As Capital of the Lombardy region, Milan is a bustling, busy, and modern city where it’s often hard to find a moment of calm. Home to a multitude of must-see sights such as the Duomo and the colourful Brera district, there’s also a hidden Milan that few people ever get to know about. Here’s what your guidebook won’t tell you in ten unusual attractions and secret spots in Milan that you won’t want to miss!
#1 Duomo di Milano rooftop terrace, the best secret spot in Milano
Though everyone, of course, has heard of the Duomo di Milano (Milan’s Cathedral). One of the largest cathedrals in the world, second only to St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the Duomo is one of the most beautiful examples of Renaissance architecture to be found anywhere in Europe.
Of all the hidden gems in Milan, the Duomo’s rooftop terrace is, hands down, my all-time favourite. And so, if you want to enjoy the best of this secret spot, be sure to head to the terrace during sunset (i.e. golden hour) as this is when the lighting is at its best and you’ll be able to capture the most beautiful photos.
Built over the course of six centuries, what you may well not know is that aside from stepping inside the vast ecclesiastical building, you can also climb onto its rooftop for an extra fee. From the top, you’ll soon be rewarded with unrivalled views over Milano and beyond. Check here to purchase your Duomo di Milano rooftop tickets in advance.
#2 San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore
Often referred to as Milan’s answer to the Sistine Chapel, one wander into the stunning 16th-century frescoed interior of the San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore and it will quickly become clear how the church gained its nickname.
Once attached to an important female convent of the Benedictine Order, the former monastery has since been transformed into an archaeological museum. The church itself remains free to visit and services are held every Sunday.
#3 San Bernadino alle Ossa
Nestled in the shadows of the Duomo di Milano, the San Bernadino alle Ossa is the kind of chapel you definitely wouldn’t expect to find in a busy modern city. For, the interior walls are decorated with countless human skulls and bones, reportedly the victims of the plague.
The story goes that in the 13th-century, an adjacent cemetery ran out of space and so a chapel was constructed to hold bones. The church has morbidly stood in the centre of the city ever since. Today, the ossuary is free to visit, though there is a donation box for the upkeep of the chapel.
#4 Leonardo’s Vineyard (Vigna di Leonardo in the Casa Degli Atellani)
First gifted to the grandmaster himself almost five hundred years ago, a trip to sip on an aperitivo in the grounds of Leonardo’s Vineyard is one of the quirkiest and most unusual things to do in Milan. Records suggest that when Leonardo da Vinci was painting the Last Supper, just across the road from the vineyard, he would spend his breaks among the grapes, soaking up the calm atmosphere.
Although the vineyard was badly damaged during WWII, it has since been restored to its former glory and is open to visitors once more. If you want to visit this Milan hidden gem for yourself, then you should know that you have to pay for entry (though it’s totally worth it!) Purchase your Vigna di Leonardo ticket here in advance.
#5 Cloisters & Palazzos of Università degli Studi di Milano
Italy is home to some of the oldest universities in the world and Milan is no exception. Although Università degli Studi di Milano was only established in the 1920s, the buildings in which it was opened date back much earlier. Head just a ten minute walk away from the Duomo di Milano and you’ll be able to explore the countless cloisters and numerous palazzos that form Milan’s University.
#6 Brera Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico di Brera)
Located in the hip, trendy, and cool district of Brera (i.e. where all the locals hang out!), the Botanical Gardens are open from Monday through to Saturday and are just one part of a larger complex located around the Brera Palace. Although the Gardens are just 5000 square metres in size, they’re a perfectly secluded oasis of green, perfect for hanging out with friends and escaping the crowds of Milan.
#7 Bull of Vittorio Emanuele II
Of course, you’re probably thinking that the oldest shopping mall in Italy, and one of Milano’s must-see attractions, has no place in being on a list of hidden Milan attractions! So ornate and sumptuous is this walkway, that it’s often referred to as the “il salotto di Milano”(Milan’s Drawing Room).
Head into the covered passage and look down at the mosaics beneath your feet (hard, I know, when the shop façades and overhead glass panelling is so stunning!). In the very heart of the mall, you’ll spot the Turin Bull of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Legend has it that if one spins around on the bull’s private parts, then they’ll be granted good luck!
#8 Bar Luce
Okay, so perhaps you’ve heard of this secret spot in Milan… But on the off chance that you haven’t, I’ve decided to add it to this list of secret spots in Milan! Designed by cult film director Wes Anderson, Bar Luce is inspired by the Milanese coffee shops of the 1950s and ’60s.
