Home to Italy’s finance, fashion and design industries, Milan isn’t a tourist city. And yet it’s filled with history, culture and enervating new ideas. With the city still riffing on last year’s Expo2015, Paula Hardy highlights some of Milan’s best new museums, bars and restaurants.
In Milan, breakfast culture is brisk and practical. Most Milanese prop themselves up at the bar and knock back an espresso on the go (note that prices increase if you opt to sit down for your breakfast). Beat the rush and get to beautiful Belle Epoque Sant’Ambroeus (Corso Matteotti 7, 02 7600 0540) where you can nibble at buttery brioche beneath the glittering Murano chandelier. Then make your way to the steps of the Duomo for sublime early morning sunlight through stained-glass windows and rooftop views over the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Europe’s oldest shopping mall, and the Royal Palace.
From old to new, swap the Duomo’s medieval statuary for modernist masterpieces in the Museo del Novecento (Via Marconi 1, 02 8844 4061) or lose yourself in the 26 rooms of the Gallerie d’Italia (Piazza della Scala 6, 800 167 619). The latter consists of three fabulously decorated palaces filled with the art collection of Sanpaolo bank, which celebrates Lombard painting from the 18th to the 20th century. Highlights include a magnificent sequence of bas-reliefs by Antonio Canova and the luminous, romantic masterpieces of Francesco Hayez. If period painting isn’t your thing, pop around the corner to the Palazzo della Ragione (Piazza dei Mercanti, 02 4335 3535), Milan’s latest contemporary photography museum.
After all the neck-craning in the museums you’ll need a sharp shot of coffee. Head over to historic Cova (Via Monte Napoleone 8, 02 7600 5599) and try to elbow your way through the Milanese matrons mobbing the bar for party confectionary. Then wander the sidewalks of the Quadrilatero d’Oro (Golden Quadrangle), the world’s most famous fashion quarter, to view the latest high fashion trends. In between big global marques like Gucci and Prada you’ll find heritage boutiques such as Pellini (Via Manzoni 20, 02 7600 8084) where the granddaughter of a La Scala costume designer turns out unique, one-off resin jewellery at surprisingly affordable prices. Gentlemen shoppers should look no further than Doriani (Via Sant’Andrea 7, 02 7602 1527) for typically understated Milanese menswear favoured by politicians, footballers and sartorially minded businessmen.
As the lunch hour beckons, take a break from the city centre bustle and head to the south of the city in search of alfresco dining. Keeping with the cultural theme, Cascina Cuccagna is a renovated 17th-century farmhouse incorporating everything from its own farmers market, vegetable gardens and creative writing courses to the lovely restaurant Un Posto a Milano (Via Privata Cuccagna 2, 02 545 7785). Another excellent option is Ristorante Sant’Eustorgio (Piazza Sant’Eustorgio 6, 02 5810 1396), which serves a sophisticated Milanese menu with tree-framed views of Milan’s oldest church. The veal cutlet, simmered in clarified butter and served with a simple salad, is the highlight.
Trotting around town you won’t be able to ignore the landmark, turreted Castello Sforzesco (Piazza Castello, 02 8846 3703). Behind it, Parco Sempione spreads luxuriously towards Napoleon’s Arch of Peace. The park was originally the hunting ground of the Sforza dukes before the French mooted the idea of a public park in 1891. It was a resounding success and even today Milanese of all ages come to enjoy its tranquil greenery. You can either join them for an afternoon of idling or wander over to the Triennale di Milano (Viale Emilio Alemagna 6, 02 724 341), the city’s epic design museum. The DesignCafe has wonderful views over the park and is a good spot for aperitivo. Otherwise, head back to the castle and hop on vintage tram #1 for an evening tour of the city.
Embrace Milan’s aperitivo scene – a kind of civilised happy hour that takes place from around 6pm to 9pm: buy one drink and gain free access to the bar’s copious buffet of nibbles. Push the boat out at the Bulgari Hotel (Via Privata Fratelli Gabba 7/b, 02 805 8051) for top-notch cocktails and delicate plates of sushi among model company, or head to the twinkling rooftop terrace of Ceresio 7 (Via Ceresio 7, 02 3103 9221), where red-lacquered tables and peacock-blue sofas set a sexy tone that’s more reminiscent of Shanghai than Milan. Crowds of hipsters and students spill out of Navigli’s bars drinking craft beers canalside, those in the know though dodge the mosquitos and head to the old foundry Fonderie Milanesi (Via Giovenale 7, 02 3652 7913) to sip negronis in the secluded courtyard.
When it comes to dinner, Milan offers an embarrassment of choices and some of the best contemporary cooking in Italy. For those willing to splash the big bucks there’s the ultra-modern, Michelin-starred Ristorante Berton (Via Mike Bongiorno 13, 02 6707 5801). Then there’s the new flagship, Slow Food eatery Alice Ristorante (Piazza Apre XXV, 02 4949 7340), run by talented chef Viviana Varese and sommelier Sandra Ciciriello, and elegant La Brisa (Via Brisa 15, 02 8645 0521) where you can dine out under the stars beneath a centuries-old linden tree. More affordable, but no less delicious, is the funky new Mercato Metropolitano (Porta Genova), a street food market located in the former railway housings near Porta Genova railway station.
Opera aficionados should make a beeline for La Scala’s (Piazza della Scala, 02 88791) gilt-edged boxes. Beyond the grandeur of Italy’s most famous opera house, there’s a host of other late-night gigs. Cutting-edge contemporary and classical concerts are held at the Auditorium di Milano (Largo Gustav Mahler, 02 8338 9422), while stellar blues and jazz bands perform at the tiny Nibada Theatre (Via Gola 12). For those who just fancy late night drinks and a little dancing, legendary Le Trottoir (Piazza XXIV Maggio 1, 02 837 8166) now looks out over the revamped Navigli dock where revellers congregate on summer nights.