When it comes to tourism and Italy, Rome, Venice and Florence are the cities that usually come to most travelers' minds. Officials and hoteliers in the northern Italian business and design capital of Milan, however, want to change that.

This year, for the first time, city tourism officials and representatives of the local travel trade journeyed to the World Travel and Tourism Council's annual summit in Dubai to promote their city as a tourism destination.

Milan "is a business city, not a leisure destination," said Ezio Indiani, general manager of the Hotel Principe di Savoia Milano, one of the city's premier luxury hotels. "We want to change that by promoting all the things there are to do here.

"Florence, Rome and Venice have always been the tourist cities of Italy, but Milan is just as rich," he said.

According to city spokesman Mauro Rocco, 25% of Italy's artistic masterpieces are to be found in Milan. While another city official put the number closer to 10%, there is no question Milan has its treasures: the world famous La Scala opera house and Leonardo da Vinci's painting "The Last Supper," just to name two.

And of course, there is the fashion district, home to some of the world's top designers. Not to mention all the restaurants serving up acclaimed northern Italian fare and excellent wines.

Milan is also a great launching pad to other destinations, such as Lake Como, the Swiss Alps and the Mediterreanean Sea, all of which can be reached from Milan by train or car in about an hour.

Milan: In mint condition

All of that aside, Milan is just a downright clean, pleasant city to visit, and one that just got a little easier to get to with the recent launch of American Airlines' daily, nonstop service from New York Kennedy to Milan's Malpensa Airport. 

American and the Hotel Principe di Savoia recently hosted a group of journalists in conjunction with the carrier's inaugural flight, which departs Kennedy in the evening and arrives the following morning.

All of the planes flying the route are equipped with American's new lie-flat, business-class seats, which make for a relaxing overnight trip.

We arrived on the Friday morning before a holiday weekend. While Milan seemed especially deserted that day, residents told us that most weekends -- when locals flock to the seashore in the summer or the Alps in winter -- are quiet. That makes for good deals at the hotels and less crowded streets for sightseeing, shopping and dining.

Princely digs

Our first stop was the Hotel Principe di Savoia, which in a way exemplifies Milan itself, with its tasteful mix of classic, turn-of-the-century Lombardy decor and modern design. Centrally located in Milan's Piazza della Repubblica, the hotel offers the best of both worlds. 

The property's recently renovated, deluxe mosaic rooms are outfitted with classic Italian furnishings and sleek, modern baths that include large soaking tubs and rainfall showerheads. What's more, the service is classic, five-star European.

Milan itself, too, offers some of the best of old and new. One of Italy's largest cities and its industrial center, Milan was heavily bombed during World War II. Because of that, the city has a lot of modern buildings mixed in with historical treasures such as the Castello Sforzesco, a castle originally constructed in the 14th century.

Operatic scope

Besides fashion and finance, Milan may best be known for the Teatro alla Scala, also known as La Scala, one of the world's oldest and most famous opera houses. Built in 1778, the theater was renovated from 2001 to 2004. Although box and reserved seating is difficult to get, tickets to seats in the back on the top floor go on sale on a first-come basis two hours before the productions begin.

The opera house also offers daytime tours and houses a museum.

From La Scala, visitors can stroll through a fabulous, glass-domed shopping arcade, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which spans several city blocks, to one of the world's oldest and largest cathedrals, the gothic-style Duomo.

A huge pedestrian plaza leads from the plaza in front of the Duomo to modern shopping centers and eventually to the fashion houses of the world's top designers.

For those travelers not interested in paying retail prices, there are several designer outlet malls located about an hour away, along the Italian-Swiss border, that offer discounts of 50% to 60%.

For a real flavor of life alla milanese, an afternoon stroll through the city's Brera district offers great people-watching. This restored neighborhood of working-class homes and brick streets has a variety of sidewalk cafes offering homemade pastas as well as coffee and gelato shops and luxury boutiques.

A must-see for any art lover visiting Milan is, of course, da Vinci's "The Last Supper," a 15th century mural painted on the back walls of the dining hall at Santa Maria delle Grazie, which was partially destroyed in a World War II bombing.

For more information on travel to Milan, contact the Italian Government Tourist Board (ENIT) at www.italiantourism.com. Or, call ENIT in New York at (212) 245-5618; Chicago, (312) 644-0996; or Los Angeles, (312) 644-0996.

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