Hack the Hidden City: Make the most of Milan

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The best things to do and see on a budget: hidden places, secret sights, food, drink and nightlife ideas, as well as alternative trips within the city and the surrounding region

Milan stands for elegance, style and culture, and can be intimidating if you don’t know much about it. However, in our Hack the Hidden City guide, you’ll find not only the most famous sights, but the places locals go and the best budget travel ideas, conveniently marked by neighborhood. Let’s dive in and discover what this magnificent city has to offer.

Awesome architecture

Milan Cathedral (Duomo) — ShutterstockThe Duomo of Milan, one of Europe’s greatest churches — Shutterstock

Milan Cathedral, the Duomo is, naturally, somewhere you’ll gravitate towards, and that’s absolutely to be expected: it’s not only one of Europe’s great churches, but one of the greatest pieces of architecture, period. If you’re looking for more ecclesiastical ecstasy though, we can help you there too.

Other striking highlights

The orange-lit interior of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore — Paolobon140, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia CommonsThe intricate interior of the San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore — Paolobon140, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Find the nearby San Bernardino alle Ossa featuring its creepy 13th-century ossuary chapel constructed with thousands of human skulls and bones. Entry is free, but there’s a donation box for the upkeep of this remarkable place.

For more contemplation on life (I really didn’t want this section to be so dark, I promise!) how about the wondrous Cimitero Monumentale. Okay, it’s a cemetery, but it’s more like a vast, open-air museum, and it is genuinely stunning: over more than 250,000 square meters, you’ll see temples, sculptures, obelisks and more, in styles from Roman to Ancient Greek. There’s a map as you walk in pointing out the most interesting spots, but it’s also nice to just wander around, never sure what you’ll find next.

Known as the Sistine Chapel of Milan, the San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore is covered in beautiful frescoes, many painted under the guidance of Leonardo da Vinci. The frescoes depict Biblical scenes, including animals boarding Noah’s Arc — see if you can spot the unicorns — and, again, it’s free to visit.

Shopping and food

Interior of Galeria Vittorio Emanuele II — ShutterstockAlthough not the best pick for a budget traveler, the luxurious Galeria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade is a marvel to behold — Shutterstock

Milan is famous for its shopping, and one of the first things you’ll find is the mighty Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade, a four-storey symphony of stone and glass that houses some of the most exclusive designer shops in the country. It’s a beautiful building, sure, but if you have to ask about prices, you can’t afford them. Let’s try somewhere a little more budget-friendly, shall we?

Brera and Mecenate

Street in the Brera district of Milan — ShutterstockThe Brera district, home to the Mercato di Via San Marco, is quaint and fashionable neighborhood — Shutterstock

Hidden amongst the streets and alleyways of the city are a number of flea markets that produce some amazing bargains. Located close to the center near the Brera district, the Mercato di Via San Marco runs Mondays and Thursdays from 7:30 until early afternoon. It’s here you can pick up things Milan is famous for — leather goods, shoes, elegant coats and so forth — for a fraction of the price of when they were new.

East Market Milano is a nice alternative as well; although it only runs from May through the summer, it’s not just clothes but antiques, furniture, vinyl records, knick-knacks and a million other curiosities. It also has food stalls and live DJs keeping everyone entertained while they poke around for treasure. This is the side of Milan few people really see, so you’re already one step ahead!

Navigli and Isola

Hand holding chocolate ice cream cone on a street in Milan — ShutterstockHead to Gelateria Paganelli for the best ice cream in the city — Shutterstock

Once you’re done with shopping, it’s time for food and drinks. Milan’s a multicultural place, and this extends to its culinary scene: as well as local dishes such as its famous saffron-and-parmesan-laced risotto, you can get North African, Asian, Balkan and Spanish dishes, to name just a few. Street food is hard to come by due to the city’s regulations, but there are exceptions, such as Macelleria Popolare. Located in Porta Ticinese’s indoor Mercato Comunale and looking for all the world like a simple butcher’s stall, it serves traditional meat dishes at a very high quality for very reasonable prices.

Sweet tooth? Try Gelateria Paganelli in the little-touristed Varesina neighborhood for amazing ice cream. This family-run business has existed for almost 100 years, and as well as traditional flavors, has some experimental offerings like persimmon or Szechuan pepper! Oh, their locally-sourced wine list is amazing as well.

Bank of a canal in Naviglio, the nightlife hotspot of Milan — YesMilano / @francesco.dirosaStroll along the canals of Naviglio until you come across a bar that reflects your vibe — YesMilano / @francesco.dirosa

For nightlife, head to the Navigli district for cocktail bars, underground clubs, bouncing pubs, and interesting late-night food options such as Flower Burger with their vegetarian chickpea and barley patties and beetroot or barley buns! Otherwise, try Isola for bars that are also bookshops, or hidden in courtyards and abandoned industrial spaces. There’s even one — La Chiesetta — that’s a former church dating from the 8th century! Incredible.

