Milan, the capital, is not the first city that comes to mind when planning a trip to Italy. It is considered a bland destination in comparison to tourist magnets like Venice, Rome, and Florence. It is the finance and industry hub, but are there enough treats for the travelers who come to experience the ‘true’ Italian lifestyle? Well, let’s find out.
Milan doesn’t fall into the classical Italian destinations. It stands out. You can find an abundance of classical Roman and Renaissance architecture everywhere in Italy. Milan is modern, it is chic, the fashion capital of the world, and yet it is encapsulated with its regional history. It offers a beautiful blend of old and modern. Seeing the traditional and modern designs together in harmony is a delightful experience, especially when wrapped in the comforts of a metropolitan.
If that is not enough of a selling point, what Milan also offers is a good location, to explore stunning Northern Italy and Switzerland. Here is my guide to making the most of your 2 days in Milan. And I will be sharing some day trips from Milan to some of the best places in Italy and Switzerland.
Fun fact: Did you know that Milan was once a canal city like Venice? Five different waterways were created to connect Milan to the neighboring lakes back in the 1100s. Why? Initially, it was intended for irrigation and transport purposes. But was later used to deliver the precious marble for Milan’s cathedral, the Duomo di Milano.
I don’t know why but Milan wasn’t on my list. Even though I lived just 3-4 hours away from this fashion capital, I never planned to visit. Until one day when we were desperate for some weekend break. With none of our initial plans working out, we abruptly decided to spend the weekend in Milan, just two days before leaving.
Things to do in Milan in two days
Admire the Duomo di Milano
You can’t go to Milan and not see Duomo Cathedral. It is one of the most famous attractions in Milan. This gothic marvel, which took almost six centuries to complete, is conveniently located in the center of the city. This largest cathedral in Italy is also the largest gothic cathedral in the world. It took almost 430 years to complete and is made completely of marble. It is richly ornamented with pointed spirals, arches, and hundreds of gargoyles, with almost 3500 exterior statues. So, you can even gauge at the expanse of the cathedral, without even stepping in.
But I will highly recommend that you do step in. This classic structure alone is worth a weekend in Milan. The cherry on the top is literally the top, the terrace that offers unparalleled views of the city, and The Madonnina, the statue of the symbol of Milan. Getting down, I would recommend underground catacombs as well, they are spooky and worth a visit.
Now, there are different options to buy the tickets: entry to the cathedral, entry to the cathedral and the terrace, entry to the cathedral, terrace, and the underground. We got the complete package which included access to the terrace and the underground museum. Several guided tours are available if you prefer to have detailed information about the beautiful and rich architecture from the experts. With or without a guide, the visit to duomo will take at least a few hours, so plan your rest of the day accordingly. Like most places in Europe, there is a dress code for the cathedral. Your shoulders should be covered.
Duomo exteriors are stunning during the night as well. I will highly recommend coming back one of the evenings/nights to see the marble shine in the night.
Window shopping in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Just next to the Duomo is the famous shopping gallery, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Home of the most expensive brands, this shopping mall is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. What I liked was the architectural details of the building. The curved high glass and the cast-iron structure holding it all together is charismatic. The floor of the gallery is decorated with mosaics of the zodiac signs. And don’t be weirded out if you see people stepping and turning with their heels on the genitals of Taurus the bull. It is said to bring luck.
The Galleria is named after Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of the Kingdom of Italy. It is the oldest active shopping mall in Italy. The Galleria is famous for being home to some of the oldest shops and restaurants in Milan. One of them is Biffi Caffè opened in 1867 by Paolo Biffi, who was a pastry chef for the royal family.
Fun fact: This gallery was the first building in the city to get electricity.
Several guided tours are available that include the gallery as an attraction.
Bonus fun fact: There used to be McDonald’s in this gallery. But, in 2012, after it has been here for 20 years, its tenancy contract was not renewed. I don’t know the exact reason but probably didn’t fit in the upscale and expensive gallery. McDonald’s sued the city of Milan—for €24 million in damages but later renounced it when it got permission to open again in a nearby area. It even offered free food and drink to over 5000 customers before closing down.
Can you guess what opened at the spot where McDonald’s was? Gallery’s second Prada store.
Be your own Vinci at Musée le Monde de Léonardo
One place I will recommend around this galleria is the museum housing some of the brilliant designs from the genius himself, Leonardo da Vinci. It is an interactive museum and kids and adults will love this equally. His famous designs like The Submarine, the Time Machine, the Mechanical Dragonfly, the Rapid-Fire Crossbow, and the Mechanical Eagle are accessible through lots of puzzles and interactive displays. It also has a digital demonstration of the restoration of the Last Supper.
