As host to the 2015 World Expo, the fashion and finance capital has spiffed up once shabby corners of the city: The canal district has been restored and the historic harbor redeveloped. Even the city’s crown jewel, the grand Duomo di Milano, is resplendent after a three-year renovation. All the more for frugal travelers to discover.
Oscar Wilde deemed it an awful failure, D.H. Lawrence likened it to a hedgehog, and Mark Twain was awed by it (“so airy, so graceful!”). Luckily, admission to the Duomo is free, so you can form your own impression. Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the first duke of Milan, proposed his plan to erect the biggest church in Italy in 1386, but the imposing neo-Gothic cathedral wasn’t finished until 1812, under Napoleon Bonaparte. (The epic pace of construction spawned the use of the colloquial expression fabrica del Dom to describe an impossible task).
There’s plenty to see in the Duomo's vast interior, including the enormous stained-glass windows and a statue of St. Bartholomew by Marco d’Agrate, depicting the martyr’s flayed skin draped over his shoulders. An elevator ride to the roof is worth the charge of 12 euros (climb the stairs for 7 euros) to marvel at the thousands of gargoyles and statues carved from pink Candoglia marble. And it affords an unbeatable view of the city—and, on clear days, the Alps—through the soaring spires. Note to shutterbugs: A two-euro pass is required to snap photos of the cathedral (even with your smartphone).
Named for and founded by the city’s patron saint, the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio was consecrated in 386 and rebuilt in the 11th century in the Romanesque style. The interior is packed with medieval art, but one of the biggest attractions is in the crypt: the skeletal remains of St. Ambrose, fully decked out in bishop regalia.
Other churches worth a visit include Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore for its 16th-century frescoes, and San Bernadino alle Ossa, known for its ossuary decorated with human bones and skulls.
Among the Greek temples, intricate obelisks, and Italian sculptures in Monumental Cemetery are the graves of some of the most prominent Milanese, including conductor Arturo Toscanini and revolutionary Anna Kuliscioff. Guided tours are free.
Window-shopping and people-watching don't get much better than at the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, the belle-epoque shopping arcade between La Scala and the Duomo. Here, chic Milanese and well-heeled tourists peruse the latest ready-to-wear collections from Louis Vuitton and Prada’s flagship store. Lore has it that turning your heel on the mosaic of the bull on the floor brings you good luck. Find more haute couture—Giorgio Armani, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana—in and around the Quadrilatero d'Oro (Golden Rectangle), bordered by Via Monte Napoleone, Via Manzoni, Via della Spiga, and Via Borgopresso.
Admire the 15th-century Castello Sforzesco, built as a residence for Francesco Sforza, the duke of Milan, atop the remains of a 14th-century fortification once home to the Visconti lords. The crowning glory is the fairy-tale central tower, or Torre del Filarete, designed by Renaissance sculptor and architect Antonio di Pietro Averlino (aka Filarete). Today, the castle houses several small art museums that waive their five-euro admission on Tuesdays from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Highlights: Michelangelo’s "Pietà Rondanini"—depicting the Virgin Mary standing with Jesus in her arms on a first-century Roman funerary altar—at the Museum of Ancient Art and the newly renovated Pinacoteca, whose collection includes masterpieces by Antonello da Messina and Cesare da Sesto.
Housed in a former convent dating from the eighth century, the Museo Archeologico features sections dedicated to ancient Milan, Israel, the Etruscans, and Greece (an Egyptian collection is on display at the Castello Sforzesco, about half a mile away). Don’t miss the Trivulzio Diatreta Cup, an etched, decorative glass vessel considered to be one of the most significant finds from the late Roman Empire. Admission for adults is five euros but free from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., the hour before it closes, and Tuesdays after 2 p.m. (closed Monday).
The elegant palazzi that make up the Gallerie d’Italia Piazza Scala tell the story of Italian art from the 19th century on with hundreds of works from the collections of Fondazione Cariplo and the Intesa San Paolo bank. Included are 13 bas-reliefs by Antonio Canova and "Spazio Inquieto T.1.," an abstract painting by Emilio Vedova. Admission is free.
