Milan Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Italy’s third most visited city after Rome and Venice, Milan is a sophisticated metropolis, with a futuristic attitude that has never forgotten its past glories. Situated in the northern region of Lombardy, the city of Milan is typically known as the commercial capital of Italy. However, this definition doesn’t quite capture a city that has plenty more to offer.
Milan Travel guide
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A modern metropolis boasting centuries-old cultural institutions, Milan blends the old and the new rather well. Dotting the skyline are numerous impressive architectural buildings, from old Neo-Classical palaces to ultra-modern commercial buildings and towers.

Duomo di Milan is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the third largest church in Europe. Construction of the Duomo began in 1386 and only ended 500 years later. Boasting 135 spires, 3,400 statues and an incredible marble façade, the cathedral houses a crucifix that is said to contain a nail from the very cross that hung Jesus Christ.

For a breathtaking view that stretches over the city, go up to the roof of the Duomo by elevator or stairs. On a clear day, you can also see the Italian Alps from this vantage point.

The Piazza Duomo is the square at the front of the Duomo which is the hub of Milan. It is surrounded by stunning architecture which has made it a popular hangout for tourists. Take a peek at the San Lorenzo Columns, remnants of a 2nd century BC Roman building which are today situated at the front of the Duomo and beautiful lit during the evening.

Also visit Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a beautiful glass and iron-roofed area that connects the Piazza Duomo and the Piazza della Scala. You will be impressed by the floors of this breathtaking galleria decorated with intricate mosaics in the signs of the Zodiac. While here, stand on the testicles of the Bull of Turin – some Italians consider this to be good luck.

Milan attracts many to its artistic treasures which include Leonardo Da Vinci’s 15th century mural Il Cenacolo or The Last Supper. You will need to book in advance to feast your eyes on this artistic wonder decorating the back wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie refectory.

Opera fans visiting Milan can enjoy a live performance at the Teatro Alla Scala, which is one of the world’s most famous opera houses. Simply known as “La Scala”, the opera house features a very opulent interior that can seat over 2000 people. Milan’s famous opera house also has a bookshop, bar and history museum that tourists can enjoy.

Milan is a historical city that offers an array of delightful old explorations to the erstwhile tourist. Widely regarded as a glamorous fashion center, Milan also teems with boutique shops and up-market restaurants on its cobblestone streets. Travelers seeking a fast-paced, glamour-filled, thriving historical scene to their Italian vacation should look no further than Milan.

1. Santa Maria delle Grazie & Da Vinci’s The Last Supper

Santa Maria delle Grazie is one of the most beautiful churches in Milan, thanks partly to its rich architectural history that resulted in a fascinating combination of Renaissance and Gothic design. However, the fame of the church is mainly due to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper which visitors can admire in the adjacent refectory.

The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie traces its origins back to 1463 when the Dominican Order commissioned the construction of the church to serve as their monastery. As a result, a beautiful building in the late Gothic style was completed by 1490.

Both the exterior and interior of the church display an intriguing combination of Renaissance and Gothic styles, from the Renaissance-style entrance to the sober brick Gothic façade. Leonardo da Vinci painted the lunette inside the portico that features Mary, while the exterior is dominated by a dome that is masterfully designed and adorned with medallions of saints and a coat-of-arms.

The aisles and central nave of the Santa Maria delle Grazie are excellent examples of the late Gothic architecture and feature elegant pointed arches that are embellished with delicate frescoes.

Along the church aisles are several chapels, many of which have been splendidly decorated in frescoes. Also worth a look is the wooden choir stalls located inside the apse. To the left you will find an entrance to Chiostrino delle Rane, a little cloister named after the bronze frog sculptures found around the edges of this cloister’s fountain. From this spot you can enjoy pleasant views of the church’s dome.

Adjoining the Santa Maria delle Grazie church is a modest building called the Cenacolo Vinciano, the refectory which houses Italy’s most famous painting, The Last Supper. The wall painting was created between 1495 and 1498 and depicts the moment after Jesus has told his disciples that one of them is going to betray him. The work displays their surprise using realistic facial expressions, lively poses and subtle lighting.

