A massive city in one of Italy’s largest metropolitan areas, Greater Milan is home to over 3.2 million people with humans here for thousands of years. At one point, the city of Milan served as the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Today, it’s the Italian center of finance, industry and commerce, as well as the international capital of architecture, fashion, and industrial design. The city is particularly well known for its high-end fashion retailers and its magnificent cathedral, Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Mary, or more simply, Milan Cathedral, the third largest church in Europe. There’s an undeniable sense of style that seems to be around every corner in this place where people go to see and be seen. While looking your best is one of the top priorities here, you’ll find plenty of other landmarks to visit and things to do, with Milan offering a long list of tourist activities.
Piazza del Duomo is the central piazza in the historic center of Milan, a vast open public space that’s not only home to the magnificent Duomo but several other impressive buildings and sculptures. It’s also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its four architectural masterpieces: the cathedral, the bell tower, the baptistry, and the Campo Santo. At the center of the square is a statue of Vittorio Emmanuel, the first king of united Italy. On the other side is the Royal Palace of Milan, the seat of government in Milan for centuries. Today it’s a cultural center and features an international art exhibition with over 1,500 different works from institutions across the globe. It also reveals traces of various courts that were once housed here, including the Hapsburg, Savoy, and Napoleonic courts. Napoleon is the subject of The Apotheosis of Napoleon, King of Italy fresco in the Hall of the Caryatids.
Milan Cathedral is located in Piazza del Duomo, but it’s worth a section of its own as such a monumental building, taking more than 600 years to complete. Built in Italian gothic style, the front is stunning with stained-glass windows and crowned with countless statues and towers. Step inside where you’ll see an incredible display of art in between the central columns. There’s also a museum that was birthed from the idea of valorizing all materials used to build or design the cathedral. That includes tapestries, paintings, wooden models, embossing, statues, and more. If you don’t have time to go in, don’t miss the opportunity to at least stroll around the exterior and up to the roof. There are higher observation points in Milan, but viewing the spectacular Alps through the cathedral’s marble spires and pinnacles is something you won’t soon forget. Visit early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Santa Maria delle Grazie is most famous as the home of one of artist Leonardo di Vinci’s most famous works, The Last Supper. On display in the dining room, it’s a huge masterpiece created in the late 15th century depicting the last time Jesus dined with his disciples. One of the world’s most famous paintings, it’s been reproduced so many times, some question the point of viewing it in person, especially with little of the original remaining. But no reproduction can truly capture the emotion of the original. Using tempera paints on drywall after sealing the stone with dried plaster and adding a white undercoat, unlike frescoes that are painted on wet plaster which requires quick completion, allowed da Vinci to achieve greater luminosity. The unique technique also provided four years for him to portray the looks of shock and anguish on the faces of the disciples after learning that one would be betraying Jesus.
One of the oldest buildings in Milan, Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio was commissioned by St. Ambrose in the late 4th century in an area where many martyrs of the Roman persecutions were buried. The patron saint of Milan, Ambrose is buried in the crypt of the cathedral along with St. Gervasus and St. Protasus. Built in ancient Romanesque style, the exterior is the original and features a pair of red brick bell towers, one of which is taller than the other. There’s also a huge atrium that’s nearly as big as the entire church and contains several archaeological remains. Inside, you’ll see a magnificent 4th-century sarcophagus, Stilicho’s Sepulchre. Shimmering altar mosaics, various works of art, and a golden altarpiece dating from the 9th century, once serving as the cladding for the saint’s sarcophagus, illuminate the shadowy vaulted interior. There’s a second chapel to the right of the entrance with frescoes by Tiepolo.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is no ordinary mall. When you step inside, you might think you’re standing in a grand palace. This indoor shopping area is incredibly opulent and one of the world’s oldest shopping malls, constructed in 1877. It’s formed by two arcades that are shaped like a Latin cross and covered by a glass and iron dome while the walls and shopfronts are decorated with stucco artwork and ornate paneling. When you walk around the galleries, you’ll see a stunning mosaic on the central dome that represents the American, European, African, and Asian continents. There is a wealth of high-end designer shops, including names like Louis Vuitton, Versace, and Prada. In between, you’ll find fine restaurants, including some with celebrity chefs, and legendary spots like the Camparino bar. The Bocca art bookstore has been in the Galleria since 1930, but it’s had an important cultural presence in Milan long before that.
