Despite how Milan is portrayed on the world’s stage, the city is anything but flashy. Many of its most interesting sights and attractions are not readily apparent, so you’ll need to dig a little deeper to discover the gems that really make the city unique. Luckily, Milan is surprisingly walkable and at times feels more like a compact town than a major European metropolis. And once you start chipping away at its foreboding exterior, you’ll find untold treasures below the surface: priceless works of art, eccentric beautiful buildings, world-class restaurants and oases of calm. Explore the best things to do in Milan and remember: appearances aren’t everything.
Best things to do in Milan
The aperitivo is considered an institution in Milan, and no visit would be complete without partaking in this pre-dinner ritual. The tradition got its start in the late 19th century, when Gaspare Campari, intent on serving a drink that stimulated rather than spoiled the appetite, began serving his eponymous bitter aperitif. As more drinks were developed, more nibbles were added to the offerings; it’s common now to find bars with elaborate buffet spreads.
Go for a night out in the Navigli District
Constructed over hundreds of years, with input from da Vinci himself, Milan’s system of navigable and interconnected canals granted the landlocked city more access to the outside world. Today, the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese are some of the only canals still visible, and around them have sprung up a torrent of bars, restaurants and cafes that thrum with activity on weekend nights. Pull up a stool at Rita & Cocktails for a Gin Zen, or Rebelot for sublime glass of wine.
Perhaps one of the most famous paintings in the world, Leonard da Vinci’s The Last Supper has been reproduced to death, but no tote bag or mouse pad or even large-scale reproduction can adequately capture da Vinci’s emotionally charged mural. Unlike frescoes, which are painted on wet plaster and thus must be completed rather quickly, da Vinci used tempera paints on a dry wall, after sealing the stone with dried plaster and adding an undercoat of white lead to achieve greater luminosity.
Milan’s Teatro alla Scala is one of the most celebrated opera houses in Europe and has been since its founding in the late 18th century by Archduchess Maria Theresa, the Hapsburg ruler responsible for a number of the city’s cultural institutions. While the sumptuous crimson- and gold-coloured interior can be glimpsed on a visit to the theater’s museum, nothing beats joining the vociferous crowd for a night of music.
This massive football shrine–it’s one of the largest stadiums in Europe and the largest in Italy–is a testament to the popularity of both A.C. and Inter, Milan’s two football teams. The stadium was consistently enlarged over the first half of the 20th century to accommodate more and more fans, eventually reaching a capacity of around 80,000 people.
When you’re in Milan, forget about pizza and pasta. Sure, both are available and can be downright heavenly. But regional distinctions shape culinary traditions, and in Lombardy the fare is heartier than down south, with more meat and rice dishes on offer. The best contemporary takes on traditional Milanese cuisine can be found at Ratanà, a restaurant in Isola owned by the imaginative chef Cesare Battisti.
Housed in a former tram depot, this spa has several saunas and an elegant tea room on the ground floor. But downstairs is where the magic happens: in this underground lair there is a warren of stone rooms featuring warm baths, cold baths, geyser pools, a Jacuzzi waterfall and more. Outside, in addition to the tram sauna, there are three warm pools spread out through the garden.
Track down street art in Isola
Formerly cut off from Milan, this neighbourhood has managed to retain a bit of its grit even as the nearby Porta Nuova building project has opened access to the area and paved the way for gentrification. But amidst this change, it’s still possible to explore the neighbourhood on foot and search out street art, which was mostly completed by commissioned locals. Some can be found on Via Carmagnola and Via Angella della Pergola, as well as at the entrance to Frida, a cafe and restaurant housed in an artsy warehouse.
Bar Luce, a café designed by Wes Anderson for Fondazione Prada, is the stuff of Instagram dreams. The vintage pinball machines and jukebox, the veneered wood wall panels and the bubblegum pink and powder blue Formica furniture are just begging to be photographed. They are also reminiscent of Italian popular aesthetics from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as many Wes Anderson’s sets, particularly for his film The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Join a street food crawl in Chinatown
Milan’s Chinatown may not be large, but it certainly packs a punch. There are markets to peruse and restaurants to settle into, as well as street food joints and bars that lend themselves to a proper food crawl. Begin at La Ravioleria Sarpi, where you can purchase steamed buns filled with pork or vegetable dumplings, before crossing the street to Cantine Isola, a wine bar with a homey atmosphere and knowledgeable barmen. Finish off with a gelato at Chateau Dufan.
