Whether you’re a first-timer or veteran, the chances are highly likely that you’ll wind up in Milan’s historic center at some point during your visit. Yes, it’s always crowded but that’s part of its charm. If you pass through here during August, the month when all major Italian cities shut down, the crowds will render you forgetful that you are indeed amid an Italian August.
The Duomo of Milan, the city’s most iconic landmark, dominates Piazza del Duomo. The world’s fifth largest church and the largest within the Italian state, construction of the Gothic cathedral started in 1386 and took six centuries to complete. The church is dedicated to St. Mary of the Nativity, an homage made evident by the spire’s polychrome Madonnina statue. Among the artistic treasures inside is the haunting St. Bartholomew sculpture by Renaissance artist Marco D’Agrate. On a clear day, visit the rooftop for a sweeping view of the city and its Alpine surroundings. The Duomo was the world’s first cathedral to have its stained glass windows lit from within and if you’re passing by during the weekend or a religious holiday, the illuminated sacred images will leave you breathless.
On the Piazza’s north side is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a 19th-century, glass-enclosed shopping arcade flanked with designer shops, restaurants and cafes, and home to the original 1913 Prada store: “Fratelli Prada Valigeria.” Piazza della Scala sits on the opposite end of the Galleria, where stands a Leonardo da Vinci statue as well as the storied Teatro alla Scala, the historic 18th century opera house. A tour of the La Scala museum gives you the opportunity to peek inside the emblematic theater.
The Arengario Palace, two symmetrical Fascist era buildings that stand towards the right of the Duomo, houses the Museo 900, a museum dedicated to 20th century Italian art. The striking Il Quarto Stato painting by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo is a must-see, and since it’s conveniently displayed before museum visitors reach the ticket takers, anyone can walk up the spiral platform to view the Divisionist-style painting sans the cost of admission. The top floor is home to Giacomo da Arengario, an outpost of Giacomo Bulleri’s popular restaurant specializing in Milanese classics such as risotto alla Milanese and the signature cotoletta.
Whether you’re on a mission to shop till you drop or just want to browse, the iconic La Rinascente department store beside the galleria is a shopaholic’s dream come true. Focacceria Manuelina, which specializes in the Ligurian Focaccia di Recco, sits on the ground floor of the store’s new annex (Via Santa Radegonda 10) and is perfect for anyone looking to grab a quick bite on the fly. Pizza fanatics flock to Lievito Madre al Duomo (Largo Corsia dei Servi, 11), the Milan outpost of pizzaiolo Gino Sorbillo’s beloved Neapolitan pizzeria.
A spectacular photography exhibit is always guaranteed at Palazzo della Ragione in Piazza dei Mercanti, which gives way to Via Dante and leads to Castello Sforzesco, a 15th century castle that was home to the Sforza family that ruled Milan during the Renaissance. Today, the castle houses several museums, one of which displays Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà.