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Milan has some great places to see and although all the obvious touristy places are a must to visit, it’s the hidden corners of Milan that reveal some of the most fascinating stories of the city and its people.

You know that saying – you should never judge a book by its cover. In Italy, this is particularly true for Milan. Too often people tend to skip Milan in favor of more glamorous destinations that seem to be a better match with their idea of Italy. At the end of the day, Milan is just a big, grey place devoted to business and fashion, right?

If you asked me 10 years ago I would have agreed. But when I came back from London in 2015, I found a completely different city that was positively taking advantage of the Expo to make itself over with a new look and learn to better promote its treasures.

Today I would define Milan as an incredible mix of historic attractions, vibrant cultural life, and innovative urban architecture. What’s more, there are some pretty fascinating corners to uncover behind those huge office buildings and super busy streets. So, here are my favorite hidden corners of Milan:

Table of Contents

1. The museum dedicated to famous Italian liqueurs

Fernet Branca is a popular Italian liqueur, but very few people know that the distillery where it is produced is located in the center of Milan and is open to visitors. All you have to do is book one of the free guided tours available on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and enjoy a journey through the history of the Branca family, who chose Milan as the place for its entrepreneurial adventure.

Bottles of Fernet Branca at the Branca Museum in Milan

What I love about this museum is its genuineness and coziness. The collection was put together by the employees themselves and is displayed in the same building where the offices stand. What’s more, your guide will be Mr. Marco Ponzano, former head of advertising and now in charge of the Branca museum – be ready to hear lots of super interesting stories and anecdotes!

READ MORE: “Visiting the Branca Museum and Distillery in Milan”

Via Resegone 2 | “Maciachini” underground station (yellow line ) | Tours available on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:00 am and 3:00 pm, booking required | Free | website

2. The magic of Milan’s Via Lincoln

Take the red underground to San Babila and walk for about 10 minutes towards, It’s in this area that Milan’s prettiest street finds its way amidst tall and anonymous buildings. Its name is Via Lincoln and it seems to come out of London’s Notting Hill neighborhood: a few hundred meters lined with the most adorable houses, painted in bright colors and opening onto little yards and gardens filled with flowers and fruit trees.

Colorful houses in Via Lincoln in MilanThe story of Milan’s Via Lincoln goes back to 1889 when a worker cooperative planned to create a sort of “garden district” with the idea of offering cute, affordable houses to those working in the Porta Vittoria railway area. Sadly, this ambitious project never fully saw the light of the day because of the two World Wars, and thus remained limited to Via Lincoln.

Every time I’m here I can’t help but look furtively from behind the wrought iron gates and daydream about life inside those colorful walls – and I always look for a “for sale” sign to dream even bigger!

Via Lincoln | “San Babila” underground station (red line)

3. The Civic Aquarium of Milan

Yes, Milan has its own aquatic museum and – guess what – it’s the third oldest aquarium in the world! Despite being a bit small compared to the one in Genoa, this is one of those precious spots I always recommend checking out, especially with kids. It’s hardly ever crowded and offers a fun break from the noise of nearby Sforzesco Castle.

Tropical fishes at the Civic Aquarium of MilanThe aquarium opened as part of the World Expo in Milan in 1906 and it’s the only surviving construction from that event. The exhibition is housed in an elegant Liberty-style building decorated with aquatic sculptures and splendid ceramics. There are 36 pools hosting over 100 species of fishes, from those typically living in Italy’s seas, rivers and lakes, to colorful tropical fishes. There are also some little ponds outside, while on the top floor there’s a terrace with pretty views. The building that houses the aquarium is also home to a Hydrobiological Station and a library specialized in marine biology and aquatic science.

Viale Gadio 2 | “Lanza” underground station (green line) | Tuesday – Sunday from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm | €5

4. Milan’s own Sistine Chapel – without the crowds!

Unicorns do exist and the proof is in the Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore in Milan. Located on the popular Corso Magenta in Milan city center, this church is often compared to the Sistine Chapel for the number of beautiful paintings and fresco cycles hidden behind a rather austere façade. One of the most famous was realized by Leonardo’s student Bernardino Luini and depicts the animals heading onto Noah’s Ark, including a couple of unicorns!

The beautiful frescoes at the Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore in MilanThe Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore dates back to the early 16th century and used to be part of the largest female convent in Milan, where the daughters of wealthy Milanese families were sent to live a life of seclusion. It was thanks to the financial donations of these families that the convent could afford the magnificent works of art we can admire today. This church is surely not to miss when in town, and you know what the best thing is? It’s totally free!

