1. Feast your eyes on the Last Supper
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci in the church of Santa Maria della Grazie is arguably the greatest painting of the Renaissance, capturing the dramatic moment at which Jesus reveals one of his disciples will betray him. It’s so realistic that you can imagine the shock, amazement and hostility of the religious followers. 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’s a miracle that it has survived. But thanks to a restoration the fresco can now be seen in full colour. Make sure that you reserve a timed, 15-minute slot in which to visit the masterpiece.
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2. Scale the Duomo
The Duomo of Milan is an amazing sight. Stretching up high above the piazza del Duomo, it’s the third largest church in Christendom. A staggering 3,500 statues and 135 spires adorn the marble structure, which has a Baroque and neo-Gothic façade, as well as five bronze doors carved by different artists. It’s no wonder that it took 500 years to complete and building work continues today. To appreciate this beautiful cathedral in all its glory, take the lift to the roof, from where you to get a breathtaking view of the Alps on a clear day.
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3. Bag the latest styles at the Rectangle of Gold
Milan is a haute couture powerhouse, where fashions jump from catwalk to clothes rail in weeks. But unlike the sprawling district in Paris, Milan’s boutiques fit into one square, bordered by via della Spiga, via Manzoni, via Sant’Andrea and via Montenapoleone: the Quadrilatero d’Oro (Rectangle of Gold). Designer named stores include Armani, Chanel, Missoni, Prada and Versace. Even if the price tags are out of your budget, you can spend many a happy hour admiring the window displays. And if you can only just afford €500 on a pair of Miu Miu boots, rest assured: the shopkeepers will gladly accept plastic.
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4. Explore the labyrinthine Castello Sforzesco
With 12 mini-museums and vast archives running all the way from Palaeolithic history through to 1950s furniture, Castello Sforzesco really needs an entire day. During the 15th century, it was home to the aristocratic court of Ludovico ‘il Moro’ Sforza, patron of Leonardo da Vinci, but fell into decline under French rule until it was restored with the help of architect Luca Beltrami. You can see the results in the 20th century recreation of the Renaissance tower above the façade. Museum highlights include the Museo d’Arte e Scienza, with displays on Da Vinci’s life; the Palazzo d’Arte, a fantastic showcase for design that was once home to the Triennale; the Pinacoteca di Castello, a gallery of luminous early Renaissance works by Bellini and Mantegna; and Civiche Raccolte d’Arte Antica, a sculpture gallery.
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5. Have a Venice experience in Milan
It may not be Venice, but Milan is still a city of canals and a quiet cruise on its still waters throws light on historic gems. Navigli Lombardi (www.naviglilombardi.it) organises a tour that takes in the ancient washhouses of vicolo dei Lavandai and San Cristoforo, the Scodellino bridge and the old Darsena port. Built in 1603, this port sits at the confluence of two canals linking Milan with the Ticino and Po rivers, and now hosts a sedate trade of riverside shopping, dining and drinking. As the canal stretches across the city, you’ll find boutiques, antiques restorers, bookstores and nightspots lining the banks and side streets. Navigli Lombardi runs full days out in June and July, with return transport to Gaggiano, lunch and afternoon bike hire (€45). Tickets can be bought at Studio Mitti, an artist’s shop opposite the boat’s dock, by telephone or on board.
6. Savour the flavours of Milanese cuisine
Milanese restaurants serve the most varied of all Italy’s regional cuisines. Here you’ll find creamy pasta, dairy and meat products, alongside international foods such as maki and curry. Our top pick for sampling Milanese food is Antica Trattoria della Pesa. Located in a 19th-century weigh station, it has a cosy ambience and some of the finest funghi porcini pasta in the city; the generous Costoletta alla Milanese (breaded veal) barely fits onto its serving plate. Any deviations from tradition will be strongly discouraged, including the sacrilegious squeezing of lemon juice on to your cutlet.
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7. Relax to the max at Milan’s spas
Pulled a muscle in your shopping marathon? No sweat: one of Milan’s spas will have a special treatment for you. Fashionistas should head for the Aveda-based Lepri, a salon and spa owned by the gregarious Fabrizio Lepri, a sought-after hairstylist. Another option is the Bulgari Hotel, which offers a serene sanctuary with a stone and gold-mosaic swimming pool and ESPA at Gianfranco Ferré, a small but perfectly formed spa inside a designer boutique. For something hot and steamy, try Hammam della Rosa, where you can follow a circuit of varying temperatures, rooms and plunge pools. And if you fancy going back in time, visit the Terme Milano, situated in a restored art deco palazzo. A day pass gives you access to steambaths, saunas and open-air pools. Slip on a swimsuit and dive in.