Rent a bike and ride down the canals
Milan and cycling go hand in hand, and with numerous bike-sharing schemes, such as BikeMi and Mobike, now available, it’s never been easier to hop in the saddle. One of the most scenic routes is along the Naviglio della Martesana; the bike path on this smaller canal, located northeast of the city centre, passes by meadows and farms, and eventually reaches the town of Gorgonzola, where you can take a break to indulge in the buttery, soft, Italian blue cheese that residents claim originated in the area.
Train travel is romanticised, but rightly so. There’s something about watching the world go by from a train window. The transportation authority in Milan has capitalised on this idea, turning two of the city’s historic trams into restaurants on wheels that offer lunch and dinner runs. It’s pure joy to eat your way through a five-course menu as the tram rumbles around Milan.
Bocce clubs used to be considered démodé, a place where retirees gathered to play cards, drink, socialise and play bocce. Recently, though, they have been embraced by younger generations, many of whom are attracted to their throwback appeal. Housed in a former railway station, La Balera dell’Ortica offers plenty of space for games and dancing, and you’re bound to see people of all ages letting their hair down.
Housed in a former railway shed situated beneath the tracks of Milan’s Central Station, Tunnel Club has been in the vanguard of one of the most robust electronic music scenes in Europe since the 1990s. Despite setbacks in the early aughts, the venue has recently asserted itself as a trendsetter in Milan’s clubbing scene with its techno, trance and house DJ sets. The vibe is more underground than upmarket, and people come here almost exclusively for the music rather than to see and be seen.
Window shop in Milan’s ‘golden triangle’
You can’t visit the world’s fashion capital and not at least window shop. The best place to do so is the so-called “Golden Triangle,” an area that encompasses the Via della Spiga, Via Sant’Andrea and Via Montenapoleone. There you will find all the luxury brands, both Italian–Prada, Versace, Armani and Dolce e Gabbana all set up shop for the first time in Milan and have maintained their presence in the city–and foreign, such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent.
In spite of the incredible and varied wines Italy produces, the country has fallen hard for craft beer. One of the most popular breweries in Milan is Birrificio Lambrate, which got its start in 1996, before the craft beer craze hit. When they first began, they had a capacity of 150 liters per batch and had two types of beer on tap at their pub; today, they have a capacity of 2,000 liters per batch and operate both a pub and pub-restaurant.
Rossana Orlandi has a reputation for plucking young designers from obscurity and launching their careers. An arbiter of taste, she is renowned for her interest in new ideas and offbeat design. So exhibiting work at her 19,000-square-foot shop-cum-gallery, located in a former tie factory in Sant’Ambrogio, has become a rite of passage for many of today’s top designers.
Nina Yashar is one of Milan’s top design dealers, having made a name for herself collecting and selling 20th-century Italian furniture. She has operated her gallery on Via della Spiga since 1979, but it was only recently, in 2015, that she opened her depot, a massive warehouse showcasing her collection of vintage and contemporary design pieces that she has assembled over the years.
Pasticceria Cucchi in Porta Genova has been baking panettone in its humble kitchen for over 70 years and the results have been consistently excellent. Stop in their elegant, old-world shop to purchase a full cake, which unlike most other pastry shops Cucchi sells year-round. Or if you can, grab a curbside table–hot property on weekend mornings–and order a slice of their fluffy masterpiece to go with your morning cappuccino.
This sprawling 18th-century farmhouse is a little strip of countryside in the big city. Restored in 2002, the Cascina Cuccagna property now houses a restaurant, Un Posto a Milano, with a seasonal menu–all produce is supplied by local farms. There is also a garden, farmers’ market, guest house, communal spaces and a bar, which has become a favourite spot among young creative and families for aperitivo.