• Leslie

Underrated Milan: Guide To Milan's Must See Sites and Attractions

Updated: Aug 12

the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which houses Leonardo's iconic The Last Supper fresco
the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which houses Leonardo's iconic The Last Supper fresco

Here's my guide to the must see sites and attractions in stylish Milan Italy. In addition to telling you the best things to do and see in Milan, this Milan guide also takes you to some of Milan's hidden gems.

Underrated Milan is an amazing destination in northern Italy. It's a vibrant and exciting modern city, the thriving finance and fashion capitol of Italy.

Milan is not "an industrial city," as the uninitiated claim. Milan has personality, combining old world charm and modern "bright lights, big city" flair in compelling fashion. You can't help but be dazzled by Milan's architecture, historic sites, iconic art, and culinary specialities.

Milan lies in the Lombardy region. While most people are familiar with the typical southern Italian effervescence, the cities closer to Switzerland have a unique culture. Like New York City or London, Milan is a fast-paced metropolis. It's fairly organized and not nearly as chaotic as Rome.

Ultimate travel Guide for Milan Italy

Because of this, you might be surprised to know that Milan has some of the greatest artistic treasures of the Renaissance. Milan's defining artistic moment was the arrival of Leonardo da Vinci in 1481.

Hired by the Duke of Milan as a court artist, over 18 years, Leonardo produced some of his most important works in Milan, including the iconic Last Supper, Milan's top attraction.

Most visitors rush through underrated Milan and only see the Leonardo and sites in the Piazza del Duomo. But if your schedule permits or you're on an extended weekend getaway, there's plenty of amazing things to do and see in Milan. You could keep busy for days, happily imbibing apertivos, gelato, and Milan's saffron-infused risotto along the way.

the Duomo in Milan
the Duomo in Milan

Best Things To See and Do In Milan

There are so many things to discover in Milano. If you think Milan is underrated, you're absolutely right. What other Italian city combine magnificent skyscrapers with sublime historic sites and world famous masterpieces?

Here are the highlights of Milan that you can cover in a few days, including must visit Milanese landmarks, museums, churches, etc. Or, you can use this list to tailor a shorter Milan itinerary to your specific interests.

1. Duomo: What To See and How To Get Tickets

The Duomo is the nickname for Milan Cathedral, a world renowned edifice. Built over 600 years beginning in 1368, the Duomo is Milan's flamboyant Gothic masterpiece with 135 marble spires. It's the fourth largest church in the Europe, second in size in Italy only to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Begun in 1386, the cathedral was not complete even at its consecration in 1572. It was constructed with a white-pink marble from the Lake Maggiore region. The city even built canals to transport the marble to the Duomo site.

Gothic spires of the Duomo
Gothic spires of the Duomo

Cleaned in 2002, the stunning triangular facade was added only in the Napoleonic period. There's a golden Madonna statue on the tip top. By law since 1930, no building can be taller than the symbol of Milan.

Five portals beckon you inside. The Duomo interior seems cavernous. There's plenty to admire -- ornate statues, paintings, and the sarcophagi of famous Milanese citizens.

In the transept, you'll find the rather ghoulish statue of St. Bartholomew Skinned by Marco d'Agrate, a Leonardo student. Batholomew was the saint who was skinned alive. He carries his skin like a drape.

The Duomo's truly spectacular and unmissable feature is its rooftop terrace. It can be reached either via a staircase or an elevator. But even after the elevator, you've got to plod up some narrow steep steps. And the elevator is one way. You have to hoof it back down.

