Last summer I took my first solo trip abroad to Milan. Although it’s not a very traditional Italian city and often gets dismissed as “too industrial”, I fell in love with the history of the city. I discovered some of the architectural and cultural gems that the city has to offer. I have put together a list of my top picks of what to see and do in Milan, especially if it’s your first time in the Italian metropolis. My list includes a mix classic sights and some hidden gems.
Duomo & Roof Terraces
“Duomo”, simply meaning “cathedral” in Italian, is a focal landmark and one of the best things to see in Milan. Take the metro to Duomo square, where you’ll find a throng of tourists, street sellers, buskers and pigeons. The beauty of the gothic cathedral’s exterior is undeniable. I highly recommend exploring the interior and taking the lift up to the roof terraces, where you’ll get a unique view of Milan’s city skyline. If you get lucky with a clear day you may even catch a glimpse of the Alps on the horizon.
I did a Get your Guide skip the line tour of the cathedral and terraces. This was really informative and a great way to see the Duomo if you’re interested in the history of Milan.
At the time of visiting (June/July 2019), the roof was heavily under construction. This understandable for a building that dates back to the 14th century, as it takes a lot of constant renovation to keep it at a high standard. Unfortunately this meant I didn’t get the clear roof shot that I wanted, but the terraces and view over Milan are still well worth the ticket to the top!
Now, I’ll be honest, I’d seen this recommended as a thing to see in Milan on blogs before I went and dismissed it, thinking I wouldn’t get much enjoyment out of visiting a cemetery. Infact, I only saw it as it ended up being a stop on a bike tour I did on a very hot and sweaty day!
I was very glad to be proven wrong. It is a beautiful, peaceful haven away from the bustling traffic of the city, filled with history and intricate sculpture. Historically a burial ground for the wealthy Milanese, it doubled as an outlet for competitive local sculptors to one up each other with elaborate memorial statues. This is a great thing to see in Milan for any art lover.
I was surprised to learn that Milan, like Venice, was once full of canals. You might also be interested to know that Leonardo Da Vinci worked on the design of these canals as an engineer!
This is how they transported the marble for the Duomo. In attempts to modernise the city, many of these canals were drained and filled in to make way for roads. Two of the few remaining canals, Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese can be found in the cool Navigli District.
The Navigli District is full of life with it’s colourful buildings, boutique stores and vibrant night life. The canals are lined with bars and restaurants, all playing music and offering competitive appertitivo.
I came here after a busy day exploring nearby city Torino to tick Navigli off my list. I was very tired and drained but knew I’d regret not seeing the area before leaving Milan. Despite the busyness of it, found it quite relaxing to sit by the water with my Aperol Spritz, watching the world go by (and some kayakers). If you want you can even take a cruise down the canals. The evening is when the area comes to life, but watch out for those mozzies!
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Whether it’s the designer fashion or the impressive architecture that draws you in, the galleria is a must see. I went in the evening at golden hour, so the way the light flooded in and lit it up was amazing.
Located right in Duomo square, just across from the Duomo, it’s very centrally located and easy to get to. You don’t have to break in the expensive stores and restaurants, but the galleria itself is well worth a look round.It’s in the galleria that you’ll find the famous mosaic of a bull on the ground (part of the cost of arms of rival city Torino). It’s said to be good luck to grind the bull’s balls and spin around! Worth a try eh?
You can actually visit the rooftop of the galleria for a unique view of Milan and the glass dome from above, with a bar of course! They even have a Cinema up there!
Stop for an Aperitivo
Aperitivo is a Milanese tradition involving a selection of snacks and alcohol before dinner time. Aperitivo ‘hour’ is usually between 6 and 9pm and a lot of bars will have buffets on to accompany the pre-dinner tipple.
As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed my Aperitivo in Navigli with a view of the canals in the evening, which was perfect for me. As a solo traveller and someone who often gets anxious, I’m still getting used to dining alone without feeling awkward, but there was so much going on that I soon realised everyone was in their own world and relaxed.
The platter I got (€10 with a drink) was enough to fill me up for dinner. I think they had to improvise as I asked for a meat free version and got lots of cheese slices and some celery dipped in a pot of olive oil. I’d never have thought to try the latter before but it was surprisingly tasty!
Museo del Novocento
Whether you’re more interested in the last supper or street art, Milan has something for all art lovers! I visited the Novocento, which is in Duomo square right across from the cathedral. This is is convenient if you want to see a few sights in one go.
My highlight of the gallery was a neon ceiling sculpture by Italian artist Lucio Fontana overlooking the cathedral. It’s a striking contrast between old and new and makes a pretty picture!
It’s refreshing in such a modern city to find little spots of nature thriving amongst the concrete landscape. Whilst walking around residential areas of Milan you’ll notice a conscious effort to make the city greener and offset some of the pollution. Bosco Verticale is a prime (and probably the best) example of this.
An impressive piece of architecture in the Porta Nuova District, our bike tour guide assured us it’d break the bank to live in one of these two towers. But would it be worth it to live in your own mini jungle?!
San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore
Another brilliant bike tour find, I was wowed by the intricate decoration of this church and former convent. I feel that you can never go wrong by stepping into a church in Italy to have a look around and have a break from sightseeing. I’m still yet to be disappointed by what I find and this was no exception!
Take a Day Trip to the Italian Riviera or Switzerland
Milan has excellent transport links and it’s location in Northern Italy makes the perfect great base for a range of day trips. Take your pick between a luxury break in the sun in Lake Como or Lugano, or an alpine adventure in the Swiss Alps.
Go on a Bike Tour
The bike tour I’ve referenced a few times was the hidden gems tour from Velocopedi, led by the lovely Polina. I recommend it as it gave me a chance to see a few things that I probably wouldn’t have come across on my own but am really glad that I saw! I struggled to keep up a little as a non-experienced cyclist with dyspraxia (wobbly af) but it was enjoyable nonetheless. I would advise going on a slightly cooler day though, as I picked one of the hottest days of the year and was sweating like a fountain (you’re welcome for that image). Other things included on the tour were the Brera district, Chinatown and the arco della pace.
Top Tip: If you want to do the tour solo you just have to email them ahead to check that they have other tourists on that day.
Getting Around Milan
I stayed a bit further out in the San Siro District, so I relied on the metro to get around. You can buy tickets from the metro stations or most news agents. A standard ticket is only €1.50 and it covers multiple metro rides within 1h30 but expires once you exit the station. You can also use the same ticket on the teams and buses and can buy multiple tickets at once, as well as 24 and 48 hour passes.
Thank you for Reading!
If you’ve enjoyed this post, please check out my other posts about day trips from Milan, a day in Lugano and the Bernina Express. You can keep up with my travels by following me on Instagram and Pinterest!