Corso Magenta 15 | “Cairoli” underground station (red line) | Tuesday – Sunday from 9:30 am to 7:30 pm | Free

5. A different point of view 

At number 12 of Corso Magenta, only steps from the Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, stands a real hidden gem of Milan. Its name is Casa Rossi, a beautiful building characterized by a unique, octagonal-shaped courtyard – one to add to your list of Milan’s top Instagrammable spots! 

The octagonal-shaped courtyard of Casa Rossi in MilanIt was built in 1860 for the Rossi brothers and today is home to OM Officinali di Montauto, a shop of chemical-free natural cosmetics, and the luxury bed & breakfast Secondo Pensiero. The front door is always open so don’t be shy and take a look inside, it’s really worth it.

Corso Magenta 12 | “Cairoli” underground station (red line) 

6. Signs of the war

There are places in Milan where you can still see the wounds left by World War II. One of these is the Church of Santa Maria alla Porta, only a couple of minutes’ walk from Casa Rossi. When you reach the church, take a look at the right side and you’ll see the remains of the Madonna dei Miracoli Chapel, which was destroyed by the bombs in 1943.

The remains of the Church of Santa Maria alla Porta in MilanIn 2013 the renovation works of Vicolo Santa Maria alla Porta uncovered some precious architectural remains of the old chapel, including the splendid marble floor hidden under a layer of concrete. The floor is currently covered with special protection due to the lack of funds for its restoration, but you can admire the fresco of “Mary with the apron”, a rather bizarre name linked to the story of a worker who recovered from lameness after dusting off the fresco with his apron.

Via Santa Maria alla Porta 10 | “Cairoli” underground station (red line) | Free

7. The Star Mount

If you are looking for a panoramic spot away from the crowds, then Monte Stella is your place. Literally translated as “Star Mount”, Monte Stella is an artificial hill located in the QT8 district, about 45 meters high. It was named after the wife of the architect in charge of the project and it was created with the rubble left by the bombings of World War II.

Today Monte Stella is the green lung of Milan, covering an area of over 300,000 square meters where locals go to relax, exercise and watch the sun go down.

Via Cimabue | “QT8” underground station (red line) | Always open | Free

8. A piece of New York in Milan

Here’s the story. In 1940 a group of Orthodox Jews migrated to New York and bought a Gothic-style house at 770 Eastern Parkway for their rabbi. After his death, the house passed to his son-in-law, who turned it into a special meeting place for the Jewish community. This prompt the creation of similar places all over the world and today there are twelve of them, including one in Milan – the only Casa 770 (as it is called here) in Europe.

The facade of House 770 in MilanYou can find Milan’s own Casa 770 in Via Poerio, a rather anonymous street close to Porta Venezia. It’s impossible not to see it: a three-story building with a brick facade and three gables that looks like a Dutch home!

Via Poerio 35 | “P.ta Venezia” underground station (red line)

9. A unique facade

For a step back to the Belle Epoque look no further than Casa Galimberti, a splendid example of Liberty architecture in the heart of the glamorous Porta Venezia district. Its facade is dotted with pretty wrought-iron balconies and boasts beautiful hand-painted ceramics depicting feminine and masculine figures.

The beautiful facade of Casa Galimberti in MilanCasa Galimberti can only be admired from the outside, as it houses private apartments. There’s a very good sandwiched bar on the ground floor if you are up for a bite after the photographic session!

Via Malpighi 3 | “Porta Venezia” underground station (red line) | Free to look from the outside

10. An open-air museum amidst graves

I’m sure many of you have heard about the Monumental Cemetery of Milan, but I’m equally sure that only a few venture there. However, there are very good reasons to include it in your Milanese itinerary. This is more than just a simple cemetery, it’s a fascinating open-air museum filled with precious sculptures depicting the theme of death. Just to give you an idea of the importance of this place for locals, someone once said that “to be part of the Milanese élite one should own a seat at the Scala Theatre and a grave at the Monumental Cemetery”.

The Monumental Cemetery of MilanMajor Italian artists and illustrious locals have their final resting place here, including Nobel Prize winner Salvatore Quasimodo, painter Francesco Hayez, the Campari family, creator of the popular aperitif brand, and writer Alessandro Manzoni. Free guided tours are available, but you have to book them in advance.

Piazzale Cimitero Monumentale | “Monumentale” underground station (lilac line) | Tuesday – Sunday from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm | Free

11. A masterpiece of perspective painting

When shopping in Via Torino, take a little detour to the little Church of San Satiro, located on a tiny alley near Via Sperorari. Here that genius of Donato Bramante played with perspective to create an apse (i.e. the part behind the altar) that gives the impression of a much longer church after the city administration prevented him from expanding over the road behind the church.

