Milano, aka Italy’s economic powerhouse, is a glamorous and fascinating place.
Milan is known for its awe-inspiring fashion industry, for landmarks like Milan Cathedral, La Scala, and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and for its refined and delicious cuisine.
The year I went to Milan for a study abroad semester may seem like a remote past by now, I do remember a great deal of what I saw and learned. So do believe the hype, and I promise you won’t regret it!
Here are all the things that Milan is famous for.
Milan is famous for its historic landmarks
The bulk of Milan’s building stock dates back to the late 19th and the early-to-mid 20th century, which is why Italians don’t usually consider it a historic city. Still, Milan is known for a bunch of age-old gems we can marvel at. That’s why it’s recommended to spend at least two days in Milan.
1. Milan Cathedral
Milan’s ultimate symbol was an impressive 400 years in the making. Located at the very heart of the city — both geographically and sentimentally speaking —, the Duomo is rightfully emblazoned on all kinds of memorabilia, from mugs to fridge magnets and keychains. It’s even become a chocolate sculpture once.
Whenever you visit, make sure you tour the imposing gothic interior, the early Christian basilica that lies underneath the current cathedral, and the terraces, for commanding views of the entire city.
After all, apart from no. 1 among Milan’s famous landmarks, the Duomo remains one of the tallest buildings in town.
2. Da Vinci’s The Last Supper
Da Vinci lived for over 20 years in Milan under the patronage of the Sforzas, then the city’s ruling family. During that time, the Renaissance genius painted one of the most stunning works of art in Western history: The Last Supper.
The church and The Last Supper are listed together as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because Italy has far too many of those, we failed to highlight the ensemble on our post about the most breathtaking landmarks across Italy — which doesn’t mean you should skip it when you land in Milan.
3. La Scala
Milan is famous for La Scala. Opened in 1778, it’s quite possibly the most prestigious opera house on Earth.
The world’s top opera singers are honored to perform on its stage. The grandiose neoclassical theater that Milan is known for has notably perfect acoustics.
4. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Unlike the Cathedral, Italy’s oldest shopping mall didn’t exactly come out of WWII unscathed. Luckily, however, it was rebuilt in all its grandeur.
And despite housing historic venues like Caffè Camparino (est. 1867) and exclusive boutiques like Prada, the Galleria is an eclectic place: there was a McDonald’s there for many years.
In case superstitions are your thing, I have one for you.
Spot the mosaic bull represented on Turin’s coat of arms under the main dome. Then spin around three times with your heel on its testicles and you’ll visit Milan again sooner than you think. I have!
5. Sforza Castle
The Castello Sforzesco, from which the Sforzas ruled Milan between the 15th and the early 16th centuries, is one of the most majestic landmarks that Milan is known for.
While the first fortress dates back to the mid-1300s, the castle we see today was rebuilt in a Renaissance Revival style in the late 19th century.
Nowadays, the Sforza Castle houses a library and several art galleries and museums, including the renowned Egyptian Museum.
It’s rare to come across a major landlocked city in Europe that doesn’t have a river flowing through it. For centuries, though, Milan was connected to the Po (Italy’s longest river), Lake Como, and Lake Maggiore by an intricate system of canals, the Navigli.
The majority of them were covered between the late 19th century and the 1920s, as trains then cars made them obsolete. But Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese remained.
They meet at the Darsena, Milan’s former flatboat port, which was refurbished in recent years and became an instant hit among locals and tourists in search of a long-lost waterfront promenade.
Along the Naviglio Grande, you’ll find dozens of bustling bars, restaurants, and gelaterias, besides the most inspiring sunset in town.
7. Parco Sempione
Parco Sempione has already served as the Sforzas’ private garden, as a military base, and even as farmland before being turned into Milan’s most beloved green area in 1888.
Beautifully landscaped, Parco Sempione is also the location of an aquarium, an athletics arena, a museum of design, two nightclubs, and countless cafes and snack bars. It’s the best place to unwind after a long week.
Apparently, a city has to have a very specific size to be efficiently served by trams: while Rome is too big, Bologna, for example, is too small. But in Milan trams will take you virtually anywhere from the city center to the outskirts of town.
And although modern cars run on the majority of lines, the most charming sights of Milan’s streetcar system are the yellow (and orange) wooden trams, built between the late 1920s and the 1930s, that make their way through the city center’s busy streets.
Milan is known for its fast-paced culture
The largest city in Northern Italy has been at the forefront of nationwide artistic, political, and lifestyle trends for the last 150+ years.
9. A fashion capital
Milan is most certainly famous for fashion. Home to the global HQ of high-end fashion houses like Prada, Valentino, Dolce & Gabanna, Versace, Moschino, and Armani, Milan is known for its style and glamor. The Milan fashion week is as important to the industry as those of London, New York, and Paris.
Dressing up is almost mandatory. Check out the most elegant ladies in town — there’s an Instagram profile devoted to them — for a glimpse of the Milanese look.
Also, bear in mind that, in Milan, you dress for the season, not the weather. I had the temerity to wear shorts on a warm day in late March and could almost touch the shockwaves: it wasn’t shorts season just yet!
10. Design and innovation
It’s no coincidence that Milan hosts the biggest design event on the planet every year, the Milan Furniture Fair; Milan is synonymous with the creative industry in general, not just fashion.
