Explore Milan, Italy
Explore Milan, financially the second most important city in Italy. It has the most populous city proper in the country, but sits at the centre of Italy’s largest urban and metropolitan area. While incorrectly not considered as beautiful as some Italian cities, having been partly destroyed by Second World War bomb raids, the city has rebuilt itself into a thriving cosmopolitan business capital. In essence, for a tourist, what makes Milan interesting compared to other places is that the city is truly more about the lifestyle of enjoying worldly pleasures: a paradise for shopping, football, opera, and nightlife. Milan remains the marketplace for Italian fashion – fashion aficionados, supermodels and international paparazzi descend upon the city twice a year for its spring and autumn fairs. Don’t get fooled by the modern aspect of the city, since it’s one of the most ancient cities in Europe with more than 26 centuries of history and heritage!
Milan is famous for its wealth of historical and modern sights – the Duomo, one of the biggest and grandest Gothic cathedrals in the world, La Scala, one of the best established opera houses in the globe, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, an ancient and glamorous arcaded shopping gallery, the Brera art gallery, with some of the finest artistic works in Europe, the Pirelli tower, a majestic example of 1960s modernist Italian architecture, the San Siro, a huge and famed stadium, or the Castello Sforzesco, a grand medieval castle and the UNESCO’s World Heritage Site Santa Maria delle Grazie Basilica, containing one of the world’s most famous paintings: Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. If you plan to visit it reserve a ticket online, as it is sold out for several months.
If Rome represents the “old” Italy, Milan represents the “new” Italy. Milan is the most modern of all Italian cities, and it still keeps most of its past history intact.
At first sight, Milan looks like a bustling and relatively stylish (with its shiny display windows and elegant shops) is, with a good number of grand palaces and fine churches in the centre, but might seem like a slightly prosaic, soulless and business-orientated place. It can be quite rainy, grey and foggy, and some of the buildings, ancient or modern, have quite a severe appearance. Whilst there are a lot of parks, Milan looks as if it has very little greenery, and apart from the very well-kept historic part, some outlying areas are a bit scruffy. However, Milan, unlike most usually historical European cities which throw the sights in your face, requires quite a lot of exploring – take it as it is, and you might enjoy its fashionable glitter and business-like modernity, but might find it not very “captivating”. If you spend time, though, strolling through areas such as the pretty Navigli, the chic Brera district, the lively University quarter, or some of the smaller churches and buildings, you’ll find a forward thinking, diverse city filled in every corner with history, and with a plethora of hidden gems. Plus, with such an established history in theatre, music, literature, sport, art and fashion, there’s really not much you can miss.
Milan, as many have noticed, doesn’t fully feel like a part of Italy. Despite the similarities between typical Italian cities such as Verona or Venice with the city, it does have a different atmosphere. Milan feels more like a bustling, busy, fashionable business capital – where in several cafes, lots of people only stop to have a quick espresso at the bar counter, and where tourists at times seem more laid back than the locals. Milan, unlike the traditionally red-terracotta roofed Italian cities, is quite grey, as many buildings are constructed using limestone or dark stones. Ancient buildings mainly have a sort of Austrian/Germanic neoclassical look with some slight French influences. However, with some cycling around in old fashioned bicycles, restaurant chairs and tables outside at summer filled with locals and tourists alike, and people strolling down the pedestrian avenues, licking an ice cream or carrying some heavy shopping bags, Milan does boast some “Italian flair”.
These differences between Rome and Milan are evident from several proverbs, such as an Italian saying about the differences of the two cities which roughly translates, “Rome is a voluptuous woman whose gifts are very apparent, while Milan is the shy, demure girl whose treasures are plentiful, but discovered in time.”
Milan has two main international air gateways, Linate airport and Malpensa airport. Sometimes referred to as Milan’s additional airports, Bergamo’s Orio al Serio airport (45km East) and Parma airport (100km South) mostly host budget airlines.
The main international airport is Malpensa.
What to see. Best top attractions in Milan, Italy.
There are a lot of things you can see in Milan – from fine churches, old palaces, excellent museums, world class theatres and opera houses, cultural gems, striking buildings, sleek modern architectural works and lovely streets and squares. But remember, not all of them are right in the absolute centre – some of the most wonderful gems can be found near the outskirts or even outside of Milan. Note too that most museums are closed on Mondays.
Parks and gardens
Despite not having as much greenery as some cities, Milan offers several parks and gardens, scattered all over the city.
Sempione park is a big space of green land right behind the Sforzesco castle, and one of the most famous and popular in the city. Designed in like a neoclassical landscape garden, there are loads of features – such as a lake, an arch called the Arco della pace (arch of peace), a Roman-style sports’ amphitheatre, a tower (which today hosts the Just Cavalli Hollywood), and several interesting features. It’s a lovely leafy place to enjoy a walk at any time of the year.
