Any Italy “expert” who advises you to skip Milan really doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
There’s a common misconception that Milan is gray, industrial, and uninviting. Without ever setting foot here, people assume there’s nothing to see but the Duomo and Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and that the city only appeals to fashion mongers and design devotees. While stylish sojourners will undoubtedly appreciate Milan, the city is also a playground for plenty of other pursuits.
Milan doesn’t generally fit the mold for what people have in mind when they think of Italy–it is not as “in your face” as the ruins of Rome, the canals of Venice, or the Renaissance gems of Florence, and, as a result, is often (wrongfully) overlooked in favor of its “grander” Italian sister cities. However, disregarding the Lombard capital is a mistake–it is Italy’s best unkept secret. An intriguing amalgam of the old and the new, discreet Milan is most certainly not an easy place to get to know, but it is magnificent once you do. Below is an attempt to dispel some of the biases that cloak the unassuming Northern Italian capital.
Milan Is Not Bland and Gray
A proper stroll through the Lombard capital will discredit anyone who says Milan is bland and gray. Saturated stone fruit-colored facades line the eclectic Via Solferino while the polychromatic homes on Via Abramo Lincoln recall the island of Burano in the Venetian Lagoon. Elegant Liberty and Art-Nouveau structures preside over the streets of the Porta Venezia quarter (Via Malpighi in particular), where ornate floral carvings and majolica tiles adorn Casa Galimberti while cherub statues prance along the facade of Casa Guazzoni. Visit Torre Branca, the Pirelli Tower, or a rooftop restaurant for a sweeping view of the lush courtyards concealed behind the large imposing doors, as well as the flourishing flora on countless rooftops and terraces across the city. And Sempione Park in the city center has plenty of green space to go around.
INSIDER TIPBring an extra battery to charge your phone as you’re likely to be snapping away!
The Obligatory Trinity: The Duomo, The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and Teatro alla Scala
These three historic center landmarks are undoubtedly the city’s most emblematic. The Duomo, the fourth largest cathedral in the world, is a Gothic masterpiece completed in 1965 after 600 years of construction. Visit the rooftop terrace to stroll among the 135 imposing spires and admire the panorama of Milan’s typical russet rooftops offset by the snow-capped Alps. Amble around the grandiose Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a 19th-century arcade, to browse the designer shops and nifty boutiques. While inside, partake in a local ritual: spin on the Bull of Turin’s (worn) groin for good luck (three times, counter-clockwise, on your right heel) and keep an eye out for the original Prada store, a “valigeria” next to the designer’s womenswear shop. A night at Teatro alla Scala is a must–buy tickets a couple of months in advance. If your schedule doesn’t allow for an opera, visit the adjacent the museum, and you just might get to peek inside the opulent theater.
INSIDER TIPHave a bite at Spazio, an outstanding restaurant on the fourth floor of the Mercato del Duomo in the Galleria. Top-quality food at a decent price point is a rarity in this heavily trodden zone.
No major Italian city is complete without glorious art masterpieces, and Milan is no exception. Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Last Supper stuns admirers from its lofty position on a wall inside the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The impressive collections at both Pinacoteca di Brera and Pinacoteca Ambrosiana each boast works by Caravaggio and Raphael. The latter houses da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, a twelve-volume tome containing myriad sketches and writings penned by the Renaissance man. Of the dozen-plus museums at Castello Sforzesco, the former residence of the Duke of Milan, one is dedicated entirely to Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà, the incomplete and final work from his Pietà sculpture series. The Castello’s Sala delle Asse (Axis Hall), which houses extraordinary nature frescos by da Vinci, just reopened as part of the celebration for the artist’s quincentenary.
INSIDER TIPLeonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper sells out months in advance. If you can’t nab tickets, fret not–book a spot on a city tour that includes a viewing.
Thoughtfully-Curated Contemporary Art
Fondazione Prada has received a slew of duly merited praise, but it’s not the only local venue with compelling contemporary art. Pirelli HangarBicocca, a former industrial plant, is now a contemporary art institution known for its eccentric permanent exhibition as well as bold temporary exhibits. On the gallery front, Kaufmann Repetto has a strong leaning towards female artists while Cardi Gallery focuses on postwar art. The esteemed Massimo de Carlo is known for highlighting edgy elaborate works from highly innovative talent, and Prometeo Gallery showcases emerging international artists with a strong focus on Eastern Europe. Head to Primo Marella for multimedia installations from mostly Asian and African artists or Galleria Carla Sozzani on the second level of 10 Corso Como for international photography exhibits highlighting fashion.
INSIDER TIPSwing by Piazza degli Affari to see Maurizio Cattelan’s L.O.V.E., often referred to as “that giant middle finger statue”.
MUDEC, The Museum of Culture
MUDEC, the Museum of Culture, opened in 2014 in the former Ansaldo steelworks plant. Located in the industrial neck of the Tortona district, MUDEC’s extraordinary permanent collection contains 7,000 works, textiles, objects, and instruments from Africa, Japan, Southeast Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East. Temporary exhibits from the likes of Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joan Miró, and Banksy among others always draw a crowd. If you have the kids in tow, the activities and multimedia exhibits at MUDEC Junior will keep their curiosity piqued.
