Milan - appearance isn't everything

by jrharris

Milan may be famous for its fashion but read my guide where I scratch below the superficial surface taking you to the best restaurants, bars and sights

Often dismissed too easily, Milan deserves to see its name on more Italian itineraries. The city’s most famous and visited sights: its spectacular Gothic cathedral (Il Duomo), the regal shopping arcade, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, and the impressive Castello Sforzesco have all been well documented and are all musts on any visit, nevertheless there is much more to discover.

Somewhat ironically, for the fashion capital of a country where appearance counts for so much, first impressions of Milan leave little to be desired. Arriving from either Malpensa or Orio al Serio (Bergamo) airport the one hour bus ride to the central train station takes you through Milan's sprawling and under-loved suburbs. However, once you arrive Stazione Centrale provides you with your first treat. A truly impressive space, and one of my favourite buildings, it is among the finest stations in Europe. Completed by Mussolini in 1931, its imposing facade has thankfully since been stripped of its fascist decoration but its muscular appearance and carved lion fountains provide a wonderfully dramatic gateway to the city.

It is of course for fashion and shopping that modern day Milan is famous. If this is your reason for visiting then head to the Quadrilatero D'oro (golden quad), an interchanging series of four streets adorned with gleaming shops from high fashion’s biggest names. The main street, Via Montenapoleone, is awash with posing women sporting year-round tans, expensive sunglasses and tiny dogs. Add to them a handful of wealthy international businessmen, young Italian playboys and curious tourists and it makes for an excellent people-watching spot.

For a refreshing alternative to the world of commerce, make your way to the Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio (Piazza Sant'Ambrogio). The antithesis of Milan’s famous cathedral, it is an ancient (379-386 AD), humble church that contrasts with the dramatic splendour of Il Duomo. The simple, brown-brick portico surrounding the courtyard is one of the most peaceful places in the city. Not far from Sant’Ambrogio is Milan’s trump card, its genuine masterpiece: Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Found in Santa Maria delle Grazie (just off Corso Magenta) it is one of the world’s most iconic pictures, but be warned, tickets are often booked two or three months in advance (

If food and drink are at the top of your holiday menu then the city has plenty to offer. Try not to eat in the bars and restaurants closest to the cathedral. They are often overpriced and of poor quality. A favourite restaurant of mine is Osteria dei Vecchi Sapori (Via Carmagnola, 3). A spacious restaurant with cobbled stone floors and simple modern decoration, it manages to be both homely and hip. Always busy, it offers fantastic, hearty northern Italian cuisine at very reasonable prices (don't miss the cheese, pear and saffron tortellini). Just up the road is Bar Frida (Via Pollaiuolo, 3) a lively bar with outside terrace perfect for pre or post-dinner cocktails. Both of these can be found in a burgeoning zone of the city known as Isola. Historically a poor area it has become popular with a young, creative crowd and is now an eclectic and exciting place to be.

For lunch go to Moscatelli (corso Garibaldi, 93). The fresh pasta (served only at lunch) is plentiful, cheap and mouth-wateringly delicious. As an enoteca it also offers a wide selection of very good wines. For the best pizza in town try Sibilia (corso Garibaldi), home to waiters so rude it is fascinating rather than upsetting.

The Navigli area, to the south of the city, has the two biggest of Milan’s remaining canals and both are lined with trendy eateries and drinking spots. On a summer’s evening throngs of people gather along them to drink beer and make merry. Nearby, at the Colonne di San Lorenzo (ancient Roman columns outside the Basilica di San Lorenzo) the square is used as an open air games room where anyone can play a variety of games from giant chess to Connect Four.

Milan’s accommodation is not cheap and predictably there are many luxury hotels to choose from. If you are prepared to stay somewhere a little less central then the mid-range Ca Bianca Corte del Naviglio (Via Lodovico il Moro, 117) with its private gardens is a perfect way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.

However long you are in Milan, a weekend break or many months it is a vibrant city with plenty to do all year round. Granted, it’s not what you might imagine an Italian city to be, but for me life in Italy is as much about good food, busy streets and rude waiters as it is about picturesque piazzas and Roman ruins. Contrasting with the ethos of its most notable industry, Milan’s beauty is more than skin deep.