A neighbourhood guide to Milan

The world’s fashion capital has long conjured up images of runway shows and haute couture, but tucked away in hidden corners is the real Milan, a treasure trove of museums, public art, jewellers and gin bars.

By Julia Buckley
Published 30 Dec 2020, 08:08 GMT
Milan Cathedral.

Milan Cathedral, a frothy wedding cake of a building dripping in gothic spires and statues.

Photograph by Yadid Levy

It’s hard to believe that Milan hasn’t always been one of Italy’s big hitters. There’s Milan Cathedral, a frothy wedding cake of a building dripping in gothic spires and statues. Then there’s Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper and the grand Sforza Castle. There’s food from across Italy, and vintage trams to get around in. But somehow, Milan’s reputation as Italy’s business and fashion capital has overshadowed its other draws. That’s because this is a city where you need to scratch under the surface to find the gold. Through nondescript doorways lurk flower-filled courtyards and cloisters; museums and fashion HQs lie in former 19th-century factories. The real Milan is marvellous — just hit the Metro stops, and look beyond the crowds, to find it.

City centre

At the central point of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II — the world’s most gorgeous shopping mall, where arched glass roofs spill over elaborate 19th-century buildings — tourists are swarming round a mosaic of a rearing bull. One by one, they stamp their foot on its balls and spin around.

The ritual, supposedly, brings good luck. And it chokes up the Galleria every day. But I’m watching from a heavenly remove, one floor up.

From Vikissimo — the restaurant at the Galleria Vik Milano hotel, which opened last year — I can make out individual stones in the roof mosaics, and swarthy caryatids propping up the building. It’s a new perspective on one of the city’s most recognised monuments.

But that’s the thing about Milan: there’s a city for tourists, and one for the Milanese. Even in the centre, right by the Duomo cathedral, the locals’ one lurks in plain sight.

I leave Vik, and force through the crowds to a discreet door beside the Prada store. An emerald, marble-clad lift whisks me up to the sixth floor and opens onto the Milan Osservatorio, a photography exhibition space founded by Miuccia Prada, cantilevered over the Galleria. Downstairs, it’s bedlam; up here, I’m among a handful of smartly dressed people, dipping their eyes from the exhibits to the glass arches billowing below us.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Here, tourists stamp their feet on the mosaic of a rearing bull and spin around for good luck. 

Photograph by AWL Images

That afternoon, I head into the parallel universe that is Milanese Milan with my guide, Elesta. Walking through the streets of Brera, the art and design district, we see the Botanical Garden of Brera, full of birdsong just a few blocks from the rowdy Piazza del Duomo, and dip through nondescript doorways to find ourselves in grand cloisters (the remnants of Milan’s countless convents, she explains).

South of the Duomo, Elesta rings a bell outside an apartment block, where we find Merzaghi, jeweller to the Milan elite since 1870. Father and son Marco and Mauro Merzaghi handcraft everything; Mauro’s sister Paola runs the business. Their jewellery is delicate, high-end but discreet — much like their city.

I head a mile north east to Villa Necchi Campiglio, an art deco villa filled with Picasso sketches, Issy Miyake kaftans and Gio Ponti ceramics, and on to the Missoni Home showroom, up a nondescript Brera alleyway, its walls covered with plants. In the evening, I head to Art Mall Milano, a subterranean bar full of cutting-edge modern art where everything’s for sale — right down to the handcrafted furniture. Heading back to the hotel, I pass the crowds in front of the Duomo and in the Galleria. Even at night, it’s busy — but upstairs, once again, it’s all mine.

Jewellery on display at Merzaghi, a family-run jeweller where father and son Marco and Mauro handcraft everything.

Photograph by Diana Franceschin

Porta Genova

Facing each other on Via Bergognone in Porta Genova — Milan’s most old-fashioned and traditional neighbourhood — are the Armani headquarters and the Armani/Silos; the latter, a fashion art museum showcasing the brand’s greatest hits.

Via Bergognone is part of the Via Tortona area, a former industrial hub where empty warehouses have drawn businesses from the fashion and creative sectors like bees to flowers. Today, walk along Via Tortona and you’ll see hulking factories converted into office blocks or brand HQs. Italian architect Matteo Thun transformed one office block; Fendi has sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro’s installation Ingresso nel Labirinto (an underground maze) in the basement.

Tortona’s dynamism comes from its workers — which means it’s best visited either on a weekday, during Design Week (which includes the Salone del Mobile interior design exhibition), when it becomes a hive of pop-ups. Last time I went, during Fashion Week, it was buzzing; this time, on a holiday weekend, it’s relatively empty. I get designer-goods-laden rails to myself at DMAG, a designer fashion outlet where everything’s half price — although, this being Milan, the cheapest item is a €300 (£253) Bottega Veneta wallet.

Just around the corner is Focacce Italiane, a focaccia-focused snack bar with a strong sense of fashion. “We wanted to synthesise focaccia into that lifestyle,” says owner Luca della Torre about his pink, green and yellow focaccias; some traditional and bread-like, others dried and turned into edible salad bowls. Luca used to work in fashion, he tells me, and wanted to carry his past through into his present. He took traditional Genovese recipes, but “wanted to innovate — that’s very Milanese,” he says.

