Milan hop-on hop-off Guide
Exploring Italy's most elegant city in a day or two...
Milan is one of Italy’s main business hubs – but that’s not all you will find there. It’s also a fashion haven, and every international designer name can be found in the city's thriving Fashion District. And if your budget doesn’t stretch to designer labels, that’s fine, cause Milan also boasts a number of discount outlets where you can purchase seconds and samples at a reasonable price, far less than you’d pay in the luxurious Quadrilatero d’Oro, the Golden Quadrangle, which flagship designer stores call home.
But back to business – Milan is also a designer's heaven, where you’ll find cutting edge homeware and furniture, not to mention a selection of excellent museums all vying for your attention. And then, of course, there’s La Scala, the world-famous opera house, which has drawn connoisseurs from all over the world for centuries, who come to listen to operas created by masters like Puccini and Verdi.
After dark, Milan comes alive, as people flock to its excellent restaurants and bars for a night on the town… And then there’s the gelato! Milan is famous for its gelaterias (ice cream speciality shops), so you’ll find one on every fashionable corner.
The Milan hop-on hop-off bus tour actually boasts two sightseeing routes that allow you to explore most of this city's fascinating sites. You can take each tour from start to finish, or select exactly what you want to see from our guide. Then, hop on the bus that will take you to what you want to see, and hop off when you reach your destination. Once you’ve explored your chosen destination, just hop on the bus again until you reach another location you want to visit...
How much does it cost?
At the time of writing, a 48-hours ticket costs US$26.50 for an adult or US$ 13 for a child. A ticket includes as many hop on, hop off stops as you like on both routes.
Route A: Bus leaves Sforza Castle at 9.30am and there’s a bus every 45 min after that. The tour is 75 minutes (1 hour 15 minutes) long.
Route B: Bus leaves Sforza Castle at 9.15am and there’s a bus every 45 minutes after that. The tour is 90 minutes (1.5 hours) long.
Places to see and things to do along the route
A) The Red route ("Linea A"): From Castello Sforzesco
Milan's Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle)
1. Starting point for both Route A and Route B is at Castello Sforzesco, built by the powerful Visconti family in the 14th Century. When the Sforza family married into the Visconti family, they became even more powerful and rebuilt the castle in 1450. By the end of the 15th Century, Castello Sforzesco was one of the most magnificent castles in Italy, boasting artworks by masters like Bramante and da Vinci. It also contains a number of fascinating art museums.
2. Next, on both routes, is the Castle Museums, which is the collective name for the Civici Musei Castello Sforzesco (or The Civic Museums). They are located in salons that surround the Renaissance castle’s enormous courtyard. There’s the Museum of Ancient Art, with Michelangelo’s last work, his unfinished Pieta Ronandini. In the Picture Gallery, you can see works by Bellini, Correggio and Magenta, and the Furniture Collection contains pieces from the 15th to the 19th Centuries. The section of the castle called the Rochetta is home to the Museum of Decorative Arts with its vast displays of ceramics, and there’s also the Armoury, the Museum of Prehistory and Protohistory, the Egyptian Museum, the Library of Art, a History Archive, the Vinciana Collection and a number of other archives.
3. On both routes, the bus continues to Via Dante, a charming pedestrianized street that leads from Castello Sforzesco to Piazza Duomo. This pleasant cobbled street is lined with sidewalk cafes, luxury boutiques and gelaterias, and from here you can enjoy magnificent views of fortified Sforza Castle.
4. Hop off the bus to explore Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, an ancient church built in 379 on the tombs of St Gervasio and St Protasio. Over the centuries a presbytery and a monastery were also built on this site, and they have been rebuilt a number of times since then, to include a Canonici bell tower on the right and an older tower on the left. The Romanesque façade is a fine example of Lombard architecture and the interior chapels date back to the beginning of the 16th Century. When you explore the magnificent interior, look out for the gold altar and some paleo-Christian mosaics.
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5. Next stop is at Milan’s famous National Museum of Science and Technology (Museo Nazionale Della Scienza E Della Tecnica), located in a former Benedictine monastery. The museum is known for its mechanical and scientific collections, and is most famous for its working scale models of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions – there are displays of his drawings and a model of the submarines, airplanes and other engineering feats he never actually built. In the monastery’s cloisters you’ll find all sorts of items, from trains and carriages to sewing machines and typewriters, plus recreations of workshops.