Da Vinci utilized an experimental painting technique that enabled him to paint with more nuances than would have been possible with conventional frescos. The only problem is that this technique led to accelerated deterioration of his masterpiece. Over the centuries, the work has had to be completely repainted and restored severally.

Only a maximum of 25 people are allowed to view the painting and for a maximum of 15 minutes only. Tickets can be booked up to 2 months in advance, but sell out quickly. Visitors are required to be appropriately dressed for entering a church.

Opposite this masterpiece by da Vinci is a fresco by Donato Montorfano that’s also worth a peek. Both paintings miraculously survived the 1943 World War II bombings that left the rest of the refectory in ruins, thanks probably to the sandbags which had been placed against the walls.

2. La Scala

Teatro Regio Ducale, Milan’s opera house since 1717 was destroyed in a 1776 fire. A new opera house was ordered for construction on the site of the fifteenth century church of Santa Maria della Scala that was razed to make way for the new building. The new opera house was named Teatro alla Scala after the church and took only two years to build.

Soon after it was built at the end of the 18th century, Teatro alla Scala or simply La Scala as it is known locally, became one of the most revered venues in the world. Today, one of the greatest opera houses in the world, La Scala has since premiered many famous works by composers such as Bellini and Verdi.

The original Teatro alla Scala opera house was designed by Giuseppe Permarini, a neoclassical architect and opened in 1778. Many world famous operas were first performed at La Scala before it was badly damaged by the Second World War bombings of 1943. La Scala was the first public building to be reconstructed after the war ended. The opera house underwent extensive renovation and was opened once again in 1946, after which it regained its reputation as the leading opera house in Italy.

For such an important building, La Scala’s exterior is rather unassuming. This is probably because it was originally situated on a narrow street, the Piazza della Scala only being creating in 1858. The main façade displays a 3-bay carriage entrance topped by a neo-Classical front with a central pediment and pilasters.

While the opera house exterior may not be as impressive as the Duomo di Milan situated close by, a walk through its historic halls is a must for any lover of music. Three of the opera house walls are made up of those quintessentially old-world theater boxes. The walls are adorned with gold, while the boxes are lined with red velvet. The sight is impressive, whether or not you are a lover of opera.

In striking contrast to its exteriors, the insides of the building are sumptuous. The foyer is decorated with fluted columns while large mirrors line the walls. Famous for its exceptional acoustics, the La Scala auditorium is said to so accurately reveal the true abilities of a singer that a performance here is regarded as trial by fire.

The auditorium has a seating capacity of just over 2,000 and is lavishly decorated with red velvet, silk and gilded stucco. The chandelier is made from Bohemian crystal and features 365 lamps. The podium is one of the largest in the world with a total surface area of 1,200 square meters.

Visitors can also tour the Museo Teatrale alla Scala, the Theater Museum that was founded in 1913 with a unique collection of theatrical attributes. The museum depicts Teatro alla Scala’s history, and the history of opera in general through a display of statues, paintings, instruments, set designs, original musical scores and other theatrical memorabilia. A large section of this museum is dedicated to Giuseppe Verdi, one of the most famous composers of Italy.

While opera season is generally from October to March or April, there are outdoor performances typically held in the summer. Whenever you visit Milan, you are likely to find an entertaining event to attend, as opera houses also hold dance and theater performances at different times of the year.

3. San Bernardino alle Ossa

From the outside, the church of San Bernardino alle Ossa looks rather ordinary. But once inside, you will discover that it is in fact one of the world’s most unique chapels.

This peculiar church in Milan boasts a rather fascinating history, starting with the fact that it is decorated in three thousand skulls, femurs, tibias and other human bones arranged in organized designs that have been integrated into all the doors and walls of the chapel. The church’s name “alle Ossa” means “with bones.”

A hidden place full of mystery and fascinating tales, San Bernardino alle Ossa is a small masterpiece of the Milanese Baroque, that’s situated just a short distance from the Duomo. One of Milan’s secret treasures, San Bernardino alle Ossa is today famous for its ossuary, a tiny chapel decorated using many bones and skulls of humans. The result is creepy yet fascinating artwork.

