April 2020: A weekend in Milano (my favourite Italian city)

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Hidden Italy weekend in Milano (my favourite Italian city)

Hidden Italy weekend in Milano (my favourite Italian city)

There are, unfortunately, no exhibitions or cultural events to report in Italy in April (and probably not for a while) and we won’t be travelling Italy for a while but, in the meantime, I thought it would be nice to revisit some of my favourite places each month, starting with a theoretical weekend in Milan (where I also happened to have lived for five years in the 1980s) and which give you ideas for a trip in the future.

Piazza Duomo, the hub of the city, is the obvious place to start any visit to the capital of Lombardy.  Thanks in part to the World Expo hosted in 2015, Milano was on a real roll before all this happened and three districts in particular were booming (all of them reached by interesting walks from the centre):

  •     Piazza Duomo and the heart of Milano
  •     Porta Nuova/Corso Como
  •     the Navigli (the canal district)

Piazza Duomo and the heart of Milano:

Piazza Duomo and the heart of Milano:

Piazza Duomo is the geographic and cultural centre of Milano, a large square dominated by the pinnacles of the Duomo, the world’s largest Gothic cathedral.  It was started in 1386 and only finished in 1813 by order of Napoleon.  It is an awe-inspiring marble mountain, prickling with over three thousand, five hundred external statues.  The interior is striking for its immensity and atmosphere but the best way to visit it is to take the lift up to the roof, one of the highlights of the city.  Here you can stroll around the rooftop forest of tracery, pinnacles and statues while enjoying fine views of the city and, on a clear day, the peaks of the Alps.

On your left as you leave the cathedral, the Palazzo Reale, the former royal palace, which is now a cultural centre and home to international art exhibitions (www.palazzorealemilano.it).  Next door, in one of two twin towers built in the 1930s under Mussolini’s regime, is one of my favourite museums: the Museo del Novecento (www.museodelnovecento.org) dedicated to 20th century Italian, with over four hundred works, including an important collection of Futurist pieces.

On the other side of the square is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.  Almost as famous a site as the Duomo, this gargantuan glass and steel shopping arcade, inaugurated in 1877, connects Piazza Duomo with Piazza della Scala (built by the same engineering firm that built the Eiffel Tower, and it shows).  It is known as the salotto, or drawing room, of Milano and was a focal point for the parading Milanese on their evening passeggiata.  It was fully restored in 2015 to celebrate its 150th anniversary.  Apart from window-shopping and people watching, I always stop in to the historic Camparino (www.camparino.com) a small arte nouveau bar on the corner that has been serving the Milanese since 1915 (including its famous red aperitivo, Campari).

Walking through the Galleria, you come to a beautiful square with a statue of a grave Leonardo da Vinci.  Opposite is the city’s most celebrated cultural institution, the Teatro alla Scala (aka La Scala), which is regarded as one of the leading opera and ballet theatres in the world (www.teatroallascala.org).  Tickets often sell out months in advance, particularly for the operas, so it’s good to plan ahead.  They can be bought online via the theatre’s website.  Tickets are also set aside for on-the-day sale, you can get lucky.  Concerts are also held here and are easier to get into and can be quite cheap, particularly up in the Gods.  There is also an interesting museum next door that is open daily.  There is a café at La Scala, but you’d do better to pop across the road to Café Trussardi (or heading upstairs for lunch at the two-Michelin-starred Trussardi alla Scala).

Where to stay:

Bulgari Hotel (Via Privata Fratelli Gabba 7).  In the centre of the fashionable Brera district, equidistant from the Brera museum, Teatro alla Scala and the fashion hub of Via Montenapoleone, this stunning 5-star hotel has an internal garden, spa, a celebrated restaurant and a very hip bar.  Doubles with brekkie from 650 to 980 euro per night.

Una Maison (Via Mazzini 4) is a new 4-star hotel, with 27 recently restored rooms set in an historical palazzo only a block from the new museum.  Its furniture and decorations are an anthology of fine Milanese design.  Double start rooms from 253 euro per night.

