There’s more to Milan than fashion (although pack a pair of heels or a jacket, as it does rate pretty highly here). Paula Hardy offers a peek into the city’s rich culture, chic boutiques and delectable cuisine.
Milan’s breakfast culture is brisk and practical. Most Milanese prop themselves at the bar of a simple café and knock back an espresso on the go (note that prices increase – and may even double – if you opt to sit down for your breakfast). Beat the rush and get to Princi (Via Speronari 6, 02 874 797) early for a milky marocchino and butter-rich brioche filled with custard or hazelnut chocolate. Then make your way to the steps of the Duomo for sublime early morning sunlight through stained-glass windows and a rooftop stroll through a forest of sculpted spires and leering gargoyles. Ready for another coffee? Head across the piazza to Pasticceria Marchesi (Via Santa Maria alla Porta 11/a, 02 862 770), which has been serving perfect-shot espresso since 1824.
Inheriting his vast fortune at the age of 24, Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli started to amass an amazing collection of Renaissance treasures, which now make up one of Milan’s finest private museums, the Museo Poldi Pezzoli (Via Manzoni 12, 02 794 889). Inspired by the ‘house museum’ that was London’s V&A, he had the idea of transforming his own apartment on Via Manzoni into a series of historically themed rooms where he could showcase them to their best advantage. Now you can wander through the rococo room, Dante’s study and the atmospherically sombre Black Room, clad in mahogany and ivory, marvelling at gleaming Lombard and Venetian masterpieces from the likes of Luini, Bellini and Piero della Francesca.
You can’t leave Milan without a spot of serious shopping. The city’s most famous boutiques and flagship stores are tucked into the Quadrilatero d’Oro (Golden Square), a sleek neighbourhood bordered by Via della Spiga, Via Montenapoleone, Via Manzoni and Via Sant’Andrea, all a short walk from Piazza della Scala. This quadrant is undoubtedly the nexus of Italian fashion – home to superstar designers such as Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni, Trussardi, Versace, Prada and Valentino. But there’s more to Milanese fashion than the big names. Amid the superstars you’ll find quirky heritage marques such as men’s grooming temple G Lorenzi (Via Montenapoleone 9, 02 7602 2848), milliner Borsalino (Via Sant’Andrea 5, 02 878 910) and costume jeweller Pellini (Via Manzoni 20, 02 7600 8084).
As the lunch hour beckons, consider the options. You could take a short stroll back to towards the Duomo to dine on perfectly executed risotto alla Milanese (saffron risotto) at Peck’s understated Italian Bar (Via Cesare Cantù 3, 02 869 3017). Or hop on the metro at Montenapoleone and head north to Brera to join the media cognoscenti tucking into delicate fish tortelloni at Ristorante Solferino (Via Castelfidardo 2, 02 2900 5748). Or you could jump on the tram (1, 2 or 3) at Duomo and head south to the working class neighbourhood of Navigli for authentic working-class grub – thick-cut handmade pasta, hearty minestrones and succulent grilled meats – at Osteria del Binari (Via Tortona 1, 02 839 5095) and Ponte Rosso (Ripa di Porta Ticinese 23, 02 837 3132). The latter sits right on the Canal Grande, which makes for an excellent postprandial stroll allowing you to poke your head in many of the city’s most interesting independent and vintage stores.
Head west across the train tracks at Porta Genova to Via Tortona. The Tortona neighbourhood is a low-key home to contemporary designers and photographers. As you wander through the area, pick up funky footwear at Federea Milano (Via Tortona 12), cult eyewear at Mafalda 86 (Via Tortona 19) and exclusive homewares at design-concept store Pianoprimo (Via Tolstoi 5). Stop for coffee at Design Library Café (Via Savona 11, 02 4953 7410), or sip a cup of tea at the super stylish Home Made (Via Tortona 12, 02 835 6706), owned by Slow Food devotee Monica Bagnari.
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. For a more convivial atmosphere and more platters of pasta and focaccia than you can munch through, head to Pandenus (Via Tadino 15, 02 2952 8016); and on summer evenings join the crowds that throng the banks of the Navigli Grande canal, where almost every bar offers a mountainous buffet. But bring some insect repellent as Navigli’s mosquitoes will also be out in force.
For dinner, Ceresio 7 (Via Ceresio 7, 02 3103 9221), brainchild of Canadian brothers Dean and Dan Caten, is unbeatable. Located on the rooftop of the imposing 1930s DSquared2 building that once housed the state electricity company, ENEL, the lofty industrial site offers a poolside American bar, a formal restaurant and even a cigar room for after-dinner drinking. The interiors, designed by Dimore Studio, are simply exquisite with retro 1950s furniture, gleaming brass fittings, polished marble fireplaces and intimate booths. They’ve even managed to steal chef Elio Sironi, lately at the Bulgari, so you can be assured of an ever-changing menu of lightly executed Mediterranean dishes crafted from the very best raw ingredients.
Nightlife starts late in Milan. It’s perfectly acceptable to turn up to clubs at 2am. Some don’t close until 7am, so have a postprandial stroll through the city’s Centro Storico (historic centre) which is beautifully lit up at night, before the club. Then hit the zone around Corso Como, a popular area for late-night venues. Milan's models, footballers and various entourages flock to the perennially popular Hollywood Rythmoteque (Corso Como 15, 02 655 5318). During summertime, the nearby 11clubroom (Via Alessio Di Tocqueville 11, 02 8928 1611) boasts a gorgeous rooftop bar. Or, if you book well in advance, taking in an opera at Teatro alla Scala is one of Milan’s most impressive cultural experiences.