Milan overview

It's not all fashion: Milan has glorious art, architecture and cuisine too

Milan overview Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II - © Olivia Rutherford/Time Out
By Tristan Rutherford and Kathryn Tomasetti

Milan was the Western Roman Empire's capital for a short but significant 109 years. Its position at the top was reconfirmed by Napoleon in 1786, when he declared the city his centre of the Cisalpine Republic. Rome was chosen, some say arbitrarily, as Italy's capital in 1861. But for most northern Italians, Milan is the country's heart.

Milan is Italy's business capital, home to the country's stock exchange as well as its renowned fashion and design industries. But while people work hard, they play hard too. Whether you're up for eating or drinking, football or shopping, Milan excels at recreation.

You won't be dashing from street to street ticking sights off a must-see list, as in Florence, but cultural gems are hardly few and far between. The city is home to Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper (Santa Maria delle Grazie & The Last Supper). Arguably the artist's finest achievement, it was miraculously spared from Second World War bombing as the building around it fell.

Caravaggio's 'Basket of Fruit' hangs in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, while his 'Supper at Emmaus' graces the Pinacoteca Brera. The restored Duomo is a majestic Gothic folly that took half a millennium to complete. But the city's charms can also be understated: there are pleasures in its dusty churches, on the narrow streets of the Brera district, and in courtyards glimpsed through wrought-iron gates.

The so-called Fashion Rectangle is lined with D&G, Versace and Armani boutiques, but you'll delight as much in the stores of local designers. There's not a seat free during the biannual derby at the San Siro Stadium, home to both AC Milan and FC Internazionale. The feast day of Sant'Ambrogio, the city's patron saint, is such a celebration that a massive street fair shuts down a whole neighbourhood. The date also marks the opening night of La Scala's opera season.

On the flip side? The euro has caused the city to become more expensive. The pollution can be oppressive: on a good day, you'll see the Alps from the roof of the Duomo, but on a bad day, city driving is restricted according to number plates in an ongoing attempt to lower vehicle emissions. Local politics can be chaotic, with issues so complex that they're often unintelligible even to the Milanese.

There are also those who claim that Milan is overly urban and unlike the rest of Italy. There may be some truth in this, but chatty barmen still serve cappuccinos with heart-shaped froth to their female customers, and the markets' vegetable vendors succeed in bringing the countryside to Milan and forcing the city slickers to slow their pace for a moment.

Those who look beyond the glamour will discover a city that strides out in style. Locals look to the future, whether it be the 2015 Expo or next season's fashion catwalks. They just sometimes need tourists to show them what a treasure they have right here, right now.

Explore Milan

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