It’s hard to find the words to describe the feeling when you round a corner and first gaze upon Milan’s cathedral. The distinctive white marble material and Gothic architecture leave quite the impression, as does the building’s size.
There are only a handful of churches in the world bigger than Milan’s cathedral and as such, there is plenty to see.
A landmark of Milan for more than 600 years, Duomo de Milano has seen off countless religious and political change, albeit with several stages of improvement and renovation.
Construction began in 1386, using marble brought in from Lake Maggiore along specially-built canals. The building was consecrated in 1418 even though just the nave had been completed.
Architects, sculptors and artists traveled from across Europe to work on this ambitious project. Their influence can be seen in unique architectural details even though Gothic style dominates.
The last section was not inaugurated until January 1965, meaning the cathedral took about 579 years to complete. That being said, some planned sculptures were never completed and the cathedral is almost always under some kind of renovation or restoration, so its status of ‘finished’ is up for debate.
What is there to see at Milan Cathedral?
Visiting the Duomo is not as simple as just buying a ticket to enter the cathedral, as there are many things to see in and around the complex. In fact, visiting the cathedral’s rooftops for the wonderful view over Milan is just as popular as entering the church itself.
All in all, there are six main attractions: the Duomo itself, the cathedral rooftops, the archaeological area, the Crypt of Saint Charles, Duomo Museum and San Gottardo Church.
Individual tickets are available along with combination tickets and even fast-track options, enabling you to construct your own visit based on your wishes and the time available.
Inside the Duomo
The interior ticket is the cheapest option at just €6. This gives you access to the interior of Duomo including the archaeological area and the Crypt of Saint Charles. While the best value for appreciating the cathedral as a religious building, this ticket does not provide access to the rooftops, one of Milan’s top attractions.
Highlights include Pellegrino Pellegrini’s beautiful altars, many sarcophagi of historic archbishops, and Marco d’Agrate’s grisly Saint Bartholomew Flayed (1562) sculpture, depicting the saint carrying his flayed skin over his shoulder.
Much of the cathedral is roped off forcing visitors to take a somewhat confusing route around the interior. With this in mind, be sure to make it all the way to the far end. The bay featuring incredibly detailed stained-glass windows is an absolute must-see.
Allow at least 30-45 minutes to explore the interior, plus another 15-30 minutes for the archaeological area. Located underneath the cathedral, the area features the remains of the Christian Bapistry of St. John, other buildings and a former graveyard.
Hundreds of coins were found in the baptistry upon its discovery, some of which dates back as far as the middle of the 4th century. Because of the marble remains and material found in the demolished layers, the rich decoration inside the baptistry is at least partly understood.
An undoubted highlight of any visit to Milan is the view from the cathedral’s rooftops. Not only is the view spectacular, a trip to the rooftop also gives you a closer look at some more architectural details that would be otherwise hidden from view. The statue-topped spires adorning the roof are well worth the extra expense.
To get to the rooftops, you have three options. You can climb 250+ steps to get to the highest point, take the regular elevator plus a handful of steps, or the fast-track elevator that takes you to the very top.
All three require tickets, with a difference in price as you would expect. Bear in mind that on some trips, you’ll need to take the stairs back down for operational reasons.
Duomo Museum & San Gottardo Church
Exhibits at the associated museum shed more light on the cathedral’s history, but can perhaps be skipped if you’ve taken a guided tour. Some of the treasures removed from the exterior during restoration work are also on display. Recently reopen following restoration, San Gottardo Church is easy to spot from Duomo’s plaza thanks to its tall tower.
If you’re visiting the cathedral on a Wednesday, you’ll find the museum and church closed so bear this in mind when planning your trip.
Top tips for visiting Milan’s Duomo
Finally, here are some important practical tips to help you plan your visit to Duomo.
Plan in advance: Decide in advance on a plan for your visit, and purchase your tickets in advance. Given the confusing nature of the ticket options, queues at the ticket booths can be long on the day especially in the summer.
Take your time: Remember that the most comprehensive combination tickets are valid for three days, ideal for a longer stay in Milan. That being said, each attraction can only be visited once. Early mornings are the quietest so it may prove wise to spread your visit over several mornings. If you want to do it all in one day, start with the rooftops as the queues later in the day can be lengthy.
Dress modestly: As with most cathedrals around the world, modest dress is expected upon entry. In reality, many men are admitted wearing longer shorts, but technically slacks are required. For women, short skirts, crop tops and other low-cut clothing may see you denied entry.
Consider an audio guide: Rent a self-guided audio tour from the church entrance and you’ll get the all-important context of what you’re seeing without having to fork out for a guided tour. Bear in mind the booth is cash only (€6), and you’ll need to leave your passport or ID as a deposit.
Photography tips: Unlike some churches, photography is allowed inside and outside of Milan cathedral. However, tripods and selfie sticks are not permitted either inside the church or on the rooftops. Flash is not permitted inside, and it’s wise to silence the camera function on your smartphone if you don’t want to annoy people.