Finding History and Art in Flashy, Big-City Milan

by  Alex Schechter | Mar 4, 2014
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy / scaliger/iStock

Known as a destination for jet-setting fashionistas and corporate types, Milan has built a reputation as the flashiest, most up-to-date of Italy's modern metropolises. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Yes, a stay at the super-chic Armani Hotel would be amazing. And sure, we might spend an afternoon prowling Via della Spiga for supermodel sightings. But at the end of the day, this is Italy, and plenty of us aren't coming for the new Fall/Winter collections – we're here for the history. Here are three spots to help you step back in time.

Peruse old military records
A featured stop on the Milan Tourism website's one-day "Historic Buildings" tour, the Senate Palace dates back to 1608, when the structure originally housed a Swiss College; in 1805 the Senate moved its headquarters here when Milan became, for a brief period, the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. Though mainly a government building, the gorgeous palazzo provides a great resource for history buffs, who can browse the archives and even spend a few hours poring over texts in the study hall. Admission: free.

Find peace in an old market square
Right around the corner from the Duomo is one of Milan's oldest public squares, the medieval-feeling Piazza Mercanti. Lined with artisan's studios, cafes, and quaint jewelry shops, this was the city's original commercial hub – the oldest of its four main buildings is the Palazza della Ragione, which dates back to 1233. Though the occasional outdoor concert or event takes over the space (particularly around Christmas), it's best enjoyed on a quiet morning, strolling through the abandoned former market and admiring the various sculptures and statues. Admission: free.

Gaze at frescos in a castle
A fifteen-minute walk from Santa Maria delle Grazie (home to Da Vinci's famous painting, The Last Supper) sits the grand Castello Szforzesco, known by most visitors as "Sforza Castle." The medieval fortress, complete with gated courtyards, defense towers, and moats around the perimeter, changed hands through the centuries under various rulers from Spain, Austria, and France under Napoleon, but these days it's known for several museums and art collections. Most notable is the Museum of Ancient Art on the ground floor, which contains 15th century frescoes, marble busts, tapestries, and the last sculpture Michelangelo ever worked on. Admission to the castle is free; museums cost 3 EUR, free on Fridays 2-5:30pm, Tuesdays-Thursdays, and weekends from 4:30-5:30pm.

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