Humankind has been fighting over the Italian city of Milan since before there was an “Italy” and even before an ambitious people known as Romans brought civilization to much of the known world.
In fact, Milan and surrounding communities have at one time or another been under the thumb of a who’s who of European powers – from the Celtic Insubres who “founded” Milan at least two and a half millennia ago, to the Romans who conquered it in 222 B.C., to the Nazis who occupied it in WW II and helped inspire the city to become the breeding ground for the Italian resistance.
Today Milan is capital of the Lombardy region and of the province of Milan and boasts almost 1.5 million inhabitants of the city proper and over four million spread out over what can be characterized as the “Greater Milan” region.
In modern Milan, you are far, far more likely to witness a hand-gesture infused fight over the rights to buy the last outrageously expensive Italian leather jacket off the rack of a Milanese clothier than you are to, say, witness a full-out onslaught from rampaging Visigoth.
Times have certainly changed, even if it is the perpetual celebration of history, culture and the aesthetic that, in large part, continue to bring visitors to the cultural capital of Italy. And despite the proximity to Rome and of celebrated areas such as the Veneto, Naples and Sicily, Milan remains very much the center of Italy when it comes to contemporary cultural icons.
Savvy travelers recognize that Italy really consists of three very different regions – north, central and south; and furthermore they realize that these differences aren’t just the culinary ramifications of the north’s affiliation with Europe’s “butter belt” or the south’s accentuated relationship with the Mediterranean.
Italy’s Lombardy region is a geographically diverse one that stretches all the way from the Swiss border to the flat plains around the Po River, and inclusive of countless ritzy towns, lakeside villas, and impressive historic architecture mixed with ultramodern and often very sleek contemporary development. At its center is Milan, the fashion design, financial, artistic and many feel “moral” capital of Italy – with its fashion and design components also among the most revered on the planet. Despite its lofty position in the hierarchy of Italian culture, Milan has for centuries been at least as strongly influenced by its European neighbors to the north as it has been by either Rome or more southern Italy.
The region of Lombardy and Milan are serviced by Malpensa airport, about 30 miles north of the city; although regional flights also utilize the much closer Linate airport. Recent traffic has also increased at the Orio al Serio airport near Bergamo.
Once in Milan, unless you’re extremely, extremely experienced and confident in driving in Italy – don’t do it. Those used to the at least occasionally well- ordered traffic systems in the U.S. will find Milan and, well, most of Italy unfathomable. Unfathomable as defined by no-driving areas, one way streets, utterly random horn blowing and, most importantly, many people who see traffic laws as more suggestion than mandate.
A better plan is to spend a little time acquainting yourself with public transportation. You can walk, bike or scooter around Milan and all are better options than driving. Vendors renting bikes are easy to find, as are taxis (white colored ones are generally official ones) and taxi stands. While some areas are pedestrian friendly, such as the fashion district and the Navigli quarter, its more arduous in other parts of town due to congestion, aggressive drivers and vehicles parked on public rights of way.
Trams and buses are plentiful and common and the Milan Metro (underground rail system) is handy and even connects to the far northwest of Milan via the Passante Ferroviario (a commuter train service). Public transportation in Milan easily connects with that of Italy and of Europe.
Visitors benefit from planning transportation at the time they are putting together their specific itineraries for a visit to Milan.
Two Distinctive Worlds
And every Milan visitor will want to do just that – put together a specific itinerary tailored to his or her interests and passions. That’s because Milan is not necessarily an accidental tourist’s type of destination. The things to do and see in the city, the greater area and surrounding region are innumerable, diverse and not necessarily centrally located. There is far, far more to do and see in Milan than anyone is going to be able to do in anything but a lengthy extended residency with a local who happens to be a world class expert in at least five different fields.
Planning is essential to a Milan visit and one of the best ways to approach the wealth of to-see and to-do options is to understand and embrace the two very different components that make up the charm and appeal of the city. Even though it may seem at times that these two components clash, understand that it is the very clashing co-existence of these elements that has helped make Milan into what it is today.
