Things to do in Milan in One Day
The first time I went to Milan, it was by accident. Of course, many of the most amazing experiences of my life, like getting to spend a summar at the Monastery of Grandchamp in Switzerland, have been surprises and accidents– so perhaps I should have known I would fall in love with Milan! I needed to get to Belfast after spending some time in French-Speaking Switzerland, and of all the unexpected things plane tickets out of Venice were so inexpensive that it was going to cost me the same to spend 3 days in Italy and fly out of Venice vs. flying from Geneva to Belfast! Three essentially free days in Italy?
Let’s just say no one had to ask me twice!
Every guidebook written by Americans that I read said Milan was so-so at best. Still, it had a cathedral that sounded beautiful. I decided that in and of itself would be worth it.
First Impressions of Milan
When my train pulled into Milano Centrale station I was – frankly – already underwhelmed. The views from the train had been spectacular the entire way – every single mile – from Geneva. We passed an uncountable number of deep, royal-blue lakes where the craggy, perfectly snow-capped mountains framed the water to perfection. As soon as we crossed into Italy, there were perfectly positioned mountainside villages with the most quintessentially Italian belltowers, campaniles.
I was in Italian Postcard Heaven!
…and then we pulled into Milan.
I spent my college years living just outside of Chicago and often took the train into the city for Symphony concerts or other events. After passing a lot of small towns, all of a sudden everything becomes just industrial. Construction sites, stockyards, and maybe the very back end of an ugly housing high rise is about the grand total of the view on the train from the Chicago suburbs.
It was no different pulling into Milan. Industrial and uninspiring.
“Oh well,” I thought, “at least it’s only one night!”
I stepped off the train into the heavy-set grandeur of Milano Central Station.
Milan, I would come to find out, still heavily bears the marks of the history of Fascism in Italy. This style of architecture is very noticeable in the train station.
From the train station, I quickly dipped into a Tobacco shop and bought a 1-day pass for the Metro and public transit in Milan (only 4.50 euros!). Then I began to make my way (with the help of Google Maps – God seriously bless all the folks at Google Maps!) towards the hostel I had booked, Ostello Bello.
And alas! Ostello Bello actually was right next to the train station! I swear this has never happened to me before. Whenever a hotel or hostel advertises “right next to” or “five minute walk from” or “across the street from” in reality it’s pretty much always “somewhat reasonably close to”, “15-20 minute walk from” and “across three streets and down the block from”! So to find Ostello Belloliterally right across from the train station was delightful!
Where to Stay in Milan : Ostello Bello Hostel
Ostello Bello hostel was indeed so near the train station that I arrived an hour earlier than I had planned! (Also thanks to an always-on-time Swiss train system – those people make watches and stick to them!) I stepped inside to a brightly colorful lobby, shelves full of worldwide travel guides, a fully stocked bar, snacks and coffee on offer, and a genuinely friendly smile at a busy front desk.
Even though check-in wasn’t for another hour, the staff explained they were happy to store my things and even gave me a ticket for a free welcome drink!
Many of these amenities, I know, are standard for good quality hostels. Maybe I was extra tired because I had left Grandchamp Monastery at 6 am to catch an early train (insanely early trains are often wayyyy cheaper and this girl does enjoy saving money!), but all of this felt like a massive relief. Also the wine. Seriously – a glass of wine after a long train ride is just short of heaven for me!
I spent about 20 minutes sipping my first glass of Italian wine in Italy, charged my phone, and paged through a guidebook to Croatia they had in the Library (I never stop planning for / dreaming of future travels – even while traveling!).
Then I stepped out into the warm August afternoon to explore for the rest of the hour.
I looked right and left. Did it still look like Chicago?
Did I mind a little less now?
Was it the wine?
If you aren’t someone who loves staying in Hostels, both Ostello Bello locations offer great Private Rooms. But there are many other great budget options in Milan.
Also near Milano Centrale, Milano Dreams, a small and simple hotel run by Stefano, comes highly recommended.
In the hip neighborhood of Navigli, along a canal, Camere della Rosa apartments offer great value, has a host everyone says is helpful and friendly, and is located very near public transportation. With a kitchen in the unit, you can save money self-catering (but the pizza around Navigli is amazing!)
For a splurge, right near Milano Centrale train station is one of the most popular hotels in Milan: Starhotel Eco. Filled with eco and green elements, the hotels has a bar and restaurant onsite. You’ve got to see it to believe it: absolute #goals! So dreamy!
What to do in Milan in One Day
#1: Visit Milan’s Il Duomo Cathedral
After settling into my dorm at Ostello Bello, it was time to set out in search of the famous Il Duomo Cathedral.