All pastel shades and with a vintage ambience, it’s well worth stopping by, if only to enjoy an Italian coffee! Featuring both indoor and outdoor seating and ever so ‘Instagrammable’, the exact address for Bar Luce is: Largo Isarco, 2, 20139 Milano. Highlights of the menu include old fashioned cocktails and authentic coffee options.
#9 Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore
Many of the oldest buildings to be found in Milan are those of churches, chapels, and former monasteries. While many of these ecclesiastical spaces have since been transformed into concert halls and quirky museums, the Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore remains a church to this day.
Located right next to the ossuary chapel, the basilica was first established in the 5th-century. Although much of the original church was destroyed by a fire in the 11th-century, the current building on site is well over a thousand years old.
#10 Bike around the Navigli
One of the best ways to explore Milan (especially if you’re a little short on time and want to see as much as possible), it to cycle around the many Navigli (canals) which criss-cross the city. And no, you’ve not stumbled into Venice, although it definitely feels like it at times!
Instead, the Navigli were once navigable canals which were constructed to transport the Milanese around the city. Today, the waterways are no longer passable by boat but are a picturesque reminder of the city’s rich past. If you have a little more time in the city, then you may also want to embark on a Milan walking tour of the Navigli district.
#11 Cimitero Monumentale
If you’re looking for offbeat destinations in Milan, then you simply must head to the Monumental Cemetery, a graveyard first established in the mid-19th-century. The cemetery is well-known for its number of artistic monuments and tombs, and plenty of well-known people are interred there.
Funerary shrines and sculptures in the cemetery include a depiction of a pyramid, a representation of the Last Supper on a family tomb, and various other interesting sculptures. Located a little way out of the city centre, many of the tombs themselves are the creations of famous architects.
#12 Take a side day trip to Bergamo
One of the best day trips from Milan is that which can be taken to the nearby city of Bergamo. Just under an hour away via public transport, this hidden gem of Northern Italy is set over two levels; an upper and lower town. And while the lower town is a beautiful example of 18th-century architecture, it’s in the upper town where the true treasures of Bergamo lie.
The medieval streets to be found there are studded with ancient chapels, centuries-old buildings, and a feel of stepping back in time. Particular highlights include the central square where enjoying a coffee is oh-so pleasant and several art museums where you can easily lose yourself for hours.
#13 Spy the view from Belvedere, Palazzo Lombardia
If you’ve already seen the view from the rooftop of the Duomo, then another great way to admire panoramic vistas of the city is from the top of the Belvedere. Situated on the 38th floor of a tower, the observation deck offers 360 degree views of the city.
#14 Enjoy a picnic at Parco Sempione
Though not much of a ‘must-see’ hidden gem as some of the other places in Milan listed here, one of the best spots in the city to head out together with friends for a picnic is that of Parco Sempione. Situated to the Northwest of Milano, a visit to the green space can easily be combined with a trip inside the Sforza Castle.
#15 Guastalla gardens
Yet another secret spot in Milan which is often overlooked in favour of its more famous counterparts is the Giardini della Guastalla. A quintessentially Italianate garden located on the site of a former college, the garden boasts pretty planted borders, a tranquil pond area, and dates all the way back to 1555.
#16 See flamingoes at Palazzo Invernizzi
One of the most unusual things to do in Milan is to head to the fence of the Palazzo Invernizzi and peek through the gates, to spy the flamingoes which inhabit this private area in the very heart of the city. Though Milan is often accused of being very ‘grey’, this is simply not the case and you need only know where to look instead. Most of all, of all the secret spots in Milan, the flaingoes of Palazzo Invernizzi are unknown to most, even many locals.
Things to know before visiting Milan
Even if you’re only planning on spending one day in Milan, you’ll soon discover that there are plenty of hidden gems and unusual attractions to pique your interest. For those staying a little longer in the Lombardian capital, there are also some amazing day trips from Milan that are totally worth taking.
Otherwise, there are a few simple things you should know before you go. For example, while almost everyone in the tourism industry speaks English, it’s only polite to learn a little Italian before you go. I recommend learning ‘hello,’ ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘sorry’ at a minimum. To help you, consider investing in a simple Italian phrasebook like this one.
Finally, thanks to an increasing surge of popularity over the past few years, interest in Milan has really increased and shows no signs of slowing down. As a result, the best hotels and B&Bs often sell out fast, particularly during the high seasons such as school holidays and during the summer. To avoid disappointment, be sure to book your place to stay well in advance. Check here for Milano accommodation prices.
Last but not least, for more essential information to know before your Milan trip, check out my top Milano travel tips!