The two elements?
On one hand, Milan is a city that has existed for ten times as long as the Unites States has existed. That’s a lot of history even by European standards and Milan is rich in internationally recognized historic sites that attract visitors from all corners of the world. There is an amazing array of historic sites in Milan, despite the multitude of violent takeovers, civil upheaval and shelling and bombing in WW II. Milan’s historic and architectural marvels make up one major, aggregate reason for its visitor appeal. For convenience sake, we’ll refer to this as the School of History.
However, when many people envision Milan, it is the here and now, the most modern, the most cutting edge that first comes to mind. Milan is regarded as one of the international capitals of industrial and modern design, influencing the world. It is also regarded as one of the fashion capitals of the world, and most of the major Italian fashion brands make Milan home (Gucci, Versace, Valentino, Prada, Armani, and more). Milan hosts some of the biggest events in the design and fashion worlds, like FieraMilano, Europe’s biggest and best design showcase; and Milan Fashion Week. Perhaps it is this association with the cutting edge in design and fashion that has prompted the development of an acclaimed, vibrant and often very modern arts community and related attractions. The design centers, world class shops and contemporary arts attractions make up the School of Aesthetic, for the sake of discussion.
Explore Milan’s Schools of History, Aesthetic
If Milan is a living historical exhibit – and it is – then its Historic Center is the history student’s centerpiece. The small district features numerous plazas and attractions, but realistically it is the Duomo that towers above everything including the Piazza del Duomo, which was designed by Giuseppe Mengoni and opened in 1865. It’s an obvious starting point for a visit to Milan’s Historic Center, given the international acclaim of the Duomo, the third largest church in the world and generally considered an architectural masterpiece. The stained glass work and statues are virtually incomparable, as is the view of the city from the roof terraces.
Here, though, relevant architecture abounds. Although many buildings were destroyed in this oldest part of Milan throughout history and most recently in WW II, the Milanese people tended to reconstruct with a zeal to accentuate a sense of survival and unrepentant love for the aesthetic. Visitors can stroll Milan’s Historic Center and be overwhelmed by the architecture and design of even the humblest structure.
However, not all structures are quite as humble. In addition to the Duomo, this district also houses Teatro alla Scala. Just the most famous opera house in the world, La Scala was inaugurated in 1778 and has hosted most of the great opera artists and performances over the last 200 years.
The historic and modern intersect at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an ornate iron and glass shopping arcade dating back to 1877, highlighted by Italy’s first glass and steel roof, a floor plan in the shape of a Latin cross and an octagonal center adorned with spectacular mosaics. Stylish shops, cinemas, cafes and restaurants all attract a young and stylish crowd of locals as well as visitors from around the world.
Other primary attractions in the Historic Center include the Museo del Duomo which preserves the colorful history of the Duomo; and historically significant architectural sights such as San Fedele (the Milanese seat of the Jesuit Order), Casa Manzoni and Piazza Belgioioso. The Civico Museo d’Arte Contemporanea sits on the upper floor of the Palazzo Reale here, although restoration work recently has prompted alternate display sites for the rich collection of works by 18th century Italian masters and numerous post-Impressionists from around the world.
The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana (Ambrosiana art gallery) is a globally acclaimed museum dating back to its founding in 1618 and houses an indulgent collection of artworks including Titian’s Adoration of the Magi and Botticelli’s Madonna del Padiglione among many others. The Biblioteca Ambrosiana only happens to be one of the first libraries open to the public in history and while its Stephen King selection might be a little light, it does feature manuscripts from writers such as Virgil, Aristotle and 1,000 pages of da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus.
In exploring Milan’s historic attractions, one must-see requires some advance planning. Historic church Santa Maria della Grazie contains Da Vinci’s famous fresco, the Last Supper, but reservations are a must and can be made a couple of months in advance. Select Italy (www.selectitaly.com) is a good place to start making advance plans.