From the rooftop, you have an excellent view of the details of the intricate stonemasonry, especially the fanciful gargoyles that serve as drains You can see the panorama of the entire city before you. It's especially nice at sunset.

rooftop terrace of Milan's Duomo
rooftop terrace of Milan's Duomo

When it comes to buying your tickets you have a lot of options, depending on your interests and budget. You can buy individual tickets to each site or combined tickets with a fast track option. The archaeological area and crypt of the Duomo are free to visit. You just need a Duomo ticket. The prices are as follows:

  • Only the Cathedral: € 3 (audio guide € 6)

  • Only the Duomo Museum € 3

  • Rooftop via stairs: € 10

  • Rooftop via lift: € 14

  • Rooftop Fast track by lift: € 23

  • Cathedral and rooftop by lift: € 17 (entrance on the north side of the Duomo)

  • Cathedral and rooftop by stairs: € 13

  • All inclusive 3 day fast track for all Duomo sites: € 25

Click here to buy a ticket online. I recommend the last combined skip the line fast track option, especially if you're only in Milan for one day. If you don't buy a ticket online, you probably need to arrive early, around 8:00 am. You'll need to make sure your shoulders and knees are covered to enter the Duomo.

Address: Piazza del Duomo

Hours: Cathedral open daily 8:00 to 7:00 pm, Rooftops open daily 9:00 to 7:00 pm. Check the official Duomo website for all hours.

Pro tip: All tickets must be purchased in advance, either online or at the ticket booths in the Duomo Museum area. There is zero shade on the rooftop in summer, and it will be scorching. There are also no bathrooms in the Duomo or on the rooftops. You best bet is the Duomo Museum.

Tintoretto, Christ Among the Doctors, 1540-41 -- at the Duomo Museum in Milan Italy
Tintoretto, Christ Among the Doctors, 1540-41

2. Duomo Museum | Grande Museo del Duomo

As with other Duomo museums in Italy, it makes sense to go to the Duomo museum first and then visit the cathedral. The museum is located in the Royal Palace, the Palazzo Reale, facing the Duomo. The museum is the soul of the Duomo.

The Duomo Museum provides a wonderful overview of the history and art of the Duomo. Newly renovated in 2013, the museum houses 200 Duomo-centric works of art, including sculptures, models, paintings, and stained glass windows. There's a fantastic wooden model of the Duomo from 1519.

Address: Via dell'Arcivescovado 1

Hours: closed Mondays, open Tues to Sun from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Open late until 10:00 pm on Thurs and Sat nights

Entry fee: 3, audio guide 5

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

3. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II | Shopping in Milan

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is the pride of Milan, though it's uber touristy. Built from 1865-77 by Giuseppe Mengoni, the dreamy Galleria is the oldest covered shopping arcade in the world. It may be the most elegant as well. The Galleria is outfitted in classic Renaissance style with marble, iron, and glass.

The gallery is located right next to Duomo, so there is no way you miss it. Inside, there are stunning glass ceilings that are hard to take your eyes off. Arrive early to enjoy its magic without the crowds.

You can admire the admire the mosaics of Asia, Africa, Europe, and America in the vault above. The floor is covered with mosaics representing Italy's key cities. The bull that's the symbol of Turin is a big draw. Legend holds that if you take a spin on his private parts, good luck will follow.

mosaic of the Bull of Turin mosaic
mosaic of the Bull of Turin mosaic

Inside the Galleria, you'll find luxury brands (Gucci, Prada, Versace) and high end restaurants. Even if you’re not planning on buying anything, it’s still worth checking out for the beautiful architecture and design.

If you want some expensive coffee, stop in at the historic coffee shop Motta Milano, which has been there since the Galleria opened. Or stop in for an apertivo at the Bar Camparino, which has beautiful views of Piazza del Duomo. Don't miss the brooding statue of Leonardo da Vinci in back of the Galleria in Piazza della Scala.

If you'd like to do some other shopping in Milan, the most renowned high end streets in Milan are Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga. There are also plenty of other European brands that won't break the budget. For more affordable options, try shopping on Corso Vittoria Emanuele II, Via Torino, or Corso Buenos Aires. Or pick up a designer steal at the outlet store, Il Salvagente.

Address: Piazza del Duomo

Hours: Open 24 hours

red velvet everywhere in La Scala Opera House in Milan Italy
scarlet red velvet everywhere in La Scala

4. La Scala Opera House | Teatro alla Scala

Opened in 1778 and last renovated in 2002, La Scala is one of Italy's finest opera houses. It can fit 2,000 people at once. Many of the world's most famous singers have appeared on its stage. La Scala hosts operas, ballet, and concerts.

