I’ve always liked my cities a little rough around the edges, a bit jumbled up and complicated. Picture-postcard places are all very well but they don’t challenge you. Milan has attitude – it’s a diamond in the rough, and it’s exciting. Famous for banking, industry, fashion and football, the city's four faces could not be more different, and at its centre, the Quadrilatero d’Oro, Rectangle of Gold, is the fascinating heart of the fashion quarter and historic city.
One of the world’s greatest works of art is stuck to a wall in Milan. It’s not going anywhere, so if you want to see it, you have to go there. Leonardo’s Last Supper is worth the visit on its own (don’t forget to book ahead), but the city also has two of Italy’s finest art galleries. And there’s the Science and Technology Museum with models of all the various scientific gadgets invented by Leonardo.
Fashion victim or victor?
Whether or not you are into fashion, the shops are worth a look when you are here. Everything is shaped by the fashion industry. Window shopping becomes an art form in itself and the designer hotels, restaurants and cafés that have sprung up to cater for the fashionistas are extraordinary works of art.
Shop, shop, shop
Do things the expensive way in the designer boutiques, or head for the outlet malls or the end-of-range pop-up shops. It’s not just clothes - Milan’s designer credentials stretch into every aspect of life from furniture to jewellery, cutlery to luggage. Choose your moment and you may find a bargain. If not, you’ll have fun trying. See my Shopping in Milan recommendations for more details of where to start hunting.
A stroll amongst the spires
Milan Duomo has to be one of my favourite cathedrals – flamboyant Gothic in a thoroughly un-Italian style, it soars towards the heavens as though spun from sugar. And even better is the fact that you can walk on the roof, and become a part of that extraordinary far-off world of angels and demons.
Risotto A la Milanese
It is said that the ubiquitous saffron risotto was first created by a jealous lover trying to spoil the risotto of his love’s wedding breakfast by spiking it with printers’ saffron dye. It backfired in a happy accident that became the hallmark dish of the city, on every menu (and I mean every menu) in town. Simple yet delicious.
Food, glorious food
Where you find Italians, you find good food. Where you find rich people, you find good food. Rich Italians and the international jetset as a combination ensure that Milan has amazing food with some of Italy’s finest restaurants and superstar chefs – and, sadly, prices to match. There are two distinct trends: the super-chic and newly creative, and the very traditional. Whether you are nibbling on an aperitivo buffet, campari in hand, dining in minimalist chic on creative fusion cuisine at Ristorante Cracco or piling into the pasta at a traditional trattoria, you are in for a treat. I have so far recommended 25 restaurants and cafés (see Milan Cafés and Restaurants), but there are many many more that I could have chosen.
Not my bag, but two of Italy’s finest teams share San Siro Stadium –InterMilan and AC Milan. That’s like Manchester United and Manchester City agreeing to share a ground! Can you imagine the mayhem? But bizarrely, in supposedly chaotic Italy, it works – and this is one of the great footballing hotspots of the world, with David Beckham, José Mourinho and many other footballing legends spending time here.
Gateway to the lakes
Milan is perfectly placed as a jumping-off point to visit the Italian lakes, whether for a day, weekend or longer tour, with Lakes Maggiore and Como and wonderful historic towns such as Monza, Varese, and Bergamo all within easy reach.
A night at the opera
La Scala is one of the world’s great opera houses. It’s worth crossing continents to visit, even if you go during the day on a tour of the museum and theatre and can’t afford a ticket for the evening. Standing in the dark with the gleaming red and gold tiers of seats rising round me, knowing that this was the opera house where Verdi and Maria Callas trod the boards, sent a shiver through me. I wanted to reach out and touch the genius which sadly remained a ghostly presence, just beyond my grasp.
The city streets
In the end, after all the museums and galleries, shops and restaurants, the best bit of Milan, for me, is the city streets with their brash mix of outrageous window displays and graffiti, scruffy alleys and sleek walkways with precisely manicured window boxes. It’s the kid in the Mohican haircut and leather jacket lounging on a bench next to a fashion model on her lunchbreak nibbling a leaf while murderously eyeing up his panino. It’s the ladies with big hair and small dogs, the replete middle-aged businessmen with very thin girlfriends. It’s the Chinese roasted chestnut seller, the army of Africans selling plastic sunglasses and bits of string to tie round your wrist, the elderly Italian waiters. It’s raw, it’s edgy, and its ever-changing.