Written by Brian Johnston
The traditional tourist Italy may be a place of Roman ruins and medieval piazzas, but visit Milan and it will bring you right up to date with the best of contemporary Italian life and style.
The enormous cathedral at the centre of Milan sprouts a fabulous collection of turrets, statues, and opulent ornamentation. The Milanese laboured over their cathedral for five centuries, and it reveals an eccentric mix of everything from Gothic to Baroque, with some startling modern stained glass. You might say this was the opening salvo in the Milanese quest for style, beauty, and culture, to which has been added world-class opera and palazzos full of outstanding art.
Unlike many Italian cities, however, Milan didn’t just rest on its historical laurels. Its long relationship with culture is evoked to this day in top-end fashion, cutting-edge furniture design, and cool contemporary art that sometimes defies description. And Milan’s quest for beauty is equalled only by its liking for business. This is Italy’s financial hub, automobile headquarters, publishing, television, and advertising epicentre, and just as noted for international trade fairs as museums.
The museums are hard to beat, however. If you’re a fan of Caravaggio, you can admire the painter’s work in the Ambrosiana Museum; his Basket of Fruit is simple but breathtaking, and a painting revolutionary for its time. This is only one of Milan’s many fine art museums; the Poldi-Pezzoli and Brera are two others that rank among the best in Italy, which is saying something in a country that created the Renaissance. To see the most famous artwork of all, head to the 15th-century church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco The Last Supper covers the wall of what was once a monks’ refectory.
Yet you don’t have to haunt museums to delight the eye in Milan. In the late afternoon, head for the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele for a cappuccino, and watch people passing by as they head home from work. The Galleria is art too; the building is topped with a glass roof and a cupola, and the floor is covered with mosaics depicting signs of the zodiac. Built in 1865, the Galleria is one of the world’sfirst shopping malls, and remains an elegant shopping highlight of Milan.
The area around the Galleria is known as the Golden Quadrangle because it is enclosed within four streets: Via Montenapoleone; Via Sant’Andrea; Via della Spiga; and Via Gesù. This is one of the trendiest parts of the city, and crammed with chic boutiques that deliver one of the most superlative shopping strips in the world. Many of Italy’s fashion leaders such as Ferré, Prada, Moschino, and Versace have their studios here, as well as flagship outlets. The floors of the flamboyant rococo Dolce & Gabbana store are scattered with zebra-skin rugs, while the changing rooms feature gold thrones. But the current leader in retail style is Armani, whose ultra-trendy three-floor shop comes in the most minimalist of styles and even incorporates a sushi bar.
Quite apart from fashion, you’ll find marvellous perfumeries and shops selling Italian shoes, beautiful writing paper, and fine china. After all, fashion isn’t the only field in which the Milanese are known for their style. This is the home town of Alfa Romeo (its badge incorporates the red cross of the city on one side and the snake of its former aristocratic ruling Visconti family on the other) as well as leading design firms such as Alessi, Memphis, and Frette that have put their mark on everything from chairs to kitchen knives and bed linen.
The annual Salone del Mobile held in April is an internationally renowned furniture show that might as well be an art museum, showcasing the latest in lighting, kitchens, and couches. At other times of the year, Via Montenapoleone is the design destination of choice, with stores from the likes of Alessi, Frette, and the leading textile firm Etro. It’s also well worth visiting Galleria Post Design on Via della Moscova – hard to decide whether the items on show are furnishings or sculptures – and Dilmos on Piazza San Marco, so avant-garde you might have to work out just where to sit on their chairs.
Also try the large department store called La Rinascente in San Bibila, something of a Milan institution. You’ll find clothes and household goods at reasonable prices, with a fine view over the city to boot from its pastry-filled 7th-floor café.
After making music with your taste buds, remember Milan is famous for real music, too, as the home of Teatro alla Scala, the opera house more commonly referred to as ‘La Scala’. One of the world’s finest, it regularly attracts leading international opera stars during the December to May opera season. If you don’t see a performance, at least visit the small and rather endearing museum, which contains opera memorabilia that once belonged to Italian greats such as Verdi, Rossini, and Puccini. You might even get the opportunity to spy on a rehearsal in progress on the opera stage.
All Milan is a stage, really, and its streets are as stylishly arranged as any opera set. The city’s barmen are as sleek as Armani models, its cafés chic as any gallery, the beautifully dressed windows of its fashion boutiques always theatrical. Enjoy the spectacle: Milan provides the ultimate combination of art and style.
Just south of Milan’s city centre lie three canals, part of a former, much larger network that once made landlocked Milan a significant port. The oldest, Naviglio Grande, dates from 1179; later canals were designed by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century. Though the railway era saw the decline of the canals, Navigli’s canal-side warehouses have been redeveloped to house eclectic design shops and artists’ studios, while street markets also give the neighbourhood a lively atmosphere. Restaurants, bars, and nightclubs draw locals to the canals during the evening.
Even the simplest scoop of Italian gelato can be splendid: mellow mango deep as summer sunsets, tangy tangerine, jasmine with a hint of cinnamon. Denser and richer than ice cream, with less sugar and butterfat, the best gelato is produzione propria (homemade) and usually served in a cup rather than on a cone. Among Milan’s best gelaterie is Chocolate (Via Boccaccio 9) which, as the name suggests, is renowned for its many chocolate variations; the tiny Gelato Giusto (Via San Gregorio 17) with ever-changing seasonal and experimental flavours such as ginger or green tea; and the perennially popular Bianco Latte (Via Filippo Turati, 30).