For every church in Rome, there’s a bank in Milan. Italy’s second city and the capital of the Lombardy region, Milan is a hardworking, style-conscious, time-is-money city of 1.3 million. A melting pot of people and history, Milan’s industriousness may come from the Teutonic blood of its original inhabitants, the Lombards, or from its years under Austrian rule. Either way, Milan is modern Italy’s center of fashion, industry, banking, TV, publishing, and conventions. It’s also a major university town, a train hub, and host to two football (soccer) teams and the nearby Monza Formula One race track. And as home to a prestigious opera house, Milan is one of the touchstones of the world of opera.
Artistically, Milan can’t compare with Rome and Florence, but the city does have several unique and noteworthy sights: the Duomo and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade, La Scala Opera House, Michelangelo’s last pietà sculpture (in Sforza Castle), and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
Founded by the Romans as Mediolanum (“the place in the middle”), by the fourth century A.D. it was the capital of the western half of the Roman Empire, the namesake of Constantine’s “Edict of Milan” legalizing Christianity, and home of the powerful early Christian bishop, St. Ambrose.
After some barbarian darkness, medieval Milan became a successful mercantile city, eventually rising to regional prominence under the Visconti and Sforza families. The mammoth cathedral, or Duomo, is a testament to the city’s wealth and ambition. By the time of the Renaissance, Milan was nicknamed “the New Athens,” and was enough of a cultural center for Leonardo da Vinci to call it home. Then came 400 years of foreign domination (under Spain, Austria, France, more Austria). Milan was a focal point of the 1848 revolution against Austria and helped lead Italy to unification in 1870. The impressive Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and La Scala Opera House reflect the sophistication of turn-of-the-century Milan as one of Europe’s cultural powerhouses.
Mussolini left a heavy fascist touch on the architecture here (such as the central train station). His excesses also led to the WWII bombing of Milan. But the city rose again. The 1959 Pirelli Tower (the skinny skyscraper in front of the station) was a trendsetter in its day. Today, Milan is people-friendly, with a great transit system and inviting pedestrian zones.
Many tourists come to Italy for the past. But Milan is today’s Italy. In this city of refined tastes, window displays are gorgeous, cigarettes are chic, and even the cheese comes gift-wrapped. Yet, thankfully, Milan is no more expensive for tourists than any other Italian city.
Milan commemorates the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death in 2019. Expect special exhibits—and longer lines.
For pleasant excursions nearby, consider visiting Lake Como or Lake Maggiore—both are about an hour from Milan by train (see the previous chapter).
PLANNING YOUR TIME
Milan isn’t as charming as Venice or Florence, but it’s still a vibrant and vital piece of the Italian puzzle. With two nights and a full day, you can gain an appreciation for the city and see most major sights. On a short visit, I’d focus on the center. Tour the Duomo, hit any art you like (reserve ahead to see The Last Supper), browse elegant shops and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and try to see an opera. To maximize your time in Milan, use the Metro to get around.
For those with a round-trip flight into Milan: I’d recommend starting your journey softly by going first to Lake Como (one-hour ride to Varenna) or the Cinque Terre (3 hours to Monterosso). Then spend the last night or two of your trip in Milan before flying home.
Monday is a terrible sightseeing day, since many museums are closed (including The Last Supper). August is oppressively hot and muggy, and locals who can vacate do, leaving the city quiet. Those visiting in August find that the nightlife is sleepy, and many shops and restaurants are closed.
A Three-Hour Tour: If you’re just changing trains at Milan’s Centrale station (as, sooner or later, you probably will), consider catching a later train and taking this blitz tour: Check your bag at the station, ride the subway to the Duomo, peruse the square, explore the cathedral’s rooftop terraces and interior, drop into the Duomo Museum, have a scenic coffee in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, spin on the floor mosaic of the bull for good luck, maybe see a museum or two (most are within a 10-minute walk of the main square), and return by subway to the station. Art fans could make time for The Last Supper (if they’ve made reservations) and/or Michelangelo’s Pietà in Sforza Castle (no reservations necessary).
Orientation to Milan
My coverage focuses on the old center. Most sights and hotels listed are within a 15-minute walk of the cathedral (Duomo), which is a straight eight-minute Metro ride from the Centrale train station.
Milan’s TI, at the La Scala end of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, isn’t worth a special trip (Mon-Fri 9:00-19:00, Sat 9:00-18:00, Sun 10:00-18:00, Metro: Duomo, tel. 02-884-55555, www.turismo.milano.it).
