While Milan might be one of the most expensive cities to live in Italy, there’s still plenty of sights to see without spending a dime. Whether you’re interested in museums, historical sites or simply looking for a place to unwind, here are five free things to do and places to visit in the city.
1. Relax at the Parco Sempione
Grab a cappuccino and a biscotti and head for Parco Sempione, the city’s largest park. It covers more than 386,000 sqm of land adjacent to the gardens of the Sforza Castle and the Arch of Peace. There’s free WiFi throughout the park, and it’s tempting to sit and catch up on your e-mail – but first, go explore! The park was given the look of an English garden in 1893 by local architect Emilio Alemagna. Take a stroll along the winding walkways, past the rolling green lawns, flowerbeds and the lake. Look out for the Arena Civica – the mini colosseum designed in 1806 by Swiss architect Luigi Canonica – which was once used for chariot races and mock naval battles. Today, it’s a stage for athletic events and outdoor concerts.
2. Enter museums for free on Tuesdays and Sundays
From April 2022, state-owned museums, archaelogical parks and cultural sites will offer free admission to all visitors. Museums in Milan that are part of the “Free Sundays at the Museum” initiative include the Pinacoteca di Brera, Museo Del Cenacolo Vinciano (by appointment only) and Gallerie d’Italia-Piazza Scala. Another museum offering free admission is the Natural History Civic Museum. Admission is usually €5, but free after 2pm on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. The museum showcases everything from the evolution of humans to palaeontology and also has real dinosaur skeletons on display. The Archaeological Museum, which is housed in the ex-convent of the Monastero Maggiore church, also offers free admission on the first and third Tuesdays of the month after 2pm and the first Sunday of the month. It has a wide range of artifacts, from coins of ancient Milan to Greek vases to Etruscan statues. Get there before 2pm to avoid the queue.
3. Window-shop at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
This magnificent glass-vaulted, cross-shaped arcade, known as il salotto di Milano (the living room of Milan), is a popular meeting place in the city. It’s home to some of the oldest shops and cafés in Milan, like the Biffi Caffe (founded in 1867 by Paolo Biffi, pastry chef to the monarch). While the goods in most of the shops are on the pricey side, it costs nothing to wander through the arcade and admire the beautiful architecture and floor mosaics. See if you can spot the mosaics representing Milan (a red cross on white), Florence (an iris), Rome (a she-wolf) and Turin (a bull). If you have trouble finding Turin’s symbol, look for tourists spinning on their heels on the bull’s genitals – it’s said to bring good luck.
4. Visit the Santa Maria delle Grazie
One of Milan’s most treasured and most visited sights, Leonardo da Vinci’s mural of The Last Supper can be found inside the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie (Via Giuseppe Antonio Sassi, 3), a 15th-century church. Seeing this masterpiece will cost you €15, but visiting the church is free. The exterior is dominated by Donato Bramante’s magnificent dome – Bramante was chief architect of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome – which is decorated with delicately designed medallions of saints and coats-of-arms. The interior is just as impressive, with pointed arches adorned with intricate frescoes and beautifully carved wooden choir stalls. Look out for the entrance to a small cloister named Chiostrino delle Rane after the bronze frog (rane) sculptures around the edge of the cloister’s fountain.
5. Learn about marine life at the Civic Aquarium of Milan
Milan’s aquarium might be on the small side, with only 100 different species, but it still makes for a fun outing. The huge tanks are home to numerous species of fish, crustaceans, molluscs and echinoderms (animals such as starfish and sea urchins) from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. There are also several rare tropical and freshwater fish – some of which you can view from below when you are in the glass viewing tunnel. Entry used to be free, but now this only applies on the first Sunday of the month. However, the building itself is still an impressive sight – dating from the early 20th century, it’s full of beautiful details such as squid and octopus carvings and tiled decorations representing marine life.
6. Take in the greenery at La Biblioteca degli Alberi di Milano
La Biblioteca degli Alberi di Milano – or the “Library of Trees” – is one of Milan’s newest green spaces, and the third largest in the city. Designed by Dutch designer Petra Blaisse, the park and botanical garden is located in Milan’s Porta Nuova district which is known for its sustainability driven projects. Entry to the park is free and a plethora of activities are available all year round, ranging from poetry readings and yoga classes to open air concerts. While some of these activities are ticketed events, it costs nothing to wander the expansive 170,000 sqm grounds and see over a hundred different species of plants and trees. The park is also linked to nearby metro stations like Garibaldi, Centrale and Gioa through a series of pedestrian and bicycle paths, making it a perfect spot for a break between your adventures through Milan.
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.