One Day in… MIlan
Milan: a Gem in Northern Italy
Jessica Spiegel may be better known to you all as Italylogue. She's the Italy expert at Boots 'n All, and she has a distinct fondness for Milan. So, I asked her to make a few recommendations for those who just have a short stop in Milan.
Despite my own fondness for Milan, I routinely tell people to skip it on their own trips to Italy - especially if they've got only a couple weeks in the country and are intent on going to a long list of places like Venice, Florence, the Cinque Terre, the Amalfi Coast, and Rome. But you'll often find better deals on cheap airfare to Italy on flights into Milan's Malpensa Airport rather than Rome's larger Fiumicino Airport, so rather than pay more for your airline ticket you might as well make the most of your brief time in Milan to see what the city has to offer, right?
Where to Stay in Milan for a One-Day Trip
I'd offer different advice on where to stay in Milan depending on your circumstances, so here are a couple scenarios and what I'd recommend:
You just flew into Milan and are staying for a day before moving onto your next destination: Stay in the city center, or as close to the center as your budget will allow, since that gives you better access to all the stuff you'll do during your day in the city and you'll still be close enough to the train station to reach it by the Milan Metro for when you're off to your next destination.
You've finished your trip through Italy and are in Milan for a day before flying out the next day: With an early morning flight, I'd recommend an airport hotel at Malpensa (Linate is closer to the city center, so you could get away with a city center hotel for flights out of Linate) just to avoid the hassle of a pre-dawn bus to Malpensa. If your flight is later in the day, or you're okay with a pre-dawn bus if it means you get to stay in the city, then a hotel in central Milan is fine, too.
If you're just in Milan on a long layover, or you're trying to cram a few sights in before heading off on a night train somewhere else, you can check your bags at Milano Centrale station for the day.
What to Do in Milan for a One-Day Trip
I know what I'm capable of doing in one day in Milan, but you are not me. (Shocking, I know.) In an effort to cover everyone who reads this, then, I'm going to give you more options than you probably need so you can construct your perfect one-day trip to Milan.
Visit the Duomo - The Duomo is Milan's iconic church, and it's a good first stop for several reasons. It's smack in the center of the city, it's on a piazza that's fantastic for people-watching, and it's free to get inside. This isn't one of those Italian churches that's got a hidden Michelangelo or something in the corner, so unless you're big into art history it's not likely to take you much time to stroll through the grand cathedral's interior. Which is good, because the real treat is waiting upstairs.
Walk Around on the Duomo Roof - The spires atop the Milan Duomo are enticing, aren't they? They're even better up close. You can take a quick elevator ride to the Duomo roof (or, for a few euro less, climb the stairs) and wander around on top of the cathedral for awhile. Milan is notoriously smoggy, so even if it's sunny you're not guaranteed a good view, but if you're lucky you should be able to see the mountains on the horizon.
Spend 15 Minutes in the Presence of Genius - The Duomo may not have a secret Michelangelo, but Milan is home to a not-so-secret Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece. Leonardo's "Last Supper" adorns the wall of a former church refectory, and if this is on your must-see list then you absolutely need to book tickets well in advance (they can sell out months ahead). Your visit is strictly limited to 15 minutes (there's a precisely-timed audio guide available).
Window Shopping and People-Watching - Milan is famous for its high-end designer shops, but I don't know anyone who can afford to shop in them. Instead, we like to watch the people who do shop in them. Milan has a few areas that are pedestrian-only (or at least mostly car-free) and seem like designated shopping areas. The so-called "Quadrilatero d'Oro," or "Gold Quarter" is where you'll find the flagship Milan stores for names like Prada, Gucci, Armani, and Dolce & Gabbana (among many others). This is where the beautiful people (and the people taking photos of the beautiful people) are. I love the nearby Brera neighborhood, where you'll find a slightly more mixed selection of shops and people to watch. Many of the Brera shops are on the expensive end, too, but not all of them. Finally, since it's right next to the Duomo and since it's a gorgeous building, take a quick turn through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II - if for no other reason than to spin around on one heel on the mosaic of the dancing bull in the center of this open-air mall. Where should you spin? Just look for the well-worn divet on the bull, you can't miss it. Why spin? For good luck, of course.
