In a country as notoriously expensive to visit as Italy, Milan still stands out as being particularly hard on the bank account. While some destinations in Italy do have what can be considered high and low seasons, others are year-round attractions where prices don’t fluctuate as much. The big three – Rome, Florence, and Venice – fit into this latter category because they’re so popular as tourist destinations. Milan fits into this category as well, but not because it’s so touristy – in this case, it’s largely due to Milan’s status as the main business and banking city in Italy.
Despite the fact that Milan is typically busier with international businesspeople and bankers than it is with tourists, there are still plenty of reasons travelers have Milan on their must-see list – if it’s not for the incredible cathedral it might be for a Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece, or perhaps just a city base with excellent shopping and proximity to the lakes. Whatever draws you to Milan, if you don’t have unlimited funds to spend while you’re there then this list of free things to do in Milan will help make sure you don’t feel left out in the city.
In addition to the things I’m listing below that are always free in Milan, I’m also including things further down the page that I think are either a good deal or a real bargain. And if I’ve missed something you think should be on this list, be sure to let me know by leaving a comment below.
Always Free Milan
The things listed here won’t cost you a thing no matter when you visit Milan – they’re free year-round.
- Milan Duomo – Milan’s iconic cathedral is free to enter, although if you want to tour the Treasury you’ll have to pay €1. As a bonus, it’s a great refuge from either hot or wet weather, too.
- Castello Sforzesco – The old castle itself now houses several different museums and art galleries, most of which charge admission, but strolling the castle grounds is free.
- Enjoying Milan’s Parks – Milan isn’t known for its green spaces, but it does have a few relatively big parks right in the city center. In nice weather, they’re popular with locals and visitors alike, and in the summer you’ll often find musical acts or other performances going on (especially in the Parco Sempione behind the Castello Sforzesco).
- Window Shopping – I don’t know anyone who can really afford to buy anything in Milan’s famous high-end shopping districts like the Quadrilatero d’Oro or Brera, but wandering down the streets lined with designer shops can be as much fun for the window shopping as it is for the people-watching.
- Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – This beautiful shop-filled building lies next to the Duomo and although it’s expensive to buy anything in any of its stores, I love walking through it and just enjoying the gorgeous architecture (imagine if all “shopping malls” looked like this!). Also, if you’re too intimidated to walk into the designer boutiques in the Quadrilatero d’Oro, you might feel more comfortable going into the Prada shop in the Galleria.
- Spinning on the Bull’s Balls – While inside the Galleria, don’t miss the opportunity to bring yourself a little Italian good luck. In the center of the mall you’ll see four mosaic shields – on one of them, a prancing bull, there is a hole where his (ahem) genitals should be. In stereotypically superstitious Italian fashion, spinning on the bull’s balls on one’s heel is supposed to bring luck. Not sure what to do? Watch for a few minutes and you’ll see it demonstrated, perhaps several times.
- Palazzo Reale – This “Royal Palace” was actually once the center of Milan’s government; it was partially torn down to build the Duomo next door, so although it doesn’t look as impressive it’s older than the famous cathedral. The building now houses a tourist information office, so it’s worth a stop anyway, and you can also tour the palace museum for free and see a former theatre on the second floor.
- Villa Belgiojoso Bonaparte Museum – This palatial former private residence is now a museum displaying artwork from the 18th and 19th century – and yes, the “Bonaparte” in the name refers to Napoleon and his family who once called the villa home.
- Monumental Cemetery – The Cimitero Monumentale is just north of the city center near the Garibaldi train station, and is worth a stop if you like cemeteries. It’s quite large and has some semi-famous graves – the notable residents are all buried in the “Famae Aedes,” or the fame house. Handy.
- Milan’s Aquarium – The aquarium (“Acquario” in Italian) in Milan isn’t particularly notable when compared with the top aquariums of the world (especially since Milan isn’t on water) and it’s fairly small, but it’s still a fun (and free) diversion. It also happens to occupy a very cool-looking building.
- Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse – Milan is best known for da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” but this enormous horse sculpture is another da Vinci in the city – and this one’s free to check out. It’s the world’s biggest bronze horse statue, based on designs Leonardo made in the late 15th century.
- Santa Maria delle Grazie – You may not have heard of this church, but if I tell you it’s the one attached to the building housing “The Last Supper” it’ll be very familiar, indeed. Seeing Leonardo’s masterpiece will cost you, don’t get me wrong – but visiting the church next to the refectory building is absolutely free.
