When planning a city break in Italy, most people probably pick Venice, Rome or Florence, and that’s exactly why you should visit Milan instead. Of course, there are still crowded tourist hotspots, but most of the city still feels truly Italian. You can roam the streets in peace and pretend that you live there!
Milan’s illustrious history and modern status as the financial capital of Italy, means there is an abundance of beautiful buildings and some of the world’s finest architects have contributed to the city. Unlike many other cities in Italy, which seem to be dominated by one particular architectural period – like medieval Bologna or Siena – Milan has exemplary architecture from all periods. For example, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Chiesa Santa Maria Della Grazie, exemplifies Milanese Renaissance splendour and is renowned for its false apse, an early example of architectural optical illusion attributed to Renaissance heavyweight Donato Bramante. While the opulent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the most famous examples of European iron architecture and represents the archetype of the commercial retail space of the 19th century.
All over the city, but particularly in Navigli, you will spot charming yellow case di ringhiera, the traditional workers’ houses, characterised by iron railings that date from the turn of the 20th century. The Porta Venezia neighbourhood is celebrated for its many Art Nouveau (‘Stile Liberty’) buildings; geometric stained glass windows, plasterwork with floral motifs and curvaceous ironwork decorate the elegant townhouses.
Brutalist icon Torre Velasca dominates Milan’s skyline; its rational design (allowing more space at the top of the building) is also said to encapsulate the strength and rationalism of Italy in the post-war years of reconstruction.
Art museum Fondazione Prada is a contemporary masterpiece; designed by the OMA architecture studio led by Rem Koolhaas, the site marries existing industrial distillery buildings with esoteric new spaces, including a tower clad in gold leaf.
Fondazione Prada, Largo Isarco, 2, 20139 Milano MI, Italy, +39 02 5666 2611
And Milanese architect Stefano Boeri’s ‘vertical forest’ residence looks to the future; it is a project for metropolitan reforestation designed to the regenerate urban biodiversity – 800 trees, 4,500 shrubs and 15,000 plants cover the luxury apartment buildings.
Milan was at the centre of some of Europe’s most historically significant art movements – from 14th-century Gothic art under the Visconti family, to Futurism at the beginning of the 20th century – and this is reflected in the quality and breadth of its museums and art galleries. It is home to one of the most famous Renaissance paintings in the world – Leonardo di Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ (1495–1498) and unrivalled collections of Italian modernism, featuring masterpieces from the likes of Umberto Boccioni and Lucio Fontana. Read ’10 Masterpieces You Can Only See in Milan’ here.
The food in Milan draws on the bounty of the surrounding mountains, coastline, lakes and verdant farmland. It is rich and hearty with meat and rice taking centre stage. Signature Milanese dishes include saffron risotto (Risotto alla Milanese), breaded veal cutlet (Cotoletta alla Milanese) and the traditional Christmas loaf, panettone.
It is widely thought that the aperitif drink was invented in the 18th century in Turin, by the creator of vermouth. However the concept of aperitivo hour did not take off until the 1920s in Milan. Indeed, it was in Milan that Gaspare Campari started mixing cocktails that ultimately led to the production of the bitter spirit that is now synonymous with aperitivo.
You can enjoy aperitivo all over Italy, but in Milan it as a ritual and they do it best – between the hours of 6pm and 8pm, the whole city seems to be enjoying a drink and light snack before heading home or out to dinner. Go low-key at a typical café and join locals as they drink standing up at the counter and nibble on crisps and olives, or go grand and settle in at a stylish bar that serves drinks alongside fine meats and small plates.
Every major European city has an iconic architectural site: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Big Ben in London… and in Milan it is the majestic Duomo, situated at the very centre of the city in Piazza del Duomo. Built with pink-hued white marble from the quarries of Lake Maggiore, the cathedral is the biggest and arguably the most elaborate Gothic building in Italy. Unlike many other sites where you climb to the top of a tower or viewing platform, with the Duomo, there is the novel experience of climbing directly onto the rooftop. Here you can take in a panoramic view of the city while also admiring the intricacies of the architecture.
Rome might hold all the secrets to Italy’s ancient history, but Milan is the best place to learn about its more recent past. The Royal Palace and Castello Sforzesco provide insight into the Age of the Commune and the medieval dynasties that ruled and feuded in Lombardy and beyond.
The Royal Palace, Piazza del Duomo, 12, 20122 Milano MI, Italy, +39 02 8846 5230
Castello Sforzesco, Piazza Castello, 20121 Milano MI, Italy, +39 02 8846 3700
Museo del Risorgimento illuminates the period of Italian history between the first campaign of Napoleon Bonaparte in Italy (1796) and the annexation of Rome to the Kingdom of Italy (1870) aka Italian Unification.
Museo del Risorgimento, Via Borgonuovo, 23, 20121 Milano MI, Italy, +39 02 8846 4177
Milan played an important role in Mussolini’s Fascist regime, traces of which are spread throughout the city – the architecture of Milano Centrale train station for example. Museo del Novecento houses a remarkable collection of 20th century Italian art, giving visitors a great introduction to modern Italian art history, in particular Futurism which was born in Milan. And those are just a few of the historical highlights on offer.
Museo del Novecento, Via Guglielmo Marconi, 1, 20122 Milano MI, Italy, +39 02 8844 4061
Some say that Paris is the fashion capital of Europe; those with edge argue Milan. If you lust after la dolce vita and favour the unadulterated glamour of Italian fashion, then you will love shopping here. Milan boasts so many of the biggest names in luxury fashion – Valentino, Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni (to name a few) – but it is also the country’s centre of emerging fashion talent, with amazing new brands continually emerging.
Since the early 1900s, Italy has been a trendsetter in interior and furniture design , and since 1961 when Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano first launched, Milan has been the epicentre of design activity. Gio Ponti and Fornasetti are two historical designers synonymous with the city. For those wanting to buy, all of the leading design studios have showrooms and outlets here. Alternatively, pay a visit to the Triennale Design Museum.
As Italy’s undisputed fashion and design capital, it comes as no surprise that Milan’s population dress well. From outlandish burgeoning fashionistas to slick old-timers, there is no shortage of style on the streets here. And because the city is relatively small, its many chic residents seem to be everywhere, which makes for brilliant people-watching.
Teatro alla Scala is Italy’s premiere destination to watch opera (as well as ballet and classical music). It plays host to leading operatic singers from around the world in a decadent interior of red and gold. At La Scala, Gioachino Rossini conducted some of the finest operas ever performed and Giuseppe Verdi made his name here.
The yellow tram is one of iconic symbols of Milan. Of course the vehicles have been replaced and updated over the years, but many of the trams running through Milan today remain in the early 19th- and 20th-century designs. They have a bright yellow carriage with a wood-panel interior; long benches line the inside and glass lamps are dotted along the ceiling; they even have sash windows. In certain areas, you can spot a classic tram and feel like you are in a bygone era. There is also something nostalgic about taking the tram – you wind slowly along the streets and avenues, with no one ever rushing to get on or off. Hop on and enjoy the city at a different pace.
Northern Italy has an amazing train network of which Milan is the centre, making it a great jumping-off point for exploring. For example, Como and Turin are both reachable in one hour or less; Parma and Lake Garda in two hours or less; Venice in under three. If you have time on your hands you can also make it to the Alps or Dolomites. In most cases, driving is even quicker still.