Milan is not only the business centre of Italy but also one of its many cultural capitals. It is home to the Milan Cathedral, the Last Supper, the Galleria, Sforza Castle, and much more! Here are our top 15 things to do in Milan in 2021.
The Best Things To Do and See in Milan
Milan is the industrial motor that drives Italy and its high fashion capital. Above all, there are a wealth of activities and sights that visitors often overlook from art to cathedrals. Make the most of every minute in the city, with our picks of the top things to do in Milan.
15. Find Milan’s Secret Symbol
On the second arch of the Palazzo della Ragione (the 13th-century commercial centre of medieval Milan), you’ll find a bas-relief sculpture of a strange beast. It’s called the scrofa semilanuta. This mythical animal looks something like a wild boar, but the translation is literally “a half-woolly sow,” which is a bit less impressive.
Legend says that this sculpture supposedly showed Belloveso (a prince of Gaul), where the city of Milan would be founded in the Po Valley. The furry sow was a popular symbol until it was supplanted by the Visconti family’s serpent when they ruled over the city.
Address: Piazza dei Mercanti
14. See the Sforza Castle
One of the city’s most striking landmarks, the Castello Sforzesco, links the destinies of two of the ruling families. Begun by the Visconti and later rebuilt by the Sforzas, this towering castle with its massive walls became one of the most powerful courts of the Renaissance. The castle is now a museum complex which will probably take more than one visit to appreciate in full.
The biggest attractions are arguably the museum of ancient art (with a layout of exhibits that feels strangely fresh and contemporary) and the art gallery. The castle is home to the works of Bramante, Mantegna and Lippi, has a room decorated by Leonardo da Vinci (the Sala delle Asse, currently undergoing renovation) and houses Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà. This piece is the incomplete sculpture that took up the last nine years of the artist’s life.
13. Wander the Brera district
Brera is Milan’s artists quarter, though you won’t find too many starving painters hanging out in its expensive apartments or chic streets. The area has a quiet, understated calm and is filled with upscale bars, galleries, and art stores. There are also hidden botanical gardens and the 15th century Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, with its impressive baroque interior.
It is home to the Academy of Fine Arts and Milan’s version of the Louvre: the Pinacoteca di Brera. This art gallery is home to works by Mantegna, Raphael, and Caravaggio, among others. As the collection is vast, you’ll probably need more than one visit to appreciate it to the full, but a guided tour is the best way to get a quick immersion of the art here.
12. Travel Like a VIP to Lake Como
Lake Como is one of Italy’s most exclusive and luxurious destinations which is why so many people want to visit. That said, it is far from unattainable as a destination. In fact, you can see our guide for where to stay in Lake Como if you’d love to make this a romantic weekend getaway. Otherwise, just visit it from Milan as a day trip.
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to see what everyone is talking about. The views from these villas over Lake Como truly are indescribably beautiful.
11. Explore the Monumental Cemetery
It might seem a strange recommendation for a great day out, but Milan’s cimitero monumentale is filled with the incredible tombs of the city’s great and good. The names may not be as familiar as those at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but it’s the architecture that takes centre stage.
On a sunny day, the cemetery is filled with peace and light, so it offers a tranquil and fascinating break from the rest of the city. Make sure to wear some comfortable shoes, because you’ll do a lot of walking. Entry is free.
Address: Piazzale Cimitero Monumentale
10. Stroll the Galleria
The opulent iron and glass Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is home to some of Milan’s oldest and most famous stores, bars and restaurants. It is also a handy (and spectacular) shortcut from the cathedral to La Scala opera house.
It was designed by architect Giuseppe Mengoni. Work began in 1865 and the mosaic floor is just as beautiful as its airy roof. If you see people spinning around on the mosaic bull’s testicles, please don’t join them!
It’s a city legend lost in the mists of time that is meant to bring good luck. Unfortunately, all it does is wear a hole in the unlucky bull’s crown jewels. Equally unlucky was the arcade’s creator, as Giuseppe Mengoni fell to his death from his own scaffolding. This sad detail aside, it’s an incredible piece of architecture and the perfect place to people-watch. Try a campari at the legendary Camparino in Galleria.
Address: Piazza del Duomo
9. See the Prada Foundation
Prada’s history is inextricably linked with that of Milan, so of course it’s a top thing to do in Milan. The brand was founded here in 1913 when Mario Prada opened his leather goods store in the elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (our next destination, below).
One of the ways in which the brand has repaid its debt to the city is through the Fondazione Prada. It’s a space for modern art, thought-provoking installations, events, cinema and creativity in general. The complex is located on the south side of the city in an ex-distillery, a short walk from Lodi Tibb metro station. Its in-house 1950s style café called Bar Luce (designed by filmmaker Wes Anderson) is also an attraction in its own right.
Address: Largo Isarco 2
8. Check out the “Vertical Forest”
The Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest, is a welcome addition to Milan’s skyline. These tower blocks are a living testament to architect Stefano Boeri’s commitment to urban forestry. In a metropolis prone to pollution, this striking living space helps the city breathe by absorbing CO2 and microparticles. Bosco Verticale has quickly become a symbol of a kinder way of urban living, in greater harmony with nature.
