Milan rarely springs to mind as a holiday destination when considering Italy, with most often turning their attention to Rome, Florence, and Venice. For many Milan fails to deliver the cultural goods. Does it have Rome’s Colosseum
? No. Can you cuddle up to your partner and embark on a romantic gondola ride through Venice’s canals? No. What about marvel at Michelangelo’s David
, the leaning tower of Pisa or Siena’s thunderous Palio horse race
. No. no. And, no again. But, Milan is more than just the gather of crowds, jostling for a sight and selfie in front of another Lonely Planet “must see” attraction. Milan is its own thing. It’s the cool kid at the party smoking filterless Gitanes cigarettes and talking about new wave cinema. Minus the pretension. Sure, the fact it’s the financial and fashion capital of the country with a vibrant undercurrent of creative energy running through it may make it feel a bit shi-shi. But, Milan is where tradition meets modernity. So, take a break from the ruins and the Renaissance and carve yourself out a weekend in Milan
, because the city’s got plenty to offer.
Day 1 - Saturday
So you flew, drove or trained yourself in late last night. Got into your Airbnb, hotel or hostel room and conked out. Eight hours later, you’re up, feeling fresh as a daisy and raring to go. But first, before you work out what to see in Milan, breakfast.
Yeah, it’s another happening artisanal cafe-bakery. The kind of place you find in Shoreditch populated by trendsetters wearing those ridiculous oversized fedoras made popular by Pharrell Williams in that excruciating music video “Happy.” Visit their website, and they make claims like “we strongly believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Do you really though? Or, are you just trying to sell me a croissant? Fact is though, Pave is fantastic. It’s down to earth, comfortable and cozy. The pastries are delicious, prepared on site and in sight, and they boast “the best cappuccino in town.” Something I can attest to being absolutely true.
Right-o, with breakfast sorted, time to move on. To make inroads to answering that overarching question, “why visit Milan?” And, because you’ve undoubtedly just arrived from somewhere like Florence or Venice we’re going to ease ourselves in and begin with a cultural sight that will feel a little familiar.
Milan’s pink Candoglia marble, neo-gothic structure is, as with many of Italy’s Cathedral’s a sight to behold. Redefining extravagance, the mammoth structure boasts 135 glorious spires and 3000 statues. Its crown jewel, the gold-plated statue of La Madonnina. Before you’ve even had time to catch your breath, the Cathedral’s interior whips it away again. Inside, the column-lined nave is punctuated by shafts of colored light that pour in through beautiful stained glass windows and gives way to the impressive altar. You can climb to the roof where, through the spires, you can enjoy a stunning panorama of the Milan. Located next door is the Cathedral’s museum and with the right tickets, you can also visit this.
With breakfast beginning to fade and the awkward rumbles of your bellies drawing funny looks from passersby, it’s time for a snack.
A hop, skip and step away from Milan’s Cathedral is Luini’s Panzerotti joint. What’s panzerotti? It’s Italian street food. Pastry wrapped around an assortment of different fillings, from cheese to meat and vegetables and everything in between. Think cornish pasty or calzone, and you’re on the right track. Except, Panzerotti is fried and not baked. Which partly explains why it’s so good.
Luini’s is busy, with lines that stretch distances that would make a marathon runner weak in the knees. But, don’t be put off by this, things move quick. So, take five, wait in line, order up and eat on the go. After all, you’ve only got a weekend in Milan.
Once you’ve wiped the grease from your fingers, thoroughly, time to forget about what to see in Milan and make for the shops. You’re in one of the fashion capitals of the world.
The Quadrilatero d’Oro, or Milan’s “golden rectangle of fashion,” is the epicenter of high-end fashion. It’s where the Sultans of Style, the Kings, and Queens of Cool come to buy their garms.
Here, lining the four streets that form the golden rectangle, Via Montenapoleone, Via Manzoni, Via della Spiga, and Corso Venezia, are the kind of big name brands Kanye picks his kicks up from. To give you an idea and to quote Kreayshawn, “Gucci, Gucci, Louis, Louis, Fendi, Fendi, Prada.” Intersecting the streets are Via Sant’Andrea, Via Gesu and Via Pietro Verri where you’ll find more of the same. Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Hermes, Dolce & Gabbana.
If your credit doesn’t extend quite that far, then not to worry. The area’s charming streets are great for a stroll and some window shopping. There are also a number of wonderful cafes where you can grab an early afternoon espresso and watch the world go by.
Before you wind down and head for an evening drink, make your way to Milan’s best contemporary art center, the Hangar Bicocca.
This former industrial building, once the site of the old Pirelli train shed, has been hollowed out to accommodate a multipurpose exhibition space.
