14 Great Things to Do in Milan

Was it really a necessary work trip? Maybe not. But when one of my former clients, who is based in Milan, Italy, said that yes, January would be a good time to visit them and tour their facilities, I decided that it was necessary to book a flight. After all, I’d never met them in person.

Thus began my solo trip to Milan. I spent a day with my lovely clients at their offices north of the city, and they met me in Milan for lunch one afternoon. But otherwise, I was alone to explore the world’s fashion capital, home to the Duomo and da Vinci’s Last Supper. There is such an array of wonderful things to do in Milan, even in the off-season.

Top Things to Do in Milan

Day One

Buon giorno, Italy! I got up at 7:30 a.m. Denver time on a Wednesday and didn’t get into bed until 1 p.m. Denver time on a Thursday (9 p.m. Milano time). Trips to Europe always come with a hefty price in the form of jet lag. At least the weather is similar in January. (Though humidity and a lack of sun in Italy can make 40 degrees feel much, much colder than it does in Denver.)

My flight with United Airlines was smooth: It was about four hours to Newark, then eight hours to Milan Malpensa Airport. I arrived at 8:30 a.m. local time. I then took the train to Milan Central Station (a gorgeous marvel in itself), an hourlong ride that cost just a few euros. 

Upon exiting, I strode confidently … in the wrong direction. Not wanting to be an obvious target for the people lingering around the outside of the station, I circled around the huge building before setting out the right way. Drizzle, roundabouts, cobblestones and uncertainty about my map didn’t detract from the charm of being back in Europe. 

It was probably longer than most people would consider an acceptable walk, but I finally tracked down my stay, the affordable Hotel Sanpi Milano. I was excited to explore the city’s art, architecture and cuisine, and my itinerary was packed. So after settling in, I headed out on foot to explore Milan. 

La Scala

My first stop was La Scala, one of the most famous opera houses in the world. This brilliant gem in the city center was built in 1776–78. I booked a guided tour of the museum and the theater, which included the foyer, the royal box, the historic boxes and even backstage to see the stage’s (obviously more modern) mechanized movement system. Purchase your ticket in advance and arrive promptly.

Museo Teatrale alla Scala

After the tour, I wandered around the city, taking in the sights and sounds. I was back at the hotel before dark, which arrives at around 5 p.m. in January.

Day Two

Can I tell you how much I love European breakfasts? My hotel offered a complimentary spread with fresh greens, meats and cheeses (including Brie and little turkey croissant sandwiches), crates of fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, sautéed mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs, yogurts and muesli, and a huge assortment of croissants con chocolate and custards and breads and sweets. Plus all the special juices, sparkling water, cappuccino and champagne you can drink. 

There was pleasant jazz on the speakers, and people outside passing between old stone buildings, their ornate balconies draped with vines and flowers. It was beautiful. I would not need lunch, and this all came at a nightly cost well below your average Hampton Inn.

Breakfast was served until 11, and there were many, many people who arrived even this late to start their day. Thank you, fellow travelers, for not making me feel like a slug for not being out the door at 6:30 a.m., even though I was oddly awake then. Jet lag.

Milan Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour

I started the day with a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. This is my favorite way to get acclimated in a new city. For one affordable price — typically much less than Lyfts, taxis or even trains — you have transportation to all of the tourist destinations in the area, plus a guided tour. During the course of the day, I learned about a tiny median in a busy highway that preserves the remains of a church, as well as why and how the city walls were constructed centuries ago.

I also learned that the bus runs relatively infrequently on weekdays, so you may lose a finger or toe waiting for it if it’s cold. Watch the schedule, or ride on weekends. 

Milan Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour

I rode the bus to the point furthest from my hotel, where I learned that tickets to see da Vinci’s The Last Supper sell out far in advance. (And I had tickets for everything but.) To my good fortune, however, I stopped by a bookmaker’s little shop while waiting for the adjacent Santa Maria della Grazie to open to the public at 3, and he shared with me that if you arrive at the ticket office at 7:55 a.m., they sell the day’s cancellations to those in line. Thank you, kind bookmaker! (I also bought a handmade notebook, of course.)

Basilica of Santa Maria della Grazie

The Basilica of Santa Maria della Grazie, adjacent to the museum housing The Last Supper, is a massive marvel of Renaissance art and construction. It’s on the UNESCO World Heritage List; step inside and you’ll understand why. It was one of my favorite unplanned things to do in Milan.

Basilica of Santa Maria della Grazie

After my visit, I had a bit of a long, cold wait for the final Hop-On, Hop-Off bus of the evening. But school had just let out nearby, so I enjoyed watching the sweet kiddos and their parents go about everyday life across the street from one of da Vinci’s masterpieces. 

