musical history, and an armory of weapons and medieval armor. The picture gallery includes paintings by Bellini, Correggio, Mantegna, Bergognone, Foppa, Lotto, Tintoretto, and Antonello da Messina. Between the two rear courtyards of the Castello, a passage leads into the park, originally the garden of the dukes of Milan and later a military training ground.
Address: Piazza Castello, Milan
6 Pinacoteca di Brera
The Renaissance Palazzo di Brera, built between 1651 and 1773, was originally a Jesuit college, but since 1776 has been the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts). Along with a library and observatory, it contains the Pinacoteca di Brera, one of Italy's finest art museums. Much of the art was acquired as churches closed or were demolished, and the museum is especially strong in paintings by northern Italian masters. As you enter through the courtyard, you'll see an 1809 monument to Napoleon I by the sculptor Canova.
Notable among 15th-century pictures are works by Mantegna (Madonna in a Ring of Angels' Heads and Lamentation). The Venetian masters are represented by Giovanni Bellini (Lamentation and two Madonnas), Paolo Veronese, Titian (Count Antonio Porcia and St. Jerome), and Tintoretto (Finding of St. Mark's Body and Descent from the Cross), and portraits by Lorenzo Lotto and Giovanni Battista Moroni. The Lombard masters, disciples of Leonardo da Vinci, are well represented, as are artists of the Ferrarese school. Correggio of Parma is represented by a Nativity and an Adoration of the Kings. Artists of the Umbrian school include Piero della Francesca (Madonna with Saints and Duke Federico da Montefeltro) and Bramante (eight frescoes Christ of the Column). The most famous picture in the gallery is Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin (Lo Sposalizio), the finest work of his first period. Outstanding among foreign masters are Rembrandt (portraits of women, including The Artist's Sister), Van Dyck (Princess Amalia of Solms), Rubens (Last Supper), and El Greco (St. Francis). It's not all old masters - you'll also find works here by Picasso, Braque, and Modigliani, too. Most visitors miss the Brera's little secret: the Orto Botanico di Brera, a charming garden in one of its inner courtyards, a hidden oasis of exotic trees, pools, and flower beds with a 19th-century greenhouse.
Address: Via Brera 28, Milan
The church of Sant'Ambrogio was founded in 386 by St. Ambrose, who was born in Milan and is the city's patron saint. The present church is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, built in the 12th century around the choir from an earlier ninth-century church. There's a lot to see here, beginning with the large portico, also from the ninth century, and the atrium, whose carved stone capitals and portal rank it high among Europe's best examples of the Romanesque period. Inside, be sure to see the pulpit with late Romanesque carving, and the richly carved 4th-century Stilicone sarcophagus underneath it. The casing (paliotto) of the high altar is a masterpiece of Carolingian art made in 835 at either Milan or Rheims. It's easy to miss the mosaic dome of the original 4th-century Sacello di San Vittore, accessed through the last chapel on the right.
Address: Piazza Sant'Ambrogio 15, Milan
8 Piazza dei Mercanti
With all the high-rise buildings filling the skyline, it's hard to find places that give any sense of medieval Milan. But hidden less than a five-minute walk from Piazza del Duomo is tiny Piazza dei Mercanti, where you will feel as though you've stepped back centuries into the Middle Ages. Forming one side is the Palazzo della Ragione, the old town hall dating from 1233. This made the little square the political heart of Milan, while the stone market arcade made it the commercial heart as well. Enclosing the other side of the piazza is the 1316 Loggia degli Osii, faced in black and white marble and originally housing offices for judges and notaries. Be sure to notice the statues over the arcades; they are by the most outstanding stoneworkers of medieval Italy, the Maestri Campionesi from Lake Lugano. The tower, Torre del Comune, dates from 1272. The only thing that doesn't match the medieval setting is the impressive Renaissance law courts building, but it's only visible in glimpses through the market arcade.
Address : Via Mercanti, Milan
9 Museo Bagatti Valsecchi
Several things make this an especially interesting place to visit. Two brothers in the 19th century spent their lives collecting furnishings and decorative arts to make the interior of their Renaissance palazzo look as it might have appeared originally. Not only will you see a home of that era in a livable state - as opposed to just rooms of display cases and walls of paintings, but you can follow their collecting process through the excellent English signage. So you get to share a bit of the excitement of the chase amid the historical and artistic information about each piece. Most of all, though, it's nice to see the furniture, tapestries, glassware, books, children's items, and paintings by Renaissance masters in a household setting.
Address: Via S Spirito 10, Milan
10 Poldi-Pezzoli Museum
An elegant old patrician house is the setting for this art museum with paintings by Botticelli, Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Guardí, and other artists, as well jewelry, silver, bronzes, porcelains, Etruscan pottery, armor, and weapons. Textiles in the museum include Flemish and Persian carpets, tapestries, a large collection of hand-worked lace and a very rare embroidery designed by Botticelli.