No photos are allowed inside but have a look at the video above to get an idea of what you might find inside the museum.
We really loved this museum. Interactive displays were a big hit for us and the kid traveling with us. A full family package, I would say. You can get your tickets online here.
Get impressed by The Last Supper
Ok, let’s get real. You probably are planning to come to Milan to see The Last Supper, one of the most famous masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci. I get it, it is the biggest reason tourists, especially the art lovers, consider spending a weekend in Milan.
“One of you will betray me”, the realistic and vivid representation of the stunned reactions to this statement is considered one of the most impressive artworks in the world. Monalisa or The Last supper, which one will get your vote?
The artwork is at the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. This UNESCO world heritage site was partially destroyed in a bombardment during world war II. Much of the refectory was destroyed, but some walls survived, including the one that holds The Last Supper, which had been sandbagged in order to protect it. Several measures have now been implemented to protect the paint from deterioration. To ensure that the fresco is maintained at room temperature, a group of 25 people is allowed every 15 minutes. Humidity is strictly controlled as well.
Fun fact: The reason for such deterioration of the Last Supper wasn’t humidity, but , tempera forte, the material Leonardo used. There have been several attempts to restore the painting but they have usually done more harm than benefit.
Tickets are available online but it is recommended to book them at least 2-3 months in advance. Otherwise, you can book some guided tours that arrange the ticket for you.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t see the famous Last Supper since it was a last-minute plan and we couldn’t arrange tickets at such short notice. You can book your tickets here if you are interested. We went to the Church of Santa Maria Delle Grazie anyways, which is open to the public.
Witness Michelangelo’s last piece at Castello Sforzesco
In contrast to the grandeur of Duomo, ten minutes away is a simple and sturdy castle from the 15th century. But don’t get fooled by the simple exteriors. This castle held one of the most magnificent courts in Renaissance Italy, including the works of Bramante and Leonardo da Vinci. Yes, Vinci’s name keeps coming to different attractions in Milan, he left a deep impression on this city through his art.
Artwork from Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Andrea Mantegna, and Bramantino are still present in different museums here. In fact, you can find the last masterpiece of Michelangelo here, the Rondanini Pieta, which he was working on until a few days before his death. Sala delle Asse, a room painted by Leonardo is also a highlight of the castle.
The castle and its beautiful courtyards have free entry. There are different museums and exhibitions inside the castle which have paid entrance.
I wish I had planned more time here, would have loved to get the guided tour, to see these artworks and hear the stories behind them. But if you have more time, consider doing a guided tour that takes you around the castle and gives you a detailed tour of the museums and art collections.
Stroll around Naviglio Grande
Naviglio Grande translates to a big canal. It was one of the largest medieval engineering projects to connect Milan with lakes from Northern Italy and Switzerland. Different canals were created to establish a convenient trade and transport system. In fact, this canal system was used to transport marble for the Duomo. And guess who undertook the design of the series of dams. Yes, your only, Leonardo the Vinci. I am telling you, you can’t walk 500 meters in Milan and not see the impact Vinci has on this city. Soon after this huge project was completed, most of the canals were undergrounded to make space for the road traffic and the budding city. Naviglio Grande is still open though. Several boat tours are available to take you around the canal.
These days Naviglio Grande is visited by locals and tourists alike for an aperitif. You will find trendy restaurants and cool bars there, making it a cool hangout spot.
Get amazed at Milano Centrale train station
If you are coming by train, you will already see how striking the train station is. Grand is the word. I was thoroughly impressed.
Apart from being one of the biggest train stations in Italy, this station has lots of historical significance, especially during the Holocaust. Jewish prisoners from the San Vittore Prison were taken to a secret track, Binario 21, underneath the station to be deported to concentration camps. In total, 15 deportation trains with 1,200 prisoners left the station from this platform.
You will notice that the station is decorated by strong and muscular animals from mythology like winged horses, lions, bulls, and eagles. These were built during Mussolini’s fascist regime to demonstrate strength and power. This grand architecture with high ceilings and broad corridors was designed to make you feel small, make you feel unworthy to question the right-wing party in power at the time. It blows my mind how deeply these ideas were rooted, they were cemented in the architecture, in the flags, in the speeches, and in the body language.
