Milan is not your typical Italian city. Located up north in one of Italy’s wealthiest regions, it is a city that rhymes with fashion and fanciness. It exudes a posh feeling and might perhaps lack a touch of the bustle and hubbub one would expect under these latitudes.
Yet, it shares much in common with other beloved Italian cities. Milan is a prominent art centre, where the best architects and artists thrived throughout the years, leaving for posterity such masterpieces as the Duomo Cathedral or the Last Supper painting. It is also a city that embodies a certain way of life, one that elevated food, fashion and even sports into an art.
Milan is a true European megapolis but it is still easy to walk from one end of the city to the other, discovering churches, shopping galleries and museums along the way before sitting in a café for a well-deserved aperitivo. Showing a different side of Italy, the capital of Italy deserves to be high on any list of European city trips.
1. The Duomo
What’s more iconic to Milan than the unique façade of the Duomo Cathedral, standing proudly on the Piazza del Duomo? This cathedral is at the core of Milan’s identity and has become the pride of the city all around the world.
Construction began in the late 14th century and it took almost six centuries for the current building to be completed, blending many architectural genres throughout the years to culminate in a spectacle of Gothic, Renaissance and Roman styles.
On the outside, its grand display of bas-reliefs, intricate statues, massive carved doors and spikes and pinnacles mounted by even more statues is a sight to behold. On the inside, the sophisticated stained glass windows, gigantic paintings and high nave surrounded by columns adorned by statues are on par with the façade. Walking in such an overwhelming building does take the breath away.
The best way to complete the visit is to go all the way up to the terraced rooftops of the Duomo, which are open to the public and make it accessible to everyone to wander on the roof of the second biggest church in Italy after Roma’s St-Peter’s Basilica.
Seeing the structure of the Cathedral’s emblematic roof up close is a real privilege which makes worth spending the extra buck on a combined ticket to access both the inside of the Duomo and the rooftops for about 13€.
2. The Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II
Even if you’re not a big fan of shopping malls, do make an exception while in Milan to pay a visit to the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, conveniently located on the Piazza del Dumo right next the Duomo Cathedral itself.
Being the oldest shopping mall in Italy, it has become more of a tourist landmark than a real place to go run errands, unless you’re willing to go on a luxurious shopping spree that is. The shops you’ll find within the gallery range from Versace to Gucci and Prada but the real show is not in shop windows but above your head.
Designed by architect Giuseppe Mengoni in the late 19th century, the gallery is made of two-glass vaulted arcades and a glass dome in the middle of it, surrounded by four mosaics representing the four capitals of the Kingdom of Italy, namely Milan, Turin, Florence and Rome.
Mosaics also cover the floor of the gallery and you will definitely end up moving your head up and down like a mad person at some point. Most tourists usually go on a hunt to find the bull mosaic, said to grant wishes to those who spin around three times on bull’s testicles, but the other mosaics might grant good luck in secret, who knows.
3. Cenacolo Vinciano
Leonardo da Vinci spent twenty years of his life in Milan and he obviously left a good chunk of work behind him, including the world famous Last Supper painting. Da Vinci painted his masterpiece directly on the wall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, as commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, then Duke of Milan.
For that reason, the painting is not as accessible as if it were being exhibited in a museum and a handful of tourists only are allowed to get in for a mere 15 minutes at a time. It is therefore compulsory to book tickets ahead of schedule, unless you try and get lucky on the day of your visit and get last minute tickets. And to be fair, this isn’t a very safe option. At the time of our visit in mid-April, all tickets were booked for a good 2 weeks.
The safest bet is to get tickets on the Cenacolo Vinciano official website but be careful to check on the website very often! We personally checked it three months in advance but only managed to get tickets two weeks before our visit, by obsessively refreshing the site until we hit the jackpot. That may sound tedious but it is as good a way as any to protect the integrity of the painting and we have to admit it was all worth it.
The Last Supper is an icon and conveys such a strong sense of mystery, even more so since the global success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, that it feels staggering yet so gratifying to see it in reality. And up close, St John the Apostle does look like a woman, raising quite some questions, right?
15 minutes is a short amount of time but still enough to look at it to your heart’s content and even go take a peek at the other painting on display in the room, Giovanni Donato da Montorfano’s Crucifixion. Do not forget to get inside the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie too, which is open to all.
4. Castello Sforzesco
Built during the 15th century by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, this castle has long been of the biggest citadels in Europe. It is now a stunning landmark close to the city centre, drawing tourists and locals within its walls and in its surrounding park.
The fortress is also home to a number of quaint yet interesting museums, such as the Museum of Musical Instruments or the Museum of Ancient Art. Many of these are of great interest; cue the Antique Furniture and Wooden Sculptures Museum displaying incredible pieces of wooden artworks, from liturgical statues to convoluted cabinets.
Others are pretty expendable though, such as the Prehistoric Collections which are in dire need of an update in their exhibition design. The combined ticket to access all museums costs about 5€ and allows to visit the castle from one end to another.
On rainy days, this feels like salvation. On sunny days, you can skip some of the lesser interesting museums to stroll through the castle and then go indulge in a gelato in nearby Parco Sempione.
5. Pinacoteca Ambrosiana
Milan is one of Italy’s most outstanding art centres, which means it has its fair share of museums. One of the most interesting is the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, housed within the historic Biblioteca Ambrosiana.
As a tribute to the flourishing local art scene throughout the Renaissance, the art gallery exhibits work from Botticelli, Titian or even Caravaggio. It also displays in an entirely refurbished room a cartoon from Raphael, laying the ground for his infamous painting “The School of Athens”. Art pieces from foreign artists are also on display, such as works from Dutch painter Brueghel.
Yet, the crux of the visit can be considered to be the Codex Atlanticus, a twelve-volume set of manuscripts encapsulating drawings and writings by Leonardo da Vinci. Only a few of said drawings are showed for public viewing within the gallery. A dozen others are exhibited in the library, mostly studies and sketches for mechanical inventions laid out with da Vinci’s comments on the side.
Most of his sketches are safely stored away from the public but this particular exhibition is the closest thing to get familiar with the brilliant mind of the polymath that was da Vinci and that reason only would be reason enough to spend 15€ in an entrance ticket.