A Weekend in Milan
Updated: Oct 29, 2021
There can be few greater introductions to a city than that first sighting of Milan's cathedral as you emerge from the underground onto Piazza del Duomo. Its exuberant Gothic façade of soaring spires and flying buttresses is almost overwhelming at the best of times but add in some late evening sun and the effect is otherworldly, seeming to emit a glow from within. It's utterly awe-inducing.
Milan is unlike any of the other great Italian cities. Capital of the northern region of Lombardy, it is Italy's most international city and its second largest after Rome. The undisputed fashion capital, it presents itself to visitors with a confident swagger. While first impressions may suggest a rough-around-the-edges industrial metropolis surrounding a historic core, scratch beneath the surface and you'll find a lively and captivating city, made up of a series of distinct and vibrant neighbourhoods.
Compact in size, Milan is easily walkable though it is very well served by a bus, tram and Metro network. If, like us, you've only got a weekend to see all it has to offer, the underground system is invaluable for quickly getting from one side of the city to the other. And make no mistake - there's much to see and do here, with a wealth of museums, galleries and sites of historic interest, not to mention the countless world-class restaurants and lively bars. Start your day among the Renaissance treasures of the Pinocateca di Brera, stop for lunch at one of its groovy canal-side spots before taking in some contemporary art at the Fondazione Prada. Enjoy an aperitivo at the Wes Anderson-designed Bar Luce before heading back to the Centro Storico to watch the sunset from the rooftop of the Duomo. It's all yours for the taking.
A whistle-stop tour: highlights of Milan
The obvious starting point for any trip to Milan is the historic city centre, at the heart of which stands the magnificent Duomo di Milano. On one side you'll find that world-famous Milanese landmark, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Dating to 1877, this is Italy's oldest active shopping gallery, and unquestionably its most beautiful. A richly decorated triumphal arch marks the entrance to the arcade, where two intersecting streets come together in a cruciform plan, topped by an octagonal dome in the centre.
Revel in the opulent surroundings, taking time to stroll through the iron-and-glass roofed arcade, home to some of the most luxurious boutiques in Milan and a number of high-end restaurants and cafés. This is where the beautiful people of Milan hang out in their droves, posing and posturing and waiting to be noticed. It's worth grabbing a table at one of its many establishments for ringside seats to the free fashion show. Endlessly entertaining.
The Galleria connects the Piazza del Duomo to another significant public space, the Piazza della Scala, home to one of Italy's most prestigious opera houses. Plan your trip to coincide with a performance at the 18th century Teatro alla Scala where the likes of Verdi and Rossini debuted some of their great works. In February 1995, the venue expanded its repertoire, presenting its first ever concert by a jazz musician. That musician was jazz virtuoso Keith Jarrett who stunned the audience with a totally improvised solo piano concert, in my view one of the greatest moments of his career. His mesmeric performance was recorded as a live album: you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium when he hit his stride.
Teatro alla Scala, Via Filodrammatici, 2, 20121
Duomo di Milan
No visit to Milan is complete without a visit to the Duomo, the iconic symbol of the city. It won't surprise you to learn that construction spanned six centuries, commencing in the late 14th - its marbled exterior alone is an extravaganza of architectural and sculptural detailing with no less than 135 spires and 3400 statues. The entire effect is a perfect fusion of the international Gothic style with traditional Lombard techniques.
First up, let's start with the practicalities. It can get very busy so advance booking online is essential. Click here for the various ticketing options: to get the best out of your visit, make sure to purchase one which allows for rooftop access, either by lift or stairs. Also worth noting is the requirement for 'appropriate' attire when entering the cathedral, otherwise you may find yourself sporting a rather fetching paper dress, available to buy from the ticket office. Finally, allow yourself a couple of hours for your visit. There is so much to take in and you want to leave at least an hour for the rooftop terraces - the highlight of the entire experience.
