Top 10 Things to Do in Milan

by Jessica on January 5, 2012

by | January 5th, 2012  

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)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
  6. 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!)
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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

Other articles about Milan


{ 31 comments }

Milanese Masala March 9, 2009 at 1:44 pm
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Great list! Love that you included Luini. Delish! A few other must sees I would add are the Cimitero Monumentale, Sant’Ambrogio and when the weather is nice, an aperitivo in the gardens of the Bulgari Hotel is a nice splurge!

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Jessica March 10, 2009 at 8:28 am
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Thanks for these additions! I’ll have to add a Bulgari Hotel aperitivo stop to my to-do list for next time. Sounds lovely. :)

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Vince March 11, 2009 at 3:05 pm
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I did the top three and visited the canals, but there’s so much I haven’t done, can’t wait to get back to Milan. This is a really great top ten list, you can post this to our site http://www.toptentopten.com/ and then link back to your site. We are looking for top ten lists and our users can track back to your site. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.

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Madeline March 14, 2009 at 9:08 am
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Great list!

I’d also add doing the ‘aperitivo hour’ where 1 drink gets you a free buffet of food. Our favorite was in a bar in Piazza della Vetra. http://italyfaves.typepad.com/italy_beyond_the_obvious/2008/09/milan-turin-the-aperitivo-hour.html

I agree that one should try the panzerotto at Luini, but I never really got a taste for those. On the other hand a piece of focaccia at Princi is to die for!

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Jessica March 14, 2009 at 11:23 am
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Thanks for the note, Madeline! I really enjoyed doing the aperitivo thing in Milan, too. In fact, I wrote about it here:

http://www.italylogue.com/food-drink/aperitivo-in-italy-how-to-eat-for-free-kind-of.html

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dodonnell March 18, 2009 at 10:36 pm
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Fantastic list, gotta love getting the insiders tips before visiting. Especially appreciated the Duomo roof top view and the canals, most first timers would never stumble across these things. And the video of spinning on the bulls, wow, gotta wonder if this started off as a joke?!

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Malchik October 6, 2009 at 10:07 pm
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Hi Jessica,

Great post. Can you recommend any small itinerary for three days in Milan or maybe suggest a day trip in between? Thank you.

Regards,
M

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Jessica October 7, 2009 at 8:13 am
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Hi, Malchik:

Have a look at my article on day trips from Milan to help you plan your itinerary. Otherwise, I think between this list of the top 10 things to do and the larger list of what to do in Milan you should be able to fill three days with no trouble at all.

Enjoy Milan! :)
Jessica

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Joe Rayner April 22, 2010 at 5:50 am
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I love milan, its great for me and dennis my partner and its the fasion capital of the world XD xxxxxx

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birdy May 11, 2010 at 5:19 am
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Corso Sempione 7 (AMA.MI) is an absolutely beautiful location, and the barmen are amazing. Definitely worth a visit if you’ve been walking through the park (Corso Sempione is at the back entrance of Parco Sempione). Also take trams 1 or 29/30 to the Arco Della Pace stop. :D

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Jess C January 11, 2011 at 6:40 am
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Hi Jessica, thanks for such a helpful and beautifully written article!! I’m going back to Milan in 3 weeks for the second time and you’ve suggested a few things i haven’t seen before, I can’t wait to get back!!
Happy travels and thanks again! xx

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Jessica January 12, 2011 at 9:45 am
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I’m glad the article was helpful, Jess, and I hope you have a great visit!

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shaina April 10, 2011 at 5:54 pm
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i really liked this article. AHHHHH! it’s a dream come true for me so i am doing my research not to miss the good stuff. thank you for the help!

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Lord Vetinari June 11, 2011 at 12:28 pm
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I liked the article, there are interesting suggestions.

Superfluous nitpicking incoming (:P):
Milan actually has three channels, there’s the Naviglio Martesana in the north of the city. Not really a touristic attraction, but it has a good and relaxing cycle lane along it.
Also, the whole old town was originally surrounded by the channels. If you look at a map of the city, you’ll see a somewhat rounder ringroad closer to the city center ( the castle, Pontaccio/Brera, Fatebenefratelli, Senato, Visconti di Modrone, Santa Sofia, De Amicis, Carducci, back to the castle). That was the inner channel, buried in the second half of the 19th century.
That’s why the city center is someties called “cerchia dei Navigli”. There’s also a hint in a windy road called Via Conca del Naviglio that goes from that ring to the wet basin; it was the feeder channel of the inner ring. If I remember correctly, there should be a small part of it still in open air, just north of the basin.