- Visiting Other Churches – The streets in Milan’s city center may look like they’re all banks and shops, but there are churches tucked here and there, and most of them are completely free to enter. Is there a masterpiece inside? Perhaps not – but the art and architecture inside is still lovely to look at. Highlights are the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio (one of the oldest in Milan and named for the city’s patron saint), San Simpliciano (inside this church are some of the only Roman ruins in Milan), and San Bernardino alle Ossa (small church with even smaller – and very cool – ossuary inside).
- Sights that are free on “Fridays after 2pm” – There isn’t a master list of attractions that fall under this category, but some of the museums and galleries in Milan that usually charge an entry fee are free after 2pm on Friday and others have different days of the week when they offer free entry. It means you’ll usually have less time to visit, and you may face larger crowds all trying to take advantage of the free entry, but it also means you won’t pay to get in. Some sights in this category are: the Museum of the Unification (Risorgimento), Natural History Museum, Archaeological Museum, and the Museums in the Castello Sforzesco.
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Sometimes Free Milan
The things listed below usually charge an entry fee, but there are certain times of the day or days of the week when you can get in for free. As a bonus, these sights are all pretty cheap even if you don’t visit when it’s completely free.
- Archaeological Museum – Milan’s Museo Archeologico is primarily housed in a former monastery dating from the 9th century, although some of the collection is in one of the museums at the Castello Sforzesco. In the main location, you’ll find historic pieces from the Roman era, as well as Greek and Etruscan exhibits. And all for only €2 entry fee. (Free after 2pm Fridays)
- Museum of Italian Unification – Italy as a unified nation is a relatively new concept, and the Museo del Risorgimento tells the story of how it came to be. The museum covers the period from Napoleon’s first attempts to conquer and rule a unified Italy in the late 18th century, and among other things you can see the first Italian flag on display. Entry is only €2. (Free after 2pm Fridays)
- Museums Inside the Castello Sforzesco – Since there are several different museums housed inside the Sforzesco Castle, there’s a combined ticket you can get to access all of them rather than paying individual ticket prices for each one. A €7 ticket will get you into all of the museums in the castle, or you can focus on a couple that you’re particularly interested in for €3 each. One highlight is Michelangelo’s last sculpture in the Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco, but other museums include a furniture museum, an ancient art museum, and a museum of musical instruments. (Free after 2pm Fridays)
- Museum of Natural History – Milan’s Museo Civico di Storia Naturale has all the things you’d expect from a natural history museum, including dinosaur bones and animal figures, so it won’t require much explanation (which is good, since everything’s in Italian only). It’s €3 to get in, and it’s right next to the big Giardini Pubblici (public gardens) so you can combine the two stops easily. (Free after 2pm Fridays and the last hour of every day)
Almost Free Milan
Assuming you have a little bit of money to spend on your stay in Milan, here are some things I think are either really cheap or just a very good deal for what you get.
- Climb to the Duomo Roof – Even though I’m terribly afraid of heights, I love wandering around atop the Milan Duomo. How many other churches let you crawl around on the roof, I ask you? Some may think the €6 fee to ride the elevator to the top is too steep (you can climb the stairs for only €4 if you want), but I think it’s a memorable stop in Milan.
- Branca Tower – If you want a peek over the city from a different vantage point, the Branca Tower in the Parco Sempione was re-opened in 2002 after being closed for 30 years. It’s €4 to ride to the top.
- Pinacoteca di Brera – At €5 for a ticket, it may not seem like the Brera art museum should be on this “almost free” list. But I think it’s a really wonderful gallery, and it houses several paintings you’re likely to recognize if you’ve ever taken an art history class.
- Touring La Scala’s Museum – If you’re not a huge fan of opera then the idea of paying the high prices for a ticket to a performance at Milan’s historic La Scala theatre won’t appeal to you. If you’re still curious about what the theatre looks like, however, you can have a look (and even sit for a moment in one of the plush red velvet-encased boxes) by visiting the museum at La Scala. It’s €5 to get in.
- Planetarium – Near the Giardini Pubblici and the Museum of Natural History is Milan’s Planetarium. Admission is only €3, but you can only get in if there’s something on the schedule. Ask at one of the tourist information offices for more information about what might be showing while you’re in town.
- Eating for almost-free in Milan – By simply purchasing a drink at one of the many bars and restaurants in Milan that has aperitivo you can then enjoy the full buffet for no extra charge. Some places have a better spread than others, so feel free to peek inside to see what’s available before you sit down and order a drink, but you probably shouldn’t plan to make 3-4 trips through the buffet line without ordering at least a couple of drinks.
photo by curtis_ovid_poe