Your Trip to Milan: The Complete Guide

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Milan, the second-largest city in Italy, is best known as Europe's capital of high fashion and design, and as a center for banking and finance. But beneath its skyscrapers and past its high-end fashion outlets, Milan is full of historic and artistic attractions. Among the most famous are its Duomo, which is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, Leonardo da Vinci's iconic The Last Supper painting, and the famous La Scala Opera House. Travelers to Milan will find a fast-paced, glamorous city with a thriving cultural scene and a top city for shopping.

Planning Your Trip

Best Time to Visit: Milan can be very hot and humid in the summertime, and winters are moderately cold and often rainy and foggy. Snow is common during the coldest winter months. Spring and fall are generally off-seasons in Milan, except during Milan Design Week in April and Fashion Week in September or October.

Language: Italian is the primary language spoken in Milan, though you will find that the majority of hotel and restaurant staff will speak English, as will retail staff in touristy areas.

Currency: Like the rest of Italy, Milan is on the euro (€). No other currencies are accepted.

Getting Around: Milan has very good public transportation, including buses, trams, and an extensive metro system. There is no need for a rental car in Milan, especially since traffic is heavy and parking is scarce and expensive.

Travel Tip: Milan is not known for being the most affordable city in Italy, but we do have some tips for visiting Milan on a budget and some great free things to do in Milan.

Things to Do

Milan offers something for just about any traveler's interest, from world-class art museums, important landmarks, and, of course, shopping galore. The small historic center is primarily between the Duomo and Castello and offers many of Milan's top attractions. Here is what you can expect to find:

  • The church of Santa Maria della Grazie contains Da Vinci's famous fresco, The Last Supper. Although the building was bombed in 1943, the fresco survived. To visit, it is necessary to book in advance. 
  • The Duomo, as the Basilica cattedrale metropolitana di Santa Maria Nascente is more commonly known, is the world's largest Gothic cathedral and the third-largest church in Europe. Its much-photographed piazza is the hub and focal point of Milan. Be sure to climb the stairs or take the elevator to the top for views of Milan from the Duomo rooftop and a close look at the Duomo's spires.
  • La Scala is a very famous Italian opera house seating over 2000 people. Built in 1778, it has a very opulent interior, which you can tour. There's also a museum. For opera-lovers, attending a performance here is a bucket-list experience.
  • Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a huge glass-roofed shopping arcade lined with expensive shops, bars, and restaurants. Built in 1867, it links the squares of the Duomo and La Scala and has mosaics with the symbols of the cities forming the newly united Italy.
  • The imposing Castello Sforzesco was originally built in the 14th century by the ruling Visconti but was destroyed and rebuilt by the Sforzas soon afterward. It became a museum complex in the 19th century and is one of Milan's major landmarks.
  • Other highlights of Milan include the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci, with its vast collection showing the history of science and technology starting from Leonardo da Vinci's machines. The Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio is the fourth-century church of Milan's patron saint. The Pinacoteca di Brera, originally started by Napolean, is Milan's most prestigious art gallery. It holds a huge collection of over 600 works in 40 rooms.

Located in northwest Italy in the Lombardy region, Milan is about 30 miles south of the Alps. It is very near the Italian Lakes region, including Lakes Como and Maggiore. From Milan, Rome is reachable on a fast train in just over 3 hours and Venice in 2 1/2 hours.

What to Eat and Drink

Typical of northern Italy, Milan's cuisine is heavy on butter and other dairy products, as well as rice, and polenta, made from cornmeal. Two famous traditional Milanese dishes are risotto alla milanese (a creamy rice dish made with saffron) and cotoletta alla milanese (breaded veal cutlet). Milan's restaurants range from traditional, homey eateries serving hearty fare to fashionable, high-end restaurants offering modern Italian cuisine. Milan is famous for aperitivo, the Italian equivalent of happy hour, where snacks are served, often free of charge, with your before-dinner drink. As in the rest of Italy, there's a craft cocktail boom in Milan, with skilled bartenders offering original and elaborate quaffs all over the city.

Where to Stay

If you want to stay near La Scala, the Duomo, and shopping district, there are several top-rated historic center hotels. There are a lot of accommodations conveniently clustered near Milano Centrale train station, ranging from budget B&Bs to higher-end hotels. For more of a local feel, choose a boutique hotel or short-term rental in the Navigli district, known for its charming canals, designer and resale shops and lively nightlife scene. Ultra-modern hotels have sprung up in the Porta Nuova/Isola area, which is anchored by the innovative Bosco Verticale, two high-rise buildings with gardens and trees covering their facades.

Shopping

Shopaholics will surely be tempted by the top quality clothing, footwear, and accessories that seem to be everywhere in Milan. Try Corso Vittorio Emanuele II near Piazza della Scala, via Monte Napoleone near the Duomo, or Via Dante between the Duomo and Castle for name brand and one-off designer fashions. For super high-end labels, try the area around Via della Spiga called the Quadrilatero d'Oro. Corso Buenos Aires has many chain stores. Markets are held around the canals of the Navigli and are a great place to find used and vintage designer clothing.

Getting There

Milan has two airportsMalpensa, to the northwest, is a big international airport, while smaller Linate airport to the east serves flights from Europe and within Italy. Nearby Bergamo Airport also sees flights from the rest of Europe. There are direct flights to Malpensa from the U.S. cities of New York/Newark, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago.

The main train station is Milano Centrale at Piazza Duca d' Aosta, with frequent daily links to major cities in Italy and western Europe.

Culture and Customs

While all of Italy is a little less casual than typical cities in the United States, you'll find that Milanese really do dress sharply, as if living up to the city's reputation as a fashion capital. So here, perhaps more than anywhere else in Italy, it's a good idea to try to blend in and dress a little bit less casually—try lightweight slacks and a polo shirt instead of shorts and a t-shirt, for example. In the evening, dress up a bit for dinner, and of course, if you're planning to attend an opera or concert.

Like most Italian cities, Milan is safe and violent crime is unusual. However, you should always exercise a reasonable degree of caution against pickpockets, especially in crowded tourist areas like the Piazza del Duomo and the Duomo itself, and even among the crowds who file through to stare at The Last Supper.

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