Foggy and unremittingly cold in winter, hot and humid in summer, Milan isn’t a city you come to for the weather.
Nor for fresh air. On my last visit, I saw more people wearing pollution masks than I did in Beijing, which is saying something. Yet it’s hard not to love Milan, Italy’s second city and the capital of its industrial — and industrious — north. This city’s creative and hardworking, an economic powerhouse that drives the rest of the country, looking on forbearingly like a successful older child at his underachieving siblings.
In many ways, Milan is a traditional, even conservative, city. If you don’t believe me, order a cappuccino after 11 a.m. in one of the city’s grand cafés and watch the waiter not so subtly arch an eyebrow. It’s just not done. Or stroll through its famous Galleria — surely the world’s loveliest shopping mall — in denim cutoffs and see how the locals stare and then look away, as if personally affronted. That’s not done either, a crime against bella figura. Milan is also, let’s not forget, the city where fascism was born, although 20 years after Mussolini rose to power, tens of thousands of Milanese flocked to see him and his mistress dead —strung up on metal girders above a gas station in a suburban square — to celebrate his end and the birth of a new Italy. A cheerful thought.
But as Italy’s fashion capital, Milan is anything but reactionary. It is forward-looking and optimistic, seldom shocked by the so-called shock of the new because it has seen it all — or most of it. And what it hasn’t yet seen, it wants to (denim cutoffs excepted).
Architecturally and institutionally, Milan may not compete on equal terms with the big three — Rome, Venice and Florence — but it certainly holds its own. First, there is the Duomo, a vast and magnificent Gothic cathedral, which took six centuries to build and is the biggest church in Italy — the third largest in the world. And then there’s La Scala, Milan’s celebrated opera house, famous for its unforgiving audiences, who boo if they are anything less than delighted by the sounds from the stage. Even Luciano Pavarotti was booed here in his time. Yes, the Milanese can be impossibly charming or they can be downright rude.
And Milan’s right up there, too, with great hotels, just as you would expect it to be. Grande dames like the Principe di Savoia — the Prince of Savoy, grand both in name and by nature — which for years now has been part of the Dorchester Collection (whose portfolio includes Le Meurice in Paris, along with The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Bel-Air). Or the Four Seasons, situated in a 15th-century monastery, a great Milan hotel in which to hang your hat. Sit at the lobby bar here for long enough, and the great and the not so good of the entire fashion world will all strut before you. Or the sumptuous Mandarin Oriental, so good it has made all the old places pull their designer socks up, and where chef Antonio Guida has been busy earning Michelin stars for the restaurant in his fashionably open kitchen.
There are hipper and edgier places too, of course, like the W or the Straf hotel & bar — with its tamed industrial, rough-hewn look. Or my current fave, the five apartments run by Five Stars, a cross between Airbnb Inc. and a boutique hotel, where outside of Fashion Week you will still get change from 100 euros a night.
In Milan, shopkeeping is not merely commerce but art — high art that hopes to turn a profit, but is art nevertheless. Compared with the U.S., where store-keeping is — at its best — a slick and functional machine, or the U.K., where “trade” was historically considered vulgar and modern shopkeeping is therefore viewed as no more than a utilitarian chore, in Italy in general, and in Milan in particular, there is a sense of pride in keeping shop. Goods must be of the highest quality and the selling of them is viewed almost as a public service, carried out with pride and a great sense of purpose.
The raising of a shop shutter signifies a new day of opportunity in the handling of beautiful goods, be it a Bottega Veneta handbag, a slab of Pecorino wrapped in characteristic wax paper, or simply a book — the highbrow Lombardians being avid readers. Fulfilling a customer’s wishes is key for every shopkeeper, but the precious social interaction between seller and customer, inherent in trade, trumps all of the above.
While shopping is a joy in Milan, there’s plenty to do besides. What do I enjoy? As in many cities, things that other tourists often don’t. An early morning walk around the shuttered city — well wrapped-up, of course, against the damp dawn fog — with only the odd gray pigeon for company, is unforgettable. At the Museum of Musical Instruments in the Castello Sforzesco, I love the feeling of being able to get close to such priceless objects — the giraffe-shaped, 19th-century Viennese piano, for instance, or the glorious Belgian virginals, made by Ioannes Ruckers in the year 1600, or the incomparable Strads, seemingly a dime a dozen. You almost think the museum has violins to spare.
I love to climb, too, up into the Brera Astronomical Observatory — alongside the Pinacoteca di Brera, one of Italy’s finest art museums – for a glimpse of Mars (seriously) and to stroll around the small and intimate botanical gardens to wonder at some of the incredible flora here on Planet Earth.
Late afternoon, when the shadows are lengthening, is a good time to wander among the cloisters of the Basilica of San Simpliciano, one of the oldest churches in the city, dating from the fourth century, and — back on the tourist trail — anytime’s a good time to visit Santa Maria delle Grazie, the home of Leonardo’s “Last Supper,” or the exquisite Poldi Pezzoli Museum, a patrician house dating from the 18th century, with its paintings by Mantegna, Canaletto and Guardi, alongside Flemish and Persian tapestries, jewelry, glass, ceramics and weaponry — to mention just a few of its treasures.
You can’t talk about Milan without thinking about food — at least I can’t. If you’re old school, Peck is hard to beat — think Zabar’s meets Le Bernardin in terms of price and caliber. Or historic Savini in the Galleria. If you’re new school, try singer Rosalba Piccinni’s all day, minimalist “flower bistro,” Potafiori, or check out Fabio Rotella’s glorious Art Deco interiors and the outdoor terrace at Mudec, where fashionistas flock. Or Wes Anderson’s kitschy Bar Luce — a homage to 1950s and ’60s pop culture, in the Fondazione Prada.
All good — all very good, but great food is kind of a given in Milan. What’s really interesting, in this city where la moda reigns, is that the Milanese are as likely to know the restaurant designer’s name as they are the chef’s. There’s food for thought.