Milan isn’t at the top of most tourist’s must-visit lists when they come to Italy. I understand that. In fact, for a first-time trip through Italy, I don’t even recommend that people spend a single day in Milan. But this bustling city of business, banking, and fashion has captured my heart (no doubt due in part to the friends I’ve made there), so I can’t leave it off the list of cities in my “top 10 things to do in” series. Besides, although there aren’t as many big tourist hits in Milan as there are in, say, Rome or Florence, there are still some great sights and activities in the city to keep you busy and happy. So here are my recommendations for the Top 10 Things to Do in Milan.
Once again, I’ve listed these in descending order from my top suggestion on down, so if your only exposure in Milan is due to a long layover at Malpensa or something like that you can still check off at least the #1 suggestion (and perhaps a couple other quick things while you’re at it). For most tourists, I still don’t think Milan warrants much time – perhaps a day or two – but a well-planned two-day visit to Milan can probably include everything on this list.
Top 10 Things to Do in Milan (According to Jessica)
- Survey the City from the Duomo Roof
This one is kind of a no-brainer, because the famous Duomo in Milan is the center of tourist activity in the city. But while a visit to the interior is easy and free, not everyone knows that you can take an elevator up and walk around on the cathedral’s roof. Now, Milan is notoriously smoggy, so even on a clear day you’re not guaranteed a good view of the nearby mountains, but in my opinion there’s almost no better way to spend an hour in Milan (especially if you’re really limited for time) than by wandering around on top of the Duomo. If you think all those spires look impressive from the ground, you’ll be thrilled to walk around with them within reach. And it’s only by walking up the last couple flights of stairs to the tippy-top that you can get an up-close (well, up-closer) look at the city’s symbol – the golden Madoninna, or little Madonna, who sits atop the Duomo’s tallest spire.
- Spend 15 Minutes with da Vinci’s Last Supper
Another entry that’s perhaps obvious to anyone who’s making a special trip to Milan just to see Leonardo’s masterpiece, a visit to the Santa Maria delle Grazie church to see “The Last Supper” is definitely a must as far as I’m concerned. The problem is that getting tickets to see the famous fresco can be incredibly difficult – they strictly limit the number of people in the room at any one time, which limits the number of tickets they can sell each day… You can see where this is going. During the high season, tickets to “The Last Supper” can be sold out months in advance, and that’s also not unheard of during the low season, either. If this is on your must-see list, you’ll want to plan well ahead. Luckily, you can book tickets online – and, in some cases, you can also join a walking tour of the city, many of which include this as a stop.
- Spin on the Bull’s Balls
In the center of what I think is the world’s prettiest mall is a tile image of a prancing bull who, if you look closely, is missing his private parts. They’re missing because in their place is a rather pronounced hole. What gives, you ask? Well, the tile floor at the center of the gorgeous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II bears the insignia of four prominent northern Italian cities. The bull represents nearby Turin, and for some reason the tradition developed that spinning on the bull’s balls would give the spinner good luck. The practice persists to this day, and you can’t walk through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II without stopping for a spin. This Milanese tradition isn’t just for tourists, either. In fact, if you stop and watch passers by for awhile, you’ll notice people who do a twirl on the poor bull’s balls while in mid-conversation, then just keep walking and talking to their companions. And the fact that the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is right next to the Duomo means it’s easy to swing through and do the twist even on a tight schedule. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for a short video of some people doing a twirl on the bull.)
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- Do an Aperitivo Crawl
There are plenty of places in Italy where the main to-do on a foodie’s travel itinerary is to sample the local signature dish. Milan has signature dishes (ossobuco, risotto alla milanese), but I’d argue that the city’s best contribution is a kind of dining experience rather than a particular dish. Aperitivo, that practice of enjoying a drink or two with friends and colleagues between work and dinner, is found in multiple Italian cities, but it’s been perfected in Milan. The city’s best aperitivo bars overflow with people and a convivial atmosphere, which is due in part to the sometimes-extensive all-you-can-eat buffets that are laid out. The drinks may be a bit more expensive than they normally would be, but the buffets are free – and for a traveler, it’s an excellent excuse to stroll from one bar to the next. Hang out, do some people-watching, have a cocktail or a glass of wine, and eat dinner buffet-style. An apertivo crawl is the Milanese (i.e. glamorous) version of a pub crawl, and it’s oh-so-Milan.
- Visit the Museum at La Scala
I like opera, and I’d love to see an opera at this world-famous theatre someday, but tickets can be really hard to come by. So instead of trying to squeeze two hard-to-get tickets into one top 10 list, I’m cheating a bit with this one – because a visit to La Scala’s Museum comes with a peek inside the theatre. Near the end of the self-guided museum tour (the museum’s okay, but nothing to write home about – unless you’re a major opera fan, in which case you’re going to want to see a performance, not just the museum), so long as there isn’t a performance or practice going on, you’ll be able to walk into one of the beautiful theatre boxes and look out over the stage. You can pretend for a moment that you’re one of the Milan elite, fanning yourself as you listen to some splendid aria, peering at the singers through your ornately decorated opera glasses. And all this without paying the high price of an opera ticket!
