WHAT TO DO
Milan is a fast paced metropolis in Italy's northern Lombardy region. The city's role as a major political center dates back to late antiquity, when it served as the capital of the Western Roman Empire. From the 12th century until the 16th century, Milan was one of the largest European cities and a major trade and commercial center - consequently, it became the capital of the Duchy of Milan, one of the greatest political, artistic and fashion forces during the Renaissance. Despite losing much of its political and cultural importance in the early modern period, the city regained its status as a major economic and political center and is today considered the industrial and financial capital of Italy. Milan has been recognized as one of the world's four fashion capitals and a major cultural center, with museums and art galleries that include some of the most important collections on earth, such as major works by Leonardo da Vinci. In the field of sports, Milan is home to two of Europe's most successful football clubs, AC Milan and Inter Milan. With interesting history, lots of culture, an abundance of art and architectural treasures - Milan is a traveler's dream.
Start your journey at the city's most famous landmark, Il Duomo (Milan Cathedral). Milan's flamboyant Gothic cathedral, 600 years in the making, aptly reflects the city's creativity and ambition. Its pearly white facade, adorned with 135 carved stone spires and over 3000 marble statues, rises like the filigree of a fairy tale tiara, wowing the crowds with its extravagant detail. The interior is no less impressive, punctuated by three enormous stained glass windows, while in the crypt saintly Carlo Borromeo is interred in a rock crystal casket. Begun by Giangaleazzo Visconti in 1386, other Duomo highlights include the seven branched bronze candelabrum by Nicholas of Verdun in the north transept and the 16th century tomb of Gian Giacomo Medici. Note: a walk on the roof of the cathedral is a must - it offers commanding views across the city and extending on clear days to the snow covered Alps.
Forming one side of Piazza del Duomo and opening on the other side to Piazza della Scala, the grand neoclassical Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was designed by Giuseppe Mengoni and built between 1865 and 1877. It was then the largest shopping arcade in Europe, with a dome soaring 150 feet above its mosaic floor. Marking the beginning of modern architecture in Italy, today it stands as a splendid example of 19th century industrial iron and glass construction. And it's still a beautiful, vibrant place where locals meet for lunch or coffee in its elegant cafes and browse in its luxury shops. It is so much a part of local life that the inhabitants of Milan refer to it as 'il salotto di Milano' or the city's drawing room. While it’s packed by day, a stroll during the late evening gives you a chance to experience its beauty without distraction. Note: be sure to take part in the curious local tradition of spinning with your heel on the testicles of the mosaic bull (said to bring good luck) found in the middle of the arcade.
Overlooking Piazza del Duomo, with tremendous views of the cathedral, is Benito Mussolini's Palazzo dell'Arengario, from where he would harangue huge crowds in his heyday. Now it houses Milan's Museo del Novecento (Museum of 20th Century Art). Ascend the futuristic spiral ramp and begin your exploration of chronologically arranged rooms, which take you from Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo's powerful neo impressionist painting of striking workers, Il quarto stato, through to the dynamic work of futurist greats such as Umberto Boccioni, Giorgio de Chirico, Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla. The collection then continues on to the Italian Novecento, abstractionism and Arte Povera, before finishing up with kinetic art, pop art and large scale installations. Aside from the general coherence of the collection, it provides a fascinating social commentary on Italy's trajectory through fascism, two world wars and into the new dawn of the technological era.
One of the most famous opera houses in the world, Teatro alla Scala's season runs from early December to July. You can also see theater, ballet and classical music concerts here year round (except August). Opened in 1778, the theater seats just over 2000 people. The best way to secure tickets is through your hotel concierge, but it's worth checking at the box office. In the same building is the Museo Teatrale alla Scala, where you'll find a collection of costumes from landmark performances and personal mementos of the greats who performed at La Scala, including Giuseppe Verdi and Gioachino Rossini. Note: if there is not a rehearsal in progress, the museum offers access to see the inside of the opera house itself, one of the world's grandest. Guided tours are also available.
Nearby is Castello Sforzesco. Originally a Visconti fortress, this iconic red brick castle was later home to the mighty Sforza dynasty, who ruled Renaissance Milan. The castle's defenses were designed by the multitalented Leonardo da Vinci. Today, it houses seven specialized museums, which gather together intriguing fragments of Milan’s cultural and civic history - including Michelangelo’s final masterpiece, the Pieta Rondanini, now housed in the frescoed hall of the castle's Ospedale Spagnolo (Spanish Hospital). Of the museums, the most interesting is the Musei d'Arte Antica (Museum of Ancient Art), which is displayed in the ducal apartments, some of which are frescoed by da Vinci. Included in the collection are early paleo Christian sculptures, the superb equestrian tomb of Bernarbo Visconti and sculpted reliefs depicting Milan's triumph over Barbarossa. Other museums feature a collection of decorative art, a collection of musical history, and an armory of weapons and medieval armor.
