Milan: city guide. A trip packed with history, art, exhibitions, fashion and high-end shopping

Why go

Italy is overflowing with romantic, arty cities but Milan is by far the most vibrant. Milan, synonymous with fashion, has a retail reputation that pulls in visitors from across the globe. It is Italy’s industrial heart and home to the country’s stock exchange.

But for all Milan’s sometimes brash exterior (the Milanese’s evening ‘passagiata’ stroll takes the Italian’s love of showing off to an art form) this city has a tremendous amount of culture and history to enjoy. Delve beneath the bling and discover art, architecture, exhibitions and events that are as breathtaking as any couture window display.

What to do

Milan. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Flickr CC Paul Bica
Not your normal mall: high-end shopping in the beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Milan made the number one spot on the recent New York Times 52 places to go in 2015 list, and it is bursting with action, art and entertainment. The Duomo, Milan’s grand Gothic cathedral, towers over the historic city centre. It is free to enter and is a wonderful place to visit.

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Shopping here is unparalleled. Head for the famed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade. Max out the credit card at Prada or sip a cappuccino watching the world go by at this covered shopping mall.

The mall connects the Duomo Square with the Piazza della Scala, the square in front of the famous La Scala Opera House. Head here for Milan at its most grand and cultural. It’s the area where you’ll spot some of Milan’s most beautiful and important buildings: Palazzo Marino (Milan’s City Hall) and La Scala.

Milan San Lorenzo Maggiore Flickr Rafel Miro
San Lorenzo Maggiore is one of the oldest churches in Milan

The Pinacoteca di Brera is considered to be Lombardy’s finest art collection, with works by Titian and Caravaggio. Though nowhere near the size of the Louvre, its compact size makes for an easy visit.

The Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio is also a great place to visit. St Ambrose is the patron saint of Milan, and his remains are buried in the crypt. Tip: keep an eye out for the stunning mosaics in the south aisle, and frescoes by Tiepolo in the second chapel.

Where to stay

Milan Town House 31 gardens
Town House 31 is a 19th-century palazzo that’s now a hotel

Luxury is the buzzword here. For über-cool luxury check into Straf, an avant garde hotel adored by the fashionistas. Bulgari is another high-end option. Glamorous but understated, with a grand spa, it is the only hotel within the city walls to boast a garden.

Lower budgets are catered for too. Converted townhouses – once home to affluent merchants – are popular, so book ahead. Try the Town House 31, a 19th-century palazzo with a comfy lounge. Or a Locanda (inn) such as the Antica Locanda Leonardo, located in the central, old part of the city. This charming, family-run establishment has a lovely courtyard.

Milan Sala Alessi Palazzo Marino
Palazzo Marino, a 16th-century palace in Piazza della Scala, is Milan’s city hall

Where to eat

Milan’s dining scene is like its fashion scene: highly competitive. So you will find plenty of good hearty food on any kind of budget on almost every street corner.

Taglio, on Via Vigevano, is hotly tipped is for great pasta, and it’s an emporium where you can buy cheese and other products. Tip: do not leave without trying their michette, a small bread roll from the Bollani bakery.

Carlo e Camilla in Segheria is another unique eatery. Built in an old industrial sawmill with crystal chandeliers, this converted building is headed up by rwo- Michelin-starred chef Carlo Cracco. Try the amazing Milanese spaghetti with anchovies, lime and coffee.

Milan. Quadrilatero d'Oro. Flickr CC Jakob Montrasio
Milan’s excellent shopping is concentrated in the Quadrilatero d’Oro district

Getting around

Milan’s city centre is compact and easy to walk around. Three major modes of public transport form an excellent network, and a variety of day or multi-day passes is available from stations.

The Metro has three simple lines to all the major tourist hotspots. Or try the city’s bike-sharing program, BikeMi, rather like London’s Boris bikes. (Hire daily from 7am to 11pm.) Metered taxis are easy to hail in the street, or most shops and restaurants will be happy to call one for you.

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When to go

Early spring can be rainy and the height of summer (July and August) tends to be muggy and mosquito-prone. If you are coming in July or August, ensure your hotel has air-conditioning. Late spring and September and October are very pleasant times to visit. Winter months can get very cold.

Three things we like

Milan. Via Brera. Flickr CC Yisris
The Brera has become a hip, arty neighbourhood
  1. The Brera District (near La Scala), where history and hipness meet; an arty neighbourhood and home to the Brera Academy of Fine Arts. We love a glass of limoncello under the stars along the Via Fiori Chiari watching street peddlers and palm readers.
  2. A gelato in front of the San Lorenzo Maggiore church and its 16 marble columns. It’s a popular meeting point, with trendy bars and a cool breeze coursing through the pillars.
  3. The famous Lent Carnavale Ambrosiano in February – the longest carnival procession in the world, and a riot of Italian style and pageantry.

Something we don’t like

When the serious fashionistas are in town for the Milan Fashion week (last week of February) the prices rocket sky high – beware.

Don’t miss

The 15th-century Santa Maria Della Grazia church, where you will find the world-famous Last Supper mural by Leonardo Da Vinci. Tip: visitors view the painting in 15-minute slots, and you need to book well in advance.

Travelling with family

The list to keep any young children in your group entertained here is long. There are science and history museums, an aquarium, parks, toy stores and gelato parlours, all within walking distance of the centre. Climb the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo, chase pigeons in the piazzas or just ride the trams all over the city (antique and modern).

High 50 insider tips

  • Be prepared to have your bag checked in Milan cathedral and have some Euros ready for a ticket to see the Duomo’s terraces (recommended).
  • If you can, see an opera at La Scala. It is a truly magical experience. Tip: if the show isn’t sold out, La Scala sells remaining tickets for 25 per cent off in the hour preceding the start-time. Alternatively, take the museum tour, which gets you up close with legendary costumes and instruments.

Need to know

  • Italy’s currency is the Euro.
  • For international dialing, dial 00 39 for Milan numbers from abroad and 00 44 to dial the UK from Italy.
  • Milan is one hour ahead (GMT +1).
  • Flight time is around two hours from the UK.