INSIDER TIPThe two-Michelin-starred Ristorante Enrico Bartolini is located on the museum’s third floor. For a more casual repast, the restaurant’s namesake chef also oversees the informal bar and bistro on the ground floor.
Vino, da Vinci-Style
Leonardo da Vinci spent the most formative years of his career in Milan, where he worked primarily as a painter in the court of Ludovico “il Moro” Sforza, Duke of Milan. In 1498, the duke gifted da Vinci the vineyard at Casa degli Attelani, an exquisite 15th-century palazzo directly across the street from Santa Maria delle Grazie. After spending his days painting the Last Supper, da Vinci would then tend the vines to harvest Malvasia di Candia Aromatica grapes. Four years ago, Leonardo’s Vineyard reopened to the public and oenologists re-planted the original vine stock in the hopes of eventually recreating the very same nectar of the gods crafted and sipped by the Renaissance genius himself.
INSIDER TIPBook in advance as the property is only viewable on a tour.
San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore aka Milan’s Sistine Chapel
Nicknamed Milan’s Sistine Chapel, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore flaunts jaw-dropping floor-to-ceiling frescoes, many of which were painted by Bernardino Luini, a student of da Vinci (and the artist to whom some scholars attribute Salvator Mundi). Unlike the Last Supper, there is no admission fee, you don’t have to book in advance, and you’re not limited to a 15-minute time slot. The fully frescoed partition wall divides the church from the Nun’s Hall, where the cloistered sisters worshiped back in the day. Discover the church, complete with a colossal 16th-century organ, at your own pace.
INSIDER TIPDon’t miss Stories of Noah’s Ark by Aurelio Luini, Bernardino’s son, to see a pair of unicorns boarding the vessel alongside the other fauna. It’s located in the last chapel on the left side of the Nun’s Hall.
A Network of Beguiling House Museums
Nearly a decade before Luca Guadagnino released Call Me by Your Name, he made the heart-rending Io sono l’amore (I Am Love), a film set in Villa Necchi Campiglio, a 1930s mansion that is part of Milan’s network of house museums. The villa’s enriching domestic counterparts include Poldi Pezzoli, home to an exquisite collection compiled by its namesake owner in the 19th century; Bagatti Valsecchi, a mansion in the “Quadrilatero d’Oro” that two brothers blinged out in the late 19th century; and Boschi di Stefano, the former apartment of avid art collectors who amassed a 200-piece collection. Each museum has its own distinct flair, but all provide an intimate, exquisite glimpse into the life and history of the bourgeoisie of the past. A visit to at least one is a must.
INSIDER TIPVilla Invernizzi, right around the corner from Villa Necchi Campiglio, is home to a colony of pink flamingos.
A Global Design Stage
Milan is synonymous with design and every April, hundreds of thousands of aesthetes descend upon the city for Design Week, which consists of the Salone del Mobile, the world’s largest furniture fair at the Rho fairgrounds, and Fuori Salone, a rager of captivating–and, at times, outlandish–installations and events held in the city proper. To dabble in the design scene, roam the Brera district, an enchanting warren of boutiques and antique shops, and drop in on the Richard Ginori flagship. The old-fangled facades of the quaint Cinque Vie Quarter house exemplary shops such as Funky Table, known for its quirky tabletop objects; Laboratorio Paravicini for exquisite made-to-order hand-painted ceramics; and Galleria Rossana Orlandi, a sprawling series of magnificently designed spaces centered around a courtyard. The Maroncelli District, a clutch of antique shops and galleries, include Brazilian import Etel and Galleria Carte Scoperte, known for its paper artworks. Nilufar Depot, a three-story warehouse with contemporary and vintage pieces, is a must for staunch design devotees.
INSIDER TIPIl Bistrot di Aimo e Nadia, a less formal outpost of a historic two-Michelin-starred restaurant, is located inside Galleria Rossana Orlandi.
Shop ‘til You Drop
As the birthplace of some of the most iconic names in the industry, Milan has rightfully earned a distinction as a world fashion capital. The Quadrilatero d’Oro is the “Golden Rectangle” that connects four designer-studded streets: Via Montenapoleone, Via Della Spiga, Via Sant’Andrea, and Via Manzoni. It’s well worth a visit, but shoppers should take note to look beyond the big names. Cleverly curated boutiques include Wait and See, a shop in a former convent with bold original looks from mostly emerging designers; L’Arabesque, which couples contemporary items with vintage from the 1950s and 60s; and Cavalli e Nastri, a world-famous vintage shop. From ethereal jewelry at Pilgio to ballet flats at Porselli to hand-crafted tarot cards at Il Meneghello to bespoke suits at Sartoria A. Caraceni, the independent artisans never fail to impress. Last but not least, 10 Corso Como is a mecca for the sartorially savvy.