San Bernardino alle Ossa traces its origins to the 12th century when a cemetery and hospital were built at the front of the Santo Stefano Maggiore basilica. The church was built in 1184 when its surrounding area was selected to be the graveyard of the nearby hospital.

In 1210, a cemetery adjacent to the church ran out of space and a room was built to house the bones. The bones were dug up and removed from the cemetery to make room for new corpses. But so as not to destroy them, they were used in building the chapel.

In 1269, a church was attached to the room. In 1679, the church was restored through a modification of its façade, and its ossuary walls decorated with human skulls and tibiae from ceiling to floor. The bones and skulls are positioned to create a mosaic wall piece.

In 1695, the vault of the ossuary was frescoed with a Triumph of Souls and Flying Angels, while portrayals of the Holy Virgin amongst others were added. After this church was destroyed by a fire in 1712, a new and bigger church was thereafter attached to the older one and dedicated to Saint Bernardino of Siena.

The church façade was completed in 1776 and its interiors feature an octagonal plan with Baroque-style decorations. There are also beautiful sixteenth to eighteenth century paintings and Baroque-style decorations that line the eerie walls of its different chapels. The church doors and niches are decorated with bones in the Rococo style.

King John V of Portugal was so struck by this chapel that he ordered a similar one built in Evora.

4. Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

Milan has numerous important churches besides the famous Duomo, and one of these is the Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. Also called Chiesa di Milano, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore may be inconspicuous on the outside, but the church’s insides boast some of Milan’s most beautiful frescoes.

The 16th century church was constructed as part of Monastero Maggiore, a big convent owned by the Benedictine order. Construction started in 1503 and 12 years later it was inaugurated. The design of the church is attributed to Gian Giacomo Dolcebuono, the Italian architect who had worked earlier on Milan’s Duomo.

The monastery was erected on the site of some ancient Roman remains and features a simple rectangular floor plan with 10 bays. The structure is covered with a barrel vaulted ceiling with false ribs added merely for decorative purposes.

There’s a partition wall dividing the church into 2 halls; one is large with 6 bays for nuns who live at the convent, and the other comprises a smaller public hall for its congregation. Also called the Hall of the Nuns, the convent hall houses the choir. The main altar is situated in the Hall of the Believers or public hall.

The church is best known for its amazing frescoes. The chapels and walls of the church are entirely covered in paintings created during 3 different cycles from about 1510 to 1578. Many of the earliest paintings are today lost having been painted over by newer works. Nonetheless, there are many other visible masterpieces that date from after 1530.

The most famous of the frescoes are by Bernardino Luini who was Leonardo da Vinci’s student. Luini’s frescoes are situated at the St. Catherine chapel which is the third chapel on the right inside the public hall, as well as on both sides of the partition wall. Luini’s family also contributed with Aurelio his brother creating the Adoration of the Magi on the partition wall in 1565, and his sons decorating the Bergamina chapel in 1555.

The church also features many interesting works such as the decorations of the Simonetta chapel. Also notable is the painting on the convent hall’s partition wall which was created in 1573 by Caravaggio’s master; and the altarpiece, a different interpretation of the Adoration of the Magi that dates from 1578.

Other frescoes on the church walls date from the 16th century and include a series covering the life of San Maurizio, the saint for whom the church is named.

The church also contains what is believed to be Milan’s oldest pipe organ built from 1554-1557. The pipe organ has not been used for many years but should soon be restored to working order. The church today continues to be used as a house of worship, as well as a venue for holding concerts.

5. Duomo di Milano

Duomo di Milano is Milan’s magnificent cathedral. A much loved symbol of the city, the Duomo is Italy’s most exuberant example of the northern Gothic architectural style. The cathedral features one of the world’s most beautiful dazzling white front façades with spiky towers and spires that dominate Piazza del Duomo, the cathedral square and beating heart of Milan.

One of the largest churches in the world, the Duomo today occupies a site that has been the city’s most central location since it was founded. Situated literally at the center of Milan, the Duomo has the streets of Milan radiating from the cathedral or circling it.