World famous composers have premiered their work on this stage, including Salieri, Puccini, Verdi, and Rossini. Perhaps La Scala is most famous for hosting the first performance of Puccini's Tosca.

If you want to take in a performance, click here for the opera website to see what's currently playing and/or buy tickets. Tickets don't come cheap. But you can get cheaper tickets (25% discount) one hour before the show (if it's not sold out). If you want to tour La Scala, you can also book a guided tour.

The luxurious gold and red interior is stunning. There's also a museum inside, with costumes from historic performances, portraits, and busts.

If you'd like to take in some more modern theater, head to the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, one of Italy's most important theaters.

Address:Via Filodrammatici 2

Hours: Open daily 9:00 am to 12:30 pm & 1:30 pm to 4:30 pm

Entry fee: 9

Pro tip: If the theater is in use for a dress rehearsal or the like, you won't be able to see it on your tour. A guided tour in English cost 25 and starts daily at 4:00 pm.

 Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-98 -- in the Refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-98 -- in the Refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan

5. Leonardo's The Last Supper

The Last Supper is one of the world's most iconic paintings, found on the back wall of the refectory in Santa Maria delle Grazie. No painting is so familiar, save for the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. The church is one of 51 UNESCO sites in Italy.

Painted by Leonardo da Vinci, the billboard size painting is a Renaissance masterpiece. It shows the moment when Christ reveals that one of his apostles will betray him.

Not only is The Last Supper famous, it's a fascinating and spellbinding artwork surrounded by mysteries and legends. The Last Supper is as renowned for its fragility as its power. Because Leonardo painted in secco fresco (dry) instead of buon fresco (true), the painting began to deteriorate immediately. It's a violent art history tale of great triumph and great tragedy.

READ: All The Last Supper Paintings From Renaissance Italy

You've got to be organized and reserve in advance to see this quasi-restored, yet still beautiful, masterpiece. Advance reservations are mandatory.

I've written a complete guide to everything you need to know about seeing The Last Supper -- what to expect, how to get tickets, and an analysis of the painting itself.

Address: Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie 2

Hours: Tues to Sun 8:15 am to 7:00 pm

Entry fee: 10 €, plus a 2 € advance booking fee

the  pretty Renaissance Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie
the pretty Renaissance Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie

6. Santa Maria delle Grazie

People are so enamored with seeing The Last Supper that they sometimes forget to explore the pretty UNESCO-listed Renaissance church that holds it. The church dates from 1465. But it was subsequently enlarged when a Sforza duke decided to make it his mausoleum.

To dress up his creation, the duke hired Leonardo to paint The Last Supper. And he hired famed architect Donato Bramante, of St. Peter's Basilica fame, to create the terra-cotta and cream colored choir you see above.

Address: Piazza Santa Marie dell Grazie

Hours: Mon to Sat 7:00 am to noon & 3:00 pm to 7:30 pm, Sun 7:30 am to 12:30 pm & 4:00 pm to 9:00 pm

Entry fee: free

Casa degli Atellani and Leonardo's Vineyard, across from The Last Supper
Casa degli Atellani and Leonardo's Vineyard, across from The Last Supper

7. Leonardo's Vineyard | La Vigna di Leonardo

From a family of wine makers himself, Leonardo owned his own vineyard in Milan. The Sforza family gifted the vineyard to the master painter in thanks for creating The Last Supper, almost 500 years ago. Leonardo used to take breaks from painting and retire to this calm sanctuary.

The vineyard was damaged in WWII. But the vineyard's present day owners stepped in. Based on DNA testing of roots, they re-propagated and re-planted vines to produce the very Leonardo grape would have sipped. It's called malvasia di candia aromatica, a white grape popular in the Renaissance.

A trip to sip an aperitivo in the genius' vineyard is one of the most unusual things to do in Milan. If you want to visit the house (a 15th century palazzo) and gardens of this Milan hidden gem, you need to book in advance. Click here to purchase your Vigna di Leonardo ticket.