Feel underdressed all the time
Have a stroll on Milan’s most upscaled and expensive street, via Montenapoleone. No matter how fancy you dress, these high-end fashion stores will make you feel rookie when fashion choices are concerned. Clothes, jewelry, shoes, accessories, you can find anything here. You will definitely find tourists window shopping here.
I don’t understand fashion much but I do understand when I am underdressed. I felt underdressed the whole time I was in Milan. People dress up in Milan. Dresses, shoes, sunglasses, belts, bags, scarves, makeup, everything is a style statement. Nothing less is expected from a fashion capital (title shared with New York, Paris and London).
Eat your heart out
This is, of course, my favorite thing to do in any Italian city. I love Italian cuisine. Take your time admiring the sensuous food in Milan. Start your day with a frothy cappuccino and sweet pastries. My favorites are any type of cannolis. Deep-fried crunchy exterior filled with delicate over-the-top sweet filling with different flavors. Gorge on soulful pizza for lunch. Take another break for coffee or gelato or even better, coffee with gelato. Take advantage of the enormous buffets available with an aperitif as a pre-dinner treat. Order a standard Italian dinner with multiple courses of risotto and pasta. And then comes the wonderful and dense Tiramisu. Gulp it all down it with a digestive limoncello. Wow, writing this paragraph made me hungry!
Budget tips for a city break
Entry to some museums is free on the first Sunday of every month. You can plan your visit accordingly.
Multiple-use tickets: Tram, metro, and bus tickets cost €1.50 for a single ride, but if you plan to get multiple rides, buy a ten-pack. There is also a 24-hour pass available for €4.50. If you are there for just two days and intend to use public transport primarily, I will recommend buying one 24-hour pass each day. Which pass to buy also depends on how far your accommodation is. If you are staying in the center itself, walking around might be the best way. If you intend to walk around in the center but your accommodation is far away, you might only need two single tickets.
Milano pass – If you’re planning to use public transport extensively and visit the majority of Milan’s must-see attractions, try Milano Pass. This card includes free public transport, a free drink at the best Milan local, a special ticket for Hop On Hop Off City Tour, an exclusive ticket for Navigli boat tour, and free or reduced entry to most of the attractions. They are available for a day, two days, and three days. Check the official website to buy one.
Grab an aperitif – Aperitif is a tradition in most Italian cities and Milan is one of them. Between 7 and 9, many bars offer special aperitif deals where you can get a drink and a snack buffet for about 10 euros.
Use a water bottle – Like most of western Europe, tap water is drinkable in Milan. No need to buy water in your hotel or when in the city. Bring your own water bottle. It also helps to reduce plastic intake. Reusable water bottles are the way to go.
Our plan to visit Milan for the weekend was so short-term that we couldn’t even get the direct train tickets from Lausanne to Milan. So we split the journey from Lausanne to Domodossola and then Domodossola to Milan, both using regional trains. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Although it was cheaper, it took us a few extra hours to reach Milan. But if we would have gone by the direct fast train, we would have never stumbled upon Domodossola and my favorite gem Lake maggiore.
The most convenient way to can reach Milan is either by airplane or train.
Milan has three airports: Malpensa, Linate, and Bergamo
Malpensa Airport (MXP): It is the biggest airport in Milan and most of the international carriers like Lufthansa, British Airways, and Alitalia will take you there. You can go to the city center via train, airport bus or taxi. Train from Malpensa airport to Milan Centrale takes about an hour and costs around 13 euros. There are three different bus operators that run every 20 minutes, take about an hour to reach the city center and cost 8 euros. I would recommend using a train or airport bus, as taxis are quite expensive and will lighten your pocket by 100 euros one way.
Linate Airport (LIN): It is closest to Milan city and serves many international and domestic destinations. There is no train connection to the city center but you can take local buses 73 and 73X to the San Babila metro station and continue further with the metro. It is the cheapest option. Alternatively, you can get a bus directly to Milano Centrale using the private coach services for about 5 euros. A taxi will cost you about 30-40 euros.
Bergamo Airport (BGY): Most of the cheap airlines will land you at Bergamo airport. You can easily reach the center via train for just 7 euros. But the airport doesn’t have a train station so you need to go to the Bergamo train station. This might not be the most simple solution. The easiest solution would be to take a shuttle bus for about 5 euros. Same as the Malpensa airport, a taxi will cost about 100 euros.