Leonardo da Vinci: "The last supper"
6. Next hop off point is at Santa Maria delle Grazie, which boasts Leonardo da Vinci’s magnificent fresco The Last Supper, created from 1495 to 1497. Take time to explore the beautiful 15th Century church while you’re here, with its fine dome and cloister, which is decorated in marble and terracotta. The church is also a work of art’; it was designed by Donato Bramante, one of the first architects who worked on St Peter’s in Rome.
7. You can explore the Basilica of Sant'Eustorgio and Portinari Chapel from the next hop off point. Located at the end of Corso di Porta Ticinese, in Sant’Eustorgio Square, the basilica was founded in the 4th Century and was rebuilt in the 12th Century in the Romanesque style, and it boasts a number of treasures, including the Cappella dei Re Magi where the Early Christian sarcophagus of the Magi are located and the Renaissance-style Portinari Chapel, which boasts superb frescoes by Vincenzo Foppa. From the chapel you can access the only Christian necropolis open to the public in the city, with a collection of fascinating inscriptions.
Next to the Basilica you can find the Parish Museum, with paintings from the 16th and 17th Centuries, a monumental sacristy with its original furnishings and a collection of valuable chapels.
The Basilica of San Lorenzo
8. Hop off at the next stop to explore the Navigli area, which is popular for its fashion boutiques and lively nightlife. The Navigli is built around canals and you can hop on one of the sightseeing boats and explore the area from the water, or simply laze out in an alfresco café and enjoy people watch…
9. Next stop is on Via Savona, near the Navigli area, a trendy hangout for fashion designers and those in the advertising industry.
10. The Basilica of San Lorenzo is your next hop off point. Right in front of the church is a square with a row of columns on either side that belonged to a monumental building from the 2nd Century BC. Until 1935, the space between these columns and the church was filled with old houses, but these were demolished to preserve the church.
11. Hop off the bus at Università Statale, or Milan University. The university building, which was designed by Florentine architect Antonio Averlino Filarete, was originally commissioned as a civic hospital, the Ospedale Maggiore, by Francesco Sforza in 1456. Although much of the structure was rebuilt in the 17th and 18th Centuries, part of the original central courtyard still remains. This is an excellent example of early hospital architecture in the Lombardy area.
12. Next stop is in the Porta Romana District, where the 16th Century Porta Romana gate used to stand. In this area you can visit one of Milan’s oldest churches, the San Nazaro in Brolo, first built in 382, with some well-preserved relics from the apostles. The church is home to a number of archaeological remains and artworks, including 5th Century epigraphs and Renaissance treasures.
Milan's world-famous Duomo Cathedral
Your next stop is at the Duomo Square, from where you can explore the magnificent Duomo Cathedral, which took 5 centuries to build. This exquisite cathedral is the last remaining Gothic structure in Milan. It was first built by the Visconti family in 1368 and is the fourth largest church in the world, with 135 marble spires, a stunning triangular exterior and over 3,400 statues on its massive façade. Inside you’ll find brilliant stained glass windows, a statue of St Bartholomew Flayed and the tombs of Giacomo de Medici, two members of the Visconti family, and a number of cardinals and archbishops. Climb the roof for a breathtaking view all the way to the Alps and a close-up look at the gold statue of Madonnina on the top of the spire. To the right of the main entrance are the ruins of a 4th Century baptistery where St Ambrose apparently baptized St Augustine. Cross the piazza and visit the Museo del Duomo where many of the Duomo’s treasures are displayed. Next door is the Museo del Novecento, which focuses on 20th century art, and displays works by masters like De Chirico and Modigliani.
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14. The Royal Palace or Palazzo Reale di Milano, is your next hop off point. Located on Piazza del Duomo, the palace was the city’s seat of government for many centuries. Today it’s an important cultural centre, where exhibitions and expo’s are held. From the 18th Century onwards, rulers of the city lived here, including Maria Theresa, Napoleon, Ferdinand the First and the Savoy family. The palace interior is quite sumptuous - the halls are enriched with art treasures by famous artists, and furnishings are also quite spectacular. In 1920, the palace became the property of the State of Italy, and it is now open to the public.
