I envisioned a more industrial, sprawling, even dirty, city, but was happily surprised at the almost quaint feel of certain areas, particularly the cobblestoned, old-Europe feel of the Brera neighborhood. The Duomo was far more impressive, the fashion presence less intimidating and the cemetery delightfully surprising (don’t think me morbid, but it was the highlight of this trip). It is a large city, so covering it on foot is not as engaging as, say, Paris, but the underground system is extensive and easy to use. Even in February, in rain and cold, the Duomo and “Golden Triangle” fashion and shopping areas were overrun with tourists (mea culpa); I hate to imagine fighting through the crowds in the heat of summer. That said, in all, the food choices, history, architecture, museums and sheer beauty of the old town make it a place worth seeing- Fashion Week or no.
How else to sell kitchen utensils during Fashion Week?
View of Milan from the Duomo rooftop
When you go, see the fashion district if you must (keep your eye out for the square manhole covers designed by various fashion house designers), take a spin around (and up) the Duomo, the Piazza Reale and the old town area, but don’t miss the Brera neighborhood. While I am sure it is full of shoppers and diners in the summer, they are there for good reason: it has character.
Brera is a beautiful neighborhood, replete with flower boxes under the windows- even on the top floors of the olive green and mustard yellow façades (don’t forget to look up), cobblestones, and shop windows, which will make you stop in your tracks for their creativity.
The Brera Neighborhood
The intricate design of this building’s silhouette is quite striking, as is the carving, which is often so detailed it is hard to believe it is done in a medium as unforgiving as stone. How did they carve that arch without it collapsing? There are gargoyle-like faces decorating every ledge, and closer to the ground are fist-size faces peering down at us, each its own, moody character.
The inside is much darker, but the stained glass windows, the organ, the floors, and the wood carvings are works of art to be revered. In order to photograph, you will need to purchase a photography pass. Otherwise, entrance is free.
Each of the saints’ likenesses carved along the roof have beautiful scenes in stone below them- all unique. These, along with several beautiful statues adorning the interior rings of the roof, can only be seen by those lucky enough to be on the rooftop. So do go up! And don’t miss walking around the entire roof, not just the torso. The views of the mountains, stretched out beyond the tops of the city- red domes interspersed with modern constructions, is worth the climb (and the 7 Euros).
Don't think it morbid, but I contend that this cemetery is one of the most extraordinary places in Milan. Put it on your list as a must-see if you are interested in sculpture, history and some truly breathtaking architecture. Only a mile from the city center, it is an easy walk. And don't forget your camera. Strolling through this place will make you feel as if you have entered into an intimate relationship with the city. Plus, it's outside, so no stuffy museum tour. And did I mention it's free?
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
I must preface this preamble by qualifying my tastes a bit. I like the homey, the quaint (but not cutesy), the inviting, dimly lit, brick-walled, unfussy but tastefully considered decor. I don’t like fluorescence or the too-brightly lit. I like a touch of character and quirk. No waiters with attitude, soft-talkers or lingerers. A genuine welcome and an appreciation for the craft are the essence of a good restaurant. Buffets- no thank you. I love exploring new towns with the aim of picking my lunch spot.
Ranch Roberta Ristorante
So, it was not only a surprise but also a lesson-to-self to have the best pasta dish I have ever eaten at the restaurant across the street from my hotel- in a too-brightly lit room with outdated décor. But once we walked in to Ranch Roberta, we were welcomed with wide grins, a bar of fresh seafood on ice, and a wood-fired pizza oven. Even the appetizer buffet was filled with fresh, beautiful salads and foodstuffs. We treated ourselves to an enormous plateful of prosciutto and a fresh ball of mozzerella bigger than my fist.
I had a cream fetuccine dish that gave me a “Harry Met Sally“ moment. I loved that the waiter suggested a substitution of their freshest pasta, which he served and then left us alone to enjoy. It was casual, unrefined, and an absolutely wonderful experience, which, even though outside of the city center, I would seek out again.
At the North end of the Brera neighborhood, on a bright pedestrian square, lies Eataly. This place is a mini trip through Italy without ever leaving Milan. Forgive them the name and go in. You will find yourself in an open-plan marketplace full of some of the most beautiful food and packaging to be found. I'm not sure even Paris has anything on this place. It contains four floors of delectable foodstuffs, each devoted to a different food segment: fresh produce, wine, fish, cheese, charcuterie, chocolate, and, of course, pasta... All so beautifully displayed you won’t be able to resist pulling out your camera. Each floor sports a restaurant of the same theme. Grab a quick sandwich or gelato, or sit elbow to elbow with the business folks having lunch. I could have spent all morning in here!
I had heard so much about the shopping that this place deserved a peek. This is a “shopping Emporium”- well, really, a department store, complete with perfume sprayers at the entrance (at least they ask before squirting). If you had a week, it might be fun to peruse some of the Italian housewares and clothing, but I had more important things to do, like eat. And find some gifts to bring home. So to the rooftop I headed (up six floors of escalators). There is a sushi bar, sandwich shop and 3 or 4 other restaurants with rooftop access overlooking the Duomo. As long as you don’t mind sitting amongst your fellow tourists, it is an absolutely lovely place for a glass of wine and a Margharita pizza. On the way out, grab some Italian nougat and chocolate for your friends back home.