Address: Corso Magenta 65

Hours: 9:00 am to 6:00 pm

Entry fee: 10, included in the Milano Card.

Pro tip: You can also stay at the restored 16th century villa on the grounds, Casa Degli Atellani

Leonardo's Horse, a sculpture based on Leonard's sketches
Leonardo's Horse, a sculpture based on Leonard's sketches

8. Leonardo's Horse | Il Cavallo dello Sforza

500 years in the making, Leonardo's Horse is a massive monument built from Leonardo's designs and sketches. It all began in 1482. That year, the Duke of Milan challenged Leonardo to built the world's larges equestrian statue. Perhaps seeking to outdo the Marcus Aurelius statue outside the Capitoline Museums in Rome.

By 1482, Leonardo -- who lived in Milan for 20 years -- was already famous, accomplished at both art and engineering. 11 years later, the notorious procrastinator produced a 24 foot clay model and a methodology for creating the final product.

Unfortunately, the 80 tons of bronze earmarked for the statue were coopted. The bronze was used for weapons when French troops invaded Milan. Leonardo's model was destroyed and his sketches were thought to be lost as well. Leonardo's Florentine rival, Michelangelo, would later mock Leonardo for failing to bring the project to fruition.

But wait, there's a happy ending to the story! In 1965, Leonardo's notebooks were discovered in the National Library of Madrid. They included his sketches for the bronze horse. In 1977, US citizen and art connoisseur Charles Dent became enamored with the romantic legend. He hired a sculptor to bring Leonardo's horse to life. It was installed in Milan in 1999.

Address: San Siro Hippodrome Cultural Park, Piazza dello Sport 6

courtyard of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan
courtyard of the Pinacoteca di Brera

9. Pinacoteca di Brera

The Pinacoteca di Brera is Milan's premiere museum and a must see site for art lovers. Its exquisite collection is housed inside the beautiful late 17th century Palazzo Brera near the Duomo. The museum has a magnificent collection of Italian art, especially religious-themed works. It's one of the best museums you've never heard of.

The Pinacoteca di Brera boasts works from the 14th to 20th centuries, including important pieces by artists such as Raphael, Caravaggio, Guercino, Bellini, and Titian.

The museum's must see masterpieces are Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus, Francesco Hayez's The Kiss, Andrea Mantegna's Lamentation of Christ, Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin, and Guercino's Dead Christ.

Francesco Hayez, The Kiss, 1859 -- in the Pinacoteca di Brera
Francesco Hayez, The Kiss, 1859 -- in the Pinacoteca di Brera

But the Brera isn't just Renaissance art works. It also has an impressive collection of modern art by the likes of Picasso, Modiglianai, Braque, de Chirico, and Morandi.

The gallery has created an online catalog of over 600 art works. You can admire the art online and read relevant historical details in Italian or English. The collection can be searched by date and artist. Take a virtual tour of the Pinacoteca di Brera here.

Here's my complete guide to visiting the Brera Museum.

Address: Via Brera 28

Opening Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday from 9:30 am to 1:30 pm & Thursday to Sunday, from 2:00 pm to 6:30 pm

Entry fee: 12

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, 1599 -- Pinacoteca Ambrosiana
Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, 1599 -- in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana

10. Pinacoteca Ambrosiana | Leonardo da Vinci Wonderland

The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is a hidden gem in Milan, a beautiful place to lose yourself in classic Renaissance art. It's a nifty combination of great art, no crowds, and rare Leonardo da Vinci paintings and journals. The pinacoteca was founded in 1618 with a large donation by Cardinal Frederico Borromeo.

Housed in a beautiful library, there's a large collection of 2000 works donated by the Maquis Galeazzo Arconti in 1637. The museum's claim to fame is its important cache of drawings, including the Leonardo's Codex Atlanticus in the Reading Room. The codex is a 12 volume set of drawings and writings Leonardo created between1478-1519.

