If you have to go to Milan.
In Rome you can find classical antiquity, in Florence you can find the Renaissance, in Venice you can find Baroque grandeur, and in Milan,…in Milan you can find work. Of all the large, global cities, Milan is probably my least favorite, but it’s not completely devoid of delectable activities. Italy is full of history, art, cuisine and regional specialities and it has such a full range of choices: from beaches to mountains, antiquated to contemporary, budget to uber-luxe and tranquil to bustling. It’s probably one of the reasons why Italy is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, but suprisingly, the country’s second-largest city is its least intriguing.
There are so many other things to do in Italy that Milan has never been my primary destination, but there have been many times that I’ve had to go there as a result of work or a direct flight, so it’s provided the perfect day or two to explore Milan in passing. For first time visitors, there are the de rigueur to dos: Milan’s elegant cathedral, the Duomo as well as the operatic “cathedral,” La Scala, (which incidentally opened the same year as the America’s Declaration of Independence) Teatro alla Scala. Alongside the Dumo is the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) which now hosts a wide variety of museum exhibitions: art, photography, historical collections, such as a special exhibition I saw on Samurai. The exhibition was nicely presented, providing plenty of contextual information as well as artefacts and the show was a rich, visual feast for the craftmanship of Samurai weapons and armor- inspiration for anyone in fashion, design or art. Palazzo Reale exhibitions.
Shopping is one of Milan’s strengths. Almost all global clothing brands, and any of Italy’s top fashion labels, will have a presence in Milan. The stores themselves provide a myriad of creative ideas. Along with Tokyo, Paris and Stockholm, the Milanese shops are some of the most stylish in terms of architecture, interior design and product presentation. I visit many of the shops just to see seasonal trends or conceptual stories in their window displays. Some of the showrooms are as imaginative as museum exhibitions. Dolce and Gabanna, for example, is famous for its Christmas window presentations. Like an annual holiday card, they compose a tableau of Italian warmth, abundance and festivity. The interior of the Tom Ford store is an architectural and atelier’s wet dream, if you can withstand the haughty stares of the staff. Tom Ford Milan. Dsquared is one of my favorites for hip-cool, street chic ideas. They have a stunning creative space to showcase their playfully sassy ensembles. Dsquared Milan. For browsing collective work of contemporary prêt-à-porter and top emerging designers, visit 10 Corso Como. 10 Corso Como. In addition to clothing, the store includes stylishly designed products for the home or gifts, plus it has a bookstore and café. It’s Milan’s version of Barneys or Fred Segal. The surrounding pedestrian street also features many upscale, contemporary boutiques.
Dining out is another high point in Milan, for visual, along with culinary, feasts. Among the city’s treats is Princi. It is an ultra-decadent, artisanal bakery that epitomizes the Italian modus operandi of quality craftsmanship in even the simplist of things. As their site says, “flour, fire, water,” but that’s organic, hand ground flour, filtered water and fire in a traditional, wood burning oven of stone. They have several locations throughout Milan, but my favorite is the one near Piazza del Duomo with the beautiful, open kitchen to watch them making bread. It showcases what is probably the longest, most contemporary and sumptuous display of baked goods that I have ever seen. As one of my Italian friends summerized: “heaven!” An Italian grandmother echoed the same sentiments when she entered and gasped, “Mama mia!” (while gestering with her hands in the air.) Watching the equally fetching fornai (bakers) at work made me romanticize about becoming a baker myself and seeing the cheerful staff dressed in Armani designed uniforms made me consider a complete career change. Joking aside, they take breadmaking and pasteries to another level and the rainbow-like selection of flavorful macaroons, carmelized apple tarte tatin, rich cakes and hot chocolate the consistency of mud are all to-die-for. Their foccacia sandwiches and pizzas are savory equivalents. I made no less than five trips to Princi on my weekend stay. It is afforable self-indulgence. Princi: on Via Speronari, 6 (Small side street off of Via Torino, walking distance from the Duomo.) :: Princi ::.
