What to Do in Milan: A Complete Travel Guide

The first time I visited Milan, I didn’t like the city at all. And I often hear that from Dutch people visiting Milan: that they’re not that impressed. I am always willing to give a city a second chance, so when I went to Italy, I planned just that. And this time I really liked the city! So now I’m sharing my tips on what to do in Milan from the best things to do and coolest places to eat and drink!

What Made Me Like Milan Better this Time Around

Apart from the fact that I think the city has developed considerably in recent years in terms of nice restaurants and pleasant neighborhoods, I think that I have now also become better at planning trips in big cities.

Nine years ago I was a young teenager with little money, no internet on my phone, and there was a lot less information available online. I am now an expert on city trips, and I have visited dozens of cities worldwide, haha. Moreover, I have a little more to spend, which is great in an expensive city like Milan.

I think I used to expect Milan to be just as romantic a city as Rome or Verona, but that’s not realistic. Milan is not the most “stereotypical Italian” city, but that doesn’t make the city any less fun. You just have to adjust your expectations.

It is a city with beautiful sights, but it is also a city where people live. It is the richest city in Italy with lots of business, so it has a different feel than other places. Milan is a city where career people go to in Italy, and that is reflected in the streets and atmosphere. 

What I really liked was walking around in the morning amongst the beautifully dressed business people going about their day. It felt like you really saw what typical local life was like.

I would recommend spending two days in Milan. That gives you enough time to visit the top sights and maybe do some shopping before your bank balance is completely used up.

A Short History of Milan

Milan is the most important city in Italy after Rome. It was started in 600 BC by Northern Italian Celts. In the following centuries the city changed hands again and again, and saw emperors and kings passing by from different countries.

In the 13th century, Milan led the revolution for semi-independence of the Holy Roman Empire. The city was then ruled for a while by the Sforza and Visconti families, who were among the most prominent families in Italy. After another few centuries in which Milan was conquered by, among others, the French, Spaniards, and Austrians, the kingdom of Italy finally came into being in 1861.

Although the city was very hit by bombing in World War II, it has since been able to rebuild itself and has become Italy’s business center.

What to Do in Milan: 10 Things Not to Miss

1. Visit the Duomo of Milan

The absolute highlight of Milan is of course the Duomo. This striking and detailed Gothic church is one of the largest Roman Catholic cathedrals in the world, and the largest in Italy.

If you thought the construction of the Sagrada Familia took a long time, Milan will laugh at you in your face. The construction of the Duomo took no less than five centuries (!). The Count of Visconti began the construction of the church in 1386. The last work on the church was not completed until 1950, and then the restoration work could be started almost immediately afterwards.

One of the reasons why the church is so impressive is the statues on the facade. There are no fewer than 2300! The 135 pinnacles also make an impression, which you can admire even better from the roof. If you want to visit the church it is possible for €3, but if you also want to visit the roofs, it costs € 10 (with the stairs) or €14 (with the elevator).

Do you want fast-track access to all the sights in the cathedral? The church, the museum, the roof, the crypt and the archaeological excavations? Then buy this ticket. With this you can skip the queue and you can immediately go up with the elevator!

2. Check out Castello Sforzesco

Milan also has an important castle: Castello Sforzesco. The construction of the castle began in the same period as the construction of the cathedral, and that is not surprising, because this construction also comes from the Visconti family. The structure was initially intended to serve as a family fortress. The name, however, comes from the Count Sforza, who had the castle renovated a century later.

The building now houses museums that can be visited, but it is also possible to simply walk through the complex and its gardens. That is free and a perfect way to cool off during a hot summer day.

3. See “The Last Supper” at the Santa Maria delle Grazie

One of the most famous works of art in the world can be found in Milan. To be precise, it is in Santa Maria delle Grazie, a church with an associated monastery from 1492. Although it is quite a beautiful church, it is not about the structure, but about what the church houses.

And that is the painting The Last Supper by Leonardo DaVinci. It is special that we can still admire this fresco, because the rest of the church did not survive the bombing during the Second World War. But due to extra reinforcements, the wall with the wall painting by DaVinci remained intact.

Tickets to admire the Last Supper are super scarce and are sometimes sold out months in advance. Fortunately, my partner Tiqets has tickets available every week on Wednesday evenings and Saturday evenings, so that you can plan a visit even in the short term. Buy your tickets here!

4. Check Out the Surprising San Bernardino alle Ossa

My favorite church in Milan is a little conspicuous church a few blocks walk from the Duomo. If you only come to look at the outside, you will be disappointed. For the real “wow” factor, you have to go inside and visit the side chapel.