Entrance to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
15. Our next destination, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, is one of Milan’s most elegant shopping arcades. Originally designed in 1861, this covered arcade, which connects Piazza della Scala with Piazza del Duomo, is very plush and luxurious and resembles the entrance to an imperial palace. Inside it’s just as luxurious, with a number of upmarket designer stores, famous restaurants and historic cafes.
You’ll see many people spinning on the bull mosaic located on the ground floor – legend has it that if you spin around three times, you will have good luck.
16. Your next stop, Piazza Affari (literally "Business Square"), is home to the Milan Stock Exchange, which is located in the Palazzo Mezzanotte, or Midnight Palace. Now that trading is computerised, the public trading floor is closed. The palace is also famous for the archaeological findings discovered when it was built in 1932. You can see the ruins of an ancient Roman Theatre through a glass floor. The palace is now used for meetings and conventions.
17. Next hop off point is at the Ambrosian library and Art Gallery. Created by Cardinal Federico Borromeo in 1631, it contains some magnificent art treasures, including masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Carvaggio. The famous Biblioteca Ambrosiana, contains the Cardinal’s collection of over 30,000 manuscripts including an illustrated copy of the Iliad from the 5th Century, early editions of Dante’s Comedy (1353) and the earliest example of an authoritative list of Biblical books, the Muratorian Canon, that dates from 170 AD.
Ancient manuscripts in "Biblioteca Ambrosiana"
18. Hop off the bus and explore the magnificent Teatro alla Scala, or "La Scala", one of the largest and most famous opera houses in the world. It’s been hosting performances of masterpieces from Verdi, Puccini, Rossini and the like since it first opened, in 1778, and it still is the location for renowned operas. The theatre interior was recently renovated by the Swiss architect Mario Botta.
The elegant Via Monte Napoleone, the most important street in the city’s Fashion District, is also not far from here, with its exquisite designer fashion and jewellery stores (Walk along Via Manzoni for a few minutes and turn right near the Metro station).
19. Next stop is at Museo Poldi Pezzoli, a 19th Century palace which houses an art museum with a treasure trove of artworks by Flemish and Italian artists. There is also a collection of porcelain, jewels, watches and original furnishings belonging to the palazzo. There is also a display of arms and armour in an elaborately decorated room designed by Pomodoro.
20. Explore Villa Belgiojoso Bonaparte from your next hop off point. This impressive villa is surrounded by a beautiful parklike garden complete with canals, artificial lakes and waterfalls. Built in 1790, it was the residence of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796, and then belonged to an Austrian known as Field Marshall Radetzky. The Milan Council bought this beautiful villa in 1919, and it became the home of the Modern Art Gallery (Galleria d'Arte Moderna), with an excellent collection of 18th and 19th Century artworks, while part of the villa is housing the famous Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea, or PAC (Pavilion of Contemporary Art).
Francesco Hayez: Mary Magdalene
Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Milan
21. Porta Venezia is the next hop off point along the route. This district is named after the historical gate still located here that used to be part of the city’s Medieval walls. The area is famous for its designer fashion boutiques and cafes and is a popular hangout for the rich and famous (Especially Corso Buenos Aires, which can be described as Milan's leading shopping street). The Indro Montanelli Gardens, right across the street from Porta Venezia, is a public park popular for its spectacular setting. Opened in the late 18th Century, it’s the first public park to have been created in the city, and is also home to the Natural History Museum of Milan (Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano), where you can see some interesting exhibitions about geology, palaeontology, petrography and mineralogy, including ancient fossils and dinosaurs.
22. Explore Milan’s famous Fashion District from your next stop. The city’s fashionable Quadrilatero d’Oro ("golden rectangle") shopping area is famous for its designer boutiques and jewellery stores that provide some of the best shopping opportunities in Europe – so long as you have lots of money to spend. Otherwise you can window shop, and also view some beautiful old mansions, some of which are home to museums, like the Museo Bagatti Valsecchi (on Via Gesu) - One of the most important and best preserved historic house museums in Europe, where you can marvel art and decorative arts objects collected in the family home at the end of the 19th century.
The "Peace Arc" in Parco Sempione
The most famous street here is Via Monte Napoleone, which we already mentioned earlier (in connection with the "la Scala"). It’s named after the bank, Monte Napoleone, that stood here until the early 19th Century, and boasts luxury stores selling Gucci, Versace, Louis Vuitton and other top international designers.