The perspective painting of Bramante at the Church of San Satiro in MilanThe perspective painting is such a masterpiece, that you have to take a really close look at the apse to realize that it is just an optical illusion! The church was commissioned by the Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza in the 15th century and boasts rich decorations and splendid marble floors.

Via Torino 17 | “Duomo” underground station (red and yellow lines) | Monday – Saturday from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm, Sunday from 2:00 pm to 5:30 pm | Free

12. Mary and Jesus…with devil’s horns!

Yes, you read it right. There’s a place in Milan where the Virgin Mary and Jesus are depicted with a pair of devil’s horns. To see this odd image, you have to go to the Church of Sant’Eustorgio, in the trendy Porta Ticinese neighborhood, and head to the Portinari Chapel dedicated to a Dominican friar who fought heresy in the 13th century. Look up and you’ll see the fresco on the right wall. It’s called “the Miracle of the false Madonna”.

Mary and Jesus with devil's horn in the Portinari Chapel inside the Church of Sant’Eustorgio in MilanLegend has it that the devil wanted to tempt Pietro da Verona by resembling the Virgin Mary, but forgot to hide the horns and was soon unmasked, and this fresco reminds that episode.

Piazza Sant’Eustorgio 1 | “P.ta Genova” underground station (green line) | Tuesday-Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm | €6 to visit the Portinari Chapel / Cimitero Paleocristiano

13. The twin churches

There’s a church with a unique story and an even more unique architecture: the Church of Santa Maria Incoronata, featuring two identical buildings that were originally separated.

The two identical facades of the Church of Santa Maria Incoronata in MilanThe original building (the one on the left) was dedicated to the coronation of Francesco Sforza as Duke of Milan in 1451 and consecrated to Santa Maria Incoronata. When he tied the knot with Bianca Maria Visconti, his wife asked him to build an identical church next to the first one as a symbol of their marriage. In 1484 the two churches were joined into a single structure. The complex contains a precious humanistic library complete with beautiful frescos and arcades.

Corso Garibaldi 116 | “Moscova” underground station (green line) | Free

14. The Silence District

“Silence District” is the nickname given to an area of Milan that feels miles away from the noise of the big city despite its central location. Apart from the quiet atmosphere that permeates the entire neighborhood, the silence district is particularly interesting for a number of buildings characterized by unique architectural features and extravagant details. One of these is Casa Sola-Brusca (via Serbelloni 10), where a giant bronze ear placed next to the front door was once used as an intercom to communicate with the janitor’s quarters.

The giant ear at the entrance of Casa Sola-Brusca in MilanPalazzo Fidia (Via Luigi Amedeo Melegari 2) is another unusual building with a bizarre shape that resembles a space shuttle. Just around the corner from Casa Sola-Brusca, you’ll find Villa Invernizzi (Via Cappuccini 7), the mansion of the family that made a fortune in the cheese industry, where beautiful flamingos wander free in the park (the villa is easy to spot because you’ll always see someone peeking through the gate).

Flamingos in the park of Villa Invernizzi in MilanAt the corner between Via dei Cappuccini and Via Vivaio there’s Palazzo Berri Meregalli, a grandiose building boasting splendid Art-Nouveau features. Not to miss is the entrance hallway, lavishly decorated with a mix of mosaics, sculptures, and beautifully carved ceilings. 

The entrance hallway of Palazzo Berri Meregalli in Milan
The Silence District can be easily reached from “Palestro” underground station (red line)

15. A bone church

You know I have this thing for cemeteries and mystic places, so here’s one last gem for you: the Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa. It’s hidden away on a quiet little piazza close to the Duomo and contains an ossuary that was used to bury victims of the plague that couldn’t be accommodated in the local cemetery.  

The ossuary at the Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa in MilanOnce inside, turn right and walk through a hallway until you reach the ossuary. The chapel is dark and rather small, and every inch of the walls is covered with human bones and skulls piled behind a wire mesh. Fun fact: the Portuguese king John V ordered to build a replica of this chapel in Evora after visiting the church in 1738!

Piazza Santo Stefano | “Duomo” underground station (red and yellow lines) | Free

 

A super hug from Italy,

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16 Comments

Linda (LD Holland) 16 January 2020 at 00:46

We hit Milan at the end of a 6 week trip. We saw a little. But I must admit I was too tired to do it justice. Hubby would definitely want to visit the museum of Italian liqueurs. I would love to see that beautiful Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. I will look for unicorns! Also, we always like to find spots for panoramic views, so will keep Monte Stella in mind for our next visit. All great reasons to go back!

