Despite being a true cultural mecca – with plenty of museums, restaurants, things to do and a booming fashion industry – Milan is a city that keeps its cards close to its chest. In fact, attractions in Milan don’t necessarily dazzle, aside from a few splashy signatures like the Duomo, Castello Sforzesco and the relatively recent spire-topped Unicredit skyscraper. But walk into the city’s stately palazzos (some of Milan's most beautiful buildings) and you’ll find treasure troves of Renaissance paintings. Or peek inside a former industrial warehouse and you’ll come across thoughtfully curated exhibitions of contemporary art and design.
Even Milan’s shiny new high-rises are emblematic of the city’s dynamism and forward-thinking approach to urban development. So yes, at first glance, it may not be the most conspicuous Italian city, but there’s plenty to discover if you scratch below the surface. Get a head start with our pick of the top ten must-see attractions in Milan.
Milan’s most famous landmark by a long shot, the Duomo is one of those rare structures that can accurately be described as awe-inspiring. A jaunt inside the 14th-century cathedral is worthwhile to glimpse the airy marble interiors and the exquisite stained-glass windows, which were wisely placed in a crypt for safekeeping during the Second World War; purchase your ticket online to skip the lines at the ticket office.
This massive complex is more akin to an open-air art museum than a somber graveyard. Built in the mid-19th century, the cemetery is the final resting place of some of Milan’s most famous personalities, including politicians, a climber who fell to his death and a race car driver who met his fate dramatically and entirely too young.
This museum holds the pick of Italy’s masters, including Titian, Raphael, Caravaggio and the Bellini brothers. The huge Napoleon statue in the palace’s courtyard alludes to the origins of this collection–many of the most impressive paintings were looted from Venice and brought to Milan, the capital of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, under the orders of the French general.
This relatively new neighbourhood has seen Milan grow up and fast. The flashy, spire-topped Unicredit Tower—proudly claiming the title of Italy’s tallest skyscraper—has redefined Milan’s skyline. But perhaps the most eye-catching towers here, despite their more modest heights (the tallest being half that of the Unicredit), is the Bosco Verticale residential complex – a veritable garden in the sky. Across 8,900 square metres of terraces are more than 900 trees, bushes and flora. It's a surreal, but wonderful sight.
The most interesting up-and-coming art areas in the city can be found on its fringes. Take Hangar Biccoca, an immense and immensely popular contemporary art space located in what used to be a locomotive manufacturing plant on the northern edge of the city. While other buildings in this former factory district have been repurposed as shopping centres, this wide-open hangar has been transformed into an exhibition space.
Opened in 1933 as the headquarters of the Triennale di Arte Decorativa (Italy’s decorative arts, industrial design and architecture triennial), this classical monumental-style building now houses a design museum. The rich permanent collection showcases the history of Italian design–it’s like a living catalog of the best Italian-made objects.
In a city obsessed with fashion, it’s no surprise that clothes are not just sold in upscale boutiques and showrooms but are also displayed in galleries (in fact, you could argue that there’s not much of a difference between the two). One such place is Armani Silos, Giorgio Armani’s own museum that opened in 2015. Around 600 of his fashion designs made over the last 40 years are on view.
Built by Francesco Sforza in the fifteenth century, this castle was originally a family residence, and quite an imposing one at that. It was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that its signature Filarete Tower was added to the façade by Luca Beltrami as part of a partial reconstruction. The halls that once held Napoleon’s troops now constitute the city’s largest exhibition complex.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II epitomises the Italian flair for retail commerce. This glass-vaulted shopping arcade, which was built between 1865 and 1877 to link the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Scala, is chockfull of luxury designer shops and white-tablecloth establishments. Even if you don’t fancy shopping, the arcade is worth visiting from an architectural standpoint.
Proudly giving life the finger in Milan's financial district is this bold artwork, created by Italian satirical sculptor Maurizio Cattelan in 2010. Some say it's a push back at the bankers responsible for the economic crisis of 2008, which hit the country hard, while others see it carrying a weighty political message. Whatever the meaning behind it, there's no denying that it's quite a sight to behold.