In addition to visiting the Duomo and going on a shopping spree, there are plenty of hidden corners to discover and a wide variety of cultural activities to do in Milan. It might not be the capital of Italy, but Milan is certainly it’s most stylish city. The streets, art and food all ooze a class and sophistication that is reminiscent of Paris in some ways. From the suited and booted business people talking money over a cappuccino, to the ultra-stylish Police force who have had uniforms designed by Armani in the past, looking good is a way of life here in Milan, and the Milanese people certainly do it well.
Follow us around Milan as we discover the most unexpected and memorable sites that the city has to offer. Sure, we all know that one of the best things to do in Milan, or anywhere in Italy for that matter, is to eat! But where can you find delicious, authentic Italian food off the tourist trail? Read on to find out.
1. See Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper mural is located inside the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in the heart of the city. It’s one of the must-see things to do in Milan for any tourist as it’s perhaps one of the most iconic pieces of art ever to be made. Viewing this mural is so in demand that visitors are given just 15 minutes to take it all in, before being told to move on from the room where it is located. As you can imagine thanks to its popularity, booking your ticket beforehand is highly recommended!
2. Wander around Navigli, Milan’s most popular neighborhood
The Navigli district is a spectacular and lively location best visited at night. There are a lot of restaurants, cafes, galleries, and shops to see here. Before stopping for dinner, go for a walk along the canals and admire the reflection of the houses on the water. When walking around the Navigli area, make sure to stop at the Vicolo dei Lavandai, a charming little street where the people of Milan used to wash their clothes up until the 1950’s. The name means “Washer Alley”, and to this day the slab stones over which the washermen and women used to do their laundry are still there.
Navigli’s streets are a nostalgic reminder of Milan in the olden days. These days, the neighbourhood attracts the creative and artistic. The side streets and courtyards showcase many independently owned art galleries. As well as its artistic spirit, Navigli is also well known for its sunsets. The Naviglio Grande river parts the buildings, creating space for long, beautiful sunsets that cast a golden light over the area. The best place to catch a sunset in Milan is over the Naviglio Grande, at the top just beside Viale Gorizia.
3. Enjoy an aperitivo
Forget everything you think you know about aperitivos. The aperitivo Milanese is the echelon of class and Italian flair. Young and old alike take part in the daily aperitivo, using it as an excuse to socialize, drink their colourful pre-dinner drinks and have a bite to eat. As soon as 5pm hits, the tables outside the bars will fill up, so make sure to grab a seat where you can! A typical aperitivo drink comes with small bites to eat such as mini pizzas, small sandwiches, and the classic bowl of peanuts. However, there are places that go the extra mile if that doesn’t quite hit the spot for you. Many bars in Milan will hike up the price of their cocktails, but in turn will lay out a buffet of food where you can serve yourself as many times as you like, in exchange for purchasing one drink. You might be charged 10 to 15 Euro for a drink, but it comes with an all-you-can-eat buffet, so it sounds like a good deal to us. One of the most popular places for an aperitivo in Milan is the Terrazza Aperol (Italians love their aperol spritz). It has one of the best views in the city from the terrace, and the food is impeccable.
Ready for an aperitivo?
4. Spend the day at Lake Como
You know the one. Made famous by George Clooney, Madonna, Richard Branson and many more celebrities who have chosen this small Italian lake to be the backdrop to their holiday homes. One day-trip here and you’ll see why. La dolce vita might as well have been invented here, on the shores of Lake Como. Quaint villages with cobbled alleys, opulent lakeside villas, glistening greeny-blue waters, all cozily cocooned by the surrounding mountains. Life is much slower here than in Milan, and it’s one of the many reasons why the rich and famous choose to have their houses here. A trip to Lake Como is one of our favourite things to do in Milan. It’s an idyllic paradise with plenty to explore, and the locals are notoriously welcoming too.
Getting to Lake Como from Milan is easy. You can take a train directly from Milan city centre to the Como Lago Station and it only takes about 40 minutes. Alternatively, you can rent a car and make your own way there. The drive from Milan to Lake Como is about 1 and a half hours.