While Milan’s Historic Center district might be the oldest part of the city and the one richest in concentrated history, both historic sites and museums with a focus on antiquity abound elsewhere. Other important destinations include Civico Museo Archeologico for a fascinating look at history; Pinacoteca di Brera for some of the most impressive works of art; San Lorenzo Maggiore, a church with a vast collection of Roman and early Christian remains, and; Cimitero Monumentale, an impressive cemetery housing a striking assortment of highly artistic and imposing tombs.
Still when it comes to adventuring in Milan’s School of History there are few stone parameters. Like culture, history emanates from virtually every street in the city.
Milan’s School of Aesthetic is perhaps spread even more broadly than is the School of History. This is because in part to the fact that much of what makes Milan an aesthetic center of the world is commercial, characterized by shops and fabulous flourishes throughout.
Still, keys to experiencing this aspect of Milan is Quadrilatero d’Oro (Golden Quad), where you can stroll and scout the designer flagship stores and can be introduced to young, cutting edge designers as well. La Triennale di Milano is a design museum and events venue located inside the Palace of Art building, part of Parco Sempione, the park grounds adjacent to Castello Sforzesco. It hosts exhibitions and events which highlight contemporary Italian design, urban planning, architecture, music, and media arts, with an emphasis on exploring the relationship between commercial industry and art/design. Villa Necchi-Campiglio is another must-see for the School of Aesthetic fan. The modernist villa illustrates several schools of high design integrated with opulent art. The Design Library is a design buffs dream come true – complete with back issues of historic design publications. 10 Corso Como bookshop is often considered Milan’s most exiting shopping destination, but it’s also fun just for browsing. How could it not be when its stock is generally made up of the most clever, unusual and cutting edge items – eclectic all around – in a city built on those characteristics?
Fashion, design and the overall aesthetic can’t be contained to static locations in Milan, because those things are built into the city’s identity. Fashion is vividly alive in well-dressed local shoppers and diners, even in performers of all sorts who take to the city’s bustling evening streets to entertain with mime, magic, music and more. It’s expressed in the well-dressed handsome couples enjoying one of the many cafes in the Navigli neighborhood, with its ample canals and festive environment.
History and the aesthetic are as much a part of today’s Milan as any influence has ever been on the ancient city.
Milan offers more in the way of legitimately unique souvenirs than most places in the world, from never-before-seen designer original clothing and accessories to historic memorabilia to the chicest items for the home.
In fact, save souvenir shopping for the airport on your way home. Milan is more for professional shoppers.
Milan’s “Golden Triangle” is arguably the central attraction these days for stylish power shoppers. This area that encompasses the Via della Spiga, Via Sant’ Andrea and Via Montenapoleone plays home to the highest fashion outlets, from Polo Ralph Lauren to cutting-edge new arrivals on the global fashion scene. Designer outlet shops also abound with DMagazine and Salvagente being two of the longest established and most praised. Many design houses maintain their own outlet shops, though, so it is a good idea to keep an eye out for them in the district.
Antique lovers should gravitate toward the Brera and Navigli quarters. Fairly common antique markets help create a critical mass there, which in turn can yield terrific resort for the patient shopper.
Throughout the city but not in a concentration, fine food markets offer the best tastes of Italy; and fine cookware stores offer the very latest in European design and function.
The best advice for shopping Milan is to first visit the major areas and those that emphasize your interests, and then enjoy exploring smaller, more disparate merchants as you see the rest of the city. Given the confluence of influences in Milan, potential treasures can be found around bend.
Although Milan offers a broad range of accommodations, visitors can expect to pay a hefty price for staying at the best hotels in the region or even moderate accommodations that happen to be located near major attractions.
Among the numerous possibilities, a few warrant specific mention.
