Things to Do in Milan
Step inside Pinacoteca di Brera, a historic 17th century palace, to see one of Italy’s most impressive collections of medieval and Renaissance artworks.
The Pinacoteca di Brera's star is The Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna, a Renaissance/Mannerist excursion into weird perspective. You’ll also see works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Van Dyke. The baroque Palazzo di Brera has a lovely neoclassical cloister lined with arches, and a suitably grand interior.
There are many important churches in Milan besides its famous Duomo, including the Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, also known as Chiesa di Milano. As the name suggests, it was once associated with a major convent, but that building is now used as Milan's archaeological museum. The church is still used as a house of worship, as well as a venue for concerts.
The church of Saint Maurice al Monastero Maggiore (in English) was built in the early 1500s, and it contains what is believed to be the oldest pipe organ in Milan. The organ was built in 1554 and has been unused for many years, so a new effort is underway to restore the organ to working order. There are also frescoes on the walls that date back to the 16th century, including a series that covers the life of the saint for whom the church is named – San Maurizio.
The Arch of Peace is an arch of celebration in Milan, Italy. Originally called the Arch of Triumph, it was built in the early 19th century to honor Napoleon's victories, although it was not completed. Several years later, under Austrian rule, construction resumed in a few different phases and was finally completed as the Arch of Peace in 1838. The arch marks the place where the Strada del Sempione enters Milan. This road, which is still in use today, connects Milan with Paris. It was built using marble from the Swiss Alps, and at the top visitors can see a bronze chariot with six horses known as the Victories on Horseback. The arch was designed with a large central passageway and two smaller ones based on the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum. It's decorated with Corinthian columns and various sculptures, including reliefs that depict events in Italian history from the time after Napoleon's rule.
Many churches in Italy are built on older worship sites. What makes the Church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro in Milan different is that the old church was incorporated into the new one, both in design and name.
The original church on this site was dedicated to San Sitiro (Saint Satyrus), built in the 9th century. In the late 15th century, the church was also dedicated to Mary. The name "Church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro" indicates that the new church was "staying with" (presso) the old one.
When the church got its additional dedication, it also got a bit of a redesign. The artist Bramante played a role in the renovation. One of the most interesting pieces of artwork at the church is Bramante's wonderful trompe l'oeil behind the altar; it looks like there's a series of columns that recedes into the distance, but it's just paint.
In addition to fine artwork, great libraries are the mark of high society – so in the early 17th century Cardinal Federico Borromeo founded the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan (the Ambrosiana library and picture gallery, in English).
Cardinal Borromeo stocked his library with more than 15,000 manuscripts and 30,000 books that he and his employees had picked up all over Europe. The contents of the library included ancient Greek and Roman works, as well as some from the middle east. The first reading room of the Ambrosiana library was opened to the public in 1609.
Celebrity visitors to the Ambrosiana library included the poet Lord Byron and the novelist Mary Shelley, who came to see famous manuscripts like Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Atlanticus, the love letters of Lucrezia Borgia, and works of Petrarch.
The word "palazzo" may make you think of an historic building, but in the case of the Palazzo Lombardia in Milan, it's a brand-new award-winning skyscraper.
The Palazzo Lombardia was completed in 2010, and serves as the headquarters for the government of the Lombardy region. For a little over a year, it reigned as the tallest building in all of Italy at 529 feet, until another skyscraper in Milan was completed in the fall of 2011. The design for the skyscraper won an architectural award in 2012. It's located in the Porta Nuova district north of Milan's city center, a newly-renovated business district.
This peculiar Milan church has a fascinating history, beginning with the fact that it is decorated by 3,000 skulls, tibias, femurs, and other human bones. The bones are arranged in organized designs and are integrated in all the chapel walls and doors. The name of the church itself “alle Ossa” translates to “with bones,” which were supposedly imported from various cemeteries.
The church’s origins date back to the 12th century when a hospital and cemetery were built in front of its basilica. Though there was once a separate room built to house bones, the bones began to become part of the church itself. Though it looks ordinary from the exterior, it is one of the most unique chapels in the world. There are also beautiful 16th-century paintings, including the ceiling fresco Triumph of Souls and Flying Angels, and Baroque-style decorations lining the eerie walls.
More Things to Do in Milan
Today, Milan is part of a unified Italy – but centuries ago, it was the center of its own empire, and has a Royal Palace to prove it. Milan's Palazzo Reale sits to one side of the Piazza del Duomo, a U-shaped building with its own piazza in the center (called the Piazzetta Reale). The Dukes of Milan moved into the Royal Palace from the Castello Sforzesco in the early 16th century, though the building predates that move. Much of the exterior we see today dates from the 18th century.
Today, the Palazzo Reale houses a Palace Museum tracing the history of the building's use, the Great Museum of the Duomo of Milan, as well as regular exhibitions of contemporary art – including displays of work by Monet, Picasso, Klimt, Kandinsky, and more. The artwork on display changes on a regular basis, loaned from major museums worldwide.
In Italian, the word "novecento" means "20th century,” and Milan's Museo del Novecento has an excellent collection of 20th century artwork. The museum opened in 2010 in the Arengario Palace on Piazza del Duomo in central Milan, combining two extensive collections of modern and contemporary art. The current collection includes a large number of Italian artists, as well as international ones. Some of the noted artists whose work you can see at the Museo del Novecento include Modigliani, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Matisse.
The collection is displayed in chronological order, so you can watch art movements progress over time. The iconic painting by Pellizza da Volvedo of striking workers, "The Fourth Estate," is on display on the ground floor, which can be visited for free.