Step inside to enjoy the soaring heights of its impressive interior, where row upon row of marble columns are topped with intricately carved statues and sculptural scenes, and elaborate geometric designs decorate the ribbed-vaulting. In between, a series of beautiful stained-glass windows depict scenes from the bible, their rich palette illuminating the space, throwing a kaleidoscope of light across the floor of the church.
Leave the best for last and end your visit on the rooftop terraces of the Duomo. Take the lift, or if you're feeling energetic, ascend the 251 steps to the top, and prepare for your jaw to drop at your up-close-and-personal vantage point. Enjoy the panoramic city views, striking from any perspective but even more so when glimpsed through the myriad of marble spires, pinnacles and statues that grace the rooftop.
Admire the work of an army of sculptors, engineers and master craftsmen as gargoyles and fantastical creatures jut out of pillars while putti hover precariously above your head. Countless sculptures of saints and martyrs surround every entrance and archway, and hidden faces emerge between elaborate Gothic detailing. It feels like you are being observed by thousands of prying eyes: utterly extraordinary.
Make sure to go all the way to the top, emerging onto the slanted roof of the cathedral where you can sit and truly savour those astonishing 360 degree views across Milan's rooftops. Time your visit right and aim to be on the summit for sunset: the effects of light and shadow can be dramatic, almost theatrical; illuminating certain figures, concealing others. We sat, awestruck and entirely humbled by this incredible feat of engineering and artistry. If you baulked at the entrance fee, this is why it's worth it.
The (literal) crowning glory of the Duomo is the Madonnina, or Little Madonna, the city's protector. She stands at its highest point in all her gilded glory, a staff in hand, her head surrounded by a gold halo.
Duomo di Milano, P.za del Duomo
Enjoy some art with a view at the Museo del Novecento
Take a journey through the 20th century collections at the Museo del Novecento, Milan's modern art museum, while simultaneously enjoying some of the best city views imaginable. Floor-to-ceiling windows on the upper levels frame postcard-type views of the Duomo in all its glory.
The museum is home to one of the important permanent collections of 20th century Italian art, an invaluable visual record of its social and political history through the rise and fall of Fascism and through two world wars. The story is told chronologically, setting the scene by looking at what was happening internationally in the art world in the early 1900s - featured artists include Picasso, Georges Braque, Paul Klee, Kandinsky, and Modigliani.
From there, we are introduced to the origins of Italian Futurism through the vast collection of dynamic works by Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla. As we move through the decades, we view the changing trends from Italian Novecento, through abstractionism and Arte Povera. Works from the latter part of the century include Pop Art, Conceptual art and large-scale installations.
A personal highlight was the substantial collection of work on show by the Italian sculptor Marino Marini. Best known for equestrian sculptures, in particular his cheeky The Angel of the City in Venice, the Museo del Novecento focuses instead on his human forms. In one room dedicated to his plater busts, a sea of faces greets you, an introduction to his friends and artistic contemporaries.
In addition to the permanent collection, the gallery also hosts some top-class temporary exhibitions. We were lucky enough to catch an outstanding retrospective of the work of Mario Sironi, a wonderful introduction to an artist we knew little about, but of who we are now huge fans. The show runs until March 2022 so catch it while you can.
Piazza del Duomo, 8
Where to eat: Centro Storico
Nostalgia brought us back to eat at the Ristorante Galleria, one of the elegant establishments inside the historic Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Revisiting the scene of our fondest dining memory from a ten-year old Milan trip could have been a risky move, but it paid off. Despite its location in one of Milan's tourist hotpots, we were surrounded by Italian speakers - usually a good sign. The atmosphere was warm and inviting and not at all pretentious; the service a little gruff but kindly with a healthy dose of good humour. Getting carried away by the decadent surroundings, we treated ourselves to two glasses of Champagne and slowly savoured every drop.
