Things to Do in Milan
La Scala is one of the world’s great opera houses. Built in Milan a stone’s throw from the Duomo in the late 1770s, the theater has seen premiers of some extraordinarily well-loved operas, including works by Rossini, Puccini and many by Italy’s beloved Verdi. The word “scala” means “staircase” in Italian, but the theater gets its name because it was built on the site where the church of Santa Maria alla Scala once stood.
The theater at La Scala holds more than 3,000 spectators, and the walls are adorned with gold and the boxes are lined with red velvet.
Although La Scala’s opera season isn’t year-round you can still get a peek inside. Plan to visit La Scala’s museum, which is inside the opera house. If your museum visit doesn’t coincide with a rehearsal on the main stage then you get to walk into one of the theater’s red velvet boxes for a few minutes.
Milan’s Cathedral, or Duomo, is a much-loved symbol of the city. The most exuberant example of Northern Gothic in Italy, its spiky spires and towers dominate Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s beating heart.
The Duomo’s exterior is an upwardly thrusting collection of pinnacles, elongated statues and buttresses. The central spire is topped by a gilt statue of the Madonna, called the Madonnina.
Inside one of the world’s largest churches, it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to the candle-lit ambiance as you take in the cathedral’s nave, altars, aisles and stained-glass windows.
One of the highlights of a visit to the cathedral is the view from the roof – on a clear day you can see the Italian Alps. Take the steps if you’re fit (or the lift if you’re not) to peer over the city of Milan, surrounded by statues and spiky towers.
In a city of many trendy neighborhoods, the Brera district in Milan is one of the most charming. Located very close to the Duomo in the historic center, this is the part of Milan that might make you forget about the city’s hustle-bustle reputation.
The Brera neighborhood is a maze of narrow, cobblestoned streets lined with boutiques and cafes - during nice weather, cafe life spills onto the sidewalks and makes for an excellent place to do some serious people-watching. The designer shopping district called the Quadrilatero d’Oro is nearby, so you can get a peek at some of Milan’s shopping class making their rounds, too.
Aside from just wandering through the Brera and enjoying the scene, the main attraction in the neighborhood is the Pinacoteca di Brera, a fantastic art museum with works by Botticelli, Raphael, Hayez, Titian, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Rembrandt, and Rubens.
Milan is a busy, modern city that - when you’re really yearning for Italian medieval hilltop towns - can feel a little hard to love. At those times, it’s important to do as the Milanese do and escape the city (even for just a little while) in one of the big green spaces. One of the most popular is Parco Sempione in central Milan.Parco Sempione covers 116 acres in the city center, just behind the Castello Sforzesco. It was laid out in the late 1800s, and received a major facelift in 1996. The grounds include gravel paths for walking or jogging, a triumphal arch at the far end of the park, a lake, and even a small arena used for concerts and some sporting events. There’s also a tower in the park - the Torre Branca - built in 1933 and offering views over the entire city.
The Romanesque Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio is dedicated to Milan's patron saint, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who founded the church in the 4th century. Dressed in his bishop's finery, the saint's skeleton is displayed in the basilica's crypt.
The church embraces a mix of styles, having been rebuilt in the 11th century and much restored since then. The building has a squat, medieval Lombard facade thanks to its elongated atrium dating back to the year 1098.
Byzantine reliefs crown the 6th century capitals, and a graceful loggia lined with arches leads to the basilica's entrance. Two towers of different heights flank the atrium.
The highlight of the restrained interior in white and terracotta is the apse mosaic of Christ. You’ll also see carved pulpits and tombs, including the final resting place of Emperor Louis II.
The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio was heavily bombed during the Second World War and has been extensively restored.
If 10 Corso Como sounds like an address, it is. It also happens to be one of Milan's most fasionable addresses, home to a number of attractions and shops.
10 Corso Como (it's Dieci Corso Como in Italian, as "dieci" is the word for 10) was originally an art gallery and bookstore, opened in a traditional Milanese building 1990 by Carla Sozzani. The complex grew over the years to include a cafe, a fashion boutique, a roof garden, and even a tiny hotel (with only three rooms) - all at the same address. The courtyard cafe at 10 Corso Como is particularly popular for aperitivo, and getting a table can be incredibly difficult. You can enjoy the "see and be seen" atmosphere simply by browsing the shops, however.
Some cemeteries are like small cities, such as the Monumental Cemetery in Milan. It's the second-largest cemetery in Milan, and its paths are adorned with a fantastic array of sculptural tombs. Milan's Monumental Cemetery (Cimitero Monumentale in Italian) was opened in 1866, originally built to consolidate the large number of smaller cemeteries around the city. Two new and very large cemeteries were created: one for the wealthy (Cimitero Monumentale) and one for everyone else (Cimitero Maggiore). Because it has been the final resting place for so many wealthy and famous people over the years, the tombs and mausoleums are often works of art.