5. Go shopping at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the oldest shopping malls in the world. It’s a beautiful space where many locals like to spend their free time. The central space is topped with a glass dome, letting the sunshine through but also keeping the area dry when it rains (for that reason, it’s the perfect thing to do in Milan on a rainy day!). The shopping centre houses mainly high-end boutiques such as Prada, Louis Vuitton and Gucci, but it’s also home to numerous restaurants and cafes, such as the Café Biffi, founded in 1867.
As with many historical buildings, there is an old legend that surrounds the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Under the central dome you will see a mosaic featuring various animals that represent some of Italy’s most important cities. The story goes that if you step your right foot on to the bull of the mosaic, and then turn 360° with your eyes closed, you will have good luck. Similarly, if you’re lucky enough to step on the bull as the clock strikes midnight on the 31st of December, you will have good luck for the whole year!
6. Try the traditional dessert of Panettone
If you’re visiting Milan around Christmas time, you won’t have to look far to sample some Panettone, a typical dessert eaten around Christmas and the New Year, originating from Milan. So ingrained is Panettone into Italian culture, that many Italians will tell you that it’s the sight of Panettone being stocked on shop shelves that really lets them know Christmas is coming. The texture is something between a cake and sweet bread, with candied fruits and raisins inside. It’s light and fluffy and ever so moreish. The most beloved panettone can be found at the Pasticceria Cucchi – but you’ll have to go at the right time of year. If you want to try a slice at any time of the year, then your best bet is Pasticceria Marchesi who serve it all year round.
7. Get flipped off in Piazza Affari
Slap bang in the middle of the beautiful Piazza Affari stands a colossal sculpture of a middle finger. Poignantly placed in front of Milan’s Stock Exchange building. There is some controversy surrounding the direction in which the finger is pointing: it is positioned in such a way that it seems like the Stock Exchange is flipping off the rest of the world. Whether that’s meant to be the case or not remains a secret by the sculptor, Maurizio Cattelan, who has never opened up about its true meaning. Most see the sculpture as a bit of a giggle, and is a very popular place for people to have their photo taken in front of. The true meaning behind it is perhaps more sincere than is first apparent. At closer inspection, you will see that the fingers of the sculpture have been cut off to leave only the middle finger intact, the reason for this is not known. Cattelan named his sculpture L.O.V.E. – an acronym for Libertà, Odio, Vendetta, Eternità (Freedom, Hate, Vengeance, Eternity) and in his own words said that “it stands for love – but everyone can read between the lines and take away the message they see for themselves.”
8. Eat a cotoletta alla Milanese
Similar to a schnitzel, the cotoletta alla Milanese is a breaded cutlet fried in copious amounts of butter. Traditionally prepared using a veal rib chop or sirloin, the meat can be left on the bone or taken off. You may also see it on a menu as orecchia d’elefante (meaning elephant ear, affectionately named because of its shape). The cotoletta is a staple of Italian cuisine, and as the name suggests, was first invented in the Lombardy region, where Milan is located.
Where is the best place to eat a cotoletta alla Milanese in Milan? Osteria Brunello serves an award-winning cotoletta alla Milanese in an up-market setting. It’s absolutely delicious and well worth it. For something less fancy, try the family-run Il Ristorantino della Carne (the little meat restaurant). It has a mouth-watering selection of toppings and accompaniments to go with your cotoletta. Why not try a topping of mozzarella, tomato and oregano? Or perhaps some grilled vegetables?
To summarize, here is our list of the best things to do in Milan:
- See Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper
- Wander around Navigli
- Enjoy an aperitivo
- Spend the day at Lake Como
- Go shopping at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
- Try the traditional dessert of Panettone
- Get flipped off in Piazza Affari
- Eat a cotoletta alla Milanese
Now you know how to enjoy this stylish city at its best, all that’s left is to book your flight, and find a hotel in Milan for your stay. If you book your flight and hotel together, you’ll be able to get the best deals on offer!
Hoping to see more of Italy? See why Rome should be on your list of places to visit!