How to spend a long weekend in Milan
In comparison to other cities in Italy, Milan gets a bad rep from foreigners. Many see it as an industrial city that lacks the charm of many of the more touristy cities, and they claim that the people, the milanesi, are cold in comparison to their southern neighbours.
I’ll admit – it has relatively few tourist sites and the architecture beyond the immediate city centre and pockets of beauty, leaves something to be desired. But I can’t ignore Milan – it’s the financial power house of Italy and, let’s be honest, without it, Italy would have already become the next Greece in the Euro fiasco. Would I choose to live there? I still can’t decide.
So why did I decide to go there a few weeks ago for a four-day weekend? Answer: long-distance relationship. I actually hadn’t been to Italy since my post-exams trip to Sardinia last June, so I was due a trip. Having not been to Milan itself for 5 years (and that in itself was a fleeting visit), I barely recognised anything beyond the Piazza del Duomo and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, so I had a great time exploring the various neighbourhoods of Milan.
Where to “stroll” in Milan
- The Navigli Canals. Once the sun goes down, head south-west of the centre to the two canals, the Navigli, to stroll alongside the water, stopping for drinks and aperitivi in the many bars on your way. To get there you’ll probably pass the Colonne di San Lorenzo – a popular square for al fresco drinking, or botellón as the Spanish would call it. I’ve heard that the canals are virtually empty by day so don’t bother going until 9pm or 10pm. And then of course, during your stumble home at the end of the night, grab a slice of pizza or a nutella crêpe on Corso di Porta Ticenese.
- Via Montenapoleone and Via Manzoni. This is serious shopping territory. A true gauge of luxury is the level of boredom expressed on the faces of the many underoccupied assistants in the luxury boutiques. It seemed to me that they’d be lucky to get one client per hour. Despite this, it’s an exquisitely-kept area and a lovely spot for window shopping. Giorgio Armani has an entire block on Via Alessandro Manzoni, complete with all the normal Armani lines, an Armani café, an Armani bookstore, an Armani homeware store, an Armani florist, an Armani chocolatier and an Armani hotel. My internship at Armani sadly wasn’t in their main office in Milan, but instead in Modena, a cute city about 2 hours south of the fashion capital. However this is the heart of Italian fashion, which, as anyone who’s ever admired a well-dressed Italian will know, is a big deal in Italy. The bella figura is of utmost importance and it encompasses your physical appearance and clothing, as well as your behaviour. I was expecting to be wowed by the elegant men and women strolling around the city, but they sadly didn’t materialise. Perhaps they were scared off by the rain, or all out of town in their country homes by Lake Como for the weekend…
- The neighbourhood of Brera. The aforementioned elegant inhabitants of Milan live in Brera, a divine little neighbourhood near the centre that could fool you into thinking you were in Florence, Bologna or Rome. Narrow streets, flower-filled balconies, chic interior design shops and the odd trattoria spilling out onto the cobbles make it an irresistible area to visit, and an incredibly expensive area property-wise. Brera somehow hasn’t been discovered by the tourists so shhhhhh, don’t tell too many people…
- From Castello Sforzesco to Arco della Pace. One of the city’s greenest parks (a lovely sight you rarely find further south in Italy) is home to lakes, luscious green lawns and shady spots under trees in which to pass the hottest hours of the day. The Castello Sforzesco at one end is not as beautiful as the castles in Ferrara (in Emilia-Romagna), Otranto (in Puglia) or Bracciano (near Rome in Lazio, where Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise were married) but it adds a bit of historical context to the city, which doesn’t otherwise shout about its history, like Rome, Florence and Venice do to excess. Italy used to be made up of continuously warring states until 1815 and the Sforza family reigned over Milan. As they were constantly under attack, the castle served more for protection from invasion rather than a decorative display of wealth and power. On the other side of the park is the Arco della Pace, built by Napoleon and pointing exactly in the direction of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Where to catch a spot of art
- The neighbourhood of Brera is home to the Pinoteca di Brera – one of Italy’s most important state museums, and while it contains a Picasso, a Raffaello, a Caravaggio and a Modigliani, it’s predominantly concerned with religious art from the 14th-16th centuries. The building that houses the gallery is stunning and is also home to Milan’s prestigious art school, the Accademia di Belle Arti, where a friend of ours, Enzo Modolo, is studying. I actually received one of his prize-winning paintings as a graduation present. I enjoyed the gallery, although slightly more modern art is more my cup of tea, and I appreciated the next gallery a bit more.
- Il Museo del Novecento – this museum has pride of place next to the Duomo in a fantastic building that gives you another view over the famous piazza. It looks in depth at the various schools of Italian art since 1900, including the Group T and the futurists. They also currently have an Andy Warhol exhibition until 8th September 2013, and on the top floor they have some rather amusing installations you experience by entering large cubes and by diving behind curtains into surreal pathways.
- Il Palazzo Reale – just next to the Museo del Novecento there’s an exhibition of Modigliani’s work in the beautiful Palazzo Reale, although I didn’t quite have time for that one.
- The Last Supper – I didn’t get round to seeing this either, but on the wall of the dining hall of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, 20 minutes from the centre, is Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Book your tickets several weeks in advance as you won’t get in if you simply turn up.
Where to eat
An aperitivo accompanied by a Spritz (Aperol, prosecco, ice, a splash of soda water and a slice of orange) is absolutely imperative, as is at least one gelato per day. My personal favourite flavours are lemon sorbet and forest fruits sorbet on a hot day when I’m thirsty, and as a dessert I’ll choose Nocciola (hazelnut), Straciatella (vanilla with chunks of chocolate), Bacio (meaning ‘kiss’, a flavour made with chocolate and hazelnuts) and perhaps Caramel too.
A decent pizza is of course in order, and if possible I always go for a white pizza (that is, without tomato) and this time I went for a four cheeses pizza (smoked mozzarella, pecorino cheese, gorgonzola and buffalo caciottella cheese). Polenta is the typical food from Milan, (although I’m not a fan of the stuff) as well as the cotoletta alla milanese (breadcrumb-covered veal).
Desserts are the one area where the country is lacking, in my opinion, so fresh fruit tends to be my staple pudding. And do not ask me how the Italians stay so thin on this diet because it is one of life’s great mysteries… Even after living with two lovely Italian girls for 6 months in Modena, I still have no answer for you – it is simply a miracle.
While I undoubtedly have missed some parts of Milan on this whistle-stop trip, putting the map down and having a “local” guide me around the city is always a pleasure. Italy is the 5th most touristed country in the world, and while I adore this lovely Mediterranean peninsula, it is refreshing to visit a city where package tours of tourists haven’t taken over and colonised. Perfect for a city break in spring.