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This is not your father’s Italy. Well, not at first sight anyway. Looking at the gigantic, ultra-modern Allianz skyscraper as it towers above Coloris, Pascale Marthine Tayou’s sleek contemporary art installation, you might feel like you’ve arrived in the future rather than the millennia-old Lombard capital. Always on and always in, Italy’s commercial and bona fide fashion capital couldn’t embrace the digital age fast enough but proudly showcases its rich history, too, from Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper to its striking Gothic Duomo. Not to mention its impeccable taste, in the alta moda sanctuaries of the Golden Rectangle or in Triennale di Milano, where thousands of objects celebrate a thousand years of Italian design.
Milan is the nation’s second-largest metropolis after Rome and that's about where its shortcomings end. It’s a major European economic powerhouse that generates 11% of Italy’s GDP. In fact, by the time the Romans took over Milan, or Mediolanum, as they called it, in 222 BC, it had already cemented its position as one of the most influential cities of the Cisalpine Gaul region. What came after wasn’t exactly downhill, either. In his modestly titled book, De magnalibus urbis Mediolani (On the Marvels of Milan), 13th-century Milanese bard Bonvesin de la Riva gushed about the city’s many virtues, great wealth, honest citizens and 12,500 portoni (front doors). Yes, he counted them. In the following centuries, the Viscontis and the Sforzas did nothing but upped the ante, leaving behind some true gems of Gothic and Renaissance art and architecture.
Make The Last Supper your first stop. Leonardo da Vinci’s most admired piece famously captures the very moment when Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him, and depicts the reactions of anger and shock on the apostles’ faces. Find it in the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie in the heart of the city – book your ticket well in advance! For lovers of art, design and architecture, the question is not what to see next but what to miss out on, given the sheer amount of beauty to be found in Milan. Pinacoteca Di Brera is a no-brainer, though. Stretching on top of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, one of Italy’s elite art schools, Milan’s main public gallery boasts a stunning collection of Old Masters, such as Rubens, Goya, Van Dyck, Titian and Tintoretto. Do look for Mantegna’s haunting masterpiece, Lamentation of Christ. Milan Cathedral (Duomo di Milano) is another non-negotiable stop on your culture hunt. A study in Gothic architecture, Italy’s second-largest church is studded with 2,245 marble statues and 135 spires and saw the coronation of Napoléon as king of Italy in 1809. Moving on to more contemporary marvels, Triennale di Milano in the Palazzo dell'Arte is a temple for all things Italian design. Think 1,600 pieces of furniture and accessories, 3,000 drawings by Alessandro Mendini and thousands of publications from the Clino Trini Castelli Colour Library, among other things. 20th-century Italian painting is what you’re after? Check out Casa Museo Boschi Di Stefano, the former home of Antonio Boschi and Marieda Di Stefano. The art collector duo amassed some 2,000 paintings, sculptures and drawings dating from the early 20th century and they’re all on display in Milan’s edgiest museum.
Lombard dishes have little in common with their tomato sauce- and olive oil-drenched southern counterparts but they’re just as delish. Local recipes are centred around generous servings of rice, beef, pork and butter and give away a strong Central European influence. Fun fact: Italy, Milan-adjacent Po Valley in particular, is the largest producer of rice in Europe. And Milan is probably the largest consumer of risotto, which is made in all imaginable forms all over town. Other local favourites are cotoletta (veal breaded cutlet), cassoeula (pork and cabbage stew) and ossobuco (braised veal). The original risotto alla milanese is an absolute staple in most Milan eateries. Try it at Ratanà in Porta Nuova, where chef Cesare Battisti serves up his much-praised take on the Lombard classic. Trattoria del Nuovo Macello has been dishing out some of the finest cassoeulas in town since 1959. More recently, in the contemporary interpretation of chef Giovanni Traversone – don’t miss it. San Rocco’s Osteria dell’Acquabella in Porta Romana cooks up a mean ossobuco and so does Risoelatte, az understated, cafeteria-style gem where tasty and hearty is the name of the game.
Heading out for a shopping spree in Milan? Comfy shoes it is, then. Stroll or shop, budget permitting, along the iconic Via Monte Napoleone, flanked by the glitziest fashion emporia. Cover the other mainstays of Quadrilatero d’Oro (Golden Rectangle), Via della Spiga, Via Manzoni and Via Sant’Andrea, too, if only for inspiration for what to wear next season. Dreamt up by fashion editor and publisher Carla Sozzani, sister of the late Vogue Italia editor-in-chief, Franca Sozzani, Corso Como 10 is at the crossroads of fashion, art and design. A self-proclaimed 'living magazine', it sells everything from designer clothes through books to fragrances, all hand-picked by expert hands. The Milanese take nights out so seriously they actually party in shifts. The first one starts at 6-ish and involves a casual cocktail in one of the many aperitivo bars across town. Try legendary Bar Basso, where Mirko Stocchetto accidentally invented Negroni Sbagliato, the ultimate aperitivo hour drink in 1972. Come 10 p.m., it’s time to let your hair down at a live gig, squeeze in a theatre performance or hit Milan’s throbbing club scene. Not ready to call it a night? Call it a day: in the city’s hottest after-hours clubs, no great party ends before dawn. Do club names sound fashion-y, too? You’ve come to the right place then. Armani Privé and Cavalli Club are all you need for a stylish night out.
Could use some peace and quiet? Hop on a train and reach Lago Maggiore, Lago di Como or Lago di Garda in just two hours and get ready for an out-of-this-world experience. Stretching at the foot of the Alps, Lake Como’s impossibly blue water is set against dramatic alpine scenery and the most opulent villas you’ve ever seen. Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda is fringed with tiny fairy-tale towns, most notably, Sirmione, on the southern bank. In the embrace of the least crowded and most serene of them all, Lake Maggiore, are the Borromean Islands. Once admired by Ernest Hemingway and more recently, the British royal family, the archipelago impresses with the 17th-century Palazzo Borromeo, lush gardens and jaw-dropping Belle Époque architecture. Or brush up on your Shakespeare and visit storied Verona, some 80 kilometres from Milan to walk the very setting of the world’s most famous love story.
Just like its cuisine, Milan’s climate is closer to that of Italy’s northern neighbours than its southern half. Hot, humid summers turn into pleasant September and October days, which make for prime city break weather. Winters are rather cold and grey, followed by mild and sunny spring months. Early autumn and late spring are probably the best time for a trip to Milan but pack your umbrella and a light jacket for good measure.
Milan Malpensa Airport is the largest international airport in northern Italy with two terminals and two runways. It’s located some 50 kilometres northwest of the Lombard capital, which you can reach using Malpensa Express, a direct train connection between Terminal 2, Terminal 1 and Milan centre. Alternatively, catch Malpensa Shuttle or Malpensa Bus Express to arrive at Milan Central station. Taxi and car rental services are also available. Milano Bergamo Airport (officially: Il Caravaggio International Airport, named after Bergamo’s famous son) is the fourth busiest airport in Italy, located 45 kilometres north-east of Milan. By car, the airport is accessible via Autostrada A4 in approximately 90 minutes from all across the airport’s service area. Find a bus or express coach connection to Milan city centre or hop on an ATB-operated bus to reach Bergamo Railway Station in just 10 minutes.