With its five permanent display areas, including a paleontology section featuring Cyrus, a dinosaur skeleton complete with fossilized internal organs (evidently one of the few), children of all ages will find something to grab them at the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale (Natural History Museum). Temporary exhibitions have included "Food: The Science From the Seeds to Supper," which explored the history of food staples such as pasta and coffee. Kids under 18 get in free. Admission for adults is five euros but free during the last opening hour (4:30-5:30 p.m.) and Tuesdays after 2 p.m. (closed Monday).
Funded by tire giant Pirelli, HangarBicocca is dedicated to introducing the public, including children, to contemporary art in all forms. To that end, the museum hosts “creative sessions” for kids every weekend to help them interpret the latest exhibitions. For example, an installation by Céline Condorelli inspired a workshop geared toward eight- to ten-year-olds that explored the journey of a tire from rubber tree to work of art. Sessions are free but must be prebooked online. Daunted by contemporary art? The museum’s “cultural mediators” offer free hour-long guided tours of new exhibitions on opening days and 90-minute tours of shows on exhibit each Sunday at 5:30 p.m. (booking is required).
Milanese head to the leafy Public Gardens, or Giardini Pubblici, to stretch their legs, picnic under the hundred-year-old plane tree, or grab a coffee at Bar Bianco (conveniently located next to a merry-go-round for tots). There are three play areas for kids, as well as a train that winds around the grounds. The park is officially named Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli after the famous journalist who was shot nearby by the paramilitary group Red Brigades. Look for his statue near the Piazza Cavour gate.
Food and Drink
Come 6 or 7 p.m., bars in Milan are buzzing with locals enjoying aperitivo, the northern Italian version of happy hour. In contrast to the American tradition of after-work cocktail specials, the cost of a drink may actually go up at the magic hour (a glass of wine can run eight to ten euros), but the hors d’oeuvres offerings, ranging from olives and chips to more elaborate spreads, are frequently gratis. Milanese typically eat dinner after 9 p.m., so these nibbles are meant to hold one over. There’s no harm, however, in nursing a Negroni, enjoying a few snacks, and calling it dinner. (Caution: Make more than one pass at the buffet and risk some cold stares from fellow patrons). Students favor Trattoria Toscana for its generous spread of hearty fare such as baked pasta. The beau monde, meanwhile, heads to the rooftop pool of Ceresio 7, where the drinks are pricey (hello, 15-euro spritz) but the snacks are delicious—think flatbread stuffed with mortadella or mushrooms—and the view of the skyline is hard to beat.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Wander the peaceful paths at the University of Milan’s Cascina Rosa Botanic Garden to see typical Lombard habitats of azaleas, camellias, and Japanese hazel. Duck into the three state-of-the-art greenhouses for a glimpse of the university’s latest research.
Carved from the ducal gardens of the adjacent Castello Sforzesco in the 19th century, Parco Sempione was designed by architect Emilio Alemagna in the English landscape tradition, with winding trails and a small lake. Monuments abound, including the Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace)—erected to commemorate Napoleon’s victories – and Torre Branca, an iron tower that offers a 360-degree view of the city and beyond. Bonus: Wi-Fi is free throughout the park.
Partly designed by Leonardo da Vinci, the Navigli is a network of canals dug over the centuries to ease trade throughout the region (how did you think the marble used to build the Duomo was transported?). But the system was eclipsed by modern transport and fell into disrepair for much of the 20th century. Today, the canals are lined with bike paths and the district is lively with outdoor cafés, vintage shops, antiques stores, galleries, and nightclubs galore. Vintage lovers: With nearly 400 vendors, the antiques market that pops up on the banks of Naviglio Grande the last Sunday of every month is a must.
While its steel-and-glass architecture may seem out of step with the rest of neoclassical Milan, the newly developed Porta Nuova district is generating buzz for its sleek skyscrapers, such as architect Cesar Pelli’s Unicredit Tower with its dramatic spire, the tallest building in Italy. Grab an espresso, a spot in Piazza Gae Aulenti, and soak up the mod new skyline.