Milan is a magical and beautiful city and if you have only a few hours these is what you must see.
Milan, apart from being the second-largest city in Italy after Rome, is undoubtedly the economic centre of the country. With a long history, it has always been a centre of trade, industry, fashion, and art. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting city for visitors; it is friendly, lively, and easily accessible. Although you should spent at least three days in the city to discover it all, a visit of a few hours to the centre can be a good introduction to its treasures. Milan is also a frequent day stop for travellers heading to the nearby lakes or to the beautiful Italian Riviera.
So follow us on a walk, with which you can get to know the most important sights of the city.
Piazza del Duomo
The ideal starting point for a visit to Milan’s historic centre is Piazza del Duomo. The city’s main tourist destination, the square is a large open area surrounded by some of the most prestigious commercial establishments and stunning historical buildings. The square was first constructed in the fourteenth century and has seen progressive development ever since. However, the architect Giuseppe Mengoni is primarily responsible for the current layout, which was designed in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Mengoni’s design introduced the massive buildings that adorn its flanks, excluding the Palazzo Reale (which functions as a museum) and the Duomo itself. The square is packed with people every hour of the day and is the most photographed place of the city.
Duomo di Milano
The Milan Cathedral, or Duomo di Milano in Italian, is the city’s main church. The cathedral, which is devoted to the Nativity of Saint Mary, took over six centuries to build. Works on the church started in 1386 and were finished in 1965. It is the biggest church in the Italian Republic (the bigger Saint Peter’s Basilica is located in the sovereign state of Vatican City). In the cathedral, one of Christ’s alleged nails from the Crucifixion is visible where a tiny red lightbulb is located in the dome above the altar.
Every year, at a festival called the Rite of the Nivola, the Holy Nail is taken out and displayed to the public. The Statue of Saint Bartholomew, the Trivulzio Candelabrum (candlelight), and the stained glasses created between 1470 and 1988 are some of the cathedral’s other notable features. Anyway, apart from the stunning interior of the Duomo, it is definitely worth taking a walk around the church. Its four sides are a unique exhibition of works of sculpture from various periods.
Finally, if you have extra time, it is worth visiting the roof terraces of the cathedral. They are alone, an insurmountable attraction, and offer breathtaking views of the city. But consider that the queues for the terraces are usually long, and you may be delayed.
In any case, it would be advisable to have purchased your tickets in advance, either only for the cathedral or for the terraces as well (ticket.duomomilano.it).
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Second only to the Duomo in terms of grandeur and notoriety, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is unquestionably the most striking building in the square. The Galleria was constructed in the 1800s as part of a grand scheme to reconstruct Milan’s downtown. It was built to link Piazza del Duomo with Piazza della Scala, and King Vittorio Emanuele II inaugurated it. These days, the arcade is home to several superb cafes and cocktail bars, along with a variety of luxury brands.
A mosaic with the Savoy coat of arms and other animals that stand in for some of the most significant cities in Italy can be found beneath the central dome. A legend states that if someone places his right foot on the bull and twirls around 360 degrees with closed eyes, he will be lucky for the rest of the year.
Piazza Mercanti and Via Dante
Leaving the square and moving towards Via Dante, make a stop at the picturesque Piazza Mercanti. This square was part of mediaeval Milan and the centre of political and economic life for many centuries. On one side of the square, the distinctive Palazzo della Ragione was the seat of the magistrate. While in the centre of the square, the well of the 16th century cooled the merchants during the multi-day bazaars that took place here.
A few metres after Piazza Mercanti begins, Via Dante, which is one of the most elegant and busy pedestrian streets in the city. The street is lined with beautiful buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries that house shops, cafes, and the historic Piccolo Teatro.
Via Dante ends in front of the castle symbol of Milan, Castello Sforzesco. The castle is definitely worth a visit if you are staying several days in the city. However, even during this short walk, you can admire its impressive entrance with the Filarete Tower. The castle played an important role in the history of the city. It was built in 1368 as the residence of the powerful Visconti family. Afterwards, in 1447, it passed into the hands of the Sforza family, hence its current name.