The other must see masterpieces in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana include Caravaggio's Basket of Fruit, Leonardo's Portrait of a Musician, Titian's Adoration of the Magi, and Botticelli's Madonna del Padiglione. Another must see is Raphael's cartoon (a preparatory drawing) for School of Athens, which is perhaps the most famous fresco in the Vatican Museums.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este, circa 1500 -- attributed to Leonardo da Vinci
Portrait of Isabella d'Este, circa 1500 -- attributed to Leonardo da Vinci

The Ambrosiana also houses a rare disputed Leonard da Vinci, Portrait of Isabella d'Este. There's no doubt that Leonardo created a charcoal sketch d'Este, which is authenticated and hangs in the Louvre.

We know from letters that Isabella repeatedly asked Leonardo to make an official portrait from the sketch. But did he ever complete one? If he did, is it another "Lost Leonardo"?

In 2013, a richly colored canvas portrait obviously based on the sketch was discovered among a collection of paintings in a private bank vault in Switzerland. Some believe it's the oil version of Leonardo's sketch.

The painting has been carbon dated and vouched for by various Leonardo experts. But with no historical documentation, its provenance is still in doubt and it's not universally accepted as a Leonardo.

READ: Defintive Guide To all of Leonardo da Vinci's Paintings

Portrait of a Musician, 1483-87 -- attributed to Leonardo da Vinci
Portrait of a Musician, 1483-87 -- attributed to Leonardo da Vinci

The Ambrosiana also houses Portrait of a Musician, another disputed but well-preserved Leonardo. The unfinished painting was originally billed as a "school of Luini" paintings. In 1798, the museum changed the attribution to Leonardo. Controversy surrounds the painting. It would be Leonardo's only known portrait of a man.

Many factors weigh against the off key painting's authenticity: it's mostly unfinished with some overpainting, lacks any historical documentation, there's no record of anyone commissioning the painting, the subject is unidentified, and everything below the face is stiff and clumsily rendered.

Other scholars claim the face and hands were painted by Leonardo. They suggest that the man is a Tuscan musician, who was a friend of Leonardo. And they believe that the sheet of music in the subject's hand (uncovered during restoration) contains a cryptic inscription, which is a classic da Vinci hidden message.

Address: Piazza Pio 2

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10:00 am to 6:00 pm

Entry fee: 15

medieval cloisters that house Milan's Leonardo da Vinci Museum
medieval cloisters that house Milan's Leonardo da Vinci Museum

11. Leonardo da Vinci National Science and Technology Museum

Opened in 1953, this is a sprawling museum for history and science enthusiasts. Its collection is housed in the former Benedictine monastery of San Vittore Olivetan. But it has some modern additions and outdoor spaces. As a result, the floor plans a bit confusing and you'll need to pick up a map when you buy your ticket.

Inside, you'll find a showcase of drawings and models of Leonardo's inventions, anatomical drawings, and a mishmash of various mechanical and scientific wizardry. At an extra cost of 8 euros, you can even visit a mini submarine.

Address: Via San Vittore 21

Hours: Tues through Fri 9:30 am to 5:00 pm & Sat and Sun 9:30 am to 6:30 pm

Entry fee: 10

the Wes Anderson designed Bar Luce in Fondazione Prada in Milan
Bar Luce in Fondazione Prada

12. Fondazione Prada

Opened in just 2018, Fondazione Prada is a 9 floor contemporary art gallery, clad in gold leaf. It really couldn't be cooler if it tried.

The gallery is owned by one of the world's most famous fashion houses (Prada). It's housed in a former gin distillery. It has a hip bar (Bar Luce), designed by cult film director Wes Anderson.

Fondazione Prada's aim was to create a diversity of permanent exhibition spaces for presenting art. Among other things, there's a "haunted house" in 24 karat gold leaf and a partially sunken cinema camouflaged by mirrors. In the tower, there are large scale pieces by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.

Milan's 15th century Sforza Castle
Milan's 15th century Sforza Castle

13. Sforza Castle | Castello Sforzesco

The Castello Sforzesco is one of Milan’s most historic landmarks and a must see site. It's a splendid example of Renaissance architecture, the product of mercenary-turned-politician Francesco Sforza. It was the former seat of the Dukes of Milan.

