In most countries around the world Milan would be the shining light and biggest attraction for visitors… the iconic 14th century Duomo, home to one of the most famous paintings of all time in The Last Supper, and known as one of the fashion capitals of the world!
But it’s often overlooked in Italy… I guess when you’re up against cities like Rome, Venice and Florence, there is some tough competition!
Having already visited all of the aforementioned cities, I decided it was time to see if Milan really is worth visiting…
How to spend a day in Milan
- Castello Sforzesco
- Parco Sempione
- Milan Duomo
- Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
I’m staying at a hotel on the edge of the Isola neighbourhood… arriving by car, I didn’t want to venture too far into the centre given my past experiences of driving in Italy.
I only have a short time in Milan, so after checking in and dumping my bags, I head straight out and catch the tram to the centre, getting off at the Lanza stop for the Castello Sforzesco.
One of the main sights to see in Milan is the 14th century castle and museum. It’s an impressive fortress from the outside, and you can explore the internal courtyard and grounds for free.
There are lots of statues and original features to see, as well as a Romanesque columned courtyard housing a small pond. It’s a cool place to explore and you can really feel the history of the place.
Inside is a huge collection of museums, showcasing art from Michelangelo and da Vinci to Ancient Egyptian artifacts. The museums cost €10 for entry, but given my tight timescale here, I decide to skip them. It’s also a beautiful sunny day so instead I decide to go and explore the adjoining Parco Sempione.
Leaving Castello Sforzesco through the Northern archway I enter the huge greenspace of the park and am met by the great sight of the Arco della Pace in the distance.
The arch is a gate to the city of Milan with its origins dating back to a gate of the Roman walls of Milan.
The park is a huge open space specifically designed to take in the views of the two famous monuments standing at either end, and is one of the most popular places for locals and travellers alike to escape the busy city centre and relax amongst nature.
After wandering around the park for a while and grabbing some food from a street truck (a prosciutto and mozzarella panini), it’s time to make my way to the Duomo for my timed entrance ticket.
I’ve kept my visit to Milan fairly free in comparison to the usual packed itineraries I create, but the Duomo was the one place I couldn’t miss when here!
It’s a 15-minute walk from Castello Sforzesco to the Duomo down Via Dante, a long pedestrianised street lined with cafés, shops, bars and restaurants, and many very very pretty buildings! The walk is itself an experience, and as with the park, it seems to have been designed to be able to see the castle at one end and Piazza Duomo at the other.
Before I get to the Duomo though I take a detour and stop at Piazza Mercanti, a medieval market square with some stunning architecture of its own. Well worth the stop and almost makes me late for my Duomo entrance!
So now onto the main event of Milan… Duomo di Milano… the 14th century Gothic masterpiece, which is the third largest church in the world.
I’ve seen it in hundreds of photos before, but they really don’t do it justice… it’s absolutely stunning!!
After side-stepping the tourists lying on the floor having photos taken by guys roaming the square with professional looking cameras (I always wondered how “influencers” got such perfect photos), I join the short queue and enter the Duomo after having my Covid pass checked by security.
The interior is just as stunning as the outside is… it seems to go on forever with the huge, vaulted ceiling supported by giant columns which form a corridor for your eyes to follow to the stained-glass window at the end.
I spend an age exploring every corner… admiring the altars, the huge organ, the stained-glass windows, all of the statues and the numerous tombs. Even the floor is beautiful!
When there’s nothing else to see inside, I head back out and around to the other side and join the larger queue for the lift up to the roof. Again, Covid passes are being checked before we can go inside, but this time mine isn’t recognised and flashes red on the security guy’s phone. He asks where I’m from and when I say England, he mutters something and just waves me through!
Once at the top I step outside and start to explore the terraces with the many spires, buttresses and gargoyles, and once at the very top the amazing views out over the rest of Milan. I always think when I come up to the top of places like this though… the best sight to see would be the one that I’m stood on!
