Milan is the financial and fashion centre of Italy. It can’t compete with the historical sites of Rome or Florence, so often doesn’t feature on people’s shortlists when thinking about a European city break. However, Milan has a great deal to offer the visitor, wherever their interests may lie.
The city is a major world fashion and design capital. Armani, Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Pucci, Gucci and many more started their careers on Milan’s catwalks. Fashionistas make a pilgrimage here to shop at the designers’ flagship stores in the Quadrilatero d’Oro (Golden Quad). Boutiques stocking emerging labels, and chic concept shops also line the city’s streets, while discount outlets selling samples, seconds and last season’s cast-offs are a bargain-hunter’s Holy Grail. Avoid Milan Fashion week though (this year from 18th to 23rd September), because you’ll be lucky to find a hotel room and if you do the price will be vastly inflated! Milan is also the world capital of furniture and homewares (the beanbag is a Milanese brainchild), and a hub for risk-taking contemporary art.
For lovers of more traditional art, a visit to the church of Santa Maria della Grazie to see The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is a “must”. The work is testament to a troubled history. Paint started peeling away in Renaissance times, when the wall was used for target practice. In the 19th century it was a backdrop to the French invasion and nearly got destroyed in the Second World War. It is a miracle that it has survived but thanks to a restoration the fresco can now be seen in full colour. You need to reserve a timed, 15-minute slot in which to visit the masterpiece.
No description of Milan’s sights would be complete without a mention of the cathedral, or Duomo. Standing proudly on the Piazza del Duomo, the third largest church in Christendom (outdone only by St Peter’s in Rome and Seville’s cathedral), the Duomo has been described as “mind-blowingly beautiful”. Although the key elements were in place by 1391 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1418, it took the best part of 500 years to build. Work began in brick, but was upgraded to marble as its architects understood the grandeur of the project. Over time, it was adorned with Gothic spires and an astonishing wealth of statues. Politics, a lack of money and downright indifference kept the project on permanent standby. Finally, early in the 19th century, the façade was put on the church by order of Napoleon. He kick-started the final stages of construction before crowning himself king of Italy here in 1805.
For lovers of Italian food, Milanese restaurants serve possibly the most varied of all Italy’s regional cuisines. Here you’ll find creamy pasta and rich dishes cooked with butter. Alla Milanese cuisine implies that the main ingredients are coated or dipped in eggs and breadcrumbs with parmesan cheese and sautéed in butter. Among the signature Milanese dishes are risotto paired with osso buco, a Milanese specialty of cross-cut veal shanks braised with vegetables, often enriched with saffron and chicken broth. Fish is also a major ingredient of Milanese cuisine, particularly pike and trout from the lakes of Lombardy.
It’s impossible to finish without a quick mention of football. The San Siro Stadium is an essential place of pilgrimage for any football fanatic. This 85,000-seater is home to two rival clubs, AC Milan and FC Internazionale (Inter), which are among the most powerful in the world. Even on non-match days, a tour and a visit to the museum gives an insight into the powerhouse of football. There are plenty of items of historical interest, such as old table football sets, photographs from the stadium’s first Milan-Inter match and a display of football boots showing how they’ve developed over the past century.