Between a shopping spree and aperitivo, try to squeeze in a tour of either the Leonardo da Vinci National Museum of Science and Technology or the Museum of Italian Design to learn a bit more about Milan’s major role in turning “Made in Italy” into a household name, synonymous with excellence and sophistication.
11. Visual arts
It’s usually easier for (high) art to flourish where there’s plenty of rich folks to fund it, which has been the case in Milan ever since it became the economic capital of Italy in the late 19th century.
From Italian Realism (the so-called Verismo) to the quintessentially Italian Futurism to contemporary street art, Milan seems to constantly radiate a sort of artistic buzz to the rest of the country.
The city is also where you’ll find world-class art galleries and museums like Pinacoteca di Brera, the Museum of the 20th Century, the Museum of the Cultures (Mudec), as well as the amazing temporary exhibitions hosted at the Royal Palace.
12. Work hard, play hard
It’s no wonder Milan has such a tall skyline compared to the rest of the country.
The Milanese work hard — often too much so — to keep up with the high cost of living in a city where appearances count a lot to your social standing.
But probably because they’re so workaholic and perfectionistic, the Milanese have to outperform when it comes to the party scene as well. A few nightclubs open even on Mondays, and there are roughly ten nightlife districts across town to suit every pocket, taste, and age range.
Milan’s cuisine is world-famous
Milanese food is here to prove how a cuisine can be both substantial and sophisticated. Milan is known for having given us at least one mouthwatering dish for each course of a meal.
Italians are hard to beat at the aperitivo (i.e. happy hour) game, yet nowhere else in the country is the act of drinking over snacks at the end of the day so sacred and lavish as it is in Milan. Popular bars will set up entire buffets and typically charge you for the drink only.
Posher locals scoff at apericena (meaning aperitivo+dinner), which is what this bloated version of aperitivo has been humorously dubbed.
After all, “less is more” is still very much a mantra in Milan. But I promise I won’t judge you for stuffing your face for a mere €8 — we’ve all been there.
14. Risotto alla Milanese
Milan is the capital of Lombardy, the birthplace of risotto.
Yet the city boasts its own recipe of the rice dish, complete with bone marrow, beef stew, lard, cheese (because of course), and saffron for the characteristic color.
It can get pretty cold in Milan during winter, which is why the local cuisine is way heavier than what we normally picture when we’re talking about Mediterranean food.
15. Veal Milanese
The Milanese share with southern Italians a certain passion for fried food, which is epitomized by the mouthwatering breaded steak they created.
The dish is closely related to the Wiener schnitzel from Vienna, and in fact, no one knows for sure which came up first.
But since Milan was under Austrian rule for almost 150 years between the early 1700s and the mid-1800s, we can assume it’s an Austrian-Italian lovechild and move on.
To be fair, gorgonzola hails from the small town of the same name. Yet as the village is still within the metropolitan area and is even served by the Milan subway, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say gorgonzola is a Milanese cheese.
It was invented more than 1,000 years ago and, like the majority of blue cheeses, it came to be totally by accident.
Gorgonzola started being shipped abroad in the 1800s and is now the 5th most-exported Italian cheese. It comes in two varieties: the less aged and creamier “sweet” gorgonzola and the spicy one.
In Italy, panettone disputes the title of king of Christmas sweetbreads with the Veronese pandoro. Abroad, though, it’s in a league of its own. Italian immigrants brought panettone over to the Americas, where it ended up becoming wildly popular.
While the recipe is rumored to be ancient, we owe the modern iteration to baker Angelo Motta, who in the 1910s would let the dough rise for 20 hours before cooking it and thus giving panettone its famously tall shape.
Milan is known for a few traditions
Though the Milanese are overall less traditionalist than your average Italian, some things never change — even in such a hectic city.
18. Milan Derby
Milan is home to two legendary soccer teams: AC Milan and Internazionale. The Milan Derby happens whenever they face off at San Siro Stadium.
Originally, there was a clear class line between supporters of each team: those rooting for Inter were significantly wealthier than AC Milan’s largely working-class crowd.
Despite the hype around AC Milan (especially abroad), Inter has been slightly more successful in derbies: after 288 matches to date (including 67 ties), Inter has prevailed 84 times against AC Milan’s 77 victories.
19. Milan vs. Rome
When a country has two cities vying for the title of cultural capital, the confrontation can get pretty ugly.
The Milanese act like they work for Roman bureaucrats to laze around, while Romans pity their fellow citizens to the North for toiling away only to be able to afford to live in such an ugly town.
Of course, nobody is really serious about this feud, yet each side does tend to think their city is better in one way or another.
20. Oh bej! Oh bej!
The city’s time-honored Christmas fair dates back at least to 1510, and possibly even earlier. It takes place for a week beginning on the Feast of St. Ambrose (Milan’s patron saint) on December 7.
The market’s name is Milanese dialect for “How beautiful! How beautiful!”, which is what the local children are thought to have shouted upon being given confections by an envoy of the pope who started the tradition.
Whether attending a fashion show, sipping on a Negroni Sbagliato over aperitivo, or wandering through Milan’s cobbled streets, you’re guaranteed to fall for the city.
And now that you’re familiar with all the cool things Milan is known for, you’ll know exactly where to head and what to look for!