If you are on a flying visit to Milan, and are wondering what sights you absolutely must see, then this guide gives you the lowdown of what to do in Milan if you only have 24 hours in the city.
Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of Milan. It is a big, concrete sprawl, and the locals have clearly missed the memo that Italians are fun-loving and welcoming. These Italian imposters are snooty, casting disapproving glances at anyone daring to enter their bar,café or restaurant. Unlike every other gorgeous place I have visited in Italy (and I’ve visited often!), Milan is way too serious for its own boots.
Frankly if I had the choice, I would spend my 24 hours somewhere else. Places like Pisa, Roma or Florence are much more worthy. There, La Dolce Vita entices me to linger, to maybe buy an apartment and cancel my return flight.
Another option would be to escape to one of the many thermal spas, located in the nearby mountains,and avoid the disdainful Milanese, and organised chaos which seems to be a fixture of this city.
Four things to do in Milan
That said, there are some gems to be found in every city, and Milan is no exception. Here are the four things I think you should not miss in Milan.
9am – Visit Milan Central station
If you are coming from the airport, it is likely that you will arrive at Milan’s Stazione Centrale. This station puts New York’s to shame. The exterior is adorned with columns and statues, whilst inside, huge chambers of marble lead to an urban metropolis.
Shops, cafes and restaurants adorn the various concourse, and photographers try endlessly to capture the beauty of this building. I literally got a stiff neck trying to take in its magnificence.
Note: if you follow this itinerary in reverse, it will take around ten minutes to walk from the station entrance to platform one for the train to Malpensa airport. Please bear this in mind when buying tickets. Also, don’t forget to validate your ticket, assuming you can find the machine to stamp it.
Clearly all the tourists on our train had not appreciated the need to stamp the ticket, or found a validation machine, because virtually everyone in our carriage was gently advised to ‘remember next time, the need to stamp.’ The train conductor was obviously not from Milan, we avoided a fine and merrily made it to the airport.
10am – Milan Cathedral
From Central station, take the yellow line metro to Duomo. You can walk, but this will take you around 30 minutes at a brisk pace. On the metro, it is just 4 stops and 10 minutes. If you are really short on time, pay the €1.50 fare or buy a day pass for €4.50.
Be warned, organising a visit to Milan cathedral is about as much fun as poking yourself in the eye with a needle. Ticket chaos, lengthy queues, and poor signposting are just some of the obstacles you have to navigate to make this visit a reality.
That said, this attraction should be on your bucket list. Even if you only gaze upon it in awe from outside. It is quite possibly the most stunning building in Milan, if not the world. Gargoyles, angels and gods are hewn from pink marble in a dizzying array of poses.
Over 3,400 of them adorn the edifice, along with 135 spires in varying sizes. Trying to take in every detail might just require a lifetime, never mind a day!
Stain glassed windows shimmer in the sun, and the mind baffles at the 600 years of labour needed to build this architectural masterpiece.
Top tips for a visit to Milan Cathedral
Here are my top tips to ensure this attraction does not become a horror story. Either visit very early as the cathedral opens, and ensure you are in the queue well before opening time.
Book your tickets online beforehand to avoid the chaotic ticket hall. Purchase one for the cathedral and a separate ticket for the rooftops if you wish to visit both. Personally, I would only opt for the rooftops if the forecast is good. That’s when you will get the best views, with snow covered mountains providing a backdrop for high rises and stately renaissance buildings.
You need to queue separately for both the cathedral and the rooftops, so if you are on a budget, you may have to choose just one. Alternatively, splurge some cash and book one of the skip the line tours to ensure you see both. Be prepared for glowering looks from tourists who have had to endure the horror of long waits.
Allow four hours for both the rooftops and the cathedral. If it isn’t busy, and you don’t need all that time, you can linger in one of the many street side cafes.
2pm – Galleria Emmanuelle Vittoria
The Emmanuelle Vittoria Galleria is simply stunning. Enter to the left of the cathedral (assuming you are facing it) through the large archway. Bask in the beauty of the ornate domed ceiling, or sip a café latte at one of the upmarket coffee shops within.
Wandering to the centre, and off to the right, will bring you into the designer shopping area. Here Armani rubs noses with Louis Vuitton, Dolce and Gabbana and Chanel. If you want to meet the minimum spend on your latest credit card and earn more airmiles, this is the place where you can achieve that goal with just one purchase.
That’s if you dare set foot in the stores, where stern looking, modelesque shop assistants hover like sentries. Frankly, they are intimidating as hell!
3.30pm -The Milanese Canals
Designed by Leonardo Da Vinci (is there anything this guy cannot do?), the canals are southwest of the Duomo. You will feel like you have been transported to a Dutch village on a beautiful summer day, rather than a Milanese district. Numerous bars and restaurants adorn the canal side, competing for your attention with pretty decorations and lights. It’s a vibrant place, with ateliers, souvenir stalls and nighttime attractions to keep you entertained.
Fairy lights decorate the canals creating a magical scene, and the colourful buildings are reminiscent of Burano in Venice.