GETTING AROUND MILAN
By Public Transit: It’s a pleasure to use Milan’s great public transit system, called ATM (“ATM Point” info desk in Duomo Metro station, www.atm.it). The clean, spacious, fast, and easy Metro zips you nearly anywhere you may want to go, and trams and city buses fill in the gaps. The handiest Metro line for a quick visit is the yellow line 3, which connects Centrale station to the Duomo. The other lines are red (1), green (2), and purple (5). The Metro shuts down about half past midnight, but many trams continue until 1:00 or even 2:00. With 100 miles of track, Milan’s classic, century-old yellow trams are both efficient and atmospheric. A single ticket, valid for 90 minutes, can be used for one ride, including transfers, on all forms of transport (€1.50; sold at newsstands, tobacco shops, shops with ATM sticker in window, and at machines in subway stations). Other ticket options include a carnet (€13.80 for 10 rides—it’s one magnetic ticket that can be validated 10 times, but only by a single user); a 24-hour pass (€4.50, worthwhile if you take at least four rides); and a 48-hour pass (€8.25, pays off with six rides). Tickets must be run through the machines at Metro turnstiles when you enter and leave the station. On trams, the machines are at the front and rear and you need only validate upon entry. You also need to validate if transferring.
By Taxi : Small groups go cheap and fast by taxi (drop charge-€3.30, €1.10/kilometer; €5.40 drop charge on Sun and holidays, €6.50 from 21:00 to 6:00 in the morning). It can be easier to walk to a taxi stand than to flag down a cab. Handy stands are at Piazza del Duomo and in front of Sforza Castle. Hotels and restaurants are also happy to call one for you (tel. 02-8585 or 02-6969). The free MyTaxi app (www.mytaxi.com), popular with younger and tech-savvy Milanese, lets you summon and pay for a taxi using your smartphone. After you enter your credit card number, the app charges you regular taxi fares and lets you add a tip. Uber Black and UberLux operate in Milan and charge similar rates (but have faced legal challenges).
The city’s centerpiece is the third-largest church in Europe (after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Sevilla’s cathedral). At 525 by 300 feet, the place is immense, with more than 2,000 statues inside (and another thousand outside) and 52 one-hundred-foot-tall, sequoia-size pillars representing the weeks of the year and the liturgical calendar. If you do two laps, you’ve done your daily walk. The church was built to hold 40,000 worshippers—the entire population of Milan when construction began.
A visit here has several elements. First, take in the overwhelming exterior from various angles, admiring its remarkable bulk and many spires and statues. Then go inside (requires a ticket) to see the church’s vast nave, stained glass, historic tombs, and a quirky, one-of-a-kind statue of a flayed man. Nearby, a visit to the adjacent Duomo Museum lets you see the church’s statues and details up close. Finally, take an elevator ride (or long stair climb) up to the Duomo rooftop for city views and a stroll through a forest of jagged church spires.
Cost: Duomo and Duomo Museum—€3, includes skippable San Gottardo Church; rooftop terraces—€13 by elevator, €9 via stairs. To visit the archaeological area under the church, purchase the €7 ticket that includes the church and museum, or a combo-ticket that includes the rooftop terraces (€12-16); see website for details.
Hours: Duomo and archaeological area—daily 8:00-19:00, last entry at 18:00; Duomo Museum and San Gottardo Church—Thu-Tue 10:00-18:00, closed Wed, last entry at 17:00; rooftop terraces—daily 9:00-19:00, last ascent at 18:00.
Information: Church tel. 02-7202-2656, museum tel. 02-860-358, www.duomomilano.it.
Buying Tickets: Ticket booths are located on the south side of the cathedral: at the Duomo Museum (Thu-Tue 8:45-18:00, closed Wed), and just east of the museum (across from the Duomo’s right transept) at #14a (daily 9:00-17:45, shorter hours Nov-April)—this location also hosts the Duomo Info Point office (daily 9:30-17:30). Ticket machines are available at both locations.
Avoiding Lines: Security screening lines can take an hour. Go early.
Dress Code: Modest dress is required to visit the church. Don’t wear sports T-shirts, shorts, or anything sleeveless.
Tours: A €6 audioguide for the church is available at a kiosk inside its main door (no rentals Sun, 1.5 hours).
Inside the Cathedral :
• Enter the church.
