For the rarity with which Milan shows up on travel wish lists, it might surprise some to find that it’s home to the second-busiest airport in Italy. It might, that is, until you also realize it’s the banking and business hub of the country. Leisure travelers may not flock to Milan in droves, but business travelers certainly do.
And that’s not to say Milan isn’t worth visiting. On the contrary – it’s a personal favorite city of mine, so I’m biased, but I think there’s enough to do and see in the city to make it a worthwhile stop for at least a day or two, especially if you’re flying into or out of Milan. The list of must-see sights for a casual visitor is short enough that it can be accomplished in a well-organized day, and there are plentiful day trip options that might sway you into spending the night.
The list below of things to do in Milan is by no means exhaustive, but it will certainly get you started in your planning process. I’ve also included a few of what I call “weird attractions,” as I like adding some unexpected sights in with the standard ones when I travel. Mix and match as you see fit to create the perfect Milan itinerary for your own trip.
For more help in planning your trip, don’t miss my Milan travel guide.
Milan’s Top Attractions
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II || creative commons photo by Roberto Taddeo
- Duomo – The Milan Cathedral, known as the Duomo, is the centerpiece not only of the historic center but of the city. It’s free to enter, and absolutely covered in spires.
- Duomo Roof – It’s not every day an historic cathedral invites you to walk around on the roof, so don’t miss your chance. You can walk up the stairs or take the elevator, and you’ll walk among the spires as well as get a closer view of the city’s symbol – the golden Madonnina at the very top.
- Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” – It’s one of the most famous frescoes in the world, on one wall of a former dining hall in a church. And you’ll want to book tickets well in advance, as it can sell out months ahead of time.
- La Scala Opera House & Museum – Arguably the most famous opera house in the world, La Scala has a very nice museum and, during a visit, you can often peek into the theatre itself, all red velvet and gold.
- Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – The glittering shopping center next to the Duomo is one of the first of the modern “malls.” When you go, don’t miss a spin on the bull’s balls for good luck (see below).
- Pinacoteca di Brera – This excellent collection of Italian paintings is housed in the same historic palazzo as the Brera Academy arts school, which started the gallery in the first place.
- Biblioteca Ambrosiana – Inside this library, founded in 1609, you can see some of the vast collection of ancient manuscripts – including Leonardo da Vinci’s “Codex Atlanticus” – as well as a collection of paintings and a lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair.
- Triennale Museum – This is a fabulous museum of the history of contemporary Italian design, including furniture, housewares, architecture, and the arts.
- Quadrilatero d’Oro Shopping District – Milan is a world capital of fashion, and this is the area where the world’s fashion houses have their flagship stores in the city. Even if you’re not actually buying anything, the window-shopping and people-watching are fantastic.
- Brera Neighborhood – This area near the Quadrilatero d’Oro and Duomo is known for its boutique shops, sweet cafes, and pretty streets.
- Castello Sforzesco – Once the stronghold of the Dukes of Milan (the Sforza family), this 15th century castle is now home to several small museums – including a museum of furniture, a museum of musical instruments, and a museum of prehistoric archaeological finds from around present-day Milan.
- Parco Sempione – The large Parco Sempione stretches out behind the Castello Sforzesco right in the city center, making it a popular spot for locals to take advantage of being outdoors on any nice day.
- San Siro Stadium & Museum – Sports fans won’t want to miss a visit to this temple of Italian soccer (Italy’s largest stadium) either for a game or simply a tour through the great museum (some of which include a stadium tour).
- Museum of the Risorgimento – To get a better understanding of the fight for Italian unification (Risorgimento) in the late 18th to mid-19th centuries, this museum should be on your list.
- Aperitivo – Milan does aperitivo very, very well, so be sure to enjoy at least one in lieu of dinner.
Guided Tours in Milan
Weird Attractions in Milan
Spinning on the bull || creative commons photo by Luca Vanzella
- San Bernardino alle Ossa – There is an ossuary inside this small church, down a hallway from the main chapel, where the walls are lined with artfully-placed human bones.
- Spinning on the Bull’s Balls – In the center of the mosaic floor in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II there are insignias of four major cities. Turin, represented by a dancing bull, was a long-time rival of Milan – and there is a long-standing tradition of spinning on the bull’s balls with your heel in order to bring good luck. There is a large divet in the pavement to prove it.
- Roman Columns – Milan may not seem like a city with Roman ruins, but they exist. There is a piazza lined with Roman columns, placed there in the 4th century, in front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore.
- Home for Elderly Musicians – Really, the attraction here is the tomb of Giuseppe Verdi, who established this home in the 19th century. His tomb is in the crypt, and it’s free to visit (though they do love donations).
- Navigli Canals – Yes, there are canals in Milan, and they’re based on designs by Leonardo da Vinci. They’re not like the atmospheric canals of Venice, but the Navigli neighborhood is an interesting one full of art galleries and eateries, as well as a bustling nightlife.
- Leonardo da Vinci’s Giant Bronze Horse – In the late 15th century, Leonardo designed what was to be the world’s largest equestrian statue for the then-Duke of Milan. The statue was never actually cast, but those plans were realized hundreds of years later and the 24-foot-tall horse now stands near the San Siro stadium.
- Tram Restaurant – Milan’s public transportation company goes by the acronym ATM, and it has two trams it calls “ATMosfera” that have been turned into traveling restaurants. You book a table in advance and trundle around the city as you dine.
- Braille Milan – As you walk along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II between the Duomo and the Galleria, you’ll see a small metal pedastal with a miniature version of Milan on top. Each major attraction is identified with Braille markings – a sort of city guide for the blind.