Construction of the cathedral was commissioned in 1385 with the vision of creating the largest church in the world. Marble quarries were used and architects from across Europe invited to work on the project. While construction began in 1386, it dragged on for centuries. In 1418 when the cathedral was consecrated, the construction of its nave had only just begun. Construction continued until 1813 with the final touches being applied as late as 1965.

Over the centuries, many master builders were involved and the initial design was constantly altered to become even more spectacular. This long construction period led to a mashing up of various styles, although the final result is surprisingly homogenous, with a decidedly flamboyant Gothic feel to it.

The apse is regarded as the architectural highlight of the church, with its gothic design. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the most imposing element of the Duomo, the front façade facing the Piazza del Duomo, was completed. This exterior of the Duomo features an upwardly thrusting collection of elongated statues, buttresses and pinnacles.

The 5 bronze doorways also appear a lot older than they actually are. The oldest is the central one that was created during the 19th century. The panels on the doors depict episodes in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Saint Ambrose the patron of Milan, as well as scenes from Milan’s history and the cathedral’s construction.

The Duomo has been decorated with an impressive number of beautifully sculpted statues and spires. This building has more statues than any other in the world, totaling 3159. The most famous of the statues is the Madonnina or Little Madonna, a copper statue of the Virgin Mary that is covered in 3,900 pieces of gold leaf. The statue dates from 1774 and is positioned at the top of the tallest spire of the cathedral. Until 1959, the Madonnina marked the city’s highest point.

The Duomo’s interiors are expansive and feature 5 large naves divided by 52 pillars supporting a cross-vaulted ceiling. It will take your eyes a couple of moments to adjust to the candle-lit ambiance as you take in the stained-glass windows, altars, aisles and nave inside the church.

Of note inside the cathedral are several architectural pieces and art works such as a statue of St. Bartholomew by Marco d’Agrate and 3 wonderful altars designed by Pellegrino Pellegrini, all of which feature excellent art including the renowned Visit of St. Peter to St Agatha Jailed by Zuccari.

Other masterpieces include the Renaissance marble altar and the Trivulzio Candelabrum, whose base was crafted during the 12th century to feature imaginary animals, vines and vegetables. Also worth a peek is a spot above the apse that’s marked with a red light bulb. This is allegedly the spot where one of the nails used in the crucifixion of Jesus was stored.

After exploring the interiors, take the stairs or elevator on a fascinating trip to the roof of the Duomo. Walking among the forest of spires will amaze you, while the view from the roof is unparalleled. On a clear day you can see as far as Apennines and the Alps.

6. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Milan’s famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is the most elegant covered arcade in the world. While numerous shopping arcades have attempted to copy the glorious décor, grandeur and scale of the Galleria, few have matched it.

A magnificent shopping arcade, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II boasts an impressive interior decorated with fascinating statues and mosaics. The Galleria comprises a cross-shaped shopping mall that is airy and bright thanks to its iron and glass curved roof, while the floor features patterned marble mosaic tiles.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is impressive just for its dimensions. The 5-story structure is formed like a Latin cross, with a long and a short walkway. The 2 walkways are covered in glass and iron and meet at an octagonal central piazza below a glass dome. The entrance from Piazza del Duomo is framed by a monumental triumphal arch to draw people from the square at the front of the Duomo into the arcade.

Inspired by the historic Parisian shopping arcades, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II showcases a monumental design of a large-scale, glass-covered arcade conceived by architect Giuseppe Mengoni. It was designed to connect Piazza del Duomo, the square at the front of the cathedral, to the newly created square, the Piazza della Scala at the front of the opera house.

The first stone of the structure was laid in 1865 by King Victor Emmanuel II after whom the arcade was named, and the Galleria was inaugurated in 1867. For another 10 years, work continued, primarily on its imposing triumphal entrance. In December 1877, on the day before the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was completed, Mengoni fell to his death from the top of this triumphal arch.

Soon after completion, the Milanese quickly embraced this magnificent arcade dubbing it the “living room of Milan”, as it became the city’s favored meeting place.