Grand Hotel Et De Milan dates back to 1863 and for almost all of that time, the family-managed hotel in the old heart of Milan (in the Duomo neighborhood) has been considered by many to be the best hotel in the city. In terms of design, this magnificent hotel strongly asserts its classic nature without ever feeling stodgy or garish. One of the key appeals to this elegant masterpiece is the themed rooms, such as the Verdi suite, where the composer lived for 20 years. But even the common areas here are opulent, with high-style flourishes throughout. Despite the historic nature of the hotel, service and amenities are fairly contemporary, providing the best of both worlds. www.grandhoteletdemilan.it/
Hotel Principe Di Savoia’s city center location might make it slightly farther away from many of Milan’s attractions than some other hotels, but this business-friendly grand gem compensates by being one of, if not the, most opulent hotels in all of Milan. Service, though, is warm and accommodating to take the edge off any intimidation in such an obviously luxury environment. Rooms are decorated in 19th century style – comfort and elegance emanate from every room and common space. Additionally, the hotel’s convenient business services and amenities draw high-powered business travelers. Attracting the travelers that this hotel does, it is no surprise that s thriving social scene springs up around the hotel’s public areas and bar. www.hotelprincipedisavoia.com/hotel-milan
From hostels to these elegant classic hotels, Milan already offers a wide range of prospective accommodations, but the options are expanding. This year, Armani Hotels & Resorts is opening its Armani Hotel Milano, which will feature 95 spacious guest rooms, a gourmet restaurant, a spa and business center with meeting rooms. www.armanihotels.com
A Taste of Milan
Italy’s cuisine is quintessentially regional in a way that may surprise those who are unaccustomed to the power of those influences. Milanese cuisine stands in stark contrast to the red-sauce and sun-kissed aspects of southern Italy – those most familiar to many Americans. Here, all of Europe has had an impact on the distinctive Milan cuisine, including various other regions of Italy. In more recent years, international influences have driven the rise of countless ethnic eateries from African and Middle Eastern to Asian of all stripes.
That said, dining well in Milan is an easy thing to do. Even the smallest, most remote café is capable of producing a dish that will stun even the experienced gourmand. As it is for the fashion- and design- obsessed, Milan is a paradise for the foodie.
These days, it is the pre-dinner aperitivo that sets the scene for evenings of dining and revelry. Observed by most bars in the city, the habit is roughly akin to American happy hours, but the emphasis is more on the light bar foods offered at pubs and the socializing with friends, than it is on the actual intake of mass quantities of alcohol. You’re sure to notice how locals and nurse their drinks while sampling various bar’s assortment of noshes and catching up with friends. Late afternoon/early evening aperitivi are arguably the pinnacle of average daily socializing – all over Milan.
Some dishes qualify as intrinsic Milanese specialties. These include osso bucco, a succulent veal shank stew served with savory gremolata; the Austrian inspired Cotoletta (similar to a schnitzel); yellow risotto Milanese; and many dishes that reflect regions elsewhere in Lombardy. Local cured meats and local cheeses abound in such quantity and variety that they enrich even the most modest of meal.
Despite its culinary differences with southern Italy, there is plenty of pizza in Milan. Paper Moon Pizzeria in the city center is one respected institution; Pizzeria Spontini is another; and Spizzico is respected for the speed and efficiency of ordering. “Authentic” and less-so are often hard to determine when it comes to pizza in Milan. The best advice is to watch the diners in an eatery – the more local eaters, the better the odds that the pizzeria is offering something at least of quality and value.
More extravagant dining is prevalent in all parts of the city. Among current hot spots are Antica Trattoria della Pesa, a trendy purveyor of excellent Milanese food housed in the building where Ho Chi Minh stayed in the 1930s and Pane e Acqua, which became all the rage for inventive cuisine when it opened just a few years ago. D’o is another recent top choice, but the word is that reservations for the Michelin-star quality eatery must be made well, well in advance.