Palazzo Segreti (Van San Tomaso, 8).  An elegant hotel, set in a restored 18th century palazzo, halfway between the Piazza Duomo and the Sforzesco castle.  It has eighteen rooms.  Doubles from 250 euro a night.

Antica Locanda dei Mercanti (Via San Tomaso 6).  This atmospheric, 4-star hotel has fifteen rooms, some with private terraces, is in the very heart of the city, a stone’s throw from the Duomo.  Doubles with breakfast from 225 euro.

Gran Duca di York (Via Moneta 1/A).  This popular, old-school, 3-star hotel, a short walk from the Duomo, was recently renovated.  It has 33 rooms of different categories, all facing the handsome internal gardens.  Double with breakfast from 160 euro.

Where to eat:

Savini, (Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II).  Along with the Duomo and La Scala, Savini is one of the symbols of Milan, serving classic Lombard dishes such as nervetti alla Milanese, saffron risotto, carpaccio of sea bass and a dessert cart) but also offering Piemontese and Veneto dishes.  Starting at 75 euro per head.

Stendhal (Via Ancona, 1).  A classic restaurant serving traditional Italian cuisine in the elegant ambience of an old-fashioned bistro.  Dinner is served in the internal garden in the warm seasons.  From 35 euro per person.

Premiata Pescheria Spadari (Via Spadari 4).  Around the corner from the Duomo this upmarket fish retailer is a part of Milanese history.  It is possible to try the fresh produce at the counter: crudi (Italian-style sashimi); as well as first courses (pasta and risotto); fried seafood and seafood from the oven.  The Pescheria is open for lunch and an evening aperitivo.

Trattoria Milanese (Via Santa Maria 11).  An elegant, well-priced neighbourhood restaurant in the labyrinth of old streets ten-minute’s walk west of the Duomo.  Risotto and osso buco take pride of place among all the best of Milanese cooking.

Milano Porta Nuova and Corso Como

Milano Porta Nuova and Corso Como

Initiated in 2009, this vast urban-renewal project, the largest such project carried out in Europe, is only one kilometres as the crow flies from the Duomo.  It was devised by a team of internationally renowned architects who created a myriad of extraordinary buildings with different functions: offices, commercial and residential.  Starting in the historic quarter of Brera and finishing at Piazza Gae Aulenti, a pedestrian system of gardens, piazzas, footbridges and bike paths unites all the zones: a dynamic area that works, capturing the ambition and spirit of the ‘new’ Milano.

To get there take Via Brera that runs down beside La Scala, passing the Brera Art Gallery (one of the finest in northern Italy, whose vast collection includes seminal works by Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Raphael and Caravaggio – an engaging side trip in itself).  Go left at Via Pontaccio and then right into Via Garibaldi.  You are now an area known as Moscova, a once bohemian quarter that is filled with stylish bars, traditional trattorias and elegant shops.

It is a very enjoyable walk all the way down Corso Garibaldi to Piazza 25 Aprile, the beginning of the new district.  Some of the more celebrated shops include: Giada Donna (an historic shoe-shop specialising in classic Made in Italy footwear); Gli Ori di Bologna (a fine jewellery with a refined choice of bijoux); Midali on the Road (a range of clothes and accessories with an elegant, minimalist style) and Lipstick Vintage (a classic haute couture and retro style garment shop).  Along the way you can people watch with a coffee, light lunch or aperitivo at one of the many cafes and bars along the way (including Moscatelli, a charming survivor of the halcyon days in the 1960s).

In Piazza 25 Aprile there are two of Milan’s institutions: Hi-Tech, a mazelike design store offering home, kitchen and bath objects, as well as stationary; and Milano Eataly, a palace to Italian goodness, a multi-storeyed emporium in what was the Smeraldo Theatre (where the likes of Bob Dylan and Ray Charles performed), an innovative (ne, revolutionary) way of presenting Italy’s finest food and produce region by region.  It includes shops, restaurants, bars and cafes.