Unusual art

Milan means art, with galleries and exhibition spaces across the city giving room to everything from displays of classical masters such as Titian, to graphic design and sculpture. 

Zona delle Regioni and Bicocca

Comic art of girl reading a comic — ShutterstockThe WOW Museum in Zona delle Regioni showcases some great comic book art — Shutterstock

Let’s take the WOW Museum, for example, an entire museum and gallery dedicated to comic book art and animation. Not only is there a rotating cast of temporary exhibitions alongside the permanent displays, but there are also screenings, talks, and workshops where kids can learn to draw comic book art.

Another medium is explored at the Interactive Museum of Cinema, housed in the buildings of what was once a tobacco factory. From antique technology involved in production and projection, to interactive displays and archives featuring 20,000 films from silent to modern, more than 15,000 original film posters and playbills, and 100,000 stills, it’s a cinephile’s dream.

Opened in 2004 in an otherwise unremarkable neighborhood in the north of the city, the Pirelli HangarBicocca is a huge, repurposed factory site, run as a not-for-profit art and exhibition space. As well as the vast permanent exhibitions, all of which are free, there are workshops and education programs for young artists, giving them inspiration and routes into art. The elegant restaurant has a large suntrap of a patio too, so you can feed your stomach as well as your soul. 

You can see almost everything you want for less, and get between them for free, by getting The Milan Pass, a card that grants you free or discounted entry to hundreds of museums, galleries and other attractions, as well as acting as a public transport ticket! Hop on and off the five metro lines and more than a hundred tram and bus routes for 48 hours, meaning you can see the art that is the city itself as well as what’s on display.

Views and green spaces

It might not initially seem so, but Milan is greener than you’d think — and not just in terms of space, but also when it comes to transport (see the next section for more on that).

When you need to simply relax in the sunshine or go for a stroll away from the hubbub of the city center, there are some lovely parks and gardens to explore.

Sempione and Guastalla

View of Sforza Castle from Sempione Park — ShutterstockView of the Sforzesco Castle from Sempione Park — Shutterstock

Sempione Park, adjacent to the Sforzesco Castle and gardens, is a handsome, manicured city park with ornamental lakes, bridges and buildings to stumble upon, as well as wide lawns and cool spaces beneath the trees. It’s also home to the Branca Tower, a slim, iron structure that affords 360 degree views over the city. Zip to the top in the elevator and gaze across the whole of Milan!

Much smaller, though oddly charming, is the Giardini della Guastalla. With ancient trees, a 17th century shrine and a Baroque-era swimming pool, it may be small, but it’s perfectly formed.

Porta Venezia

 

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With wide paths and elegantly tailored flowerbeds, the Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli is also home to Milan’s Natural History Museum and Planetarium. There are playgrounds for kids and shady benches on which to sit and rest your weary feet while you watch the butterflies flit and fly and the ornate fountains splish-splash gently in the background.

San Siro

 

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One green space you certainly won’t be allowed to set foot on is the pitch at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, the stadium commonly known as the San Siro. Home to Milan’s two huge clubs, AC Milan and Internazionale, it’s scheduled to be replaced in 2024, so there’s not long to see this (genuinely iconic) ground. The museum inside charts the history of both clubs, and the stadium tour includes the changing rooms, mixed zone, tunnel and getting to go pitchside, following in the footsteps of such names as Maldini, Vieri, van Basten and (one of this writer’s favorites) Iván Zamorano.

Get on your bike

Chiaravalle Abbey and farmstead — ShutterstockGet on your bike in Porta Romana and end up on the Chiaravalle Abbey farmstead — Shutterstock

Green transport is fast becoming a major part of how Milan works, with bike-sharing and electric public transport to the fore. It’s also seen a network or cycle routes mapped out, giving visitors a chance to not only explore the city by bike, but the surrounding countryside of Lombardy too.

If you’ve only got an hour or so, there’s a five-kilometer route connecting Porta Romana in the center of the city with the outlying Chiaravalle Abbey. Cycling along dedicated lanes through the city, you spend the second half of the route in the former abbey park, now home to fruit trees and a farmstead.

A medium-length route of just under 19 kilometers begins southwest of Milan in the town of Abbiategrasso. The trail spends much of its time following canal towpaths through cornfields, with only the sound of birdsong to accompany you, and glimpses of stone farmhouses in the distance. It’s an easy route, with virtually the only inclines being stone bridges across the water, so maybe bring a picnic? After all, there’s no rush.

The Martesana canal — ShutterstockThe Martesana canal — Shutterstock

One of the longer routes, the Martesana cycle path wends its way for 30 kilometers through ancient villages, parks and forests. Starting east of Milan at the Cassina de ‘Pomm, it again follows the water, so there’s very little in the way of hills to worry about; the biggest challenge you’ll face is deciding in which of the gorgeous local trattoria you’ll stop for lunch!

Of course, these are just a few of the many cycling and walking routes mapped out in and around Milan, so if you’d like a short break within your short break, these are ideal!

Article published in association with SEA Milan Airports and YesMilano.

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