Another of my favorite gourment spots in Milan is the 7º piano (the 7th/top floor) of La Rinascente, a luxury department store chain with a location in Piazza del Duomo. Their food market has an epicurean selection of take-home goods and edible gifts, similar to Tokyo’s department store food courts or that at Harrod’s in London. With patience (or in my lucky case, my friend’s contact,) you can score a table on the terrace to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon soaking up a bit of sunshine and people watching. There is a selection of restaurant concessions to choose from, so they offer everything from sushi to contemporary Italian to afternoon tea, but the location’s most notable feature is its eye-candy. Staff, patrons and dishes are all chicly presented and the Duomo’s gothic spires provide a dramatic backdrop for capturing Milan’s ambiance. I enjoyed a starter plate with a choice in a selection of three Italian cured meats, including melt-in-your mouth Prosciutto di Parma, and choice of three Italian cheeses, including a rich, nutty, Parmigiano-Reggiano, buttery, fresh mozzarella di buffala and an aged, creamy, blue Gorgonzola. It was followed by a pumpkin risotto and finally, but not least, several types of deserts and teas that I shared with my friends. It’s a bit pretentious for my preferences, but it’s a visually animated place for taking in a bit of Milan’s pompous atmosphere. Rinascente Food & Restaurants.
For more laid-back fare, I like the cozy, California Bakery. They now have a couple of locations, but I prefer their original café on Viale Premuda because it’s in an area to shop for affordable street fashions and walking distance to a couple of my favorite gelato shops. (Perfect for walking off the meal in time for another round of dessert!) The café has a rustic charm and serves contemporary style casual dining. I love their healthy brunch selections, homemade apple pies, sandwiches, fresh salads and light meals. California Bakery – Viale Premuda.
One of the downsides about Milan is the city’s nightlife seems less vibrant and snobbier than Rome, Turin or other Italian cities. For evenings in Milan, I prefer going to “aperitivo,” which is the Italian equivalent of “happy hour.” Some of the Italian bars and cafés will have early evening hours where they serve a buffet of appetizers that might include pasta salads, cold cuts, cheese, mini pizzas, foccacia and other foods that fit on small plates. In summer, I like sitting at an outdoor terrace or plaza table and having aperitivo with “spritz.” It’s a Venetian drink made of Prosecco (sparkling wine from the Veneto region) and Aperol (similar to Campari or sometimes actually made with Campari) and topped with a bit of sparkling water. There are many places that offer this, so most times I just go to one of the walking neighborhoods and look in to see what they are serving for appetizers. It’s a perfect casual evening before going to dinner.
Late hours dining is almost non-existent, but there is one spot, near the Duomo and walking distance from La Scala, that is known for serving audiences and opera stars. The kitchen stays open later hours for the after show crowd. The decor is misleadingly very unassuming. When I opened the wine list, I was shocked to see one of the top items that was well over a thousand euros per bottle. A friend has said that stars like Pavarroti, Plácido Domingo and Maria Callas have dined there, so I figured if prima donnas are eating in a restaurant that looks like it that hasn’t redecorated since the 1920′s, the food must be fantastic. It didn’t disappoint and the prices of the majority of the menu and wine list were actually very affordable. Some of their specialties are pizzas. I had a combination with white sauce and spinach and shared it with my friend who had a pizza combination with prociutto. We shared starter plates of fried artichokes and another with calamari and finished our meal with a dessert of tiramisu, all of which were delicious, but the pizzas were the highlight. It wasn’t a top culinary experience, but it was good enough where I will return for a late night bite. Ristorante Pizzeria Ciardi Di Luciano Teodolinda: Via San Raffaele, 6 Milano 20121 Phone: +39.02.877704. (No website.)
One of the seasonal events that takes place every spring in Milan is Salone Internazionale de Mobile (International Furniture Fair.) If you are into design, furniture or interiors, this is my favorite and the largest design show in the world. If you are not into design, then this is the time to avoid Milan as it will be nearly impossible to find an unbooked or reasonably priced hotel room. Cosmit – Salone Internazionale del Mobile.
Another seasonal event is the Christmas markets for the weeks leading up to Christmas day. There are many locations throughout the city consisting of stalls that sell various holiday gifts, toys, specialty foods and decorations for Christmas. One of the locations is near the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II (near Piazza dela Scala) and another is right in front of Milano Centrale (train station.) There are many other local Christmas markets throughout the city, including the regular street markets at Porta Nuova, but I think those are the larger two that are set up specifically for the holidays.
If there is time for a day trip (or if you are using the regional airport located there,) the town of Bergamo is a short drive outside of Milan. The old town is a quaint, medieval village located on a hilltop. It’s accesible by cable car or about a twenty minute walk up hill. There are scenic views, museums and historic sites as well as picturesque streets and squares. It’s a good way to get out of the city for a quick day or afternoon in a more idyllic setting and there are lots of restaurants and cafés, while a bit touristy, seem less brusque than the manerisms of those in Milan.