Still, dining trends even in this historic Italian city can be ephemeral and the dining landscape is in perpetual evolution. It’s a good idea to make inquiries at your hotel, from shopkeepers or acquaintances you might make while in Milan.
Another idea is to check Vivimilano (www.vivimilano.it) or a number of easy to find publications in Milan for ideas and inspiration in dining.
For those with the desire and constitution to wade into Milan’s bustling nightlife, the scene is fairly broadly dispersed throughout the city, with Plastic Club and Magazzini Generali being two of the most popular and the latter and Rolling Stone being the most popular settings for live performances by international superstars.
Many clubs require cover or admission charges with inexpensive membership required for some nightspots operating under the umbrella of the Recreative and Cultural Association (ARCI).
For more information on visiting Milan, visit www.visitamilano.it/turismo_en/.
Side Trip: The Lakes
While Milan is the epitome of the bustling modern Italian city, a 40 minute train ride can take you to the scenic azure waters of “the lakes,” a lush region characterized by resorts, waterfront villas and quaint fishing villages. Many residents routinely get out of the city to enjoy the beautiful countryside around several lakes in the region, joining steady traffic of visitors who are also in-the-know.
Lake Como is the queen of the regional lakes, a deep blue-hued body of water that shines like a diamond against the backdrop of the Alps. People have been visiting Lake Como for generations – for sports and relaxation in the early days; and for visiting luxurious resorts and villas today. The southern part of the meandering three-pronged lake is in contrast to the Alpine nature of the northern area – with numerous fishing villages and towns, including the town of Como itself.
Como has long had a vibrant role in the silk industry and sports an impressive cathedral defined by impressive statuary, an elaborately carved altarpiece and elegant tapestries. A handful of modest museums help flesh out the town’s role as capital of the silk trade. The Ristorante Sociale is considered one of the better restaurants in town and Le Due Corti at the city’s medieval walls sports the classiest local hotel atmosphere.
While much of the appeal around Lake Como is seeing the magnificent villas and enjoying the natural majesty, other specific sites along its shores also stand out. Bellagio, well north of Como, houses magnificent estates such as Villa Serbelloni and Villa Melzi, the one-time home of Napoleon’s man in Italy, Francesco Melzi d’Eril. Both have lush gardens that are open to the public and present a vivid illustration of centuries of life along Lake Como. In addition to seeing the estates, Bellagio has a lively café scene revolving around the harbor and a pretty warren of medieval alleys. The forested hills outside of Bellagio also offer some of the best mountain biking in the region and numerous vendors cater to enthusiasts. The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni is an elegant hotel made of a historic villa almost 150 years ago and is the most coveted hotel in the town. While café food is fairly common, it is Barchetta that’s generally considered Bellagio’s best culinary site.
Other towns, villages and areas surrounding Lake Como share similar combinations of scenic estates, elaborate gardens and outdoor sightseeing and sporting opportunities.
Of course, Lake Como is just the largest and most popular of the many regional lakes easily accessible from Milan. Lake Como, Maggiore and Garda make up the three most sizable and developed lakes, smaller lakes and their environs appeal to many as well. In temperate months, these smaller lakes are often more restful since they generally attract fewer visitors.
Lake Orta, for example, is the region’s westernmost lake and its main town Orta San Giulio is looked over by the Sacro Monte. There, a 20-minute walk from town, 20 chapels feature sculptures depicting the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Lake Lugano is another smaller lake in the region, but very much a unique one. It winds between Italy and Switzerland and its main resort, Campione d’Italia is actually an enclave within Switzerland. Campione itself exhibits the characteristics of a Swiss shore town in places; and in others, resembles bustling Italian resort towns everywhere – complete with casinos and a host of pizza parlors and fast food restaurants. Still, even among that bustle, the natural beauty of the region stands out and in small pockets, superior dining and more sedate recreation can be found.