Address: Via Manzoni 12, Milan
11 Leonardo da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology
Housed in a former Olivetan monastery, the museum illustrates the history of science and technology from the work of early scientists into modern times. Of particular interest is the Leonardo da Vinci Gallery with working models of many of his inventions and machinery, created from da Vinci's drawings. In the physics exhibits are apparatus used by Galileo, Newton, and Volta, and there are sections relating to optics, acoustics, telegraphy, transport, shipping, railroads, flying, metallurgy, motor vehicles, timekeeping, and timber. In all, more than 15,000 technical and scientific objects represent the history of Italian science, technology, and industry.
Address: Via St Vittore 21, Milan
12 Civica Galleria d'Arte Moderna (Modern Art Gallery)
Napoleon's residence when he occupied Milan, this palace facing the Giardini Pubblici was new when Napoleon commandeered it. Today, it retains its original stucco work and decorative details inside, which adds to its interest as a showcase for Milan's extensive collection of modern art. The emphasis is on Italian art, from 19th century Romanticism to post-impressionists, but the collections are far broader, with works by Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, Rouault, Modigliani, Dufy, and Vuillard. There is an extensive group of Neoclassical sculpture by Canova and his contemporaries. On the grounds are an English-style garden and a botanic garden, and adjoining it are the lawns, flower gardens, and playgrounds of the public gardens. Also adjoining the Giardini Pubblici is the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale (Museum of Natural History), where the biodiversity of the earth is shown in nearly 100 detailed dioramas. Especially strong is the paleontology section, highlighted by a spectacular pliosaurus hanging from the ceiling.
Address: Via Palestro 16, Milan
The Romanesque basilica of Sant'Eustorgio was built in the 12th and 13th centuries, and its fine campanile was added a century later. The facade was not added until 1863. Look beyond the choir to find the Cappella Portinari, by Michelozzo in 1462-68, one of the earliest examples of Renaissance architecture. The frescoes are by Vincenzo Foppa. Not far from Sant'Eustorgio is another church, San Lorenzo Maggiore, dating from the Early Christian period. Its Renaissance dome was added in 1574, but the mosaics in the chapel of St. Aquilinus are from the fourth century. In front of the church, the portico of sixteen Corinthian columns is the largest surviving monument of Roman Mediolanum.
Address: Piazza Sant'Eustorgio, 1, 20123 Milan
14 Archaeology Museum
You can see some of Roman Milan, excavated on the lower floors of this museum in the former monastery of Monastero Maggiore. Along with the ancient history of Milan, you'll find Greek, Etruscan, and Roman finds from elsewhere in Italy, including sculptures in stone and bronze. Particularly good are the third-century sculpture of Maximilian, a bronze head, and a female statue with folded drapes.
Address: Corso Magenta 15, Milan
Where to Stay in Milan for Sightseeing
Big, sprawling Milan can be overwhelming when you look at a map. It's not nearly so daunting when you notice that most major attractions are within walking distance from the Duomo, itself Milan's prime attraction. And they line up conveniently, so walking to the outermost of them takes you past one or two others. These highly-rated hotels in Milan are close to the important attractions:
- Luxury Hotels: Steps from Piazza Duomo and medieval Piazza Mercanti, art-filled Hotel Spadari al Duomo has a contemporary décor. By contrast Grand Hotel et de Milan is a historic classic. Between La Scala and the Monte Napoleone designer shops, it is convenient for both opera lovers and fashionistas. Park Hyatt Milan is right beside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade, between the Duomo and La Scala opera house.
- Mid-Range Hotels: On a quiet side street and with impeccable service, Gran Duca di York radiates an air of serenity, despite its location just off busy Piazza Duomo. Almost as close to the Duomo are the newly renovated rooms of Hotel La Madonnina. Nearer Castello Sforzesco and the Brera art museum, the plain but comfortable Hotel Star is still only a 10-minute walk from the Duomo and La Scala.
- Budget Hotels: The hospitable Antica Locanda Leonardo is near Santa Maria delle Grazie and The Last Supper, an easy walk to the science museum and historic San Ambrogio. London Hotel is close to Castello Sforzesco and its museums, and it lies within walking distance from the Duomo and Brera art museum, close to the center, restaurants, and shopping. A bit farther out, in a good neighborhood for restaurants, Casa Mia Hotel is just past the Public Gardens, a 20-minute walk from the Duomo.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Milan
- Sightseeing: An easy way to see the most famous sites in Milan is on a Milan Half-Day Sightseeing Tour with da Vinci's The Last Supper. This 3.5-hour walking tour takes you to several key attractions and includes admission to La Scala and an entrance ticket to see The Last Supper.
- Day Trips: One of the best ways to see some beautiful mountain scenery near Milan is from the comfort of a train. The Swiss Alps Bernina Express Rail Tour from Milan offers a fabulous trip through the Bernina Pass to St. Moritz, including free time in Tirano and St. Moritz. This is a 12.5-hour day that includes transportation via coach from Milan to Tirano, where you will begin the rail journey. Spending a day at Lake Como is another popular excursion. The Lake Como Day Trip from Milan is a nine-hour trip that offers transport to Como, a guided walking tour of the town, and a Lake Como Cruise. A slightly longer tour, the Italy and Switzerland in One Day: Lake Como and Lugano includes a cruise on Lake Como, with a stop in Bellagio, and then continues on to Lugano for an afternoon of exploring the sights or shopping.