One of the icons of Milan, Castello Sforzesco dates back to the 15th century. Just a short stroll from Piazza del Duomo through Dante and Vias Orefici, it was one of Europe’s largest citadels. The most important families of Lombardy passed through during the fortress’ over 600-year history. The imposing complex played many roles during that time in addition to being a defensive fortress, including a ducal residence and military barracks. In the late 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci worked here under the patronage of Ludovico il Moro with the celebrated wall painting in the Sala delle Asse opened to the public in 2019, the 500th anniversary of his death. Today, it’s home to multiple museums, relics, and important works of art. There are tranquil courtyards worth wandering through to soak up the history and as it sits inside Parco Sempione, the city’s “green lung,” afterward you can enjoy the picturesque park too.
Established during the 4th century AD, the Basilica of San Lorenzo is the oldest church in Milan, although it’s been rebuilt several times over the centuries. At the time of original construction, the basilica was the largest, centrally planned building in the West. Located within the city’s ring of Navigli, it’s one of the city’s most important religious buildings. The main entrance is framed by a series of colonnades that date from the 3rd century, while a bronze statue of Constantine the Great, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, stands in the courtyard. The interior features impressive mosaics and a fabulous high altar, while the Chapel of Saint Aquilino that adjoins the church boasts 4th-century Byzantine mosaics. It’s possible to access a crypt here as well, where you’ll see some of the original materials used to build the church which were extracted from a Roman amphitheater in the area.
Piazza dei Mercanti was the heart of Milan during the Middle Ages. A hub of activity with many trade markets and other merchant activities, today it’s a place to marvel at fine architecture and experience the city’s ancient past. Located between Piazza Corduiso and Piazza dei Duomo, it’s within walking distance of many major sights and hosts the Loggia degli Osii, the Pallaza delle Scuole Palatine, and Pallaza della Ragione along with several important monuments and statues. The Loggia degli Osii with its gothic façade was built in 1316 to give the court a notary office and on the upper floor, you’ll see a series of sculptures depicting Milan Saints. Pallaza delle Scuole Palatine, built in 1644 to replace a building destroyed in a fire, served as the seat of the most prestigious higher school of medieval Milan, while 13th-century Pallaza della Ragione originally served as a meeting place for democratic assemblies.
San Siro Stadium has been standing here in Milan for nearly a century as one of Italy’s premier sporting venues and one of the most well-known stadiums in the world. It’s also one of the largest in Europe with a capacity of a little over 80,000. The home stadium for Inter Milan and AC Milan, catching a game here is a great way to mingle with the locals and experience the incredible atmosphere. You’ll also see the iconic circular towers holding up the colossal tiers, and the massive roof partially covering the ground. If you can’t be here for a game, tours are available that typically include visits to the locker rooms. You can even enter the stadium through the player’s aisle just like the official players before sitting in the red stand to learn more about the history of the field. A museum with various past souvenirs and other items is on-site as well.
While there are multiple places for enjoying a view across the city and sometimes beyond, there is none better than Torre Branca, or Branca Tower, designed by Gio Ponti and Cesare Chiodi. The large observation tower that soars more than 356 feet off the ground sits in Parco Sempione and was built in 1933 during the 5th edition of the Triennale. At the time, it was called Torre Littoria but following major renovations in the 1970s that were sponsored by the company Distilleria Fratelli Branca, it was renamed. One of the highest towers in the city, it’s made of special steel pipes and has a distinct hexagonal design. Visitors can ascend to the top by elevator in less than a minute to enjoy unparalleled views over Milan. On clear days you can see for miles and miles with a significant part of the Lobardy plan while even the Alps and the Apennines come into view.