The Renaissance Palazzo di Brera, built between 1651 and 1773, was originally a Jesuit college, but since 1776 it has been the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts). Along with a library and observatory, it contains the Pinacoteca di Brera (Brera Art Gallery), one of Italy's finest art museums. This gallery houses Milan’s collection of Old Masters - the museum is especially strong in paintings by northern Italian artists. Notable among 15th century creations are works by Andrea Mantegna (Madonna and Child with a Choir of Cherubim and Lamentation over the Dead Christ). The Venetian masters are represented by Giovanni Bellini (Lamentation and two Madonnas), Paolo Veronese, Titian (Count Antonio Porcia and Saint Jerome), and Tintoretto (Finding of Saint Mark's Body and Descent from the Cross), and portraits by Lorenzo Lotto and Giovanni Battista Moroni. The most famous painting in the gallery is Raphael's The Marriage of the Virgin (Lo Sposalizio), completed in 1504. Foreign masters in the museum include Rembrandt, Rubens and El Greco. Note: it's not all Old Masters, you'll also find works here by Picasso, Braque and Modigliani.
The Gothic brick Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie (Holy Mary of Grace) was begun in 1463 and its massive six sided dome - in the finest Early Renaissance style was designed by Donato Bramante, one of Italy's most influential Renaissance architects. The church and adjoining refectory, which holds Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, were badly damaged during the Second World War. The reason most tourists visit Santa Maria delle Grazie is to see da Vinci's most famous work, painted on the refectory wall of the former Dominican monastery. The Cenacolo Vinciano, as it is called here, was painted on the wall in tempera between 1495 and 1498. Instead of earlier static representations of Christ's last meal with his disciples, da Vinci presents a dramatic depiction of the scene (when Christ reveals he's aware of his betrayal), which was quite novel and marked an important new stage in the development of art. The iconic mural painting, which had already begun to flake off before the destruction of part of the room that left it exposed to weather, has been restored several times, a process which will probably never be fully completed. Yet the work's condition does little to lessen its astonishing beauty. Note: entrance is limited and restricted to those with advance timed tickets.
The Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio was founded in 379 by Saint Ambrose, who was born in Milan and is the city's patron saint. The present church is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, built in the 12th century around the choir from an earlier 9th century church. Shimmering altar mosaics and a biographical golden altarpiece (circa 835), which once served as the cladding for the saint's sarcophagus, light up the shadowy vaulted interior. The second chapel on the right as you enter contains frescoes by Tiepolo, while inside the treasury there's some precious 5th century sparkle. Another amazing church is Chiesa di San Maurizio. The inside of the cathedral is perhaps the most beautiful in town. Built in the early 16th century as the church for a convent of Benedictine nuns, the entire interior is covered in breathtaking frescoes, most of them executed by Bernardino Luini, who worked with Leonardo da Vinci. Many of the frescoes immortalize Ippolita Sforza, Milanese literary maven, and other members of the powerful Sforza and Bentivoglio clans who paid for the chapel's decoration.
With all of Italy's magnificent architecture and art from Ancient Greek, Roman and Renaissance eras, it's easy to forget that Italy also has some outstanding examples from the Art Nouveau period, known here as Stile Liberty. The not to be missed Cimitero Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery) is an outdoor gallery of Art Nouveau sculptures, many by noted Italian sculptors. Behind a striking striped marble portico, these monuments mark the tombs of Milan's rich and famous from the late 19th through the mid 20th century. Note: a map in English helps you find the most outstanding examples. A must do in Milan is to indulge in the fashion culture. A stroll around the Quadrilatero della moda (fashion square), the world's most famous shopping district, is a requirement even for those not sartorially inclined. The quaintly cobbled quadrangle of streets - loosely bound by Via Montenapoleone, Via Manzoni, Via della Spiga and Corso Venezia - have long been synonymous with elegance and money and even if you don't have the slightest urge to sling a swag of glossy shopping bags, the window displays and people watching are priceless.
Conclude your tour of Milan with a visit to one of the most famous football (soccer) stadiums in the world - Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, commonly known as San Siro Stadium. It has a seating capacity of over 80000, making it one of the largest stadiums in Europe and the largest in Italy. The San Siro is the home of the city's two football clubs, AC Milan and FC Internazionale Milano (aka Inter). They play on alternate weeks from August to May - you can buy match tickets on the clubs' websites. Note: if you are unable to attend a match, guided tours will take you behind the scenes to the players' locker rooms and include a visit to the San Siro Museum, a shrine of memorabilia.
