Things to Do in Milan
Milan’s Cathedral, or Duomo, is a much-loved symbol of the city. The most exuberant example of Northern Gothic in Italy, its spiky spires and towers dominate Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s beating heart.
The Duomo’s exterior is an upwardly thrusting collection of pinnacles, elongated statues and buttresses. The central spire is topped by a gilt statue of the Madonna, called the Madonnina.
Inside one of the world’s largest churches, it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to the candle-lit ambiance as you take in the cathedral’s nave, altars, aisles and stained-glass windows.
One of the highlights of a visit to the cathedral is the view from the roof – on a clear day you can see the Italian Alps. Take the steps if you’re fit (or the lift if you’re not) to peer over the city of Milan, surrounded by statues and spiky towers.
Step inside Pinacoteca di Brera, a historic 17th century palace, to see one of Italy’s most impressive collections of medieval and Renaissance artworks.
The Pinacoteca di Brera's star is The Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna, a Renaissance/Mannerist excursion into weird perspective. You’ll also see works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Van Dyke. The baroque Palazzo di Brera has a lovely neoclassical cloister lined with arches, and a suitably grand interior.
La Scala is one of the world’s great opera houses. Built in Milan a stone’s throw from the Duomo in the late 1770s, the theater has seen premiers of some extraordinarily well-loved operas, including works by Rossini, Puccini and many by Italy’s beloved Verdi. The word “scala” means “staircase” in Italian, but the theater gets its name because it was built on the site where the church of Santa Maria alla Scala once stood.
The theater at La Scala holds more than 3,000 spectators, and the walls are adorned with gold and the boxes are lined with red velvet.
Although La Scala’s opera season isn’t year-round you can still get a peek inside. Plan to visit La Scala’s museum, which is inside the opera house. If your museum visit doesn’t coincide with a rehearsal on the main stage then you get to walk into one of the theater’s red velvet boxes for a few minutes.
The Leonardo3 Museum is an interactive exhibit representing the multi-disciplinary skills of one of Italy's greatest sons – Leonardo da Vinci. The temporary Leonardo3 exhibit consists of more than 200 interactive machines and models based on Leonardo's designs. A highlight of the exhibit is a digitized version of the entire Codex Atlanticus, more than 1,100 sheets of Leonardo's designs, writing, and drawings.
Among the models on display in the exhibit – some of which have never been built before – is The Flying Machine of Milan, including Leonardo's illuminated drawings for it. Also on display are his original designs for the huge bronze horse that stands in San Siro – it wasn't completed during Leonardo's lifetime.
A visit to the historic Bagatti Valsecchi house museum in Milan is a step back in time to when every Italian palazzo was a private home. As a bonus, it also houses a nice art collection.
The Bagatti Valsecchi Museum is in the Montenapoleone area of central Milan, and was once the home of the Bagatti Valsecchi brothers – Fausto and Giuseppe. They died in the early 1900s, and the palazzo stayed in the family until 1974, when one of Giuseppe's sons sold the palazzo to the region of Lombardy for use as a museum to house the brothers' impressive collection of decorative arts and paintings. Among the items in the collection are furniture, tapestries, glassware, ivory, and ceramics. The paintings include works by Donatello and Bellini. The intention of the Bagatti Valsecchi Foundation was to create a reproduction of a 16th-century Italian nobleman's home, including period furnishings and décor.
Most visitors seek out the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie to pay their respects to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The famous mural is housed in the refectory of the adjoining Dominican convent.
Visitors who take the time to explore the convent’s church, however, will be rewarded with a stroll through an impressive Renaissance building.
The church was built in Gothic and Romanesque styles by Sforza duke in 1490, and is believed to have been partially designed by Bramante.
The exterior is decorated in a restrained pattern of pilasters and circles, and the design features a lovely, tranquil cloister. Inside, the Gothic nave is decorated with beautifully restrained patterned details.
Milan's fashion sense is world famous, and one of the streets to visit to see where the locals buy their designer brands is Via della Spiga. Along with other nearby streets such as Via Monte Napoleone, Via della Spiga is considered to be part of the Quadrilatero della Moda, or “fashion quarter.” Via della Spiga forms the northeastern border of the quarter.