And it’s very Via Tortona. Further along, the former Ansaldo factory — where everything from trains to ships were built — has been converted into Mudec, a museum of culture and anthropology designed by English architect David Chipperfield. Upstairs, the exhibition space scythes off a sinuous central area that’s more spaceship than railway yard.

Opposite is The Botanical Club — a gin bar and distillery that pairs its outrageously aromatic gin with fantastic sushi. The gin is deliberately “coarse”, the bartender tells me — they wanted that homemade taste.

With its ‘living’ bar filled with plants, including huge ferns that tower over the tables, it’s a long way from its origins as a mechanic’s workshop. But that’s Via Tortona for you: Milan reinvented and reworked for its most fashionable age yet.

Steeped in tradition, Pasticceria Marchesi was originally founded in 1824 and remains one of Milan's finest pastry shops. 

Photograph by Diana Franceschin

Porta Garibaldi

It’s Sunday afternoon, and Piazza Gae Aulenti is full of kids: toddlers playing chicken with fountains that spurt into the sky; teenagers dancing on one side; families playing with an interactive sculpture featuring long, trumpet-shaped pipes that stretch down to the shopping mall below, allowing passers-by to whisper in the ear of complete strangers. “It feels like a thousand voices, everyone talking,” says my guide, Fedra. “I love it.”

This, she continues, is Milan for the Milanese: a modern development, named after one of the city’s most prominent architects, surrounded by skyscrapers and some of Milan’s chicest shops. The circular piazza is home to upscale shops, including an outlet of homegrown brand Moleskin, and the Chiara Ferragni Store, which sells the creations of its namesake, a fashion influencer-turned-designer who has Italian teens under her spell. But it’s also the epicentre of Porta Garibaldi, a formerly down-at-heel area that’s now the centre of modern Milan, thanks to a huge regeneration project.

We walk across the Piazza to the Biblioteca degli Alberi (library of trees) — an urban green space where lines of trees crisscross terraces, circles and mini mazes. Most of the trees are saplings, but eventually, says Fedra, it’ll be like walking through a forest.

Above us, another forest is looming. The Bosco Verticale development — two residential towers, each sprouting real, full-size trees, for carbon-offsetting — has garnered awards the world over. Looking up to see trunks and foliage engulfing the balconies is an extraordinary sensation — even more so, given the area’s drab past. “Coming in on the tram, my grandfather used to say to me, ‘Fedra, don’t look,’” she says, of Porta Garibaldi.

Beyond the modern developments lies Isola, a neighbourhood full of elegant Victorian buildings that were once home to workers at the nearby Pirelli tyre factory. ‘Isola’ means ‘island’ — an appropriate name, as this area was one cut off from the rest of the city by two railway stations and a canal. Today it’s still thoroughly local. We walk for block after block through the sprawling Sunday market and past ironmongers and printers’ shops. But a new Isola is emerging, too, with up-and-coming fashion brands moving in, including Rapa Design, which does a nice line in jumpsuits, and Monica Castiglioni, a jeweller who specialises in elaborate rings.

We finish at Blue Note, the Italian outpost of New York’s famous jazz club, which arrived in 2003. Cosmopolitan, modern, but with a strong community — Isola may once have been isolated, but now it’s Milan to a tee.

The café at 10 Corso Como,  a shopping and dining complex near Piazza Gae Aulenti.

Photograph by Diana Franceschin

Four things to do in Milan

1. Art
The best art is to be found on the outskirts. Join the Friday-night crowds at Pirelli HangarBicocca, a former train factory-turned- modern art gallery with startling installations. And don’t miss the Fondazione Prada, a converted distillery filled with Miuccia Prada’s personal collection.

Take the lift to the roof of the Duomo, to walk amid the gargoyles and flying buttresses. And have an aperitivo at Osteria con Vista, the rooftop restaurant of the Milan Triennale design museum, overlooking Sempione Park. 

3. Aperitivo
Aperitivos are a big deal in Milan — buying an early-evening drink can often give you access to a buffet spread that can double as dinner. The Navigli canal district is good for a bar crawl, while Brera bars, and aperitivos, tend to be a little more upmarket. For the ultimate aperitivo, get a cocktail at Ceresio 7, a rooftop bar near Porta Garibaldi. 

4. Fashionable food & drink
The big fashion brands don’t just rule the catwalk, they’ve also got the gastronomic angle covered. Choose between Emporio Armani Caffè & Ristorante, Il Bar at Bulgari Hotel Milano, and Prada’s Pasticceria Marchesi.    


Airlines offering direct flights from the UK to Milan’s three airports (Malpensa, Bergamo and Linate) include Easyjet, Ryanair, British Airways and Alitalia. Galleria Vik Milano has doubles from £321 a night, B&B. yesmilano.it

Published in the Lombardy 2020 supplement, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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