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Ten top things to do in Milan

Your first impulse on arrival in Milan will be to rush out and buy a whole new wardrobe, because the Milanese seem so damn stylish! Very quickly you realise that it's not the clothes; it's an inbuilt attitude to life. Go with the flow and tick off these ten must-sees and dos.
Ten top things to do in Milan
Ten top things to do in Milan

While it’s a renowned global centre for industry, finance and fashion, Milan is sometimes viewed as less desirable as a travel destination than the history and culture-laden Italian classics of Rome, Florence and Venice.

However, beneath the enigmatic, slightly aloof façade of this city, courses the same passion for food, art, history and culture. Perhaps more so. Don’t worry, you’ll find plenty of reasons to innamorarsi di Milano. 

Here are ten top things to do in Milan.

Ten top things to do in Milan
Ten top things to do in Milan: Cathedral of Santa Maria Nascente (Il Duomo). Image: Bigstock

1. Explore Il Duomo

For top things to see and do in Milan, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Nascente (Il Duomo to the locals) should be at the top of your list. This exquisite Gothic cathedral, which took more than five centuries to complete, is a humbling piece of architecture with vast interiors so rich and ornate it’s almost impossible to take in. A walk on the roof, strolling between the spires and the sky, is a sublime and truly memorable experience.

Ten top things to do in Milan
Ten top things to do in Milan: Il Duomo.

2. See The Last Supper

Your own dinner parties will never be the same after a viewing of one of the world’s most famous paintings: Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The Gothic exterior of the Santa Maria delle Grazie belies the priceless treasures it holds within — not just the magnificent fresco, but also the illuminated pages of the Codex Atlanticus, a collection of more than 1700 of da Vinci’s original drawings. Note: Due to the delicate nature of the fresco, visitor numbers are strictly limited so you’ll need to book way ahead.    

3. Enjoy a night at the opera

When in Rome, well, you know, but when in Milan, go to the opera! The Teatro alla Scala is the most esteemed opera house in the world and, if you’re not too fussy about where you sit, you can often get tickets at the box office for that night’s performance. Whether you’re a classical music fan or not, trust me on this one: an evening of opera in this extraordinarily beautiful venue is a game changer. You may even have your very own Julia Roberts moment from Pretty Woman

Ten top things to do in Milan
Ten top things to do in Milan: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

4. Shop for style at Vittorio Emanuele ll

For those hoping that a little bit of Milanese style will rub off on them during their stay, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele ll is the place to get it — for a price. Enjoy shopping up a storm in this magnificent 19th century-era mall. It brings excess and opulence together under its cast iron-framed domes and vaulted glass ceiling.

5. Be surprised by Santa Maria presso San Satiro

Just like the TARDIS, this lovely little church appears a whole lot bigger on the inside. Constructed on a tiny plot of land (all that was available in 1472) its architect, Donato Bramante, came up with an ingenious optical illusion, using Trompe-l’œil (a realistic 3-D effect) to make the interiors seem larger than reality. Beyond its quirkiness Santa Maria presso San Satiro is of great historical and cultural importance — and good fun too!

Ten top things to do in Milan
Ten top things to do in Milan: Navigli

6. Take a stroll in Navigli

Discovering the lively Navigli region — set around the banks of the city’s interconnecting canals, Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese — is to step into a slice of authentic Milanese life many tourists miss. Lined with galleries, buzzing cafes and restaurants, the area is a wonderful place to get a taste of the youthful culture of Milan, especially in summer.

7. Get arty at Pinocoteca di Brera

If you thought all the Renaissance got used up in Florence, think again. The Pinocoteca di Brera is home to more than 500 works of Renaissance art — including from Raphael, Caravaggio and Tintoretto. It’s not just the art that puts this place on the most memorable list, though; the neighbourhood in which it’s set has a quirky bohemian ambience unlike anywhere else in the city.

Ten top things to do in Milan
Ten top things to do in Milan. Image courtesy of Pinocoteca di Brera

8. Relax in Parco Sempione

In the midst of the city, tucked behind the fabulously historic Castello Sforzesco, the vast tranquil green space of Parco Sempione is a wonderful place to escape. If all the fashion, art and history get too much (yes, it’s possible), sneak away for a few hours to stroll amongst the winding paths and ponds and reflect on this one reason the Milanese have to be thankful to Napoleon (check out his miniature Colosseum!).

9. Glam up for Fashion Week

If you’re serious about your fashion, the opportunity to experience Fashion Week comes twice a year (in February and September). While most official events are ‘industry only’ (meaning unless you’re an A-lister, forget it), the atmosphere throughout the city is electric and it’s wall-to-wall beauty — both on and off the catwalk. Even for anti-fashionistas, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the madness.

Ten top things to do in Milan
Ten top things to do in Milan: Experience Milan Fashion Week. Image: Bigstock

10. Escape to the lakes

Less than an hour away by train, the magnificence of the Italian Lakes — Lake Como, Lake Lugano, Lake Iseo, Lake Maggiore and Lake Garda — is yours for the taking. Perfect for a leisurely day trip, the region is characterised by spectacular mountain scenery, picturesque towns and elegant mansions with terraces spilling down to the water’s edge. Oh, and George Clooney.

Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Milan? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Julietta Henderson

About the writer

Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel writer and author. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind and an open-ended ticket. Her first novel — The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman — is now available in bookstores.


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