Milan is a major city, a sea of asphalt punctuated by breathtaking strips of green, where the bustle of daily life sometimes overshadows la dolce far niente. That’s not to say Milan doesn’t know culture; in fact, it earns its cultural Megatron status from the P. del Duomo alone, which is built on the four great pillars of the Milanese lifestyle: the church, art, commerce, and rich Renaissance people. This is a city where all the women wear heels, where even the least fashion-conscious can pick out the knock-off, where art is free and plentiful, and where it’s normal to save up for one nice meal instead of several crappy ones. With opera notes trilling from the famous La Scala and Renaissance artwork, including Leonardo’s breathtaking Last Supper, hiding around every corner, Milan has a rich well of culture from which to draw. It’s evident in everything from the delicate Lombardian culinary specialties to the even more delicate (and expensive) clothing in the windows of the Fashion District. It is a cultural energy that pulses to the beats of the elite discoteche, vibrates in the crowds cheering on the AC and Inter Milan soccer teams, and glows in the city’s edgy and vibrant contemporary art scene.
The heart of Milan is the Duomo, which marks the center of nearly all maps. The city’s tourist and business districts surround three squares: Piazza del Duomo, Piazza Cordusio, and Piazza San Babila, where C. Vittorio Emanuele II meet V. Montenapoleone to mark the entrance to the Fashion District. All four squares are stops on the 1 (red), which makes a sweeping “U” through the centro. Past P. San Babila, the name changing begins, as C. Vittorio Emanuele II becomes C. Venezia, shooting to the northeast past the Giardini Pubblici as it becomes C. Buenos Aires and continues to the pension district where the cheap hotels are located. Nearby, you’ll find Stazione Centrale, Milan’s primary train station and intercity transit hub.
To the west along V. Pirelli is Stazione Porta Garibaldi, another important train terminal, and the Cimitero Monumentale. For a quick tour of major sights, hit up the Fashion District and head into Piazza della Scala, home of the world’s most famous opera house. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, another glitzy street of shopping, connects this square to the Duomo. From the city’s most iconic landmark, follow V. Orefici to V. Dante and Parco Sempione, one of Milan’s two principal parks (the other is the Giardini Pubblici) and home of the 14th-century fortress, Castello Sforzesco. South of the Duomo, V. Torino leads to the shopping and nightlife strip of Corso di Porta Ticinese and the boozy canals of the Navigli.
Welcome to Milan, the city so full of Leonardo da Vinci that everyone and their mother refers to him by his first name—“Hey, wanna see some Leonardo?”—like he’s a friend down the street. But the Milanese are buds with the big guy for a reason: from the Last Supper, which you must see, to the collections at the Pinacoteca di Ambrosiana to the more cutting edge exhibitions at the Palazzo Reale, Milan’s more cultured than kefir. Besides a mother lode of art, Milan’s got some awesome castles—okay, just one, Castello Sforzesco, but it’s huge—and one of the largest churches in the world, the iconic Duomo. The Fashion District itself is like one huge museum—at least for all the commoners who won’t be taking any of the super beautiful, super expensive pieces home any time soon. From the gilded halls of Renaissance palazzi to a contemporary palace to the San Siro sports stadium, Milano has some of the most spectacular sights in Italy.
Pressed for time? Check out our shortlist of top things to see and do in Milan. Click the links to reserve tickets or book local guides.
The Milanese menu is decidedly rich — reflecting the city’s luxurious tastes and traditions. Think buttery risotto, decadent steaks, large veal cutlets, hearty stews, and creamy polentas. “Pane e salame” (bread and salami) is a classic after-school (or after-sightseeing) snack. During the holidays, don’t resist a fresh-made “panettone” – when done right, these fruit-studded brioche rolls are a far cry from the stale, boxed fruitcake.
The first meal of the day in Italy generally isn’t anything too elaborate: la colazione may consist simply of coffee and a cornetto (croissant). Lunch (il pranzo) can go either way: in rural regions you may find it to be a hugely elaborate affair that precedes a nap and separates the two halves of the workday. However, most Italians will just grab a simple panino (sandwich) or salad. The last meal of the day, la cena, is generally the most important, and starts at approximately 8pm. It can continue through most of evening, as it may contain any or all of the following courses: an antipasto (appetizer), a primo (starchy first course like pasta or risotto), a secondo (meat or fish), a contorno (vegetable side dish), a dolce (dessert), a caffè (coffee), and often an after-dinner liqueur.
Italian-style coffee, or espresso, is famous, though the blend of coffee beans used is often from Brazil. The beans are roasted medium to medium-dark in the north, getting progressively darker as you move toward the south. Caffè macchiato is topped with a bit of steamed milk or foam; cappuccino is mixed with steamed, frothy milk; and caffè latte is equal parts espresso and steamed milk. Other varieties include the frowned-upon caffè americano, watered down and served in a large cup, and caffè coretto, a kicked-up version that includes a bit of strong liqueur.