A fine art gallery inside Palazzo Brera, near Piazza del Duomo and Sforzesco Castle, Pinacoteca hosts a vast collection of Italian art which are displayed on the first floor of the building which also includes the Academy of Fine Arts. The palace once served as a convent which was followed by an incarnation as the national library before being converted into a museum in the 19th century. The palace was built over the remains of a 14th-century monastery that belonged to the Humiliati order and subsequently given to the Jesuits. After it became state property, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa decided it should house some of Milan’s great cultural institutions like the Library, Botanical Garden, and the Academy of Art. Today, you’ll find many great works in the gallery, including Rubens’ Last Supper, Pieta by Bellini, Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, and Correggio’s Adoration of the Magi.
Located next to the Royal Palace in Piazza del Duomo, Museo del Novecento is the best place to go for fans of modern art with an extensive collection of works from the 20th century. There are some 400 pieces on display in chronological order from the early 1900s to the 1980s, starting with the famous 1902 piece from Pellizza da Volpedo, Fourth Estate. You’ll see many copies of Futurist sculptor Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space which is reproduced on the obverse side of Italy’s twenty-cent euro coin. The focus is on artists that are of great significance to Milan, including not only Boccioni, but Martini, Manzoni, Fontana, Morandi, de Chirico, and Carrà. The Lucio Fontana gallery is especially notable as a crown jewel of the museum. Located on the upper floor it boasts a breathtaking view of the Duomo and the huge neon ceiling installation which illuminates the square.
Cimitero Monumentale, or Monumental Cemetery, is the second-largest cemetery in Milan. While that might not sound like an enticing tourist attraction, it’s like an open-air museum with many tombs that have significant artistic merit. Established in 1866 to unify several unsanitary and small cemeteries throughout the city, it features genuine works of art from the 19th century through the present day. There’s a vast collection of Italian sculptures, Greek obelisks, and a smaller version of Trajan’s Column. Some of the most notable tombs include a curious pyramid built for the Bruni family, several sculptures that represent The Last Supper, and a sculpted white tower representing the life and death of Christ that belongs to the Bernocchi family. Some of the most renowned Italian actors, musicians, sportsmen, architects, journalists, and other well-knowns are buried here. A map is available in English to help you find the most outstanding monuments.
This modern art museum is housed in Villa Reale, Napoleon’s residence when he occupied Milan. One can still see the original stucco work and decorative details that add interest to the collection, primarily feauring Italian and European works from between the 18th and 20th centuries. The focus is on Italian art from 19th-century Romanticism to post-impression work, including Medardo Ross, Joseph Pellizza Volpedo, Andrea Appiani, Marchesi Pompeo, Juan Segantini, and Faruffini Frederick. But the paintings are wide-ranging and include works from Picasso, Renoir, Rouault, Dufy, Matisse, Vuillard, and Modigliani. An extensive group of neoclassical sculptures created by Canova and his contemporaries can be found here as well. The grounds are well worth a stroll, containing a botanical garden and an English-style garden, while the flower gardens, playgrounds, and lawns of the public gardens lie adjacent. Nest to the villa, 20th-century works can be viewed at Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea.
Of course, it’s not all history, art, and design in Milan. If you’re looking for nightlife, Navigli is where you’ll want to go. During the day, it houses boutiques and artist workshops that are fun to explore, along with various eateries. Frequent festivals are hosted here too. April brings the Festa Di Fiori, a time when this canal-side neighborhood will be filled with flowers. The Festa del Navligo also takes place in April, bringing an antique market, crafts, processions, and concerts, while the barges along the canals will be elaborately decorated around mid-June for the Sagra di San Cristoforo. No matter when you’re here, when the sun goes down, enjoy a romantic stroll along the Naviglio Grande to admire the reflections of the illuminated city. Then when the clock strikes aperitivo hour, the late-night adventure can begin in the theaters, hip cocktail bars, and trendy clubs.
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