Argentina's Eva Peron was secretly buried in this Milan cemetery until 1971 because of anti-Peron sentiments in her home country, and Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi was buried here for about a month before his body was moved. Today, the main draw for non-Italian visitors is the way the cemetery resembles an outdoor sculpture garden.
More Things to Do in Milan
Milan is home to two major soccer teams and Italy's largest stadium – San Siro Stadium – where both of them play their home games. San Siro was built in 1925, originally home to just the AC Milan team. In 1947, AC Milan's rivals, FC Internazionale, also moved in. In addition to these top-tier teams, the Italian national team also plays games at San Siro, and it's frequently used as a concert venue for big touring bands. As a football stadium, the capacity of San Siro is now just over 80,000, Italy's largest stadium.
There is a museum at the stadium dedicated to both AC Milan and FC Internazaionale, and when you take a guided tour of San Siro you get to visit each team's locker room.
Milan is home to some notable collections of historic art, but don't miss the fantastic contemporary design and art at La Triennale Museum in Parco Sempione. La Triennale Museum is inside the Palazzo dell'Arte, which was built in 1933 for the Triennale decorative arts show. The event happens every three years (hence the name “Triennale”), but the Palazzo dell'Arte now houses permanent collections you can visit year-round.
Perhaps the best known is the Triennale Design Museum, opened in 2007 to showcase the history of Italian design. It's a fascinating collection of everyday objects made to resemble art, and vice versa. Also in the same building is the Design Library (with thousands of books, magazines, and photographs available for reference) and the Teatro dell'Arte (a performance space for music, theater, and dance). There's also a nice cafe at the back overlooking Parco Sempione.
Milan's Ticinese district is in the southern part of the historic center, known for its shops and restaurants. It houses one of Milan's old city gates, originally built in the 16th century, while today's gate dates from the 19th century and marks the southern end of the Corso di PortaTicinese. This street is lined with shops, and – along with nearby Via Torino – is known particularly for its shoe shops.
The Ticinese area is historically working class, as is the nearby Navigli district, but both are becoming more upscale as hip cafes and restaurants move in. There are historic attractions here, including Milan's best-preserved Roman ruins, as well as a weekly antiques market.
While the Piazza del Duomo is the most important square in central Milan today, that title went to the Piazza Mercanti in the Middle Ages. The Piazza Mercanti, or Merchants Square, is in Milan's historic center, a short walk to the northwest of the Duomo. The square originally was much larger than it is today, once occupying part of present-day Via Mercanti. Some of the buildings on the square date from its heyday, including the 13th century Palazzo della Ragione (essentially Milan's city hall at the time) and the 14th century Loggia degli Osii (another administrative building).
In the center of the piazza is a 16th century well that was later fitted with two columns in the 18th century. It's covered and unused today There was a stone found nearby upon which merchants found guilty of cheating – or bankruptcy, depending on the story you read – were punished by public shaming, forced to stand on the stone with their pants down, before being sent to jail.
Most visitors seek out the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie to pay their respects to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The famous mural is housed in the refectory of the adjoining Dominican convent.
Visitors who take the time to explore the convent’s church, however, will be rewarded with a stroll through an impressive Renaissance building.
The church was built in Gothic and Romanesque styles by Sforza duke in 1490, and is believed to have been partially designed by Bramante.
The exterior is decorated in a restrained pattern of pilasters and circles, and the design features a lovely, tranquil cloister. Inside, the Gothic nave is decorated with beautifully restrained patterned details.
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.
We’re all familiar with the canals of Venice - but did you know Milan has canals, too? Most of the city’s canals have long since been paved over, but a district to the south of the city center still has two that are visible. A canal in Milan is called a “naviglio,” so this neighborhood is the Navigli District.
Many years ago, the Navigli District was known as a gritty neighborhood with cheap rent. The low cost of living attracted artists, who set up galleries and shops, and now the neighborhood is no longer affordable for many of the artists who once called it home. The overall vibe of an artsy district that’s still a little rough around the edges remains, however. In addition to the galleries and art shops, the Navigli District is known now for its plethora of funky cafes, restaurants, and night clubs. It’s one of the best nightlife areas in the city, and on weekend nights it can get extremely busy.
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.
Milan is known for its opera, fashion, and banking – not its ruins. And yet the city has Roman ruins – including the Colonne di San Lorenzo. These well-preserved ruins all date from the 2nd century, when they were part of a Roman building (experts aren't sure whether it was a bath house or a temple). They were likely moved to their current location in the 5th century.
The 16 columns line one side of a piazza in front of the fifth-century Basilica di San Lorenzo, one of Milan's oldest churches. They were brought to the piazza when the church was complete.
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