The towers are located in the Porta Nuova area of Milan, a regenerated business, residential and shopping district. It is also home to the visionary Piazza Gae Aulenti and the fashionable Corso Como, with its world-famous concept store. This area perfectly embodies the contemporary, optimistic spirit of the city.
Address: Via Gaetano di Castillia 11
7. Visit the Poldi Pezzoli Museum
This little gem is often overlooked on the way to bigger attractions, but this enchanting museum might just turn out to be your favourite thing to do in Milan. Born from the private collection of Milanese nobleman Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli, it offers an eclectic collection of art and curios in the delightful setting of a private home.
Curators expertly place their permanent treasures alongside fashion and contemporary objects in temporary exhibitions. This rotating exhibit becomes a treasure to visit every so often.
Address: Via Mazoni 12
6. Explore Chinatown
Just a short walk from Milan’s major park, Parco Sempione, you’ll find Via Paolo Sarpi which is the pedestrianised street at the centre of Milan’s vibrant Chinese quarter. The Chinese community is a well-integrated and essential part of Milanese life and business. This area draws young Milanese by the score to stores packed with Asian produce and its traditional (and more innovative) restaurants.
It’s a pleasant place for a stroll or to grab lunch or dinner. You can also find that green tea Kit-Kat you’ve been hankering for! The Ravioleria attracts long queues for its street food (dumplings freshly made in front of you). Bokok is another one of our favourite restaurants, with a fresh, modern interior and great dim sum.
Address: Via Paolo Sarpi
5. Walk the Fashion District
Milan’s is packed with great shops, from big chains to quirky, independent boutiques. However, its Quadrilatero della Moda (literally “fashion square”) that is just a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral, is home to some of its most spectacular and expensive stores.
The area’s most famous streets are Via Monte Napoleone and Via della Spiga. All the big-name brands in fashion, jewelry and footwear have flagship stores here. The window displays are works of art worth viewing alone.
Address: Quadrilatero della Moda
4. Visit La Scala
London has the Royal Opera House, New York has the Met, and Milan has La Scala. Designed by the renowned neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini, the theatre opened in 1778 with a performance of an opera by Mozart’s arch-rival Antonio Salieri.
Catch a performance of your favourite opera, concerto or symphony. See Italy’s home-grown étoile Roberto Bolle, now coming towards the end of his illustrious career, follow in the footsteps of ballet legends like Fonteyn and Nureyev.
There are over 2000 seats in the sumptuous red and gold interior. Tickets don’t come cheap, and la prima (opening night) is a real event for Milan’s glitterati. As a result, you must book early online or try your luck at the box office on the day. However, if a performance is beyond your budget, do the next best thing and visit the theatre’s wonderful museum or take a guided tour of the auditorium.
Address: Via Filodrammatici, 2
3. Nightlife in the Navigli
The perfect place for an evening aperitivo or dinner in Milan’s buzzy bars and restaurants, the Navigli district is often thronged with revelers by night. However, it has a completely different vibe during the day. It’s a great area for a serene stroll. Here, time seems to stand still.
You can imagine the city of the past when its network of canals facilitated the transport of trade goods and the marble used to build its towering cathedral. The waterways offer a welcome respite from the bustle of the city. So do the charming, wisteria-covered courtyards and interesting independent stores nearby. For a great negroni and some evening fun check out the bikers’ bar: Deus Ex Machina.
2. Visit Milan Cathedral
Construction of Milan’s very own “dreaming spires” probably began in 1386. This delicate Gothic masterpiece is the soul of Milan. Its heart is the Madonnina, which is the golden Madonna on its highest spire. It has become a sacred symbol for the city and an absolute top thing to do in Milan.
The exquisite marble for the Duomo was ferried from quarries near Lake Maggiore along the canals. It houses a wealth of treasures. As well as containing the holiest of relics (a nail from Christ’s cross), one of its most unusual features is the statue of St. Bartholomew. This anatomically perfect representation shows the unlucky saint wearing his flayed skin as a cloak.
There’s plenty to keep you occupied in and around the cathedral complex, so use your time wisely. However, a trip to the rooftops (by lift or stairs) is not to be missed.
Address: Piazza del Duomo
1. See The Last Supper
Leonardo’s masterpiece Il Cenacolo or the Last Supper is located in Santa Maria delle Grazie, a Dominican church and convent. It occupies what was once the refectory wall. The painting has survived Napoleon’s troops, a WWII bomb, and well-meaning restoration attempts.
This fragile work is viewed in very limited small groups, for a limited time, and in a controlled environment. It is one of the biggest draws in Milan so booking well in advance is essential. Like many other historical sites in Italy, Monday is the culture’s day of rest, so plan accordingly. Our tour of the Last Supper makes it easy to grab an exclusive reservation.