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Jessica June 18, 2011 at 6:38 pm
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Thanks for the details! :)

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Jacopo September 22, 2011 at 8:04 am
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Just for the record, Milan actually was a water-city until the end of the XIX century, when the channels started being filled or covered and transformed in streets. In fact, this destructive practice continued until well into the 1960′s (when the Darsena was still ranked pretty high in italian harbours charts). In the last few years there have periodically been rumors about plans to uncover some of the most scenic Navigli in city centre (San Marco being the latest), but unfortunately no steps have yet been taken in this direction.

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Jessica September 29, 2011 at 3:48 pm
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Thanks for the comment, Jacopo!

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Mawarkuning November 19, 2011 at 1:38 am
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Jessica, glad that I found your list. I am going to Europe in a couple of weeks and Milan is in my itinerary. Will be my first Italy visit and to be honest I am so blind about Milan. I’ll be sure to visit all your top 10 list and I’ll let you know how it goes. BTW, any chance you have a top 10 list for Madrid, Munich and Paris?

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Jessica November 21, 2011 at 1:20 pm
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I’m glad you found the post helpful! We do have a couple sister sites that you may find useful for your trip – about Paris (http://www.parislogue.com/) and Spain (http://www.spaintravelguide.com/). The Germany site is brand new, so there’s no Munich information there yet, I’m afraid.

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Andrew January 16, 2012 at 12:03 pm
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I’m going down to Milan for 2 days in late February. This should be a nice list to see how many I can manage.

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Jessica January 17, 2012 at 6:05 pm
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You should be able to do all of this, or at least everything you want to. It’s a pretty reasonable list. :) Just make your Last Supper reservations in advance (or book a day tour that includes admission). Have a great time!

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Manuela January 16, 2012 at 7:54 pm
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Can’t believe you actually suggested tourists not to go to Milan! It is a great Italian city to visit, it doesn’t matter if you have a week, a day or an hour to spend.

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Jessica January 17, 2012 at 6:06 pm
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It really depends on what a tourist’s priorities are – in most cases, the priority list is Venice, Florence & Rome – with not much extra time. Milan just doesn’t fit into that list. Believe me, I love the city, & if someone’s interested in visiting, I’ve got all kinds of recommendations. :)

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Sherri March 31, 2012 at 11:35 am
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Excellent list!
Do you have recommendations for the best way to get to Milan from the Malpensa airport? Is it something that can be booked in advance?

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Jessica April 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm
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As a matter of fact, I have an article on that very topic right here:
http://www.italylogue.com/featured-articles/getting-from-milan-malpensa-airport-to-milan.html

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Salvador Castillo August 4, 2012 at 1:47 pm
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Any recomendation for 9 Year old kids in Milan?

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Pauline Macapagal September 13, 2012 at 1:11 am
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Hi Jessica, I’ve been reading through most of your articles here to prepare myself for our trip to Italy, and it’s really helpful.

I went to Youtube to find more videos about spinning the bull’s balls because it really intrigued me. However, what I found is a video that used your explanation about it. I just thought you ought to see. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_-aBa5xIq8

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Enrico Engelmann November 27, 2012 at 1:32 pm
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I would eliminate Luini from the list. It was once a place where to eat something very good for a low price. Meanwhile the prices aren’t any more low, and there is always a very long line.
I would replace it with eating a good ice cream. There are many good ice-cream shops around in Milan, difficult to say which one is the best. In Marghera street and around there are some of the most famous.
I would like to suggest you also to look at the section Culture and Fun of my web site, now also in English. You can find there a long list of cultural events, links to websites of museums, theatres and more, but also suggestions for the evening.
Unfortunately there is nothing for children, at least for the moment!

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Enrico Engelmann November 27, 2012 at 1:34 pm
Vish December 13, 2012 at 10:36 am
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Hi All,

Wife and I first time travellers into Italy. We need help getting around from Milan to Pisa to Florence andn dowm to Rome. We are taking a cruise fm Rome any assistance? Also we are cmoing back from Rome to Milan to fly back so we need transportation for that too. Also is everyting in Milan walking distance? Your help is greatly appreciated. You all have excellent comments. Thanks again.

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Flora December 28, 2012 at 12:11 pm
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I have to say that I think it’s funny that you mention the Duomo’s rooftop, because in another article you say that it is a tourist trap because of the price…so, after all, in your opinion, is it a good thing to do or not?? :)

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