48 Hours in Milan: The Ultimate Itinerary

milan shops photo
Igor Saveliev/Pixabay

If your travels to Italy take you to Milan, you'll find a busy, largish city with a tight cluster of touristic sites in the centro storico, or historic center. Depending on your interests, there are dozens of potential itineraries for a few days in Milan—you could easily pass your time in its many art museums, dedicate yourself to a shopping marathon or take in as many performing arts events as possible. Assuming you want a little taste of a lot of what Milan has to offer, we've developed this itinerary for what to see, where to eat, sleep and shop, and how to have an unforgettable 48 hours in Milan.

01 of 05

Day 1: Morning

Milan Cathedral and Piazza del Duomo
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10 a.m.: You'll likely arrive in Milan via plane or train. Most international flights land at Malpensa airport, which has easy connections to the main train station, Milano Centrale. For convenience and budget options, choosing from one of the dozens of hotels by the train station means you can drop your bags and start sightseeing right away. Starhotels E.c.ho. is a moderately priced, eco-friendly and chic option, while budget-friendly Ostello Bello Grande hostel offers dorms and private rooms, plus a friendly vibe. If you want to be closer to Milan's touristic heart, head towards the Duomo and check into Rosa Grand, a highly-rated 4-star with modern interiors, or TownHouse Duomo, in an opulent building facing the famous Piazza del Duomo.

11 a.m.: Once you've dropped your bags and freshened up, head towards the Duomo, but not before stopping off for a mid-morning espresso or cappuccino. Giacomo Caffe is a cozy and welcoming spot with a shabby-chic, literary flair, where you'll find both breakfast pastries and lunchtime salads, sandwiches, and light fare. Afterward, brace yourself for one of the most magnificent sights in Europe—or the world, for that matter—the Piazza del Duomo, the cultural and geographical heart of Milan. Flanked by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade and the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace), now the seat of the city government, the centerpiece of the piazza is, of course, the Duomo itself—the massive Gothic cathedral famous for its many spires and elaborate ornamentation. To ensure you make the most of your time, buy your timed-entrance tickets to the Duomo in advance. Different ticket schemes allow you to visit the crypt, archaeological area and the ornate rooftop, where you can see those spires up close.

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02 of 05

Day 1: Afternoon

Milan, Lombardy, Italy.

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1 p.m.: This is your day dedicated to seeing the sights right in the center of the city, so don't stray too far from the Duomo for lunch. While it's not the cheapest place in town to eat, the elegant arcades of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II house several cafes and restaurants where you can watch the parade of tourists, shoppers, and Milanese businesspeople go by in this historic arcaded complex. After lunch, head over to Venchi, at the adjacent Park Hyatt hotel, and sample some of Italy's most celebrated chocolate or gelato (or both!). After lunch, walk over to the Castello Sforzesco, the city's fortified, 15th-century castle, now a museum complex and major landmark. Tickets to the castle include access to all its museums, but you probably won't have time to see them all—choose a few that interest you the most. Afterward, if the weather is nice, wander the Parco Sempione, the vast public park behind the castle.

4 p.m.: You've got time for one more museum, and Milan offers an embarrassment of choices. If you are interested in science and technology—or you have kids in tow—head to the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci, which uses the Renaissance master's drawings and inventions to explain the evolution of science. Note that this museum is only open until 5 p.m. on weekdays, and until 6:30 p.m. on weekends. The Pinacoteca di Brera (open until 7:15 p.m.) houses a vast and essential collection of mostly Italian masterworks. On a smaller but no less impressive scale, the Ambrosian Library (Biblioteca Pinacoteca Accademia Ambrosiana) holdings, including an ornate 17th-century library straight out of a Harry Potter film, plus a gallery with works from Da Vinci, Raphael, and Jan Brueghel, the Elder. The library closes at 5 p.m.; the gallery is open until 6 p.m.

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03 of 05

Day 1: Evening

La Scala Theatre at night, Milan, Italy
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7 p.m.: You are faced with a cultural fork in the road. If opera, dance or classical music appeal to you, then you must take in a performance at La Scala, Milan's celebrated, historic opera house. Evening shows start at either 7:30 or 8 p.m., meaning you've got time for a quick bite before curtain call. Head out from your hotel early and find one of the fast-ish food eateries on or near Piazza del Duomo—not McDonald's or Burger King, please!—and grab something either on the go or that you can eat quickly. Il Panzerotto del Senatore offers delicious handheld, hot sandwiches similar to calzones. Closer to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Spontini pizzeria is a standing-only or take away joint selling pizza by the slice. It's not the most elegant pre-theatre meal, but it will ensure you're not late for the first aria.

If La Scala is not your scene, then you get to partake in that most Italian of evening rituals, the aperitivo—and few cities do it better than Milan, the city where the concept was born. The term means "to wake up the appetite," and the tradition consists of a before-dinner drink or two with light snacks. Some bars provide the snacks for free with your drink order; others charge a flat fee for a drink or two and an all-you-can-graze appetizer buffet. At Terrazza Aperol, you'll pay for the location, as an aperitivo here comes with a prime view of the Duomo. In the San Marco neighborhood east of the Castello, N'Ombra di Vin is a classy wine bar serving high-quality cheeses and cured meats. After you've whetted your appetite, head into the charming Brera neighborhood for dinner, where renowned Tartufotto by Savini Tartufi offers course after course of dishes featuring pungent black and white truffles, alternatively, head up to Milan's Chinatown for casual dining on or near Via Paolo Sarpi. Favorite spots include Ravioleria Sarpi and Ramen a Mano noodle house, a few blocks away.

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04 of 05

Day 2: Morning

ITALY-CULTURE-ARTS-HISTORY-PAINTING-DAVINCI
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8:15 a.m.: After an early breakfast at your hotel, get ready for the event you've reserved ahead months in advance—your visit to Santa Maria Delle Grazie, home of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous work (okay, maybe after the Mona Lisa), The Last Supper. Seriously, you'll need to book at least four months in advance and check the website regularly for ticket availability. You'll have a whopping 15 minutes to view da Vinci's masterpiece. Assuming you've booked an early time slot, you'll have the rest of the morning free for some casual sightseeing as you make your way back to your hotel or lunch stop. If you're heading back towards the centro, Corso Magenta, where Santa Maria Delle Grazie is located, is also home to Leonardo's Vineyard, a house and garden once occupied by da Vinci. Closer to centro, the Civic Archaeological Museum has an impressive collection of Roman, Greek, and Etruscan artifacts.

12:30 p.m.: If you're feeling the rumblings of lunchtime hunger pangs, Al Cantitone offers traditional, authentic Milanese fare and has two locations in the centro storico—one near Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and another near Piazza del Duomo.

2 p.m.: We've set aside some time this afternoon for you to partake in that most Milanese of Milan pastimes—shopping. If name brands and made-in-Italy labels appeal to you, you'll be spoiled for choices in the city. Corso Buenos Aires is the main drag connecting Milano Centrale station to the centro. It's lined with mainstream retailers, but it gets more expensive the closer it gets to the city center. Corso Buenos Aires runs into the Quadrilatero Della Moda (the fashion rectangle), also called the Quadrilatero d'Oro (the gold rectangle) for its reputation as Milan's most exclusive, expensive shopping district. Even if you can't afford to take home any treasures from Gucci, Prada, and Versace, it's still fun to window-shop, and people watch here.

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05 of 05

Day 2: Afternoon

Navigli Milano

Giuseppe Costanza/CC BY-SA 2.0

4 p.m.: If you're more of a vintage or resale shopper, head early to the Navigli district, where you'll also be having dinner. This triangle-shaped area southwest of the city center is defined by two canals, the Naviglio Pavese and Naviglio Grande, which once carried people and merchandise in and out of the city. Today, the Navigli area is known for its bohemian vibe, and as an excellent place for thrift shopping, finding one-of-a-kind clothes, accessories, and housewares at designer boutiques, and for its weekend flea and antique markets. Try Guendj for vintage leather, and be sure to wander along the banks of both canals in search of fashionable souvenirs of your trip.

7 p.m.: Navigli is an excellent neighborhood for dining and nightlife, beginning, of course, with aperitivo. La Prosciutteria on Naviglio Grande is a great place to start. Or stray just a little way's from the canals, over to the Darsena, the harbor where the two Navigli canals meet, and head to Vista Darsena, a waterfront bar with plenty of indoor and outdoor space, a generous aperitivo spread and a good cocktail list. From there, venture back to Navigli for dinner at one of its many small, exciting eateries. For creative versions of typical northern Italian fare, try chic Nebbia, just west of the Naviglio Pavese canal. If it's tradition you seek, Trattoria Della Gloria is a casual, family-run trat with friendly prices and authentic Milanese dishes.

After dinner, stroll along the canals, maybe stopping off for some live music and an after-dinner drink. Or taxi or Metro back to the centro storico, and be sure to stop off for a nighttime view of Piazza del Duomo—breathtakingly lit after dark. From Milan, whether you choose to visit Turin (Torino), Lake Como, or head south to Genoa, there's still plenty of Italy to discover!

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