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One Day in Milan
With its awe inspiring cathedral, world-class shopping and a bustling confident vibe, this northern Italian city will surprise you. Spend one day in Milan and discover it’s appeal for yourself.
An Unsung Destination
Here’s the thing about Milan. It gets a bum rap, not being part of the great Venice-Florence–Rome tourist triangle.
However, if you love a city that screams elegance, culture, grit and power all at once (and as a luxury travel writer, I do), skipping Milan is a mistake. Things happen in Milan.
The financial centre of the country, this confident city of 1.3 million is walkable, fashionable and home to some blockbuster sights. (Oh, marvellous Duomo de Milano, I heart you. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, my husband is mesmerized by your intricate terrazzo floors.)
Then there is the world famous Da Vinci painting, The Last Supper. Only for this popular Milan attraction you need to plan your visit in advance.
Book Ahead for The Last Supper
“What do you mean we can’t see The Last Supper?” I asked the ticket agent at Santa Maria delle Grazie, home to Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper. “I only have one day in Milan! It’s low season! It’s a Wednesday! Just how many art-loving tourists can there be in this city?”
Apparently there are many, thanks in part to Dan Brown’s novel the Da Vinci Code, which put this centuries-old painting high on the pop culture list. Also, there’s the the fact that The Last Supper is one of the most celebrated artworks in Europe.
It was top of my list for how to spend a day in Milan, but I finally had to admit defeat.
Note to all incoming tourists: There are many more people that want to see The Last Supper than can actually visit it.
About The Last Supper and Why You Should See It
Painted in the mid 1400s, The Last Supper shows Jesus sharing his final meal with his apostles. He has just announced one of his disciples will betray him. The emotional reactions on his followers’ faces bring this masterpiece to life.
The painting was an immediate hit when it was completed, and sealed Da Vinci’s reputation as one of the best artists in the world.
This delicate piece of art has been through tough times since. French troops gouged out the apostles’ eyes in 1796. Allied forces bombed the building in 1943. A botched restoration nearly destroyed it.
In fact, we’re lucky this delicate artwork has survived at all, which is why I’d put it high on the list of things to do in Milan in one day.
Don’t make our mistake. Buy Last Supper Tickets ahead of time. Check prices and availability here.
Milan One Day Itinerary
Luckily, there are plenty of other ways to spend a day in Milan. With its impressive architecture, historic buildings and exciting fashion and design scene, Milano, the capital city of Lombardy, will leave a stamp on you that you won’t soon forget.
Here’s a one day guide that will help you plan your trip.
Visit the Duomo di Milano, the Milan Cathedral
No day trip to Milan would be complete without seeing the Duomo, the fourth largest cathedral in Europe.
(Would you like to know what the other ones are? St Peter’s in Rome, St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and Seville Cathedral in Spain.)
However. I’ve also read that the Duomo di Milano is the 3rd largest and the 5th largest cathedral in Europe so get your measuring tape out.
The Duomo is impossible to miss, an astonishing gothic confection of white pink Candoglia marble that dominates Cathedral Square, the Piazza del Duomo. Literally, it will take your breath away and it’s a must-see on any Milan one day itinerary.
Construction on the Duomo started in 1396 and continued for six centuries. There are 3,500 statues, 150 spires and 52 pillars, and it’s dedicated to St Mary of the Nativity.
How to See the Milan Cathedral
Tourists can visit different sections of the cathedral including the Duomo interior, the Rooftop Terrace and the crypt. There is also a museum and an archeological site.
The part that most people get excited about seeing is the rooftop terrace. It’s a lofty plateau of pathways, amazing views of Milan, carved marble, gargoyles and spires. Definitely a unique way to see the city and its surroundings.
But again, this is a popular attraction so you’ll want to get your tickets beforehand or be there early.
Check prices and availability for Milan Cathedral and Tickets here.
Get the Chills at the Bone Chapel
The ancient Bone Chapel at the Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa is one of the most unusual places to visit in Milan, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
Located not far from the Duomo, San Bernardino alle Ossa Church’s main draw for the curious is its ossuary, a side chapel decorated with bones. It’s certainly not my decorating style, but there are quite a few bone chapels around the world.
The bones were taken from the burial grounds by a hospital in the 12th century when the cemetery ran out of space.
While it’s not as large as the bone crypt in Rome at the Capuchin Church on Via Veneto, it doesn’t take a lot of bones and artistically-mounted skeletons to make you consider mortality, decay and everlasting life.
Is San Bernardino alle Ossa a must-see thing to see in Milan on a short trip? No. It’s more of a curiosity. If you’re pressed for time, give it a miss.
