Travellers have a peculiar relationship with the city of Milan. A privileged destination for those who visit Italy on business, it has been somewhat neglected by regular tourists, who came to Italy expecting either the dazzling architectural opulence of Rome and Venice, the Renaissance spirit of Florence or the natural beauty of Sicily and Sardinia. Milan has long been perceived as “cold” and business-oriented, associated with the Italian Stock Exchange and that multicoloured madness that is the Milan Fashion Week. It would be a mistake, however, to imagine Milan as a heartless financial hub, only catering to the needs of greedy corporate managers and supermodels. As it happens, the city boasts a lively and ever-changing art scene, as well as a number of historical landmarks and museums, many of which can be visited for free. Whether you are passing through on a budget holiday or packing your week with business meetings, leaving you barely a few hours to explore, here’s our guide to enjoying Milan for free.
1. Visit the Modern Art Gallery (GAM)
This is a true gem and a must-see destination for art enthusiasts and it can be visited for free every day after 4.30 pm and every Tuesday after 2 pm. The building itself is a work of neoclassical art: the collections are located in the magnificent Villa Reale, a listed historical mansion dating back to the XVIII century. It was originally owned by count Ludovico Barbiano di Belgioioso and, following the death of its owner, it was confiscated by the Cisalpine Republic to be given to Napoleon. The villa was eventually converted into a museum in 1921. The gallery’s permanent collection includes masterpieces by Balla, Boccioni, Canova, Cézanne, Gauguin, Hayez, Manet, Modigliani, Picasso and Van Gogh. If you want to visit the GAM for free, it is preferable to do so on a Tuesday, as the gallery closes at 5.30, which on any other day would only leave you an hour to wander through its impressive collection.
2. Visit Parco Sempione
In the very centre of Milan, next to the Sforza Castle, lies the city’s green heart. Parco Sempione covers an area of over 4 million square feet and it is the ideal place for your morning jog or your Sunday picnic. Several free events take place on its carefully manicured lawns over the summer. This isn’t your average city park either: over fifty different species of plants can be found here and there are two botanic trails which the park’s volunteer guides will be happy to guide you along. The park is also equipped with a basketball court, a volleyball court and a large playground for children, as well as four different areas for dogs and dog lovers. If you want to be surprised and moved by Parco Sempione in all of its beauty, we suggest you access it from the Sforza Castle. If you go through the castle’s gate from Piazza Castello, you will shortly be stepping into a green fairytale and you will hardly believe that the city is bustling a mere few feet behind you.
3. Have a stroll through the garden of Villa Necchi
Plenty of historical mansions, privately or publicly owned, are open to visitors in Milan. Villa Necchi Campiglio is one such and it dates back to the early 1930s. Built by architect Pietro Portaluppi, this building will transport you into the Italian Equivalent of The Great Gatsby. When it was built, the upper-middle classes were enjoying a frantic and colourful – albeit brief – moment of easy, frivolous glory. Socialites were treated like royalties and they led a life of glittering excess, despite the dark times looming ahead. Visiting the actual mansion is not free, but the garden is yours to stroll in at your leisure and it is, many would argue, the most charming feature of this magnificent villa. The garden includes a swimming pool, a tennis court, and tall magnolia trees to provide shadow on hot summer days.
4. Milan’s Cathedral: il Duomo
You simply can’t visit Milan and miss its iconic Cathedral. Take the time to drink in the view from the square, as it opens before you as you emerge from the underground station or from one of the nearby alleys and then step in. The Cathedral is a place of worship, which means that the entry is free, but also that – whatever your religious belief – you will need to be dressed appropriately. It was built over the course of a century and its history is almost as fascinating as its architecture. This is one of the most beautiful and complex examples of the Italian Gothic Style, with Neoclassical and European influences. It is possible – but not free – to climb to the top of the Cathedral’s steeple to enjoy a breath-taking view of central Milan. If, however, you are adamant about getting the best that Milan has to offer for free, you can visit La Rinascente – the shopping mall next to the Cathedral – and sit with a drink on its terrace: you will get to enjoy the same view, but it will actually include the Duomo itself. Probably the best photo opportunity in Milan.
5. Visit the Pinacoteca di Brera
You will need to time your visit to enjoy this splendid gallery for free: be there on the first Sunday of the month and you will be able to enjoy one of the largest and richest collections of Italian paintings in existence. Brera is Milan’s arts district and the building that houses the gallery (Palazzo di Brera) also contains the Academy of Fine Arts, the Braidense National Library, the Brera Observatory, the Botanic Garden and the Lombard Academy of Science and Literature. The original building was a convent and it maintained that function from the late XVI century to the late XVIII century, when the Academy of Fine Arts was born (1776). The Pinacoteca contains an extensive collection of paintings from different ages, mostly – but not exclusively – by painters who lived or worked in Lombardy or Veneto. Among the most notable artists, whose works are on display in this gallery, are Bramante, Lorenzetti, Lotto, Mantegna (with his celebrated Death of Christ), Tiziano, Tintoretto and Veronese.