Milan is Italy’s financial and fashion capital, so finding free – or even cheap - things to do here can be a challenge. Like our suggestions for Free Things to Do in Rome and Free Things to Do in Florence, this list of free things to do in Milan focuses on the city’s fantastic churches and spacious parks. But one of the best free activities in Milan is browsing the shop windows in the fashion district and watching the never-ending parade of chic Milanese as they go about their day.
Window Shopping in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
You will also find a lot of high-end stores, such as Prada and Gucci, in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the spectacular 19th-century shopping arcade near the Duomo. Known in Milan as “Il Salotto” (the “living room”), the Galleria connects Piazza del Duomo with Piazza della Scala, thereby inviting Milanese to walk on its beautiful tiled floor and under its steel and glass roof. If your budget does not allow for shopping or a café stop, you can still admire the Galleria’s many colorful mosaics, including one of a bull (“toro”), on which locals and tourists like to spin on for good luck.
A trip to Milan is not complete without a visit to the Milan Cathedral (Duomo), one of the largest churches in the world. The interior of the Duomo is vast – supported by 52 pillars and large enough to hold 40,000 worshippers – but it is not filled with art. There are, however, some works of interest here, including the 18th-century sundial, a gruesomely detailed statue of the flayed Saint Bartholomew, and lovely examples of stained glass. While entry to the Duomo is free, there is a small admission fee to visit the roof, where you can inspect the cathedral’s many spires, statues, and gargoyles and admire tremendous views of Milan.
The Castello Sforzesco, named after Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan, is a sprawling castle complex a few minutes northwest of the Duomo and is one of Milan’s most visited attractions. In the mid-15th century, Sforza built his castle residence on top of the foundations of a medieval fortress that had been erected by the ruling Visconti family of the 14th century. Among the features that Sforza commissioned were the castle’s courtyard, fountains, bridge (over a pre-existing moat), tower, and interior frescoes. Today, the castle is home to several small museums, including the Archeological Museum and Museum of Natural History, and it also plays host to concerts and special exhibitions throughout the year. Touring the grounds of Castello Sforzesco, including its tranquil courtyard (Il Cortile), is free, but there is a small entry fee to the museums.
Escaping the hustle and bustle of modern Milan is free and easy in the city’s parks. Two of the most accessible and best parks are Parco Sempione and the Giardini Pubblici. Between the Castello Sforzesco and the Arco della Pace (a triumphal arch reminiscent of the Arch of Constantine in Rome) lies Parco Sempione, which is dotted with monuments and fountains and also includes a small lake and winding paths ideal for jogging or strolling. Closer to the Quadrilatero d’Oro is the Giardini Pubblici (Public Gardens). The Giardini Pubblici occupy a wide swath of green space of about 40 acres, on which there are three small lakes and the Milan Natural Science Center.
The Quadrilatero d'Oro (Golden Rectangle), an area bound by four main streets - Via Montenapoleone, Via Manzoni, Via del Corso, and Via Senato – and traversed by a few more boutique-laden thoroughfares, including Via della Spiga and Via Sant’Andrea is the high-fashion hub of Italy. Here is where you will find many flagship stores of the big names in Italian fashion, including Dolce e Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli, Versace, and Giorgio Armani. Browsing the latest runway fashions decorating the storefronts in the Quadrilatero d’Oro – as well as the clientele in the stores – is a thoroughly enjoyable spectator sport and won’t cost you anything but time (unless, of course, you’re tempted to buy something).