Fine art, opera and aperitivos are still par for the course, but this is Italy minus the cliches. Margherita Ragg and Nick Burns guide us through the world’s fashion capital, and its many surprises.
Fashion capital of the world or not, Milan has the kind of understated charm that takes a while to appreciate. This isn’t Italy, first-time visitors say. Smack-bang in the centre of North of the country, this unofficial capital looks towards Europe: banks and office buildings outnumber churches, whilst high-rise towers and fast-paced locals with business to attend to make the city seem closer to Frankfurt than to Florence. True, at first glance it may not look more than an economic and transport hub; but be warned: give it a few days and don’t make for the monumental Stazione Centrale just yet, and you’ll see there’s more to Milan than designer boutiques.
Milan has something for everyone. World-class shopping and a thriving cultural scene. Bespectacled hipsters strolling side by side Gucci-toting beauties. Designer bars and family-run trattorie, with a pinch of artisan breweries thrown in. Sporting enthusiasts will marvel at San Siro stadium, and opera lovers can head straight to La Scala Theatre. What is true of Milan, is true of its people. The Milanese have a reputation for being unfriendly and obsessed with work. Visit one of Milan’s bars at aperitivo time and you’ll find that their real obsession is having a good time. And after moaning that Milan is not as cool as London or Berlin, by the end of the night they’ll confess there’s nowhere else they’d rather be.
Best of the Beaten Track
Catch the metropolitana to begin your Milan exploration in Piazza del Duomo, the city’s beating heart, dominated by the frosted cake silhouette of its namesake cathedral. Construction of the Duomo, in true Italian style, took a mere 500 years. Wander around the inside to see stained glass windows and the mummified corpses of two bishops, and then admire the pink-marble Gothic façade. If it’s a clear day, don’t miss climbing up to the roof for a view stretching all the way to the Alps. This guided tour allows you to skip the lines.
Head right towards Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, the oldest covered shopping arcade in town, nicknamed il salotto di Milano (Milan’s drawing room). Skip the rip-off cafès and head towards the left until you find the image of a bull on the mosaic floor. A local superstition claims that spinning three times on the bull’s attributes brings good luck.
If you know your Traviata from your Madame Butterfly, continue straight to Piazza della Scala, home to the famous theatre. For same-day tickets at bargain basement prices, queue up at the box office for standing places. Back to the Duomo, walk straight towards the Castello Sforzesco, Leonardo da Vinci’s Milanese hangout, a 15th century castle now housing several museums. If it’s a nice day, head to Parco Sempione behind the castle and walk to the arch.
Art lovers, make for Leonardo’s Last Supper in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan’s main art gallery. If it’s open, have a break in the tiny botanical gardens. On your way back, visit San Maurizio, a small church completely covered in frescos, known as Milan’s Sistine Chapel. Whatever your itinerary, don’t miss Via Montenapoleone and the Quadrilatero della Moda for some serious window shopping, and to see if this world’s fashion capital is all it’s cranked up to be.
For scores more great experiences check out Viator’s Milan page where you can booking everything from San Siro Stadium tours and Ferrari drives to local food tours and day trips to the gorgeous Cinque Terre coastal region.
Leave the grandeur of the historical centre behind and catch one of the rattly antique trams to Milan’s working class neighbourhoods. Tram number 5 takes the wannabe hipster to one of Milan’s up and coming venues, La Balera dell’Ortica. From senior citizen hangout to hipster heaven, La Balera is a bocce club, open-air disco and mamma restaurant all at once. Visit in summer to spin your brogues at night with live ballroom orchestras.
The highest concentration of design students and upturned moustaches can probably be found at Milan’s contemporary art centres. The most famous is Fabbrica del Vapore, just in front of the grandiose Cimitero Monumentale, organizing performances, exhibitions and weekend workshops. Further away from the city centre, in a rough-and-ready northern suburb there is Olinda, in the grounds of a former psychiatric hospital. The multipurpose space includes a hostel, a community garden, experimental theatre performances and a restaurant with live music.
A squatters’ collective in the heart of the world’s fashion capital? If you’re after a cutting-edge scene to rival Berlin and Ljubljana, head to Macao, the self-styled ‘new centre for arts, culture and research’. The collective now occupies an Art Nouveau building in the grounds of the former city abattoir.
Experience & Events
If you don’t know when to visit, come for the week-long Fuorisalone in mid-April, one of the world’s leading design festivals. Events take place at various locations around the city; expect cocktail parties at high-brow Brera, architecture installations in the cloisters of the Università Statale and more cool stuff than you can shake a stick at around the über-hip Tortona district. Streets are chockablock with creative types and people-watching is reason enough to visit. To get away from the crowds, head east for the Lambrate-Ventura area. In this former industrial district, abandoned warehouses hold design exhibitions during the day and DJ sets at night.