Tip: download the official Duomo Milano app from Google Play or the Apple Store and you can listen to an audio guide as you explore the Duomo for free
I’ve easily spent an hour and a half at the Duomo, so I take a seat before heading back down and check out what to do next. There were a few other sights I had to see left on my list, but most are in the opposite direction to my hotel.
I decide to skip some of the other places which are a distance away, the main one being Santa Maria delle Grazie, the home to The Last Supper. Tickets to go in and see the famous painting were sold out online anyway, so I was just going to turn up on the off chance I could get in. So instead, I decide to hit the shopping areas… Milan is famous for its fashion after all!
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Next to the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the world’s oldest shopping arcade. It’s home to stylish brands such as Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Dior, but it’s the arcade itself which is the main draw for me.
The high-end fashion boutiques are housed in beautiful shop fronts, with renaissance art set below the huge glass-domed ceilings… it almost feels like I’m still in the Duomo rather than a shopping centre. But I guess fashion is a religion for some people!
Exiting the mall at the opposite end to Piazza Duomo, as with much of Milan, it’s been planned well and I enter Piazza della Scala with the Teatro alla Scala (the Grand Opera House) and Palazzo Marino, a large 16th century palace. The small square also has a statue of Leonardo da Vinci.
By the time I leave the shopping area it’s late afternoon and having been up since 4am to catch my flight, I’m starting to feel a little tired. The tourist spots have been great, but the crowds are starting to get a little too much, so I decide to head off to explore some of the (hopefully) quieter neighbourhoods.
Brera used to be the bohemian neighbourhood where artists and poets lived and worked, but today it’s a much more upmarket affair with swanky shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants.
But it’s managed to keep it’s arty and cool vibe too… the narrow-cobbled streets are lined with cafés and restaurants, and the whole atmosphere is a lot more relaxed and chilled than the Duomo district just a 10-minute walk away.
After checking out the courtyard of the Pinacoteca di Brera art gallery and walking a full loop of the area, I settle down at a table outside Bar Brera and get myself a cappuccino for a much-needed caffeine kick.
The other tables are full of a mixture of locals and tourists, some enjoying coffee, some an early dinner, and some having Friday evening drinks. Feeling refreshed after the coffee I decide to join the drinkers and order a beer… taking the server’s advice I opt for an ichnusa which she seems happy about, and I am too as it’s lovely!
After heading back and chilling in the hotel for a while, I get sorted and head out to nearby Isola for some food and drinks.
Isola is Milan’s up-and-coming trendy neighbourhood… literally translated as island, it was cut-off from the rest of the city by the main train tracks until the metro system was extended connecting it with the other neighbourhoods. So what was once one of the roughest neighbourhoods in the city has now reinvented itself as one of the coolest and best to visit.
Graffiti and street art still cover the walls, but these are now sprayed on the side of the numerous bars and restaurants which pack the area. I start at the roundabout featuring the Monumento ai Caduti, and follow a loop around Via Pietro Borsieri and Via Garligliano, checking out all of the different eateries before choosing Trattoria Il Cormorano.
As is often the case when I’m travelling, I ask for the waiter’s recommendation, and go for smoked carpacci bis (tuna and swordfish) to start, followed by a don raffaè pizza. Both are delicious!
I stop at a bar called Beer Show for a nightcap, and then head back to the hotel. With an early morning start to begin my road trip, it’s the end of my short stay in Milan.
So, back to the original question, is Milan worth visiting?
Yes. But I also agree with the consensus I’d read before coming… it’s definitely worth a visit, but a weekend would be long enough. If you’re travelling to Italy for the first time then I would head to Rome, Florence or Venice instead, but if you’ve already seen those places and want somewhere which feels a little less touristy, then Milan should be on your visit list.
Continue the journey of my Northern Italy road trip… Exploring Lombardy in Northern Italy
Top 3 Things to do in Milan
1. Visit the Duomo… stunning architecture, inside and out
2. Explore the other neighbourhoods… Brera, and Isola in particular, felt a lot more like “real” Milan than the touristy centre
3. Shop! Although I didn’t buy anything, window shopping in the beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was a great experience