The Best Things to Do in Milan

There’s so much to see and do in Milan that identifying the must-do experiences is nearly impossible. Seeing the Duomo, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” (in Santa Maria delle Grazie), and the Museum of the 20th Century must be top of the list. Style aficionados should certainly check out Milan’s Fashion Quadrilateral. Similarly, football fans should try to watch a game at San Siro, Milan’s cathedral of European soccer.

Piazza del Duomo, Milano MI, Italy
The historic and modern center of the city, the Piazza del Duomo (the square surrounding the cathedral’s base) remains a popular meeting place, hangout and hub of Milanese life. Local vendors setup shop (selling fresh coconut in the summer, toys and tourist wares), kids run and play (free from traffic) and shoppers trickle in from the walking street surrounding the huge plaza. The statue of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of Italy, is the best place to meet, sit, recharge and watch the city go by.
The Milan Cathedral, or Duomo, occupies a site that’s been holy since the time of the Romans, but it wasn’t until the early 19th century when the finishing touches were finally placed on this massive building. The Duomo is the fifth largest cathedral in the world and one of the top tourist sites in the northern Italian city. Entrance is free, but a small fee is requested if you wish to take photos. Inside the church is even more magnificent then the outside, with scores of shrines and altars dedicated to saints and notable Milanese. During the Christmas holidays the city’s night market takes up residence next to the cathedral, adding one more reason to visit this central site.
Piazza Pio XI, 2, 20123 Milano MI, Italy
The Ambrosiana Library is an oasis for book lovers. Founded in 1609, the library contains over 800,000 books and 35,000 manuscripts, including writings by Dante and Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus. The pinacoteca art gallery is a treasure as well, with paintings from the 15th to 20th century. Botticelli, Titian, Caravaggio and Leonardo, among others, all hang out here.
Naviglio Grande, Italy
While few in number, Milan‘s canals can be charming. Naviglio Grande, the largest, is my favorite to walk along. Lined by shops, outdoor cafes and bars, there is life alongside the water anytime of day. If you’re lucky you’ll catch the Antique Market that fills up the walkways on some Sundays. It is a treasure trove of pottery, jewelry, vintage designer clothes, and Murano glass—Milanese have impeccable taste for both the old and new.
Via Ernesto Breda, 20126 Milano MI, Italy
Located in a former rail services warehouse, Hangar Bicocca is a contemporary art space for site-specific projects funded by tire giant Pirelli. The space is more like a contemporary art concept that extends from the boards of its brick structure. The art gallery offers bicycle tours of the Bicocca area, as part of the “Bicocca Project,” a neighborhood reclamation project intent on showcasing the former industrial zone as vibrant neighborhood and equally vibrant arts scene.
Piazza del Duomo, 8, 20123 Milano MI, Italy
The Museo del Novecento (Museum of the 20th century) is a visual lesson in one century of Italian art history. Housed is the 1930s Palazzo dell’Arengario by Rationalist architects Piero Portaluppi and Giovanni Muzio. The Novecento also houses an amazing collection, Who’s Who of the 1900s, including Italians Balla, Modigliani, Boccioni, Martini, Morandi, and De Chirico and international artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Klee. In fact, the museum is considered one of the world’s most important collections of Italian and international 20th-century art in Italy—Futurism, Spatialism, and Arte Povera. Keep your eye out for Piero Manzoni’s clever Arte Povera pieces, Arturo Marini’s large stone figures, and Pellizza Da Volpedo’s monumental painting Il Quarto Stato (The Fourth Estate). Martini also did the palazzo’s exterior bas relief. Bonus: The upper level bar/restaurant overlooks Piazza del Duomo.
Largo Isarco, 2, 20139 Milano MI, Italy
Fondazione Prada reopens its Milan exhibition space in a 205,000 square foot space designed by OMA (by Rem Koolhaas). Prada always has the most engaging shows-- getting the best of contemporary art.
Corso Magenta, 15, 20123 Milano MI, Italy
Sometimes called “Milan‘s Sistine Chapel” because of its profusely--and beautifully-- decorated walls and ceilings, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore is well worth a visit. The Renaissance paintings commissioned by the Sforza family (the primary sponsors of Leonardo da Vinci), adorn the walls of a cloistered convent founded for noble ladies in the early 16th century. Built on an ancient Roman site, the church was built and decorated in stages over several centuries, every interior wall covered in luminous colors befitting the pomp of Lombard aristocratic taste. In particular, frescoes by Bernardino Luini, student of da Vinci, blend the sacred and the profane, using members of the court as models for portraits of saints. Most of the numerous religious and secular works of the Milanese painter have been lost, so San Maurizio is the best place to see his works. To get the most out of a visit to this little gem of art history, go with a knowledgeable guide. My husband and I toured historical Milan with Ludovic Goudin of Walks of Italy, who offer a variety of tours in Milan. San Maurizio was just one of the fascinating places we visited!.
Piazza Sempione
Parco Sempione is Milan‘s biggest park and it has everything- cute caffès, picturesque setting, a medieval castle, a modern museum, a pond and charming foot bridges. If the sun is shining, this is the perfect place for a morning or afternoon walk, a lazy picnic or just a day off. The surrounding area includes beautiful residences, historic monuments, like Leonardo’s Last Supper and the Castel Sforzesco, restaurants and shops. Expect some interesting developments as the city gears up for World Expo 2015, including a super-contemporary visitor’s center in front of Castel Sforzesco.
Piazzale Cimitero Monumentale
Don’t think it morbid. This cemetery is one of the most extraordinary places in Milan. Put it on your list as a must-see if you are interested in sculpture, history and some truly breathtaking architecture. Only a mile from the city center it is an easy walk. And don’t forget your camera. Strolling through this place will make you feel intimate with the city, and it’s outside, so no stuffy museum tour. And did I mention it’s free?
Via Montenapoleone
The Bermuda Triangle and Kansas Rectangle may be places of mysterious disappearance, but Milan‘s Fashion Quadrilateral is a small area of style where you will definitely want to get lost. With Via Montenapoleone, Via Manzoni, Via della Spiga, and Corso Venezia defining the sides of the quad, the internal area is a fashion lover’s oasis. The best shops in the world fill up the area, and the Quadrilateral is considered the most important fashion district in the world.
Via Neera, 24, 20141 Milano MI, Italy
Artist Dan Flavin’s last installation is the Church of Santa Maria Annuciata in Chiesa Rossa, fondly known as simply Chiesa Rossa. Flavin’s light installation is a technicolor dream of electric hues across the main nave and central apse.
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