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Visit Milan, the bustling metropolis of northern Italy

One of my favourite getaways just 3 hours from home, Milan is a city that I am particularly fond of and that has started to reveal itself to me over the last ten years or so. I have become so familiar with Milan because I often go to the Italian economic capital to support my favourite football team, thanks to my dad, who shared the red and black passion with me.

Travelling and discovering new places in order to go to a football match, personally I sign up right away! As a result, during my visits, I discovered another face of Milan, a city that is, in fact, highly disparaged. Indeed, opinions are never really unanimous. Either you love it or you are indifferent to it, knowing that extraordinary cities such as Florence, Venice or Rome, with their timeless and unique heritage, are less than 2 hours away from Milan.

A statement I can understand, as I also marvel at the atmosphere and beauty of these Italian tourist hot spots. And this is also what makes Milan so charming, with no historical pretensions, rather economically oriented, and which can be appreciated without tens and tens of thousands of tourists (except in the Duomo Square). Of course, you shouldn’t expect a remarkable monument on every corner, nor should you expect to discover ancient remains or a Caravaggio in every church, but the affluence of Leonardo da Vinci can be felt.

Milan is the bustling and lively metropolis of northern Italy. The capital of Lombardy is filled with juxtaposed architecture, eclectic culture and world-class shopping.

So I’ve listed the main things to do in Milan, so you can start an itinerary that I hope will charm you. This one can be done in a weekend, I completed it once again during a visit in February 2022.

Here are the places highlighted below.

It’s a great way to build up your calves, since everything can be done on foot (although I strongly recommend taking the metro to get to the stadium).

Are you visiting Milan on a budget? If you intend to visit several monuments that require entrance tickets (such as La Scala and the Duomo), consider buying a pass that gives you free entry to a series of museums in the city as well as public transport, or opt for the complete package that includes the hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus. Information can be found here.

Milan’s historic city centre

Il Duomo

Topping my personal list of the most stunning buildings I’ve ever seen, Milan’s Duomo is absolutely breathtaking, which is no surprise to anyone that it is the symbol of Milan and its nerve centre.

Its thousands of finely carved spires and statues, like a forest of marble, are an impressive sight for those who emerge from the metro or arrive from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. It is not surprising to learn that its construction, which began in 1386 and lasted almost half a millennium, was commissioned by the Duke of Milan Gian Galeazzo Visconti as a symbol of the city’s glory and grandeur.

Symbolised also by its Madonnina (a golden sculpture of the Virgin Mary placed on the highest spire of the Duomo) of 4.16 m, Milan Cathedral is the largest church in Italy and the third largest in the world, after St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See in Seville.

The cathedral in the heart of the city is an architectural masterpiece that remains in the memory of all those who visit Milan. Although its interior is magnificent, it is its roof terrace that is absolutely worth a visit. Indeed, the Duomo is the largest Gothic building in the world with an accessible roof. A visit to its heights is therefore highly recommended to admire the unique panorama of the city and the mountains in the distance.

You can enter the cathedral and explore it at your own pace for just €6, and a roof pass to see the spires up close costs €10 by stairs or €15 by lift. The most beautiful moment is at sunset when the setting sun adorns the 135 spires and numerous statues in shimmering colours.

To save time, you can book a ticket for the cathedral and the roof terrace in advance, but also for the Duomo Museum.

Indeed, if you want to learn more about the history of the Duomo and admire the intricacies of the statues, be sure to visit the Museo del Duomo, right next to the cathedral, where many of the church’s original works of art are on display.

La Galleria Vittorio Emanuele

You should not miss this splendid covered passageway that connects the Duomo and the Scala Theatre. The original idea of this gallery was a porticoed street that would serve as a shop window and a place to have an apéritif or dinner after the opera.

The Galleria is the oldest shopping centre in Italy, opened to passers-by in 1867 and is nicknamed the Salon of Milan. In neoclassical style, the gallery is decorated with mosaics, caryatids and various decorations surrounding the balconies and windows.

It is home to the most luxurious brand shops, just like Via Monte Napoleone, historical restaurants or those of Michelin-starred chefs (although, curiously, there is also a McDonald’s), legendary places to have an apéritif, such as the Camparino, and a historical bookshop, the Libreria d’arte Bocca (a real gem).

If, like me (yes, I’m not a big fan of shopping and even less so of “lavish” shopping), you manage to look away from the flashy dresses and pompous handbags displayed in the windows of fashion houses such as Prada, Versace or Louis Vuitton, you’ll notice that the building itself is very impressive, with its two perpendicular arches covered by a huge glass roof, which lets in the sunlight all day.

At the intersection of the two arcades is the Ottagono, so called because of the eight angles formed on the ceiling by the four buildings and the four aisles.

