The road less travelled: 7 hidden gems in Milan

Milan prides itself on being a trendsetter. The 2015 World Exhibition certainly helped to boost the city’s popularity for international tourism, which has kept on growing ever since. Here is a clue as to Milan’s success: you never run out of finding something new to see. Many of the city’s hidden gems belong to private estates: from incredibly beautiful buildings, to gardens and courtyards. Others are open to the public but remain ‘under the radar’. Don’t let this discourage your ‘treasure hunt’. It feels good to find a moment of peace in such a fast-paced city! Allow yourself to go off the beaten track. Take a good city map in hand, head to some of these selected spots, and I promise you will be pleasantly surprised!

1. Orto Botanico di Brera (Botanical Gardens of Brera) 

Warm, sunny spring days make Milan even more glorious. What better way to enjoy them than a walk in a park full of blossom, enjoying delicious gelato? Milan hosts many green areas, the most famous of which is Parco Sempione, just behind the Sforza Castle. This also happens to be right next to our lovely Bernardo penthouse. Immediately north of the park is Brera, possibly the city’s most picturesque district. The area is rightly renowned for its Art Academy and museum. Fewer people know about the Botanical Garden nearby, founded almost 250 years ago, and is currently run by the University of Milan. Its tranquil location and historical heritage make it one of the most charming Milanese gardens. Despite its small dimensions, it hosts many botanical species, including two gingkos and a tilia that date back to the 18th century. You can thank Napoleon for opening this green haven to the public! Opening times can be found here. And why not stay in our luxurious residence nearby?

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The botanical gardens are full of surprises (credit: Ylbert Durishti)

2. House-museums network and the Albergo diurno Venezia

Milan is today typically associated with modern architecture. However, the city has always played an important historical role and its past can be best understood thanks to its impressive relics.  Before the skyscrapers in the north were built, imposing palaces and elegant private villas would express the city’s wealth. And now, some of them have been opened to the public.

Are you fond of architecture? Do you want to feel like an old school Milanese aristocrat? The Porta Venezia area (north-east of the centre, not far from the luxurious via Montenapoleone) has many things to offer. Milan’s house-museums network – including Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Museo Bagatti Valsecchi, Villa Necchi Campiglio, and Casa Museo Boschi Di Stefano – provide an insight into the Milanese past. Their elegant furniture, sophisticated art nouveau decors and interesting collections of art and history are frozen in time. Another point of interest in the area is Albergo diurno Venezia, a subterranean passage dating back to the 1920s, which was closed for restoration in 2006. Brought back to its full splendour, it was recently re-opened by FAI (Fondo per l’ambiente italiano). It is located right beneath piazza Oberdan and it includes beautiful public baths and some old-style shops, clustered in an elegant hall. The place recreates the timeless atmosphere of a spa resort, right in the centre of a bustling metropolis.

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Albergo diurno Venezia: old-school subterranean passages (credit: FAI)

It is worth emailing the FAI and asking for specific information on opening days and times, especially if you are staying in Milan for a little while.

3. Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

Regardless of your religious views, no visit to an Italian city is complete without a look at the local churches. Milan is no exception: the white marble façade of its Duomo is the most iconic local landmark. And how can I not mention the spectacular Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, the early Christian basilicas scattered just north of Porta Ticinese, or Santa Maria delle Grazie, home to Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper?

Other beautiful churches, such as San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, often remain unnoticed, which is a pity. When you have gone through the low-key entrance of this Renaissance church, you can witness magnificent interiors, entirely covered with beautiful, colourful fresco paintings. Located on Corso Magenta, a five-minute walk from piazza Duomo, this quieter piece of religious architecture is certainly worth a visit.

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Hidden gem: outside and inside (credit: Gruppo BPM)

4. Acquario civico di Milano (Milan City Aquarium)

Another exquisite piece of art nouveau architecture in Milan is the aquarium, located within Parco Sempione and embellished by colourful ceramic tiles. Opened in 1906 during the first Milan world exhibition, it is the third-oldest aquarium in Europe and hosts both freshwater and marine species. Today, the facility offers scientific itineraries, group visits and even a library. Just like the city’s Natural History Museum, the civic Aquarium has accurate reproductions of natural habitats, but here the species are alive. On the subject of animals: in 1992, Milan closed its only zoological garden next to the Natural History Museum, in the public garden dedicated to the late journalist Indro Montanelli. The same park, however, also hosts “Ulrico Hoepli” Planetarium, which is still functioning and open to visitors.

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A detail in the architecture of the aquarium (credit: Alida Franchi)

5. Cimitero Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery) 

Cimitero Monumentale competes with Père-Lachaise in Paris or La Recoleta in Buenos Aires for as the world’s most impressive cemetery. The Monumentale is easily recognisable by its grand entrance, the famedio, and it has many a famous Italian gravestone, amongst which Alessandro Manzoni, Giuseppe Verdi, Giorgio Gaber, the founding father of teatro canzone, and Davide Campari, the inventor of the famous drink. As it is in Italy, the cemetery mainly hosts Catholic graves, some of which are definitely over-the-top. However, the separate non-Catholic and Israelite sections are just as interesting. Whilst Cimitero Monumentale is peaceful and inspiring, it is also enormous (250,000 square metres!) and labyrinthian. It’s worth picking up a map at the entrance, or considering a guided tour.

6. WOW! Spazio Fumetto | Museo del fumetto di Milano (Milan Comics Museum)

Cosplayers, cartoonists and comics enthusiasts, rejoice! Someone in Milan loves you, and has dedicated an entire museum to your favourite hobbies. You just can’t miss its scenographic entrance, a big clue as to what the museum contains. Opened in 2011 by Fondazione Franco Fossati, WOW! offers interesting themed itineraries, events and exhibitions (listed here), featuring works by many famous Italian and international authors. Some more good news: the entrance to the ground floor, the library, the coffee shop and the bookshop is entirely free. You are only charged for exhibitions on the first floor.

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The front of the comics museum (credit: lombardia.abbonamentomusei.it)

7. MUBA – Museo dei Bambini (Children’s Museum)

Many gardens host playgrounds and museums often dedicate special guided tours for little visitors. MUBA goes beyond this, adopting the most child-friendly motto: Vietato non toccare (‘It is forbidden not to touch’), encouraging incomers to interact with their surroundings. Hosted in the beautiful historical complex known as Rotonda della Besana, the Museum includes a permanent exhibition, a space for temporary exhibitions, and holds several activities for children aged 2-11. Professional educators and entertainers take care of the museum’s little guests, and parents and older relatives and friends, are also welcome. On top of this, some of the museum’s spaces are available for birthday parties.

Tickets can be bought online here (where you can also find entrance fees and opening times), and there is a limited number of participants for each programmed activity. Therefore, it is highly advisable to check the museum’s calendar before planning a visit.

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