There are some tourist sites that are so obvious, you barely need to research them.
Obviously you’ll be visiting the Uffizi Gallery or the Accademia’s David in Florence. Obviously the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum in Rome are important, St. Mark’s in Venice and the Archeological Museum in Naples.
It doesn’t seem to be so obvious in Milan.
Milan is Italy’s “big city”, filled with transplants from throughout Italy and the world. It is all gleaming steel high-rises, high fashion and high price. The pace is fast and the tourist sites less in-your-face than other Italian cities. Where Florence can seem like a model Renaissance city scaled for tourists, Milan stands in as a real, breathing, gritty, dynamic city.
Which of course makes it all the more difficult to navigate. The best sights take some exploration to find. The daily life takes some time to understand. It doesn’t even seem to have any world-famous museums!
Of course this isn’t true. There’s the incredible Pinacoteca di Brera that draws thousands of visitors. But I have to admit, I’ve never found it particularly attractive. The art is obscure to those of us without art degrees and it can be difficult to appreciate without some research beforehand.
Milan has the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Science and Technology as well as the Triennale and Museo ‘900 for more modern pieces. It has the Acquario, the Museum of La Scala Theater and the incredible Museum of the Duomo.
Still, I’m convinced that there’s only one way to really enjoy the best art the city has to offer: Go to a temporary exhibition.
Milan hosts dozens of different art exhibitions each year. Most are held in the Palazzo Reale, adjacent to the massive Duomo, but there are others throughout the city as well. No, the art isn’t owned by the city. It wasn’t obtained from wars or looting. It was borrowed on the basis of respect and favors and money for a limited time only. Often, it has nothing to do with the city at all, and yet its simple existence says a lot about the city.
Milan is cosmopolitan. It’s not stuck in the past and not self-isolated. The exhibitions show the city’s open-mindedness as well as its wealth. Not to mention that they are often incredible.
In Milan I’ve laid flat on benches to watch films projected on the ceiling of Pollack flinging paint. I’ve admired hundreds of photographs of Italy from the world’s most famous street photographers. I’ve stepped into another world through the prints of 18th and 19th century Japanese artists Hiroshige and Hokusai. I’ve followed the career of Van Gogh and studied the life of Rubens.
Usually when we travel we visit the major sites of the city: the monuments and museums and bridges that haven’t moved for hundreds of years. As we should!
In Milan there’s the Duomo and its gorgeous terrace. There’s the Vittorio Emanuele Galleria and Castello Sforzesco and Stazione Centrale. Spend a day exploring the house-sized tombs in the Monumental Cemetery. Walk past the ritzy shops and cafes along Corso Como and rest up with an aperitivo on the Navigli. Then, consider seeing what events the city has to offer that day. It might just be the best art you’ve seen on your trip.
Where to find temporary exhibitions in Milan:
The Palazzo Reale is a the former royal palace sitting adjacent to the massive Duomo in the center of Milan. It’s arched courtyard has several entrances, usually each to a different exhibition, or mostra in Italian. Enjoy the tall ceilings, gorgeous stone staircases and huge corridors before heading into the small gallery rooms that make up the exhibition. Throughout the year the Palazzo hosts dozens of different contemporary art and artists from around the world. Right now, exhibitions of M.C. Escher, Rubens and Hokusai are finishing up, to be replaced by Manet and Keith Haring. This is the place to start to find incredible temporary art exhibitions.
The Gallerie d’Italia in Milan, as well as the Gallerie of Vicenza and Napoli, are all held in a historical buildings owned by the Bank Intesa SanPaolo. The huge Italian bank has turned these buildings in the center of each city into a public space to show the art owned or gathered together for specific exhibitions by the bank itself. Milan’s is located in the famous yet unexceptional Piazza della Scala. The website is in Italian only, so just know that it’s open from 9:30 – 7:30 p.m. every day except Thursday, which is open late until 10:30. Last entrance is an hour before closure and the museum is closed on Mondays.
Just opened in 2015, Mudec is entitled the “Culture Museum of Milan”. The large permanent collection mostly includes art and objects from Central and South America, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and Oceania from 1200 AD to the 1900s and its temporary exhibitions mirror the worldwide theme. Right now its finishing up an interactive and multidisciplinary exhibition called Homo Sapiens about the origin of humanity, as well as The Adventures of an Explorer: Antonio Raimondi and the discovery of Peru to be replaced with Chinamen: a century of Chinese in Milan and an exhibit of Kandinsky, just to give you an idea.
Ville Reale di Monza
Actually located outside of Milan in Monza (where I live and work), the Villa Reale was the massive country home of Milan nobility. Its recent restoration has reopened this behemouth, and beautiful, palace to the public and the exhibitions held there have given it new life. Currently there’s the Monaco di Monza as well as a photography exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson with more than 140 photographs. Tours of these exhibitions come with the bonus of being able to peek into the opulent rooms of the villa.
Most permanent museums also play host to temporary exhibits including:
Museo ‘900, Fondazione Prada, Castello Sforzesco, Hangar Bicocca and the Triennale, among others. To find events during your stay in Milan, check out English-language events magazines such as Where Milan, CiaoMilano or the English language page of Turismo Milano.
Though it might not seem like the logical next step when sightseeing a city, keep an eye out for a city’s traveling exhibitions – sometimes they’re the best chance you’ll get to see some of the best art in the world, to take pleasure in beauty simply for the sake of beauty and to try something unique and new during your trip to the city. After all, they say to “do as the locals do”, and in Milan there’s nothing like an aperitivo followed by world class art.
More art in Italy: