The powerhouse of the Italian economy, Milan, like the Milanese themselves, is different to the rest of Italy, the people are just as friendly but more fashion conscious, hardy a surprise, and the city more utilitarian, with the exception of the historic centre. It may not have the same quality of artwork as Florence or the vast array of renaissance or classical architecture as Naples or Rome, but it has the perfect combination of history, culture and shops to make it a great city break, so here’s my guide to the city and what to in the 36 hours you have there.
Day 1: Afternoon
Arriving in Milan late morning, head straight to the hotel to freshen up. If you fly into Malpensa airport take the direct train into the city. Apart from being the quickest and most cost effective route into the city, Central Station is worth seeing for its cavernous grand and palace like architecture recalling the optimistic utopian dreams of what railways could do for the masses.
After freshening up at the hotel, lunch is called for; you’re of course spoilt for choice in any Italian city, but really you’re a fool if you don’t look for the places that only the Italians eat at. I like to have a pizza, it’s the perfect thing to keep me going after an early start, and given sightseeing in the afternoon the place to go is just off the Piazza del Duomo. It may not look much in its glass and modern plainness but Ristorante Pizzeria di Gennaro on Via Santa Radegonda is the place to go, unless you can wangle an invite to lunch one of the prestigious Milan members clubs. I will admit that it’s no the best pizza in Milan but when what you need is simple good food that will help you with your energy levels then this will do. Best save the best food for when you’re more with it and feel up to it. All this said, the pizza is good, fresh and the Italians do eat there – after a performance at La Scala, I have joined other operagoers in heading there for a meal.
Refuelled and ready to sight see the obvious place to start is the Piazza del Duomo and the Duomo itself. Topped with a golden Madonnina, and the site of Napoleon’s coronation as King of Italy, Milan’s Duomo is the heart of the city and a must visit. Begun in 1387 it took 500 years to build and is the greatest examples of Italian Gothic to be found anywhere. Inside little remains of the original interiors and while one must go in and see the stain glass and the cavernous space in all its glory, the real gem of the Duomo is to be found outside. The 3,500 pink marble statues that adorn the outside lead up to the seemingly never-ending complex of intricate pinnacles, cusps, rampant arches and buttresses, leaving one amazed and in ore of the skill of the masons that carved them. To see them, and the city at their best, you should visit the roof terrace of the Duomo at sunset, when the marble glistens, the Madonna shines bright, and on a good day you can see the Alps.
Follow this up with a walk through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is the great shopping arcade that connects the Piazza del Duomo with La Scala. Constructed in 1867 it’s a grand neo-classical structure with one of Italy’s earliest glass and iron roof structures lined with high-end shops and restaurants including Prada, Louis Vutton and the famous Milanese restaurant Savini. Legend has it that if you place your heel on the testicles of the bull on the crest of Turin and spin round three times, it will bring good luck.
Day 1: Evening
Head back to the hotel to rest, freshen up and change into your finery before heading out for the evening. Traditionally dinner starts late in Italy so everyone heads out around 6pm in their finest cloths to promenade with the intentions to see, be seen and maybe even flirt a little before heading for a pre dinner drink. Bar wise, you are of course spoiled for choice, but for a bar with a view you have two options, the Martini terrace bar at Duomo 21 and the Aperol bar terrace, both situated by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II overlooking the Piazza del Duomo and offering stunning up close views of the Duomo. As is traditional the cocktails are served with a selection of large canapés, I would recommend the Martini bar as it is a little more refined that the Aperol bar which has a younger, more vibrant crowd and more tourists. Alternatively head to either of the two bars at the Grand Hotel, the grandest hotel in the city and where Verdi lived for more than twenty years.
Where you head next is up to you, dinner or La Scala. If you’ve been lucky enough to get tickets to La Scala then lucky you. But beware, the seating consists of the stalls, six tiers boxes, the sale of which paid for the theatres original construction, and above these are two levels of loggione (galleries). When choosing seats for La Scala select the stalls or the front seats of the boxes, as any other seat will leave you with a limited view or indeed no view at all in the case of some boxes. Alternatively stand in the loggione where you will find the die hard Milanese opera fans and devotees of La Scala who have been known to boo lead singers off stage, a true mark of their disapproval as La Scala is normally very understated and reserved in its applause and reaction to the events on stage. No doubt you’ll be hungry after the performance, and the attached restaurant Il Marchesino makes for a perfect post opera bite.
If you haven’t got tickets for the opera, then a night on the town, or rather at a superb restaurant, is in order. If you are looking for Michelin cuisine, Milan will not disappoint, and I would recommend heading to the canal area. Found in the south of the city it was partly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Not only is this a great place to spend an evening, it is always lively and full of bars, clubs and restaurants, it is also where you’ll find the Michelin starred Trattoria Al Pont de Ferr serving up clean modern Italian in a very classic space that gives no hint of its status.
If you want something else, but where the food is superb classic Italian and the clientele are always almost solely the Milanese are Trattoria da Pino, and my personal favourite Ristorante A Santa Lucia. It may look nothing from the outside and dated on the inside, but it’s always packed with well-dressed Milanese and, during fashion week, many a fashionista. There’s always a choice of four or five daily specials on offer, with fresh seasonal ingredients such as porcini mushrooms offered when available. The menu is plain sounding and entirely in Italian so do ask what dishes are, or simply spot something at another table that you like the look of and order that; you wont go too far wrong. Worry not about choosing one over the other, as whichever one you don’t pick will make for a great lunch the next day.
