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Milan city guide: Best things to do and where to stay in Italy’s northern powerhouse

Piazza del Duomo, home to Milan Cathedral and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II  (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Piazza del Duomo, home to Milan Cathedral and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Milan is a city that surprises at every turn. With a long-held reputation as a financial hub, it’s not always top of the list for holidaymakers, but daring new architecture, fabulous museums and an in-vogue bar scene are turning the tide. Incredible hotels in Milan can easily be found, and it’s got more than its fair share of places to eat, plus plenty of corners to simply spend time in the sun.

The northern Italian gem delivers hedonistic delights aplenty, from fabulous independent fashion boutiques to affordable aperitivi, and is the perfect size for exploring over a long weekend.

What to do

Duomo di Milano

A view from up high on the Duomo’s rooftops (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
A view from up high on the Duomo’s rooftops (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

If there’s one sight that Milan is famous for, it’s the opulent Duomo cathedral, a vision in pink and grey-veined white stone that was built over a mind-bending 600 years. Spend time marvelling at the ornate exterior, then wander the cavernous indoors before scaling the stairs (or hopping in the lift) to the rooftop for a sweeping view over the city. Entry is timed and you’ll want to buy tickets online in advance to avoid snaking admission office queues on the day.

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Pinacoteca di Brera

Milan has plenty of fabulous art museums – including the grand Palazzo Reale di Milano – but the captivating Pinacoteca di Brera, on the historic site of a convent, houses one of the world’s finest collections of Italian paintings, stuffed with Napoleonic plunders from across the country’s north. Take in Andrea Mantegna’s haunting Lamentation over the Dead Christ and Francesco Hayez’s passionate The Kiss, and look out for refreshing contemporary pieces dotted around the space, too.

Teatro alla Scala

Locals dress to the nines for a night out at Milan’s historic theatre, showcasing classic operas such as La Bohème or ballets like The Nutcracker. If you want a deep-dive into the richly decorated red-and-gold interiors but don’t fancy a show, join one of the regular guided tours instead.

Many of the world’s finest singers have performed at La Scala (Getty Images)
Many of the world’s finest singers have performed at La Scala (Getty Images)

Sempione Park

The city centre’s largest park is home to children’s play areas, bars, a small lake and the grand Castello Sforzesco – a medieval fortress featuring Leonardo da Vinci-painted walls and various pop-up exhibitions.

Where to stay

Away from the tourist rush but still walkable to highlights like the Pinacoteca, Castello Sforzesco and Duomo, stylish Hotel VIU Milan has a rooftop pool and bar and a decadent restaurant from star Italian chef Giancarlo Morelli, serving up the likes of turbot with meunière sauce and crispy cauliflower. Rooms are sleek and moody à la Milan fashion, with big windows that keep things bright during the day. hotelviumilan.com

Make the most of the gorgeous rooftop pool at Hotel VIU Milan (Hotel VIU Milan)
Make the most of the gorgeous rooftop pool at Hotel VIU Milan (Hotel VIU Milan)

If you plan on spending your evenings sipping spritzes in the buzzy Navigli area, nhow Milano is just steps from the action and has modern white-washed rooms with pops of juicy orange. nhow-hotels.com

Aparthotel Isola Milano, in cute neighbourhood Isola, is ideal for families or groups thanks to its multi-bedroom flats. Kitchens let you save by self-catering – handy given Isola also has a Saturday morning farmers’ market bursting with reasonably priced produce. aparthotelisola.com

Where to eat

This is northern Italy, where rice reigns supreme over pizza and creamy sauces beat tomato. For a time-warp take on the classics in an atmospheric white-tableclothed dining room, make for central Trattoria Milanese, where dishes include saffron-infused risotto with osso buco or cotoletta alla Milanese (breaded veal cutlet served on the bone). Come hungry.

For modern takes on Milanese favourites, upmarket Ratanà near Isola is a cosy pick – must-orders include mini focaccia sarnies with veal tongue pastrami; hen-stuffed agnolotti pasta; and beef tartare with chicory and morels. The globe-trotting wine list will get oenophiles excited and a weekday lunchtime special includes a main dish, glass of wine and coffee for £21.

