You’ve seen it countless times in artistic and architectural photos, in documentaries, in travel guides and in photo galleries of world’s landmarks. It’s the third largest Christian church in the world, and one of the easiest to recognize – yes, I’m talking about the Milan Duomo, also known as The Cathedral of Santa Maria Nascente (St. Mary of the Nativity) or simply The Milan Cathedral. This cathedral was the main reason I wanted to visit Milan, so I did a lot of research before going. But I soon found out that my research was almost useless. Nobody told me about the things below, so I thought I must share them with you. Take notes and thank me later :)
Some wild facts about the Milan Cathedral
The construction started in 1386 and it took almost 6 centuries to complete. On the outside, the Cathedral is decorated with 135 spires and 3400 statues. It’s located right in the heart of the city, in Piazza del Duomo di Milano.
It’s main spire is also it’s highest point (108,5 meters) and the golden statue at the top depicts the Virgin Mary. Fun fact: In 1930, a local law declared that no building shall pass the height of Madoninna. In the late 50’s a higher tower was built (the Pirelli Building) and in order to keep the tradition alive, a smaller replica of the Madoninna was placed at the top. However, after that, Milan’s need of expansion and development rescinded the law.
The interior is immensely large and it’s divided into 5 naves. The 52 pillars that support the ceiling represent the number of weeks of the year.
Another interesting fact is that the cathedral was build of white marble, brought from the quarries of Candoglia. Considering the size of the Milan Duomo, it goes without saying that massive amounts of stone were needed at the construction site. For easy transport, the marble was brought on water, using canals dug specifically for this purpose. Part of these canals can also be seen today, in the area called Navigli Grande.
Now let’s see what’s in for you if you choose to visit the cathedral:
Visit the Milan Cathedral interior
If you already did some research on the Milan Duomo, you probably found a great number of websites that have this landmark on a list of free things to visit in Milan. Not valid for visitors, only for worshipers. To visit the Cathedral you must pay 2 euro, and the ticket will give you access to everything, except the Archaeological Site (for which you must pay 2 more euro, and I didn’t). As soon as you reach Piazza del Duomo di Milano, you will see a big queue on one side of the Cathedral. If you are as impatient as I am, you will be happy to hear that there is no need to stay an hour in line (often under a merciless sun) for a ticket. There are ticket offices on every side of the building, and guess what: the others aren’t crowded at all! Alternative option: buy the tickets online and minimize the hassle.
Useful tip: To avoid being denied the access inside, dress appropriately, keep your shoulders covered and don’t wear shorts. Also, you will be scanned with a metal detector and if you have bags or backpacks, your belongings will undergo a quick check.
The interior is a little bit gloomy, so you might be tented to take pictures with flash, but that’s not allowed. There are many works of art to look at, but my favorite was the statue of Saint Bartholomew, with his flayed skin hanging on his shoulders.
Also, take your time and admire the huge stained glass windows, which are among the tallest in the world. The amount of painted details is just stunning!
Get up on the Cathedral’s roof
There are special tickets that allow you to visit the Cathedral Terraces, and you can chose to ascend by elevator or by stairs. Unless you have health issues, I recommend taking the stairs. The ticket is cheaper (9 euro) and the effort will make you appreciate the top view more. The strange thing is that for me it seemed that the number of stairs was far more when I descended. And I wasn’t the only one with that feeling.
The roof will give you the opportunity to see up close the amazing spires and statues of the cathedral and the astonishing view of the city’s skyline. If you’re lucky enough, you might even see the Alps in the distance.
You’ll finally reach the top terrace, where you’ll be flanked by other tall spires and unique looking statues.
And the you look up, and there it is, the famous statue of Virgin Mary that I told you about at the beginning.
There is even a song, written in 1934, that is directly dedicated to this statue. Over time, it’s popularity gained it’s title as the unofficial anthem of Milan. I’ll just leave it here:
One of the statues from the top is none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. He played an important role in the long history of Milan Cathedral. After rushing the completion of the front facade and promising to offer the money needed for the work, Napoleon demanded “a small favor”: to be crowned as Emperor of the French and King of Italy in the cathedral. Needless to say that he succeeded, on May 26th, 1805.
Relax in Piazza del Duomo di Milano
Piazza del Duomo di Milano is the perfect place to relax and admire the majestic facade of the cathedral. In it’s center you can see the equestrian statue of Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of unified Italy.
Tip: Unfortunately, it’s also a place where you can be the victim of a very common scam. There is a huge chance that somebody will walk to you and before you know it, put corn grains in your hand. At that moment, lots of pigeons will fly down and within seconds eat the grains. After that, the same person will ask in an intimidating voice a ridiculous amount of money. Do I need to say that I myself fell in the trap? I know, shame on me. But to redeem my pride, when the man asked to give him 10 euro (!!!), I handed him a 1 euro coin and just walked away, leaving him muttering what seemed to be some very “kind words” addressed to me. My word of advice: If you care about your safety and your money, stay aware of your surroundings and avoid these people, especially if you’re a solo traveler!
Discover The Great Museum of the Duomo
After you complete the cathedral tour, head towards the Great Museum of the Duomo. Located right next to the Milan Cathedral, the museum houses thousands of works of art from the cathedral. It’s an impressive collection of statues, carvings, paintings, stained glass windows and religious items. And the best part? It’s price was included in my 2 euro ticket for entering the Cathedral. Because most people don’t even take a look at the ticket to see what’s written on it, the museum is not crowded. The downside would be the lack of information about the artifacts. Without audio guide, you’ll leave the museum with only some pictures to remind you of it, and very little knowledge about what you’ve actually seen. But all in all, it’s totally worth a visit of at least an hour!
Take a peak inside San Gottardo in Corte church
That 2 euro ticket will allow you to enter in one more place: San Gottardo in Corte church. It was built in 1330, so it’s even older than the Cathedral. It was initially dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, but afterwards it was renamed after Saint Gotthard (protector of those with gout). It’s octagonal bell tower houses one of the oldest public clocks in Milan.
The inside of the church is not very spectacular. Actually, from the inside it’s hard to tell that you’re even in a church. There’s nothing to catch your eye in particular, but you can only see a few modern works of art on the walls. Visiting it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes, including the time for taking photos.
This is the place where the tour ends. I hope you’ll enjoy living the full experience that the Cathedral can give you and you’ll make the most of it. Is The Milan Cathedral on your bucket list too or did you already visited it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories.