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:
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.
What I love about this museum are 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!
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.
The 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.
The 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 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!
It 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.
In 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 a 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.
You 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.
Casa 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”.
Major 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 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”.
Legend 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 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.
Palazzo 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).
At 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 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.
Once 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
Ciao for now