Landlocked Milan might not seem like the place you’d go for fresh fish but this city’s seafood game is strong. Zio Pesce in Navigli has jolly nautical-themed interiors and generous servings of pasta alle vongole or seafood rice for under £15. Join the locals ordering up towers of freshly shucked oysters, prawns and whelks prepared from the vast wet bar at the front.

On a super-tight budget? Fill hungry bellies at Panzerotti Luini, squirrelled away on a street just behind the Duomo – you’ll recognise it from the queue. At this historic bakery, founded in 1888, a few euros snags you a hot deep-fried doughy pocket stuffed with tomato and mozzarella; little wonder it’s a favourite with local students.

Where to drink

You’re in the world capital of aperitivo – and the home of Campari and Fernet Branca – so cocktail hour is a mandatory ritual. Nowhere does it better than Camparino in Galleria, where white-suited barmen pour out a perfect Campari seltz or negroni in the shadow of the Duomo. Squeeze in at the opulent mosaic bar for a few euros’ discount on your drink, or take a seat in the glass-lined adjoining room to sip leisurely alongside a platter of free snacks. Try the upper floor Terrazza Aperol next door for a spritz, or head for Bar Basso to the north-east, where the negroni sbagliato was invented in the 1970s.

Milan delivers on vino too, with N’Ombra de Vin drawing a crowd for its atmospheric 15th-century cellars, rambling wine list and ace delicatessen. Cosy wine shop-meets-drinking-hole Cantine Isola dal 1896, tucked away discreetly in Chinatown, is a low-key affordable favourite with zero pretension.

When it comes to bar-hopping, the Navigli district wins points for looks as well as options – this canalside strip in the city’s southwest is lined with drinking holes where terraces perch on cobbles overlooking the water. Come in the late afternoon as the sky turns pink and stay until late.

Where to shop

Milan is synonymous with fabulous fashion. Window-shop the indie boutiques of the chic Brera district and you’ll quickly see why, from the leather loafers in Le Solferine to the high-end vintage in Cavalli e Nastri. Sucker for stationery? F. Pettinaroli on Via Brera is a retro wonderland of leather-bound books and fountain pens.

Just west of the Duomo, Milan’s most iconic shopping stretch is Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an opulent dome-topped glass arcade with a more-is-more aesthetic. If you can tear your eyes from the facades, you’ll find recognisable names like Gucci and Prada on show. Journey west along nearby Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, and you’ll find more affordable high-street fashion.

Milan has a well-equipped tram network (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Milan has a well-equipped tram network (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Porta Garibaldi, in the north of the city centre, is home of the concept store. Try monochrome-tastic 10 Corso Como, launched by Italian magazine editor and gallerist Carla Sozzani, for cool fashion. Or rambling homewares shop HighTech, which is almost Ikea-esque in its scope, selling everything from electronics to candles and magnets.

Architectural highlight

If the magnificent Duomo epitomises old-world Milan, the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) in Porta Nuova showcases the city’s contemporary ambition. The recognisable residential towers at the edge of the lovely BAM Tree Library park are lined in greenery-filled terraces from tip to toe – be it shrubs, hanging plants or full-blown trees.

FAQs

What currency do I need?

Euros.

What language is spoken?

Italian.

Should I tip?

It’s not expected or required, but for exceptional service leave a few euros on your meal.

Time difference?

GMT+2.

How should I get around?

The centre is largely walkable, but for longer distances there is a metro, tram and bus network; unlimited transport cards are available in one-, two- and three-day formats.

What’s the best view?

From Gio Ponti-designed Torre Branca, a 109m-high minimalist iron tower in the heart of Parco Sempione that was built in 1933.

Insider tip?

Room prices in Milan fluctuate hugely depending on what’s going on in the city at a given moment. For better deals, avoid the biannual Milan Fashion Week in February/March and September/October.

Getting there

Several airlines, including easyJet, Ryanair and British Airways, fly from Milan to the UK. Alternatively, catch a Eurostar to Paris, and then an onward direct train to Milan; the whole journey can be completed within a day.

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