Today, the castle houses various museums: the Pieta Rondanini Museum, the Art Gallery, the Archaeological Museum, and the Museum of Decorative Arts. Though the castle itself is free, there's a fee for the museums. It's also possible to book a guided tour of the castle battlements and dungeons.

The most important masterpiece inside is indisputably the Rondanini Pieta, housed in the renovated "Spanish castle." Michelangelo never traveled to or worked in Milan. But the city acquired this the sculpture in 1951.

It's Michelangelo’s last and unfinished work. Michelangelo likely intended it for his tomb. He shows the dead Christ as an emblem of suffering. The sculpture was discovered in his studio after his death at 89.

Michelangelo, Rondanini Pieta, 1555 -- Michelangelo's final sculpture
Michelangelo, Rondanini Pieta, 1555 -- Michelangelo's final sculpture

Leonardo frescos in the Salle delle Asse in Milan's Castle Sforza
Leonardo frescos in the Salle delle Asse

Sforza Castle is also a Leonardo da Vinci site. His patron, the Sforza family, commissioned Leonardo to paint an elaborate fresco in the great hall, the Sala delle Asse (Room of the Planks).

Painted from 1482-99, it depicts a jumble-y garden pergola with 16 mulberry trees bound together by a golden rope. Mulberry trees were associated with wisdom and prudence.

For many centuries the frescos were hidden under a thick layer of whitewash. They were only discovered 1893-94. After restoration, the hall was reopened to public. But the restorers misinterpreted Leonardo’s initial design, adding excessive details. In 1954, a second restoration took place and all the non-Leonardo additions were removed.

As with The Last Supper, painted in seco fresco, it's in a state of disrepair and conservation is ongoing. In the Sala delle Asse, you can also view a multi-media presentation about Leonardo and The Last Supper.

READ: All of Leonardo da Vinci's Paintings

Address: Piazza Castello

Hours: Castle courtyards open daily from 7:00 am to 7:30 pm. The museum is open Tuesday 2:00 pm to 5:30 pm& Wed to Sun 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm.

Entry fee: The Castle courtyards are free. Entry to the museums is 5.

Giorgio de Chirico, Philosopher's Troubles, 1925-26
Giorgio de Chirico, Philosopher's Troubles, 1925-26

14. Museo del Novecento

Right next door to the Royal Palace is Milan's 20th century art museum. It's housed in the Palazzo dell'Arengario. The impressive collection is a veritable who's who of the 1900s, with both Italian and International artists represented.

It focuses on the Futurist Movement, Spatialism, and Art Povera (art made from poor materials). While not as stunning as the Renaissance art Italy is most known for, this is still a worthwhile museum if you're in Milan for more than one day and/or love modern art.

The must see masterpieces include Giorgio de Chirico's Philosopher's Troubles, Arturo Martini's Thirst, and Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo's The Fourth Estate.

The museum also boasts a fantastic view of the Duomo

Address: Via Marconi 1

Hours: Mon 2:30 pm to 7:30 pm, Tues to Sun 9:30 am to 7:30 pm

Entry fee: 10

Pro tip: The museum's cafe overlooks Piazza del Duomo

Grande Canal of the Navigli
Grande Canal of the Navigli

15. Canals of the Navigli

The Navigli is a picturesque canal area full of life, history, and character. It's where locals go to escape the bustle of the city. Milan's canal system dates from the late 13th century, when canals were installed to carry marble to the Duomo for construction (as well as other goods).

Many of the canals were designed in part by Leonardo. But his greatest invention was the canal miter lock, an invention still in use in many places today. In the 1930s, many of Milan's canals were converted into roads.

The Navigli area is THE place to be at night. The area is crammed with bars, cafes, restaurants, clubs, and vintage clothing stores. Off the loud main drag, you can get an apertivo or nightcap at Iter.

You can also take a canal or gondola cruise. The first Sunday of every month, there's a large vintage market with high end antiques -- the Navigli Grand Antique Market.

Address: Naviglio Grande

Getting there: Take metro line 2 to Porta Genova