It’s possible to see the top sights in Milan in one day, including DaVinci’s Last Supper and the Duomo, Milan’s awe-inspiring cathedral. With a bit of planning ahead, you can skip the lines and save money on:
- The Last Supper (Cenacolo Vinciano)
- The roof, interior and museum of the Duomo
- The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
- Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle)
The purpose of my visit was to see an opera at the Teatro all Scala. But I also managed to fit in the highlights of Milan on the day of the performance without signing up for an expensive guided tour of the city. Here’s how:
How to Reserve Tickets to DaVinci’s Last Supper
This was my second time visiting Milan. Wow! It has changed a lot since I first came here in the 1970s as an exchange student from neighboring Switzerland.
For one thing, you can no longer walk just up to a ticket window and pay to see The Last Supper, a masterpiece by Leonardo DaVinci. Tickets must be reserved in advance on the website of the Museo del Cenacolo del Vinciano.
Tickets go on sale about three months in advance. For example, tickets for August, September and October 2022 were released on June 21. If you miss it and find that your preferred date is already booked, don’t give up. Keep checking every day. About a month before my trip, tickets opened up on the date I wanted!
Know the names of all the people in your group. You have to reserve a ticket under the name of each person. The ticket office will check IDs when you arrive at least 30 minutes ahead of your reserved time.
Do I Have to Book a ‘Skip the Line’ Tour for the Last Supper?
Short answer: NO.
However, if you were unable to reserve on the museum’s website, it might be your only choice.
If you’ve searched online, you’ve probably seen offers for “skip the line” tours of the Last Supper. That’s because tour operators snap up blocks of tickets as soon as they go on sale. We saw a few of these guides standing outside the ticket office to make their sales pitch to tourists who showed up without a reservation.
There’s a considerable markup. Online prices ranged from 60 to over 100 euros per person, depending on what else was included, such as a walking tour of the city. By contrast, my online ticket was 15 euros. It’s 2 euros cheaper for visitors aged 18-25 and free for under 18 on the website. The Last Supper is closed on Mondays.
Visiting the Last Supper in Milan
The Last Supper is on display in what used to be a dining hall for monks. It adjoins the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie, about a 15-minute walk from the Duomo in the city center. The website explains how to get there by public transit. We took tram #16. Ask at your hotel in Milan if you need directions.
Promptly at 8 am, we were in line at the Last Supper ticket office to claim our tickets for 8:30. Don’t be late, or you could lose your ticket. Italy had dropped most Covid 19 restrictions at the time of my visit, but it was recommended to wear a face mask.
After another short wait outside the museum door, we entered a cloister with photographs depicting the painting’s history. Piles of sandbags — and divine intervention — kept it from being destroyed by World War II bombing. Along with temperature and humidity controls, there are limits on visitors to preserve the image.
Each group of 35 people or fewer has exactly 15 minutes to admire the Last Supper. Videos are strictly prohibited, but you may take photos with your phone or camera without a flash. Selfies are fine, if you don’t mind turning your back on greatness.
History of the Last Supper by Leonardo DaVinci
DaVinci painted the Last Supper between 1495 and 1498. Instead of painting a fresco on wet plaster, he used various pigments on a dry wall. Unfortunately, the technique didn’t stand the test of time. When I first saw the Last Supper in the early 1970s, it was peeling and fading into the wall. I considered myself lucky to have seen it before it disappeared forever.
Very little of the original work remains. The colors you see today are from the most recent restoration in 1999. The painting depicts the moment that Christ tells the apostles that one of them will betray him. Look closely into their faces as each man asks, “Is it I, Lord?”
And yes, they’re all men. The long-haired figure I always thought was Mary Magdalene turned out to be the apostle John. When the head monk complained daVinci was not working fast enough, Leonardo used the prior’s face as the model for Judas!
As for the hassle of reserving tickets, was it worth it? Absolutely. I appreciated the respectful atmosphere and a chance to spend 15 minutes face-to-face with genius, seeing one of the world’s most celebrated religious images without crowds jostling for selfies, like you might find at the Louvre in Paris.
Visiting the Duomo in Milan
Exiting the Last Supper museum, we walked about 15 minutes to reach the Duomo, Milan’s cathedral. It is one of the largest houses of worship in Europe, depending on how you measure it.
When I first saw the Duomo in the 1970s, it was black from diesel fumes. I actually thought it was built out of black stone! Fast-forward to today’s bright white spires, the result of power-washing and restoration that goes on continuously. The piazza in front of the massive church was crowded with wannabe influencers striking poses.