Find Green Milan - As mentioned, Milan is smoggy. In fact, it's been reported that it's one of the most polluted cities in Europe. But Milan does have green spaces where you can get a little respite from all the concrete. There are two large parks in the city center that are lovely places to enjoy nice weather: Parco Sempione right behind the Castello Sforzesco and the Giardini Pubblici to the northeast of the Duomo. There are sometimes concerts or other events going on in the summer, and although neither park is huge enough that you'll be able to forget there's a city just over that line of trees, it can be fun to enjoy a sunny day the same way the Milanese do.
Pick a Museum - Milan has several museums worth mentioning, but on a one-day visit you'll probably be lucky to have time for one of them. Here are a few options - pick your favorite and make a mental note of what to come back to on your next trip. The Pinacoteca di Brera is (in my opinion) too often overlooked, and if you like paintings you'll love it. It's not a big museum, but it does boast works by Caravaggio, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Hayez (among others). One day in Milan probably isn't enough time to take in an opera, but you can tour the famous La Scala Opera Museum. The bonus with a trip through the museum is that, so long as there isn't a rehearsal in session, you can duck into one of the red velvet boxes at the back of the theatre for a moment. Leonardo da Vinci's love for science lives on at the National Museum of Science & Technology, with interactive and hands-on exhibits that are educational fun for all ages. There's even a Leonardo Gallery with models of da Vinci's designs.
Find Milan's Canals - Canals? Milan? Don't you mean Venice? I know, it sounds strange, but there are canals in Milan. In fact, there used to be more. All that remain are two short and straight-as-an-arrow canals in the southwestern part of the city center, a neighborhood called the Navigli. Truth be told, the canals themselves aren't much to look at - but the neighborhood that surrounds them is eclectic and worth a stroll. It used to be where the city's struggling artists had their studios, but it's becoming more up-market these days - so the studios you see now are more of the successful artist variety. Still, it's art unlike what you'll see in a museum, and the Navigli is full of restaurants and cafes tucked around corners, too. Also worth noting is that the Navigli is one of the Milan neighborhoods that's well known for its nightlife.
Relax Over Aperitivo - I don't think I'll ever pass for someone from Milan (I'll never be that glamorous), but there's one thing everyone can do that's very Milanese: aperitivo. Dinner doesn't start in Milan until 8:30 or 9:00 at night, but locals tide themselves over before dinner with a drink and some snacks at one of the many Milan bars serving aperitivo. Some bars offer better food options than others for aperitivo - you'll see the whole range from baskets of pretzels and chips to full meal buffets with multiple courses and dessert - and it pays to scope out what's on offer before you sit down and order a drink. Why? Because - and here's the best part - the food is all free when you order a drink. Real foodies will likely want to move on to a proper restaurant for a more elaborate meal after one bar's aperitivo, but light eaters can easily stop at a couple of bars with good aperitivo buffets and call that dinner.
How much can you realistically do in one day in Milan?
Even though the list above isn't huge, it's still more than most people are going to want to pack into one day in Milan. If it were me, I'd visit the Duomo (and the roof!), saunter through the Galleria and the Brera, walk through the Parco Sempione, see "The Last Supper," and visit one museum before settling into an evening aperitivo. Those who aren't really into museums can easily substitute an exploration of both parks and the Navigli neighborhood. And if it's crummy weather then visiting all three of the museums I listed instead of hanging out in the parks or the Duomo roof is always an option.
And really, you could do worse than to just wander aimlessly around the Milan city center, poking your nose into random churches, shops, and restaurants you find that look vaguely interesting to you. The city may not look like a quintessential Tuscan hill town (which makes sense, since it's not), but it's still quintessentially Italian - which means there's something delightful waiting to be discovered around just about every corner.
For more Milan information, see my Milan travel guide, the top 10 things to do in Milan, and things you should know about Milan.
About the Author:
Jessica Spiegel is the Italy expert at BootsnAll, and the woman behind BootsnAll's Italy travel guide: WhyGo Italy. She's happy to answer all kinds of Italy travel questions, from how to get around Italy to whether to buy an Italy rail pass to how to spend two weeks in Italy.