WHERE TO EAT
Milan has a number of great places to eat and have a drink or two. Start your day at Marchesi 1824, located at Via Santa Maria alla Porta 11. Since 1824 the original Marchesi pasticceria (pastry shop) has been charming customers with its refined 20th century features and picture perfect petit fours. Indulge your sweet tooth with any number of bignes (cream puffs), pralines and sugared almonds, and sample some of the best panettone (fruitcake) in Milan. Note: they have a second location inside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Also excellent is Pave Milano, found at Via Felice Casati 27. I destroyed a frolla con ganache - an insanely good tart filled with dark chocolate ganache and topped with crunchy cacao nuggets. There are also custard filled croissants, mille feuille and some darn good coffee. Note: they have an awesome ice cream shop across town at Via Cesare Battisti 21. As the sibling of the pasticceria, you can expect great things from this contemporary gelateria with its marble topped counter and stainless steel tubs of deliciously light gelato. The flavors change regularly and may include a curry apple sorbet or a taste tingling white chocolate with lime and salt. Pasticceria Gattullo can be found at Piazzale di Porta Lodovica 2. Ever since small town ‘Peppino’ Gattullo opened this pastry shop in 1961, it’s been one of the city’s most beloved locales. Packed in the mornings when it pumps out trayfuls of buttery brioche - the sfoglia al mirtillo (blueberry in puff pastry) is out of this world.
For lunch, head to A Santa Lucia at Via San Pietro all'Orto 3. Part of one of the great waves of migration from the south, Leone and Rosetta Legnani opened this classic restaurant in 1929. They brought with them their warm hearted Neapolitan cooking and old school southern style, with plates of spaghetti alla vongole (spaghetti with clams) and garlic slathered steaks delivered by waiters wearing impeccable white jackets. No wonder Frank Sinatra liked this place. Trattoria Mirta is at Piazza San Materno 12. Uruguayan chef Juan Lema, who named this cozy trattoria after his mother, puts his own spin on traditional northern Italian dishes. Try the squash in saor (dressing of vinegar and onions), enriched with raisins and pine nuts or the cotolette in carpione, a vinegar marinated variation on the cult classic Milanese. Located close to Milan’s Centrale train station at Via San Gregorio 46 is Osteria del Treno. This historic family run osteria serves traditional northern Italian fare and an exquisite selection of Lombardy cheeses. The lightly adorned dining rooms welcome guests that line up for anchovies bathed in Italian salsa verde, risotto Milanese and traditional cassoeula (pork and cabbage stew). Note: stay hungry for desserts made in house, like pistachio gelato or mandarin sorbet.
The city's finest fish restaurant is Trattoria del Pescatore, located at Via Atto Vannucci 5. At the helm are Sardinian couple Giuliano and Agnese and their son, who interned at three Michelin starred Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain. The pasta is handmade in their home town and the unmissable signature dish is the Catalan lobster drowned in Camone tomatoes and Tropea onions. Finish with green apple sorbet and Sardinian cheeses. Note: be sure to book ahead. Rovello 18 can be found at Via Tivoli 2. Third generation chef Michele De Liguoro named this place after the address of his family’s fine dining restaurant Da Pierino, a Michelin starred destination in the 1950s. The homey yet upscale osteria fare includes pasta paired with creamy broccoli rabe, clams and bottarga, as well as crispy risotto al salto. Note: the restaurant is also a wine destination: its collection of over 800 bottles is replete with micro producers and crucial bottles from Italy and France. Il Mannarino Tenca is at Via Carlo Tenca 12. This top notch butcher shop and restaurant focuses on Puglian cuisine. Tempting starters include the bombetta (rolls of capocollo di maiale stuffed with artichokes and baked to order), smashed broad beans with chicory smothered in extra virgin olive oil and slow cooked meatballs.
For dinner, make your way to Seta at Via Andegari 9. Smooth as the silk after which it is named, Seta is Michelin starred dining at its best - beautiful, inventive and full of flavor surprises. Guests sit on their teal colored velvet chairs in keen anticipation of Antonio Guida’s inspired dishes, such as blue lobster with zabaglione (egg and marsala custard) and white miso. If weather permits, dine in the outdoor courtyard where you can glimpse the kitchen in action. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia is located at Via Privata Raimondo Montecuccoli 6. Started by Aimo and Nadia Moroni in 1962 as a simple trattoria, it’s now one of the most revered restaurants in town, with two Michelin stars to its name. Emphasis is on imaginative reinterpretations of regional Italian dishes, such as risotto with zucchini flowers, shrimps from Sanremo, Sicilian tomatoes, and burrata cheese and lemon from the Amalfi Coast. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday. Situated inside Eataly Milano Smeraldo, on the second floor, at Piazza Venticinque Aprile 10 is Viva Viviana Varese. This one Michelin starred restaurant of talented chef Viviana Varese and sommelier Sandra Ciciriello is the pride of Eataly's food hall. The artful furnishings and views over the square are a match for the superlative food and playful menu, with dishes such as Polp Fiction (roasted octopus with string beans) and Mr Crab (unshelled crab in broth). Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday.