Some of the designer names you'll see along Via della Spiga are Prada, Bulgari, Tod's, Armani, Hermes, Tiffany, Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, and Moschino. It's a pedestrianized street, making it a pleasure to wander – even if you're not planning to buy.
More Things to Do in Milan
In a city of many trendy neighborhoods, the Brera district in Milan is one of the most charming. Located very close to the Duomo in the historic center, this is the part of Milan that might make you forget about the city’s hustle-bustle reputation.
The Brera neighborhood is a maze of narrow, cobblestoned streets lined with boutiques and cafes - during nice weather, cafe life spills onto the sidewalks and makes for an excellent place to do some serious people-watching. The designer shopping district called the Quadrilatero d’Oro is nearby, so you can get a peek at some of Milan’s shopping class making their rounds, too.
Aside from just wandering through the Brera and enjoying the scene, the main attraction in the neighborhood is the Pinacoteca di Brera, a fantastic art museum with works by Botticelli, Raphael, Hayez, Titian, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Rembrandt, and Rubens.
While the Piazza del Duomo is the most important square in central Milan today, that title went to the Piazza Mercanti in the Middle Ages. The Piazza Mercanti, or Merchants Square, is in Milan's historic center, a short walk to the northwest of the Duomo. The square originally was much larger than it is today, once occupying part of present-day Via Mercanti. Some of the buildings on the square date from its heyday, including the 13th century Palazzo della Ragione (essentially Milan's city hall at the time) and the 14th century Loggia degli Osii (another administrative building).
In the center of the piazza is a 16th century well that was later fitted with two columns in the 18th century. It's covered and unused today There was a stone found nearby upon which merchants found guilty of cheating – or bankruptcy, depending on the story you read – were punished by public shaming, forced to stand on the stone with their pants down, before being sent to jail.
Milan is a busy, modern city that - when you’re really yearning for Italian medieval hilltop towns - can feel a little hard to love. At those times, it’s important to do as the Milanese do and escape the city (even for just a little while) in one of the big green spaces. One of the most popular is Parco Sempione in central Milan.Parco Sempione covers 116 acres in the city center, just behind the Castello Sforzesco. It was laid out in the late 1800s, and received a major facelift in 1996. The grounds include gravel paths for walking or jogging, a triumphal arch at the far end of the park, a lake, and even a small arena used for concerts and some sporting events. There’s also a tower in the park - the Torre Branca - built in 1933 and offering views over the entire city.
There are many important churches in Milan besides its famous Duomo, including the Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, also known as Chiesa di Milano. As the name suggests, it was once associated with a major convent, but that building is now used as Milan's archaeological museum. The church is still used as a house of worship, as well as a venue for concerts.
The church of Saint Maurice al Monastero Maggiore (in English) was built in the early 1500s, and it contains what is believed to be the oldest pipe organ in Milan. The organ was built in 1554 and has been unused for many years, so a new effort is underway to restore the organ to working order. There are also frescoes on the walls that date back to the 16th century, including a series that covers the life of the saint for whom the church is named – San Maurizio.
The Romanesque Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio is dedicated to Milan's patron saint, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who founded the church in the 4th century. Dressed in his bishop's finery, the saint's skeleton is displayed in the basilica's crypt.
The church embraces a mix of styles, having been rebuilt in the 11th century and much restored since then. The building has a squat, medieval Lombard facade thanks to its elongated atrium dating back to the year 1098.
Byzantine reliefs crown the 6th century capitals, and a graceful loggia lined with arches leads to the basilica's entrance. Two towers of different heights flank the atrium.
The highlight of the restrained interior in white and terracotta is the apse mosaic of Christ. You’ll also see carved pulpits and tombs, including the final resting place of Emperor Louis II.
The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio was heavily bombed during the Second World War and has been extensively restored.
We’re all familiar with the canals of Venice - but did you know Milan has canals, too? Most of the city’s canals have long since been paved over, but a district to the south of the city center still has two that are visible. A canal in Milan is called a “naviglio,” so this neighborhood is the Navigli District.
