How to Make the Most out of Milan
Updated: Mar 18, 2019
A few years ago I was lucky enough to get onto the Erasmus exchange program through my University, which gave me the opportunity to go and study overseas at the Politecnico Di Milano in Northern Italy. The experience was undeniably life-changing, though living in such a metropolitan city certainly had its ups and downs.
Though I was there for six months, Milan is a great weekend destination to jet off to if you're short on time. I receive messages through social media quite often from friends who are looking to go and visit the once-upon-a-time capital of the European culture hub. So I thought it might be handy to piece together a little post full of useful tips on how to best spend your weekend away in Milan, based on some of the cultural experiences I had when I lived there!
Before you visit a destination, I think it's always important to do a bit of background reading so that you’re semi-prepared in what to expect. All I had seen of the major European metropolis online, was elaborate architecture and people drenched in designer garms - but the reality is, is that Milan isn’t as opulent as you may be lead to believe. Some of its finer cultural gems are a little harder to find - so it really is a city of discovery.
Surprisingly, the city centre is very walkable and with the help of the underground metro system, you can tick most things off of your bucket list within two days of visiting. But it’s nice to take a leaf out of the Italians book and take your time. Things are not always as they seem - once you begin scratching off its ornamented surface, you will find dark histories, invaluable art and a rich, riveting culture unmatchable to any other in the world.
THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
Weather: The weather can be similar to that in the UK, though in the summer you'll be delighted to know that your sandals and maxi dresses will be warmly welcomed in the blissful Italian heat. If you're heading out in March time like I did, you'll want a big coat, a scarf, some warm comfy footwear and lots of layers! Come May time you'll be switching to your mid length trousers and by June you'll be sunbathing in your swimmers.
Currency: Euro's. I found Milan was a similar price range to that of London so you may need to save those pennies for your ‘spends’ before you think about snaffling up a cheap £40 RyanAir return flight.
Language: Italian – and they really appreciate it if you learn their wonderful language! In tourist dominated areas, many Italians do speak English, however in the more remote parts you'll enjoy playing exasperating games of charades with locals, so take a pocket sized Italian for Dummies with you!
Transport: The underground Metro system and trams make it super easy to navigate the city, but the trains don't run throughout the night - so you're looking at a pricy taxi fare or a daring bus ride (where I got robbed). There are trains and two airports that can take you out of the city if you're visiting the rest of Italy.
People: Italian people are generally very relaxed, hospitable and proud of their rich culture. They adore good food, wine, coffee and their designer labels! My friends and I had a little trouble with some of the men, however. As in most countries where your appearance contradicts their own (blonde hair, light skin etc.), you tend to obtain unwanted attention by those curious enough to approach you and point out your differences… take it with a pinch of salt and walk on. There’s no need to be insulted, but keep your wits about you.
Italians are well known for their laid back approach to life - I learnt a great phrase whilst I was there; La Dolce Far Niente, which translates as ‘the sweetness of doing nothing’. Take your time, appreciate your surroundings, soak up the sun, ponder, walk slowly, enjoy every bite, savour every sip, relax into your environment and be grateful for time. What a way to live.
Fashion: If you have a navy blue tux, cream trousers and brown boat shoes, well done you're half way there! The Italians love their threads and because Milan is one of the fashion capitals of the world; be ready to dress to impress. In this city, anything goes. Italians are smart but always simplistic (unless you're adorning yourself in the ever eclectic Dolce & Gabbana); it’s all about the quality and the tailoring.
Keep it classic, sophisticated and cool – light colours, airy fabrics, feminine silhouettes and striking cuts make for an attractive Italian aesthetic.
Crime: Infamous for cheeky pick-pockets that could give the Artful Dodger a run for his money, it's definitely worth taking a couple of precautions before heading out into the city and its suburbs at night. Unfortunately, I was mugged on a public bus at around 10pm by a guy who yanked my arm back and snatched away my phone before he legged it into the night quicker than Forest Gump. It was a horrible experience but nobody else seemed to bat an eye lid - clearly it was an regular occurrence.
Many of my foreign Erasmus buddies had their wallets and mobiles stolen from them on nights out without them even noticing – so bum bags aren't looking too shabby now are they? Keep your hawk eyes on you kids; don't walk around the piazza FaceTiming your dog with your fancy iPhone 14 at nine o'clock at night. Don't take all your euros out with you and don't leave your jackets or handbags unattended in clubs etc. etc. - I'm not your mum so I'm sure you get it.
