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Aside from a lovely cathedral and one of the most famous frescoes on Earth, Milan is mostly known for being Italy’s banking and fashion capital, a business-centric city where travelers spend little to no time as tourists. That’s all going to change this year, however, when Milan Expo 2015 draws millions of visitors from all over the globe for six straight months, from May to October. If you plan to be one of those visitors, TPG Contributor Jessica Spiegel of Italy Explained offers you this guide to Milan during Expo 2015.
Expo is shorthand for “World’s Exposition,” the more recent incarnation of the World’s Fair.
Running from May 1-October 31 in Milan, Italy, Milan Expo 2015—named “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”—will gather the best minds from around the globe to brainstorm and share ways to feed the ever-growing world population in a sustainable way.
With 140 countries participating from around the world, Expo 2015 Milan is going to be one part gigantic food court and one part food science lab. Many countries will have their own pavilions, with other countries joining what the Expo is calling “clusters” on specific foods (such as coffee, spices, cereals and tubers, and chocolate). The event runs from May 1-October 31.
Already a major European destination for trade fairs and events, Milan has a trade show fairground facility outside the city center—but a purpose-built facility has been erected for the Expo not far from the existing fairground. The Expo grounds include an open-air theater, a man-made lake with a massive tree sculpture in the middle, and a long main “street” through the pavilions and clusters. Although it’s not right in the historic center of Milan, it’s easily reached via public transportation using the same Rho-Fiera stops as Milan’s existing trade fair buildings.
There’s a wide variety of tickets available for the Milan Expo, from a one-day ticket to a season pass good for the whole six months, and prices sometimes vary depending on whether you buy your tickets before May 1 or after the event begins. There’s a page on the official Expo site that lists all of the ticket price options, so browse that to see which is the right choice for you. Keep in mind that there are open-date tickets and fixed-date tickets for some options—so if you know you’ll be in Milan during the Expo and plan to go but just aren’t sure which date you’ll be there, you can buy an open-date ticket before May 1 and get a slightly better deal. The easiest way to get tickets is to buy them right from the official site.
Viator also has some Expo ticket packages available, including an Expo entrance ticket plus round-trip shuttle transfer from Milan, or an Expo ticket and a round-trip high-speed train transfer from Florence.
What to Do/See in Milan During the Expo
The Milan Expo is a six-month event, and not only will people be coming to Milan specifically to see the Expo—organizers estimate 20 million people will do just that—there are undoubtedly countless visitors who will explore other parts of Italy before or after checking out the Expo. This means that if you’re not usually a plan-ahead kind of traveler, you might want to keep in mind that from May through October of 2015, you’ll be competing with way more than the average number of tourists for things like hotel rooms, guided tours, and plane tickets.
In addition to the Expo itself, there are lots of special exhibits and events taking place in Milan in conjunction with the Expo. This is by no means a complete list (you should definitely check in with the tourist information office in Milan to see what’s going on when you get to town), but a few noteworthy events include:
- The La Scala Opera House, which has never before been open during the summer, has a full calendar of performances throughout the Expo.
- Cirque du Soleil has a special show created just for the Expo, which runs from May 13-August 30 in the open-air theater on the Expo grounds.
- The largest Leonardo da Vinci exhibit ever put together in Italy will be on display in the Palazzo Reale from April 16-July 19.
Of course, the usual Milan must-see list is no less appealing during the Expo, and the good news is that most of the big attractions in Milan are pretty easy to visit in a day or two. As mentioned, with the added influx of visitors to Milan this year, any attraction with limited tickets is likely to be harder to get into; if you can book tickets well in advance, you’ll stand a better chance of seeing everything you want to see.
Some must-see stops in Milan include:
Milan’s many-spired Duomo. Though free to enter, you need to buy a ticket to walk around on the roof—and you definitely want to do that.
Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” This fresco is so fragile you’re only allowed to be in the climate-controlled room with it for 15 minutes, and tickets sell out months ahead of time even when it’s not an Expo year.
Shopping in the Quadrilatero d’Oro. Purchases here may be beyond the price range of most mortals, but there’s no charge to window shop in the gorgeous designer windows—and the people-watching is pretty excellent, too.
Pinacoteca di Brera. At this museum in the pretty Brera District (near the Duomo), you’ll find an excellent collection of Italian paintings.
