Milan is Italy’s city of the future, a fast-paced metropolis where money talks, creativity is big business and looking good is an art form.
Ruled by the Caesars, Napoléon, the Austro-Hungarians and Mussolini, Milan has an ancient and fascinating history. After the unification of Italy in 1861, it also became an important industrial and cultural centre – a title it still holds today. While it may not have the historic attractions of other Italian cities, it holds its own with art collections old and new, which mark the genius of old masters and provoke new conversations about where the world is headed. Prestigious nights at La Scala, an illustrious literary heritage and a vibrant music scene also do much to debunk the city's workaholic image.
A Modern Miracle
Since Leonardo da Vinci broke all the rules in his stunning Last Supper, the indefatigably inventive Milanese seem to have skipped straight from the Renaissance to the 1900s. Not only is Milan a treasure trove of 20th-century art, but art deco and rationalist architecture abound. Today the city leads the way with the largest post-war re-development in Italy, impressive, sustainable architecture and a futuristic skyline modelled by Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and César Pelli. The city is also burgeoning into a hi-tech hub, home to start-ups galore and the likes of Google, Microsoft, Alibaba and Apple.
Living by Design
Though Italian design is world renowned, its roots lie in 1930s Milan – seeing it in a home context offers fresh appreciation. A visit to the Triennale design museum is a wonderful way to pay homage to the work of Italy’s best and brightest. In addition, Milan is home to all the major design showrooms and an endless round of trade fairs, including Salone Internazionale del Mobile and its ever-popular sidekick the free Fuorisalone. Italian fashion houses are also branching out into spas, bars, hotels, galleries and cultural centres all over Milan, which means you can get your style fix pretty much everywhere.
Cucina povera (poor man's cuisine) may be the cry of the south, but Milanese cooking is the product of a rich urban culture. Just note the golden hue of its quintessential dishes: cotoletta (burnished, buttery veal) and saffron risotto. It was in powerful commercial cities such as Milan that some of Italy’s great cuisines were born, marrying Mediterranean fruits, spices and herbs with cooking methods, pastry techniques and eating styles from France and central Europe. Even today Milan continues to push Italy’s culinary boundaries, making sushi and dim sum its own, and holding the highest number of Michelin stars in the country.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Milan.
Milan's most famous mural, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, is hidden away on a wall of the refectory adjoining the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie. Depicting Christ and his disciples at the dramatic moment when Christ reveals he's aware of his betrayal, it's a masterful psychological study and one of the world's most iconic images. You may very well kick yourself if you miss it, so book in advance or sign up for a guided city tour.
A vision in pink Candoglia marble, Milan's extravagant Gothic cathedral, 600 years in the making, aptly reflects the city's creativity and ambition. Its pearly white facade, adorned with 135 spires and 3400 statues, rises like the filigree of a fairy-tale tiara, wowing the crowds with its extravagant detail. The interior is no less impressive, punctuated by three enormous stained-glassed apse windows, while in the crypt saintly Carlo Borromeo is interred in a rock-crystal casket.
Behind striking Renaissance-revival black-and-white walls, Milan’s wealthy have kept their dynastic ambitions alive long after death with grand sculptural gestures since 1866. Nineteenth-century death-and-the-maiden eroticism gives way to some fabulous abstract forms from mid-century masters. Studio BBPR’s geometric steel-and-marble memorial to Milan’s WWII concentration-camp dead sits in the centre, stark and moving. The tombs are divided into three zones: Catholics lie centre stage, while people of Jewish descent rest on the right and non-Catholics on the left. Grab a map inside the forecourt.
Located upstairs from one of Italy’s most prestigious art schools, this gallery houses Milan’s collection of Old Masters, much of it ‘lifted’ from Venice by Napoleon. Rubens, Goya and Van Dyck all have a place, but you're here for the Italians: Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and the Bellini brothers. Much of the work has tremendous emotional clout, most notably Mantegna's brutal Lamentation over the Dead Christ.
A stroll around the Quadrilatero d'Oro, the world's most famous shopping district, is a must even for those not sartorially inclined. The quaintly cobbled quadrangle of streets – loosely bound by Via Monte Napoleone, Via Sant'Andrea, Via Senato and Via Manzoni – have long been synonymous with elegance and money, and even if you don't have the slightest urge to sling a swag of glossy shopping bags, the window displays and people-watching are priceless.
Originally a Visconti fortress, this iconic red-brick castle was later home to the mighty Sforza dynasty, who ruled Renaissance Milan. The castle's defences were designed by the multitalented da Vinci; Napoleon later drained the moat and removed the drawbridges. Today, it houses seven specialised museums, which gather together intriguing fragments of Milan’s cultural and civic history, including Michelangelo’s final work, the Rondanini Pietà, now housed in the frescoed hall of the castle's Ospedale Spagnolo (Spanish Hospital).
This fabulously decorated palazzo (mansion) is home to part of the enormous collection of Fondazione Cariplo and Intesa Sanpaolo bank, which pays homage to 18th- and 19th-century Lombard painting. From a magnificent sequence of bas-reliefs by Antonio Canova to luminous Romantic masterpieces by Francesco Hayez, the works span 23 rooms and document Milan’s significant contribution to the rebirth of Italian sculpture, the patriotic romanticism of the Risorgimento (reunification period) and the birth of futurism at the dawn of the 20th century.
Overlooking Piazza del Duomo, with fabulous views of the cathedral, is Mussolini's Arengario, from where he would harangue huge crowds in his heyday. Now it houses Milan's museum of 20th-century art. Built around a futuristic spiral ramp (an ode to the Guggenheim), the heady collection includes the likes of Boccioni, Campigli, Giorgio de Chirico and Marinetti.
Conceived by designer Miuccia Prada and architect Rem Koolhaas, this museum is as innovative and creative as the minds that gave it shape. Seven renovated buildings and three new structures have transformed a century-old gin distillery into 19,000 sq metres of exciting, multilevel exhibition space. The buildings, including the shimmering Haunted House clad in gold leaf and a bold 60m-high white concrete tower, work seamlessly together, presenting some stunning visual perspectives.