Milan, the fashion capital of the world, touts so much more than chic garments and a sauve Italian lifestyle. As the capital of the Lombardy region, Milan is the perfect combination of historic old world charm with urban advancements. This summer, I spent a glorious ten days exploring Milano’s romantic neighborhoods and gritty urban centers. The city charmed me through and through. Today I’m excited to share some of the absolute “must’s” while adventuring through Italy’s northern metropolis!
Things To Note
Before landing in beautiful Milano – there are some basic cultural things you should keep in mind! Number one, Milan has its own cultural flavor. Northern Italian culture is definitely aligned with the lush, relaxed southern Italy we’ve all learned to love… but truth be told, Milan is the financial center of the country and hard work is valued. The Milanese locals are just as friendly and lively as the rest (as a whole), but life is definitely a bit more fast paced. “La bella vita” is alive and well – it just looks a little different than what you’d see in Amalfi and the like.
Milan is also very temperamental in terms of weather – so pack prepared (P.S. you can check out our packing guides here for inspiration)! When we visited, the city was going through a massive heat wave unlike anything I’d ever experienced. However, just weeks before it was rainy and freezing! No matter what season you’re visiting… bring an umbrella, pack an extra layer of clothing and also something a little more lightweight too.
Finally, it’s always nice to be a little literate in the native language in which you’re visiting. It’s a sign of respect and will not go unnoticed, trust me! That being said, the Milanese locals we have met did a great job helping us translate. Don’t be afraid! Download Italian on your Google Translate app and you should be just fine.
Milan’s metro line is extremely easy to navigate, and it’s a cheaper option than hailing a taxi or Uber. You can buy tickets at any metro station kiosk (super easy!) and they last for 90 minutes at a time. Another option is buying them at a “Tabacchi Cafe” labeled with a big letter T on their exteriors. I’d highly recommend taking advantage of the public transportation available in Milano!
Day Trips & Road Trips
Milan’s close proximity to the other Northern Italian cities should not be overlooked! It’s extremely close to so many incredible day trips or itinerary extensions. Truth be told, we chose Milan solely because of its closeness to the Dolomite region of the north! We were only about a three hours drive away from all the lush greenery and epic mountain views we could have hoped for.
That being said, Milan is sort of the perfect starting point to other European adventures, including:
- A day trip to Lake Como (less than an hour drive) for some water and a glimpse into the wealthy lake homes of the rich and famous.
- Exploring Turin (less than an hour drive), a cultural hub and smaller city that’s maintained its sense of authenticity and charm
- Parma (a little over two hours away)
- Lake Garda (about two hours)
- Venice (under three hours)
- The Alps or the Dolomites (about a three hour drive)
In all cases, I’d recommend driving through Northern Italy, as the scenery cannot be beat and the roads are a breeze. Milan has many options for car rentals, including Easy Terra, which I loved for its cheaper rates and reliability. I cannot tell you how often we took the opportunity to stop whenever we wanted to take a photograph of a dramatic vista or were hungry for some pastries and coffee! Really – road tripping through Northern Italy cannot be beat.
Where To Explore
Many claim that Milan is “rough around the edges.” I say they just haven’t explored the right areas! Here are some of my all time favorite neighborhoods to explore.
Brera is the quintessential romantic and elegant neighborhood European culture cravers will drool over. Balconies and windowsills are dripping with flowers, cute cafes and chic boutiques are everywhere. It’s a great place to wander through.
Nestled between a group of canals, the Navigli neighborhood is a go-to spot for locals to grab a bite and a drink before the night settles in. You’ll find more hustle and bustle here, but it’s a vibe that culture travelers will love. The yellow and pink buildings that butt up against the waterways is a great place to explore for an evening. Don’t miss it!
What To See
Milan is rich with so many cultural sights to take in. With our itinerary, we were lucky enough to see many of them! But for those on a tighter schedule, here are some that are simply not to be missed.
Piazza Del Duomo & Duomo Il Milano
The piazza surrounding Milan’s Duomo is so incredible. You’ll find children chasing swarms of birds, tourists taking their classic snaps of the Duomo’s exteriors as the sun settles on its pink marble. It’s quite a scene. The Duomo il Milano cathedral is one of the largest in the world and it took over six centuries to complete. Buy tickets to tour its interiors and see the sprawling city below from the top!
Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II
Right next door to the Duomo is Italy’s oldest active shopping mall and four story arcade. The tall iron and glass ceilings are gorgeous. Be sure to spin around three times on your heel on the mosaic bull on the floor for good luck!
Chiesa Santa Maria della Grazie – “The Last Supper”
Culture lovers and art aficionados cannot go to Milan without making a pilgrimage to see “The Last Supper.” Buy your tickets ahead of time to see Leonardo di Vinci’s painting, they often sell out weeks in advance!
Pinacoteca Di Brera
One of the main public painting gallery, Pinacoteca Di Brera contains some stunning collections of Italian paintings, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s also home to the Brera Library, the Astronomic Observatory, the Botanical Garden, the Lombard Institute for Science and Art and the Academy of Fine Arts. (P.S. admission is free every first Sunday of the month!)
Perfectly situated off the Piazza del Duomo, Museo Novecento focuses on works of art from the 20th century. I loved the highest floor’s windows facing the iconic Duomo from a fresh perspective!
The opera house all music appreciators should pay homage to! La Scala is centrally located in the city center and is a marvel to see even just from the outside. For a real treat, book tickets to see what is being performed while you’re in town! It’s one of the world’s best performance venues with the best and brightest musicians on stage.
Fondazione Prada & Bar Luce
Fondazione Prada is the best place to witness modern and contemporary art in the city. Designed by Rem Koolhaas, it’s the coolest mix of industrial and opulent. Check out the collection and exhibitions. And do not miss Bar Luce, the cafe attached to the galleries, designed by Wes Anderson. It’s fashioned exactly to his style.
Starbucks on a culture roundup? Hear me out! We stumbled upon this Starbucks by total chance on a sweltering hot afternoon and were blown away by how cool its interior was! You’ll find tour guides explaining the roasting process as well as some real treats to nosh on.
This concept store was created by Carla Sozzano, an editor and publisher known for her glamour. Her space is a real reflection of her taste, as 10 Corso Como brings together the coolest fashion, food, design, music and art in one place.
The Sforza Castle was built in the 15th century by Duke of Milan at the time, and now its home to a great museum of art and history. It’s an excellent place to learn about Milan’s past involvements in the medieval ages!
What To Eat
There are some tried and true Milanese treats to try while in in the city… and you’d really be missing out if you denied them a taste! You’ll find some truly unique dishes in the northern regions of Italy.
First things first, start your mornings like the locals and go for a sweet brioche and cappuccino (just don’t be caught dead drinking one after noon). There’s no sweeter way to start your day. You’ll find some delicious options at Pave and Princi Bakery.
For lunch, try a Piadina sandwich or one of Manuelina’s famous focaccia (I’m drooling just typing this and thinking about its cheesy deliciousness). Traditional dishes you’ll find scattered throughout the trattorias and osterias of the city are also outstanding. Savory and creamy Risotto Milanese is not to be missed (I’d highly recommend Taglio‘s menu to try this!), as is the city’s warming polenta. Meat lovers will be obsessed with Milan’s old school Cotoletta and Osso Busco options.
And over course… pizza and gelato! Is there anything better than traditional Italian food?