With so many historic and beautiful cities in Italy, is a trip to Milan worth it? My answer is absolutely! Here’s why, and how to make the most of a two day visit.
Milan isn’t just a big city, and it’s not only for shopping. Mind you, not that there’s anything wrong with shopping. If you want to experience the best upscale shopping in Italy, Milan should most certainly be on your itinerary! But that’s not what this article is about. This is about how to turn two days in Milan into an experience you’ll never forget! When planning my trip to Milan, I was a little overwhelmed at first. Where should we stay, how do we plan out our visit, and what else is there to do besides see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper fresco? Here are the answers to those questions, and how to plan a perfect visit to Milan.
How to get around
Do NOT rent a car in Milan. You don’t need it. The public transportation system in Milan is clean, efficient, and easy to navigate! You can buy single ride tickets, as well as 24 or 72 hour tickets that cover all Milan public transportation. You can also buy a 1,2 or 3 day Milan City Pass, which includes all public transportation as well as discounts on museums and other attractions in the city. Tickets can be purchased at kiosks or cashiers inside metro stations. For more detailed ticket prices, see their official website.
* Children up to 10 years old ride all public transportation in Milan for free!
Most flights into Milan arrive at Malpensa Airport, which is about 50 kilometers from the city center. That being said, there are two very easy ways to get from the airport to the central train station.
1. Take the Malpensa Express Train, which runs between the airport and Milan central train station from 4:00 am to midnight every 30 minutes. The train takes about 50 minutes and stops at both terminals. Tickets from Milano Centrale to Malpensa Airport cost 13€ and can be purchased on their official website, or on the Trenitalia app. Keep in mind that there can be occasional strikes that affect this train line. I know because this happened to us while we were there. We had purchased train tickets in advance and did not find out that the train to the airport was canceled until we got to the train station. Luckily we had given ourselves room for error and had time to catch the bus instead.
2. Take the Malpensa Express Bus that runs between the airport and Milan central train station. The bus also runs every 30 minutes from 4:00 am to midnight. Tickets cost 10€ and the ride takes about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic. You can buy tickets directly from the bus driver or online in advance.
Where to stay
My advice is to stay near the Duomo. We walked all around this area and felt very safe the entire time. The Duomo is right next to Milano Centrale train station, as well as the Duomo Metro stop. We also loved staying near the Duomo because we were able to walk almost everywhere we wanted to go. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele shopping arcade is right next to the Duomo and there are great restaurant choices, whether you want to eat somewhere on one of the main streets or wander into a nearby neighborhood. We did a little of both and were happy with all of our choices.
There are a multitude of hotel, bed & breakfast, and AirBnb options all within a few blocks of the Duomo that range in price and quality. Hotels in this area are a little pricier than other parts of town, but you are paying for the convenience, and the location can’t be beat! We chose the Hotel Rio, a moderately priced small hotel half a block from the Duomo and loved it. There are many other options in the area to accommodate your taste and budget, I always use booking.com because it’s easy, you can get reduced and “mobile-only” rates when you build up your booking genius level, and their customer service in my experience can’t be beat.
How to plan your visit
Morning: “The Last Supper”
You can not visit Milan without viewing one of the western world’s most recognizable and influential works of art. The 15th-century mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci can be found in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and it’s truly remarkable. The angles, perspective and light in the work are testaments to da Vinci’s genius. And it’s actually a miracle that it even still exists! The world’s most famous painting has survived over 500 years of deterioration, as well as damage to the monastery due to reconstruction, occupation by Napoleon’s troops, and bombing during World War II.
The number one thing you should know about seeing The Last Supper is to buy your tickets in advance. If you risk waiting until you arrive in Milan, you may leave the city without seeing the most famous fresco in the world! Or you may end up with a ticket time that isn’t ideal or doesn’t fit your schedule. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting the Last Supper.
Buy your tickets in advance on their official website.
There’s a metro stop just a few blocks away. If you’re coming from the Duomo, take the red Metro line in the direction of Rho Fieramilano and get off at the Conciliazione stop. From there it’s an easy walk down Via Giovanni Boccaccio and a right turn on Via Fratelli Ruffini.
Arrive at the ticket office 15 minutes before your visit to check in.
There are no bags allowed inside, but they do have lockers you can rent.
You’ll have 15 minutes inside to see the painting. Make sure you take time to see the fresco at the opposite end of the room as well!
Time your visit so you can also go inside the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie next door. They are closed from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm Monday through Friday, from 1:00 until 5:45 on Saturday and from 12:30 to 5:45 on Sunday. If you want to have time to see the church before these times, be sure to schedule your Last Supper tickets in the morning.
There are several nice locations for a quick lunch right here. Bar Ruffini on Via Fratelli Ruffini, and Caffe Le Grazie in the Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie. Grab a couple of panini, an Aperol spritz and/or an espresso and head on to your afternoon destination!
Afternoon: Castello Sforzesco and Fontana di Piazza Castello
The Sforzesco Castle is just a 10 minute walk from the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. This is a beautiful walk because it gives you a chance to admire some of Milan’s gorgeous architecture along the way. The Sforzesco Castle looks like something straight out of the middle ages! It was originally built in1368 by the Visconti family, then rebuilt in 1450 by the Sforza family, who ruled Milan from 1450 to 1535.
This super cool castle has a 1905 reproduction of the original gate tower, and houses the Musei del Castello Sforzesco, a series of museums that you don’t want to miss. The museum that features sculptures even includes the Pietà Rondanini, Michelangelo's last masterpiece! It’s free to enter the castle grounds from 7:00 am to 7:30 pm, but the museum complex is only open from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm. You’ll have plenty of time to tour the castle and museums if you get here around 1:30.
Now it’s time to relax and enjoy an aperitivo or afternoon espresso with some snacks, gelato, or all of the above! Leave the castle through the gate nearest the sculpture museum so don’t miss the gorgeous Fountain in the Piazza Castello. Pictures here are really pretty with the castle in the background. We had snacks and drinks at the Bar Castello and did some people watching for about an hour. It was so lovely and relaxing! Of course we had to indulge in a cup of gelato to enjoy on the way back to our hotel. The walk back was beautiful with even more views of Milan’s stunning architecture.
This leaves your evening free for dinner, and maybe an after dinner walk over to the Duomo for some spectacular nighttime views!
Morning: Il Duomo
The Duomo di Milano sits at the center of the Piazza del Duomo, flanked on one side by the glass domed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping mall and on the other by the Royal Palace, now home to the Cathedral Museum. The Duomo itself is a work of art, a massive Gothic cathedral that took over 600 years to build and has more statues than any other building in the world, standing guard over the city from on high. Here are some tips for successfully visiting the famous Milan Cathedral.
Buy your tickets online in advance.
Start first thing in the morning before the sun gets too bright and hot, especially during the warmer summer months. Unless you happen to be visiting on a Thursday, in which case you should buy your tickets for the evening. As of June 10, 2021, the Duomo is now offering extended hours so you can experience “Sunset Amongst the Spires”. See their official website for details.
Get the Duomo Pass ticket, which includes the cathedral, duomo museum, archeological areas, and the rooftops. You can also purchase individual tickets to each of these, but the combined ticket is a much better deal.
When you buy your ticket, you will choose whether to get to the rooftops by the stairs or the lift. Even if you take the lift, you will still have to climb a few flights of stairs to reach the very top, be sure to take this slowly so you can capture views of the spires with the square and city below.
As you come down from the rooftops, you’ll go directly into the cathedral. If you bought the combined ticket you’ll be able to tour the full cathedral; otherwise you’ll just walk across the back wall and then exit. I can’t imagine coming here and not touring this breathtaking cathedral. The world’s fifth largest Christian church, the Duomo di Milano has 52 marble columns that are each 80 feet tall, an ancient sundial you can still set your watch to, and priceless works of art at every turn.
But wait, there’s more! Check out the archaeological areas under the duomo, which you can access by a stairway near the front doors. This will take you into the foundations of the fourth century church and baptistery, the Basilica di Santa Tecla and Battistero di San Giovanni alle Fonti, which weren't discovered until the construction of the Milan Metro system! I’m always amazed at the layers of cities and churches that were just built on top of each other. It kind of makes you wonder how many other incredible pieces of history are buried under our feet as we explore the great cities of Italy and other parts of Europe.
Speaking of history, the Duomo Museum is jam packed with ancient artifacts, statues, and other pieces of art that came straight from the cathedral, including a reproduction of the gigantic golden statue of the Madonnina which sits on the highest spire of the cathedral and represents the heart and soul of the city.
Afternoon: Explore at your leisure
After a full morning of climbing stairs and walking through the cathedral complex and museum, take a break for lunch in the Piazza del Duomo or on one of the neighboring streets. Then do some exploring and see where the city takes you. Here are some options you might want to consider.
Shopping at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
You are in the fashion capital of the world after all! Check out the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a glass topped arcade lined with high-end shopping and gourmet restaurants. From the Piazza del Duomo, enter through the huge stone archway and shop to your heart’s content, or as much as your credit cards will allow. Even if you don’t buy anything, the window shopping is fun and the decorative architecture of the four corners in the center is breathtaking!
Art and Theatre at Piazza della Scala
If you walk through the Galleria and out the other side opposite of the Duomo, you’ll find yourself in a quaint little square called Piazza della Scala. With a fountain dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci as its centerpiece, the small piazza is closed in by the Galleria on one side, with the Palazzo Marino, Gallerie d’Italia Art Museum, and the La Scala Opera House on the other three. You’ll find locals and tourists alike sitting on the benches under the trees, taking a break from the day or just enjoying the peaceful setting. If you’re interested in learning more about one of the most famous opera houses in the world, you can visit the Museo Teatrale alla Scala or schedule a tour of the theatre. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to score tickets to an opera or other performance while you’re in town!
Explore Culture, Science and Fine Art at the Palazzo di Brera
The Palazzo di Brera is a Baroque palace which was built on the ruins of a 14th century monastery. After serving as a Jesuit school until the late 1700’s, the palazzo became the home of a cultural and arts academy founded by the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. She later added an observatory, garden, and library to the collection. The foundation remains almost 300 years later, and is now home to other cultural institutions such as the The Pinacoteca di Brera Art Museum, Brera Library, the Astronomic Observatory, the Botanical Garden, the Lombard Institute for Science and Art and the Academy of Fine Arts. See their official website for information on visiting this historic and cultural icon.
Discover Medieval History at the Piazza dei Mercanti
Piazza dei Mercanti used to be the central square in Milan, the heart of commerce and government in the city during the Middle Ages. It is located between Piazza del Duomo and Piazza Cordusio, and houses some unique and beautiful buildings that give a glimpse back into the medieval history of the area. Some of the buildings that remain intact are the Palazzo della Ragione, Loggia degli Osii, Palazzo delle Scuole Palatine, Casa dei Panigarola, and the Palazzo dei Giureconsulti.
Drink coffee at the most beautiful Starbucks in the world
There is beauty to be found everywhere in Milan. It even boasts the most beautiful Starbucks in world, the Starbucks Reserve Roastery. Fun fact, this is the only Starbucks roastery in Europe. Set up inside a gorgeous baroque building in Piazza Cordusio, you might walk right past it and never know it's a Starbucks if you're not looking carefully!
Marvel at ancient manuscripts at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana
The Biblioteca Ambrosiana is a historic library which also houses the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, or Ambrosian art gallery. This place has such an interesting story! It was founded in 1609 by Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who sent agents across Western Europe to search for historic books and manuscripts. If you visit this library, make sure you look to your left when you exit out the back door. There's a small church next door that is absolutely gorgeous and has a history all of its own.
The Church of Santo Sepolcro was founded in the 9th century and rebuilt in the late 11th century after the First Crusade, to imitate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This small church is part of the Piazza San Sepolcro which, along with the Ambrosian complex, was an area of Milan that was used as the city Forum during Roman times. There have been many restoration projects and reconstruction in some areas, but evidence has been found in the crypts below the church that suggest this area was the center of Roman life in the city!
Whether you come to Milan only once in your life, or return time and again, you will fall in love with it's architecture, history, and charm. I hope you enjoyed reading this and found it helpful. If so, drop me a comment below and check out some of my other city guides below, or my European Destinations page.
Cheers to finding adventure near, far, or wherever you are!