The Navigli District. Milan’s canals aren’t nearly as numerous as those you’ll find in Venice, but it’s still fun to see these waterways—especially since a couple of them were originally designed by da Vinci.
Spinning on the bull’s balls. On the mosaic floor of the impressive Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping center, a prancing bull representing long-time rival city Turin has a hole where its privates used to be. It’s customary to put your heel on that spot and spin around a couple of times for luck.
What to Eat/Drink in Milan
The Milanese have perfected the art of aperitivo, so when you’re feeling peckish in the late afternoon, find a bar with a nice buffet spread and settle in. The buffet is free as long as you’re buying drinks. While locals usually continue on from their aperitivo to a full dinner, you could always turn your aperitivo into a sort of progressive crawl, with a couple passes through the buffet (and a couple drinks) at a few different bars. (Afterwards, you could head to the Navigli area, which is particularly known for its nightlife.)
Have your heart set on a full dinner? Be aware that Italians are known for starting dinner late, and in Milan the dinner hour is even later—9-10pm is when restaurants get really busy for dinner, even on weeknights, and even when families are dining out with kids. Plenty of places are open earlier, but don’t be surprised if you have the restaurant to yourself when you’re dining at 6-7pm.
For a light lunch or a snack, there’s no better treat than a panzerotto from Luini. The take-away-only shop is on a side-street behind the Duomo, but it’s not very well marked and so can be easily overlooked—unless, that is, you’re looking for a nondescript place with a huge line. Queue up and order a panzerotto or two—they’re like hand-pies made with a ever-so-slightly sweet pizza dough, filled with pizza-esque ingredients, and deep-fried. You can get savory or sweet, or—if the line is long and you don’t want to wait twice—go ahead and get both.
For more on eating and imbibing in Milan, check out local food site Sauce Milan, as well as the excellent blog by American expat/serious foodie Katie Parla, who lists some of Milan’s top-notch restaurants, bars, gelato shops, and more. You can also read TPG’s review of Ristorante Giacomo.
Where to Stay in Milan
Milan has long been a destination for business travelers, so there’s no shortage of hotels throughout the city—both in the historic center and out near the trade show fairgrounds. There are some new hotels that opened in 2014-2015, too, in anticipation of the Expo. All those beds doesn’t mean there will be competition and lower room prices, however—some estimates show that room rates during the Expo are as much as 300% higher than usual.
Some of Milan’s newest hotels are:
- Mandarin Oriental: Originally planned to open in 2013, now officially accepting reservations starting July 1, 2015, this hotel is near the Quadrilatero d’Oro shopping area.
- TownHouse Duomo: Located inside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, right next to (and with views of) the Duomo, you couldn’t ask for a more cental spot for a hotel.
- ME Milan Il Duca: This new Melía hotel is on the Piazza della Repubblica not far from the chic Corso Como or the Quadrilatero d’Oro.
- LaGare Hotel Milano Centrale: This hotel just opened in February in the newly-redesigned Porta Nuova business district northwest of the Duomo near the Garibaldi area.
- Expo Hotel Milan: As the name suggests, this hotel was built specifically for the Expo, out in Parabiago by the Rho-Fiera and Expo fairgrounds.
- Moxy Milan: Marriott’s new “millennial” hotel brand, Moxy, opened in 2014 at Milan Malpensa Airport’s Terminal 2. It’s not an ideal location for sightseeing, but for a quick visit it’s a pretty hip airport hotel option.
Other hotels in Milan to consider are:
- Park Hyatt Milan: Luxury hotel with a great central location a block from the Duomo and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Read TPG’s review here.
- Westin Palace Milan: On Piazza della Repubblica near Corso Como, the giant Gardini Pubblici, and the Quadrilatero d’Oro.
- Boscolo Milano: Not far from the Duomo and Quadrilatero d’Oro, this “urban luxury” hotel is big on modern design elements.
- Holiday Inn Milan Garibaldi Station: A short walk from the Garibaldi train station, which is only three stops from the Milan Expo.
- Hilton Milan: A few minutes’ walk from Milan’s Centrale train station, the city’s high-speed train hub.
- AC Hotel Milano: Another hotel near the Garibaldi train station, as well as Corso Como and the Monumental Cemetery.
For more on what to do, where to eat, and where to stay in Milan, see our Destination Milan post—and enjoy yourself at Milan Expo 2015!