The Bone Chapel is located at Piazza Santo Stefano, 20122 Milano MI, Italy.
Gaze at the Gorgeous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Steps away from Duomo is the glorious Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II completed in 1877.
What is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II? It’s a covered shopping arcade, if you can imagine a mall that is part Saks 5th Avenue and part Vatican, with a lot of glass, steel and fine restaurants thrown in.
It’s lengthy name comes from the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II. (You’d think he’d be a ‘I’, not a ‘II’, wouldn’t you? But he was King of Sardinia beforehand, which explains it.)
Altogether, this historic mall is an eyeful of beauty, from the light-infused dome to the stunning mosaic floors.
Speaking of floors, look out for the Turin coat of arms. Legend says if you spin around with your heel on the bull’s testicles, it will bring you luck.
I’ve tried to find the source of this legend, but it’s pretty much lost to time. The only thing that may have something to do with its luck-bearing reputation is the bull’s impressive, er, testicular size. This I suppose, signifies strength and virility. Or … it’s simply a tourist tale.
The legend is not, however, great for the floor and you can see how it’s worn away in that very delicate part of the bull’s anatomy.
But back to the mall. This is where you’ll find big name designers like Prada and Louis Vuitton and plenty of elegant cafes to rest your weary feet. But don’t spend too much energy shopping here, because the most famous shopping streets in Milan are yet to come.
Before we get into Milan’s most fashionable district, we need to think about another famous point of interest, the Teatro alla Scala.
See the Teatro alla Scala – An Opera Classic
On the other side of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II from the Duomo is the Teatro alla Scala on the Piazza della Scala, often simply called La Scala.
You’ve probably heard of it; it’s one of the most famous opera houses in the world. It was grand when it opened in 1778 and it’s still grand today. (It’s a lot more ornate on the inside.)
If you manage to get tickets to an opera make sure you dress glam – if our experience at La Fenice Opera House in Venice is anything to go by, this is a place for bling and Gucci shoes.
If you don’t plan on seeing an actual performance, you can tour the interior and museum.
Check out an La Scala Entry Ticket here.
Visit the Museo Poldi Pezzoli
If you feel like you need a museum fix at this point, the charming Museo Poldi Pezzoli is a ‘house museum’ very near La Scala Theatre.
Set in a 17th-century mansion, it’s filled with the art treasures collected by an aristocrat named Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli. You’ll find Renaissance paintings and objets d’art from around the world.
Is it one of the best things to see in Milan in one day? I wouldn’t say it’s a must-see attraction, but it’s a nice sight to combine with La Scala Opera House.
The Poldi Pezzoli Museum is located at Via Manzoni 12 – 20121 Milano. Closed Tuesdays.
Go Shopping in Milan’s Rectangle of Gold
Now it’s on to Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga and the high-end shopping area known as the Rectangle of Gold (gold-plated credit cards, maybe). Or more accurately, the Quadrilatero d’Oro.
A shopping adventure like this may make your partner wonder if they have made a grave mistake by being with you and are now heading for bankruptcy. They may even be thankful you have only one day in Milan.
It might also make them think you are going to miss your train, or at least this was the situation in our case, because ten minutes before we were supposed to be back at the hotel to get a taxi to the train station, I found a cashmere store.
In my defence, let me just say that I wear that beige cashmere sweater with the faint silver trim and matching scarf ALL THE TIME, so really, it was a sound investment.
And we made it to the station before our train left, so I was using my time wisely.
Where to Shop in the Quadrilatero d’Oro
This is a see-and-be-seen area in one of the top fashion capitals of the world, so a wander through is an experience in itself. Prices are high, yet it’s a good chance to run your fingers over the best of Italian craftsmanship, and the best place to splurge on a high-end wearable souvenir.
One of my picks for shopping here is Twin-Set by Simona Barbieri on Via Manzoni (because my very untraditional wedding dress was Twin-Set). It’s not as expensive as some of the big designers like Armani and Dolce & Gabbana.
I was also scouring the area for Elisa Cavaletti, an Italian designer of fun flirty fashions, but we had no success, even after I made Mark take a taxi out into the suburbs to look for her store. Tip: don’t do that if you have only one day in Milan.
Take an Espresso Break
During and before all this shopping and sightseeing you’ll want to stop for regular infusions of espresso or macchiato, even if just to rest your feet.
If the sun is shining sit outside with a view of the Duomo as we did, or pick an atmospheric cafe inside the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele and watch the super-models-in-training pass by.
Sip a Cocktail at the Park Hyatt Milan
Even if you’re not staying at the imposing Park Hyatt, it’s worth stopping in. Steps away from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, it’s a great place to rub shoulders with fashionable locals.
