It may not have Venice’s picture-perfect gondolas or Rome’s three thousand-year history, but Milan can comfortably take the title of Italy’s most stylish city. Over 10 million people visit every year, but how much do you really know about this cultured, creative powerhouse? From floating cities to the largest opera house in the world, these interesting facts about Milan might just surprise you.
7 Interesting Facts About Milan
1. Milan is home to one of the largest cathedrals in the world
The Duomo is the fifth-largest cathedral in the world and the second-largest in Italy. It sprawls across almost 110 sq. ft (an entire city block) and is filled with over 3,400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 700 decorative figures.
It’s one of the few places in the world where you can adopt a gargoyle too. The 135 gargoyles are up for grabs and raise a staggering amount of money for the cathedral. The scheme launched in 2021.
2. It was once a floating city
Waterways once crisscrossed Milan’s city centre, not unlike those of Venice or Amsterdam. They were built to help the transportation of goods from local lakes to the city, for building works such as the Milan Cathedral. Today, you can see the five remaining canal networks in Navigli and the north of the city, at the Martesana canal. The Grand Canal (Naviglio Grande) dates back to 1177, making it one of the oldest navigable canals in Europe. Today, it’s lined with bars, cafes and boutiques, and it’s a popular place for a passeggeata during the early evening.
During the mid-20th century cars and trains replaced boats as the fastest modes of transport, so authorities buried the ‘Inner Ring’ beneath the concrete.
3. Milan is home to the largest opera house in Europe
The Teatro alla Scala is one of the most famous opera houses in the world. It can seat as many as 3,000 spectators too, making it one of the largest in the world. All of the greatest singers of the past two centuries have performed here, as well as legendary composers and conductors such as Verdi and Toscanini. Maria Callas made her official debut at La Scala in Verdi’s I vespri siciliani in December 1951, and the theatre became her artistic home throughout the 1950s.
4. It’s famous for aperitivo
The Milanese are famous for their commitment to the tradition of aperitivo. Every evening, cafes and bars in Milan provide spreads of food for those who purchase a drink. The word itself derives from the Italian verb ‘aprire’, which means ‘to open’. It’s a chance for you to ‘open’ your appetite and ready your stomach for dinner.
No one knows quite where it started, though some say King Vittorio Emanuele II started the trend on a trip to Piedmont.
5. It’s home to The Last Supper
Possibly Leonardi da Vinci’s most famous painting, The Last Supper depicts the last meal taken by Jesus and his apostles before he is betrayed, as written in the New Testament. The painting is located in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie and you can book a ticket to visit it too. The painting measures 4.6 meters x 8.8 meters, though little remains of the original masterpiece since da Vinci painted on dry plaster. There have been several famous restoration efforts in the past few centuries.
6. World War II bombing caused significant damage
As the economic and industrial epicentre of Italy and the country’s second-largest city, Milan was subjected to extensive bombing during World War II. It was the most bombed city in Northern Italy and one of the most bombed city in the world country. One-third of heritage sites were destroyed and the main symbols of the city were damaged, including the Duomo.
7. They’re famous for football
Milan is home to two of the world’s best football teams: Inter Milan and A.C. Milan. The latter was founded first, in 1899. Inter Milan came along just nine years later, in 1908. Both teams play at the San Siro Stadium, the largest stadium in Italy.