The Homeless: It's disheartening to say that Milan had a lot of homeless people scouring the city, and it's likely that they will approach you as an affluent looking tourist and beg for money. They target the metro stations heavily and even walk down the corridors of the trains – I'm not going to tell you how to live your life, but if you have some spare change just be kind and donate what you can, after-all you'll only end up spending it on tacky souvenirs on your last day.
Aperitivo: Every evening between 5-7pm (times alter across venues), many of the local restaurants will hold Aperitivo; a warm up of a light meal and drink before dinner. You generally pay around €10 for a cocktail and you get a free DELICIOUSLY UNREAL OMG JUST THINKING ABOUT IT NOW MAKES MY MOUTH WATER all you can eat buffet with it. No, I kid you not. It is the best thing ever. We spent so many twilight-lit evenings sat by the canal in Navigli, testing out different restaurants and their spreads. It’s a brilliant way to taste multiple Italian foods and if you’re poor students like we were, we would stash away some of the baked goods in napkins in our pockets for later!
Another great thing about Italian hospitality, is that whenever you order a beverage in a fancy establishment, they tend to bring you a bowl of salted crisps/popcorn and a bowl of olives (which originally I hated but when you're struggling financially, you eat what you're given and now I love them). Wine and coffee are HUGE – never refuse either if you want to be socially accepted (I had to down so many unwanted Espressos).
Also please note that bottled water is €1 more than bottled wine in the supermarket – don't be tempted, I ended up hospitalised with kidney stones.
Pizza. I really don't have to mention pizza do I? Just don't expect to live for much longer if you dare ask an Italian to put pineapple on it.
Art: Iconic for it's art, architecture and creative culture, Milan is home to some of the most famous pieces of art recorded in our worlds history. The Santa Maria delle grazie houses Leonardo da Vinci's eminent The Last Supper wall mural and it can take months to get onto the visiting list to go and view it! I booked two months in advance and luckily got to see it. There are countless galleries, exhibitions and shows to go and see - some temporary, some permanent, so you’ll never be short of things to feast your eyes upon.
Shopping: Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Corso Como, The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II - etc. etc. Shopping in Milan is not too dissimilar from shopping in Paris. It’s crazy expensive and crazy beautiful. The store fronts, the visual merchandising (even Zara is incredible), the branding and of course, the clothing, are all just perfection.
Night life: Some of our favourite places to go and party were Just Cavalli, Old Fashion, Club Haus 80’s Milano and Alcatraz. There are loads of cool and diverse spots to go and swig a cocktail or ten.
Religion: Italy is a Christian country and home of the Roman Catholic denomination. Religion plays a large part of the Italian culture - so be respectful. Ensure that you are wearing clothing that covers your skin if you are planning to visit any of the churches or holy sites too! I packed a long skirt in my rucksack so that I could always slip it on over the top of my shorts when wanting to venture into the cathedrals – for religious reasons, baring skin is highly frowned upon and in most holy places it's prohibited.
20 TOP THINGS TO DO IN MILAN
1. DUOMO CATHEDRAL: Of course it's impossible to go to Milan and not visit the Duomo Di Milano - the most famous cathedral in Lombardy! This remarkable piece of gothic architecture has chapels, towers and terraces to explore, masses to attend and prayers to be said. Climb along the roof tops or grimace at the visible rotting hand of a corpse down in the crypt. Just don't forget to take clothing that you can cover up with before entering this holy site!
2. VISIT NAVIGLI: With architectural input from da Vinci himself, Navigli is a suburb constructed with navigable canals, though the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese are two of the only canals still visible. Nevertheless, the Navigli area is a social spot for all walks of life to go and enjoy the bars, barges, aperitivo and cafes that run alongside the canal. On the last Sunday of every month, they hold an impressive vintage market where you can get an absolute steal for retro designer threads and antiques.
3. THE LAST SUPPER: As before mentioned, one of Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous paintings sprawls the width of one of the walls in the back of the Santa Maria delle grazie church and convent. You may need to pre-book this visit but you can do it easily online here!