7. Cimitero Monumentale

More than just a cemetery, Cemetery Monumentale is an impressive open-air museum that showcases the tombs of the rich and famous of Milan, through displays of numerous monuments and sculptures.

In 1861, shortly after Italy’s independence, it was decided to consolidate Milan’s many small cemeteries into 2 large cemeteries: Cimitero Monumentale for the wealthy, and Cimitero Maggiore for the “common” people. Cimitero Monumentale was laid out between 1863 and 1866 on an 18 hectare large domain that was later expanded to 25 hectares.

A broad central lane lined with trees leads from the hall of fame to the ossuary and the crematory at the other end. To the right and left are monumental tombs often designed by famous architects and sculptors. The names on the tombs read like a who is who of Milan and include illustrious names such as Toscanini, Campari and Pirelli.

The main building features a 250ft long black and white striped façade, which dominates the entrance courtyard. The Famedio or hall of fame is the central domed structure. Inside this pantheon-like building are tombs of the illustrious citizens of Milan, including novelists, architects and award winners. Two small areas to the right and left of the Famedio are reserved for non-Catholics.

The wealthy of Milan seem to constantly try to top each other by building large tombs that are often decorated with many sculptures of angels, sphinxes and other figures. All sorts of architectural styles are on display here from Ancient Egyptian, Byzantine, neo-Roman, neo-Gothic, as well as the contemporary Art Nouveau and post-modern styles.

The sheer number of diverse artworks often by highly acclaimed artists has resulted in an interesting open air museum in which visitors are easily overwhelmed by the large number of monumental sculptures and mausoleums. The good news is that there are placards installed on the cemetery grounds that provide an overview of the most famous and most spectacular graves.

One notable monument is the Bocconi family tomb, which supports an enormous marble baldachin adorned with statues of women mourning at the foot of a crucified Jesus. The figure of Jesus is a recurring them in the graveyard, with the Campari tomb decorated in a group of larger than life statues and sculptures depicting Jesus and his apostles at table during the Last Supper. The Bernocchi tomb features a marble spiraling band that depicts the Way of the Cross.

8. Museo Bagatti Valsecchi

Museo Bagatti Valsecchi is a historic house museum that impressively expresses the extraordinary adventure of art collecting at the end of the 19th century. Founded in the 1880s by the Bagatti Valsecchi brothers Fausto and Giuseppe, the museum arose from the refurbishment of their family home situated in the heart of Milan between Santo Spirito and Gesu.

The 19th century historic house museum is situated in the middle of Quadrilatero d’Oro or the Golden Rectangle of Milan, which is a prestigious fashion district. The Museum offers insights into how the rich families of Milan lived before World War II, with most rooms still containing authentic interiors. The Museum’s permanent collection includes paintings, sculptures and decorative arts.

The approach of the brothers was the Neo-Renaissance style, which was at the time a popular trend of historicism. The brothers began to collect decorative arts and paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries to decorate the house, with the aim of creating an ambiance inspired by princely 16th century Lombard homes.

The collected works of art are arranged on the house’s first upper floor inside sumptuous domestic rooms. The rich collection is melded with the rooms to create a unified ambiance of great fascination. There are paintings by Old Masters, Renaissance glass, 15th century furnishings, and objects in precious metals, armor and arms.

After the death of the brothers, the Bagatti Valsecchi family home remained under the ownership of their descendants until 1974 when the mansion was sold to the Lombardy region. The Bagatti Valsecchi family home was opened as a museum of the same name in 1994.

9. Navigli

Situated to the northwest of the Milan’s historic center, Navigli is named for the “navigli” or canals that were once ubiquitous in the former port area.

During its heyday, the Navigli canals constituted a 150km long network connecting the city with lakes and rivers in the Lombardian region. Designed for irrigation, the canals provided the city with water and transportation for people and goods to and from remote areas as far as the Alps and even the sea. The marble used in constructing the Duomo was transported via Navigli’s waterways.

Construction of Ticinello, the oldest canal, began in 1179 and was quickly succeeded by several other canals. It is said that the assistance of Leonardo da Vince was requested in designing an innovative system in the canals.