If you want to have the gallery to yourself, you’ll have to get up at the crack of dawn, as the Galleria is very busy. However, between a shopping spree and an espresso at the gallery’s cafés or a spritz at the Aperol terrace, don’t miss out on celebrating an ancient city tradition. Legend has it that doing three turns of the heel of your right foot, placed on the genital parts of the bull drawn in mosaic (representing the coat of arms of Turin) on the floor of the splendid central octagon of the Galleria, brings luck.

The tiles that make up the bull have had to be redone several times over the years because they quickly deteriorate due to the number of people who walk on them every day.

Il Teatro alla Scala

If you enter the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele from Piazza del Duomo and cross it completely, you will arrive in Piazza della Scala, the second most famous and important square in Milan.

Each side of this square is historically important. You will have the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele at your back, and in front of you, the Teatro alla Scala, the most famous opera house in Milan. On your right is the Palazzo della Banca Commerciale Italiana, one of the oldest banks in Italy, and behind you is the Palazzo Marino, Milan’s city hall.

It is true that I have not yet had the chance to attend a theatrical performance in this mythical Italian venue. Although it can be visited during the day, I imagine it must be even more wonderful to see La Scala during a performance of an Italian (or world-class) opera, with many people leaning against its glorious balconies.

The Teatro alla Scala was inaugurated in 1778. It was built in two years on a commission from Archduchess Maria Theresa at a time when Milan was part of the Habsburg Empire. Among the many operas first performed at La Scala are Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco and Giacomo Pucchini’s Madame Butterfly.

Together with the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, which dates from the same period, and La Fenice in Venice, built four years later, La Scala is one of Italy’s internationally renowned opera houses

If your knowledge of Italian opera and opera, in general, is as basic as mine, don’t hesitate to take a guided tour and visit the La Scala museum.

You can buy tickets online to attend an opera. If you are trying to get a ticket on the day, I would advise queuing early.

La Casa di Manzoni

The area around the Duomo is always overrun with tourists (and for good reason), but if you want to escape the hustle and bustle, walk north from La Scala and pass by the Casa di Manzoni which I recently discovered.

The house was the birthplace of the famous Italian writer, Alessandro Manzoni. Visitors are invited to discover the life and works of the artist. Admission costs €8 and tours are offered in English and Italian. You will leave this hidden place knowing a little more about one of Italy’s great writers.

If exploring the home of a famous writer isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of museums in the area to keep you entertained, including the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, the Ambrosiana Library (located right next door, which I absolutely have to check out next time I’m in town), the Poldi Pezzoli Museum and many more.

If you don’t feel like visiting museums, this is the ideal neighbourhood for shopping (I’ll tell you about it at the end of the article), however, if you head to il Quadrilatero d’Oro, make sure you have a well-stocked wallet, otherwise head back to the alleys behind the Duomo which are more affordable.

La Piazza Mercanti

Piazza Mercanti (Merchants’ Square) is a medieval merchants’ square with well-preserved buildings that were once among the most important places in Milan.

It is located between Piazza del Duomo, which is the centre of the modern city, and Piazza Cordusio.

The architecture here is quite different from that of other parts of the city, and you can see the old locations of the palaces that constituted the administration of the city at the time (built in the 13-14th century).

La Piazza degli Affari

If you head towards the Castello from Piazza del Duomo, you will automatically pass Piazza Cordusio. At this point, make a small diversion down the perpendicular Via Gabrio Casati and you will come across a somewhat unusual statue.

In Piazza degli Affari you will find the sober Palazzo Mezzanotte, home to the Italian Bourse, but the purpose of this diversion is to discover the controversial LOVE sculpture by Maurizio Cattelan. This is a large marble hand with a raised middle finger to all passers-by.

The acronym LOVE stands for liberta, odio, vendetta and eternita, which translates as freedom, hatred, thirst for revenge and eternity. The artist refused to comment on the meaning of the sculpture (give the Milan Bourse the finger?), but it is an excellent topic of conversation and debate for Milanese politicians and residents. It leaves no one indifferent.

Il Castello Sforzesco

The Castello Sforzesco is a large fortified complex in Milan, just outside the historic city centre.

It was built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza, who had just become Duke of Milan, on the remains of an earlier medieval fortification of the 14th century, known as Castello di Porta Giovia (or Zobia). In the same area where the castle of Porta Giovia stood in Roman times, there was the Castrum Portae Jovis, one of the four defensive castles of Roman Milan.

The Castello Sforzesco was one of the main military citadels in Europe between the 16th and 17th centuries and was restored in historicist style by Luca Beltrami between 1890 and 1905. Today it houses cultural institutions and important museums. It is one of the largest castles in Europe and one of the main symbols of Milan and its history.

The entrance to the castle is free and you can walk through it to reach the park. If you are interested in visiting the museum or the cultural exhibitions, click here.