We were delighted to find that the food was still as good as we remembered. Appetites sufficiently whetted by the bubbles, we opted for two light starters, a marinated salmon and a Greek salad, to leave space for the creamy, buttery goodness which was to follow. I'm referring, of course, to the Risotto alla Milanese, a traditional dish of the region made from Arborio rice, beef stock, shallots, butter, saffron, white wine, and Parmesan - essentially a big comforting bowl of indulgence. It's one of my favourite dishes in the world and this one was sheer perfection. Worth waiting ten years for. Martin opted for another classic of Lombard cuisine, Ossobuco: veal shanks braised with white wine and broth and served in the traditional way with Risotto alla Milanese. Somehow we managed to also squeeze in a Millefeuille dessert to share. But this was no ordinary Millefeuille. It was melt-in-your-mouth perfection.
Expect to pay a little more than average here but that location and the overall experience is worth every penny.
Ristorante Galleria, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, 75 Metro: Duomo
Alle Zitelle Wine Bar
Just on the outskirts of the Centro Storico lies a groovy little wine bar which offers a good selection of wines by the glass, and small plates of cheese and meat. There are tables outside on the lively street, but the atmosphere inside the tiny bar is also buzzy and convivial
Viale Coni Zugna 56 Metro: San Agostino / Porta Genova
Hang out canal-side in Milan's buzziest district. Wedged between two canals in the south-western part of the city, its narrow cobbled streets are teeming with life and crammed with numerous bars, café and restaurants.
Wander through the warren of streets to browse the many vintage clothes shops, art galleries and record stores. This is the place to come to stock up on well-priced vinyl so make sure to leave space in your suitcase. However, it's in the evenings when Navigli really comes to life; when chairs and tables spill out on the canal-side paths to accommodate the throngs of aperitivo drinkers. Nab yourself a ringside seat and watch the evening unfold noisily in front of your eyes.
Eating and Drinking in Navigli
There are countless places to eat in this area and booking ahead is essential, especially at weekends. This was our favourite spot.
Al Pont de Ferr
This much-lauded restaurant was one of the foodie highlights of our twelve-night trip in Italy. Unable to secure a dinner reservation, we jumped at the chance of a leisurely Saturday lunch. Located right on the canal, close to the iron bridge, it offers a small but innovative menu of traditional dishes, reinterpreted with a contemporary twist. The entire experience was wonderful, and service was friendly and efficient service from the off. On arrival, a complimentary amuse-bouche soon appeared on the table, accompanied by a board of warm bread and muffin-shaped brioche, straight from the oven. Divine!
Next up were two plates of pasta perfection: spaghetti with tomato and basil, and a sausage ragú. Simple, traditional dishes but with stunning flavours, made with the highest-quality ingredients. It took some restraint not to lick the bowl. Their lunch menu is terrific value offering two dishes for €20 and their wine is criminally cheap. A carafe of a silky smooth Venetian red costs a mere €8. Their coffee is great too. It's top of our list to revisit next time in Milan.
Al Pont de Ferr, Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 55 Metro - Porta Genova
Where to stay in Navigli:
For a retro-tastic experience, check out the groovy Zebra Naviglio, just a few minutes' walk from the canal and the Porta Genova Metro station. The clue is in the name - expect some wonderful Zebra-print wallpaper, and some zingy 60s style geometric patterns and soft-furnishings. The location is fantastic, with countless bars and restaurants quite literally right on your doorstep, and it's moderately priced too by Milan standards.
It's a small guesthouse with just a few rooms, all uniquely and lovingly decorated, and Giovanni, the manager, is a great source of advice for the best places to eat and drink in the area. Beds are super-comfy with good-quality linen, and a Nespresso machine was a much appreciated touch. We enjoyed throwing open the French doors each morning, listening to the sounds of the city waking up over our first coffee of the day. It felt like a proper city pad.
Zebra Naviglio, 5 Via Casale Metro: Porta Genova
Brera: for a world-class art experience
Head north of the Duomo and the Centro Storico to Brera, one of Milan's coolest neighbourhoods. Its narrow cobbled streets are brim-full of antique and vintage shops and artsy boutiques, while at night it comes alive with diners and aperitivo drinkers frequenting its its stylish bars and restaurants. It's like a grown-up, more sophisticated version of Navigli. But one of the biggest draws is the Pinacoteca di Brera, home to one of the most outstanding collections of paintings in Italy with works dating from the Medieval period to the 20th century. Located in the 17th century Palazzo Brera, your introduction to the museum is through the striking arcaded courtyard.
