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The best things to do in Milan in recent years have been heavily influenced by a strategic investment by the government in all things transportation and culture. Tourism is booming, the already efficient subway system is expanding at lightning speed, starchitects are clamoring to design the next beautiful building to grace the city’s growing skyline and there is a growing sense of Milan being a “place to be” and a destination renowned for more than out-of-this-world pizza and shopping than ever before.
The word “renaissance” has been thrown around lately to describe the shifting tides, a moniker that becomes that much more fitting considering that 2019 marks 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci, whose legacy runs deeper than The Last Supper (housed in the city's Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie). The Italian artist is responsible for the city’s criss-crossing network of canals (legend has it he helped with their renovation) and aesthetic contributions to the historical Castello Sforzesco. This year, Milan is highlighting da Vinci’s impact on the city with an extensive series of events collectively known as Leonardo 500. There has truly never been a better time to visit the Northern Italy metropolis.
Best things to do in Milan
Milan’s Duomo is not just another church. It is the city’s most important landmark located smack-dab in the centre of it all. Building on this magnificent Gothic cathedral began in the late 14th century and lasted hundreds of years (even today, it isn’t unusual to see scaffolding on the façade or the back of the church as restoration is often underway). While there is plenty to see inside the cathedral, a visit to the top – via stairs or an elevator – is an absolute must in order to see Milan’s changing skyline, with the old and the new coming together.
The aperitivo is considered an institution in Milan, and no visit to the city would be complete without partaking in this pre-dinner ritual. Near Porta Ticinese, Fonderie Milanesi is the ideal venue to enjoy the Italian trend: sit outdoors and revel in light bites alongside your specialty cocktail. The tradition got its start in the late 19thcentury, when Gaspare Campari, intent on serving a drink that stimulated rather than spoiled the appetite, began serving his eponymous bitter aperitif. As more drinks were developed, more nibbles were added to the offerings; it’s common now to find bars with elaborate buffet spreads. Commonly enjoyed between 7pm and 9pm, it's not uncommon for the best spots to be completely packed – but that community spirit is exactly the aperitivo ethos.
Constructed over hundreds of years, with input from da Vinci himself, Milan’s system of navigable and interconnected canals granted the landlocked city more access to the outside world. Today, the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese are some of the only canals still visible, and around them have sprung up a torrent of bars, restaurants and cafés that thrum with activity on weekend nights. Pull up a stool at Rita & Cocktails for a Gin Zen or Rebelot for a sublime glass of wine. For astonishing views at a leisurely pace, join a boat tour and relax as you're swept around the city sights. If you are looking for something truly unique, check out Backdoor 43 at Ripa di Porta Ticinese 43. Located right on the canals, the owners of this miniscule bar claim it is the smallest in the world. There’s a tiny takeout window where masked bartenders provide drinks to go or you can reserve a time slot to enjoy your cocktails in the four-square-metre indoor space that’s home to few stools and a bathroom.
Perhaps one of the most famous paintings in the world, da Vinci’s The Last Supper has been reproduced to death, but no tote bag or mouse pad or even large-scale reproduction can adequately capture the artist’s emotionally charged mural. Unlike frescoes, which are painted on wet plaster and thus must be completed rather quickly, da Vinci used tempera paints on a dry wall after sealing the stone with dried plaster and adding an undercoat of white lead to achieve greater luminosity. It's astonishing and overwhelming – even despite the fact that Jesus's feet were lost in 1652 given some ill-thought-out renovations.
Since its founding by Archduchess Maria Theresa in the late 18th century, the Teatro alla Scala has remained one of the finest opera theatres in Europe. We'd highly recommend a night out at this grand auditorium, it's truly an experience like no other. But if you don't have time to sit through an entire night of opera, visit the museum instead, where you can at least lay eyes on the glorious red and gold interior.
This massive football shrine – it’s one of the largest stadiums in Europe and the largest in Italy – is a testament to the popularity of both AC Milan and Inter, the city’s two football teams. The stadium was consistently enlarged over the first half of the 20th century to accommodate more and more fans, eventually reaching a capacity of around 80,000 people. It's also a prime spot for concerts: contemporary musical greats that have played here include Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Coldplay, Bruce Springsteen, One Direction and the legendary queen of pop, Madonna.
These days, most Milanese don’t eat local specialties like polenta, risotto or osso buco on a daily basis. After all, sushi and ramen are now just as easy to find as regional delicacies. Ratanà, a swanky restaurant in Isola, offers modern versions of Milanese classics that you absolutely should taste.
Housed in a former tram depot, this spa has several saunas and an elegant tea room on the ground floor. But downstairs is where the magic happens: in this underground lair, there is a warren of stone rooms featuring warm baths, cold baths, geyser pools, a Jacuzzi waterfall and more. Outside, in addition to the tram sauna, there are three warm pools spread out through the garden.
Located not far from the Duomo, Milan’s Castello Sforzesco – built in the 15th century by Duke Francesco Sforza – was once one of the largest citadels in Europe. Today, it houses various museums and numerous important artworks and relics, but it is also nice to wander through its courtyards and drink in the sense of history. After you are done exploring the castle, walk out the back gate and straight into Parco Sempione, Milan’s “green lung” and one of the most beautiful parks in the city. There are a variety of events planned this year at the castle to honour da Vinci’s contribution to the destination, from frescoes to other beautiful adornments.