23. Next stop is at Arena Civica, an ampitheatre which was designed by the architect Luigi Canonica in 1805 and forms one of the city’s main examples of neoclassical architecture. It was built from material taken from the ruins of the Sforza Castle and modeled on a Roman ampitheatre, with an elliptic floor and four main entrances. There’s even a granite Triumphal Arch framed with two pairs of golden columns and a number of other Roman-style structures. The Arena is now used as a sports ground.
You can also spend some time in neighboring Parco Sempione ("Simplon Park") and relax before moving onwards…
24. For a change of pace, hop off at the next point and visit the Aquarium (Acquario Civico). Occupying a beautiful Art Nouveau building in Parco Sempione, it contains 38 huge tanks filled with over 100 species of fish. Different environments have been created so that you can see fish from the Amazon, the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. The library is Italy’s research centre for marine biology and oceanic studies.
25. Last stop on route A is in Via Paolo Sarpi - Chinatown, home to some traditional Chinese shops, workshops making leather goods, glasscutters and carpenters. Stop off here for a taste of Asia, and to pick up reasonably priced goods.
B) The Blue route ("Linea B"): From Castello Sforzesco
Please note: Some of the stops on this route are identical to stops on Route A, so you can combine these 2 tours and personalise your sightseeing very easily (next to each "identical stop" there is a link that takes you to the detailed description).
Castle Museums in Sforza Castle
2. Next stop on both routes is the Castle Museums: See stop No. 2 of route A above.
3. On both routes, the bus travels to the charming pedestrianized street of Via Dante, that leads from Sforza Castle to Piazza Duomo. It’s lined with sidewalk cafes, luxury boutiques and gelaterias, and offers spectacular views of the Castle.
4. Our next hop off point is La Triennale design museum, which is housed in a 1930s building in Parco Sempione. The museum was designed by Michele de Lucci, a prominent industrial designer and opened with an exhibition called The Obsessions of Italian Design, which included fascinating contemporary design objects. The museum is both dynamic and innovative, and strives to evoke emotions and involve the senses.
Just a short walk from here, on Piazza Castello, you can visit the Studio Museum Achille Castiglioni, which is the dynamic work studio where the renowned Italian industrial designer created his masterpieces.
Triennale design museum
5. Hop off and explore Torre Branca ("Branca Tower") at your next stop. The old tower was first built in 1933, then closed in 1972, but reopened in 2003. It has been completely renovated by the famous liquor distillery Fratelli Branca (hence its name) and now offers visitors a 10-minute lift ride up 108 meters (300 ft) to the top for a panoramic bird’s eye view of the city and its environs (on a clear day you can see all the way to the Alps). You can also visit at night, and whenever you go, you can stop off at the Just Cavalli Café downstairs, which is one of Milan's most chic café-bars.
(You can find more info about visiting the tower here).
6. Explore Parco Sempione from your next hop off point. Originally the gardens and parade ground of the Castello Sforzesco, this lush oasis in the middle of Milan boasts an idyllic setting complete with winding paths, a pond and a romantic bridge. In the park is the sports ground and the Aquarium (See point No. 24 of route A above), as well as some other attractions, like the mighty Porta Sempione ("Simplon Gate"), which is marked by a landmark triumphal arch called Arco della Pace ("Arch of Peace").
7. Next stop is at Cimitero Monumentale (the Monumental Cemetery), one of the largest cemeteries in the city. This one is famous for its many artistically inspired tombs. The cemetery itself was created in the 19th Century and it comprises a wide range of contemporary and classical Italian sculptures, as well as elaborate Greek obelisks, and other original works. The main entrance is through the Famedio, a vast Medieva-style marble and stone building that contains the tombs of some of Milan’s most honoured citizens.
Cimitero Monumentale - Entrance
8. Hop off to have fun and explore Isola, Milan’s trendy design district, which has been reborn since young artists and craftsmen have moved here. Join creatives, graphic and fashion designers and artists as they let their hair down in the lively bars and interesting restaurants in the area.
9. Next stop is at Piazza della Repubblica, a spacious square first laid out in 1931 on the site of the old railway station. Today it’s lined with more modern buildings, including the famous 30storey Torre Breda ("Breda Tower"). The square connects Milan’s city centre with its main railway station, Stazione Centrale, and also opens up onto one of Milan’s loveliest parks, Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli ("Indro Montanelli Public Gardens"), where fashion fundi’s, designers and businesspeople come to relax. Nearby is a beautiful Romanesque church worth visiting, Santa Maria Incoronata, which is, in fact, two separate buildings next to each other that have been joined and made into one. They were linked in 1484, giving the church a most unusual double shape and contain magnificent frescoes from some of da Vinci’s pupils.
