Milan in northern Italy is one of Europe’s most underrated cities. Many visitors arriving at Milan Airport are just passing through, on their way to the Italian lakes, mountains, or prettier cities like Verona or Venice.
Known for finance, fashion and industry, when I casually mentioned I was going to Milan, I received many comments like these – “what do you want to go there for?”, “It’s no Rome!”, “It’s a dirty city.” ‘It’s ugly and industrial.”
Worth pointing out that many of these comments came from people who had never actually visited Milan before.
So, why was I going to such a “terrible” place?
Well, I was on my way to Georgia (the country, not the state) and coming from Malta meant having to overnight. So, me being me, I decided to spend an extra night to get one full day in Milan. And that full day just happened to be my birthday.
And you know what? Milan was quite an incredible city to celebrate a birthday – great Italian food and gelato and plenty of fun and interesting sites to explore.
So, what is there to do in one full day and a little bit in Milan?
Take A Free Walking Tour
A walking tour is great when time is limited, and you want to see as much as possible in a short time. My flight from Malta was a little late, so I missed the train to Milan and the start of the tour.
But Chiara, the guide, kept me updated on WhatsApp on where they were, so I managed to catch up with the tour even though I was twenty minutes late. Already in Italian time!
I did this walk: The City Storytelling Experience: Art, History and Myths with Guru Walks and it was fascinating. But this wasn’t the only walking tour option; there were others.
Guru Walks are great; they offer free tours in many cities and are usually less crowded than the more popular free city walks.
Visit Milan’s Iconic Cathedral
If you only have time to see one thing in Milan, you must visit the imposing Duomo di Milano.
Located in the heart of the city, the building works of this stunning cathedral began in 1386 and took almost six centuries to complete. The façade was finished in 1805, just before Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned the King of Italy at the cathedral. The cathedral was completed in 1965.
Milan’s cathedral is one of the world’s biggest Christian churches and the largest gothic cathedral ever built. It can hold over 40,000 people.
It also has one of the largest organs in the world, with 15,800 pipes ranging from just a few centimetres in height to over nine metres.
As the Duomo is the number one place to visit in Milan, the queues are always long (even out of season).
So, it’s best to purchase tickets in advance. However, if you don’t want to buy a ticket online, arrive early, and try and purchase a ticket from the machines by the Duomo Museum.
You really should go up to the Duomo roof terraces for outstanding panoramic views of the city, and it’s not as scary as some other rooftops and towers I have climbed.
You can access the terraces on foot or by a lift. However, there is a fee to visit the cathedral and its rooftop.
Do note that even if you take the lift, there are still a few narrow, steep steps to climb to access the roof. And also, note that the elevator will only take you up; you have to walk back down, which will lead you straight into the cathedral.
As I expect is quite the norm, there is quite a bit of restoration work at the cathedral at the moment, but I still highly recommend going up to the terraces.
I had a 09:00 slot and happily pottered around the roof for an hour. By 10:00, the crowds started arriving thick and fast, which was my cue to leave.
Note to enter the Duomo, your shoulders and knees must be covered.
The Chiesa Di San Bernardino Alle Ossa
Now, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but I am weirdly fascinated by cemeteries, catacombs and ossuaries. So, when I heard about the Ossuary Chapel, just a five-minute walk from the Duomo, I knew I had to visit.
The ossuary chapel is reached through a narrow corridor to the right of the Chiesa Di San Bernardino Alle Ossa entrance.
It’s a small, simply furnished room, but the walls, doors, pillars, in fact, every possible space is filled with human skulls and bones.
Skeletons are even used as wall decorations. It is believed that the exhumed bones come from the deceased from the ex-Brolo leper hospital.
The skulls in cases above the entrance door belong to offenders condemned to death by beheading.
Interesting Fact About The Chiesa Di San Bernardino Alle Ossa
In 1728, King John V of Portugal visited the Chiesa Di San Bernardino Alle Ossa. He was so impressed that he decided to build an identical sanctuary in Evora, near Lisbon. He named it la Capela dos Ossos.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Italy’s Oldest Shopping Mall
The impressive and glamorous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is located just next to Piazza del Duomo. It is named after the first king of the Kingdom of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II.
This mall, one of the oldest shopping malls in the world and the oldest in Italy, is visually stunning and definitely worth a peek. However, as it’s filled with expensive designer shops, I didn’t hang around too long.
Fun fact about the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele:
There is a bull mosaic on the floor, and tradition says that you have to put your heel on the bull’s testicles and spin around three times for good luck.
Easier said than done. I fell over on the third spin, so I guess more bad luck is coming my way.
Piazza della Scala – Home To Milan’s Famous Opera House
As you walk through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele from Piazza del Duomo, you will arrive in Piazza della Scala, Milan’s second most famous square.
To your left is the Teatro alla Scala, Milan’s famous opera house. The building doesn’t look that impressive from the outside, but it’s fabulous inside.
Want to experience a show, then check the theatre website.
If you can’t get tickets for a show and don’t mind ‘limited view’ tickets, some tickets are available on the day. Register online and head to the ticket office before 1 pm.
Alas, there were no performances on the evening I was there.
Next to La Scala and in front of you, assuming you’re still standing in front of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, is the Palazzo della Banca Commerciale Italiana, one of Italy’s oldest banks. And to your right is the Palazzo Marino, Milan’s city hall.
Explore The Gorgeous Brera District
Brera is a beautiful district in Milan and a great place for a spot of lunch and strolling the streets thinking, ‘ooh, I could live here.’ It’s only a ten-minute walk from the Piazza della Scala.
With its cobblestoned streets, cute cafes and shops, it’s easy to spend a few hours wandering around Milan’s artistic centre.
They do food tours in Brera, which I would have loved to have done if I had had more than one day in Milan.
Castello Sforzesco is where the Sforza family, the Dukes of Milan lived.
Today it houses art collections and historical exhibitions.
You can enter the castle courtyard for free; it’s very close to Parco Sempione, Milan’s largest park. But I had no time to linger as I didn’t want to miss my slot to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.
See Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (Cenacolo Vinciano)
The 15th-century mural painting of the Last Supper is one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous works and a must-see even if you have only one day and a bit in Milan.
But you have to be organised; you can’t just show up when you want. Tickets need to be booked in advance . Even though the tickets go on sale three months in advance, they sell out quickly, even in the low season.
Each allotted visit is restricted to just 15 minutes, and they are very strict about that.
If you cannot get tickets directly from the museum, it is possible to book one of the many Last Supper Guided Tours.
Visit Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio
The Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio is one of the oldest churches in Milan. And where I would have begun my free walking tour had I been on time. The first building is from the 4th century A.D. The current Romanesque church is from the 11th century.
LOVE Middle Finger Statue
Located on Piazza Affari, where the Italian stock exchange has its headquarters, there is a marble statue depicting a hand with only its middle finger standing up.
The statue bears the title L.O.V.E., which stands for Libertà, Odio, Vendetta, Eternità (Freedom, Hate, Vengeance, Eternity).
Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, known for his provocative works created the statue in 2010.
The artist never explained the statue’s meaning. However most people believe it refers to the economic crisis that affected Europe – particularly Italy– from 2008 onwards.
Enjoy An Aperitivo In Navigli
The Navigli district is a picturesque neighbourhood in the canal area of Milan.
Milan’s canal system, designed in part by Leonardo Da Vinci, dates from the late 13th century. The canals were installed to carry marble to the Duomo for construction.
It’s a lovely place to explore. It’s more popular in the evenings, when people come to enjoy an aperitivo in one of the many bars and restaurants that line the canal.
However, I visited early in the morning just before heading back to the airport for my flight to Georgia.
Nearest metro stop to Navigli: P.TA Genova FS on line 2
Getting Around Milan
Most of the major tourist sites in Milan are close together, so it’s easy to navigate the city on foot. However, Milan’s metro system is incredibly straightforward to travel around on.
If you have a contactless card, you can just use that to access the metro. The standard fare is just two euros and valid on all transport forms for 90 minutes.
Where To Stay In Milan
The reason for my choice was I was only in Milan for such a short time and wanted to get to and from Milan Airport quickly.
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