La Cucina Milanese
You can most certainly fill up on typical dishes like risotto and ossobuco alla Milanese, but there is more to sate your appetite in Milan. Try Trattoria Masuelli San Marco for old-school Milanese classics or Trattoria del Nuovo Macello for rustic-meets-contemporary dishes. Ratanà and Daniel are always a win for contemporary Milanese, as is Erba Brusca for farm-to-table fare. Trippa and Nebbia offer an inventive take on the traditional trattoria, and Pasta Madre brings a taste of Sicily to the table. Dry, Crosta, Da Zero, Lievità, and Berberè are your best bets for pizza. If you need a reprieve from Italian, head to Chinatown (Milan is home to Italy’s largest Chinese community). Stop by La Ravioleria di Sarpi for dumplings or Jian Bing, those ever-satisfying breakfast crepes that you can enjoy any time of day.
INSIDER TIPAlways book a table, especially for dinner. Restaurants in Milan don’t usually fill up until after 9 pm as Italians tend to dine later. In general, many locales are averse to the turn-and-burn mentality, so–while this is starting to change–it’s still rare to find establishments that will give you a table that they would need back by a certain time.
A Pleasantly Caffeinated City
The Starbucks opening made waves worldwide but, with all due respect to the coffee titan, it’s the least interesting thing that has ever happened to Milan. There are indeed better places to sip a cup of joe. Start your day at Pavé, one of the city’s best bakeries, for Italian-style breakfast (a velvety cappuccino coupled with a brioche), or pop in for a merenda (an afternoon snack) and pair it with an espresso. Orsonero, a specialty shop that prepares solid iterations of the Italian classics, has a selection of delightful filtered coffees, and Cafezal marries Italian and Brazilian coffee traditions. Local third-wave pioneer Taglio still brews what’s arguably the city’s best cup, and Rationale Coffee, a recent addition to the local coffee scene, has already set a new benchmark for java.
INSIDER TIPIf you ask for a “caffè”, you’re likely to get an espresso. If you want an American-style cup and a filtered brew isn’t on the menu, ask for a caffè Americano, an espresso diluted with hot water.
The aperitivo is alive and well in Milan, and the concept never fails to intrigue the uninitiated: helping yourself to a buffet of free food with the purchase of a drink–usually a Spritz, Americano, Negroni, or the homegrown Negroni Sbagliato (sipping the latter at Bar Basso is required!). However, the aperitivo buffet is not an all-you-can-eat spread à la Las Vegas–it should complement the cocktail in “opening” your stomach for dinner. Lately, shrewd locals have been leaning more towards cocktail bars where mixologists implement contemporary techniques, opting to imbibe on inventive libations such as Mag Cafe’s The Path of the Gods, Ceresio 7’s Penicellin #2, Morgante’s Herbal Sour, The Doping Club’s The Duke Revolution, and any item from the “la cucina liquida” (liquid cuisine) menu at Talea, among others.
INSIDER TIPBelieve it or not, you might need to reserve ahead of time even for pre-dinner drinks. If not, then take care to arrive early (by 6 pm) to make sure you get a seat.
The Bustling Isola Quarter
Once upon a time, this former working-class neighborhood in North Milan was considered a suburb before the city expanded outwards. Don’t let the sleepy streets fool you–this is one of the liveliest districts in the city. Architect Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), a distinct duo of sustainable buildings on which one hectare of forest greenery is planted, presides over the neighborhood. Keep your eyes peeled for quirky street artworks such as Bao’s Mr. Blob and Zibe’s various iterations of Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes, browse the vintage racks at Delphine, park yourself on a stool at the Botanical Club to sip one of their creative cocktails, book a table at Ratanà to try the latest seasonal iteration of risotto, and savor salted pistachio gelato at Artico.
INSIDER TIPIsola is adjacent to Porta Nuova, the newish skyscraper-studded district. Walk along Passeggiata Luigi Veronelli to reach the César-Pelli-designed Piazza Gae Aulenti with the distinct UniCredit Towers.
The Ever-Enduring Navigli District
The district’s two focal points, the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese canals, meet at the Darsena, Milan’s old harbor that reopened in 2015 after a major restoration. Both belong to the historic network of canals engineered in the 12th century to connect landlocked Milan to the outside world. In fact, the marble for building the Duomo arrived on these waterways. As you’re strolling, look out for Vicolo dei Lavandai, a narrow lane off the Naviglio Grande where, once upon a time, the washerwomen did their laundry. Nowadays, the quarter is teeming with vintage and antique shops, but often gets a bad rap as party central due to the dozens of mediocre bars that serve watered-down spritzes. However, the neighborhood has stepped up its game in recent years, and inventive new bars and restaurants stand alongside a handful of enduring classics. Park yourself at Rita, Mag Cafè, or Rebelot for a stellar cocktail.
INSIDER TIPThe district is aswarm with mosquitoes in the summer, so make sure you have repellent.