The powerhouse of the Italian economy, Milan, like the Milanese themselves, is a little different from the rest of the country. The people are just as friendly, but more fashion conscious; with the exception of the historic centre, the city is more utilitarian. It may not have the same quality of artwork as Florence, or the vast array of Renaissance or classical architecture found in Naples or Rome, but it has that perfect combination of history, culture and shopping for a great city break. Here’s the guide to a whistlestop weekend away.
Arriving in Milan late morning, head straight to the hotel to freshen up. If you fly into Malpensa airport, take the direct train in. Apart from being the quickest and most cost effective route into the city, Central Station is worth seeing for its cavernous, grand, and palatial architecture, recalling the optimistic, utopian dreams of what railways could do for the masses.
Refreshed, lunch is called for; you’re spoilt for choice, as in any Italian city, but you would be silly not to 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 with sightseeing planned in the afternoon the place to go is just off the Piazza del Duomo. It may not look much with 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. It’s not the very 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. Save the best food for when you’re really up to appreciating it. The food here is still good, fresh, and the locals do eat there – after a performance at La Scala, I have joined other operagoers in heading there for a meal.
Refuelled and ready to sightsee, 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 five hundred years to build and is one of the greatest examples of Italian Gothic one can find. Inside, little remains of the original interiors, and while one must go in and see the stained 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 adorning the exterior lead up to the seemingly never-ending complex of intricate pinnacles, cusps, rampant arches and buttresses. One cannot help but stare in awe at the skill of the masons who carved them. For ideal viewing, 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 – the great shopping arcade connecting the Piazza del Duomo with La Scala. Constructed in 1867, it’s a grand neo-classical edifice with one of Italy’s earliest glass and iron roof structures lined with high-end shops and restaurants including Prada, Louis Vuitton, 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.
Head back to the hotel for a chance to rest and change into your finery before heading out for the evening. Dinner starts late in Italy, so everyone heads out around six o’clock in their finest clothes to promenade, to see, be seen, and maybe even flirt a little before heading for a pre-dinner drink. Bar-wise, you are once more 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 than the Aperol bar, although if it’s your cup of tea, the latter draws a younger, more vibrant crowd and more tourists. Alternatively head to either of the two bars at the Grand Hotel, the finest hotel in the city, 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 of boxes, the sale of which paid for the theatre’s original construction, and then two levels of loggione (galleries) above. Select the stalls or the front seats of the boxes, as any other place 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. When this happens, it is a true mark of disapproval – 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 netted opera tickets, 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, always lively and full of bars, clubs, and restaurants, it’s 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 different, but where the food is superb classic Italian and the clientele are always almost solely the Milanese, then look for Trattoria da Pino, and, my personal favourite, Ristorante a Santa Lucia. It may look like 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, with fresh seasonal ingredients such as porcini mushrooms when available. The menu is plain-sounding and entirely in Italian, so if you haven’t had time to brush up on the language, do ask what dishes are, or simply spot something at another table that you like the look of and order that; you won’t 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…
Read on in part two, with day two of IGT’s city break guide to Milan.