Long-time resident Roberta Kedzierski talks fashion, furniture and football in Italy’s most surprising city
Very few people come to Milan by choice. The city makes no effort to compete with Rome, Florence or Venice for the title of most beautiful or well-loved city in Italy. It doesn’t even go out of its way to be likeable. And yet, despite the gruff exterior, the city offers much that is unique, and most people leave before they are ready.
Business people who come to work regret having booked themselves on the first flight back. The mini-break couple who came for a weekend, far from running out of things to do as they expected, instead run out of time. ‘If only we’d known,’ they all say. Bereft at the airport, they promise to come back. And they do.
The city grows on you. Part of the country’s industrious north, it offers a lively business community, manufacturing expertise, creative zeal, an enthusiastic approach to innovation, and a cosmopolitan atmosphere that helps people feel at home in a way that other Italian cities don’t. Milan is small. Compared with Rome, very small; compared with London, tiny. Most of the landmarks are within walking distance of the centre. Public transport is efficient. Compared with Rome, very efficient indeed. There isn’t the architectural unity of Florence, but once you go behind the wide modern roads you find a world of narrow streets, 17th-century palaces, pretty piazzas and delicate terracotta churches. Take a stroll in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, visit the Castello Sforzesco, admire the mosaics in the beautiful Basilica Sant’Ambrogio, or window shop in luxury goods stores in the Quadrilatero della Moda (‘fashion rectangle’).
In the past, the city has been influential enough to attract Leonardo da Vinci to paint his Last Supper for the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and for Thomas Edison to choose it as the location for the first electric street lighting and first electric tram. Milan has maintained its global reach: in the 20th century, architect Gio Ponti helped to shape European modernism through his magazine Domus; fashion houses such as Prada, Gucci and Versace have become bywords for contemporary glamour; the annual Salone Internazionale del Mobile (‘furniture fair’) is the acknowledged highlight of the design world calendar. In addition, the city boasts one of the world’s most revered opera houses – La Scala – and one of its legendary football stadia, the San Siro, home to both Inter and AC Milan. The lack of obvious sights fails to attract guide-clutching tourists but, especially for its residents, life in Milan is very rewarding.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
The magnificent, glass-roofed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade isn’t known as ‘il salotto di Milano’ (‘Milan’s living room’) for nothing: the upper echelons of Milan society all pass through here at some point. The Galleria’s designer, Giuseppe Mengoni, pioneered its complex marriage of iron and glass two decades before the Eiffel Tower was built. However, when it was officially opened in 1867 by Vittorio Emanuele II, king of a newly united Italy, a sour twist of fate meant that Mengoni wasn’t present. He had fallen to his death from his own creation just a few days earlier.
The ceiling vaults are decorated with mosaics representing Asia, Africa, Europe and America, while at ground level are further mosaics of more local concerns: the coats of arms of Vittorio Emanuele’s Savoia family, and the symbols of Milan (red cross on white), Rome (she-wolf), Florence (iris) and Turin (bull). If you can’t see Turin’s symbol, look for the tourists spinning on their heels on the bull’s privates – it’s said to bring good luck.
Fashion flagships radiate out from Prada and Louis Vuitton in the centre, statuesque shop assistants operate the tills, businessmen happily pay €10 for a cappuccino on Zucca’s terrace, grandmothers carry their chihuahuas in Fendi bags, and a volley of new designer cafés are on hand to serve the pick-me-up drink that pre-lunch shoppers need. Getting there Emirates flies to Milan daily (and has sponsored football team AC Milan with a new shirt). From Dhs4,305 return including taxes.
Where is it? In the Po valley of northern Italy, with the Alps to the north and the Appenines to the south-west.
Climate Hot humid summers, but bitter winter winds blow from the Alps. Plagued by thick fog due to its valley location.
Ethnic mix 98.5 per cent white European, 1 per cent Asian, 1 per cent African, 0.5 per cent American. It’s hard to find a native-born Milanese in Mila: as Italy’s business capital, it’s a magnet for young professionals from all over the country.
Major sights Duomo, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, La Scala, Pinacoteca di Brera, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Castello Sforzesco, Basilica Sant’Ambrogio, Basilica San Lorenzo, Portinari chapel, Santa Maria presso San Satiro for the Bramante trompe l’oeil.
Insiders’ tips Corso di Porta Ticinese for up-and-coming fashion designers, Achille Castiglioni’s studio, happy hour at the Bulgari hotel, summer bars at public swimming pools, a Roman bath at Acquae Calidae spa, family mansions donated to the city (Bagatti-Valsecchi Museum, Poldi Pezzoli Museum, Casa-Museo Boschi di Stefano).
Tallest building Pirelli Tower, designed by Gio Ponti and Pier Luigi Nervi.
Where’s the buzz? Via Montenapoleone, via della Spiga, via Sant’Andrea, via Verri, corso di Porta Venezia, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele.
Historical milestones Edict of Milan, Ambrosian liturgy, foundation of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, La Scala, Thomas Edison, Liberty (Italian art nouveau), the Futurist art movement.
Number of boutiques in the fashion rectangle Via Montenapoleone, 85; via della Spiga, 77.
Number of exhibitors at the annual Milan Furniture Fair More than 1,650, plus 200 off-site exhibitions.
Capacity of the San Siro stadium 85,700. The second-largest football stadium in Europe, it is also known locally as Stadio Giuseppe Meazza.
Named after Milan Millinery.
When in San Francisco See the Milan trams (1928 vintage) on the Market Street line.