Known as Italy’s centre of industry, Milan has the same reputation when it comes to its urban architecture: industrial with lots of grey tones. And though the city was heavily bombed in the Second World War, there are still many beautiful attractions and excellent examples of Milan’s varied architectural and design history, such as the Duomo with its gothic spires and flying buttresses, or clusters of Liberty-style apartment buildings which knit together Art Nouveau flourishes and classical elements.
Today, Milan is booming as new high-rises and skyscrapers, like Bosco Verticale, are rearranging the skyline and arts institutions like Fondazione Prada are bolstering an already-bright cultural scene dotted with bars, restaurants, galleries and plenty of shops.
Most beautiful buildings in Milan
Milan Central Station (Milano Centrale)
Milano Centrale is not your average train station: it's an imposing, grandiose structure adorned with bombastic sculptures of winged horses, lions, bulls and eagles adorning its roof. The station, which is one of Europe’s largest, was built slowly over the course of the early 20th century, which accounts for the fact that the building melds several architectural styles, including art deco, with an added dash of Fascist-era motifs (King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy laid the cornerstone of the station on 1906, but it was completed during Mussolini’s rule).
Despite being built over the course of six centuries, Milan’s transcendent cathedral stayed true to the Gothic style of architecture. The slender, spindly spires are almost too many to count and, when taken with the rows of flying buttresses, symbolise heavenly aspirations. Walk around the outside or on the roof and you’ll lose count of the gargoyles–it’s said that there are more than 3,500 exterior statues, which stand alongside large stained-glass windows. But the best view is still from the front, where the ornamented façade will leave you wonderstruck.
Striking from any vantage point, this 15th-century redbrick castle has served as family residence, military citadel and now museum complex. Leonardo da Vinci himself designed the defenses, and to this day the ramparts still give off an impregnable air, even if the only beings on guard are the feral cats that stalk the overgrown moat. The tower, completed in 1905, is the work of Luca Beltrami; he honored the original tower (which collapsed centuries ago) while still adding his own touches, like the large clock whose radiant sun motif is a riff on the Sforza coat of arms.
Fondazione Prada, which occupies a former gin distillery in southern Milan, stands out for its unique mix of reimagined existing buildings and new structures–people visit the complex as much for the architecture as for the art on display. Most striking are Torre—a nine-storied white concrete tower with sharp angles and strategic cut outs that house the permanent exhibition—and the ‘Haunted House,’ an existing building that was covered entirely in a dazzling 24-carat gold leaf, adding a bit of dazzle to the sleek and slightly muted exteriors.
Created by Studio Boeri and led by star architect Stefano Boeri, the two plant- and tree-covered towers of the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) are pleasing to both the eyes and the lungs. In an act of environmentally responsible urban design, around 800 trees and 15,000 plants (in total equivalent to a 20,000-sqm forest) have been planted on the cantilevered balconies that are spread across the high-rises at uneven intervals. The variety in plant life means that the façade is not just striking, but also ever-changing.
Villa Necchi Campiglio
This rationalist-style mansion, built by the prominent architect Piero Portaluppi for the Necchi Campiglio family in the 1930s, is built on half an acre of land in Milan’s historic centre. The home was equipped with what was, at the time, cutting-edge technology: elevators, intercoms and the first private heated swimming pool in Milan. The family lived in the house until 2001, which makes touring the beautiful interiors–the high-ceilinged rooms, the mint green tiled kitchen, the exquisite veranda–feel like visiting a (very wealthy) friend’s home.
While this flamboyant apartment building's architectural touches like the wrought-iron balconies and decorative stone work are charming, what really catches the eye are the painted ceramic tiles depicting floral displays and Art Nouveau beauties, some half-dressed and others in seductive poses, on a gilded backdrop. The building stands in what is known as Milan’s Liberty cluster, so it’s worth taking a stroll on the surrounding streets, although none of the other buildings are quite as impressive.
Palazzo Castiglioni, completed in 1904, is a grand palace in the Liberty style. The rusticated blocks on the façade’s ground floor, which are meant to look like natural rock, and the stone sculptures of leaves and flowers that frame the windows is a dramatic contrast to the building’s smooth stone walls. It was remodeled as an office complex in the 1960s, meaning that most of the original interiors are gone, but it’s still possible to admire the alluring exterior.
Connecting Piazza del Duomo with La Scala, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a high-end shopping arcade that has kept its luster in spite of its old age–luxury brands with delightfully retro shop windows rub shoulders with classic white-tablecloth restaurants and a few splashy newcomers to the dining scene. The mosaic floors and the four mosaics representing Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas in the corners of the central octagon are certainly memorable, but the most impressive sight is more utilitarian in nature: the steel-and-glass canopy dating to 1867.
Casa-Museo Boschi di Stefano
What makes this 1930s art deco apartment block stand out is architect Piero Portaluppi’s unique design: the corners of the top three stories look as if they were sliced off. On each of these floors, he tacked on a rectangular shape that bears resemblance to a covered sunroom; on two floors, a curved balcony surrounds the protruding sunroom in a triangular shape. The building’s interior boasts a house museum featuring the impeccable modern Italian art collection of husband-and-wife art collectors Antonio Boschi and Marieda di Stefano, who used to live in the building.
More breathtaking sights in Milan
Attractions in Milan don't necessarily dazzle the eye, but walk into the city’s stately palazzos 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.