You can take trains from different Italian and international cities to Milano Centrale. For example,
Lugano to Milan: 1 hour 20 minutes
Domodossola to Milan: 1 hour 40 minutes
Verona to Milan: 1 hour 50 minutes
Genoa to Milan: 2 hours
Venice to Milan: 3 hours and 20 minutes
Rome to Milan: 3 hours 40 minutes by the fastest train
Florence to Milan: 5 hours 30 minutes
Where to stay in Milan?
We stayed at a cute Airbnb in Milan. It was quite comfortable for 4 adults and a kid. The host was really nice and even recommended nice local restaurants and bakeries.
If you don’t want to stay in an Airbnb, I have researched a few mid-range hotels that are centrally located and have really good reviews. These are:
1. The Street Milano Duomo, a Design Boutique Hotel: The top reviewed hotel in the city center. It had more than 500 reviews and most of them have 5-star ratings! The hotel is quite close to the Duomo (as the name suggests). It is relatively new (opened in 2018) and trendy, No seriously! just look at the cool photos of the rooms! Caring and helpful staff and they follow covid-related protocols.
2. Hotel Spadari al Duomo: Another excellent hotel. This one is also close to the Duomo. It is known for its good breakfast. Visitors said they even had free coffee and snacks/fruits available throughout the day. The staff is extremely helpful and goes beyond to make your stay a memorable experience. Of course, this has more than two thousand 5-star ratings from the visitors.
3. Room Mate Giulia: In the city center, chic and quirky design, wonderful staff. You have a walking distance of most of the interesting sights. Rooms are bigger in size as well. Another highly rated hotel that visitors would love to come back to!
More than two days in Milan?
If you appreciate nature more than fashion capitals, don’t be too quick to skip Milan. While Milan might not be your cup of tea, it stiff offers a wonderful spot to explore northern Italy and its magnificent scenery. If you have more than 2 days in Milan, I will highly recommend taking day trips to the following:
Domodossola: a cute little town on the border of Switzerland, which also makes for a good base for numerous day trips across Switzerland. If you want to extend your trip and explore more of Switzerland, after Milan, this is the way to go! You can either make Domodossola a pit stop or make it your base and have day trips to different destinations in Switzerland (and you can avoid the crazy Swiss prices for the hotels).
Lago Maggiore: One of my favorite places in Northern Italy. A beautiful lake between Italy and Switzerland. I absolutely loved going to the three Borromean islands inside the lake. Each one of them has such a distinct vibe. While the botanical garden spans most of Isola Madre, Isola Bella houses Palazzo Borromeo and stunning gardens. These gardens are such a treat and offer splendid views over the lake and neighboring towns. If you just have one day for the day trip and do not want to go to a very touristy place, I will highly recommend visiting Lake maggiore! My personal favorite (I even have a dedicated post for it)! If you just have half a day, consider doing a half-day trip to lake maggiore.
Lugano: This beautiful Swiss city is easily accessible from Milan. Located in the expensive Ticino region, Lugano offers Mediterranean flavors with Swiss organization. It is quite off-beat in terms of traditional swiss destinations. Views of Lake Lugano are pretty stunning but beware of the swiss prices 😀
Lake Como and Bellagio: Probably one of the most famous day trips from Milan. A favorite among locals and tourists for its hilly backdrops and unparallel views over the Como and Lecco. A relaxing stroll around the lake, hike in the mountains around, take a funicular, go boating in the lake or just sip coffee (or Campari) with the beautiful views, there is something for everyone If it is good enough for Rick Steve (and George Clooney), it is good enough for everyone. Very low probability, but it would be cool to find George Clooney walking down the streets of Bellagio.
Venice: Yes, even Venice! For a long day trip, you can go to Venice and come back to Milan. To make the most of your time, you can book a day tour to Venice that arranges everything for you, including an air-conditioned coach to take you there, a two-hour guided walking tour in Venice (and a boat trip in Venice).
Is it worth going to Milan?
I think it was a nice weekend trip. Would I go there again? Probably not. Not because I didn’t enjoy it but because I would rather explore a new destination. Milan is fashionable but it is no Rome or Venice. It is a financial hub. If you are visiting Italy for the first time and have to decide between Rome and Milan or Venice or Milan, I will not vote for Milan. But if you have been here before and have already visited the iconic Italian cities, sure, give Milan a chance. It certainly has a different flavor. Definitely worth visiting once, if not more. Also, don’t forget Leonardo da Vinci, there is no better destination to see his art and scientific works than Milan!