Bramantino's Trivulzio Tapestries, perhaps the most important masterpiece of Italian tapestry, are exhibited in the halls of the castle.
Teatro alla Scala and San Fedele
From this point, outside the castle, you have to start returning to the centre of the city. Specifically, after a few minutes of walking, you arrive in front of the imposing building of the Teatro alla Scala. The building was built in 1776–8 and is synonymous with the high art of opera. On its stage, the most important Italian composers presented their works, and the most important artists in the history of opera sang. Just by looking at the building and thinking of the names of Maria Calla and Luciano Pavarotti, it is as if the music escapes from its windows and overwhelms your ears.
Directly opposite the building is the homonymous square, in the centre of which the statue of Leonardo da Vinci watches over the passersby with an inquisitive eye. Meanwhile, the Palazzo Marino, which houses the town hall, is one of the most ornate buildings in the city.
From this square, with a few steps, you can pass to the equally impressive and sometimes overlooked Piazza San Fedele. The steps in front of the San Fedele church are a well-known meeting and resting place for the locals. In the centre of the square, the statue of the writer Alessandro Manzoni dominates and with its majesty steals your attention.
The Fashion District
From Piazza San Fedele, you can easily reach Piazza Filippo Meda. The centre of this square is home to a large sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro that represents a solar disk. It is called the Sun, or Great Disc. The square is the connecting link between the historic centre and the Fashion District in Brera. Via Montenapoleone represents the heart of the fashion heart of Milan. It is one of the four sides of the so-called quadrilatero, or fashion district. The other three sides are Via Manzoni, Via Sant’ Andrea, and Via della Spiga.
This district is one of the headquarters of international fashion. The elegant shops of Italian and international brands are lined up on its streets. Most of them are housed in aristocratic residences from the previous four centuries. Even if you are not willing to buy anything, a visit to these streets gives you a glimpse of the trends in fashion design for the next few years.
A few quick breaks
In such a short visit to Milan, there is no time to enjoy any of the excellent restaurants in the city centre. Nevertheless, some small stops are necessary to take a break and enjoy local delicacies. A sure stop is the Starbucks Reserve Roastery(Piazza Cordusio, 3). It is undoubtedly one of the best stores of the well-known brand, housed in a historic palazzo. It is a place where the coffee is roasted on the spot, and there are various places to enjoy a snack. Another excellent place is the canteen outside Castello Sforzesco, where you will see the locals queuing. Al Politico(Piazza Castello, 5) is an unpretentious place that makes the best sandwiches in Milan, or, as the Milanese call them, panini. The taste combinations are innumerable, and the result is not unsuccessful with any of them.
Also, don’t miss a stop at the Venchi Cioccolato e Gelato Shop(Via Dante 5) for unforgettable Italian ice cream. However, no visit to the centre of Milan is complete without the necessary stop at Panzerotti Luini(Via Santa Radegonda, 16) near Piazza San Fedele, known for its fried panzerotti. Panzerotti are a savoury delicacy that originated in Central and Southern Italian cuisine and resembles a small calzone. Although the queues are usually long, the service is extremely fast. Finally, when you arrive at the centre of the fashion district, make a stop at the Illyflagship store (Via Monte Napoleone, 19) for a cappuccino that fills you with energy for the rest of the day.
Something extra: Navigli
After completing this short visit to the centre of Milan, if you still have a couple of hours to spend, it is worth visiting the Navigli area. It is located 2.5 km from Duomo and is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque corners of the city. The Navigli were originally man-made navigable canals used for the transport of goods and passengers as well as for irrigation. Today it is one of the centres of the city’s nightlife, but at all hours of the day it is a pleasure to sit in the small cafes and restaurants next to the water or to browse the interesting artisan and indie shops.
If you are a music lover, Dischivolanti in Navigli (Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 47) is one of the best record shops in Italy.
As we said at the beginning, Milan is a magical and beautiful city. If you have only a few hours, these are certainly the top things you must see and do. Nevertheless, these things could only be an introduction to the real essence of the city. You need more days to capture its life and discover the city. There are certainly many museums, churches, and other attractions that are worth a visit. But if you follow our short guide, you will leave the city with a sense of fulfilment.