Free Tourism in Milan: The One-Day Guide

The sweet sticky air reminiscent of Georgia summers and somehow scented of chocolate engulfed me as I stepped out of the Milan airport onto the homeland.

grand canal milan
Walking down Milan's Navigli canal. Where's my kayak?

Okay okay, genetically speaking, I'm only a quarter Italian, but could there be a culture in which I feel more at home?

Siestas, warm weather, easy living, fiery tempers, and food?

Take everything away but the food and Italy would still be the place that quickens my pulse and calls my blood to attention.

Just a normal girl, getting her second serving of gelato for the day...(this time at Rinomata Gelateria)

Perhaps I've always known that I would belong here.

The Slow Food Movement, a movement whose ideals are one of the driving forces not only behind this trip, but (she said pretentiously) behind my life, was in fact originated in Italy.

These people get it. I don't have to double-check that the garlic I'm buying isn't from China, I don't have to check if a cafe's coffee beans are locally roasted, and I don't have to exhaust myself trying to hunt down seasonal fruit or local yogurt.

We stumbled upon Norin Cafe (which doubles as a Pizzeria) for an espresso with whipped cream and a cafe marocchino
Blindsided by all the chocolately selections at Shockolat, I went for dark chocolate and hazelnut. 

In Italy, I'm no longer a "food snob" . . . I'm normal.

(at least when it comes to food)
milan shopping
People watching on the Piazza del Duomo in front of Milan's famous cathedral (the Duomo) and the adjacent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a four-storey double arcade that serves as the world's oldest shopping mall

So, after a discontinuous night's sleep in the Milan airport, we set off for the city.

(Note: after our 10pm arrival, John pointed out that 16 euros saved by sleeping in the airport instead of in a hostel was equivalent to at least as many Italian espressos. Airport camping it was.)

Stealing a shot of our campsite in the food court kidzone (if you want to sleep in Milan's airport, shoot for terminal one)
At the far end of Milan's Sempione park, you'll find Arco della Pace, aptly named for its relatively quiet location.

We had one day in Milan before heading off to our new host's house in Teglio, a small northeasten town near Lake Como, and although several friends told me that Milan wasn't worth a visit, I rightly refused to believe them.

Indeed, one day ended up being enough, but only because we planned. I mapped out the best Milan aperitivo spot (the free ones, that is) into a well-ordered walk, we had a quick midday nap, and then went out for the thing that really makes Milan worthwhile, the aperitivo.

Readers, meet the Moscow Mule, accompanied by a smorgasbord of random Italian foods.
More about the glorious aperitivo to come.

If you have the option to spend a day in Milan, do it. It may not rival other cities in terms of architectural beauty, but the subway is cheap (4.50 euros for one day's unlimited rides!) and there is plenty to see and do to make it worthwhile.

Follow my one day of free tourism map to see the sights and have enough money left-over for a few aperitivos once six o'clock rolls around. Consider walking the route because it's only about three miles and shouldn't you work off some calories to make room for more Italian food?

The One Day Free Tour of Milan (with map!)
The colored push pins ("sights") and yellow dots (museums) are free. I'll be explaining the "push pin stops" in this post, so pick and choose your other stops. Purple dots are priced museums, and some have free visiting hours on certain dates, so check the websites. Always double check operating hours and dates (many close in August)!

View Milan Free Tour in a larger map

The first stop on your flash tour is the perfectly-situated Duomo (yellow pin). It's the most popular free tourist attraction in Milan, so the earlier you go the better.

Cover your bare shoulders and thighs and you can take a look inside, and don't forget to snake around the back corner to check out the crypt (or if there's a long line, don't bother). For a small price you can ascend one of the towers for a great view of the city.

birds piazza duomo
The Duomo di Milano from the plaza
Statues in the duomo
Statue of St. Bartolomeo in the Duomo, 1562

After the Duomo, stroll around the square and make fun of people taking glamor shots of themselves, and then head onwards to Sforzesco Castle. It takes up a lot of ground, so pass through the Piazza Sforesco (blue pin) to get your bearings and follow my free route.

The castle iss a stronghold of Milan military defense and history that dates back to 1368. Within the grounds, there are several museums that aren't free (unless you're under 25!), but near enough at three euros (see more pricing info here).

Views of one of the watchtowers from the castle grounds
Milling about the Piazza d'Armi in front of the Torre Filarete

Head straight out of the castle grounds and you'll reach Sempione Park. Take at least half an hour to stroll around and get your nature on, and if you have the time stop by the free Aquarium and Hydrobiological Station to see wet things from the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

Exit the park to the left side of the castle (purple pin), and make your way to to either 1) a gelateria or 2) the plaza of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Choose your own adventure!

Castle Sforzesco grounds from a distance while walking around Parco Sempione. Be sure to take the quick walk to the far end to see the Arco della Pace (Arc of Peace)

For our part, option one it was. We were hopelessly ensnared by the beautiful beckoning display of Shockolat, which—you guessed it—specializes in chocolate-themed gelatos. It even carried what just might be the world's best chocolate producer, Amedei, so somebody there knows what's up.

The gelato was amazing. And since we had stuffed ourselves that morning with some of my homemade amaranth granola (hippies!), it ended up being enough cold cream and sugar to tie us over until aperitivo hour.

You think I can just walk away after seeing this? And it's only half of the display...

Next up we'll head to the Church and Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (pink pin), where you can tour the grounds and church for free, but if you're feeling the slightest bit lavish, make a reservation to see Da Vinci's The Last Supper, which is just around the corner. It's only eight euros, and if there is one thing you should spend money on during a free tour of Milan, it's this.

Regrettably, we didn't reserve quickly enough to see the masterpiece.

Just down the street you'll find the Church of San Maurizio (green pin), born as a convent in 1503 within a Benedictine Monastery. Keep your eyes peeled from the street because it's facade is inconspicuously plain, but the inside is like walking into a jewel box. Rich reds, bright golds, lavish frescoes, and prime examples of Baroque and Renaissance architecture run rampant within the building.

No matter how many museums you've been to, Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monesterio Maggiore is simply not to be missed.
Don't miss that little side door on the left—the jaw'dropping continues!
None shall escape the sense of awe
Head: it's what's for dinner
Look familiar? Scenes from the ark by Aurelio Luini, circa 1556.

If you only have one day in Milan (and hey, even if you have two), just follow my map, and factor in the museums that interest you (remember: the yellow dots are free, purple are priced).

If you're interested in paying, Milan Tourism Point has some great deals on city tours and discounts.

For a cheap hostel in Milan, I highly suggest using, where we found (and were mostly happy with) the Euro Inn.

The most important thing about spending one day in Milan is that you must —must—conserve enough energy (and money!) for the aperitivos, which you can find from 6-9/10pm every night. Think tapas, buffet-style. Your wallet and stomach will never be so happy.

More on that delectability in the next post on the best spots for Milan aperitivos.

And later this week? Volunteering on a vineyard in Teglio...sign up for inbox updates!


  1. Great guide. Definitely will hit Shockolot, going to Milan next month. If you tour the Duomo on a sunny day, you can also go up to the roof for a great view of the city.

  2. If u want to save some money on transport, u can use prepaid taxi from airport, for example Try to visit San Siro if there will be football match between FC Milan and Inter. Navigli canal is "must see" place in Milan too. It's the center of nightlife in this city.

  3. Hi,
    Thanks for sharing this great place and these awesome pics, it was fun reading this blog. Keep sharing and caring, it has been a great help.

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