Milan, Italy, for the First-Time Visitor

Updated 2018.

Milan is Italy’s business and banking capital, and while those things are important to the country as a whole they’re not as enticing for tourists. There’s a reason I often recommend that people skip Milan (especially on a short trip to Italy) — Milan doesn’t fulfill the usual cravings for “quintessential Italy” that travelers always seem to bring in their carry-on bag. Milan is, however, home to Italy’s second-busiest airport — Malpensa –– so even if your original Italy travel plans didn’t include Milan, you might be stuck figuring out what to do with a day or two in the city that is either your arrival or departure point. Here, then, are some travel tips for the Milan newbie to help you enjoy your first trip there.

Things to Know About Milan

  • As mentioned, Milan’s purpose in life has almost everything to do with business. This makes it a less touristy city than others of similar size in Italy, but no less international — it’s just that the international visitors are primarily there for work instead of pleasure.
  • Hotels in Milan tend toward the expensive side — they’re mainly for business travelers, not tourists — and there aren’t many hostels in Milan. Cheaper hotels tend to be around the train station, and although that neighborhood isn’t as pretty as some others it’s also not as dodgy as some train station neighborhoods in Italy.
  • Getting around Milan is easy between the city’s excellent network of public transportation and the fact that it’s compact enough to walk between most attractions in the city center.
  • Milan’s reputation as an expensive destination are warranted, but unless you’re hoping to take home a pair of Prada shoes or a Gucci handbag, you can visit Milan without spending a fortune. (Although, as noted, you’re likely to pay more for a hotel room here than you’d like to.)
  • A 2009 study listed Milan as having the most smog pollution of any city in Europe, which certainly isn’t a claim you’ll find in the Milan tourist brochure. Yes, Milan is a smoggy city — there are seemingly beautiful days when you can’t see the mountains that you’re supposed to be able to see from the roof of the Duomo — but it also has a couple fairly large parks right in the center in which you can pretend the city outside doesn’t exist (if only for a little while).

Learn more of the things you should know about Milan to get a handle on what makes the city tick.

Things to Do in Milan

There isn’t a laundry list of must-see attractions in Milan, so even with a short visit you can hit the highlights with ease. The things I would put on a “do not miss” list are:

  • Milan Duomo — It’s the city’s iconic symbol, and it’s smack dab in the center. It’s free to go in, and although it’s huge and pretty it’s not as impressive as some other churches you’ll see on a tour of the big cities in Italy. The highlight of a visit to the Duomo, then, is taking the elevator up to walk around on the Duomo roof among the spires. Hope for clear enough skies so you can see the mountains.
  • Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” — The amount of planning required to see “The Last Supper” is inversely proportionate to the amount of time you get to actually spend in the refectory looking at the painting. Visits are strictly limited to 15 minutes, and tickets often sell out months in advance. Squeezing this into a brief Milan visit requires lots of advance planning (and a bit of luck).
  • Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II — This pretty mall requires no more than a quick walk-through to admire the domed glass ceilings (there’s far better shopping elsewhere, and the McDonald’s in the middle of the nicest part of the mall doesn’t help matters), but it’s worth it to partake in the Milanese tradition of spinning on the bull’s balls for good luck. Trust me, it’s G-rated.
  • Brera Neighborhood — Central Milan isn’t like the historic centers of cities like Florence, full of cobbled streets, cute shops, and pretty scenery. But parts of the city center are just like that, and the Brera is perhaps the prettiest. The streets are more narrow and less busy, and they’re lined with cute boutique shops, cafes and small restaurants, and even a museum or two.
  • La Scala Museum — Whether or not you’re an opera fan, there’s something enticing about those European opera houses. They’re so dramatically vertical, covered in gold leaf and red velvet, and evocative of a time long ago. Getting a ticket to an opera at Milan’s famous La Scala theatre is well beyond the travel budget of most people I know, but for the price of a ticket to the La Scala Museum you can spend a few minutes inside one of the red velvet-lined boxes in the theatre itself.

Learn about my top 10 things to do in Milan.

Things to Eat in Milan

Milan doesn’t have a reputation as a gastronomic paradise like some other Italian cities, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be subjected to bad food there. It’s a very international city, so you can find cuisines from different parts of the world far more represented than in most of the rest of Italy. For a more traditional Milanese dish, however, the menu items to look for include:

  • Risotto alla Milanese — Risotto cooked with saffron, giving it a golden color
  • Cotoletta alla Milanese — Veal cutlet (sometimes you see pork, turkey, and chicken as well), breaded and pan-fried
  • Ossobuco — Stewed veal shank, served with the bone (and the marrow) and gremolata, a garnish of lemon zest and parsley
  • Panettone — Traditional sweet Christmas bread, now famous worldwide
  • Gorgonzola — Cheese named for a town not far from Milan

By far the most Milanese way to spend an evening is at aperitivo, which has the triple bonus of being thoroughly un-touristy, an excellent budget dining option, and entertaining people-watching in addition to sustenance. There are aperitivo spots all over the city, ranging from baskets of potato chips and pretzels to snack on while you drink all the way up to extensive buffets that even include dessert. For the price of a drink, it’s an all-you-can-eat affair — and although the Italians frown on being a glutton about it, there’s no reason you can’t do an aperitivo-hop to a few places and fill up your plate at each one.

— Jessica Spiegel

Jessica Spiegel writes the Italy travel guide, WhyGo Italy, for the indie travel site BootsnAll. She loves talking about all aspects of traveling in Italy, from finding the best deals on Italy airfare to narrowing down options for what to do in Italy.