Other things that I discovered on my first full day in Milan: To be Milanese in the city center, it seemed you must walk directly where you want to, whether it be all over the sidewalk, straight at a person attempting to navigate around a shopping rack, or into oncoming traffic. Try to keep up with the pace to avoid slowing down people trying to get to work.

I always dress to blend in as much as possible and learn greetings in the language of the place where I’m visiting. But if your attempt at an Italian greeting is too good, follow up quickly with a “Parla Ingelse?” or you will not understand anything that the kind signore just said about the hair dryer you’re attempting to buy in the neighborhood electronics store. (This is the trip during which I broke down and bought a hairdryer that works in Europe, by the way. If you wonder why, see my piece on adapters, converters and transformers.)

Restaurants in the city center may bring you lots of “house bread” unasked for at lunch and then charge you for it. Not great. But your hotel may bring you little sandwiches and chips free with your glass of wine in the evening. Really great! I had “dinner” in the lobby. I loved that the lobby bartender was able to whistle along to the jazz in perfect harmony. And with that, I went to bed ridiculously early.

Day Three

Bellissima! A walk through the Indro Montanelli Gardens park in the neighborhood near my hotel was a lovely way to start a sunny Sunday day. There were Italian bambinos shouting on the playground. Dogs barking at one another in Italian at the dog park. People jogging, and a little live music — someone playing Wham! — in the background. Buon giorno!

Church of San Marco

I grew up Catholic, so I like to go to Mass in different countries. The words of the Mass are the same worldwide, so even when you hear them in another language, you can follow along. Yet there are still differences in people and habits, which I find interesting. I also love to see people being their ordinary selves outside of tourist settings, and to be able to admire the interior of a church for an hour. So I visited the Church of San Marco, dating from the 13th century and still in use.

(By the way: Even if you are not Catholic, you’re welcome to attend services. I’d recommend sitting toward the back so that you can observe when people stand, sit and kneel and join in. The only thing you should not do is go to Communion; just sit in your pew while everyone lines up. It’s perfectly acceptable!)

I had noted that the Milanese love their dogs. They were everywhere, walking with their owners and wearing fancy coats. There were at least three in church that day, including a tiny pup in a purse carried by a fancy lady with high heels, a brisk stride and wonderful perfume.

I wanted to stay after the service and investigate the church further. But I still don’t know what the man who was closing up the church after Mass was saying. Was I not supposed to take photos? Stand on the edge of the altar? Was I supposed to leave immediately? Maybe I looked Italian, so he thought I was just being defiant? 

Whatever the case, he was pretty angry. For those who normally interact with tourists: Yelling more loudly at someone in your native language when they don’t respond the first time is unlikely to help. 

Brera Market

I followed the Sunday morning crowd into the sunshine and through the lively Brera Market, where you can find flowers, foods, furniture and other antiques. I did not realize how much I rely on communicating in Spanish while traveling until I tried to shop. Most of the vendors at the tables there had a very, very small grasp of English, and my Italian only extended to greetings and thanks. 

Fortunately, I’m adept at talking with my hands — thanks both to teaching ESL and to a lifelong habit! — and with that and some Spanish, I managed to get my mom a really cool gift. I didn’t plan to visit the market — it was sheer luck to wander into it after Mass — but again it was one of my favorite things to do in Milan.

Brera Market

I thought I’d walk next to Castello-Sfortesco. But navigating the heart of old cities without wifi is harder than you think. And when you find yourself in a plaza in Milan, which is often, all the signs name the plaza. Not the surrounding streets. You will have to walk at least to the next intersection to find street signs. And from each plaza, you have three, five or more choices of streets like spokes on a wheel. There was no grid. And streets change names when the street bends. 

So you have to simply choose a street and walk; check the signs and your map at the next intersection; and, if you’re wrong, circle back and try again like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I tried to pull out my map infrequently, so I wouldn’t attract a lot of attention. I did a lot of circling. On my next trip to Europe, I’ll be getting an eSIM.


Castello-Sfortesco is a legit castle. Photos do it no justice. I believe that they make special sunlight just to set off the thick stone walls inset with tiles. 

The castle was once the residence of the ruling Visconti and Sforza families. It now houses several museums and art collections, including works by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. I spent quite a bit of time exploring the gardens and grounds, where there are still cannon balls and the remnants of a moat, before realizing that I wouldn’t see much of the inside if I didn’t move along. 

But that was okay. I was most fascinated by the construction of the castle fortress, the towers, the courtyards, the levels, and it was a beautiful sunny day. Allow more than a couple of hours if you’d prefer to see the indoor exhibits as well.


Ambrosian Library

I used my hop-on hop-off pass to get from the castle to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a historic library in the Brera district near my hotel that’s home to a vast collection of manuscripts and artworks. The library was dedicated in 1609; it grew to include the Pinacoteca to house the art collection of its founder, Cardinal Federico Borromeo, and much more recently the Accademia, where classes on the Classics are held.

Please allow more time for this among your things to do in Milan than I did. I had just a half-hour or so before closing to zip through, past the stunning artwork. While I waited to enter, I had an epic view of the library that could have been straight out of Harry Potter. (Or perhaps it’s better to say that Harry Potter was inspired by the Biblioteca Ambrosiana?) As a bibliophile, I longed to spend a few days in that library. 

As it was, I soon was back outside. I lingered in the lit garden admiring the statues for a while, then walked home along the lit streets lining the park I’d crossed that morning. I spent the evening searching for and scoring a ticket online to see The Last Supper on the last evening of my trip.

Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Day 4

I wanted to explore more of central Milan. So I put miles on my feet this day, passing through the city’s famous fashion district as I walked from my hotel. 

The Porsche Store

This stop was more for my dad and my guy, though I’d written marketing materials for Porsche and wanted to pay a visit to the mecca — the new Porsche Studio in Milan. 

No one mistook me for a serious customer, so I wandered unimpeded, gawking at the history wall and the sleek vehicles before buying some souvenirs. 

Porsche Studio

The Galleria

Each time I was in this part of the city, I passed through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a stunning glass-roofed arcade filled with luxury shops and restaurants. Built in the nineteenth century, it’s Italy’s oldest shopping center and sometimes referred to as Milan’s living room, where people gather and spend time. Yet it’s also a bustling thoroughfare and home to boutiques such as Gucci displaying the very latest and finest in fashion and design. 

My budget is more REI clearance sale than Versace, but I smiled past the security guards and stepped inside each of the high-end boutiques in the main arcade, just for the experience. 

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

The Duomo

I’d passed it several times on the hop-on hop-off bus, but I hadn’t yet explored the confection featured in most photos of Milan: The Duomo.

I’d highly recommend scheduling a guided tour to see and comprehend the marvels of this cathedral. It was begun in 1386 and took six centuries to complete. The third largest church in the world, it includes an underground chapel, an underground archeological dig, mind-blowingly massive interior pillars supporting the stunning stained-glass windows and a rooftop filled with statues and terraces that you can access with your group. 

The tour is packed with truly fascinating details about the history, the construction and the church’s role within the city. I booked my tour for late afternoon so that I could be on the rooftop as the sun began to set; the views and the experience are unforgettable. I have at least 100 more photos.

Duomo di Milano

The parts of Milan that I’d seen were very clean, and my clients said it’s a safe city, which matched my experience. I encountered one hitch: The power went off in the restaurant where I stopped that evening for a classic Campari before my walk home…and I was using the bathroom when it went out. It was a single bathroom, and I was locked in for a minute in the dark. Fortunately, power was restored before I was too panicked. I decided this was my sign to return to my hotel.

Day 5

Today, I woke up early to visit Lake Como, a beautiful region about an hour north of Milan near the Swiss border. (Maybe you’ve heard of George Clooney? He has a place there.) I walked to Milan Central Station and took the train to Como San Giovanni, the station roughly ten minutes’ walk outside of the heart of the town.

The train was clean, fast and efficient. I sat near some young financiers heading on to Switzerland while feeling very sophisticated and slightly outclassed at the same time.

Lake Como

I was navigating by map, so it was only luck that led me through the charming town to the waterfront, as I memorized landmarks along the way for my return. I asked around and found the express ferry that I wanted, a commuter boat that circulates among the villages nestled in the mountains around the lake. 

This day trip was a stark example of the difference between traveling in the off-season versus the high season. The boat made fewer trips during the winter and was mostly populated by students who use this as their school bus. I again felt very sophisticated to be on a boat on Lake Como and yet very outclassed by the teenagers around me. 


I was there to see Bellagio, a village that exceeds your imagination when you imagine a village of colorful old buildings and cobblestone streets rising from the water into the hillside above. During January, much of the village is shuttered, I learned, so I strolled the sidewalks soaking up the scenery, then enjoyed a glass of red wine with complimentary chips at the one restaurant open near the waterfront. 

I soaked up the sun with the few other tourists who had made the same trip, marveling at being there and imagining it packed with beautiful people during the summer. Those of us who were there for the day bonded when the boat was late making its return, as we watched the sun set on the lake and the fog roll in. It was good for photos and camaraderie, but a little unnerving at the same time. 

The town of Como twinkled and glittered like a stream of sequins as we returned in the dark. I managed to follow my landmarks back to the station and catch a train back to Milan, where I hurried back to my hotel from the station in the dark.

Lake Como

Day 6

Because my trip to Lake Como was long, I left this final day relatively unplanned. There were just a few things to do in Milan left on my list. I was glad that it was a light day, because it was cold and rainy. 

Museum of Science and Technology

I walked a long way to the Museum of Science and Technology. I wanted a lesson on one of Milan’s most famous citizens. 

