Famous for its football, fashion, furniture, food and unparalleled frescoes, Italy’s most dynamic city combines history and culture with high-octane living and style. Essential things to do in Milan include visits to Leonardo’s Last Supper, the Duomo rooftop and La Scala Opera House. If the timing is right, catch a match at the world-famous San Siro football stadium (home to Internazionale FC and AC Milan); and there will certainly be time for hunting down the best discount fashion outlets in town.
In the run-up to the food-themed Universal Exposition (to be held from May 1–Nov 31, 2015), Milan is buzzing with new museums, skyscrapers, restaurants, bars and shops. Long-standing monuments – from the 500-year-old Duomo to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade – are getting a spruce up, top chefs are opening gourmet restaurants (as well as more affordable alternatives). Right now, there is also a frenzy of big-brand flagship store openings in the aforementioned Galleria and the glitzy designer shopping district known as the Golden Rectangle.
There are a host of new architectural and artistic attractions, in addition to old favourites that have been around for centuries, worthy of your attention in Milan. On the cultural front, the shiny new Museo del Novecento in piazza del Duomo houses 20th-century artworks by everyone from Morandi to Modigliani. Close to La Scala opera house, the (free) Gallerie d’Italia is housed in three frescoed and stuccoed palazzi, with bas-reliefs by Canova, contemporary art exhibits and a chic, if somewhat pricey, café.
In the Navigli (canal) area, David Chipperfield’s Museo delle Culture (Museum of Cultures) is expected to open imminently in October 2014, with ethnographic displays in a revamped former factory complete with glass-topped courtyard. Not to be outdone, Rem Koolhaas’ Fondazione Prada contemporary art centre opens in spring 2015, providing a home for the Milan-based fashion house’s collection of contemporary artworks by the likes of Laurie Andersen and Anish Kapoor.
Milan’s most immediately recognizable symbol, the Duomo, now has a rival: the Torre Garibaldi, aka the Unicredit building, designed by Argentine starchitect Cesar Pelli and erected in 2011 in the Porta Nuova zone, it’s the city’s tallest skyscraper. In a deliberate echo of the 500-year-old Gothic cathedral, the 231-metre high bank-owned building is topped with an illuminated spire. Locals wander up to the adjacent piazza Gae Aulenti to enjoy night time views and to play games of outdoor table football in the surrounding square.
Where to eat
The city’s newest foodie street is via Solferino in the artsy Brera neighbourhood. Unique among Milan restaurants, Dry specializes in mixed drinks and gourmet pizza devised by top chef Andrea Berton. Try pizza recipes such as pine nuts, raisins, ricotta and chicory. Across the street, Berton and partners also run Pisacco, a quirkily-decorated restaurant serving creative Italian food to a crowd of fashionable professionals.
A few steps away, Zaza Ramen offers something completely different: Japanese noodles with unusual Italo-Nipponic condiments. All three eateries are reasonably priced and must be pre-booked.
If it’s coffee and cake you’re after, try one of the city’s historic cafés. Deep in the heart of the Golden Rectangle, the Louis Vuitton-owned Cova is favoured by ladies who lunch and is a great place to soak up a spot of authentic Milanese atmosphere (not to mention cappuccino and house-baked pasticcini) if you fancy a splurge. Not far from the refectory housing Leonardo’s Last Supper, the Prada-owned Pasticceria Marchesi serves coffee and wonderfully old-fashioned cakes to customers standing at the bar in one of the most beautiful buildings in Milan.
Where to go out
Pre-dinner drinks – along with a generous buffet – are a rite of passage in Milan. Anyone who is serious about getting to know local culture should head for one of the many happy hours dotted around the city and join the nightlife-loving natives as they battle over appetising bar spreads. Almost as important is the backdrop – Milan’s best bars feature gorgeous gardens or double up as chic florists or bakeries.
Most happy hours run from around 6pm-9pm, and include platters of charcuterie, mozzarella, pasta salads and occasionally even sushi and oysters. But beware: with mixed drink prices usually between €8 (Dh38) and €15 (Dh71), the feeling that you’re getting a free dinner can be illusory, especially if you indulge in more than one drink.
In Porta Venezia, the verdant garden of HClub at the Hotel Sheraton Diana Majestic has been a stalwart of the fashion crowd’s summer drinking scene for a number of years now, and deservedly so. Featuring magnolias, cyclamens and adult trees, the garden is re-planted seasonally and is a great place in which to sample the salvers of vegetarian sushi and queen olives. Close by, Mint Garden Café dishes out mini pizzas, dried fruit and bruschetta, served at the table inside a florist amid cactii, orchids and bunches of cut flowers. In the same district, Pandenus serves up generous slabs of home-baked foccacia straight from the oven. Pandenus has other branches in the Brera and Parco Sempione zones.
Though best known as a café and restaurant, Fioraio Bianchi, in another florist, provides what is surely one of the loveliest pre-dinner settings on the Milan bar scene. Admire huge arrangements of iris or lilies against the artfully scraped-down walls while you graze on appetisers like tabbouleh or pasta, which provide a hint of what’s on the menu that night.
The best shopping
When shopping in Milan, do as many of the chicest Milanese do and seek out cut-price designer style at the city’s many discount fashion stores. These treasure troves are packed full of end-of-season shop and warehouse returns, stock from boutiques that have closed down and some factory seconds – though even at discounts of 50-70 percent, the price tags can still provoke the occasional ‘ouch!’ Refunds are pretty much unheard of, so try before you buy. Among Milan’s best-known and longest-established outlets is Il Salvagente (The Lifesaver), which has three floors of top stuff for men and women, all carefully arranged by size and colour, with discounts of up to 60 percent off most big brands.
Equally worthwhile bargains can be found at the more centrally-located Dmagazine Outlets, wedged between the full-price stores on two of the city’s main shopping drags. Be prepared to dig deep: you might find pricey women’s lines for as little as 20 percent of their original value. A third branch opened recently in the Navigli zone.
Also visit the 10 Corso Como Outlet, a slightly shabbier version of the über cool original store. It houses endless racks of mostly black clothes by Helmut Lang, Chloé, Comme des Garçons et al. But even with prices slashed by half, it’s not exactly cheap.
A newcomer in the Navigli area is Bivio, a super-cool swap shop where the city’s fashionistas come to trade in last season’s looks. Swapping isn’t obligatory, however, and most customers come here to swoop up the It Girls’ cast-offs from the carefully-edited, on-trend racks.
Need to know
Turkish Airlines flies to Milan via Istanbul from Dhs1, 819 return.