While visiting Milan, you can truly appreciate the city’s influence on Leonardo da Vinci and marvel at his iconic contributions to world history. Da Vinci spent 17 years in Milan in the late 15th century serving as a technical advisor and engineer for the Duke Ludovico Sforza. Establishing himself as a top artist, Leonardo maintained a successful workshop in Milan with apprentices whose works can still be seen around the city.
One of da Vinci’s most famous paintings, The Last Supper (1498), is still featured in Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie convent, attracting close to half a million visitors each year. If this isn’t already on your itinerary for your trip to Milan, then it should be, so plan ahead. Only 25 visitors are allowed through the tour at a time, and the tour takes about 30-45 minutes. When I visited in May 2017, there were dozens of people waiting to purchase tickets at opening, hoping for booking cancellations. Purchasing “skip-the-line” tickets ahead of time through a service like Get Your Guide can save you a whole day of waiting in line at the convent.
After experiencing The Last Supper, enjoy a leisurely, 30-minute walk to the Piazza del Duomo. Here, walking is preferred for two reasons: traffic is usually heavy during the day, so you’ll likely be stuck in an expensive taxi for about that much time anyway, and by walking, you won’t miss all of the beautiful architectural details along the way. As you approach the plaza, pass through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and have a peek into the designer boutiques like Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. If you’re looking for a snack, stop into one of the oldest cafes in Milan, such as Café Biffi, established in 1867. If shopping and dining aren’t part of your plan, you can still enjoy the stunning artworks and architecture featured throughout the center including the elaborate boutique facades, high domed glass ceilings, and colorful mosaic tile walkways. The Galleria is Duomo-adjacent with huge archways that open up to exceptional views of the cathedral.
The Duomo cathedral is another unique back-in-time experience situated in the heart of Milan. Construction is estimated to have begun in 1386 when Gothic style architecture was in its prime. Stepping into the Duomo’s enormous entryway, you’re sure to notice the 52 impressive pillars that mark each week of the year. Just inside, you can see an ancient sundial strategically placed on the floor in line with a hole in the opposite wall, allowing sunlight to shine on the bronze tongue. This sundial is still used to regulate some of Milan’s city clocks.
Active since 1402, the music chapel of the cathedral is the city’s oldest cultural institution, but it has a relatively new installation of pipe organs. Built in 1938, the Organ of the Duomo is the largest in Italy and the 2nd largest in Europe boasting an impressive 15,800 pipes, the highest over 9 meters. When I visited the Duomo, I heard the organ play and it is still one of the most moving musical experiences I have ever had. During your visit, be sure to walk through the museum where you can see the impressive archival heritage, The Annals, that has been preserved since 1387. The rich history of the Duomo, as well as the city of Milan, is contained within the archives including architectural drawing collections (some by da Vinci himself) and accounting records.
The cathedral is believed to have the most decorative statues than any other building in the world. More than 100 gargoyles defend the dormers while other unique creatures, formed by some of da Vinci’s apprentices, decorate columns and arches. More than 3,500 statues and figures are featured throughout the cathedral including one of the most iconic saints and apostles of Christ. Saint Bartholomew, skinned alive for his Christian beliefs, was sculpted in 1556 by Marco d’Agrate holding a robe of his own flayed skin around his body and the knife that flayed him in his right hand. His disfigured face can be seen hanging behind his left shoulder. There is some debate around what actually caused the death of St. Bartholomew, but whatever the case, the sculpture is a miraculous piece of art, especially considering the year in which it was designed and sculpted.
Whether you’re interested in architecture, history, or music and other art, you’re sure to be awed by everything the Duomo has in store. It is also smart to plan ahead here and get yourself a pre-purchased ticket or reservation to skip the long lines at the plaza.
A word of caution: while walking through the Piazza Duomo, be aware of your surroundings. It is like other public squares with souvenir vendors, performers, and some vagrants trying to earn your spare change. Be aware of those who may touch you to get your attention or distract you with items for sale. They are known to pick pockets while your attention is divided.
Driving a car in Milan: if you travel like me, you like to have freedom to come and go as you please and not have to rely on transportation schedules. One thing that I am glad I checked before arriving in Milan is the vehicle emission restrictions for drivers within city limits. The area within the ring road of Milan is called Area C and a special registration is required to operate a vehicle within it. There are cameras installed throughout the area that capture vehicle tags without a registration and the Area C system issues a $200+ ticket to the registered driver. Yes, even if you have a rental car; the rental agency will bill you. For this reason, I found a comfortable DoubleTree by Hilton hotel with guest parking outside of Area C and either walked or used Uber to get around the city center. If you're like me, you're too impatient to sit in all that traffic, anyway. After exploring the city a bit, I was even more grateful that I left my rental car at the hotel, because parking is a nightmare. Like many European cities with narrow stone streets and hidden driveways, people are double parking everywhere in Milan.
For Milan excursions, and many others throughout my trips to Europe, I use Get Your Guide for quick ticket access to various venues, museums, tours, and monuments that cannot otherwise be accessed without charge. The prices are reasonable, and I have had great experiences with ALL of the guides I have met. If you plan to use them even once, I suggest downloading their app where you can compare tour prices, dates, and features, as well as store all of your ticket information and purchase history quite easily.
"The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see."