The price to pay for such an overload of cool? Accommodation is hard to come by and extremely overpriced. The solution is Public Camping, a pop-up camping ground in a different location each year, from a swimming pool to dilapidated industrial buildings. Don’t forget to book well in advance.
If you fancy a breath of fresh air, head to the Navigli, a network of artificial waterways designed by Leonardo da Vinci that connect the city centre to the countryside. Boat tours depart daily in summer, but the best option is to DIY. Rent a bike and pack a pic-nic. Follow the bike lane along Naviglio Grande, past San Cristoforo church to picturesque Gaggiano. For some serious pedalling, choose the 40 km path along Naviglio Martesana, travelling north past a coypu colony and decadent country mansions.
Gone are the days when Milan’s only budget choice was a dreary boarding school-like affair miles away from the city centre. More and more hostels are popping up all over town. First and foremost is Ostello Bello, a stone’s throw from the Duomo, frequented by Milanese and tourists alike for its nightly aperitivo. Colourful Zebra Hostel is another good place. If you’ve got a bit more cash to splash, the B&B-cum-art gallery Rossosegnale offers three rooms in an elegant building with a great rooftop terrace and organic breakfasts. More Hanoi than Milan, an interesting midrange choice is Vietnamonamour, a Vietnamese restaurant with individually-decorated rooms in two quiet locations. For those looking to splurge, the Park Hyatt can’t be beat. If you fancy something a little less corporate, head to the fashion mecca 10 Corso Como and its boutique hotel 3 Rooms.
All that shopping made you tired? Follow the Milanese and make a beeline for Luini in a quiet backstreet behind the Duomo for a panzerotto or three. The pillowy fried dough stuffed with tomato and cheese is Milan’s fave quick eat, and this bakery has been drawing crowds since 1888. For something a little more substantial, head to Pizzeria Spontini, home of the best deep-pan pizza of the world. Fashion victims have adopted sushi as the quintessential Milan dish. The original (and still best) sushi bar is Poporoya, where you’ll find Japanese families nibbling chirashi alongside models and Blackberry-clutching high fliers. To try typical Milanese food, opt for the well-heeled Ratanà and order their five-course surprise menu, or their specialty risotto con ossobuco. Or visit Attilio at cheap and cheerful Trattoria Il Gatto Nero, and make sure to choose cassoeula if it’s on the menu. Comfort food extraordinaire, this slow-cooked dish of cabbage, sausages and pork ribs is sure to warm your soul on a foggy Milan night.
There’s only one way to begin a night out in Milan: with an aperitivo. Order a sbagliato and eat your fill from the big buffets at every bar and cafè around the city, usually between 6 and 9pm. The best places are Cape Town, Le Biciclette and Indian-inspired Bhangrabar. The nightlife heart of Milan beats in the Colonne area, roughly halfway between the Duomo and the Navigli. Between San Lorenzo church and a Roman colonnade, parties are in full swing most night with impromptu street music. Grab a beer from hole-in-the-wall shops and join in the fun. To dance the night away, follow the coolest party planners on Facebook to see where and when the party’s at. Club Haus, Razzputin and Roll Over Milano guarantee nights to remember. And go back and check the Hipster’s Guide section above too; all venues mentioned offer night-time fun well off the beaten track.
Getting There & Around
Milan has three airports. Most Easyjet and intercontinental flights land at Malpensa, an hour north of town. Ryanair land at Orio al Serio, whilst Linate, about 15 minutes away from the centre, is the hub of choice for most airlines including Alitalia, British Airways and Air France. If you want to reserve your airport transfer in advance then check out Book Taxi Milan, starting in 2015. Milano Centrale and Milano Garibaldi are the main train stations. For top speed (and a top-dollar price tag!) look for high-speed trains, Frecciarossa and Italo. If you’re not pressed for time, choose regionale or intercity trains at a fraction of the cost. National and international buses depart from Lampugnano Bus station.
A great app with practical info and ready-made walking tours is Guida Milano. For quirky tips check out the blog Piccola Milano, and/or follow them on Twitter. Milano Loves You has info on shopping, events and tourist services.
Any literary exploration of Milan must begin with Alessandro Manzoni’s star-crossed lovers tale The Betrothed. The historical novel Leonardo’s Swans is a good introduction to Mr. Da Vinci’s connection with Milan. Nobel Prize-winner Dario Fo offers a great portrait of the city in the Seventies in his play Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Guidebook-wise, ditch that LP for Secret Milan, awash with locals’ tips.
Vittorio de Sica’s Miracle in Milan, filmed in the Fifties, is the ultimate feel-good tale about the city. For something a little more up to date, check out Brüno gatecrashing fashion shows or Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy, about the 1969 bomb and its aftermath.