The other side of the square is Corso Como which leads to Piazza Gae Aulenti, the heart of the Porta Nuova project.  Along the way there are more shops (including the Avery Perfume Gallery) and another Milanese institution:  10 Corso Como, which opened it’s doors in a renovated industrial building in 1991.  This vast complex includes an endless range of clothes and accessories, as well as a restaurant, cafes, bars a gallery and a publishing enterprise.

Where to stay:

NH Milano Grand Hotel Verdi (Via Gioa 6).  A short walk from Porta Nuova, the Brera quarter and Gioa Metro stop, this modern 4-star hotel has one hundred spacious and comfortable rooms.  Double from 150 euro per night.

Hotel Cervo (Piazzale Principessa Clotilde 10).  With a good location a short from Piazza della Repubblica, this a historic hotel has retro furniture, welcoming staff and offers an excellent breakfast.  Double with breakfast from 185 per night.

Antica Locanda Solferino (Via Castelfidardo 2).  The Locanda has eleven rooms with views over the Brera quarter.  Each room is furnished in Arte Deco style.  A breakfast of croissants, fresh fruit, coffee and freshly squeezed jiudes is delivered to your room.  Doubles from 165 euro.

Brera Apartments (www.brerapartments.com) propose a range of top-level, self-contained apartments in the Brera quarter, including Marsal Aprtment (Via Marsala).  Four bed apartments from 210 euro per night.

Where to eat:

Ristorante Berton (Via Mike Bongiorno 13).  Located in the centre of Milano Porta Nuova, this refined restaurant is the creation of Michelin-starred chef Andrea Berton.  Specialities include red prawn risotto.  The degustation menu is 110 euro per person.

Ristorante Ratana (Via Gaetano de Castillia, 28).  Situated in an arte nouveau building a short walk from Piazza Gar Aulenti, this much-loved restaurant is headed up by chef Cesare Battisti.  It specialises in Lombardian cuisine including Milanese tripe and risotto with ossobuco.  Around 40 euro per person.

Ristorante Alice (Eataly Milano, Piazza XXV Aprile, 10).  This fabulous restaurant is on the top floor of the Eataly complex in Porta Nuova.  Chef Viviana Varese prepares classic Mediterranean cuisine, with an innovative twist.  It is considered one of the best seafood restaurants in Italy.  From 35 euro per person.

To finish your visit, there are a range of excellent restaurants close to Piazza Gae Aulenti:

The Navigli (the canal district)

The Navigli (the canal district)

Although there is no river or lake in Milan, it remains a water city:  since the Middle Ages, engineers (including Leonardo da Vinci) worked hard to set up a system of canals that connected the city to the Adda and Ticino rivers and through them the Po River and on to the Mediterranean.  A series of canals brough trade and resources in and out of the city.  In fact, the centre of Milan is ringed by two sets of canals, which still exist, mostly covered up in the 1930s.  The two largest canals meet at the Darsena (a harbour which was working until the 1980s) which is only a short walk from the Duomo.

The Darsena and the upper part of the canals, once a lively but rather seedy boho part of town, were completely transformed during the preparations for the 2015 and now that it has well and truly settled in, it is a great area to visit, day or night.  I lived here on the Naviglio Grande in the 1980’s (next door to a family of Calabrian gangsters) and still love the area (despite it’s new polish and gloss).

You can reach the Navigli by first leaving Piazza Duomo and walking down Via Torino, one of the city’s busiest shopping streets.  In the past it was packed with artisan shops and workshops, now it caters for every taste and style but particularly focuses on the younger market with many of the usual suspects such as Zara, H&M and Victoria’s Secret plus Intimissimi, Mango and Terranova.

At the end of Via Torino, turn left and walk down Corso di Porta Ticinese, which will take you all the way to the Darsena and the Navigli.  It has always been my favourite street in Milan.  While it too has been spruced up in recent years, it is still lined with lots of bars, funky little jewellery stores, fashion accessories and retro clothes shops.