Prepare to come face-to-face with some of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art including the heart-wrenching Pietà by Giovanni Bellini, Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin and the groundbreaking Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna in addition to some world-famous works by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens and Piero della Francesca, to name but a few. But the showstopper for us was Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio from 1606, an astonishing tour-de-force, full of tension and vitality.
It's almost cinematic in execution, the harsh realism of the figures illuminated by a theatrical lighting which adds to the sense of drama. The disciple on the right grips the table in shock, his elbow jutting out into our space. It felt like a still from a film and we stood entranced, unable to move on. Photographs do not do it justice. You need to experience it up close for yourself.
In one of the main galleries stands the colossal marble statue of Napoleon by Antonio Canova. It fed into Napoleon's ego to have himself portrayed by the most important sculptor of the day. However, he was displeased by the idealised, classical representation. A bronze replica depicting Napoleon as the Peacemaker Mars was later commissioned from Canova by the Viceroy of Italy which now stands in the courtyard
Pinacoteca di Brera, Via Brera, 28 Metro: Lanza
Largo Isarco: best for contemporary art and a Wes Anderson designed bar
In the southest of Milan you'll find Largo Isarco, an industrial area which was revamped and given new life in 2015 with the construction of a new Headquarters for the Fondazione Prada. This remarkable complex of buildings occupies over 19,000 square meters and is home to the Fondazione’s permanent contemporary art collection. It also hosts an ongoing programme of temporary exhibits and events, in addition to a series of educational and recreational activities.
The project was the brainchild of Dutch architecture firm OMA, led by Rem Koolhaas, and saw the transformation of an early 2oth century distillery into this fantastic venue and exhibition space. The three main buildings are slickly modern, and utterly distinct in style, though they interact with each other seamlessly. The Tower rises above the complex in exposed white concrete, 60 metres and nine floors high and visible for miles, while the Podium occupies a vast central space over two storeys. However, the unmistakable star of the show is the Haunted House, a striking four-storey building entirely clad in gold leaf which seems to glow, even on a dull, grey evening.
Permanent collection includes work by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and other giants of contemporary art. Expect lots of large-scaled installations. Online booking in advance is essential, especially at weekends. See ticketing information here. Fondazione Prada, Largo Isarco, 2 Metro: Lodi Tibb
And now for something entirely unique: the opportunity to enjoy your evening aperitivo in a bar designed by the American film director Wes Anderson. Located opposite the ticket office of Fondazione Prada, Bar Luce sees Anderson realise one of his childhood ambitions to be an architect, letting his imagination go wild. The results will make you smile: it's fun, vibrant and a little bit off-the-wall, exactly like his films.
The director has recreated the vibe of a typical Milanese café, but drawing on references and aesthetics from Italian popular culture of the 1950s or 1960s. He makes liberal use of pastels and brightly-coloured formica, contrasting patterned wallpaper with pink terrazzo floors while retro jukeboxes line the wall. It's seriously cool. Expect lots of posturing and posing as Instagrammers vie for that perfect shot. But on the plus side, it means the turnover of tables is pretty rapid. The pattern: down an espresso, take a snap and go.
Fondazione Prada, Largo Isarco, 2 Metro: Lodi Tibb
Milan is well served by three airports: Milan Linate (approx 8kms from the city centre), Bergamo (45 kms from city) and Milan Malpensa (50kms from the centre). Aer Lingus operates to both Linate and Malpensa while Ryanair flies to Malpensa and Bergamo.
If you're planning a trip to Lake Como, Milan is less than 100 kilometres away and is a worthy stop-off point for a few days. Two days just wasn't enough and left me wanting more. We're already planning a return visit.