Yes, Milan is expensive. It’s not one of those Italian cities where food is plentiful, affordable and delicious, but just wandering around is half the fun… With an eye to fellow budget travellers, we’ve complied this list of 10 free things to do in Milan – just to show you that you can indeed enjoy the city on a budget.
Free things to do in Milan? Yes, you can!
I get a bit annoyed when I hear the reasons why people don’t like Milan. Normally, it has to do with the cost, but many money saving tricks just require a bit of common sense! Yes, the food can be overpriced and disgusting – but there are plenty of affordable options, including my five favourite trattoria. Yes, taxis are extortionately expensive – but there’s no need to take them, with an excellent bike sharing and public transport system.
However, sightseeing can be very, very affordable. There are plenty of free (or almost free) activities and Milan points of interest, from visiting most of the churches (the Duomo only costs a few euros) to enjoying Milan’s best parks or going for a bike ride along the Navigli. Here are our 10 favourites!
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1) Visit the Acquario (from the outside)
I had to begin with the Acquario, because when I was a child it was my favourite building. I loved the hippo fountain, the fish-like carvings and even the cavernous interior, and the neon-fish were my absolute favourites.
I bet many don’t even know Milan has an aquarium. It’s definitely no Sydney or Genova affair – there are no sharks, penguins or even dolphins, and the star-attractions are probably the jellyfish. On top of that, entrance is no longer free – recently a €5 entry charge was introduced.
So, why am I recommending it, in this free things to do in Milan post? Because the building is absolutely stunning. It’s one of the most beautiful examples of Milanese Liberty, dating back from the early Twentieth century, with beautiful details such as tiled decorations representing marine life, carvings of squid and octopi and (of course) my beloved hippo fountain.
How to get there: M2 Lanza
2) A stroll around Parco Sempione
Again, Milan may not be London when it comes to parks, but it has some really amazing parks. In the centre, just around the corner from the Acquario, you’ll find Parco Sempione, extending north from the back of Castello Sforzesco.
When I was a child, Parco Sempione had a bad reputation. In 1996, the Milan administration decided to clean it up, and since then it has become one of my favourite things to see in Milan. It’s a great choice for a picnic, on a nice spring day, for a run or just a wander, a breath of fresh air in the traffic-congested centre.
Architecture-lovers will especially dig the park. From the Acquario itself, to examples of Fascist architecture like Palazzo dell’Arte and Torre Branca, the Arena (Milan’s first stadium) and of course Castello Sforzesco, Parco Sempione is an open air museum of the history of Milan’s architecture.
The area around Arco della Pace (the big arch at the opposite end from the Castle) is one of Milan’s coolest night time areas. Head there for an aperitivo after your stroll!
How to get there: M1 Cairoli, M1/M2 Cadorna
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3) DIY sightseeing on a Vintage Tram
Milan’s iconic orange trams are not used for sightseeing tours, they’re public transport! The oldest-running public transport vehicles in the world, to be precise, having been in service since 1928.
Elsewhere in the world, a ride on such a cool-looking tram will be rather expensive, but in Milan it will cost you nothing more than an ordinary ticket (€1.50). My favourite lines are tram 19, taking you from the working class world of Lambrate (my neighbourhood!) through some beautiful tree-lined avenues to Piazza Fontana, just off Duomo, and tram 1, travelling from Greco through the backstreets of the centre and then down genteel Via Vincenzo Monti and Corso Sempione, covering several Milan points of interest along its route. Hop on and hop off at your leisure, but don’t forget a ticket is valid 90 minutes!
4) Visit the Duomo (or any other church)
Some believe you need to pay to enter the Duomo, Milan’s iconic cathedral and one of the most stunning churches in the world. Not true! You do have to pay for the museum and terrace, but the Duomo itself is free. Gratis. No charge. Save for a €2 ‘camera permit’.
As of May 1st, 2015, a €3 charge has indeed been introduced for tourists visiting the Duomo. Worshippers can still enter for free.
However, looking at the wonderful storybook façade of the Duomo is still free! There are hundreds of statues of saints, monsters and gargoyles decorating the spires and doors of Milan’s cathedral – my favourite (and perhaps the most mysterious one) is the statue of Tarantasio, a dragon-dinosaur-looking creature found on the right hand side of the Duomo’s main door. As you can see, the creature looks small and cute – that is because the scene depicted on the Duomo façade is Tarantasio’s birth, so he was still a puppy dinosaur!
The legend goes that Tarantasio was a dragon that appeared in a swamp south of Milan in the 12th century, after the area was flooded from heavy rains. The ‘dragon’ terrorised villagers for two hundred years, until he mysteriously disappeared after yet another night of heavy rains – all that remained of him was a huge bone, floating to the top of the swamp.
Besides the Duomo, every other church in Milan (that I know of) is free to enter. Some of my favourites include Sant’Ambrogio, a beautiful Romanesque building dedicated to Milan’s patron saint, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore (dubbed Milan’s Sistine Chapel on account of its beautiful frescoes) and San Bernardino alle Ossa with its creepy bone chapel.
Do you love unique B&B? Book Venturacinque here, in the heart of the design district!
5) Hunt for street art
Will you laugh if I tell you Milan has some great street art? Most of it is found around the Isola district, not far from Garibaldi station. Another street art hotspot is Corso di Porta Ticinese and the Colonne di San Lorenzo, the area around Via Leoncavallo and Via Gaetano Pini near Porta Romana. If you want to know more, check this post about Isola, its street art and more!
Get the best prices for Ostello Bello, Milan’s best hostel!
6) Ride your bike along the Navigli
I’ve told you in my bike sharing post how easy it is to ride a bike around Milan. Shame bike lanes are still few and far between. If you fancy a Sunday morning bike ride, there are two great options – both involving the Navigli, Milan’s artificial canals, one of Milan’s best places to visit both during the day and at night!
One is the popular bike path along the Naviglio Grande, from the Porta Genova area in the city centre through some open countryside to the pretty villages of Gaggiano and Abbiategrasso. The trip is about 30 km in total, and it is possible to return by train.
The second is the Naviglio Martesana cycle path, from the Gioia area in the city to the Adda river, 40 km later. You’ll travel through some great urban nature, a coypu colony (yes, odd) and locks designed by Leonardo himself (or so the story goes).
A reader recommends cycling down Naviglio Pavese, all the way to Bereguardo. I haven’t tried this path myself but I’m sure it would be fun!
Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese are also close to some of Milan’s best street food!
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How to get there: M2 Porta Genova (for Naviglio Grande and Pavese) and M2 Gioia for Naviglio Martesana!
7) Dance in the streets
This trend started a few years ago, perhaps in response to the crisis and the uber-pricey Milan club scenes. Two groups of tango and folk dance aficionados, named Tango Illegal and Mazurka Klandestina, decided to organise impromptu dance parties in the city’s streets and squares at night.
Locations are kept secret, but two popular venues are Piazza Affari and the courtyard of Palazzo della Regione, two symbolic pro-establishment places. In any case, a night out dancing (or just watching people dancing, in my case) is great fun, and a wonderful alternative way to spin your brogues without paying a fortune.
Join Mazurka Klandestina’s FB group for info on venues. The page is in Italian, but I’m sure someone will help if you ask in English.
8) Tour Cimitero Monumentale
Every great city has a great cemetery, and Milan’s very own is rather spectacular. Cimitero Monumentale is a real ‘city of the dead’, and a place where Milan’s history lives on through the graves of its most illustrious inhabitants. If you like quirky places, add this to your list of Milan points of interest to visit!
There are more than 15.000 statues and three famous buildings; the Famedio or Pantheon (where writer Manzoni, politician Cattaneo and other famous Milanese are buried), the Ossario and the neoclassical former Crematorium. But the best thing to do is just wandering around the gravel lanes, marvelling at the sculptures and taking in the solemn (and slightly spooky) atmosphere.
How to get there: M2 Garibaldi and M5 Monumentale!
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9) See the world in one city at Chinatown
Milan’s first multicultural district, Chinatown is definitely worth a visit if you ask me. Since main drag Via Paolo Sarpi, was made pedestrian, the district has become a pleasant place to walk around, buy some Chinese-style knick knacks and have a tasty Chinese meal. I’m still trying to find the best restaurant though!
Chinatown is especially cool around Chinese New Year time, when lanterns light the streets, dragons and lion dances parade around accompanied by the sound of the drums. The next Chinese New Year celebration is on Feb 22nd – who’s coming?
How to get there: M2 Moscova
10) Check out the Porta Nuova skyscrapers
Not far from Garibaldi station, you can’t miss Porta Nuova, the new steel-and-glass ‘district’, centrepiece for the Expo 2015 development. Sit in lovely Piazza Gae Aulenti and crane your neck looking at the spire of the Unicredit building, the tallest in the city, check out the Egg artwork just around the corner, with brass pipes where you can listen to the sounds of the city, then follow the walkway to Bosco Verticale, a high-rise block of flats with trees and bushes planted on each terrace.
I wasn’t a big fan, but my recent visit of the district with Waam Tours definitely made me change my mind and include it in my list of favourite Milan attractions. Visit in the late afternoon on a bright day, to see the pink sky reflected into the water of the fountains and the glassy façades. Don’t forget to take a spare memory card!
How to get there: M2 Garibaldi