Milan's huge cathedral not only dominates the centre of the city: it is an extraordinary masterpiece of Gothic architecture – unique in Italy, unique in Europe.
Faced in white marble that glows in the late afternoon sun, it bristles with sculpture, gargoyles and no fewer than 135 spires. It was begun in 1386 when Milan was ruled by the Visconti family, but work continued for over four centuries, and it was Napoleon – masterminding the French occupation of Italy – who finally brought about the completion of the façade in 1809. It is one of the world's largest Gothic cathedrals: the vast, somewhat austere interior is big enough to contain 40,000 worshippers.
For many visitors, the highlight is a walk on the roof (via the stairs or a lift), among the spires and statues, with views over the city and all the way to the Alps.
Sharing the Piazza del Duomo, to the south of the cathedral, is the Palazzo Reale, a former ducal palace (currently under restoration). This contains the Cathedral Museum (which takes you through the history of its construction and decoration) and the Civic Museum of Contemporary Art, featuring work by 20th-century Italian painters such as Boccioni, Modigliani and De Chirico, as well as international artists such as Mondrian, Kandinsky, Picasso and Klee (during restoration, some of the paintings are on view in exhibitions at other sites).
Leading off the north side of the Piazza del Duomo, and linking it to La Scala, is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a magnificent glass-covered arcade built in 1878 and lined with elegant shops and cafés.