Whether you’re in city for a meeting, a stopover, or a leisure trip, Milan will surprise you. You’ll be amazed by the amount of things to see and do around town, and how diverse the city is. Many know that Milan is Italy’s fashion and design capital, but it also offers so much more historic and artistic sights that rival Rome and Florence, parks and canals that make you feel miles away from the city center, and bars and restaurant to satisfy all tastes.
As one of Italy’s economic hot spots, the town has attracted several creative types in recent years. You’ll see lots of street art, small designer shops, craft markets, and independent cafes as you stroll the streets of most multicultural and diverse city.
Morning: The essentials
Every Milan visit should begin with the Duomo. This stunning, pink-marble Gothic cathedral lies in the very center of town on the square of the same name. It took over 600 years to build, and Milan looked like a Little Venice during its construction, with canals and barges carrying marble slabs down from the Alps. Spend some time admiring the faÁade with its spires and statues, then go inside to tour the interiors with their lofty ceilings, stained-glass windows and dimly-lit chapels.
Youíll notice a variety of styles around the Duomo because it took so long to build. The earliest of its 55 stained glass windows date back to the 15th century, while the newest are from the 1980s.
The best view in Milan can be enjoyed from the cathedral’s roof. You can see the spires and statues up close, and enjoy a great view of Milan from above with the Alps visible in the distance. Keep an eye out for events like open-air cinema and concerts on the roof in summer.
Head over to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a 19th century arcade to the right of the Duomo, if you fancy a stylish coffee break. Known as Il salotto di MilanoóMilanís drawing roomóitís where well-heeled Milanese have been drinking coffee and aperitivo for over a century. Walk under the glass dome, check out the mosaics on the floor, and enjoy a break at a historic cafÈs like Biffi or Savini. Try zucca, a rhubarb-based aperitif, at its namesake bar. Don’t worry if you feel underdressedñPrada, Gucci and Borsalino all have stores in close by Galleria Vittorio Emanuele.
A pleasant pedestrian road takes you from the Duomo to Castello Sforzesco, home of Milan’s rulers between the 15th and 18th centuries. The castle now houses several museums, including the Rondanini Museum with Michelangelo’s unfinished masterpiece Piet‡ Rondanini, and a beautiful fresco by Leonardo da Vinci, part of the Ancient Art Museum.
Behind the Castello Sforzesco lies another real wonder ñ Parco Sempione, Milan’s very own version of Central Park. It’s a great place for a break after a morning of sightseeing. The park also houses several sights worth visiting: exquisite Art Nouveau Acquario, the only surviving building from Milan’s first Expo in 1906, the Triennale, an example of Fascist architecture, and nearby Torre Branca, with another stunning view of Milan from the top.
Parco Sempione is a great place for a picnic on a sunny day, with several kiosks inside and located around the park. Grab a panino ñ a grilled sandwich. One of the best can be found at Chiosco Squadre di Calcio, located right next to the castle’s entrance. It serves up football-themed sandwiches and cold drinks. Latteria Vegetariana in nearby Via Torino is a great option if you prefer a sit-down meal. It offers huge vegetarian meals in a former milk shop. It’s very popular for lunch, so arrive early to get a table.
In the afternoon: Secret Milan
You might dedicate your afternoon to an exploration of two neighborhoods, Porta Ticinese and the Navigli. Both are bohemian areas popular with locals, young, and old. Walk down Via Torino from Duomo Square until you reach Corso di Porta Ticinese, one of the city’s favorite young hangouts. Pick up a custom-made shirt or some Indian jewelry, hunt for street art in the backstreets, or visit an independent bookshop.
At the beginning of Corso di Porta Ticinese, the Colonne di San Lorenzo are among the best places in town for people-watching in the evening. Do as the Milanese do ñ grab a beer, sit on a bench, and watch the world go by as evening falls. Impromptu street concerts happen often here.
Milan was once a water city, crisscrossed by canals connected to Northern Italy’s major rivers, but most were covered over in the early 20th century. Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese are all that’s left ñ both great options for an afternoon bike ride. Cycle paths line the sides of both canals and you’ll find yourself in open countryside in less than half an hour.
If you prefer something a bit more relaxing, just take a walk along the canals, hop on a sightseeing boat or do some shopping ñ the area is famous for its vintage stores. Don’t miss the vintage market held the third Sunday of every month if you’re in Milan at the right time.
The Navigli are also among the best choices for nightlife in Milan. Several bars and restaurants sit along the two canals and all around the Darsena, Milan’s former “harbor.” The Darsena was recently restored and is now a great place to hang out at any time of day.
In the evening: Aperitivo
One cannot leave Milan without enjoying an aperitivo, one of the city’s oldest traditions. Bars all over town lay out huge buffets from 6 to 7 p.m., usually including cured meats and cheeses, various salads, bruschetta, and hot dishes. Just buy a drink and you can eat your fill. Quality varies, but Indian-themed Bhangrabar near Arco della Pace on the far side of Parco Sempione, and Manhattan in the Navigli area, are said to have some of the best aperitivi in town. The Milanese love aperitivo, so make sure you don’t arrive too late as finding a seat will be a challenge!
This brief snapshot of Milan will surely make you want to explore more. Allow a few more days on your next visit, and don’t miss taking a day trip to the Lakes or the Alps for some skiing in winter!