There you will be welcomed by thousands of bones and skulls. While my friend Samantha’s face fell in shock, my mouth fell open in happiness because I thought it was so cool. Although the buildings on this site date from 1145, the house only dates from 1210, when a nearby cemetery no longer had space.

It was decided to build a room to store the bones, after which half a century later a church was built next to it. The current design, in which the bones and skulls are used as decoration, only dates from a renovation from 1679.

By the way, have you ever heard of the Ossuary in Evora in Portugal? It is inspired by this space in Milan.

5. Go Shopping in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele

The most famous shopping galleria in the world can also be found in Milan. You know, that beautiful covered with beautiful mosaic on the ground. Yes, that is Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. If you go shopping here, you’d better take your credit card with you because you’ll find all the luxury brands here.

Construction for the shopping arcade began in 1864, and a year later King Victor Emmanuel II laid the foundation stone. Can you guess who this shopping passage is named after ;-)?

The passage opened in 1867, but tragedy means that the architect never had to experience the completion of the building. At that time, an arch of an entrance gate was missing. The day before the construction was to be completed, the architect did a final check but fell off a jetty and died.

What I really like is that the facades are all designed in the same chic and old-fashioned style, with gold letters on a black background. Every company or store that wants to establish itself here must also put its logo in the colors on the facade so that everything looks as one whole.

6. See the Piazza Mercanti

Right next to the large Piazza Duomo square, is the Piazza Mercanti. This square was the heart of medieval Milan. The former square was actually a lot bigger than it is now, and you could find the town hall and even a prison there. A market was also held here. The largest building on the square is the Palazzo della Ragione where the court used to be, and under whose arches the market took place.

7. Visit the Sant Ambrogio

This is a Romanesque church that was originally built in the 4th century by the then Bishop of Milan: Ambrosius of Milan. You see where the name of the church comes from, especially since he is the patron saint of the city. He also built around three churches in Milan and the surrounding area.

The current design of the church dates from the 12th century. It is seen as one of the most beautiful churches in Milan.

8. Stroll around the Navigli Area

My favorite neighborhood in Milan is the Navigli neighborhood, where we stayed close by and went to eat every time. Stroll along the canal and settle down at one of the many eateries. Navigli was once a harbor neighborhood, but now it is one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city, loved by tourists and locals alike.

9. Ride a Vintage Tram

How nice is it to admire the city from a vintage tram? I had to smile every time the cheerful yellow tram made its way through the Milanese traffic. The “Carelli” trams date from 1928. To ride in them you have to take line 1, which does a route through the center.

10. Do the Free Walking Tour

Something I almost always do when I’m in a city? A free walking tour! One of the nicest ways to see a city and learn more about history at the same time. I followed one at the organization Walkabout Tours and I can definitely recommend that. 

Our guide was funny and I understood much more about the history of Milan at the end of the tour. Don’t forget to tip! I think €5-10 per person is a decent tip.

If you’d rather a smaller tour, try one of these tours:

Where to Eat in Milan

Fabricca Pizzeria

I ate here my first night in Milan. Super tasty pizza, right on the waterfront of Navigli.

Mag Cafe

A super nice little cafe in Navigli where I worked.

La Proscuitteria Milano Navigli

We ordered a board full of processed meats, cheeses and fruit here. For a moment I thought I’d landed in heaven. Also in Navigli. To do!

Osteria il Giardinetto

A chic place and we had no idea what to expect when we came here. We shared a number of dishes, and my dessert (tiramisu) was made on my plate. So nice and soooo good!

Pasta Laboratorio di Pasta con Cucina

A simple place with a simple concept: good pasta for a low price. I think you can choose from three pastas, and the pastas are so large that even my American girlfriend thought it was enough :-P.

Where to Stay in Milan

€ – B&B Hotel Milano Sant’Ambrogio

This fine budget hotel is within walking distance of most of Milan’s sights. Even better: the hotel is pet-friendly!

€€ – Hotel Romana Residence

This 4-star hotel is within walking distance of the Duomo, and has a nice relaxed atmosphere with very friendly staff. A parking garage and breakfast options are available.

€€€ – Hotel The Street Milano Duomo

Located in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw from the Duomo, this 4-star hotel offers spacious and modern hotel rooms. If you want to experience real Milanese design, you have to stay here.

Prefer a different hotel in Milan? Then check all options here.

Where to Go After Milan?

Milan is the perfect base to admire more of northern Italy. For example, go to my favorite city: Verona, or visit the wonderful Lake Garda. Enter the Dolomites and stay in Trento. Or travel down and visit the beautiful Cinque Terre and stay in Levanto. There is so much to see that it is hard to choose!

And those were my best tips on what to do in Milan! Let me know if you’ve been to any of these places!

What do you think of Milan?

General Travel Tips

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