Formerly cut off from Milan, this neighbourhood has managed to retain a bit of its grit even as the nearby Porta Nuova building project has opened access to the area and paved the way for gentrification. But amidst this change, it’s still possible to explore the area on foot and look out for street art, which was mostly completed by commissioned locals.
Bar Luce, a café designed by Wes Anderson for Fondazione Prada, is the stuff of Instagram dreams. The vintage pinball machines and jukebox, the veneered wood wall panels and the bubblegum pink and powder blue Formica furniture are just begging to be photographed. They are also reminiscent of Italian popular aesthetics from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as many of Anderson’s sets, particularly for his film The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Milan’s Chinatown may not be large, but it certainly packs a punch. There are markets to peruse and restaurants to settle into, as well as street food joints and bars that lend themselves to a proper food crawl. Begin at La Ravioleria Sarpi, where you can purchase pork, beef or vegetable dumplings or a large delectable crepe, before crossing the street to Cantine Isola, a wine bar with a homey atmosphere and knowledgeable barmen. Finish off with a gelato at Chateau Dufan.
Milan and cycling go hand in hand and with numerous bike-sharing schemes, such as BikeMi and Mobike, now available, it’s never been easier to hop in the saddle. One of the most scenic routes is along the Naviglio della Martesana: the bike path on this smaller canal, located northeast of the city centre, passes by meadows and farms and eventually reaches the town of Gorgonzola, where you can take a break to indulge in the buttery, soft, Italian blue cheese that residents claim originated in the area.
Train travel is romanticised, and rightly so: there’s just something about watching the world go by from a train window. The transportation authority in Milan has capitalised on this idea, turning two of the city’s historic trams into restaurants on wheels that offer lunch and dinner runs. It’s pure joy to eat your way through a five-course menu as the tram rumbles around Milan.
Bocce clubs used to be considered démodé, a place where retirees gathered to play cards, drink, socialise and play bocce. Recently, though, they have been embraced by younger generations, many of whom are attracted to their throwback appeal. Housed in a former railway station, La Balera dell’Ortica offers plenty of space for games and dancing, and you’re bound to see people of all ages letting their hair down.
Housed in a former railway shed situated beneath the tracks of Milan’s Central Station, Tunnel Club has been in the vanguard of one of the most robust electronic music scenes in Europe since the 1990s. Despite setbacks in the early aughts, the venue has recently asserted itself as a trendsetter in Milan’s clubbing scene with its techno, trance and house DJ sets. The vibe is more underground than upmarket, and people come here almost exclusively for the music rather than to see and be seen. Make sure to check the website or Facebook page to find out what events are going on as the calendar changes frequently.
You can’t visit the world’s fashion capital and not at least window shop. The best place to do so is the so-called “Golden Triangle,” an area that encompasses Via della Spiga, Via Sant’Andrea and Via Montenapoleone. Here, you will find all the luxury brands, both Italian – Prada, Versace, Armani and Dolce e Gabbana – and foreign, such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent.
In spite of the incredible and varied wines Italy produces, the country has fallen hard for craft beer. One of the most popular breweries in Milan is Birrificio Lambrate, which got its start in 1996, before the craft beer craze hit. When they first opened, they had a capacity for 150 litres per batch and had two types of beer on tap at their pub; today, they have a capacity for 2,000 litres per batch and operate both a pub and pub-restaurant. Fussy drinker? No problem. Birrificio Lambrate touts a spectacular array of beers, so there's something for everyone to get quaffing.
Rossana Orlandi has a reputation for plucking young designers from obscurity and launching their careers. An arbiter of taste, she is renowned for her interest in new ideas and offbeat designs. So exhibiting work at her 19,000-square-foot shop-cum-gallery, located in a former tie factory in Sant’Ambrogio, has become a rite of passage for many of today’s top designers.
Nina Yashar is one of Milan’s top design dealers, having made a name for herself collecting and selling 20th century Italian furniture. She has operated her gallery on Via della Spiga since 1979, but it was only recently, in 2015, that she opened her depot, Nilufar, a massive warehouse showcasing her collection of vintage and contemporary design pieces that she has assembled over the years. Expect pieces that are quirky, eclectic and showcase à la mode Milan style.
Pasticceria Cucchi in Porta Genova has been baking panettone in its humble kitchen for over 70 years and the results have been consistently excellent. Stop by the elegant, old-world shop to purchase a full cake, which, unlike most other pastry shops, Cucchi sells year-round. Or, if you can, grab a curbside table – hot property on weekend mornings – and order a slice of the fluffy masterpiece to go with your morning cappuccino. Delicious.
This sprawling 18th century farmhouse is a little strip of countryside in the big city. Restored in 2002, the Cascina Cuccagna property now houses a restaurant, Un Posto a Milano, with a seasonal menu featuring produce supplied by local farms. There is also a garden, farmers’ market, guest house, communal spaces and a bar, which has become a favourite spot among young creatives and families for aperitivo.