The nearest metro station is Porto Genova on the green line but you can walk from the Duomo in around twenty minutes. Once you have exhausted your foot leather, you may wish to stop and linger in one of the many drinking establishments.
If you have slightly more time, you might like to make a detour to the castle on the green line metro. Or you could take a long lunch and indulge in Italian pasticerria.
Your top tips?
So those are my top tips should you decide to visit on a day trip. How about you? Perhaps you have fallen in love with this Italian City. Maybe you can share some love, and tips for other visitors. Feel free to wade in to the comments below as I appreciate that one person’s horror is another person’s love story.
To download an offline version of this itinerary, and others like it, download GPS My City.
Milan Cathedral was probably the highlight of my time in Milan, such a grand structure, but you’re right – we didn’t actually o inside because the crazy lines and ticketing seemed a bit too much. However people watching in the square from the fountains across was really relaxing and fun and it was nice to stare up at such an amazing piece or architecture. In hindsight we should have booked tickets online if we had wanted to get in, so thankyou for that tip!
Despite some of the negative things you mentioned, I definitely still want to visit Milan. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to see for myself, especially the cathedral. And I’m not really into shopping, but I’d like to go to the galleria because I think the building itself is gorgeous.
Oh I wish I had this guide when I was passing through Milan on my way to Florence from Paris. We thought it would be a good idea to take an over night train which we had trouble sleeping on. Needless to say we arrived in Milan overly tired and brain dead. We walked around like zombies. This guide would of been great to help me focus.
Now that sounds like a long journey but one I would nevertheless have enjoyed
To be honest, most Italians have told me not to visit Milan. However, your four locations actually look really beautiful. That cathedral is gorgeous, and how could I ever say no to a latte in Italy? I’ve never even heard of the Milanese Canals, let alone that they were designed by Da Vinci! Now I’m actually considering visiting.
NO i had never heard of them too but actually really liked that quarter.
Missed the Milanese canals from the list. I would love to revisit for shopping too.
The visit to cathedrals roof during sunset time is mesmerizing!
Your intro to Milan really made me laugh! My husband is from Genova and the Genovese hate Milano. If you go on YouTube there are loads of videos making fun of the Milanese for these reasons (all in Italian though!). Because of this, as far as I have got to Milan is the train station to change trains. But I would love to see the city one day, especially the cathedral. One day I will use your guide.
Oh hilarious. I wrote a comment in a previous post comparing the Milanese to the Parisians which is a bit of a risk (and obviously a tad exaggerated.) Glad you enjoyed it. I absolutely love Italy but just can’t love this city. I think Tuscany stole my heart
Wow! I wonder how could you squeeze in that cathedral in 24 hours, and that too with other things to do. The structure itself would a whole day. Glad you spoke about the organized chaos and the train confusion.
Surely the canal is something that I would like to spend more time photographing and enjoying. However given the time slot, think the best option would be to feast over the italian cuisine the whole day.
Your blog has given me a visualization of what to expect. I surely might be able to plan better thanks to your detailed write up.
Keep travelling 🙂
It’s “Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II” and not “Galleria Emmanuelle Vittoria”
I love 24-hour and 48-hour guides for cities, especially the smaller ones like Milan because that is usually the amount of time I usually get in places like that. Milan cathedral is a definite visit because I’ve seen so many pictures of it and it’s gorgeous, I think its the one iconic place you get to see on the internet whenever Milan is mentioned. I also love the canal, walking alongside it or sitting at one of the cafes overlooking it would be the perfect way to spend the evening!
Milan seems a lot nicer than you let me to believe in your intro. The canals looks beautiful and the Cathedral has all the Gothic features you would want to see. I think I would skip the high end shopping and go straight for the hot springs up in the mountains.
I don’t know Milan that well – I love the Milanese Canals – I’ve been there with an Italian friend in the evening and really enjoyed the vibe. Next time I am going to the Cathedral and Galleria Emmanuelle Vittoria
I agree with all the negatives you mentioned about Milan; especially the people.
I would recommend dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in the world: Cantina Di Manuela ( https://g.co/kgs/BkDaL6 )
Ooh thanks for the tip. What did you like about it?
Milan is great but I don’t think you need 4 hours at the Duomo unless you arrive at 10am in the middle of summer with no tickets, wearing a miniskirt (those of you that have been will know what I’m talking about). There are other attractions there like car factory tours, awesome restaurants etc. It’s like saying Saltzburg is boring once you do a sound of music tour. Go to Milan in October rent a car and see the area. You won’t find long lines or tons of tourist.
Hopefully you are right, but if someone really wants to see the Doumo and as painful as it is when it is busy, I do not recommend missing it, then you should allow sufficient time. Better to have too much time than too little. That said, there will always be some cities that do not float our boat and this is the one for me. I have now been twice but there will not be a third time!
A more informative post might have been “What to do in Milan if Have More Than 24 hours”. 24 hours is enough unless you are shopping for fashion.
Mmm unless I have misunderstood you, I can safely say it is not my favourite place either. I certainly wouldn’t want to go shopping there though as I think I might need a new mortgage to pay for it!