9 Free Historic Sites to Visit in Milan
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
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Milan may not be the first Italian city that comes to mind when you think of budget travelling, but there are definitely plenty of free sites to visit in Milan. This may come as a surprise to many since it's considered to be one of the most expensive cities in Italy to visit. This comes largely down to the fact that Milan is an industrial city, so many of its visitors are business people who are willing to pay large sums of money to enjoy the city. However, we spent 4 days in Milan and found that our budget went a lot further than we were expecting.
Apart from being the business centre of Italy, Milan is home to a number of incredible historic attractions which are well worth making the trip to see. I loved walking around Milan and finding unique places to take photos at, and I had no idea that the city is often overlooked by tourists, until our tour guide told us! There really is something for everyone in Milan, from its up and coming food scene, to its famous Duomo, to the incredible artistic masterpiece The Last Supper. I've put together a small list of my top free historic sites to visit in Milan which you will definitely want to add to your itinerary!
1. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
One of the main tourist attractions in Milan is the stunning Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. It sits to the left of the Piazza del Duomo, and is open 24/7 to visitors (though the shops do have closing times). It was named after the first king of the Kingdom of Italy, and was built towards the end of the 19th century. It's also Italy's oldest shopping mall which is still active! This is a fantastic free historic site to visit in Milan, but it's constantly overcrowded and it's very difficult to get a photo without people in it. We woke up at 4am so that we were there for sunrise and there were still a few people there taking photos!
2. Piazza del Duomo
The most famous of all of the sights in Milan is the Duomo. Although the Duomo requires a ticket to get inside, you can still marvel at its impressive architecture from the outside, in Piazza del Duomo. The piazza was originally created in the 14th century and was gradually expanded upon, but its current form dates back to the 19th century. Surrounding the piazza is a number of important attractions in the city such as Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, The Royal Palace of Milan, La Rinacentre, and Palazzo Carminati. So if you haven't budgeted to go climbing the Duomo in Milan, you can still head to the Piazza del Duomo which is completely free to walk around!
3. Piazza Mercanti
There are a number of historic piazzas to explore in Milan, but one of my favourites was Piazza Mercanti, which is only a short walk from the Duomo. The piazza is considerably less busy than Piazza del Duomo, but during the middle ages it was actually the heart of Milan. It still preserves many of its medieval buildings, and some are even considered to be the most famous in the world. Palazzo della Ragione, for example, dates back to the 13th century and was once where the courts of justice were based, with the city's market located underneath it. Many tourists don't know about this piazza, so in my opinion it's one of Milan's hidden gems.
4. San Bernardino alle Ossa
One of the best free things to do in Milan is to visit San Bernardino alle Ossa. It's also one of the more unique free historic sites to visit in Milan as well, that not many people know exists. Upon first entry, the church seems relatively normal, but if you follow the corridor to the right of the entrance, you'll come across a smaller room with its walls and ceilings filled with human skulls and bones. The story is that in the 13th century the nearby cemetery ran out of room to bury the dead, so they decided to move all of the bones to another building nearby. The church itself was actually a later addition to the hall where the bones were stored.
5. Imperial Palace of Maximian
A very underrated historic attraction to visit in Milan is the Imperial Palace of Maximian. If you've visited Milan before, you may have walked past it and not even noticed that it was there since it now stands as a ruin. As you can probably guess, it's one of the many free things to see in Milan. The palace itself dates back to the 4th century, when Milan was the capital of the western Roman empire, and played an important role in the further development of the city.
6. Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio
Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio was by far one of my favourite free historic sites to visit in Milan. It's the perfect alternative if you aren't planning on going inside of the Duomo, and we were told that the locals actually prefer it to the Duomo itself. It was built in the 4th century by St Ambrose, and is one of the oldest churches in the city. St Ambrose actually built this church outside of the city limits, but as the city grew in size over the centuries, it became a core part of Milan. It takes 20 minutes to walk to this church from the Duomo, and it's located fairly close to the Santa Maria delle Grazie, which is where The Last Supper is located.
7. Basilica di San Lorenzo
Another fantastic church to visit in Milan is Basilica di San Lorenzo. It was originally built in Roman times, but has been rebuilt several times over the centuries, and is one of the oldest churches in the whole of Italy. Sitting in front of the church is a row of 16 ancient Roman columns known as Colonne di San Lorenzo which date back to when Milan was the capital city in the 4th century. The church is also near the city's ring of canals and is surrounded by restaurants and bars which are constantly buzzing with people. It's completely free to enter Basilica di San Lorenzo which is a bonus!
8. Porta Ticinese
Not too far from Basilica di San Lorenzo on foot is Porta Ticinese - one of the few remaining city gates. The original gate dates back to the 16th century and formed part of the Spanish walls, but it was later demolished and rebuilt in the 19th century. Today it proudly sits in the Navigli district, which is famous for its canal lined with restaurants and shops - similar to Nyhavn in Copenhagen. If you time your photo right, you can usually catch one of the vintage trams circling the gate! Since you can't physically go inside or climb to the top of the gate itself, it makes my list of free historic sites to visit in Milan.
9. Castello Sforzesco
If you've read any of my other blog posts, you'll know that I absolutely love visiting castles in whatever country I'm in. And I found one in Milan mixed in with all of the palaces and churches! Castello Sforzesco is a breathtaking free historic site to visit in Milan. I was actually shocked that you didn't need to pay to walk around its inner courtyard. The inside rooms of the castle are used for exhibitions, which do have an entry fee though. This castle was once home to the prominent Sforza family, and was originally constructed in the 14th century. But by the 15th century, Francesco Sforza began reconstructing the castle to turn it into his princely palace. Parts of the defence were actually designed by da Vinci which is a fun fact! Behind the castle you can find Parco Sempione, which is beautiful to walk around if you have the time.
Milan may be considered by many to be an expensive European city to visit, but that doesn't mean that you can't visit Milan on a budget. There are plenty more free things to do in Milan than I've outlined, but these historic attractions are well worth adding to your Milan itinerary, especially if you love learning about the rich history of the city. If you're visiting Milan for a couple of days, I would recommend going on a food tour - that way you can learn about the city and try out some of its best food at the same time!
Italy has a lot of incredible locations to visit, and if you want to get outside of the main cities for a bit, I would suggest heading down to the Cilento Coast, which is located only a short drive from Naples. Many people haven't heard of this coastline before, so you may get it all to yourself like we did! Don't forget to follow me on my travels via Instagram too for more helpful travel tips and unique historic destinations to visit!
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