A lot of people use Milan as a stopover on their way to other places in Italy or other places in Europe. It’s incredibly well connected by train and has two - two! - international airports. I can’t tell you how many times clients or readers have found flights or trains that take them into Milan and, not wanting to blow past the city completely, decide to stay in the center of town for one day.
Now, one day in any city is difficult. What should you do? What can’t you miss? Where should you go? There are a lot of hard choices! Milan has a lot to offer, though most of it may not be obvious to the casual visitor. After spending six months in Milan last year, here’s my advice for all of you one-day-ers:
Morning: Spend some time in and around Piazza Duomo.
Milan’s cathedral may be its most iconic landmark. It’s intricate, white marble facade is a constant work in progress as the stonework erodes and is replaced with new marble from the same quarry. The spectacular gothic interior plays host to magnificent works of art and historical artefacts, like a fairly creepy statue of St. Benedict with his skin draped over his shoulder and a cross that St. Charles Borromeo marched through the streets of Milan to bring an end to a plague in the 16th century. While you’re inside, don’t forget to look for the tiny red dot of light above the altar, where a shard from Christ’s cross is said to be hidden.
If you want to see some of the pieces of art that decorated the cathedral (inside and outside) in times past, head over to the wonderfully organized and visually striking Museo del Duomo. It’s just the right size for those of us who like the idea of museums… as long as they don’t take too long!
You can’t move on from Piazza Duomo, though, without climbing (or taking the elevator) up to the top of the cathedral and appreciating the view from its rooftops. The terraces of Milan’s duomo not only give you a bird’s eye view of the city but also let you look at the incredible ornamental marble work that covers every inch of the duomo, up close and personal. Tickets can be purchased separately for each area of the duomo complex or one combined ticket can be purchased that gives access to each site once within 72 hours.
One of the other iconic sites in Milan is Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. You can enter right off of Piazza Duomo. There are definitely less expensive places (and better) to get lunch or even a coffee, but very few with this kind of atmosphere! Take the time to at least meander through here on your way out of Piazza Duomo.
Lunch: Luini Panzerotti is a Milanese institution (from Puglia!).
Luini Panzerotti is a small store just off Piazza Duomo that has been selling little pockets of filled dough to long lines of Milanesi for decades. For just two or three euro each, panzerotti make a great snack or light lunch while walking the streets of Milan. Originally from Puglia in southern Italy, these little, fried marvels are now a staple of Milanese street food after a large migration of Pugliesi north to Milan in the mid-20th century. They come fried or baked, sweet or savory, but the classic one is fried and stuffed with tomato and mozzarella. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!
Afternoon: Art & wandering (plus a little shopping!) make for a great afternoon exploring Milan.
Depending on how avid a walker you are, you may want to cut out a portion of this afternoon plan, but if you’re a lover of high-end fashion you definitely dont want to cut out Milan’s famous Quadrilatero d’Oro, “Quadrilateral of Gold”. Sometimes the Quadrilatero d’Oro is referred to as the Quadrilatero della Moda, “Quadrilateral of Fashion”, or what we would call the “Fashion District”. This small area of town with its refined architecture and high-end designer stores is bordered by four main streets: Via Monte Napoleone, Via Alessandro Manzoni, Via della Spiga and Corso Venezia. Along with stores like Gucci, Prada and Valentino (all with very serious security guards posted at their entrances), you’ll find a few boutique museums and a handful of charming cafés and restaurants.
The Quadrilatero d’Oro is highlighted on this map:
After strolling through the Fashion District, walk over to the enchanting neighborhood of Brera. Small cafés and restaurants and boutique shops characterize Brera’s cobbled streets. If you’re in the mood for some art, check out the Pinacoteca di Brera, an art museum featuring several masterpieces including Francis Hayes’s “The Kiss”. If you skipped Luini, this is a good place to get lunch. My favorites are Salsamenteria di Parma on Via Ponte Vetero and Il Kaimano on Via Fiori Chiari.
Strolling further west, make your way over to Castello Sforzesco, a 15th-century fortress that now houses a myriad of museums including Michelangelo’s final sculpture, an unfinished version of La Pietà. Enter the museums or just stroll through the inner courtyards to admire the architecture. A small bar was recently built in one of the interior courtyards and makes a great place to stop for a drink in the shade.
If you’d rather get a cool beverage in the park, though, head all the way through Castello Sforzesco into Parco Sempione, Milan’s largest urban park. A network of pathways wind between large trees and expanses of grass, a small lake and stone bridges and even a small public library. On the opposite side of the park from Castello Sforzesco is the Arco della Pace, “Arch of Peace”. It was originally called the “Arch of Victory” when Napoleon commissioned it in 1807 after invading Milan but was renamed when the Hapsburgs continued its construction after booting out the French general.
Evening: You can’t leave Milan without getting an aperitivo on Navigli Grande.
After a long day of walking, head over to the Navigli neighborhood to get an aperitivo at one of the many bars along and near Naviglio Grande, a large canal originally built in the 15th century to transport the white marble used on the facade of the duomo from its quarry to the center of Milan. Aperitivi are all the rage in Milan and take different forms. Typical drinks are wine or the famous Aperol spritz, but a lot of bars are bringing in mixologists to create tempting cocktails. The purchase of a drink, though, always comes with food: either a small plate of snacks brought to your table or, in some bars, a full and unlimited buffet (a lot of people will turn an “aperitivo” into dinner).
Navigli is my favorite neighborhood in Milan and while it’s lovely to explore during the day, in the evening the area really comes alive as locals and tourists alike flock to its bars and restaurants. Many shops will only stay open until 7:30, so get there early if you want to do any window shopping.
With your drink in hand, make a toast to your decision to spend the day in Italy’s most international city. Then order another – you deserve it!