Trattoria Trippa can be found at Via Giorgio Vasari 1. Tripe and bone marrow dishes are popular at this chic trattoria run by chef Diego Rossi. Other menu highlights change according to availability - risotto topped with silene, an herb known for its sweet and mild flavor or a soup with nettle and cicerchia (a local legume that used to be a pantry staple but fell out of favor). Simplicity is key as Rossi never uses more than four ingredients for a dish. Note: reservations are essential. Located at Via Savona 10, Langosteria is a temple to seafood - especially crustaceans. Ever since the first location opened in 2007, it has established itself as a stronghold in the Milanese seafood scene. With raw fish platters (make sure you choose the one with shrimp from Mazara del Vallo), seafood topped pastas and Catalan style main courses, Langosteria manages to deliver an upscale experience without the cold formality usually associated with high end seafood restaurants. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday. My most memorable dining experience was at Ristorante Berton, located in the Porta Nuova Food District at Via Mike Bongiorno 13. Chef Andrea Berton trained under the revered founder of new Italian cuisine, Gualtiero Marchesi, before expanding his repertoire in London and then Monaco under the guidance of Alain Ducasse. At his own restaurant, Berton earned a Michelin star in 2014 - with gorgeous dishes, flawless technique and minimal ingredients. The chef is known for his deep passion for brodo or broth, so you can expect dishes like tender grilled beef sirloin and smoked potato cannoli paired with grappa sprayed beef broth and cod tripe with Trasimeno beans bathed in prosciutto broth. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday.
End your evening in Milan with a drink or two. A cool spot is 1930 Cocktail Bar. Jazz, cigars and elaborate cocktails are all part of the allure of this exclusive speakeasy with a secret location (close to the Cinque Giornate Monument). Behind a fake shopfront of waving cats, you’ll find a dimly lit Prohibition style space offering up wildly inventive cocktails. I tried the Tomatina - Brandy Lepanto, rye bread, red wine vinegar, cucumber gum syrup, tomato and pepper shrub. This intimate bar successfully balances a detailed theme with world class drinks, and given its popularity and fame within the industry, a seat can never be guaranteed. Note: befriending owners Flavio Angiolillo and Marco Russo is your best chance of getting in. Bar Rita can be found at Via Angelo Fumagalli 1. This sleek cocktail bar serves seriously creative cocktails and classics with a twist. Try the signature 'old style' Negroni with gin, Campari, Carpano and soda. Note: the bar is closed on Sunday.
Another rad spot is Bar Basso, located at Via Plinio 39. This iconic Milanese bar is not only said to have invented the aperitivo concept, but also the signature Negroni Sbagliato (made with prosecco not gin). A super sized goblet of the stuff is practically mandatory, served up by black tied waiters in an elegant setting that has not changed since the 1950s. Note: the bar is closed on Tuesday. Finish up at the famed Camparino in Galleria, found at Piazza del Duomo 21. With a history dating back to the inauguration of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade in 1867, this art nouveau bar has served drinks to the likes of Verdi, Toscanini and Lichtstein. Cast iron chandeliers and mirrored walls trimmed with mosaics of birds and flowers set the tone for a classy Campari based aperitivo. Note: the bar is open daily until 11p.
WHERE TO STAY
Milan offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Hotel Principe di Savoia, located at Piazza della Repubblica 17. Overlooking a lovely square, this luxury hotel is a quick metro ride from Milan Cathedral and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Opulent rooms come with free WiFi, flat screen TVs, marble bathrooms and designer toiletries. Upgraded quarters add piazza views. Amenities include 2 plush restaurants, a trendy bar, a spa with a hot tub, plus a rooftop terrace, a pretty garden and complimentary car service to the city center.
A second option is the Excelsior Hotel Gallia, located nearby at Piazza Duca d'Aosta 9. Housed in a grand Liberty style building dating from 1932, this lavish hotel is adjacent to Milan's Centrale train station, and a short ride from the Brera Art Gallery and La Scala opera house. The stylish rooms feature hardwood floors, free WiFi and large flat screen TVs. Upgrades add espresso machines and terraces. Other perks include a sleek rooftop restaurant, a cigar bar and a refined wine cellar, along with a spa and complimentary car service to the city center.
Milan is magnificent with lots of history and culture, wonderful art and architecture, creative cuisine and marvelous museums, plus fabled fashion and fanatical football. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.