Many years ago, the Navigli District was known as a gritty neighborhood with cheap rent. The low cost of living attracted artists, who set up galleries and shops, and now the neighborhood is no longer affordable for many of the artists who once called it home. The overall vibe of an artsy district that’s still a little rough around the edges remains, however. In addition to the galleries and art shops, the Navigli District is known now for its plethora of funky cafes, restaurants, and night clubs. It’s one of the best nightlife areas in the city, and on weekend nights it can get extremely busy.
The Arch of Peace is an arch of celebration in Milan, Italy. Originally called the Arch of Triumph, it was built in the early 19th century to honor Napoleon's victories, although it was not completed. Several years later, under Austrian rule, construction resumed in a few different phases and was finally completed as the Arch of Peace in 1838. The arch marks the place where the Strada del Sempione enters Milan. This road, which is still in use today, connects Milan with Paris. It was built using marble from the Swiss Alps, and at the top visitors can see a bronze chariot with six horses known as the Victories on Horseback. The arch was designed with a large central passageway and two smaller ones based on the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum. It's decorated with Corinthian columns and various sculptures, including reliefs that depict events in Italian history from the time after Napoleon's rule.
Many churches in Italy are built on older worship sites. What makes the Church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro in Milan different is that the old church was incorporated into the new one, both in design and name.
The original church on this site was dedicated to San Sitiro (Saint Satyrus), built in the 9th century. In the late 15th century, the church was also dedicated to Mary. The name "Church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro" indicates that the new church was "staying with" (presso) the old one.
When the church got its additional dedication, it also got a bit of a redesign. The artist Bramante played a role in the renovation. One of the most interesting pieces of artwork at the church is Bramante's wonderful trompe l'oeil behind the altar; it looks like there's a series of columns that recedes into the distance, but it's just paint.
In addition to fine artwork, great libraries are the mark of high society – so in the early 17th century Cardinal Federico Borromeo founded the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan (the Ambrosiana library and picture gallery, in English).
Cardinal Borromeo stocked his library with more than 15,000 manuscripts and 30,000 books that he and his employees had picked up all over Europe. The contents of the library included ancient Greek and Roman works, as well as some from the middle east. The first reading room of the Ambrosiana library was opened to the public in 1609.
Celebrity visitors to the Ambrosiana library included the poet Lord Byron and the novelist Mary Shelley, who came to see famous manuscripts like Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Atlanticus, the love letters of Lucrezia Borgia, and works of Petrarch.
If 10 Corso Como sounds like an address, it is. It also happens to be one of Milan's most fasionable addresses, home to a number of attractions and shops.
10 Corso Como (it's Dieci Corso Como in Italian, as "dieci" is the word for 10) was originally an art gallery and bookstore, opened in a traditional Milanese building 1990 by Carla Sozzani. The complex grew over the years to include a cafe, a fashion boutique, a roof garden, and even a tiny hotel (with only three rooms) - all at the same address. The courtyard cafe at 10 Corso Como is particularly popular for aperitivo, and getting a table can be incredibly difficult. You can enjoy the "see and be seen" atmosphere simply by browsing the shops, however.
Milan is known for its opera, fashion, and banking – not its ruins. And yet the city has Roman ruins – including the Colonne di San Lorenzo. These well-preserved ruins all date from the 2nd century, when they were part of a Roman building (experts aren't sure whether it was a bath house or a temple). They were likely moved to their current location in the 5th century.
The 16 columns line one side of a piazza in front of the fifth-century Basilica di San Lorenzo, one of Milan's oldest churches. They were brought to the piazza when the church was complete.
In Italian, the word "novecento" means "20th century,” and Milan's Museo del Novecento has an excellent collection of 20th century artwork. The museum opened in 2010 in the Arengario Palace on Piazza del Duomo in central Milan, combining two extensive collections of modern and contemporary art. The current collection includes a large number of Italian artists, as well as international ones. Some of the noted artists whose work you can see at the Museo del Novecento include Modigliani, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Matisse.
The collection is displayed in chronological order, so you can watch art movements progress over time. The iconic painting by Pellizza da Volvedo of striking workers, "The Fourth Estate," is on display on the ground floor, which can be visited for free.
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