Not far south of Campione, outside Melide, rests the Swiss Miniatur, a map of sorts of Switzerland including landmarks built at 1/25 their actual size.
Assuming a trip affords the chance to visit the Lombardy lakes, choosing the right specific destination is a matter of personal preference, interests and available travel time. It’s a good idea to conduct some timely research to craft plans maximizing available time.
Extend A Stay
Like many parts of the world with many diverse appealing components, Italy begs her visitors to extend their stay and take the opportunity to explore more of the country. Italy is particularly conducive to side trips and extended stays because of the rail connections available to much of mainland Europe.
No visit to Italy can really be complete without visiting Florence. This ancient city, originally a Roman financial and cultural center, evolved to become the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. It has been the birthplace or chosen home of many notable historical figures, such as Dante, Boccaccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Niccolò Machiavelli, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Donatello, Galileo Galilei, and many other notable figures.
The best-known site of Florence is the domed cathedral of the city, Santa Maria del Fiore, whose dome was built by Filippo Brunelleschi. The nearby Campanile (partly designed by Giotto) and the Baptistery buildings are also highlights. At the heart of the city, in Piazza della Signoria, is Bartolomeo Ammanati’s Fountain of Neptune, which is a masterpiece of marble sculpture at the terminus of a still-functioning Roman aqueduct. Michelangelo’s David is here too; it’s a must to see this, one of the most famous pieces of sculpture on earth.
The River Arno flows through the middle of Florence and one of the bridges, the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) dates back to construction by the Etruscans, although the current structure was rebuilt in the 14th century. The bridge’s most striking feature is the multitude of shops built upon its edges, held up by stilts. The bridge also carries Vasari’s elevated corridor linking the Uffizi to the Medici residence.
The church of San Lorenzo contains the Medici Chapel, the mausoleum of the Medici family – the most powerful family in Florence from the 15th to the 18th century. Nearby is the Uffizi Gallery, one of the finest art museums in the world – founded on a large bequest from the last member of the Medici family. It contains works by a literal who’s who of historic artists – from da Vinci to Rembrandt, Rubens to Michelangelo and Goya to El Greco.
Still, it’s challenging to define the core attractions of a city with the history of Florence. Even the humblest structure can turn out to have incredible historic or cultural significance; and even many residents know only a tiny fraction of the antiquity that surrounds them.
It isn’t entirely historic though. Florence is a modern city as well, complete with world-class shopping, accommodations from camp sites to resorts (Villa Olmi Resort being particularly popular recently) regional dining and terrific regional wines. Florentine cuisine extends from peasant roots and is heavier on meat than some other parts of Italy. As a cultural crossroads, it also demonstrates influences from around the rest of Italy and from Europe. Given the sizable tourist trade in the city, dining can be uneven at times and its best to consult with a trusted local or local media guides. It is worth the effort to do the research to dine well in Florence. Being the capital of the Tuscany region, Florence happens to reside in one of the most celebrated foodie sites in the world.
In total, Tuscany is home to the greatest wealth of art in Europe, some of the best wines in the world and of a simple but globally celebrated cuisine. There is a lot to see and do in Tuscany. Certainly visits should start with Florence, then continue on to Siena and Pisa. The roll call of città di arte, “cities of art”, is daunting: Arezzo, Cortona, San Gimignano and Lucca are all striking. For the art lover, it’s a matter of prioritizing, planning in advance and managing time effectively – something that isn’t easy in a region that seduces visitors into the particular in-the-moment lifestyle of this amazing part of the world.
Even art lovers, though, will find much to please them in Tuscany. In addition to the aesthetic, historic and culinary appeal of Tuscany, it is also incredibly beautiful and inspiring.
As much as any word, “inspirational” well describes a visit to this part of the world. Yes, a mind-boggling portion of history has passed through this part of Italy. But history is also being made here on a regular basis. A trip to Lombardy and Tuscany allows visitors to author their own portion of that history.