Maximum Milan: Soak In The Essence Of Italy

An insider's guide to the Italian city.  
In the maze that can be Milan, locals and visitors orient themselves by the lacy spires of the city’s Duomo. Photo: Sime/Estock Photo

Milan may not take your breath away, like Venice. It’s not as elegant as Florence, as spectacular as Rome, or as picturesque as Naples. It doesn’t have Como’s gorgeous lake or Siena’s harmonious hills. But Milan is Italy, more so than any of those lovely places.

Milan is a flat, closed, circular city. It’s easy to lose your way. Italy is a maze; Milan even more so. The architect Renzo Piano says that as a boy, he lived in Florence, but found it “too boring, because it was too perfect.” Milan, on the other hand, “was the least perfect, and therefore most interesting, city.” I agree. Milan is far from perfect. But it has guts, to start with. Over the past hundred years, many of Italy’s pivotal changes started in Milan: socialism, Great War fever, fascism, resistance to fascism, the economic boom of the sixties, the political turmoil of the seventies, and the populist tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi. Good and bad, all in Milan.

Milan has ideas, always had. Food. Fashion. Design. Television. Advertising. Publishing. Milan is the country’s go-to city for all these sectors, plus industry, commerce, and finance—leaving only politics, public television, and cinema to Rome. Go to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II on Piazza del Duomo and take the escalator to Spazio restaurant. Look down into the Galleria, the mother of all malls, alive with activity. You’ll see why Europe has always respected Milan.

The fashion industry is a vital part of Milan’s identity and when the biannual Milan Fashion Week comes around, many flaunt their trendy styles and natty attire in the city’s streets. Photo: Stefano Tinti/Shutterstock

The fashion industry is a vital part of Milan’s identity and when the biannual Milan Fashion Week comes around, many flaunt their trendy styles and natty attire in the city’s streets. Photo: Stefano Tinti/Shutterstock

Cross the square and take an elevator to the roof of the cathedral, the Duomo. Lose yourself among the pinnacles and spires, observe the city and the plain below as the golden statue of the Madonnina seems to float in the air. If God ever built a sandcastle, this is what it would look like. Walk back into the Galleria and exit the opposite end, where Piazza della Scala lies, with the opera house and Palazzo Marino, the city hall. Beauty and politics keep an eye on each other, like suspicious relatives. Sit in the square and watch the Milanese coming down from Via Manzoni and the fashion quadrangle to the Ristorante Trussardi. In summer, the scent of linden trees fills the air.

Just around the corner, Milan dances to a faster beat. The courtyards of the Università Statale, a former hospital, and the Accademia di Brera buzz with students. Arco della Pace and Colonne di San Lorenzo belong to the autonomous republic of the aperitif. So do the navigli, the old waterways that converge on the Darsena basin. Yes, Milan has got its river back at last! Have a stroll, linger in any of the cafés. Take your time. Look at us, the Italiani, how we talk with our smiles, our eyes, our hands. How we try to impress you, and often succeed.

Bridges and canals in Milan

Once an important part of city industry, Milan’s old navigli (canals) are in the midst of a revival. Photo: Annette Schreyer/Laif/Redux

Dinner? The rooftop restaurant in the Triennale museum. Does the view from there look like Manhattan’s Central Park? Maybe, but around you la grande bellezza, the great beauty, is different. Parco Sempione, dark green; Castello Sforzesco, bathed in orange light; the slender, silver buildings of Piazza Gae Aulenti that brought Milan’s skyline into the 21st century.

Milan has gusto, both in the English sense of keen enjoyment and with the Italian meaning of good taste. Expo Milano 2015, which ran from May to October, with 145 countries exhibiting, instantly became a movable feast. This opportunity for Italy was a serious attempt to ponder nutrition, and a fantastic six-month-long party, to boot. Expo 2015 was the world as it would like to be, and isn’t.

But it looked, it sounded, and it smelled like Milan. And that is good.

Appeared in the January 2016 issue as “Maximum Milan”.

  • Beppe Severgnini is an Italian journalist, and the author of “Mamma Mia!: Berlusconi Explained for Posterity and Friends Abroad.”

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?