Milan is elegant, chaotic, and utterly beguiling in turn. Traffic chokes the streets, and it can be bitterly cold in winter and stiflingly hot in summer, yet its architecture is majestic and the robust Northern Italian cuisine warming. It’s a world-beater on the international fashion stage, the banking capital of Italy, a wealthy city of glamorous people and stylish shopping streets. And Milan has history. As well as the Roman ruins, the soaring duomo and its majestic piazza, the galleries are stuffed with priceless artworks, and there are ancient churches, medieval castles, Renaissance palaces, and amazing contemporary architecture to admire.
In 2015 Milan welcomes 29 million visitors for the 6-month-long citywide extravaganza that is the World Expo. Running from May 1 through October 31, the theme of this exposition is feeding the planet. The construction of a new exhibition complex was well underway around Pero and Rho, just northwest of the centro storico. Here a new cluster of world-class architecture has grown up in the CityLife district, headed by the innovative towers built by archistars Arata Isozaki, Daniel Libeskind, and Zaha Hadid.
Thanks to its inland location and proximity to the lakes, summer is hot and sticky in Milan, and on top of that, as in the rest of Italy, many stores and restaurants are closed for a few weeks in August. The driest and most comfortable months are from March to June, and while the rains are heaviest in the fall, it is virtually room temperature in September and October. Winters are dry, while the temperatures usually hover just above freezing.
The prime spot for a walking is the Piazza Duomo and the adjoining Galleria, but many of the neighborhoods that fan out from the center are ideal for wandering and looking into the life of the Milanese. The Fashion Quadrilateral, just north of the Piazza Duomo on and around Via Montenapoleone, is known for window shopping and trendy cafes and bars; Magenta is an old residential quarter, filled with some of the city’s most venerable churches, west of Piazza Duomo; the Brera, a parcel of once-seedy, now-gentrified Milan, filled with bars and inexpensive restaurants along the streets clustered around the Pinacoteca Brera; and the popular Navigli neighborhood, at the southern edge of the center city, a series of narrow towpaths running alongside the remaining navigli (canals) that once laced the city, the former warehouse entrances along them now housing hopping and unpretentious bars, pubs, restaurants, and small clubs in the city. A stroll in Milan almost always includes a stop at a cafe or gelateria. Don’t forget to visit The Bone Church close to the Duomo: San Bernardino alle Ossa.
Other sneaky viewpoints over the Duomo include the food market on the top floor of classy department store La Rinascente and the posh Restaurant Giacomo Arengario at the Museo del Novecento. To look down on Parco Sempione and the crowds in the Triennale Design Museum, take the elevator up Torre Branca near the north end of the park. Milan’s Shut-Down Mondays
Milan is one of Europe’s fashion capitals and in late February designers debut their women’s fall/winter fashion looks for the upcoming season at Milano Moda Donna. The spring/summer women’s collection shows on designers’ catwalks in October. Milan is shopping. Milan is expensive. Milan is known the world over as one of the temples of high fashion, with the hallowed streets Montenapoleone and Spiga in the Quadrilatero della moda the most popular place of worship. Here D&G, Prada, Gucci, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Ralph Lauren, Versace, and Cavalli all jostle for customers among Milan’s minted fashionistas. More reasonable shopping areas include Via Torino and Corso Buenos Aires, where mid-range international brands proliferate.
Though it’s overshadowed by the goings-on in Venice, Milan’s pre-Lenten Carnevale is becoming increasingly popular, with costumed parades and an easygoing good time, much of it focusing around Piazza del Duomo beginning a week or so before Ash Wednesday. Milan’s biggest holiday, however, is December 7, the feast of its patron saint, Sant’Ambrogio. Those who don’t leave the city for their sacrosanct day off generally spend the afternoon wrapping their mittens around a hot vin brule at an outdoor fair in, you guessed it, Piazza Sant’Ambrogio. Just before the city shuts down in August, the city council stages a series of June and July dance, theater, and music events in theaters and open-air venues around the city.
Fashion is one Milanese obsession, food is another, and the centro storico has many superb delis from which to purchase the purest of olive oils and fine cheeses: Peck is still the number-one gourmet spot, although competition is keen from Buongusto for the freshest of pasta in many guises, and Eataly in the basement of Coin’s department store for all comestibles Italian. The top floor of La Rinascente department store in Piazza del Duomo, with its Obika mozzarella bar and fine selection of packaged Italian goods, is another haven for foodies (as an added bonus, you get a close-up view of the Duomo).
Milan has its share of flash clubs and cocktail bars, but most explode on the scene and disappear just as quickly; a few spots appear to be in for the long haul, like the vine-covered cocktail terrace at 10 Corso Como, the lavish D&G Gold, the evergreen dance club Hollywood and mega-club Plastic.
True, Italy’s financial center, business hub, fashion capital, and one of the world’s most industrialized major cities is not a traditional vacation spot. It’s hot and empty in the summer and damp and foggy in the winter, it’s surrounded by bland apartment buildings (it was heavily bombed in World War II), and it’s generally less beautiful than its counterparts to the east and south. Milan, though, reveals its long and event-filled history downtown, in monuments, museums, and churches. It sets one of the finest tables in Italy, features art by such towering geniuses as Michelangelo (his final sculpture) and Leonardo da Vinci (The Last Supper), and supports a cultural scene that embraces La Scala, fashion shows, and nightlife, not to mention two top soccer teams, AC Milan and Inter. With its dazzling shop windows, ethnic diversity, proud cocktail hour, and other sophisticated ways, Milan is more cosmopolitan than anywhere else in Italy, an urban treasure that remains hidden from the casual tourist.