Pro Tip: With so many women wearing romantic, long summer dresses you may feel decidedly out of place in shorts and a t-shirt. The cathedral dress code requires both men and women to cover their shoulders and knees inside the Duomo, although we didn’t see it being strictly enforced.
Stranger Danger: Be aware of your surroundings. Back in the 70s, my Swiss friend had her purse stolen off of her shoulder as we admired the Duomo. Despite the visible police presence today, pickpockets are still a danger.
How to Buy Tickets for the Duomo
I took a chance and showed up without an advance reservation to skip the line. Good thing, because the entrance for “skip-the-line” advance tickets was closed! A sign directed us to the ticket office across the street. A very helpful information person directed us to a machine where we used a credit card to buy combination tickets to the interior of the cathedral, the roof and the museum. People paying cash had to wait in line.
We paid a few euros extra to ride the elevator up to the roof of the Duomo. Again, no line! No reason to pay a premium for those “skip the line” tickets, at least on the day of my visit. However, I imagine the wait could get rather long at times for the ONE slow elevator that’s only big enough to cram in about six people at a time. I chose to put on my face mask in the elevator, just to be safe. Keep in mind that you still must walk the 250 steps back down to ground level.
Pro Tip: Try to beat the crowds at the Duomo by arriving when it opens at 9am.
The unforgettable walk around the roof of the Duomo is worth every eurocent. Take time to admire the ornate stonework, even in hidden places where it would never be seen from the ground level. Perhaps this was intended for God’s eyes only. We spent more than two hours on the roof and in the vast interior of the Duomo, plus the neighboring museum which offered a close-up look at the giant statues that seem tiny on the facade.
Castle Sforza Museum Complex
We also made our way to Castello Sforzesco, the vast medieval fortress that looms over the streets of Milan. The nobleman who was daVinci’s patron built it in the 15th Century on the ruins of an older fort. There’s no admission charge to walk through the massive courtyards of what was once the largest fortress in Europe.
We didn’t have time on this trip to explore the seven museums inside, each one requiring an entrance ticket. The art is spread out among the various collections of painting and sculpture, including Michelangelo’s final work, the unfinished Rondanini Pieta.
The Good Luck Bull of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Near the Duomo, take the opportunity to walk inside the elegant arcade that has been a shopping destination since the late 1800s. While the stores are filled with the same luxury brands you’d find in Beverly Hills or Miami Beach, the good luck associated with the place is absolutely free of charge.
It is a tradition to seek out the floor mosaic of a bull. Spinning around three times on the bull’s testicles is said to bring good luck. Not surprisingly there’s an eager crowd of visitors waiting for a turn to spin. Not so lucky for the bull because there’s a hole in the mosaic where its balls used to be.
Memorable Milan Pizza with Some Free Booze
Perhaps the good luck paid off in a memorable experience at a friendly pizza place called Piz. It’s next door to a small church, only a ten minute walk from the Duomo on a busy shopping street. Local business people on their lunch break blended in with the tourists. You can sit al fresco outside or in the cool, colorful dining rooms.
What sets this place apart is the youthful energy of the staff. They immediately steer you to a table with a small, free glass of ice cold sparkling wine. They only have a few types of tasty pizza on the menu, plus a pizza of the day. Yeah, the draft beer was a bit pricey, but they made up for it with a free serving of meloncello when they cleared the plates and brought the check.
When we went inside to pay, we could see the wood-fired pizza oven and the flags of the countries represented by the mostly immigrant staff cranking out the delicious food. The cashier asked if I had ever been to Sri Lanka. When I told him I had taught journalists in Colombo and loved it there, that was an excuse for another round of free liqueur. So I made sure to give him a tip — which earned yet another glass. We happily stumbled back to our rental apartment to take a siesta and get dressed up for our night at the opera in Milan.
Terry’s Travel Tips
How to Get to Milan: There are airline connections to Milan from all over Europe and nonstop from New York/Newark in the United States. For train travelers, the grand rail station built by Mussolini is a tourist attraction in itself. We arrived by car from neighboring Slovenia. Many people combine their Milan visit with a relaxing trip to Lake Como. Save money by reserving your rental car on Auto Europe before you leave the US.
Getting Around in Milan: I highly recommend taking the “ATM” public transit around Milan, instead of navigating the crazy traffic. Buy tickets at a metro station or a tobacco shop in the afternoon or evening. If you want to get an early start on sightseeing, or a late ride home after the opera, you might find no ticket sellers open near your hotel or the theater.
Where to Stay in Milan: There’s a wide choice of luxury hotels in the center of this cosmopolitan city. We found a brilliant Milan apartment rental with free parking in a secure courtyard. It was right on the #16 tram which took us to all the top sights.
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