- Window Shop in the Quadrilatero d’Oro
Milan is the fashion capital of Italy, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there is some great shopping to be done in this city. The problem for us mere mortals is that the best shopping is the kind we can’t afford to do. But for me, watching the beautiful people parade up and down the streets of the Quadrilatero d’Oro carrying their purchases in pretty bags overflowing with tissue paper is an interesting enough pastime. And even if you’d feel out of place walking into the fashion boutiques in your travel duds, you’ll be perfectly comfortable strolling down the sidewalk and checking out the elaborate window displays at places like Prada, Armani, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Ferragamo, and Valentino. And if you just can’t stand the idea of visiting Milan and coming home empty-handed, then consider seeking out one of the city’s many fashion outlets. They’re harder to find, but there are incredible deals to be had. (Oh, and for a resident’s tips on the best shops, cafes, and clubs in Milan, I recommend Elena’s La Bella Citta blog!)
- Get Cultured at the Pinacoteca di Brera
Yes, this busy business-centric city has a world-class art museum, too – it is in Italy, after all. The lovely Pinacoteca di Brera isn’t huge, but it’s got a truly impressive collection of primarily Italian paintings. You’ll find masterpieces (meaning paintings you’ll probably recognize from any art history classes you didn’t totally sleep through) by Caravaggio, Raphael, Mantegna, Hayez, Rembrandt, and Tintoretto. And after you’ve taken your tour of the artwork, you can enjoy what is perhaps my favorite neighborhood in the city right outside the doors. The Pinacoteca di Brera has the good fortune of being in the Brera neighborhood, which is full of picturesque streets lined with cute shops and corner restaurants. You’ll have every reason to slow your pace to a stroll here as you do a little more window shopping (though in this part of the city you might actually be able to afford a trinket or two) and stop for a leisurely coffee or lunch in one of the streetside cafes. When you’ve spent an afternoon gazing at famous art and soaking in the Brera atmosphere, you just might fall in love with Milan. I know I did.
- Escape the City in Milan’s Parks
There’s no getting around the fact that Milan is a busy place, not at all the charming medieval Italian city that you pictured when you were reading “Under the Tuscan Sun.” But even if you like Milan from the start, chances are good you’re going to want a break from all the traffic and noise at some point – heck, the Milanese do, why should you be any different? Luckily, there are a couple of good-sized parks in the city center where you can surround yourself with something other than concrete for a bit. Now, we’re not talking about green spaces on the scale of Central Park in New York where you’ll forget you’re in a big city – you may still hear traffic and other city noises from the parks in Milan – but at least you’ll have some beautiful scenery around you. The easiest park for most tourists to take advantage of is Parco Sempione, which sprawls around and behind the imposing Castello Sforzesco (there are lots of museums inside the castle now, so it’s a popular stop anyway), but there’s also the Giardini Pubblici to the northeast of the historic city center beyond the Quadrilatero d’Oro.
- Eat a Panzerotto from Luini
Many Italian cities are known for a particular culinary treat, and Milan is no different – but I’ll still take a stop at Luini for a panzerotto (Milanese fast food) over a traditional osso buco any day. This hard-to-describe treat is a favorite with locals, who line up outside the shop year-round, although its origins are much further south. You might be tempted to call it a calzone, but it’s not. After tasting it, you might be tempted to call it a donut. But it’s not that, either. It’s essentially a slightly sweet and spongy piece of flat bread that’s had a nice layer of mozzarella and tomato sauce slathered on it before being folded in half and deep fried. (Hey, I never said this was health food.) There’s nowhere to sit at Luini, so a panzerotto is the perfect food when you’re on the go. And, at roughly €3 apiece, it’s an ideal lunch for the budget-conscious traveler, too.
- Discover Milan’s Canals in the Navigli
Canals? In Milan? Yes, you’re reading that right. In fact, not only are there canals in Milan, one of them was designed by none other than Leonardo da Vinci himself. Now, I don’t advise you to be dreaming of the kinds of canals which Venice or even Amsterdam is famous for, because you’ll be seriously disappointed. The Navigli district of Milan has two – count ’em, two – canals, and you can walk around much of the district without even seeing them. But in the summer months you can take boat tours on the canals, and they’re certainly an unexpected thing to come upon in the middle of such a concrete-filled city. The Navigli has long been one of the areas of Milan that’s less-than-beautiful, but in the last few years it’s become much more of a haven for artists (low rents tend to draw the artists and writers) so these days you can expect to find cute shops, small art galleries, and charming restaurants. This is also one neighborhood that’s well-known for its nightlife, so if it seems too quiet during daylight hours just come back after dark.
So, there’s my list of what the top 10 things to do in Milan are. What do you think? What would have made your list that didn’t make mine? What would you take off my list? Let me know!
Note: I updated this list in late 2011, removing something that’s near and dear to my heart – seeing a soccer game at the San Siro stadium. I still think this is a worthwhile thing to schedule into your Milan visit if you’re at all interested in sports or even just seeing how much the Italians love the sport, but I think the things on the list above are better apt to give you a feel for the city of Milan.
>> Find out more about what to do in Milan
original photos: Aperitivo photo by Jeroen Moes, La Scala photo by jovike, Parco Sempione photo by antonioperezrio.es, and Navigli photo by Tearsandrain – all other photos by Jessica Spiegel & may not be used without permission, Leon Salcedo, Duane Moore, arielledori, odhecaton, Rim, Gabriel Rocha, Francisco Antunes