Il Parco Sempione

This 38-hectare park is an excellent escape from the busy shops and chaotic piazzas, just a few steps from the city’s main monuments.

Inspired by a typical English garden, the park was created in 1893 and connects the great Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace) to the Sforza Castle. You can’t miss this arch, since wherever you are in the park, you will have a view of it.

The neoclassical monument is 25 metres high and 24 metres wide and is decorated with bas-reliefs depicting historical events such as the Battle of Leipzig, the foundation of the Lombardy-Venetia Kingdom, the Congress of Vienna and mythological figures such as Mars, Apollo and Nike.

The park is a popular destination for the city’s inhabitants, offering numerous activities, cycle paths, pedestrian walkways, picnic areas and cafés.

Neighbourhoods in the south of Milan

Gli Navigli

Ahh gli Navigli, a district that exudes good humour and fine cuisine and that alone would deserve several hours of exploration.

With its dock at the centre of the city’s nightlife, Milan’s Navigli and the Ticinese district (I’ll tell you about it below) are a true symbol of the Ambrosian capital, loved by all for its characteristic corners that show the old Milan as frozen in an eternal moment, but also for the variety of activities that can be done there.

Along this ancient canal system, some of which date back centuries and were designed by Leonardo da Vinci, there are plenty of waterside restaurants and trendy cocktail bars, and the side streets are home to hidden gems that are definitely worth exploring.

One experience not to be missed on your Milanese itinerary is the Milanese “aperitivo”, a very traditional Milanese gastronomic experiment.

In a nutshell, an aperitivo is a bar where you pay a fixed price (usually around EUR 10) for a drink, accompanied by a range of food to nibble on. Some places offer a buffet, while others bring trays to your table.

I don’t have specific recommendations for bars. However, it is at the Navigli, where they are most recognised, and where the experience is the finest, after a day trotting through the Milanese alleys, with a sunset over the Grand Canal.

However, it is in the morning, when the restaurants and shops are not yet open, that I particularly like to stroll along the Navigli, surrounded by morning joggers or dog walkers. The awakening of bustling Milan is gently felt, and the calm of the Navigli is welcome before joining the frenzy of the city centre.

Porta Ticinese, the columns of San Lorenzo and its basilica

A few steps from the Navigli is a small corner of ancient Rome: the Columns of San Lorenzo. They are Corinthian in style and surround the square of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. To get there, simply follow Corso Porta Ticinese, from the medieval Porta Ticinese. Together with the Porta Nuova, this is one of the two remaining gates of Milan’s medieval walls. It is located on the Cerchia dei Navigli, which follows the line of the city’s medieval walls.

I really like the Ticinese district, as well as the Corso that goes up towards the city centre and the Duomo. Special mention for a place that will amaze the taste buds of tiramisu fans: Mascherpa tiramisù + coffee. Be careful though, on Sundays, the shop only opens at noon (which left me hungry on my last visit, wandering around at around 9 am).

The Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore (built between 364 and 402) is one of the most important churches in Milan. Although the walls of the church are not extravagant, it has a lot of presence and its dome is impressive.

As mentioned above, however, it is outside the church that the historical landmark of ancient Rome is not to be missed. This row of columns is ancient Roman ruins that were erected on this site in the 4th century. The fact that they are still standing in such good condition is a small miracle worth seeing.

Neighbourhoods in the north of Milan

Brera

Undoubtedly my favourite area of the city, Brera is full of pedestrianised alleys, where the Italian and Milanese atmosphere can be felt in every corner of the (cobbled) streets.

This is where the famous art academy (Accademia di Brera) is located, where many Italian artists have studied. This is what gives it its charm, its cultural, artistic and bohemian (albeit bourgeois) aura. Indeed, cafés and boutiques rub shoulders with exhibition halls and art galleries, making it the self-proclaimed (and rightly so) artistic district of Milan.

While walking around, you can’t miss the magnificent Palazzo Brera, which houses the Pinacoteca on the first floor. This art museum has many masterpieces, but I have not yet had the opportunity (or the desire?) to visit it.

Although the inner courtyard of the palace is beautiful, it is in this building that a small marvel can be found. If you read my articles, you know that I love discovering old libraries, and what a surprise it was to discover the Braidense library at the bend of a staircase in this palace. I’ll tell you more about it here.

The last surprise of Palazzo Brera is at the back of the building: the botanical garden. It is a sort of open-air museum with displays of exotic species, flowerbeds and century-old trees that change with the seasons. It is also a pleasant place to rest for five minutes, with a book in your hand, away from the hustle and bustle of Milan, although it is located in the lively Brera district.

If you come here in the evening, you will also find many excellent bars and restaurants where you can linger, including the famous Bar Brera, located right next to the Pinacoteca.

Milan Central Railway Station

Inaugurated in 1931, Milano Centrale is the terminus station of Milan. For me, it is the arrival point of every stay or day trip to Milan, having come each time by rail.

The station has no definite architectural signature but is a mixture of different styles, including Art Nouveau and Art Deco combined with the monumentality of Fascist architecture. Adorned with numerous sculptures, it is above all its immense steel and glass arches that cover the 24 platforms of the station that particularly fascinate me.

Stroll through the vestibule and its various entrances, where the tiled walls depict many Italian cities, which the trains serving the station’s various platforms connect in a few hours.

Isola and Bosco Verticale

Just a short walk from the central station is the fascinating Isola district, a place of alternative spirit and gentrification.

Walking from one corner to the other, you will see many works of street art, mixed with the many second-hand shops, boutiques and other establishments with a local neighbourhood atmosphere.

Just on the edge of Isola stands one of Milan’s most innovative developments, the Bosco Verticale. These twin flat towers are as vertical hanging gardens as they are residential buildings. It’s an extremely innovative concept that looks like lush greenery sprouting from the white balconies of these two imposing towers (in summer). In winter, when I was last there, the greenery is less present, but you can feel the need for Milan’s green lung, which is still being developed.

The emphasis is on sustainability and healthy living in Isola, which I hope will eventually spread to the various districts of the Italian economic capital. Feel free to take a walk through the large park, which is laid out with bicycle and pedestrian paths as well as various small educational gardens with over 135,000 plants.

Slightly out of the centre of Milan

Via Lincoln, the “Burano” of Milano

Somewhat off the beaten track to the east of the historic centre (about one kilometre), a colourful neighbourhood stands out in the Milanese cityscape. A real (small) world apart where palm trees, private gardens and pastel-coloured houses frame a small alley called Via Lincoln.

San Siro

Milan is home to two football teams, and I’ll tell you about them here, being a tifosa of one of them. As a football fan, and even if football is not your favourite sport, you can’t miss a visit to the San Siro stadium.

Considered one of the symbols par excellence of the city of Milan, as well as one of the most famous stadiums in the world, San Siro has earned the title of “La Scala del Calcio” (calcio = football in Italian) thanks to its own prestige, its extraterrestrial architecture and the importance of the events it hosts that go beyond the sporting field.

In addition to hosting Milan and Inter’s home games, the San Siro has been the venue for major concerts by the most famous Italian and international artists since the 1970s.

Leonardo da Vinci et Milan

I recently discovered that the city of Milan had an impact on the renowned Leonardo da Vinci, when I was walking around the Magenta district and noticed a crowd of people in front of a church. I did some research online and discovered the link between Leonardo da Vinci and the city of Milan.

At that moment, I was next to the Atellani House, which has in its garden the Leonardo Vineyard. Leonardo’s Vineyard is located in front of the Basilica of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where the artist’s famous fresco, the Last Supper, is located.

I haven’t visited them yet, but the next time I’m in Milan, I’m going to follow in Leonardo da Vinci’s footsteps. Indeed, several places are linked to the fantastic inventor.

Leonardo found Milan to be a prosperous economic centre with a penchant for innovation, a definition that would still apply today. The website of Milan’s tourist promotion office, Yes Milano, offers to discover more about Leonardo and the city through various places to visit. Click here if you want to follow in the footsteps of the famous Italian pioneer in Milan.

A museum is dedicated to him, directly adjacent to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele.

Shopping in Milan

No trip to Milan would be complete without a little shopping! After all, Milan is the city of fashion! So, I have included in this itinerary, a few stops in various Vie or Corsi among the most famous in Milan.

Via Torino is the most accessible and features shops such as H&M, Zara, Bershka, as does il Corso Buenos Aires, a little closer to the central station. You can also visit Corso Garibaldi or Corso Como.

Il Corso Vittorio Emanuele Secondo, in continuity with the Duomo towards San Babila, is home to the famous La Rinascente (a sort of Lafayette Gallery) and several less expensive shops such as Kiko, Pull & Bear, adidas and Zara. This is also where you will find the official megastore of my team, AC Milan.

Via Monte Napoleone is the kind of high-class shopping street that Milan is famous for. All the big brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino and many others have shops there. It may not be the ideal place for small budgets, like mine, but walking down this street is an experience in itself.

This Via is part of the Quadrilatero d’Oro, one of the most famous shopping areas in the world. As mentioned above, it is well worth a visit, even if your budget does not allow you to pay the exorbitant designer prices.

The Quadrilatero d’Oro is delimited by four main streets, where the best of Italian (and international) haute couture is gathered in the heart of Milan, from Via Alessandro Manzoni to Via San’Andrea, passing through the prettiest of them all with Via Della Spiga and naturally Via Monte Napoleone. A golden quadrilateral that lives up to its name!

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