Milan for Tourists: Fashion, Food, Art and Music
Italy’s second city, is a complex paradox, the capital of both Italian commerce, industry
and finance and Fashion (its design and fashion shows are actually big business trade fairs)
yet for the cognoscenti it offers easily discovered cultural and epicurean treasures. This article
focuses on the Milan for tourists: a sophisticated and surprising melange of fashion, food, art and
music, and that’s just for starters.
Perhaps this constant eye to commerce is what makes the city, as a tourist destination, a little
understated, a little too northern European with high-rise towers and banks that outnumber
the churches, but it’s when you walk the city’s streets – immersing yourself into a culture that
is firmly routed in fashion, art, opera and delicate aperitivos eaten al fresco atop cobbled streets,
that you come to realise that Milan is much more than the sum of its sometimes shallow parts.
The city hosts a little bit of something for every visitor – not just world-class
shopping but a well-wired and vibrant cultural scene too. Its’ undeniably creative
atmosphere is a pleasure to explore and when you do, you’ll note that Milan has more
history than the shiny skyscrapers, grimy backstreets and freshly manicured nails of its
denizens tend to remember. This Milan for tourists has much to offer.
The Rectangle of Gold
If it’s fashion that you want then point your Louboutin’s towards the Quadrilatero d’Oro –
otherwise known as the Rectangle of Gold, and explore everything from Dior to Versace
and all the usual suspects all within easy walking distance of each other. Be sure to take a
well-heeled walk around the Gallerie Vittorio Emanuele II, which amongst other things is
one of the oldest shopping malls in the world – with Prada’s flagship store now celebrating
its 101st year there. Bargain hunters should take a look around the area for the outlets that
stock floors of past seasons bargains. However if your tastes are slightly more avant garde
then take a walk to Via P. Paoli 1, where you’ll find the Antonioli concept store – a unique
space where you can shop contemporary designers such as Ann Demeulemeester, Rick
Owens and Yohji Yamamoto in a beautifully designed store.
The shows in spring and summer are, to many, the highlight of the fashion calendar, with
starlets from all corners of the world, heading to the Palazzo Reale or the Palazzo
Serbelloni, to get a first look at the designs of the elites of Italian fashion such as Dolce &
Gabbana, Marni and Moschino. If you don’t have an invite to a show then there are still
plenty of opportunities to strut your stuff – whether outside the venues (prepare for the
street-style paparazzi) or in one of the city’s trendy bars.
To some it’s perhaps surprising that this sometimes-grey city is where Leonardo da Vinci
found the perfect setting to exercise his brilliance. You could spend days here retracing his
footsteps – from the Sforza Castle with his painted Mulberry tree frescoes, and the various
exhibits of both his work in art and science in the city’s museums to the breathtaking Last
Supper fresco, which hides on a refectory wall behind the antique façade of the UNESCO
listed Santa Maria delle Grazie church.
Aesthetes should dedicate time to the astounding gothic beauty of the Duomo. Its size is
staggering, a construct which took 5 years to complete – it is the largest cathedral in Italy.
Inside the looming façade, the numerous works of art and icons on offer create a brooding
atmosphere – the most striking of which is the statue of Saint Bartholomew Flayed, by
Marco d’Agrate. The saint stands, muscle and tissue exposed, holding a book, his flayed
skin thrown over his shoulder like a robe. Those with a love of opera should make reservations
to the Teatro Alla Scala, though any one with even a passing interest in the arts and architecture
should make an effort to see the impressive stage, which first raised its curtains in 1778. Art lovers
shouldn’t miss Tiepolo’s frescoes at the Palazzo Clerici or the works of art concealed within the
Pinacoteca di Brera.
It goes without saying that Italy is well known for its food – but Milan often, rather unfairly,
slips under the radar. Let’s make it simple. When in Milan – sate your hunger with local
cheeses, butters and milks – note that rice is more popular than pasta in many circles – it
does absorb the creams and cheeses that bit better – and try local greats like gorgonzola,
polenta topped with mushrooms and of course the famous Panettone cake – originally from
Milan and generally reserved for Christmas in these parts.
Now let’s set the scene. Milan, 6PM, the bars and restaurants of the city are filled with
locals and tourists alike for Aperitivo hour. Where do you go? For the classic experience
we suggest the haute bars around the Piazzo Duomo, especially Zucca in the Galleria,
which is where the likes of Giuseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanini would dine after
performances at La Scala next door – the historical ambience, and the view of the Duomo
completes the authenticity. For those in need of a slightly more stylish setting then try
Brera district, or, for something a little more elaborate, try the Navigli district, where the da
Vinci designed canals wind along the narrow streets. Try one of the houseboats docked in
the canals, where Aperitivo is often accompanied by live music.
But what is it you ask? Aperitivo is a well-established northern Italian culinary tradition, and
Milan (from the 1920’s anyway) is the capital of it. It’s about drinks and food. A harmony of
flavours propelled to sainthood, through offers of afterwork relaxation and the pleasure of
conversation paired with great, though simple food. Try a spritz or a Negroni sbagliato (a
delicious mix of prosecco, red vermouth and Aperol instead of gin) paired with a
smorgasbord of olives, nuts, bruschetta, cheeses and other stuzzichini (finger food).
Drinks cost anywhere from 7 to 15 euros and come with either a table mix of the above or,
in some cases, all you can eat buffets – perhaps the last thing you would expect, when all
around you, the Milanese strut in precision heels, pristinely turned out with perfectly
Take a few days to experience what the city has to offer – stay away, if you can, from the
bustling Milano Centrale Station area, and instead stick to the Piazzas where you can sit in the
company of history and simply watch the (Milanese) world go by, sipping your espresso, nibbling
on a biscotti and absorbing the very special magic of Fashion, Food and Travel in Milan