Travel to Italy: why Milan is a magnet for foodies, fashionistas and football fans

The majestic Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s iconic main square. Photo/Getty Images

Head to Milan for a fascinating mix of history, architecture, fashion and creativity, writes Brett Atkinson.

What to see:

Construction of Milan Cathedral (also known as Duomo di Milano) began in 1387, and the building’s final touches were not completed until 1965. For nearly six centuries, the epic pink marble structure and white from the quarries of Mergozzo in northern Italy elegantly anchored the center of Italy’s second largest city.

Prebook online for a Duomo Pass ticket – allowing priority entry and access to the cathedral roof – and also include a visit to the nearby Museo del Novecento. Housed in the Arengario, a fascist-era building from which Italian dictator Benito Mussolini used to deliver strident speeches, the leviathan structure is now a superb museum of 20th-century art.

Equally spectacular, but centuries-old temple of commerce, is Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Made of iron and glass, the soaring atrium is home to flagship stores for Italian fashion and design aristocrats, including Prada’s very first store, opened in 1913, and plenty of opportunities to combine people-watching with eat and drink.

The four-story Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in central Milan is the place to go for designer Italian fashion.  Photo/Getty Images
The four-story Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in central Milan is the place to go for designer Italian fashion. Photo/Getty Images

To further explore Prada’s cultural impact, visit Milan’s Fondazione Prada, an expansive multidisciplinary exhibition space housed in a former gin distillery. Bar Luce, the foundation’s on-site cafe, is a very cool spot designed by maverick American director Wes Anderson as a tribute to 1950s Italian pop culture.

Although the artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci was born near Florence, he spent much of his working life in Milan. Look for his famous painting, The Last Supper, in a refectory adjoining the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, and explore the Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, a child-friendly science museum with plenty of interactive exhibits showcasing the extreme diversity and influential work of the polymath of the Renaissance.

What to do:

Football is an unparalleled passion of the people of Milan. With a capacity of 80,000, the San Siro stadium is used on alternate weekends by the city’s two Serie A sides, AC Milan and Inter Milan. Visit from September to May to catch a match or explore Italy’s biggest stadium on a guided tour. During European summers, the stadium is often bustling with live music, with recent gigs including concerts by Elton John and the Rolling Stones.

Another musical passion of the city is opera, and La Scala, inaugurated in 1778 and arguably the most famous opera house in the world, is graced by world-renowned artists from December to July. Drama, ballet and classical music are also performed, and for visitors to the city keen to see La Scala’s luxurious heritage interior, deeply discounted same-day tickets are available at the theater box office.

La Scala theatre, one of the most famous opera houses in the world.  Photo/Getty Images
La Scala theatre, one of the most famous opera houses in the world. Photo/Getty Images

Guided behind-the-scenes tours are available to explore the huge Ansaldo workshops, La Scala’s long-standing creative department that produces sets and hundreds of new handmade costumes for each year’s opera season. The 20,000 m² facility is located in the former Ansaldo steelworks, approximately 4 km southwest of Milan Cathedral. Guided tours are also available of La Scala itself.

Where to eat:

Hearty meals – think risotto and osso buco – are the classic dishes of Milan and the surrounding Lombardy region. Try them at the very traditional Trattoria da Pino, making sure to leave room for the deliciously addictive Italian pastries at Pasticceria Marchesi.

Artisanal pizza and local craft beer combine at Berbere’s three Milanese restaurants, while Macelleria Popolare (literally, the people’s butcher’s shop) serves up prime cuts grilled to order. Always good are the salsiccia (sausage) and the scottadito (grilled lamb chops). Wine and beer are served by the glass, and it’s also a good spot for street food classics, including lampradotto (tripe) and mondeghili (Milanese meatballs).

Where to drink:

Renowned as the birthplace of the Italian tradition of the early evening aperitif and Negroni Sbagliato cocktail, accidentally invented in 1972 when a bartender used prosecco instead of gin, Bar Basso is a must-visit destination in Milan. It’s particularly popular with the city’s underage celebrities for the four annual Milan Fashion Weeks, but (slightly) more low-key at other times of the year. Look forward to receiving your cocktail in an almost comical signature glass, perfect for uploading to your social media app of choice.

For the best beer in town, head to Birrificio Lambrate, launched in 1996 as one of Italy’s very first craft breweries, or Lambiczoon for Italian beers inspired by the lambic beers brewed by Belgian Trappist monasteries. Italian wines, especially high-quality sparkling wines from Lombardy, are served with local charcuterie and cheese at Vinodromo.

Where to stay:

Four bedrooms, individually named after the owner’s travels to Spain, Mexico, India and Portugal, combine with leafy verandas at LaFavia, an elegant B&B near the center of Milan. Organic breakfasts are served in a roof garden.

Getting there and getting around

For New Zealand travelers, Milan is accessible by direct flights with Emirates from Dubai. From Singapore, fly direct to Rome, then continue by train (three to four hours) north to Milan.

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