Giardini pubblici (public gardens) is an old 18th century park complex in the Montenapoleone/Porta Venezia district, designed in an English Romantic garden style. Inside, you can find rockeries, water features, fountains, statues and monuments, and other interesting features. You also get a planetarium, a natural history museum, and on the other side of the Palestro street, you can also find an opulent Royal villa which today hosts a contemporary art collection within grand ornate halls. The gardens are in an excellent position since they’re quie near to the Duomo and Brera district, and extremely close to the Montenapoleone street and the glamorous shopping area around it.
Giardini della Guastalla (gardens of the Guastalla) are amongst Milan’s oldest (founded in the 16th century), but quite small gardens, and are very close to the University district. The parks, however, were only opened to the public in the early 20th century. You can have a nice walk inside, and you also have a classical Temple-like structure and also a sort of pond with a Baroque railing surrounding it. It’s also not that far from the Duomo.
What to do in Milan, Italy
Milan is a great city to walk around and see the sights and people.
Exhibition Fairs — Many exhibitions are held during the year, ranging from wines to computers, industrial equipment and chocolate. The old exhibitions area is in central Milan, the new one is in Rho.
If you want to see Milan from above you can go on Duomo roof (by stairs or lift), between spires and statues. It’s a great experience for a stunning, panoramic view of the city. Another choice is the Branca Tower (Camoens street, near Triennale, inside Sempione Park), built in 1933 by architect Giò Ponti. The tower is 108 m high.
Milan is full of attractions. Art with museums and design. Food with typical cuisine. Made in Italy products that you can find in many different stores. Green with the latest developments of Milan as smart city. You can rent electric car sharing and visit the city with bike rental services.
What to eat and drink
Although Milan is a city that changes its mind as quickly as fashion trends come and go, it remains one of the strongest bastions of traditional Italian cooking, where homemade elements are still very much praised and appreciated. There are trattorias, enoteche (wine bars) and restaurants (including luxury ones) everywhere that offer traditional Milanese and Italian dishes to eat. This city’s traditional cooking is based on filling dishes like osso buco (braised veal shanks) and risotto alla milanese (chicken-broth risotto made with saffron).
Dining times tend to be a shade earlier than in Rome or Florence, with lunch generally served between 12:30PM and 2:30PM and dinner from 7:30PM to 9:30PM. Dinners, and sometimes lunch, are usually preceded by that great Milanese institution, the aperitivo—a glass of sparkling wine or a Campari soda in a sophisticated hotel bar.
Chinese restaurants are mainly located around via Paolo Sarpi, the heart of Milan’s Chinatown.
Avoid the restaurants around the Duomo, they tend to be tourist-only spots, with low quality food at inflated prices. Also avoid restaurants or cafes around the central station.
For authentic local dining options, try dining with the locals themselves. BonAppetour is a great way to discover local Milanese chefs who would love to have you over for an evening dinner. It’s a great way to make friends over home-made food, and company.
In the last several years, Milan has established a local version of the Aperitivo or Happy Hour. Italians drink very moderately and “happy hour” is not a drinking, but a social event.
Roughly from 7PM to 9PM, many bars offer drinks and cocktails at a fixed price (€5-8 each), accompanied by free all-you-can-eat buffets with snacks, pastas, and many other small appetizers. But be careful not to confuse “aperitivo” with “free dinner”. It’s a snack to be enjoyed with a drink. Italians will immediately see you as a buffoon- and it’s seen as tacky to fill up on finger food for dinner, although it’s common to spot them doing so.
Milan, as a big city, is filled with several different forms of fast-foods, from the foreign giants and national chains, to independently-owned take-away and sandwich bars. Most fast-food restaurants are found in the Duomo, Buenos Aires and central station areas, as these are the most crowded and busy ones in the city. In the Piazza Duomo and Galleria, one can find international fast-foods such as McDonald’s and Burger King, but Italian chains such as Autogrill are found too. Such Italian fast-food chains, such as Spizzico, Ciao and Autogrill can be found all over the city. There are several Ciao outlets in places such as no. 12 Corso Europa or no. 54 Via Montebianco, and for McDonald’s, you get a restaurant in the Piazza del Duomo and Galleria, and also some in the Corso Buenos Aires, plus some others in places such as Corso Vercelli or Piazzale Lotto.
Although Milan cannot claim to be the birthplace of pizza, (that claim belongs to Naples), you can still find good pizzas in Milan. The best areas for pizza are near Marghera Street.
If you are in the Northeast area, there are many little pizzerias on viale Fulvio Testi (the northern extension of viale Zara) in the Greco area.
In Milan, pizza is often eaten with a knife and fork, but of course eating with one’s hands is possible and welcome. Most people do both.
In summer enjoy gelato, an excellent Italian ice cream. The quality mark “gelato artigianale” indicates gelaterias that produce their own ice creams, without industrial processing. Bakeries are open every day; you can enjoy great and inexpensive bread-related food, such as pizza and focaccia. You can find a bakery almost everywhere in Milan, even in the Duomo area, and is a good alternative to bars for a fast lunch.