Leading the world in both wine exports and national wine consumption, Italy is a country that values a good vino. Every year, over one million vineyards cultivate grapes for rosso (red wine) and bianco (white wine). The difference? Red wine includes the skins of the grapes in the fermenting process, while white wine does not. Try such regional beauties as Barolo, a classy (read: expensive) staple of Piedmont made from red grapes that are fermented for over 20 years, or Frascati, a cold, clean Roman white. Hit up an aperitivo bar or take a pitcher out to a piazza and drink like the locals. That’s just as much a part of today’s Italian culture as any amphitheater or crumbling chapel roof.
Italy’s most cherished musical art form was born in Florence in the mid-1590s, nurtured in Venice and Naples, and popularized in Milan’s famed Teatro alla Scala. Today, La Scala remains one of the world’s preeminent opera venues, with stunning acoustics, unparalleled design, and lively crowds that aren’t afraid to show their enthusiasm. No matter where you’re seated, from the poshest box to the highest balcony, you are guaranteed to have a good time.
From the Roman aqueducts to Leonardo’s flying machine, Italians have always had a penchant for design. Compare Enzo Ferrari’s original 1929 cars to Ford’s Model T’s, Bialetti’s 1930 art deco Moka Express coffeemaker to one by Mr. Coffee, or a Gucci leather shoe to the American sneaker, and it’s obvious that Italians designers deserve the prestige they enjoy. Aside from cars and appliances that achieve statuesque beauty, Italian design produced the Vespa—still adored by Italians and hated by fearful tourists—in 1946, and the 1957 Fiat, a tiny 2-door car. Before the days of sleek laptops, Olivetti’s 1969 Valentine typewriter by designer Ettore Sottass was unique in its combination of style and practicality. This combination of streamlined beauty and simple functionality frequently characterizes Italian design.
Equally stunning and more widely recognized is Italian fashion design. Italian domination began in 1881 when Cerruti opened his doors and began his lasting impact on Italian fashion, serving as a mentor and teacher for later designers such as Giorgio Armani. Still-famous Salvatore Ferragamo, whose love affair with shoes would later produce Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz (1939), opened his first shoe shop in his parents’ home in 1912. The illustrious Fendi line began as a tiny fur and leather business in Rome at the end of WWI, but was revolutionized by the five Fendi sisters who took control after WWII. Two years later, Guccio Gucci opened a leather store in Florence originally intended as a saddle shop that later moved to Rome and became an international fashion powerhouse. In the early 50s, Gian Battista Giorgini organized a series of runway shows that re-introduced the phrase “Made in Italy” as a universally accepted indication of quality and established Milan as a fashion capital on par with Paris. Italy soon became host to now-famous designers such as Max Mara (1951), Valentino (1962), the Giorgio Armani Company(1975), Versace (1978), and Dolce & Gabbana (1985), all of whose designs litter the red carpet, often overshadowing the stars they adorn. To become a star for the day, go shopping in Milan, and find out what makes this the fashion capital of the world. Take notes on the classic cuts, quality fabrics, and liberal use of black that make Italians so effortlessly stylish.
In terms of sheer variety, very few places on earth rival Milan when it comes to nightlife and there are plenty of locals eager to rave about their city’s vibrant after-hours scene. Corso Como is home to the city’s most exclusive and expensive clubs, where mere mortals can mingle with models and football stars provided their attire passes the judgment of the big man with the earpiece and clipboard. Dozens of small bars with big (and inexpensive) aperitivo buffets line the canals of the Navigli area, drawing students and young people to the neighborhood in droves. Beyond these hubs, the nightlife spokes stretch to all edges of the city, throughout which both local bars and international clubs are scattered.
A friendly bunch, Italians have their own ways of doing things. If you want to fit in, you might need a small course in Italian etiquette. Chances are, with four million visitors each year, they’ll still know you’re a tourist, but at least they’ll think you’re a polite one.
Italians place a lot of emphasis on first impressions, so don’t get yourself into a mi scusi situation. When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake is the way to go—air kissing (left side first!) generally comes with more familiarity. The Italian people are known to stand pretty close, so get ready to readjust your personal space boundaries. When it comes to clothing, Italians find having bella figura (good image) very important and tend to value quality over quantity. Short skirts and shorts are slightly more risqué in Italy than America—revealing tops are a little less so.
In Italy, as in the rest of Europe, tips of 5% are customary, particularly in nicer restaurants. Italian waiters won’t cry if you don’t leave a tip—just get ready to ignore the pangs of your conscience later on. Taxi drivers expect the same kind of tip, but it is unusual to tip in bars. Bargaining is appropriate in markets and other more informal settings, though in regular shops it is inappropriate.
It is (hopefully) not necessary to inform you that the primary language spoken in Italy is Italian. Prevalence of English-speaking varies wildly. If your trip will focus on sights like the Colosseum, you will probably be able to get by without speaking a word of Dante’s tongue. Once you head away from heavily touristed areas, however, it is much more unusual to encounter English-speakers. To attempt to initiate an English conversation, politely ask “Parla inglese?” (PAR-lah een-GLEH-zeh). Those with as much Italian experience as Dominic Decoco should endeavor to learn at least a few Italian phrases. Feel free to improvise: your high school French or Spanish knowledge might actually turn out to be much more useful than you thought. And the universal language of point-and-gesture also sometimes does the trick. Whatever the result, end your conversation with a courteous “Grazie” (GRAHT-see-yeh.)