Milan Cathedral: the urban jewel of the city of Lombardy

The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, known as the Duomo of Milan, is a must-see, if not the star attraction of the Milanese metropolis. For the most devout, it's a place of meditation; for the agnostic, it's an architectural feat you'll never regret visiting. A marvel of flamboyant Gothic architecture, it stands in stark contrast to the dominant style of Italian churches. All marble, bristling with spires, Milan's Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin boasts more than 3,000 statues, gargoyles and macaroons. The third-largest church in the world - after St Peter's in Rome and Seville Cathedral - its gigantic proportions only really become apparent once you enter its walls. The disruptions that delayed construction finally did the building a favour, and it is now complete, with a style all its own. The façade also underwent a number of changes, with the last bronze door not being installed until the early 20th century. Part of the building was damaged by bombing during the war... After some recent renovations, the scaffolding has completely disappeared. Milan's cathedral is a dazzling jewel of finesse and well worth looking after.

Vue sur la cathédrale de Milan, Il Duomo de Milano, Lombardie, Italie.

- © Jan Cattaneo / Shutterstock
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A bit of history

It's impossible to miss the splendid Piazza del Duomo, certainly the city's most emblematic square. The esplanade is home to some of Milan's most important monuments and activities. Right in the centre stands the Duomo cathedral.

The immaculate whiteness of its facade is absolutely incredible, and the rich detailing and remarkable precision of its modenations almost seem to have been cut from lace.

City skyline at Milan Cathedral, Lombardy, France.

- © Noppasin Wongchum / Shutterstock

Traces of an early fourth-century chapel have been found on the site of the present-day Duomo, and the first cathedral was built there in the fifth century, by which time it was already the religious heart of Milan. The monument stands on the former site of the cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore and the basilica of Santa Tecla, both damaged by fire. The project to build a new edifice was born at the end of the 14th century.

Close-up of the Madonnina atop Milan Cathedral, Lombardy, Italy.

- © Kirill Neiezhmakov / Shutterstock

Work began in 1387... and lasted for over four centuries! From that point onwards, a multitude of architects, sculptors and other craftsmen were involved in the design process, contributing to the building's distinctive style, which blends neo-classical with Gothic art.

It was in 1750 that the top of the cathedral was covered by the great spire. The spire is surmounted by a gilded copper statue of the Virgin Mary, the Madonnina, who begs God to protect the Lombard city. This finishing touch has earned it the title of the third largest monument in the world. Napoleon I had asked for work on the façade to be speeded up in preparation for his coronation, but the façade was officially completed in 1814.

A world-renowned splendour

The interior is just as rich as the exterior. Between the stained glass windows, statues and paintings, it's easy to spend a few hours contemplating the place. One of the most famous features is the statue of Saint Bartholomew, depicting the saint wearing his skin on his shoulder to show the flaying of his martyrdom... Intriguing and disturbing at the same time.

Close-up of carved details on the façade of Milan Cathedral, Duomo di Milano, Lombardy, Italy.

- © Viacheslav Lopatin / Shutterstock

The nave is made up of marble panels and columns into which statues have been carved right up to the ceiling. These include representations of religious scenes. In particular, you can see the remains of saints dressed in their period garb.

Its 52 fabulous columns, with their statue-laden capitals, have recently been cleaned, brightening up the high vaulted nave even more impressively. A large part of the monument is surrounded by a rope, guiding visitors along a pre-established route. Reassuring and practical, make sure you go all the way to the end so you don't miss anything.

With a single ticket, you can visit the cathedral, the archaeological area beneath the building and the crypt of Saint Charles.

The facade of Milan Cathedral, Duomo di Milano, with Gothic spires and white marble statues, Lombardy, Italy.

- © Julia Zavalishina / Shutterstock

Getting a bit of height

To reach the roof of the building, you have two options: either take the narrow spiral staircase, which honestly isn't that difficult to access, or take the comfort version with the lift available on site, which is more practical for pushchairs and people with reduced mobility.

Breathtaking view of old Gothic spires. The roof of Milan Cathedral in fine weather, Lombardy, Italy.

- © Fusionstudio / Shutterstock

Once you reach the top, it's a total dazzle. You take a shot of vitamin D with all the light reflecting off the white marble and you're in for a real treat. The Duomo square, the neighbouring buildings seen from the sky and the panorama over the whole city are a real spectacle. Climbing to the roof also gives you the chance to linger a while over the sculpted details, infinitesimally small to the naked eye when seen from below. It's worth the extra money!

Sculpture of a lion on the façade of the Duomo cathedral in Milan, Lombardy, France.

- © ZanPa - Paolo Zanella / Shutterstock

The Duomo Museum

On leaving the monument, head straight across the street to continue your discovery of the site through its museum. The exhibits in the gallery shed more light on the history of the cathedral through the various models on display.

Practical information

📍 Location: right in the centre of Milan

🚌 How to get there: Metro (lines 1 and 3) "Duomo" stop / Tram (lines 2, 3 and 14) " Torino" stop

👛 Price: - Access to the Duomo roof, museum and Pinacoteca Ambrosiana: €20

  • Duomo roof (with lift): €20

  • Duomo roof (by stairs): €15

All prices are available on the cathedral website.

👉 Getting there in advance: website

Given the different price options, it's best to buy your tickets in advance and plan your visit to the site. What's more, waiting at the ticket office can be long and waste your time.

👗 Dress code:

Dress modestly. Even if the monument is a flagship tourist activity, it remains a place of worship. You should therefore respect the site, avoid shorts or short skirts and cover your cleavage, shoulders and legs. Remember to wear a long scarf. Otherwise, smocks are available for sale on site.

Editor's tip :

In a heatwave, covering up more than necessary can be a bit tricky. Some generous souls donate blouses they have bought earlier. On your way out, do the same thing and offer the camisole to someone else who's waiting: it's a great service and you don't have to worry about it for the rest of the day!

And don't forget to take a walk on the rooftops (even if the full price of 12 euros isn't cheap). The walk between the buttresses, spires, sloping arches and finely chiselled pinnacles is magnificent. So much effort and detail has gone into the statues and sculptures that were never meant to be seen so close up!

Where can you enjoy an aperitivo with a view of the Duomo?

The spritz, an orange cocktail served generously in a tall stemmed glass with ice cubes and a straw, is very popular with Italians as an aperitif and has been spreading around the world for some years now. The key ingredient in the recipe is Apérol, a bitter liqueur that smells of sunshine. Well, the alcoholic drink has its own bar: the Terrazza Aperol. It is located in Piazza Duomo and is the meeting place for Milanese after dark. In this industrial setting, the decor contrasts with the exterior façade, but perfectly reflects the chic, minimalist atmosphere of the place. A designer counter with materials and curves reminiscent of the 70s, contemporary furniture and, upstairs, a magnificent terrace where you can enjoy a drink with a view of the star of the square... the Duomo. Aperitifs in Italy are an art form!

Where to eat near the Duomo?

When it comes to food, this is an address that celebrates all the regional products. Caprese salad, pasta cooked in all its forms and succulent desserts... the Dogana restaurant prepares typical dishes in the pure Italian tradition.

Where to sleep nearby?

Hotel Spadari Al Duomo 4* - Milan Milan

Hotel Spadari Al Duomo 4* - Milan

Just 150 metres from Milan's iconic cathedral, this 4-star hotel is decorated in a contemporary style.
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by Faustine PEREZ
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