What to drink
The simplest and plainest place to have a drink in Milan is a drinking fountain – there are loads of them around the city! Put your finger in the dragon faucet’s mouth to make the water fountain out a special hole in the head.
There are plenty of bars and cafés in Milan of all kinds – from fancy old-fashioned ones, where you can enjoy a formal hot drink, to avant-garde modern places, and youthful spots for a happy hour/late-night drink. Some also offer some food too.
Milan by night
Milan has a great variety of places where you can have fun. A great starting point is Como Avenue (Corso Como), near Garibaldi Station, full of bars and glamorous clubs. In the summertime, this street is packed with young and attractive people.
Another place where you can go is Navigli quarter, near Porta Ticinese Avenue and XXIV Maggio Square, where you can find a lot of small pubs, open air cafes and restaurants by the water canals (navigli). In many pubs and bars you can find a free booklet named Zero2 which is a guide to Milan Nightlife: if you don’t know what to do or where to go, do grab one!
Other popular night spots with bars and people are viale Monte Nero (on Wednesday it’s packed with people in the piazza in front of a bar called “Momo”), Piazzale Susa (and Citta’ Studi area). Nights are overwhelmingly crowded at the Colonne di San Lorenzo (not far from Navigli quarter), and in the cozy Latin-quarter of Brera. Another good spot is the pedestrian part of Corso Sempione near the “Peace Arch” (Arco della Pace).
There are bars and clubs open all week long but usually few people go out at night on Mondays or Tuesdays, the vast majority prefers to have fun on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. However, Wednesday night appears to be one of the coolest to go out in stylish VIP-frequented clubs.
Milan has an alternative club scene, with a few crews making electronic music parties outside clubs. Ultra cheap, every time in a different location (lofts, warehouses, farms, pools, and city parks) those kinds of parties attract people aged 20-28.
Places nearby to visit
- Lake Como— A huge, impressive, beautiful lake in the foothills of the Alps. See the villages of Como, Menaggio, Bellagio & Varenna. The gothic cathedral is very beautiful. Varenna, in the middle of Lake Como, nestled in the Italian Alps, can be reached by regular trains (1 hour and 3 minutes journey) from Milano Centrale train station. Tickets can be bought from automated ticket machines at the Milano Centrale station. Be sure to buy round-trip tickets as tickets cannot be purchased at the Varenna station! From Varenna, regular and inexpensive ferries are available to Bellagio and Menaggio.
- Certosa di Pavia charter house— really a must see monument! It is as beautiful as the Duomo cathedral, built with the same pink marble and carved by the best renaissance sculpture. The interiors are majestic and elegant, which makes the Certosa of Pavia one of the finest church monument of Lombardy.
- Monza— Medium-size town with a beautiful pedestrian-only centre,a really beautiful cathedral (local museum housing the medieval crown of the Longobard kings, the first crown ever built to crown a king! It is said to have been realized with the thorn of Christ’s Cross), and a marvellous park, the Parco di Monza, the largest enclosed park in Europe. Inside the park you can find the Villa Reale of Monza, one of the finest royal palaces of Italy, built in Neoclassical style by Leopold Pollack in the late XVIII century. Beside of that, inside the park there is the Autodromo Nazionale where the Formula 1 GP, Superbike and other minor races take place.
- Villa Reale di Monza Royal Palace
- Bergamo— Elegant walled hilltop Renaissance university town. Bergamo is serviced by regular trains and buses.
- Crespi d’Adda — A planned industrial city between Bergamo and Milan. It has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
- Lake Garda— Beautiful Lake with a lot of beautiful small cities, the best is Sirmione. Two big theme parks are nearby: Gardaland, the best in Italy, and Canevaworld Resort, home of Movieland (a movie theme park) and a water park. Accessible by way of regular trains (65-85 minutes from Centrale station) and buses. Very crowded during summer and weekends.
- Oltrepò Pavese — Wine region of Lombardy, about 70 km to the south of Milan, worth a day or weekend trip to relax, walk or cycle and have the Italian Sunday brunch at one of the excellent local restaurants.
- Cremona is a really beautiful historic city centre with the most beautiful cathedral in Lombardy after the Duomo cathedral of Milan. Filled of most important frescoes, it is definitely worth a visit.
- Excursions without a car: You don’t need a car to escape from the business, the traffic, the congestion, the fog in wintertime, and the afa (humid heat in summer), of the city of Milan to a wonderful world of lakes, mountains, castles and good food: just take the train and, sometimes, the boat.
- Biking Trips: Beginning at the 24th May Square there is an excellent and very long bike road on the right (northern) bank of the canal. Be aware to take the Naviglio Grande (going west on the northern bank of the canal) and follow it as long as you want. After few kilometers you’ll reach the nice Chiesetta di San Cristoforo, a popular spot for marriages. If you are well trained, proceed through the countryside. About 10 km to Gaggiano, a very nice and tiny village, and 20 km to Abbiategrasso. If you are still in the mood for riding, follow the canal on the right and reach Robecco sul Naviglio.
Official tourism websites of Milan
For more information please visit the official government website: