Must-see Milan – a Beginner’s Guide

Italy’s style capital is a popular city break destination at any time of year, but visit between 1 May and 31 October this year and there’s the added attraction of Expo Milan 2015.   

Milan CathedralHeld at a purpose-built exhibition village within easy reach of the city centre, this six-month celebration of world food will also address the hot topic of feeding the planet.  Expect international food pavilions, fabulous foodie treats, and a programme of evening entertainment including a never-to-be repeated show by Cirque du Soleil.

A huge programme of cultural events will take place across the city throughout Expo 2015 but first-time visitors won’t want to miss the key sights of Italy’s second city and capital of the Lombardy region.  Many of the must-do attractions are clustered round the Duomo; others are easily accessible by Metro (€1.50 for a ticket that’s valid 90 minutes on any one journey, or €4.50 for a day ticket giving unlimited travel by bus, tram or metro).

For the essential flavour of the city, I’d start at the magnificent Duomo, with its 135 spires, numerous statues, and gleaming façade.  The inside is contrastingly sombre, so if time is limited, I’d head round to the back of the cathedral where for 12€ you can take a lift to the roof terraces for views over the city to the Alps.  The perimeter terrace is level but there’s a flight of steep stairs if you want to go right to the roof.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele IIBack at ground level, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is arguably the world’s most beautiful shopping arcade with its metal and glass roof, ornate carvings and designer shops. 

Window shop at Versace and Prada, admire the mosaic floors showing signs of the zodiac, and ensure your return by turning on your heel on the bull’s private parts – always a popular photo opportunity!  Look out for the Galleria’s policemen in their stylish uniforms – a new slant on the idea of fashion police!

Come out of the arcade and walk across Piazza della Scala to La Scala, Milan’s famous 18th century opera house.  You won’t gain access to the auditorium without a performance ticket but the museum offers a handy window onto the plush red and gold interior.  And tickets don’t have to blow your whole holiday budget if you aim for music rather opera, a lofty seat rather than front stalls.

La ScalaLa Scala stands on the edge of La Brera, the city’s art and design district, dotted with shops, showrooms and trendy galleries.  Art lovers won’t want to miss the Pinacoteca di Brera art gallery, which includes masterpieces by Caravaggio and Raphael.

But if you only have time for one shop, head for La Rinascente beside the Duomo for seven floors of national and international fashion shopping.  The ground floor is dedicated to interior design whilst the Food Hall, nine bars and restaurants on the top floor afford close-up views of those delicate cathedral pinnacles.   

Beyond La Brera is imposing Sforza Castle, home to a variety of museums covering furniture and musical instruments, prehistory and Egyptology, as well as one of the largest art collections in the city that includes Michelangelo’s last masterpiece, the Pietà Rondanini.  This year, the square in front of the red-brick castle is home to two eye-catching white pavilions linked to Expo2015 and world food.  

Sforza CastleBut if you want to explore Italian food in the city centre, head to Piazza Cinque Giornate and Eataly Milan, a chain which takes ‘Made in Italy’ gastronomy all over the world.  Local produce includes Grana Padano and Gorgonzola cheese, lemons and olive oil from Garda, torrone from Cremona, mustard, caviar and cold cuts, not to mention wine.

Another favourite place for foodies is the Navigli district on the south side of the centre and especially atmospheric after dark.  In the 12th century, the city was crossed by rivers and canals, and towards the end of the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci devised an innovative system of locks.  Most canals were covered in the 20th century, but today the waterways of the Navigli are lined with restaurants, galleries and craft shops.  

Finally, if your visit would be incomplete without visiting Leonardo’s famous Last Supper, head for the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie, to see this moving masterpiece of Renaissance perspective.  Painted directly onto the wall of the monks’ dining room, it has been restored many times but still packs an artistic and emotional punch.

Fact file

Milan has two airports, Malpensa (45km from the centre) and Linate (7km).  Shuttle buses and trains link Malpensa to the Central Station, where you can also get trains to the Renaissance cities of Cremona – home of Stradivarius and violin-making – and UNESCO-listed Mantova (Mantua).  

Gillian stayed at the Starhotel Anderson, a 4-star hotel conveniently located in a square beside the station.  For information on Expo Milan 2015, visit

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Gillian Thornton

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