Nave: It’s the fourth-longest nave in Christendom, stretching more than 500 feet from the entrance to the stained-glass rose window at the far end. The apse at the far end was started in 1385. The wall behind you wasn’t finished until 1520. The style is Gothic, a rarity in Italy. Fifty-two tree-sized pillars rise to support a ribbed, pointed-arch ceiling, and the church is lit by glorious stained glass. At the far end, marking the altar, is a small tabernacle of a dome atop columns—a bit of an anomaly in a Gothic church (more on that later). Notice the little red light on the cross above the altar. This marks where a nail from the cross of Jesus is kept. This relic was brought to Milan by St. Helen (Emperor Constantine’s mother) in the fourth century, when Milan was the capital of the western Roman Empire. It’s on display for three days a year (in mid-Sept).
Closer to you, find the two single-stone marble pillars flanking the main door—the most precious ones in the church. Now, facing the altar, look high to the right, in the rear corner of the church, and find a tiny pinhole of white light. This is designed to shine a 10-inch sunbeam at noon onto the bronze line that runs across the floor, indicating where we are on the zodiac (but local guides claim they’ve never seen it work).
This 600-year-old church is filled with history. It represents the continuous line of bishops who have presided over Milan, stretching back to the days of St. Ambrose (c. 340-397). Let’s see some of the earliest artifacts.
• Wander deeper into the church, up the…Right Aisle: The first chapel along the right wall has the 1,000-year-old gray-stone coffin of Aribert, a bishop who predates the present building. Continuing along to the third chapel, you’ll see a red coffin atop columns belonging to the noble Visconti family that commissioned this church.
Shopping in Milan
- HIGH FASHION IN THE QUADRILATERAL
For world-class window shopping, visit the Quadrilateral, an elegant high-fashion shopping area around Via Montenapoleone, northeast of La Scala Opera House. This was the original Beverly Hills of Milan. In the 1920s, the top fashion shops moved in, and today it remains the place for designer labels. Most shops close Sunday and for much of August. On Mondays, stores open only after 16:00. In this land where fur is still prized, the people-watching is as entertaining as the window shopping. Notice also the exclusive penthouse apartments with roof gardens high above the scene. Via Montenapoleone and the pedestrianized Via della Spiga are the best streets.
Whether you’re gawking or shopping, here’s the best route: From Piazza della Scala, walk up Via Alessandro Manzoni to the Metro stop at Montenapoleone, browse down Via Montenapoleone, and cut left on Via Santo Spirito (lined with grand aristocratic palazzos—peek into the courtyard at #7). Across the street, step into the elegant courtyard at #10 to check out the café sitters and their poodles. Continue to the end of Via Santo Spirito, then turn right to window shop down traffic-free Via della Spiga. After a few short blocks, turn right on Via Sant’Andrea and then left, back onto Montenapoleone, which leads you through a final gauntlet of temptations to Corso Giacomo Matteotti, near the Piazza San Babila. Then (for less-expensive shopping thrills), walk back to the Duomo down the pedestrian-only Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.
Nightlife in Milan
For evening action, check out the artsy Brera area in the old center, with several swanky sidewalk cafés to choose from and lots of bars that stay open late. Home to the local art university, this district has a sophisticated, lively people-watching scene. Another great neighborhood for nightlife, especially for a younger scene, is Naviglio Grande (the canal district), Milan’s formerly bohemian, now-gentrified “Little Venice” (Metro: Porta Genova; tram #2; see the “Greater Milan” ).
There are always concerts and live music in the city at various clubs and concert halls. Specifics change quickly, so it’s best to rely on the entertainment information in periodicals from the TI.
Sleeping in Milan
My recommended hotels are all within a few minutes’ walk of a Metro station. With Milan’s fine subway system, you can get anywhere in town in a flash.
Hotel prices in Milan rise and fall with the convention schedule. In March, April, September, and October, the city can be completely jammed by conventions, and hotel prices go sky-high; it’s best to avoid the city entirely at these times if you can (for the convention schedule, see www.fieramilano.it). My rankings are based on regular prices, not the much-higher convention rates.
Summer is usually wide-open, with soft or discounted prices, though many hotels close in August for vacation. Hotels cater more to business travelers than to tourists, so prices and availability are a little better on Fridays and Saturdays. There are only a few small, family-style hotels left in the center, and the good ones charge top dollar for their location. To save money, consider searching online for a deal at a basic chain hotel (such as Ibis) near a Metro stop.