10. You can get off at the next stop, at Milano Centrale ("Milan’s Central Station"), a grandiose building erected in 1912, which is designed as a combination of an Art Deco building and an Ancient Roman spa, complete with mosaics, sculptures and ceramics. It opened in 1931 and still looks much as it did then. This is not only Milan’s main railway station, but also one of the main railway stations in Europe.
11. This is also where you can see and visit the famous Pirelli Tower (Grattacielo Pirelli, or "Pirellone"), built between 1955 and 1960 and designed by Gio Ponti and Pier Luigi Nervi, it is still Milan’s tallest building and the most prestigious example of post-war architecture.
A dinosaur in the Natural History Museum of Milan
12. For some retail therapy, you can hop off at Corso Buenos Aires, Milan’s longest shopping street. The two-mile stretch is lined with all sorts of stores and the street is also known for its bargains when the 'sales' are on. Look out for hidden courtyards filled with little shops – you might find some excellent treasures off the main drag.
13. Hop off at Milan’s Natural History Museum of Milan (Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano), which is nestled within the Indro Montanelli Gardens on Corso Venezia. Founded in 1838 and reopened to the public in 1952, the museum is divided into 8 separate sections – Mineralology and Petrography, Geology, Paleontology, Vertibrate and Invertebrate Paleontology and Zoology, Entomology and Botany. There’s a fascinating fossil collection from the Besano Glacier that dates back 200 million years and 7 dinosaur skeletons on display.
14. The Planetarium ("Planetario Ulrico Hoepli ") occupies a beautiful building, just a stone's throw from the Natural History Museum, which was built in 1930 by Pietro Portaluppi in faux-classical style. Here, projections onto the dome let us see the stars and their seasonal positions.
Paul Gauguin: Cattle drinking
(Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Milan)
15. Hop off the bus and visit the impressive Villa Belgiojoso Bonaparte, with its beautiful garden full of artificial lakes, canals and waterfalls, and the museums of modern art (Same as point No. 20 of route A above. Click here to read more).
17. Next stop is at the Church of San Babila, located on the site of a 2nd Century pagan temple. Rebuilt as a church at the end of the 11th Century, its façade and bell tower were restored in 1906.
18. Hop off the bus and visit Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan’s oldest and most popular shopping arcade. This luxury promenade is home to many of the city's most elegant stores. Named after the first king of United Italy, the pedestrianised area was originally designed in 1861 and then built a few years later. Take a look at the many decorative elements in the galleria, as they are quite beautiful.
A fresco of Andrea Appiani in Palazzo Reale
22. If you didn’t explore Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II earlier (see point 18 in Route B here, above), you can hop off the bus and explore it now.
23. Your next hop off point is at Piazza Affari, home to the Milan Stock Exchange, which is nestled in the Palazzo Mezzanotte: Same as point No. 16 of route A (Click here for more info).
Sandro Botticelli: "Madonna with baby"
Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan
25. Next hop on hop off stop is near the famous La Scala Opera House : Same as point No. 15 of route A (Click here for more info).
27. San Marco is your next hop off point. Located in the Brera district, the church boasts Augustinian artworks by a number of Italian masters including Giovanni Battista and Mauro della Rovere. The right nave is lined with 16th Century frescoes that tell the story of St Peter and St Paul. As the church boasts excellent acoustics, and a beautiful old organ, concerts are held here by some of the city’s musical institutions.
28. The last stop on route B lets you visit Pinacoteca di Brera ("Brera Art Gallery"), which occupies the 17th Century Palazzo di Brera palace. Founded in 1776, the gallery contains an exemplary collection of works by Italian and international masters from the 1,400 to 1,900, including paintings by illustrious names like Tintoretto, Rubens, Caravaggio, Raffaello, de Francesca and many more…
And here is something that is well worth knowing about: Taking a hop-on, hop-off bus tour is one the best ways to explore any large city, as it saves you lots of precious holiday time and takes you EXACTLY to those places you really want to visit... (Not to mention the great views you can enjoy from the open top...).
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