I found the Milan metro system very easy to use. The maps are clear and, well, it didn’t hurt there was a station literally called “Il Duomo.” Literal for the win!
As I walked towards the stairs to exit Il Duomo station I looked up and there it was. From the light streaming down the stairs I could see the shining marble of the cathedral – it’s spires puncturing the blue sky.
Any and every doubt I had about Milan completely disappeared from my mind.
Il Duomo was a magnificent Cathedral.
There is an intricacy and a lightness to Il Duomo that is difficult to fully describe. Twists and curves and carvings throughout the marble. I’ve never fully understood before the heart behind the building of Cathedrals – that they would reach towards heaven and break down the barrier between God and Man – until I truly saw Il Duomo reaching into heaven. The marble gleams. It’s exquisite.
The door to the Cathedral is it’s own work of art: Don’t miss it!
On the inside, the columns are so thick they look like Giant Sequoia trees in California. I arrived just in time to see the light from the stained glass windows streaming in and illuminating the columns.
Oe the roof not only was the view amazing, but there was a lot of the architecture to explore. From there I got an excellent view of the Tiburio (the tallest point of the Cathedral) that Leonardo Da Vinci almost built!
When you face Il Duomo, there is a ticket office off to the right. It was a very modern, organized Cathedral ticketing operation.
I chose a combination ticket that allowed me one entrance into the Cathedral, climbing to the rooftop (yes! I chose the stairs!) and entrance to the Duomo Museum. If you’re at all like me and mildly – er – seriously obsessed with religious art and artifacts, then I highly recommend the Duomo museum!
If you’re a normal person – you could probably skip it.
I adored the museum. The best part was a chance to get up close and personal to some of the statuary of the cathedral – to really see it all up close.
But I get that I’m a little strange in my love for / obsession with religious art!
Hey – there are worse hobbies, right?!
Milan Travel Tip: Do not forget to wear clothes that cover your arms and do not wear shorts or a very short skirt whenever you visit Cathedrals in Italy. The dress code for Cathedrals and places of worship in Italy is quite strict!
Paying for Cathedral and Church entrance in Europe
I get it – it seems strange to pay money to go into a place of worship. It helps me to remember how much time and effort goes into maintaining my tiny Mennonite church building back home – and how much more time and money it must take to maintain a 12th century Cathedral! It’s a very different thing to pay to go inside and take pictures or tour than to pay to go inside and pray. All Cathedrals reserve a section or entrance for those who desire to pray, but do not try to cheat that system. They are very strict and no photos are allowed in that section.
#2 Eat All The Gelato!
My absolute favorite way to get to know a new travel destination is to wander around for a few hours – simply taking everything in!
This Italy-Chicago mix of a city wasn’t entirely inviting in the “take a stroll” sense – but I figured why not! I began down the road – glad for the sunshine greeting me!
The passed a grocery store and was excited to go in. I hadn’t been to Italy yet and I love to check out grocery stores in new countries! I went inside eagerly awaiting Italian delicacies – the swoosh of glass doors closing behind me. I looked up.
I had wandered into a Russian grocery store…in Italy!
I couldn’t help but laugh. And actually: t was a fascinating experience!
I bought a small pack of Russian tea cookies for later. In my one day in Milan I would learn fairly quickly that, just like Chicago, Milan is a very international city. Even in just one day in Milan, I really came to appreciate that about Milan. Around every corner was a Vietnamese restaurant, or a Russian grocery, or a Kebab shop! (And who doesn’t love a Kebab anywhere!?)
I turned random corners. A yellow tram passed me by that was totally adorable! Maybe Milan had more for me than I first thought! I found myself in an upscale looking street – and it was Cute!. And behold! A gelato shop!
There was a small case inside the shop with four flavors of gelato in a cooler.
TIP: When searching out excellent, authentic Gelato in Italy and other places, look for shops without tons of flavors and not piled with toppings. Those shops look great but aren’t usually top quality. Small shops with just a few flavors are often much higher quality.
With a lemon gelato in hand, the yellow tram passing by again: Milan was really growing on me!
Milan Travel Tip: If you’re willing to splurge on possibly the best gelato of your life, head to the Cioccolatitaliani. If it’s a chain, I honestly don’t care! Order one of the Specialty Cones: mine had Strawberry Gelato, Peruvian Dark Chocolate Gelato, Marshmallow, and the whole bottom of the cone was filled with melty milk chocolate. I had a streak of chocolate on my white shirt for the rest of the day – and it was so totally worth it!