Day 2: Morning
The best way to start the day in Italy is to do as the Italians do and get a quick coffee. The Italian way is to have strong espresso with sugar standing at the bar of the coffee shop, in fact if you sit you pay extra. There are many cafes you can go to, after all they are by design local establishments, but one worth a trip to is Cova, founded in 1817 it is one of the oldest in the city and conveniently for the shops its located on Via Monte Napoleone (more on this later).
Breakfast dealt with its off to The Last Supper. As one Milan based friend put it to me, ‘Milan has very little art worth seeing due to its history’, and he’s right, the lack of a long ruling dynasty has meant the city never had much great art commissioned over its long history, instead it has been more militaristic and industrial by way of survival. There are exceptions of course, especially if you’re a fan of early twentieth century modernist Italian art, but the one piece that must be seen is Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper.
Commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the most famous Duke of Milan, to adorn the wall of the refectory at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (well worth a visit itself) it was probably painted 1495-1497. Due to the experimental technique used by da Vinci the mural has slowly been decaying ever since and access is strictly controlled. To visit you must book in advance, this is best done as far in advance as possible. While you should view the mural up close to see the detail, don’t forget to stand in the back half of the room and view it from there, as the perspective da Vinci uses is designed to be viewed at a distance and it’s at this point that the full effect of the work’s majesty is clear.
Make your way back to the Piazza del Duomo via the Sfroza Palace (go in if you like, but its only worth it if you have lots of spare time), San Lorenzo Maggiore, Civico Tempio di San Sebastian and Santa Maria Presso San Satorio, three churches worth seeing.
Dating from when Milan was the capital of the Western Roman Empire, San Lorenzo Maggiore is one of the oldest round churches of western Christendom and houses some of the finest 5th century mosaics in the attached Cappella di Sant’Aquilino. Santa Maria Presso San Satorio, set off a busy main road is a haven of tranquillity and full of artistic gems and trickery. A must see. By contrast just down the road is the later, plainer and circular Civico Tempio di San Sebastian built to celebrate the cities deliverance from plague in 1576. It may be something of a round about route back to the Piazza del Duomo but it allows you to take in another area of the city and its most interesting churches.
If you have time before lunch you might also consider visiting Sant’ Ambrogio, where the who’s who of Milan celebrate all major events in their life. Dating from 379 and built to recognise Christianity in Milan during the Roman Empire, it has been expanded over the centuries but features many clues to its Roman and medieval past, with its Romanesque interior, mosaics and Roman porphyry columns supporting the alters golden canopy.
Have a leisurely lunch, there is no call to exhaust yourself, and head to Trattoria da Pino or Ristorante A Santa Lucia.
Day 2: Afternoon
With Milan as the fashion centre of Italy you can’t visit without hitting the shops. Like in any city Milan has its department stores, but there are two that I think are worth mentioning here, la Rinascente and Excelsior, both of which are near the Duomo. la Rinascente can best be described as the Selfridges of Milan, in it you will find all the great fashion names of the west and a home décor department to help you kit your home out in the same style as any trendy Milanese. More avante-garde and design orientated in what they offer is Excelsior, which reminds one of an Italian Harvey Nichols. Rather than having a ground floor selling make up, it sells the latest watches, design books, sunglasses, gadgets and the most incredibly wacky smart phone cases, while the upper floors are given over to more fashion forward cloths from top designers. The two basement levels are temples to the Italian love of food. One floor selling cookery implements and wares while the lower level is a food hall not just beautiful for the quality of fine Italian produce but for the artistry in the way it’s displayed.
Corso Vittorio Emanuel II and the surrounding streets just behind the Duomo are home to the high street and upper middle brands. However the home of the top designers, brands and boutiques like Chanel and Moschino can be found on and within the streets of a square area bordered by the four intersecting streets of Via Alessandro Manzoni, Via Della Spiga, Via Santa Andrea and Via Monte Napoleone. Among the international designers, you’ll find Italian designers and shoe stores offering up fine wares such as calfskin shoes so soft and light they have to be touched to be believed. What all the shops, be they international brands or not, have in common is that their offering is distinctly Italian in style and different to what they offer elsewhere.
Given it’s such a fashion conscious city, Milan has a number of outlet stores selling top designers at incredible discounts, often over 50%. Among the best outlets are the Dmagazine Outlet on Via Alessandro Manzoni, and il Salvagente on Via Fratelli Bronzetti. Also keep an eye out for pop up outlets, especially around the Via Santa Andrea; I have twice found pop up outlets around there.
If you have enough time before heading to airport get one more drink at one of the terrace bars overlooking the Duomo.
As with any Italian city make sure you keep an eye out and look though gates into courtyards, as they are often hidden gems and don’t worry about just wandering off with only a map and no real plan, as it’s a great way to get to know the city and discover the bits only the locals know about. In this guide I have tried to make it so you get a balance between touristy and just wandering, but with such a short time frame to see a city that’s hard, so if you can manage an extra day do so and use it to get lost (within reason of course) in the city.