The QC Terme company (founded by the Quadrio Curzio brothers) operates a chain of wellness spas in Italy, including QC Termemilano. Milan isn't known as a relaxing place, but right in the heart of the city QC Termemilano offers a place to escape the city. The day spa occupies a 19th-century former tram station, when the trams were led by horses. The QC Terme chain continues the belief that thermal baths offer unique therapy for ailments, and they are also a place for community to gather.
The facilities at QC Termemilano include saunas, whirlpools, steam baths, water massages, mud baths, and more. The healthy atmosphere extends to the buffet, which features fresh fruit, yogurt, and pastries. There's also an aperitivo buffet every day at 5:30pm.
Porta Nuova is the name of a neighborhood in Milan, designed primarily for business use, but it's named after an historic monument in the area.
Located to the north of the city center, the Porta Nuova district had long been neglected by the city, until an urban renewal project began in 2009. The new skyline features several brand-new (and very modern) buildings, and the district also includes a big public park.
The name "Porta Nuova" means "new gate," and while the arched gate was built between 1810-1813, that is quite new when compared with the ancient Roman gates that were once the entry points in the city walls.
Just a short walk from the landmark Duomo Cathedral, Piazza Fontana is one of central Milan’s prettiest piazzas, and a tranquil alternative to the bustling squares of nearby Piazza della Scala and Piazza del Duomo. Tree-lined gardens and shaded benches line the plaza, but the dramatic centerpiece is its namesake fountain - a Neoclassical design by Giuseppe Piermarini, sculpted out of pink granite and inaugurated in 1782.
Despite its peaceful surroundings, the piazza hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons back in 1969, as the location for the notorious bombing of the National Agrarian Bank, a terrorist attack that saw 17 people killed, and a plaque has been erected in their honor.
Milan is a famous city of fashion, so it's no surprise that there is a neighborhood known as the fashion district, or the Quadrilatero della Moda.
As in other fashion districts the world over, Milan's Quadrilatero della Moda is home not only to high-end boutiques and designer flagship stores, but also the headquarters of some of Italy's top design houses. Shops you can visit in this area include Versace, Armani, Gucci, Missoni, Dolce & Gabbana, Zegna, Diesel, Prada and Sisley, among many others (including plenty of international fashion brands).
In addition to the ample shopping opportunities, you'll also find many restaurants, chic cafes and luxury hotels in the fashion district. Some of the designers have their own restaurants and hotels in their shopping centers. Several of the streets are pedestrian-only, to make window shopping even easier.
Taking up the second floor of the 18th century Villa Reale is GAM - Milan’s impressive Gallery of Modern Art.
Napoleon once used this lovely villa as his summer home, and it now hosts several cultural institutions. After you’ve strolled through the grounds and admired the architecture, update your impression with art from the 19th century onwards.
Neoclassical artworks rub shoulders with Surrealist installations and works by Picasso, Modigliani, Kandinsky and varied Impressionists, Futurists and Vorticists. The most contemporary works are displayed next door at PAC.
One of the most famous attractions in Milan, the thing that nearly everyone wants to see even on a short visit, is Leonardo da Vinci's “The Last Supper” fresco in the Santa Maria della Grazie church. That's not the only thing to see in that church, however. You can also visit the beautiful Bramante sacristy, designed by the Italian architect Donato Bramante in the late 15th century.
The Duke of Milan hired two of the best artists of the time to work on expanding and beautifying the existing Santa Maria della Grazie convent. Leonardo da Vinci was asked to paint a fresco on the wall of the refectory, while Donato Bramante was asked to build a new sacristy. Bramante's sacristy was built a short distance from the church, and the architect connected the two with a pretty cloister.
The Bramante sacristy is a long, rectangular room with a small chapel-like space at one end.
Lying on the western flank of thin, wispy Lake Maggiore, Stresa is an elegant resort backed by the Alpine foothills of Monte Mottarone and beloved of travellers for the grandiose hotels spread along its tree-lined promenade. Summer sees lidos bordering the lake and visitor-thronged craft markets on Thursday afternoons; come the balmy evenings the cobbled streets of the town are equally packed with locals and tourists alike enjoying a passeggiata (nightly stroll) before they settle down to dine al fresco in leafy Piazza Cadorna.
Once the hang out of literary stars Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway, the jewels in Stresa’s crown are undoubtedly the three miniature Isole Borromee (Borromean Islands) just minutes away across Lake Maggiore by ferry. Owned by the all-powerful Borromeo clan since the 12th century, today they exist in a Baroque time warp; while Isola Bella and Isola Madre both boast extraordinary 17th-century palazzi.
Shopping in Milan isn't limited to the boutiques in the city center; there are outlet malls near Milan, too, including the Serravalle Designer Outlet. The town of Serravalle Scrivia is southwest of Milan, en route to Genoa, and the outlet center there has nearly 200 shops. You'll find designer brands like Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, Prada, and more, all at discounted outlet prices of 30 to 70 percent off retail.
The outdoor shopping center at Serravalle is Italy's first and largest shopping mall, and the architecture is designed to reflect Italian style.
Things to do near Milan
- Things to do in Lombardy
- Things to do in Ferno
- Things to do in Castelletto di Branduzzo
- Things to do in Bergamo
- Things to do in Lake Como
- Things to do in Lake Maggiore
- Things to do in Asti
- Things to do in Genoa
- Things to do in Turin
- Things to do in Interlaken
- Things to do in Lucerne
- Things to do in Bologna
- Things to do in Pisa
- Things to do in Piedmont & Liguria
- Things to do in Swiss Alps