Unlike Rome and its never-ending history lesson, Milan is the birthplace of the now and the next, from cutting-edge international design and the latest hot-to-trot fusion cuisine, to a sidewalk scene that makes the fashion runways seem almost redundant. The truth is, the Milanese love beautiful things and materialism requires no apology.

But have you ever wondered how every Milanese seems to own a stash of fine merino wool Prada knitwear, an oh-so-stylish Ferragamo bag and a whole host of designer foot- and eyewear in every colour of the rainbow? How do they afford it? Sure, if you have the cash to splash you can run down to the Quadrilatero d’Oro (Golden Quad), where every big brand name will be sure to help you into the latest rope shoes and fur bag, but truly style-conscious Italians know how to get that dose of glamour on a reasonable budget. Here’s how.

Appearances matter

Splurge: founded in 1913 to sell leather goods and imported English steamer trunks, Milanese brand Prada, is now a global name with a prêt-a-porter range of womenswear, shoes, bags, skincare products and luggage. To purchase your own suitcase in covetable handcrafted Pergamena leather, as seen in Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia, will set you back €2,300.

Bargain: beyond the heart-fluttering price tags of the Quad, the rest of Milan is keen to show you its stylish wares. Take the mint vintage collections of Il Salvagente and Superfly, where you can pick up that essential Ferragamo red bag for €40. Up-and-coming designers such as shoe designer Federea Milano choose to locate themselves on Via Tortona.

Make like a diva

Splurge: score opening night seats in the gilded royal circle (€224) at La Scala, the world’s most illustrious opera house, and join real divas for a night of Puccini, Don Giovanni or Tosca. Daniel Barenboim’s first season as musical director is already proving a hit.

Bargain: shoot up the lift (€10) to the roof of Milan’s pearly-white Duomo, for the other best show in town. Commissioned in 1386, the cathedral’s forest of flying buttresses, 135 spires and 3200 statues form a veritable outdoor sculpture museum and on a clear day, the Alps provide the backdrop.

A-List aperitivo

Splurge: forget your preconceptions of happy hour. In Milan, happy hour stretches three (6-9pm), cocktails are expertly mixed with vintage liqueurs and, while there might be nuts on offer, they’ll come accompanied by sushi, aged prociutto, baked ricotta and chickpeas and couscous. But then again you wouldn’t expect anything less at the Bulgari, right (cocktails €15, aperitivo snacks free)?

Bargain: it might not have the Bulgari’s generous circular bar, or a view over one of the few manicured lawns in Milan, but Pandenus does have the next best buffet in town, piled high with fresh pizza squares, bruschetta, platters of cheeses and salamis and cocktails, all for €8.

Fashionable food

Splurge: Milan’s Michelin-starred restaurants are equally fashion-and-food oriented. Take the graphic black-on-white dining room of Trussardi alla Scala, where Andrea Berton turns out seasonal dishes as good-looking as they are flavourful (prix fixe menu €140).

Bargain: self-styled food alchemist Arturo Maggi’s Latteria (Via San Marco 24) is close to every Milanese heart. With only ten tables and a clientele of regulars, it feels like you’re dining in his home and much of the produce - the lardo, prosciutto and pasta - is made by his fair hand (dinner €15-20).

Dream in designer sheets

Splurge: there’s no shortage of five-star, and even six-star, hotels in Milan, but it’s hard to beat the old-world gentility, class and location of the Four Seasons. Frette sheets, blooming hydrangeas in the window boxes and views over the 15th-century cloister are standard.

Bargain: affordable accommodation in Milan is rarer than a model having a bad hair day, which makes the stylish, self-catering Brera Apartments super-hot property (€155, sleeps 4).

Planning a trip to Italy's fashion capital? Make sure you have Lonely Planet's Italy travel guide at your manicured fingertips.

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