There’s no denying Milan is one of the most stylish cities in the world.
High-end fashion stores boast of Milanese prowess in transforming mere fabric into works of art. But fashion isn’t the only thing Milan has garnered fame for. In a constant state of flux, Milan epitomises drama.
With over 2,000 years of tumultuous human history, this northern Italian city was prominent during the Roman Empire, Middle Ages, and Renaissance. Milan was claimed by the French, Spanish, and Austrians before the unification of modern Italy in the 19th century. It founded the fascist party during WWI, and it was all but destroyed during WWII. That’s a whole lot of history to be explored by humble tourists like you and me. Especially if you’re short on time
We spent 1 day in Milan at the end of a whirlwind rail tour around Italy, and crammed as much site-seeing as we could into 24 hours. This 1-day itinerary visits Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, climbs the Duomo, and even squeezes a little time for shopping in The Golden Triangle.
Be warned, this plan isn’t for the faint of heart. But then again, neither is Milan.
Italy tip: When your vacation time is limited, every minute counts. While there is a public bus from the airport to the city centre, I recommend Milan airport transfers to make the most of your time.
9am – Leonardo Davinci’s Last Supper & Milan’s Duomo in the Best of Milan Tour
Start your day right with Take Walks’ Best of Milan tour. The 3-hour small group tour kicks off at 9am with a visit to Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper. The famous fresco exudes a palpable magic that simply can’t be captured in photos. Perhaps that’s due to its larger-than-life dimensions, taking up an entire wall in the former dining room within the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazi.
Our guide, Silvia, explained how controversial the painting was in its time. Leonardo broke all the rules of how religious characters should be depicted and, ever the inventor, he created his own method to bond paint to the wall instead of attempting a traditional fresco. It seems Leonardo’s method needed a bit more tweaking as the painting began to deteriorate soon after its completion, requiring a handful of restorations over the centuries. To ensure the painting’s preservation, the room is now kept at a controlled air temperature with only 29 people allowed inside at a time.
Another “rule” Leonardo broke when painting The Last Supper was the placement of the vanishing point. Typical Renaissance artworks have a vanishing point at the intended point of viewing so the perspective appears perfect from that angle. Leonardo placed his vanishing point higher, towards the ceiling in the centre of the room, creating a 3-dimensional effect from almost every angle. Silvia suggested he may have done this so the friars felt they were part of the scene during their evening candlelit meals.
The devine magnificence of The Last Supper contrasts with Montorfano’s chaotic 2-dimentional crucifixion scene on the opposite wall. It’s like night and day.
Silvia shared stories behind Leonardo’s techniques while we stared at the painting in awe for our allocated 15 minutes.
The tour continued on foot and we briefly stopped to see ancient Roman ruins called Il Palazzo Imperiale and a rather inappropriate statue opposite the Italian Stock Exchange, before entering the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan’s most famous designer shopping gallery where Silvia shared a local superstition. The gallery’s floor is covered in mosaics of Italian city crests including Turin, whose crest features a bull. According to folklore, if you make a wish while spinning on your heel on the bull’s testicles, your wish will come true. Silvia assured us this Milanese tradition actually works and judging by the queue of people waiting to try, she just might be right.
Our final stop was Milan Cathedral, also known as the Duomo, which is the 4th largest church in Europe. Milan’s cathedral is unlike any other in Italy, following a gothic design common to medieval France. We walked around the magnificent Duomo’s interior admiring marble mosaics and statues, large organs, and stained-glass windows while Silvia shared insights regarding the cathedral’s 500-year-long construction. And I thought writing this article took a long time!
Deep underneath the Duomo is an active archaeological site which we explored, marvelling at ruins of a 4th century basilica, baptistery, and cemetery.
Silvia then walked us around to another entrance where we could ascend to the roof of the Duomo. After a short wait for the 6-person elevator, she said her goodbyes. The wait was well worth the views we found on the Duomo’s white marble rooftop terraces.
12:30pm – Lunch
Silvia warned us that restaurants inside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II are quite expensive and underwhelming, so we ventured a little further and enjoyed fresh homemade pizza and pasta at Pizzeria Caputo.
1:30pm – Leonardo’s Museum
We walked back passed the Duomo and through the Galleria to Leonardo3 - Leonardo's World Museum. The museum features recreations of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions including flying machines, weapons of war, and even a time machine (sorry, it’s not functional). There are also digital displays explaining his most famous paintings, like The Last Supper. I recommend buying tickets on GetYourGuide (€12) which includes an English audio guide to help understand the significance of what you’re looking at.
2:30pm – Window Shopping at the Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle is the world’s fashion Mecca. 3 streets in central Milan, Via Monte Napoleone, Via della Spiga, and Via Sant’ Andrea, are lined with the planet’s most prestigious designer fashion stores, like Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Gucci, Versace, Armani, and many, many more.
If your credit card limit allows actual shopping at these designer stores, by all means, shop ‘til you drop. As for the rest of us, we’ll have to be satisfied looking through the interesting window displays.
3:30pm – Civic Archaeology Museum
Either walk or take the metro to the Civic Archaeology Museum located inside a historic building, a former convent with still-visible ancient Roman walls and 2 medieval towers. The museum features artefacts including Roman statues and sculptures, ancient Greek sculptures and ceramics, and Etruscan archaeological remains.
The museum is open 9am until 5:30pm Tuesday to Sunday.
4:30pm - Sforza Castle
On the way to Sforza Castle, stop for a short break at Milan’s most famous coffee shop, Marchesi 1824, which has been serving up delicious pastries for almost 200 years.
Sforza Castle, built in the 15th century and restored in the late 1800’s, houses several museums and represented the seat of power for Milan’s dukes.
Entry to the castle is free (7am to 7:30pm) but the museums cost €10 and are open 9am until 5:30pm Tuesday to Sunday. Leonardo da Vinci’s wall and ceiling fresco, Sala delle Asse, is very popular, so if you’d like to see it, time-allocated tickets can be purchased in advance (up to 50 people per timeslot).
As it’s not possible to see all museums in just 1.5 hours, I suggest focusing your time on Museo d'Arte Antica which contains a wealth of Renaissance art (including Leonardo’s).
6pm – Walk Along the Canals
During the Middle Ages, Milan relied on canals to supply the city and conduct trade. Most of the canals have since been filled in but 2 remain. Surrounding the 2 canals are dozens of lively restaurants, street performers, jewellery and souvenir stores. I suggest taking an hour or so to leisurely walk along the waterfront and soak up the ambiance.
6:45pm – Enjoy an Aperitif
Choose a waterfront bar, like BANCO, and treat yourself to refreshing drink. I can’t go past a traditional Italian Aperol Spritz made with orange liquor Aperol, prosecco, and sparkling water.
If you’re like me, and enjoy the occasional dessert before dinner (you know, because life’s short), stop for a scoop (or two) of gelato at Gelateria le Colonne Crèpes famose. You’ll thank me for it.
7:30pm – Dinner
If you haven’t spent all your money in the Golden Triangle, enjoy an upscale modern Italian meal at Al Mercante and celebrate a day well spent in Milan. Summer months can be busy so I suggest booking a table ahead of time (via Google Maps). If your pennies are fewer, go with a budget-friendly pizza or risotto at La Tradizionale.
The Bottom Line
While the rich, dramatic history of Milan needs far more than one day to do it justice, this itinerary will give you a quick feel for the city’s vibe and whet your appetite for your return visit.
You’ll love Milan if you’re a fan of ancient history, modern history, art or fashion. Or just like me, you can’t get enough pizza and gelato. Hey, at least I’m looking stylish at the same time.
Shameless, Josh, just shameless.