Most people know that Leonardo da Vinci was brilliant. But every time that I visit an exhibit about him, I’m stunned again by the extent to which he was a polymath. The Leonardo da Vinci galleries demonstrate his discoveries and advancements in art, flight, timekeeping (of special interest to me, as my dad was a watchmaker), anatomy, construction and more. Fascinating. If the weather is bad, this is a perfect addition to your list of things to do in Milan.

By this time I was growing tired, so I saw the rest of the massive museum — situated in the imposing and impressive ancient monastery of San Vittore al Corpo — in the way that most people probably see museums: Instead of reading every placard and viewing every object, I walked through the halls, stopping to read more when something caught my eye. 

Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci

San Maurizio

Some of the best things to do in Milan are the least expected. Down the street from the museum of science and technology is San Maurizio, a part of the Benedictine convent. Nondescript from the outside, the church is covered inside with breathtaking sixteenth-century frescos on every inch that have earned it comparisons to the Sistine Chapel. 

Be sure to allow ample time to study the intricate paintings and read how they’ve been restored. Go through the small doorway to the other half of the church as well, where the nuns sat separated from the public, for more jaw-dropping art.

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

Da Vinci’s Last Supper

I’d managed to book tickets online while in Milan for a chance to see da Vinci’s Last Supper — another perk of traveling in the off-season. I may have paid more than prebooking, but I was just so grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime chance. I’d strongly recommend securing a time slot as soon as you know that you’re going to visit; it’s a highlight among things to do in Milan.

Access was very tightly controlled, so participants were required to wait outside until it was our turn to enter the small vestibule, where we were prepared by a guide. Once the group at our time slot was gathered and settled and the exterior doors were closed, we were sent in smaller groups through an air purification chamber to remove dust and other particles from our beings that might harm the delicate, flaking fresco.

Finally it was my turn to enter into the former dining hall of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church that I visited at the start of my trip. I was awestruck in so many ways. 

First, the room in which the painting is housed is smaller than I expected. The ceilings are high, but the space itself is a narrow rectangle, much like you’d expect for a centuries-old dining hall. It’s barren but for the Last Supper on one wall and the fresco of the Crucifixion that Giovanni Donato painted on the opposite wall in 1495, with a few benches in between.

Painted on plaster, the Last Supper is in a constant state of disintegration, and it has been since it was completed in 1498. In fact, it was deemed so unimportant that in the 1600s, a doorway was cut underneath the fresco, which is situated midway up the wall, taking out Jesus’ feet. 

All the same, it was a glorious sight, having been restored multiple times since, using copies of the painting by Leonardo da Vinci’s assistants as guidance. It was a pinch-me moment to be right there in a hushed room gazing at a work as old, as well-known, as technically impressive and sacred as the Last Supper in Milan. 

Cenacolo Vinciano 

Day 7

After walking a half-mile from my hotel to Milano Centrale with my luggage, then to the very farthest train platform for the trip to Milano Malpensa Airport, I discovered that the Italians *really* didn’t want me to leave — check-in for international flights was in the farthest separate section of the airport; then, security was in the opposite quadrant; then, passport control was in another; finally, the gates were in Switzerland. (Not really, but I felt sure I’d gotten 43,628 steps in by 9:24 a.m.) Allow plenty of time.

I met one of the flight attendants from that morning’s trip by chance in the Museum of Science and Technology the day before. She was SO kind as to share the flight was rather empty, and so when I saw her that morning, she helped me arrange a whole empty row, so I could put up my feet during the long haul. 

I didn’t sleep much in Milan. It could have been the lack of soundproofing and the loud voices on the streets when the bars emptied and the workers began. It could have been fibromyalgia (for which I took extra medication, plus Aleve and Biofreeze and such because I *hurt*). It could have been the eight-hour time difference and jet lag. Or walking miles and miles. All of the above? 

Sleepiness would hit me each night like a freight train at about 7 p.m., but then I was awake just a few hours after going to bed at 10. Yet if I didn’t keep walking all day I would doze off. So I was ready for a long flight with space in which to stretch out.

Milan was every bit as marvelous as it sounds when you imagine it. Even more, it felt safe, bright, friendly and, despite its world-class status, surprisingly authentic. Winter in Paris still felt to me like a city oriented for tourists; Milan, however, seemed to be a place for its residents in the winter, and even as a solo female traveler, I felt comfortable and confident. My memories of this trip are tinted with a bit of magic — quiet and sunsets and awe.

Although we strive to provide the most current information, bars, restaurants and attractions mentioned may close at any time, operate with a limited menu or reduced hours, or have takeout options only. We recommend checking individual websites for operating hours and updates before visiting.

The views expressed on this website represent the opinions of the authors; we encourage you to form your own opinions and confirm any facts.

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