Hangar Bicocca’s mission is to make art accessible to everyone. And, with over 15,000 square meters of exhibition space, and admission costing absolutely nothing, by golly do they achieve this. There are cultural mediators, tour guides to me and you, on hand to answer questions. They also offer guided tours. If you want in on one of these, then head over to their website beforehand and check out dates and availability.
While it’s a guarantee that all the exhibits are great, the centerpiece is the permanent installation, The Seven Heavenly Palaces. This structure consists of 5 to 6 containers made from concrete and lead, seemingly stacked precariously atop one another. They stand at a towering 15 meters high and represent the seven stages of spirituality. Now, while I can’t quite speak to that, they are striking, and there is a strange rugged, raw, and powerful beauty to them.
Okay, time for a beer and burger.
A lambic beer lover’s dream come true. Lambiczoon dedicates itself to that most delicious of beers, the sour beer, and pairs them with great burgers. The fantastic thing about sour beers, other than their taste, is what they do with rich foods. You see, the acidity in sour beers provides balance and cuts through things like fat and grease leaving your palate refreshed. What exactly does that mean? Just, that every bite of burger after every sip of beer will pack the same full punch of flavor as that first bite you took. And, with the burgers served at Lambiczoon, that’s something you’re going to want to experience.
Bellies full and beds waiting, time to call it on day one of your weekend in Milan. See you in the morning.
Day 2 - Sunday
With plenty more things to see in Milan, this morning, head straight out and make for the colorful Navigli district.
Start your day off with a coffee and something to eat at one of the many bohemian cafes that line the canals that cut through the district. Once you’ve got a little bit of caffeine coursing through your veins, time to go for a walk.
If you’ve come on the last Sunday of the month, then make for the Navigli Grande. Here, you’ll find the Mercatone dell’Antiquariato, a flea market. Even if you have no intention of buying anything, it’s a great walk. The goods on display range from furniture to ephemera. For any other Sunday, explore the many art galleries that sit up and down this main stretch.
Move on, and cut down any of the canals that branch off the Grande and discover a world of restaurants, bars, and beautiful little bridges. Pause, sit on a bench, take it all in and catch a little sunshine before you head on.
Housed in a former brandy distillery, the Fondazione Prada, designed by author, architect and billionaire fashion designer, Miuccia Prada, is now a multi-level exhibition space.
Making up part of the structure is a four-story, gold leaf-clad building that stands, glinting in the summer sun like a slab of habitable gold bullion. Inside, temporary and permanent exhibitions fill the space. Worked into the cultural programme alongside pieces by Anish Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois, and Nathalie Djurberg are live performances and film screenings.
Also located within the space is Bar Luce. And, of the things to see in Milan, or expected to see, a cafe designed by American film director Wes Anderson, I bet, probably wasn’t one them. The decor reflects Anderson’s distinct style. It’s all Formica tables, wallpaper and pinball machines. It even boasts a miniature vaulted glass ceiling.
The atmosphere at Ribot, a restaurant with an emphasis on meat, is personal, friendly, and welcoming. Located near the Milan racetrack, the restaurant gets its name from a champion horse.
The walls are adorned with horse-related memorabilia. But, don’t worry you’re not going to have the eyes of a thousand Black Beauty’s watching you as you tuck in. The antipasti are great, and they serve a mean Bistecca alla Fiorentina. Remember, though, they come rare so don’t make the mistake of asking for it any other way.
This enclave of cool, located quite literally on the other side of the tracks, was once a no-go area. In the years following a financial crisis that saw the area’s many factories close, Zona Tortona has undergone - is undergoing - a rejuvenation.
In April and during the lead up to the Milan Fashion Week
, the area bustles with life as the cultural and creative elite descend. The long-abandoned factories, workshops, and warehouses have since been transformed into galleries, boutique hotels, and trendy bars and cafes. King among them is the MUDEC Museum of Culture which has housed exhibitions from the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
For a dose of fashion, the Armani Silos, dedicate four floors to the 40 years of Giorgio Armani’s fashion work. There are over 600 of his signature looks on display.
With evening fast approaching time for an aperitivo. Aperitivo roughly translates to happy hour. It is the ritual of the pre-dinner drink, and in Milan, it is taken very seriously.
The minimal decor and low lighting at Fonderie Milanesi, a hip bar located in Ticinese, make for the perfect haunt to grab an early evening drink. The atmosphere is casual and trendy, and the distressed walls hint at the 350 years of history the building lays claim too. Sit on the terrace in the courtyard and have a spritz.
If you fancy turning drinks into dinner, the place also serves up contemporary Italian food. And, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll catch the place on one of the nights they put on a live music performance. Can you think of a better way to round off your weekend in Milan? I didn’t think so.