4. GO TO THE THEATRE: Milan's Teatro alla Scala has been one of Europe's most hailed opera houses since the 18th century. So if you fancy an evening amongst a clamorous crowd in an extravagant environment, grab yourselves some tickets for a night of music and melody.
5. SAN SIRO: If you're into your sports, go and take a guided tour around San Siro football stadium - or even better, grab tickets to an AC or Inter Milan match!
6. INDULGE IN THE CAFES: Cafe culture is HUGE in Milan, from bars to patisseries, there are dozens of them around every street corner. Offering luxurious cakes, pastries, nibbles, cocktails and coffees, its an absolute haven for those with a sweet tooth. Start your day right by snacking on a breakfast croissant at Bar Luce - a well known cafe designed by Wes Anderson for Prada!
7. RENT A BIKE: Rent a bike and site see for yourselves! It's a cheap and easy way to zig-zag in and around the city. Made easier because of the bike-sharing schemes such as BikeMi and Mobike, it's the most scenic and efficient way of exploring.
8. DINE WHILST DISCOVERING: Take a canal boat through Navigli or dine on the rails in one of two historic trams, as the transportation authority captures the romanticism of dining whilst looking through the window of a moving vehicle.
9. SHOP THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE: An area in the city that brings together Via della Spiga, Via Sant’Andrea and Via Montenapoleone. In Milan's Golden Triangle you will find all your luxury Italian designer brands; Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Armani... alongside foreign designer brands such as Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton. Some of the store interiors are incredible - a visual merchandisers heaven.
10. PARTY: Swap your loafers for heels and hit the Just Cavalli Club or party with the models at Old Fashion. If you fancy raving to electronic music then visit the robust underground Tunnel Club for some trance and house.
11. SEGWAY THROUGH THE CITY: If two-hour walking tours aren't your thing then zip along the cobbled stones on a 21st century device we call the Segway! It's a lot of fun and you'll learn all about the architecture and history with your well-informed guides.
12. LAKE COMO + LAKE GARDA: If you're wanting to explore a little out of the city then hop on a train to see the astounding beauty of two nearby lakes. Lake Como is a hour away and will only cost around €13 for a return. Lake Garda is about 1 hour and 10mins for a similar price. Both are absolute must-sees if you appreciate the stunning yet contrasting lakeside views of mountains and palm trees.
13. TAKE A PIGEON SELFIE: At the Piazza del Duomo you'll be overcome by the amount of pigeons that are perching on tourists arms for a cheeky selfie - grab some bird feed off the local seller and hopefully one of the surprisingly tame 'rats with wings' (as my grandmother would say) will hop on your hand. Do it for the 'gram.
14. GALLERIA VITTORIO EMANUELE II: Located to the left of the Duomo Cathedral is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Italy's oldest shopping mall. But even if the Gucci and the Prada are out of your budget, venture in to enjoy the renaissance revival architecture that houses these designer stores.
15. BRERA: Wander around the roads surrounding Brera Street - it is without a doubt the prettiest scene in town and is a great lunch spot!
16. GELATO: Enjoy as many Gelato's as your stomach will allow; the best ice cream you will ever have the pleasure of wolfing down.
17. SAN BERNARDINO ALLE OSSA: Visit the San Bernardino alle Ossa church if you're not of the faint heart. Located a stone throw away from the Duomo, there is a whole chapel in the back decorated using just human skulls and bones! Eerie, but interesting.
18. PARCO SEMPIONE + SFORZA CASTLE: Have a picnic in Parco Sempione behind after touring Sforza Castle. Try and spot some baby tortoises by the ponds or bask in the sun as the musicians set up their drum circles.
19. LEONARDO DA VINCI EXHIBITION: If you love delving into history, I highly recommend taking a trip to the Leonardo3 - The World of Leonardo, located at Piazza della Scala. It's a great way to learn about the life and works of one of Europe's greatest renaissance inventors whilst interacting with a several reproductions of da Vinci's famous machines.
20. HIDDEN SPACES: Milan is filled with hidden gems that most tourist websites will leave out! Speak to locals or other travellers to see what they've managed to discover. From basilicas and churches with intricate decor, to underground galleries, tombs, gardens, parks and monuments, the best way to immerse yourself into the city is to throw away the leaflets and wander to your hearts content!