The Corso actually passes through one of the oldest parts of the city.  It is topped and tailed by two marvellous squares.  The first is the Colonne di San Lorenzo, a pedestrian piazza in front of the church of San Lorenzo (which Leonardo thought the most beautiful in the city) that is marked by a handsome colonnade of Corinthian columns recycled from Roman buildings in the area and rearranged in the sixteenth century.  As you head down the street you pass through the Medieval gates to the city.  At the far end is another lovely square in front of the lovely 11th century church of San Eustorgio, built to house the bones of the Three Wise Men.  Unfortunately, the church was sacked by Emperor Barbarossa a hundred years later and the relics are now in the Cologne cathedral.

The Corso then ends at Piazza XXIV which is dominated by a giant Neo-classical arch, commission by Napoleon to celebrate his victory at Marengo.  You are now on the edge of the Navigli.  On your right is the recently renovated Mercato Comunale (Communal Market), within a glass and steel structure.  You can find most things here: fruit and vegetables, fresh pastries and bread, seafood and salumeria.  There is also the excellent Macelleria Popolare butcher, where you can order meat and street dishes such as mondeghili (Milanese meatballs) and sit at benches with a glass of wine.

The Darsena itself is a long body of water into which the two main canals finish.  Until twenty years ago it was still a working harbour.  Derelict for many years, it was completely revamped for the Expo and is now a very pleasant place to stroll and mooch around people watching.  There are benches and gardens.  In the evenings you will see people fishing and they even hold occasional swimming competitions here (unheard of in my day).

Running south of the Darsena are the two largest canals, the Naviglio Grande and the Naviglio (respectively the first and last of the city’s canals to be built).  Once a bustling industrial neighbourhood this is now a focus of the city’s nightlife.  Many of the warehouses and traditional tenement blocks have been refurbished and have become prime real estate.  There is still a bit of the boho atmosphere surviving with some artists’ studios and galleries still operating.  But mostly, people come here for the  many bars, clubs and restaurants of varying quality.

Where to stay:

Maison Borella (Alzaia Naviglio Grande, 8).  With twenty-four rooms, each with parquet floors and exposed beams, this gorgeous 4-star hotel is the only hotel in Milan actually overlooking one of the canals.  It is set in an historic casa di ringhiera, carefully restored.  It has a restaurant in the internal garden.  Some rooms have balconies overlooking the canal.  Doubles with breakfast from 150 euro.

Idea Hotel Milano Corso Genova (via Conca del Naviglio).  This comfortable, 3-star hotel is a short walk from Porta Ticinese, the Darsena and the Navigli, the heart of the ‘movida’ Milanese.  It’s very popular and best to book well in advance.  Doubles with breakfast from 60 euro

Where to eat:

Sadler (Via Ascanio Sforza, 77).  One of the city’s top chefs cooks up sophisticated dishes for this elegant restaurant just off the Navigli.  Simple but formal, with impeccable service, this is the place to head for a real treat.  Try the degustation menu (Menu Tradizione & Innovazione) for 100 euro.

Al Pont de Ferr (Ripa di Porta Ticinese 55).  Located on the most picturesque of Milano’s canals, this long-time restaurant has the welcoming atmosphere of a traditional osteria with its bare brick walls, long bar and regular clientele.  The eclectic menu is prepared with flair by its Uruguayan chef Matias Perdomo.  From 50 euro per person.

Ponte Rosso (Ripa di Porta Ticinese 23).  An attractive canal-side bistro that specialises in Lombard cooking complemented with other regional flavours.  From 35 euro a person.

Trattoria Madonnina (Via Gentilino).  One of my faourite Milanese restaurants, great for lunch or dinner.  It is set  on old ‘boccofilo (bocce club).  The restaurant has a wonderful old-world charm with a long zinc bar and cane chairs.  It serves classic Milanese cooking, including bollito con salsa verde, cotteletta Milanese and, for the brave, a good range of offal dishes.  In the summer you can eat outside in the garden (and even roll a ball or two).

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