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8. Sample a sandwich of distinction
Business-centric Milan has almost forgotten the good old three-hour pranzo (lunch). Today’s workers grab a lite bite in an hour, so businesses can stay open. But that hasn’t meant that food-loving Italians have had to suffer. At Bar della Crocetta the humble sandwich has become an art form, with over 100 panini oozing wonderful ingredients, from wild venison to prosciutto. De Santis doubles that number of sarnies, enticing you with elaborate concoctions, including basil-flavoured goat’s cheese and marinated artichokes, squeezed between thin pieces of their own secret-recipe grilled bread. If you fancy an alternative to panini, nip behind the Rinascente department store by the Duomo to Panzerotti Luini, famed for its panzerotti – rounds of dough stuffed with tomato and mozzarella, then folded and fried. Be prepared to wait at lunchtimes.
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9. View the best art collection in the city
The modest but exquisite collection at the Pinacoteca di Brera art museum covers works by major Italian artists from the 13th to the 20th centuries. Highlights include Mantegna’s Dead Christ, a moving Pietà by Giovanni Bellini, Piero della Francesca’s Virgin and Child with Saints and Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese are all here. There’s also a studio of plaster casts and drawings, and contemporary works, thanks to its wonderful study collection. Behind the museum, the Orto Botanico di Brera is a lovely spot to relax, and there are plenty of exhibition spaces, boutiques and cool bars to visit in the area.
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10. Grab a really great coffee
Milan is the city in which Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz first formulated the concept of launching US espresso bars, where the public can work, meet and relax. Italy’s cafés already fulfil this role with zeal: local baristas remember your name and usually start preparing your usual beverage the moment you walk in. But forget the tall frappuccino; you can expect your caffè lungo macchiato or cappuccino scuro to be served fast and short. Around the Duomo, there’s a clutch of elegant cafes at which to relax. Fashion-conscious shoppers should try the bustling Trussardi Café and Caffè Miani (aka Zucca), whereas opera fans should stop by the quietly dignified Caffè Verdi. Around the Castello Sforzesco complex, the Bar Bianco is a popular place to drink a caffè macchiato while planning your itinerary on a sunny weekend.
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11. Be both cheap and chearful at happy hour
With cocktail prices fixed between €6 and €8 thrown into the aperitivo mix, the city’s hippest bars all attempt to out-chic the others at the daily happy hour: DJs are hired for the early evening slot, seasonal concoctions are chalked up on the wall, and mountainous buffets pull in the punters. Bhangrabar serves Indian specialities, and Radetzky ups the stakes with marinated artichokes and oysters on ice. Fresco Art has a selection that includes frittata, smoked salmon pasta, celery and walnut salads. Many bars include garden areas, so you can drink a Campari in the fresh air. Volo has a traditional English-style walled garden, with wrought iron furniture shaded by trees, whereas the garden at HClub is re-landscaped seasonally. It’s a great place in which to lap up free salvers of Russian salad and queen olives. In the cocktail stakes, Nottingham Forest and Cuore are in the premier league.
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12. Sing Oh Bej! Oh Bej! at the top of your voice
The Sant-Ambrogio church, named after the city’s patron saint may not be as beautiful to look at as the Duomo, but it’s more important to the locals and has shaped its history. Between the ninth and 15th centuries, it hosted the coronations of nine Italian kings (four of them are buried here too). Once a year the streets surrounding the church sing with the Oh Bej! Oh Bej! Festival. Bustling crowds sample traditional food such as pancakes, roast meat, chestnuts and mulled wine, and stalls sell crafts and antiques. The exhibition of a silver statue of Ambrogio and a special morning mass brings the church to life.
13. Shop in one of the oldest malls in the world
For a spot of luxury shopping, look out for the glass-roofed arcade near the Duomo: the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (NB this is spelt in the guidebook as Emanuelle II). Opened in 1867, its designer Giuseppe Mengoni pioneered its complex marriage of iron and glass 20 years before the Eiffel Tower was built. The ceiling vaults are decorated with mosaics representing Asia, Africa, Europe and America and at ground level there are mosaics of more local concerns. It has a grand style that’s given it the name of il salotto di Milano (Milan’s living room). Prada’s flagship store has been in business here since 1913, and it’s recently been joined by Louis Vuitton and Gucci. The upper echelons of Milan society all pass through at some point. Suited businessmen will happily pay €10 for a coffee on the terrace at Zucca, and elegant grandmothers carry chihuahuas in Fendi bags. It’s the perfect place to people watch while enjoying a coffee and a slice of cake.
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14. Support AC Milan (or maybe FC Internazionale!)
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, 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. Highlights include 1928 Inter cufflinks, documentation of Berlusconi’s purchase of the football club in 1986, and white ceramic busts of AC Milan stars Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. 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.