Check it out: Via S. Raffaele, 6, 20121 Milano MI, Italy – a quick walk from Il Duomo Cathedral!
#3: Wander the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (i.e. Milan’s famous, opulent shopping center!)
A 45-second walk from the entrance to Il Duomo Cathedral is what some might also consider to be a Sacred Site of Milan:
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II Shopping Center.
I am honestly fascinated by the nearness of Milan’s most important place of worship, and a shopping center! Only a few feet away from where people are lighting candles and fervently praying for their loved ones, others are shopping for Gucci and Versace. And still others are twirling their heel on a mosaic of a bull’s testicles ostensibly for good luck.
Ok – I’ll admit – I totally did that, too! No particular sense of good luck yet, but it was fun!
A stroll through Galleria Vittorio is really like a stroll through an art museum. The window displays are exquisite, the light streaming in from the glass ceiling warms the entire building. I particularly enjoyed the displays in the Montblanc window (because we all know how much I adore fountain pens!).
Milan Travel Tip: Most of the places to sit down and have a coffee or Italian Treat right in the Vittorio Emanuele shopping center are a little $$$. Just wander towards a few backstreets nearby and you’ll find some great options for coffee or gelato at a much better price! (My favorite coffee in Italy: Latte Macchiato – a tall glass of warm milk with a shot of espresso!)
#4 : Visit the Opera Scala and Museum
If you are a music lover in any way – I highly recommend taking the time to check out the La Scala Opera House & Museum while you are in Milan! Rick Steves lists this attraction as his only “must visit” for the city – and I have to agree with him it’s pretty great!
Obviously, I was enchanted the second I walked in because Harps! Ok – one harp. But still – it made my heart sing! My harp was also made in Italy (in Genoa) so it was just lovely to see a historical harp on display.
Aside from the harp, The Opera House Museum was a really magical insight into the world of opera – the composers, costumes, set design. The museum is immersive, yet small enough that you don’t get bored. The best part, of course, is getting to peek into the Teatro itself!
If you are in Milan during the production season, I highly recommend seeing if you can score tickets to see the opera. I can’t wait to see one there someday myself!
#5: Do everything you can to see Da Vinci’s Last Supper
Because I decided to go to Milan at the last minute, there were no tickets left through the Italian Official Website to go see Leonardo’s Last Supper. They almost always sell out the very day they are released: only once every three months. Official tickets are bought up by tour aggregators who then go on to sell them as a “tour” for almost 5x the price.
I really debated whether it was worth it to buy a 50 Euro “tour” of the Last Supper.
Since it was just a few days after my birthday, I decided to go for it!
I am so glad that I did.
No print or postcard could ever compare to seeing this extraordinary, luminous painting in it’s full size and glory – and hearing the story behind it. The entire scene almost moves before you, and you can truly begin to appreciate innovation behind it and the absolute masterpiece that it is.
Seeing Da Vinci’s Last Supper in person was a highlight of my year. You only get 15 minutes in the refectory where it is painted, and those 15 minutes are some of the most memorable of my life.
I would go back in a second.
Plus – it’s inside a Monastery. That’s like — all the things I love in one place!
Since visiting, I have had the joy of getting to read Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Leonardo Da Vinci (he also wrote biographies of Steve Jobs). It only made the whole experience more meaningful for me – understanding how Leonardo saw the world and his experimental nature – all of which can be seen in the Last Supper!
It’s truly a painting of artistic brilliance, and spiritual power.
#6 Visit the Sforza Castle in Milan
Sforza Castle is truly impressive to walk up to. By this point in my one day in Milan I had limited time, so I walked through one massive gate with the intention of briskly walking through the courtyard to get to the other side.
I was amazed by the red brick, the shape of the towers, and what looked like bits of once-grand architecture littering the grounds.
I realized the museums (plural, because there lots of different museums inside the Sforza castle!) happened to be free on Sundays! While Sforza Castle hadn’t been high on my priority list, I slowed a little as I walked through the courtyard, and noticed a sign for the unfinished Michelangelo Pieta on display.
Now I’ve always had a soft-spot for Pieta sculptures and paintings. These are the images of Mary holding Jesus’ body as he is taken down from the cross. I figure much of my fascination comes from my work as a pediatric chaplain. Sadly, I’ve seen far too many mother’s cradling their children as they take their last breaths. The particular look in the eye, the shape of a body cradling another body: I am fascinated by how artists render this deeply sacred, intimate, and devastating moment in the story of Christianity.
So an unfinished Pieta, by Michelangelo, and free.
Let’s just say I made a detour!
