From the enchanted rooftop world of the Duomo, you can see the graceful porticoes and ornate friezes of medieval Milan, Italy, fade into the sharp lines and angles of the modern city. It's a clear reminder that Milan isn't just a relic from the past. This magical yet understated city is bursting with a perfect mix of history, polished style and urban energy.
Although it's Italy's most prosperous city, Milan doesn't draw the tourists that may overrun Rome, Florence and Venice. But its streets are lined with famous sites, from the beloved opera house La Scala and the spired Gothic splendor of the Duomo to the beaux arts filigree of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Its museums and galleries hold many treasures, from Da Vinci's The Last Supper to Michelangelo's Rondanini Pieta.
And even when willowy models wearing the latest designer confections aren't rushing through the streets to get to casting sessions and runway shows, Milan is a powerhouse of smart, ubercool shops and trendy restaurants filled with dressed-to-kill locals, right in the heart of its ancient past.
As a glance at the map reveals, Milan radiates out from its amazing cathedral and the splendid Piazza del Duomo. A ring of streets, known as the cerchia dei navigli
, marks the limits of the medieval city. Beyond that, another ring road—following the boundaries of more recent city limits—distinguishes central Milan from its outskirts.
Within the inner ring and northeast of Piazza Duomo are the chic shopping areas of Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and the area referred to as the Quadrilatero d'Oro ("Golden Rectangle"), bordered roughly by Via Manzoni, Via della Spiga, Via Sant'Andrea and Via Montenapoleone. West of the rectangle and behind La Scala—but still within the inner ring—is the chic area known as the Brera, surrounding the splendid art gallery Pinacoteca di Brera.
To the southwest of the city center lies the Navigli area. This area is named for the Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio Pavese, the two canals that were built so goods could be shipped to this landlocked city. The Naviglio Grande extends 30 mi/50 km to the Ticino River. The Naviglio Pavese provides a link to the city of Pavia, where the Ticino meets the Po River.
Milan's name is derived from Mediolanum
, Latin for "middle lands"—an appropriate choice, as the city is located at the point where northern and southern Europe meet. It has a long history of changing governments, rulers and cultures. The original Celtic village became part of the Roman Empire around the first century BC; in AD 313 the emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. After the collapse of the Roman Empire and centuries of barbarian rule, Milan once again became independent and prosperous as a city-state, rising to political and cultural prominence under the Visconti and Sforza families (considered among Europe's royalty) in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Milan's more recent history is no less turbulent. Spanish, French and Austro-Hungarian rule finally gave way to independence in 1861, when Milan became part of the Kingdom of Italy. The city was the birthplace of fascism in Italy in the early 20th century. Vestiges of that autocratic period survive today in its architecture; the massive Central Station is an excellent example.
After World War II, Milan drew workers from the poorer southern regions of Italy and overflowed its prewar borders to become a sprawling metropolis. In the 1970s and 1980s, the city prospered, becoming the industrial, financial, fashion and design center of the country.
Times have changed, however, as the world economy has inevitably slowed Milan's push to be one of the financial powerhouses of Europe. Even though some of the dazzle may be gone, the city maintains its head start on the rest of the country as its business sectors continue to bustle.
The major landmarks of Milan can be seen on foot, and most are within an easy walk of Piazza Duomo, the heart of the city. Start your exploring with the Duomo itself (and its museum, if you have the time) and then plan some short walks from there.
Heading north from Piazza Duomo, through the elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, you'll reach Piazza della Scala, home of the famous La Scala opera house. Turn on Via Manzoni and head for Via Montenapoleone, Milan's premier shopping and design area.
Alternatively, head north into Via Verdi, which leads to Via Brera and the Pinacoteca di Brera, one of the city's—and the world's—most celebrated art galleries. Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, Piero della Francesca and Caravaggio are just some of the artists whose work is in this vast gallery.
Another option is to walk northwest from Piazza Duomo on Via Mercanti, which becomes the pedestrian-only street Via Dante. This will take you to Castello Sforzesco, home of the Renaissance rulers of Milan. The castle contains several museums that are well worth visiting. Even just a stroll around the grounds is a memorable experience.
Following Via Torino from Piazza del Duomo, you will reach the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, a small but important gallery. It houses works by Raphael, Leonardo, Titian and Breughel.
If you really feel like walking, head west to the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. In the refectory is Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece The Last Supper. Make sure you get a reservation to view.
Thanks to its ties to the fashion and design industries, Milan has a vibrant nightlife. The city's young professionals work hard during the day and play even harder at night. Whether directly before dinner or on the way home after work, stopping for an aperitivo, or early-evening drink with friends, is routine: Many bars in the city center offer a happy-hour buffet of bruschetta or other cold snacks. Bars and clubs stay open until 2 am and sometimes later. The Brera has several bars and restaurants that cater to the chic set. The more bohemian Navigli area is increasingly popular, with funky bars and nightclubs that attract artists and musicians.
The local dishes of Milan, when prepared well, can make for some wonderful eating experiences. Risotto Milanese
, the city's signature dish, is a creamy rice dish infused with saffron. Other local specialties include cotoletta alla Milanese
, a veal cutlet that's been pounded thin, breaded and fried, and osso buco, stewed marrowbone usually served with risotto.
Breakfast for most Italians is coffee and a brioche eaten standing up at a bar. For people who work, lunch is sometimes a sandwich taken the same way, but more often a quick sit-down meal of pasta or a meat dish. Italians tend not to snack, so evening meals are quite substantial. An antipasto is followed by a pasta dish, then the secondo (a meat or fish course) and a salad. If you order pasta for dinner, the server will undoubtedly ask "And then…?"
Although the wines of Lombardy, which include some fine reds from the Valtellina as well as some interesting sparkling reds and whites from the Oltrepo Pavese, are palatable, wine lists also include offerings from the other regions.
When they go out for dinner, the Milanese dine at 8 pm or even later, and many restaurants don't open until 7:30 or 8 pm. If you arrive at opening time, you'll probably have the place to yourself. It's best to make reservations at well-known places.
A coperto, or cover charge, of 1 euro-5 euros per person is usually added to your bill. It's used to cover the cost of bread, which is always served with Italian meals. Sometimes (rarely) it appears as pane (bread) on the bill or even (very rarely) coperto and pane. This is standard practice. Your bill may also include a service charge which is not standard practice at all but perfectly legal if in writing on your menu. Unfortunately, it is the case that an increasing number of stories of tourists have been hit with an unexpected 15% service charge—but the locals would never pay such a thing.
Tipping is far less common in Italy. Most Italians, if they tip at all, leave 1-2 euros, irrespective of the bill. If you have enjoyed the service it is courteous to do the same if you have not already been charged for service. Keep in mind that credit cards aren't used as commonly in Italy as elsewhere, but most major restaurants accept them readily. If you are having a sandwich and a glass of water in a bar, you will be expected to pay in cash. And not with a big euro note, either: Bars almost invariably struggle to change large denomination notes. Keep small notes and coins aside for snacks and drinks.
When dining in Milan, keep in mind that shorts, athletic shoes, T-shirts and other casual clothes aren't appreciated in restaurants. Few restaurants go as far as requiring a jacket and tie for men, but it never hurts to dress up a bit—you'll get better service.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 35 euros; $$ = 35 euros-60 euros; $$$ = 61 euros-85 euros; $$$$ = more than 85 euros.
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