    Val 18 January 2020 at 15:41

    Thank you Linda, I hope you’ll have the chance to go back to Milan soon and see all these beauties 🙂

Madhurima Chakraborty 16 January 2020 at 07:42

Because my brother lives in Milan and studies at Polimi, I *thought* I have seen Milan through his Instagram. But then this blog showed the true hidden corners of Milan and boy, are they photogenic! Belle Epoque looks incredibly pretty. So does the twin church and the church of bone! In fact, each place you have mentioned looks really beautiful and I would look for them when I visit Italy.

    Val 18 January 2020 at 15:44

    Thank you Madhurima! I think Milan is one of those places you never stop surprising about, there are so many little gems around every corner 😀

Danik 16 January 2020 at 08:30

I have been to Milano a few years ago (2007 I think!) and to be honest it didn’t wow me over. I saw the main sights like the cathedral (and all the scamming people in the main square in front of it with their hands in pigeon seed ready to chuck on tourists if they won’t give them money, a scam which happens today still…ugh), but I didn’t get the feel for the place. It was my first time in Italy but to be honest, I am heading back there in a few months time so hopefully I can be overwhooed and actually like the city. There are a few things on this post I havent seen which I will put into my long weekend stay there in the summer.

    Val 18 January 2020 at 15:45

    I know what you mean Danik, I’ve never been a big fan of Milan either, but the more I explore it and the more I appreciate it 🙂

Sandy N Vyay 16 January 2020 at 15:04

Milan is such a treasure house of art and architecture. A feast for the visual senses. Each of the places that you have highlighted is unique in their own right. However, the Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore had our attention riveted. After having seen the crowded Sistine Chapel, I would love to visit this place.

    Val 18 January 2020 at 15:46

    That church is pure beauty!

Bhushavali N 17 January 2020 at 16:26

I have fond memories of Milan. I went there on a solo trip a few years back. Sadly I didn’t have too much to explore the hidden gems. I just checked the top touristy sites and was out of there quickly! Too sad and bad! But that gives me reason to head there again and stay for a few days to explore these gorgeous hidden places.
Too bad I missed Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. As an art lover and someone who adored Sistine Chapel, I would have totally enjoyed this, had I known about this!
Also, Mary & Jesus with devil horns? Wow! That’s so unique! How on earth did I miss it. I need to book a ticket to Italy now.

    Val 18 January 2020 at 15:47

    Ahah, I know, I was pretty shocked too when I saw those devil’s horns!

Mijia Eggers 19 January 2020 at 11:02

The museum for Italian liqueurs is interesting. I like Italian wines very much and don’t know any liqueur. Can you also taste some during the guided tour? Or can you also buy some in the museum?

    Val 20 January 2020 at 10:18

    Hello Mijia, there’s a moment during the tour where visitors can taste some Fernet-Branca or other spirits produced in the distillery. I’m sure there is also a shop, but I didn’t see it because we enjoyed so much chatting with our guide that we run a little late 🙂

daniel 19 January 2020 at 19:07

WOW MILAN!! I have some great memories with Milan, and a few bad too. I remember the first time I visited the city and pretty much blown away by the amount to tourists it had. The first mistake I made was not to research well and ended up with places that were swarming with tourists. I am pretty sure that this guide will help people who are traveling to Milan.

    Val 20 January 2020 at 10:21

    Thank you Daniel, I agree that to fully enjoy Milan you need to do some research beforehand because its beauty sometimes is not immediately visible 🙂

Marion Halliday 20 January 2020 at 10:20

Whatever happened to those unicorns?! Churches and religious themes play a big part in the attractions of Milan – I’m surprised to see that in a city known for its fashion!! But there’s so much history, architecture and quirky points of interest (yes, I’m thinking of that ear!!!) Milan deserves more than just a day of exploration, I can see a visit to the liqueur museum in my future 😀

Jas 20 January 2020 at 20:20

Oh I had no idea Fernet Branca was produced in Milan! Love that looking up perspective too from Casa Rossi. Casa Galimberti has such a beautiful facade as well. If only my apartment building looked that beautiful from the outside hahaa. Milan is seriously such a beautiful place and I’m actually quite surprised to hear that people tend to skip Milan because it’s definitely got a spot on my bucket list!

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Ciao! I’m Val

Ciao! I’m Val

Ciao! I'm Valentina, an Italian blogger with a huge passion for my country, its culture and traditions. My Italian Diaries is the online space where I share my expert knowledge of itineraries, activities and off-the-beaten path places to help you experience the best of Italy like a local.

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