Michaelangelo’s Unfinished Pieta Sculpture
I walked into a small ticket-office / gift shop where a sign depicted this Pieta. There wasn’t really a sign for where to line up or ask for a ticket, so I simply went to the front desk and asked. A woman handed me a piece of paper and said in perfect English, “through the doors.” So, obediently, I walked out through the doors I came in, assuming there was another door.
I am seriously the queen of getting mini-lost.
I seem to avoid (thus far at least) getting horribly lost and mixed up. I love to turn the wrong way, or backtrack unnecessarily , getting turned around and awkwardly having to walk past people I just talked to.
It turned out the doors to the Pieta were directly behind the woman who gave me the ticket.
After wandering around the courtyard confused for a minute, I finally realized this, and awkwardly had to walk right back past her (and yes, she saw me) through a dark and sliding door (seriously, it did not look like a door!) and onto one of the most beautiful works of art I’ve ever seen.
I think my favorite part about it is where Michaelangelo carefully carved on of Jesus’s arms, and then changed his mind about where it should be placed. So he just left it there, carved a new arm, and clearly meant to get back to it. Sadly, he died before it could be finished, and Jesus has 3 arms.
#7 Explore the other churches and basilicas of Milan!
Milan is so rich in churches and sacred sites, you could spend weeks exploring them all.
Near the Sforza castle are two truly extraordinary places I believe are must-see sites!
Basilica Sant’Ambrogio in Milan
The first is the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio. This is a Romanesque basilica – much older than Il Duomo. It’s two belltowers are iconic and were built at two very different times. It has a huge courtyard where worshippers would gather as the Priest would preside from the upper balcony.
Remarkably, some of its original frescos still survive inside! There is also a sarcophagus (I know, kind of morbid!) that dates from Roman Times inside.
You don’t need to allot hours and hours to Sant’Ambrogio – but I recommend you do not miss it!
San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore: The “Sistine Chapel” of Milan
Just a five minute walk from Sforza Castle and the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio is the San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore – also known as the Sistine Chapel of Milan.
Every inch of this church that dates from the 16th century is painted with vibrant, beautiful Biblical scenes.
I could have spent hours there discovering each and every panel of paintings. My absolute favorite was Noah’s Ark. There are saint’s lives portrayed, as well as many images from the Bible – Old and New Testament. The picture here is only a tiny fraction of the church and all of its art.
If this doesn’t inspire wonder and prayer – I’m not sure what will.
Travel Tip for Milan (or anywhere): You can often buy a local SIM card and insert it into your Iphone or Android when you travel abroad. All Phone Companies will now unlock your phone if you’ve had it for at least a year. There may even be a law they have to earlier than that – but I don’t want to give inaccurate into. When you buy a SIM card with Data – you can use GOOGLE MAPS! That’s how I find the quickest walking routes & only get a little bit lost!
If you aren’t stuffed with gelato and espresso yet head straight to the absolutely beautiful neighborhood of Navigli – you’ve probably got an appetite after all that walking!
I really enjoyed spending my evening watching the sunset over the canal and wandering through Navigli. It felt like a little Venice in Milan, with beautiful curved bridges over the canal and a plethora of restaurants to choose from for Al Fresco dining.
I even stumbled upon a bookshop with beautiful books in Italian! How cool is that?
And I got to take one of those adorable Yellow Trams all the way to the neighborhood while it was still daylight! You can take the #2 Tram from near the Duomo, or the #3 Tram and get off at Piazza 24 – Maggio.
While the Metro in Milan was easy and fabulous, I do always appreciate some overground transportation options for the purposes of sightseeing!
I ended my 24 hours in Milan sitting at a canalside café with Margharita Pizza and an Aperol Spritz. It was truly perfect!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post about What to Do In Milan Italy In One Day!
What was my biggest mistake in Milan, Italy?
Not spending more than one day there!
I think for a lot of American travelers in particular, Milan does not qualify as quaint or picturesque in the way we think of Italy. To be totally honest: that’s true.
Walking in downtown Milan I felt more like I was walking in downtown Chicago than in Italy!
Yet then I would turn a corner and…
There was yet another absolutely incredible sight! Or museum! Or restaurant! Or church!!!
I spent six weeks in Europe on this last trip and Milan represented less than one full day of that – yet in my photographs and memories it looms large. The city surprised and delighted me.
Next time I travel to Grandchamp Monastery or elsewhere in Europe, I’m going to very seriously consider flying into Milan or finding a way to travel through it again – this time for at least 2 days!
Milan was truly an amazing city, with so much history and spirituality! Make sure you include Milan on your next Italy Itinerary!
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