Milan may be the place for fashionistas but it’s also a hub of arts, culture, history, and entertainment. Here’s how to discover the best the fashion capital has to offer without falling for the tourist traps.
This is the Italy where men and women strut their designer suits, perfectly coiffed hairstyles and expensive leather shoes and handbags. It is the city where young people come with dreams to be “discovered” in order to enter the fashion industry. It is a place where Neoclassical buildings and old-world trams are contrasted by flashy cars and futuristic fashion. But it is also a hub of arts, culture, history, and entertainment.
As a former Milanese expat, I quickly realised how, like in any other major city, many a tourist trap awaits. I swiftly learned how to avoid or escape them, and so can you.
Find Your Favourite Hood
Milan’s neighbourhoods are split into different zones arranged in a circle around the Duomo (main cathedral), which is situated slap-bang in the historic city centre. Ticinese, a mere 20 minutes’ walk from the city centre, was my hood and is one of Milan’s hippest neighbourhoods. The long Corso Porta Ticinese is lined with restaurants, coffee bars, shops, and churches.
Città Studi, the student quarter, is lively and affordable. It is home to Corso Buenos Aires, Milan’s longest shopping street. The Navigli district is the canal area of Milan, particularly popular in summer, when you will find locals and tourists enjoying dinner or drinks along the canals.
Porta Romana is a laid-back suburban neighbourhood, whereas Brera’s narrow cobblestone streets are brimming with affluent (*read snobbish) locals and luxury hotel lovers.
Take To The Streets
Milan, although it is a big city, is a wonderful one to explore on foot. Grab a true Italian breakfast – coffee and sweet treat – at one of the numerous coffee bars before you hit the town. The ancient city gates, such as Porta Romana or Porta Ticinese along with their eponymous metro stations, serve as convenient landmarks when you are trying to find your way around the city.
Buses and taxis continuously make their way around the three main ring roads. Trams and metro trains connect most of the other areas. Buy a transport ticket at a newspaper stand or tabaccheria (kiosk) and hop on a bus, tram, or metro if you feel the need to give your feet a break. Alternatively, rent a bike from a BikeMi station and drop it off at the most convenient station when you are done.
Discover The Duomo
Arriving at Piazza del Duomo is not for the faint-hearted. If the pigeons aren’t pestering you, a hawker sure will. Add to that hundreds of people posing with selfie sticks in hand, and you might be tempted to choose a detour. But don’t. The Duomo is unmistakably the most impressive structure in Milan and took more than 600 years to complete. Though it is a madhouse, it is a marvel and an absolute must-see.
If you find the crowds to be too overwhelming, or the queue to enter the main cathedral too long, escape the chaos by moving towards the side entrance, where you can climb the stairs to the top of the church. There is also a lift if you are not keen to climb 250 stairs. Once things have calmed down on the ground (perhaps an hour or so before the cathedral closes), you can take your time to stroll around inside the main building, taking in its holy beauty.
Savour A Gelato In A Secret Garden
You will find a gelato shop on every street corner in Milan – and often also in between the corners of the street. One of my favourite activities was buying a gelato at Gelateria Le Colonne on Corso di Porta Ticinese and escaping the city chaos by slipping through a small wooden door on one of the busiest streets in the city centre – Via Edmondo de Amicis. It leads to a hidden park behind the Cultural Centre, complete with ruins of blocks and pillars from an ancient Roman amphitheatre. Savour your gelato and enjoy the peace before taking on the rest of the city.
Shop (Or Window Shop) Till You Drop
Armani, Missoni, Versace, and Valentino. These are just a few of the famous fashion houses that dazzle passers-by with weird and wonderful apparel and accessories. But I also found the fashion mecca to be a great place for observing people. Someone walks down the street in something that closely resembles pyjamas, and tomorrow it is high fashion.
Where you shop in this trendy town, will unfortunately be determined by your bank balance. But a bank balance doesn’t stop anybody from window shopping. Noteworthy stops for those who love to shop, include Corso Buenos Aires, Piazza San Babila, Brian & Barry Building, Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and La Rinascente, a luxury department store.
Appreciate Da Vinci’s Genius
An artist, scientist, architect, military engineer and Renaissance genius, Leonardo da Vinci discovered that he had a soft spot for Milan after moving there in 1482. There are plenty of places where you can appreciate Da Vinci’s genius, such as the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci featuring cars, aircraft, ships, trains, reconstructions of ancient workshops for metalworking and clock-making, as well as electronics, textiles and astronomy. Then there is the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a library and picture gallery founded at the end of the 16th century which houses Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus notebooks and an art collection, and Leonardo’s Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie, among others.
Grab A Cocktail At Mag Cafè
In the Navigli district, you are spoilt for choice with plenty of restaurants and bars along the canals. MAG Cafè was my top spot to grab a late-afternoon cocktail. It prides itself in its mixology status. I once even managed to get an invite to their off-the-record speakeasy bar (ask owners Marco or Flavio about it!).
The Milanese love their aperitivo: after-work, pre-dinner drinks. For those on a budget, it can also serve as an early dinner. Walking down Via Giovenale in Ticinese, you could easily pass by an ordinary big, white gate. Yet behind it lies one of the best hidden social and aperitivo spots in Milan. Ring the bell labelled “Fonderie Milanesi”, walk past the industrial buildings and warehouses until you arrive at the renovated old foundry. Find a spot in the leafy vine-covered courtyard, order a drink, and help yourself to the drool-inducing aperitivo snacks.
Art and Wine
The Pinacoteca di Brera is Milan’s main picture gallery, on par with the Uffizi in Florence yet with far fewer visitors. The museum hosts the most important works of art from all of the areas conquered by the French armies. Among the collection there are some splendid 15th-century Venetian paintings. Round up the evening with tapas and great Italian wine at the classy N’Ombra De Vin, an underground bar and bistro set in an old wine cellar.
Relish A Plate of Risotto Alla Milanese
Risotto may be considered an Italian dish, but the Milanese-style risotto is truly something special. Risotto alla Milanese is known by its yellow, saffron-infused rice and unholy amount of parmesan. This deceptively simple starchy dish will make you look at rice in a completely different way.
Best Time To Go The best time to go to Milan is in autumn (September to October). Rates are not so steep, the weather is great, and there are not as many people. Avoid July to August, when it is a ghost town and can get extremely hot.
Getting Around If you are flying in to Linate Airport, take the 73 bus to the city centre (remember to validate your ticket as soon as you get on the bus, tram, or metro train). If you are flying to Malpensa Airport, take the Cadorna express train to the city centre.
Costs A public transport ticket costs €1,50 and is valid for 90 minutes. Though the Italians love their five-course meals, you do not have to do it that way. Keep an eye out for the type of establishment you choose – a ristorante is often much more expensive than a trattoria, pizzeria, or osteria. A pizza will cost approximately R130, a glass of wine roughly R120, and a beer about R80.
Fly SAA flies to Frankfurt daily. From there catch a connecting flight to Milan with fellow Star Alliance member and codeshare partner, Lufthansa.
Words by Ilse van den Berg