The stone exterior of this luxury hotel dates back to 1870. It looks very old-world grand (and a bit like a bank), while the interior, designed by Ed Tuttle, centres around a huge glass dome and is filled with art and light.
What I liked about the Milan Park Hyatt is that it feels like a hub of the city and not just a tourist depot. Hanging out in the lounge was like eavesdropping on the movers and shakers of the city, but because it’s Milan they’re all elegant and handsome.
Beside us, two artsy Italian young men were having a power meeting with two sophisticated American women. I was guessing artists and their female art dealers from some posh gallery in Chelsea New York, but Mark told me he overheard something about IT.
Art at the Park Hyatt
While you’re at the Park Hyatt don’t miss the imposing Head of Medusa, a glass mosaic sculpture by Lucio Fontana that adds some oh-so-Italian-flair to the room.
The Medusa, made in 1948, combines, and I quote, “pre-WWI Art Deco elements with the Spatialism movement, as theorized in the first manifesto by Fontana.”
Hahaha, too much information, right? But really, doesn’t it make you want to see it for yourself? (Especially if you can’t get in to see The Last Supper.)
Have a Traditional Milanese Dish for Dinner
If you’re doing Milan in 24 hours, you’ll have time to savour some fine Lombardy cuisine. For dinner we opted for Osso Buco (braised veal shanks) with Milanese rice at Biffi Ristorante in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Delissimo.
Biffi Restaurant is a Milan landmark. Still going strong after opening in 1867, it has fed some big name guests – including the conductor Arturo Toscanini and writer Ernest Hemingway.
More Things to Do in Milan
There are certainly more things to do in Milan if you’re a power sightseer. (Or were we just lazy?) Here are some recommended highlights.
Visit the Castello Sforzesco
A mighty 14th-century fortress, which has been rebuilt, renovated and transformed many times, Sforzesco Castle has seen a string of rulers (invaders included) since Francesco Sforza had it built when he was the Duke of Milan.
Today Castello Sforzesco contains several museums showcasing everything from ancient frescoes to musical instruments.
It also houses Michelangelo’s last – but unfinished – sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà.
Entrance to the castle courtyard is free, but you need an entrance ticket for the museums. The castle is open everyday but the museums are closed Mondays.
Relax at the Parco Sempione
From the Sforza Castle you can practically step right into Parco Sempione. Modelled after an English garden, it covers a vast 47 hectares of land.
Created in the 1800s, it has an artificial lake, an Art Nouveau Aquarium and is home to Italy’s first iron bridge, the Bridge of the Little Mermaids.
See the Arch of Peace
At the Parco Sempione, you can see the 83-foot high Arch of Peace, the Arco della Pace, a triumphant arch built on Napoleon’s orders.
Visit the Pinacoteca di Brera
Also not far from Sforza Castle is Milan’s most impressive art gallery, the Pinacoteca di Brera, where you can feast your eyes on masters like Raphael, Rubens and Bellini.
If you’re determined to see all of Milan in a day I’d say it’s not to be missed … except we missed it because we spent so much time outside The Last Supper trying to find a scalper to sell us tickets.
Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci Museum
Whether you’re a Leonardo Da Vinci lover or more of a science fan, this is one of the best places to go in Milan to get your fix of technology.
From Italy’s only moon fragment to life-size models based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s plans, it’s an eye-opening activity in Milan.
Book the Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci Museum here.
Is a Day Trip to Milan Worth It?
This is a big yes. It’s one of the top cities in Italy to visit. There are almost too many places to visit in Milan in a day, but you can get a fun overview of the city and take in its top tourist sights such as the Cathedral and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
You can shop, wander, indulge in some fabulous Northern Italian cuisine and, if you plan better than we did, see Da Vinci’s magnificent masterpiece, The Last Supper.
Milan Travel Tips
Getting to Milan by Train
Milan is about 2.5 hours from Venice. A high speed train can get you to Milan in as little as 3 hours from Rome, or just under 2 hours from Florence. That’s a fair bit of traveling for a day trip, so if you like a leisurely visit I’d advise staying in Milan a night or two.
Where to Stay in Milan
One of Milan’s top luxury hotels, the Park Hyatt is a 5-star boutique property baby steps away from just about every sight you want to see (except The Last Supper – although we walked to that, too.)
There’s no denying it’s a splurge, but we went on our Hyatt points so it didn’t cost us anything out of pocket.
Check prices and availability for the Park Hyatt Milan.
Read More About Italy
Venice: High Water in Venice or What to do in Venice when it rains
Tuscany: The best hot springs spas in Tuscany
For more of the best places in Europe to see: visit Top Destinations in Europe