The perfect “girl’s day” in Milan

Milan gets a bad rap. It’s often called industrial, grey and unwelcoming. I prefer to think of it as a mini New York with prettier clothes, properly made coffee, less greasy pizza and better mannered denizens. Yes, the weather in the winter can be a bit challenging, but at least there are no hurricanes or Nor’easters.

The truth is, until last week I had only visited Milan in late autumn or winter. Going in the summer presented a different city entirely- one filled with gelato, flowers, light and joy. Unlike my winter visits, I really felt like I was in Italy. I’ve distilled this entire experience into a few recommendations for how to enjoy a perfect day in Milan. Next time you find yourself in the city for business, or want to run away from home for a bit (Ryanair offers very cheap flights from most European cities) I highly suggest you spend twenty four hours and enjoy life like the Italians do.

Sightseeing

Even if you’ve seen it before, you simply must visit the Duomo. Its façade, made of pink hued white marble, captures and reflects the light like a medieval wedding cake incarnation of the Taj Mahal. This relationship with the light causes it to look a little different every time you see it. The marble was originally brought to the center of Milan by water, through the navigli (Milan’s ancient canals), from the quarry at Condoglia di Mergozzo near Verbania. This is an interesting fact:  to enter the city, the boatmen used a password: “AUF,” the abbreviation of “Ad usum fabricae.” This translates to, “For the use of the Fabbrica (the organization that, since 1387 AD, has been responsible for all operational aspects of the Duomo),” which exempted them from paying the toll. This custom survives in Lombardy in the expression “A ufo” which means “free of charge.”

I’d been to Milan a number of times before, but this was the first I’d heard of these canals. I considered visiting them, but all my Milanese friends tell me they are more appropriate for a millennial age crowd in search of flea markets, vintage shops and cheap, noisy nightlife. Someday I will explore them, but not on my perfect day.

The Duomo in Milan

After you see the Duomo, walk around the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and look in the shops. Prada, Versace and all the big Italian and international brands are located there. However, it’s so beautiful that I prefer to stroll around and watch the light shine through the glass roof onto the intricate marble floor below.

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

I recommend walking all the way through the Galleria, exiting and having a look at La Scala and the little square across from it dedicated to Leonardo de Vinci.

The Piazza della Scala

Shopping

The high profile shopping is found along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, from the Duomo to the Piazza San Babila. Logically, the shops get less fashion forward the further you walk from the Duomo. There are also lovely shops around Via Brera. One of my favorite perfume shops in the world, the Rome based Campo Marzio 70, has an outpost at Via Brera, 2/A.

If you need energy to sustain yourself while shopping, I recommend taking a second breakfast at the lovely Farage Cioccolato. It is located at Via Brera, 5. The handmade chocolates are delicious with an espresso. If you’re there before lunch you could have a cappuccino instead. Remember, in Italy you’re not supposed to have milk in your coffee after lunch. Ever. If you ask, they’ll probably bring you one since you’re a foreigner, but if they say something to you they’re not trying to be rude, they’re actually trying to save you from (1) bad digestion and (2) a terribly embarrassing breach of etiquette.

Chocolate and espresso at the lovely Cafe Farage.

Personally, I can spend hours wandering these small streets, trying on clothes and chatting with the salespeople. My tradition is I never visit Italy without buying myself at least one pretty thing from Intimissimi, and some cashmere tights or a new bikini at Calzedonia (depending upon the season). I hereby challenge you to create your own personal shopping tradition!

Lunch

My favorite lunch spot is Il Bar at the top of the fancy department store La Rinascente (Piazza Duomo). It’s also amazing for an aperitivo – it claims to have the best view in town and I can’t disagree. After you finish you can spend a little time looking at the beautiful clothes on the lower levels before you venture outside to go see some art.

Culture

For a little culture, visit the Pinocoteca di Brera. Founded in 1776, it displays one of the best collections of Italian art, specifically works from Venice and Lombardy. It’s always lovely to stroll through and look at the old paintings (my favorite is Carlo Crivelli’s botanical Madonna della Candeletta), but this summer it is hosting something special: the Arte Horto. This is an, “Art and botanical walk between the Pinacoteca and the Botanical Garden of Brera.” This exhibit bridges the worlds of painting and gardening, ultimately transporting you into the adjacent Garden of Brera, which is simply one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Linger there if you have the time. And if you don’t- make the time. This is your perfect day.

Inside the Orto Botanico di Brera

Aperitivo

Once you finish at the Garden of Brera, I recommend an aperitivo in the garden of the Bulgari Hotel. The hotel is housed in an 18th century Milanese palazzo, which is located on a private street (Via Privata Fratelli Gabba) a few steps from the garden. The grounds are lovely- a natural extension of the nearby Botanical Garden. It also has the best selection of complimentary snacks I have ever seen. I ordered a glass of wine and was brought giant green olives, homemade potato chips (I live in Spain and know an imposter when I taste one), marcona olives, crudité, warm cheese bread, and little tasting plates of summer salad and some delicious couscous concoction. And when you use the restroom (which, let’s face it, you invariably will need to do if you’re having an aperitivo), you can wash your hands with Bulgari Green Tea soap. Luxury and value, all rolled into one.

The Bulgari Hotel

Post aperitivo

If you’ve never been to Milan before, perhaps you might want to visit the Sforza Castle. I prefer more shopping. The edgier stores are located around Piazza del Carmine. I recommend walking in that direction, and finishing with a look inside the 13th century Chiesa del Carmine. Afterwards, make your way towards Parco Sempione where you can make a passeggiata, and take in a view of the Sforza Castle from behind. If you really want to tour it, the castle is open in the summer months until 19.30h.

Dinner

Most people go to Italy and indulge in pasta. But after a day of walking around, trying on swimming suits and lingerie, eating chocolate and drinking Prosecco, I tend to not feel like eating more than a salad. However, a good friend of mine who lived in Milan for years (her family still has a flat there), recommends the following restaurants: Santa Luca, Bice and Rita e Antonio. She was my “omakase buddy” when I lived in NYC so I trust her recommendations implicitly. If you happen to try one of these places, please comment on this blog and share your experience. I would love to hear about it.

Comments (1)

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  1. Marco S. says:

    I agree that Milan, along with Turin, have been considered for too long just industrial, grey cities. Today not only Milan is a pleasant city that deserve a visit but it can be the perfect departure point to explore more of Northern Italy. Leaving behind crowded touristy spots like Florence and Venice, come to feel how authentic Italy is. For instance the lake district in Northern Piemonte, close to Switzerland where the Alpine traditions meet the elegant villas on the water. Or Turin, only an hour away from Milan by high-speed train, first capital of Italy and home of incredible chocolate artisans! Last, the Southern hills of Langhe, Monferrato and Roero, land of white truffles, Barolo and Barbaresco wines, UNESCO World Heritage landscape and one of the most refined cuisine of this Country.

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