Sightseeing in Milan, the Capital of Italy’s Urban North

Duomo staircase, Milan, Italy
For great views of the city, and a close-up look at the Duomo's crown of 140 spires, hike up to its rooftop.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, Italy
The elegant arcade of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele recalls the heady days of the 1870s, when the modern Italian nation and electricity were both new on the scene.
By Rick Steves

While much of Italy's appeal is rooted in its relaxed pace and rich connection to its past, Milan — the nation's second city and financial capital — is just the opposite. They say that for every church in Rome, there's a bank in Milan. Indeed, the economic success of postwar Italy can be attributed, at least in part, to this city of bankers, publicists, and pasta power-lunchers. While it's not big on the tourist circuit, it has plenty to offer sightseers…or anyone curious to people-watch amid the energetic heart of modern Italy.

The importance of Milan is nothing new. Three hundred years before Christ, the Romans called this place Mediolanum, or "the central place." By the fourth century AD, it was the capital of the western half of the Roman Empire. After struggling through the early Middle Ages, Milan rose to prominence under the powerful Visconti and Sforza families. By the time the Renaissance hit, the city was called "the New Athens."

Milan's cathedral, the city's centerpiece, is the third-largest church in Europe. At 480 feet long and 280 feet wide, forested with 52 sequoia-sized pillars and more than 2,000 statues, the place can seat 10,000 worshipers. Hike up to the rooftop — a fancy crown of spires — for great views of the city, the square, and, on clear days, the Italian Alps.

The cathedral sits on Piazza del Duomo, Milan's main square. This classic European scene is a popular gathering point. Professionals scurry, fashion-forward kids loiter, and young thieves peruse. Stay a while to survey the square and enjoy some of Europe's best people-watching.

The grand glass-domed arcade on the square marks the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Built around 1870, during the heady days of Italian unification, it was the first building in town to have electric lighting. Its art celebrates the establishment of Italy as an independent country while high-end shops, restaurants, and cafés reflect Milan's status as Italy's financial and fashion capital.

The immense Sforza Castle, Milan's much-bombed and rebuilt brick fortress, is overwhelming at first sight. But its courtyard has a great lawn for picnics and siestas. Its free museum features interesting medieval armor, furniture, Lombard art, and a Michelangelo statue with no crowds: his unfinished Rondanini Pietà. For an even better art museum, head to the world-class Brera Art Gallery. Established in 1809 to house Napoleon's looted art, it now holds Milan's top collection of Italian paintings.

Of course, Milan is also home to what is quite possibly the world's most prestigious opera house: La Scala. Opera buffs love the museum's extensive collection of items that are practically objects of worship among devotees: Verdi's top hat, Rossini's eyeglasses, Toscanini's baton, Fettucini's pesto, and the original scores, busts, portraits, and death masks of great composers and musicians.

But the most famous sight in town is easily Leonardo's ill-fated The Last Supper (known by its location as "Cenacolo" to the Italians), painted right onto the refectory wall of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The fresco suffers from Leonardo's experimental use of oil and deterioration began within six years of its completion. The church was bombed in World War II, but — miraculously, it seems — the wall holding The Last Supper remained standing. To preserve it as much as possible, the humidity in the room is carefully regulated — only 25 people are allowed in every 15 minutes, and visitors must dehumidify in a waiting chamber before entering. Visits are by reservation only and must be booked months in advance. Most of the original paint is gone, but tourists still enjoy paying to see what's left.

More of Leonardo's spirit survives in Italy's answer to the Smithsonian, the Leonardo da Vinci National Science and Technology Museum. While most tourists visit for the hall of Leonardo's designs illustrated in wooden models, the rest of this vast collection of industrial cleverness is just as fascinating. Plenty of push-button action displays the development of planes, trains, and automobiles, ships, radios, old musical instruments, computers, batteries, telephones, chunks of the first transatlantic cable, interactive science workshops, and on and on. Some of the best exhibits (such as the Marconi radios) branch off the Leonardo hall.

Located on the outskirts of town, Leonardo's Horse is the largest equestrian monument in the world. Designed for the Sforza family, the original was destroyed in 1499. The giant horse was reconstructed in 1999 by American artist Charles Dent from da Vinci's drawings.

Even with all of this history, most of the locals seem oblivious to it. They just enjoy being who they are, living modern-day life to the fullest in this most vibrant of Italian cities.