The Milan Guide
People who know Italy will tell you to skip Milan. People who know Italy well will tell you that whatever you do, do not skip Milan. Granted, it can be hard to compete with the Romes, Venices, and Florences of the world, but underestimating Milan is rookie move. This is the media, fashion, financial, and design center of Italy. In other words, it’s one of the few places in the entire country that isn’t driven by tourism. That means excellent restaurants, cutting-edge art galleries, and fashion and design boutiques that are heavy on quality, light on tourists.
It’s also heavy on masterpieces. Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the Gothic Duomo cathedral, La Scala, one of the world’s greatest opera houses—they’re all here. This being a city driven by locals, there are ample ways to get off the beaten path—quaint neighborhoods, like Brera, with its cobblestoned streets made for an evening passeggiata come to mind. And of course, we are in Italy, so the food rightly takes center stage. (If you remember nothing else, remember that anything served “alla Milanese” is a step in the right direction.)
Milan is an Italian anomaly, equally threaded with the hypermodern and the wonderfully old. And like the masterpieces that it lays claim to, Milan has great stories to tell and great beauty to share. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.
Il Duomo di MilanoPiazza del Duomo, Centro Storico
The construction of Milan’s most famous cathedral started in 1386, and the fabric of the city seems woven into this incredible building, the fifth-largest church in the world. A highlight is the five bronze doors that depict scenes of Milan’s history, and many notable Milanese are buried inside (including one of the architects, Charles Borromeo). The exterior is a panoply of white marble threaded with pink, and the dozens of gothic spires are an icon of the city. Climb up to the roof and walk among some of the thousands of statues, spires, and gargoyles—and take in some of the best views of the city.
Fondazione PradaLargo Isarco, 2, Morivone | +39.2.5666.2611
A combination of seven older buildings and three new ones in Porta Romana create this center of contemporary art and culture, all masterminded by Rem Koolhaas and opened in 2015. You’ll find a solid collection of twentieth- and twenty-first-century artworks by the likes of Louise Bourgeois and Anish Kapoor, a cinema showing art house and vintage films, a creative space (designed in conjunction with a neuropediatrician) for kids, and one of Milan’s best bookstores. There’s also, of course, the Wes Anderson–designed Bar Luce—a 1950s-style Milanese café that’s alone worth a visit.
Accademia di Belle Arti di BreraVia Brera, 28, Borgonuovo
This beautiful seventeenth-century building is still a functioning university, but thanks to its significant inventory of cultural loot, it also operates as a museum, known as the Pinacoteca di Brera. The site started as a convent but opened as a museum in 1809. Nowadays, it’s home to Milan’s primary collection of paintings, with pieces you’ll probably recognize from your art history textbook—Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus—as well as more modern works by artists like Modigliani. After browsing the galleries, take a stroll through the on-site botanical gardens.
Santa Maria delle GraziePiazza di Santa Maria delle Grazie, Zona Magenta
Da Vinci’s The Last Supper captured the moment Jesus announced to his disciples—over dinner—that one of them would betray him. It’s one of the world’s best-known masterpieces, and it’s hidden in the old refectory of this convent, having survived bombing during WWII (workers sandbagged the fresco, sparing it the wreckage suffered by the rest of the building). The structure itself is beautiful, too—especially the Bramante-designed cupola flanked by colonnades, and the cloister inside.
Armani/SilosVia Bergognone, 40, Zona Tortona | +39.2.9163.0010
Giorgio Armani opened this cultural hub just a few years ago to celebrate his fortieth anniversary in the fashion business. The “Silos” aspect of the name pays homage to the building’s former life as a grain-storage facility, but the space now holds hundreds of pieces of Armani apparel and accessories that, in their own way, chart how fashion is influenced by society over the decades. Clothing aside, the museum regularly hosts exhibitions of photography and film. The courtyard has a pleasant café for a coffee break after a look around.
Museo Poldi PezzoliVia Alessandro Manzoni, 12, Quadrilatero della Moda
Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli fell in love with the idea of the house-as-museum on his grand tour of Europe in the early 1800s. What is now the Victoria & Albert museum in London—with rooms representing different time periods—left an especially strong impression. The museum is in a neoclassical palazzo that feels like an endless cave of treasures: There are tapestries, armor, paintings, and sculpture, and the radically different décor and genre of each room make this one of the most fascinating museums in the city. We especially like the Dante room, which features an intricately detailed stained-glass window, scenes from The Inferno, and a portrait of the author himself.
Casa degli AtellaniCorso Magenta, 65, San Vittore | +39.2.2506.1895
This large villa came to the Atellani family via a donation from the Duke of Milan in the late 1400s. The family wasted no time transforming the property into Milan’s party house of the period (Leonardo da Vinci actually stayed there while painting The Last Supper), and its magnificence is still (basically) intact. An audio guide accompanies you through the many rooms filled with paintings and antiques that belonged to the family. The surrounding gardens and vineyard are great for strolling through after a cappuccino and pastry at the café.
Teatro alla ScalaVia Filodrammatici, 2, Broletto
This world-famous opera house was the passion project of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who oversaw its construction in the 1770s (the opening night performance was Salieri’s Europa Riconosciuta). Intense bombing during WWII led to a series of major renovations (the most recent in 2004), and today it’s just as resplendent as it was in the eighteenth century. Red velvet, silk brocade walls, and gilded stucco are illuminated by a huge glittering chandelier composed of nearly 400 lamps. If you’re in town and appreciate opera or just theater in general, a performance at La Scala is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.