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15. Hunt down cut price catwalk goodies
Locals prefer the city’s many outlet stores to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and are prepared to elbow their way through cut-price catwalk fashions to find the best bargains. Such treasure troves are packed full of returns and factory seconds. The only drawback is that even at discounts of 50-70 per cent, price tags can provoke the occasional ‘Ouch!’ and refunds are unusual, so try before you buy. Outlets cluster around the corso Vittorio Emanuele II. For general needs, try the established outlet of Il Salvagente (‘the lifesaver’), with three floors of top stuff for men and women and a kids’ section called Salvagente Bimbi. Ladies’ fashion bargains can be found at Dmagazine Outlet on the city’s main shopping street. Shopaholics should invest in a copy of Scoprioccasioni (www.scoprioccasioni.it).
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16. Become a drama queen at Opera at La Scala
If you can get hold of, or afford, a ticket to La Scala, opera-lovers worldwide will hold you in higher esteem. La Scala has a massive stage, 2,015 seats and some of the best acoustics in the world, and it draws in the finest performers. Named after the Santa Maria della Scala, the 1381 church that once stood on the same site, the opera has a dramatic past. It was inaugurated in 1778 with an opera by Salieri, and many great works by Puccini, Verdi and Bellini have premièred here, so it has become a symbol of national pride. Thanks to a vital restoration and change of direction, it now stages cutting-edge opera with fluid scene changes and seat-back screens, which offer an instant translation of lyrics. With Stéphane Lissner at the helm, the programme is innovative and varied: an operatic version of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth will debut at La Scala in 2011.
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17. Rummage around the flea markets
Shopping heaven though it is, there are days when trawling through centro Milano in search of the latest Prada pantsuit can lose its appeal. So pick a sunny day, leave the heels at home and hit the city’s best markets. The Fiera di Senigallia has long been the city’s top flea market. Its specialities include’70s vintage disco gear, compilation CDs, Peruvian baby clothes and old comic books. Over a canal or two, the popular Papiniano stocks a mix of goods, including plants, shoes, homewares and linens, with the odd food stall thrown in. Expect to use your elbows if you want to get near the cut-price clothes. Head up north to check out underrated Isola, a bargain hunter’s delight that has ceramics, end-of-season clothes by Miss Sixty and offcuts of coloured Como silk. It’s also good for fresh fruits and veg, and ultra-cheap, à la mode fashions. Fauché is the fashionistas’ favourite for cut-price designer shoes. On the last Sunday of each month, around 400 antiques dealers display their wares at the Antiquariato sul Naviglio Grande. Running for two kilometres alongside the city’s oldest canal, the market pulls in close to 150,000 people, and is a good source of design classics, ranging from furniture and silverware to vintage watches.
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18. Club with the hipsters in Como
If you mix a ‘work hard, party hard’ ethic and the young, upwardly mobile set of Milan, what do you get? An incessant demand for places in which to party like there’s no alarm clock. The city certainly delivers, with pockets of vibrant nightlife in the swanky Corso Como area. At the classic club Hollywood you’ll find a transformation going on: although it was once home to the champagne-swilling pinstriped crowd, the club is now embracing the artsy, hip and gay communities. If you fancy a night of wild dancing on the bar, then visit Loolapaloosa. It offers great aperitivos, with heaps of food from the buffet to accompany your cocktail. The outdoor terrace is small but comfy, and the tunes tend to stick to big commercial hits.
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19. Kick back with the locals at their favourite lake
In the summertime, relax at Milan’s man-made lake, Idroscalo. Originally carved out as a watery landing strip by Mussolini, who thought sea planes were the way forwards, it is now a zone of water, forest and parkland measuring eight square kilometres (three square miles). Its resort conjures up images of Italy’s Mediterranean coastline, with beach clubs, barbecue areas and topless sunbathing; the shore is lined with pedalos. Kids like playing in the two large open-air swimming pools and children’s pool on the eastern shore (€5 weekdays, €7 weekends). Energetic families can follow the six-kilometre (four-mile) hiking and cycle path around the lake, whereas kids can try the jungle gyms and skateboard ramps by Idroscalo’s western Ingresso Villetta entrance; there are teepees, swings and climbing frames for tots nearby.
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20. Resurrect Roman Milan
They came, they saw, they built. Although Milan got its name from the Celts who arrived in about 388 BC, it was the Romans who left the oldest marks on the city. You can see their artefacts in several museums, including the Civici Musei del Castello and the Civico Museo Archeologico, and trace their presence in the city itself. The Pinacoteca and Biblioteca Ambrosiana mark the location of the forum, while the watchtowers are still intact in the garden of the Civico Museo Archeologico. On the via de Amicis, you can see the remains of the vast amphitheatre, unearthed in 1935. And the Columns of San Lorenzo, which were probably once part of a temple or civic bathhouse, stand ten metres (33 feet) high on corso di Porta Ticinese. Along with the other monuments, they bring the splendour of Roman rule to life.
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