Thanks to the Navigli network of canals, Milan boasted one of the largest inland ports in the country, despite the lack of a main river. So much a part of the urban fabric, the canals transformed some areas of the city into Venetian like neighborhoods. However, with increasing importance of road transportation, traffic on the canals quickly dwindled with many being filled in for sanitary reasons.

Today, only 3 canals have survived: the Naviglio Pavese, the Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio della Martesana. The first 2 form the backbone of the neighborhood that is today known as Navigli. Follow one of the canals to discover some of the charm that continues to live on in this part of Milan.

During the 1980s, houses along the canals were renovated and artists began moving in while searching for inspiration within the idyllic quarter. Restaurants also opened along the waterways. There are plenty of restaurants and bars in the area today, as well as a number of antique and design stores. Navigli is today one of the most romantic neighborhoods in Milan.

Naviglio Grande is the most interesting of the remaining canals. The canal features iron pedestrian bridges, a little church and the picturesque Vicolo dei Lavandai. A stroll here will take you past women washing their family’s clothes with water from the canal.

The best time to visit Naviglio Grande is during the summer when cruise boats abound on the canal. You too can enjoy a cruise along what remains of Navigli Lombardi. The canal is especially great to visit every last Sunday of the month when its southern side at ripe di Porte Tidiness hosts an antique market.

10. Lago di Como

Lago di Como is the deepest and one of the most popular lakes in Italy. Lago di Como is part of the northern Italian Lakes District, which lies between Milan and the Swiss border. Its southernmost tip is approximately 40km north of Milan.

Lago di Como is shaped like an inverted Y, which gives it a long perimeter, surrounded by hills and mountains and dotted with beautiful villages and historic villas. There are good hiking paths, boating trips and water activities available here. Since the time of the Romans, the Lake has been a top romantic travel destination and is today a great spot for photography.

Ferries link Lago di Como’s major towns and villages, offering a good means of both public transportation and enjoying some sightseeing from the lake. There is also a system of buses that travel to and from villages surrounding the lake. Several funiculars will take you into the surrounding hills. Visitors can rent a car in Como to explore other nearby areas on your own.

A popular weekend destination for the Milanese, Lago di Como is pleasant to visit during spring and fall when the weather is pleasant. While certain services may be closed during winter, visitors can still enjoy skiing in the nearby mountains.

A number of major towns surround the lake. The town of Bellagio is the pearl of Lago di Como set inside a beautiful setting at which 3 branches of the lake converge. Bellagio is easy to get to via bus or ferry from other cities on the lake.

Como is a walled town with a good historic center and lively squares that feature pleasant cafes. There are a couple of walking paths close to town. Como makes a good base for those traveling via train. From Como, take the funicular to Brunate village, situated 720 meters above Como where you can enjoy hiking trails and splendid views of Lago Como and the Italian Alps.

Como town is famous for producing silk and visitors can observe the entire silk-making process at the Silk Museum which dates from 1900. You can also purchase quality silk at numerous shops here.

Visitors can tour Villa Carlotta that’s situated south of Menaggio. The villa features beautiful gardens and interiors with original 18th century art works and furniture. Villa del Balbianello in the village of Lenno is also worth a visit with its unusual treasures. The villa was once used as a set for one of the Star Wars films.

Varenna is a fishing village with picturesque narrow streets and alleyways that’s situated below a castle and a walking path by the lakeside.

Outdoor activities abound at Lago di Como where visitors can go skiing, hiking, biking, mountain biking, boating and paragliding. There are also some interesting cruises available on boats.

Plan your visit during the last weekend of June to attend the Sagra di San Giovanni festival that’s celebrated in the town of Como with fireworks and folk arts; and in Ossuccio with a festival, boat race and boat procession. Or visit during the first week of September for the Palio del Baradello, a historical reenactment. Also in September is Palio Remiero del Lario, the traditional rowing race.

The Lake Como Festival comprises summer music performances at venues around the lake. Other gastronomic festivals take place in fall while drama festivals run from January through April.