Italy’s financial hub may not have the historical flourishes of cities like Rome, Venice and Florence, but scratch its famously stylish surface and you’ll find a wealth of world-class art, architecture and design
Author Clodagh Kinsella Photography Susan wright
DAY ONE | For centuries, the Virgin Mary atop the Duomo dominated Milan’s skyline, but from your suite at Palazzo Parigi, you look out on a new kind of iconography: the high-concept skyscrapers of the Porta Nuova business district. Your hotel goes a more traditional route. Situated in a 17th-century palace, it was transformed over the last five years into an imperial property strewn with antique statuary, elaborate chandeliers and acres of Carrara marble.
Breakfast arrives on wheels. You pick at slivers of exotic fruit and a delicate omelet on your private terrace, and then prepare yourself for a crash course in Milanese design. You’ve opted to get around today on the back of a slick Garibaldi 71, rented from storied bicycle maker Rossignoli. At the company’s Brera store, fifth-generation scion Matia Bonato uses a 20-foot pole to pluck the bike from a lofty ceiling rack. “It’s not about strength,” he says, “but technique.”
From here, you judder over cobblestones to Parco Sempione, where you pause to take in the sprawling 15th-century fortification Castello Sforzesco and the 19th-century Arco della Pace. You lock your bike at the foot of Torre Branca, the 350-foot steel-tube viewing tower designed by architect Gio Ponti for the 1933 Triennale. “You know Santa Maria delle Grazie, where they keep ‘The Last Supper’?” says the elevator operator on the way up. “My local church.”
At the Triennale museum next door, there’s more ingenious Italian design on display, including the Olivetti typewriter and the Bialetti stovetop espresso pot. You pay homage to the latter with a coffee overlooking the sculpture garden. Giorgio de Chirico’s hypnotic “water-parquet” installation leaves you a little woozy, so you decide to move on to a more utilitarian form of design.
Studio Museo Achille Castiglioni, honoring the inventor of the swooping 1960s “Arco” floor lamp, is less museum than time capsule—its tractor-seat stools, arch-lever files and quirky cutlery left untouched since the designer died in 2002. “I had a terrible childhood,” says the designer’s daughter, Giovanna, your tour guide. “Because my father loved everyday objects, he always stole my toys.” She pulls out a VLM light switch, Castiglioni’s ubiquitous design. “He’d carry it around in his pocket. You’d always know where he was by the clicking.”
You trade your bike for the metro and emerge in Zona Tortona, a former industrial district that’s reinvented itself as a design mecca, home to Armani’s head offices and the famous furniture fair. You navigate its narrow, graffitied streets in search of Da Noi In, which is known for its inspired seafood dishes. In a stunning outdoor courtyard, you sample a platter of house-smoked swordfish, tuna and salmon, served with Ligurian olives, followed by aromatic potato gnocchi in a bright basil cream.
A postprandial stroll through bohemian Navigli, with its network of canals—the highway system of medieval Milan—makes room for dessert: an apricot gelato from the artisanal chain Grom. From here, you veer north to slow food mall Eataly, where you join shoppers browsing three floors of giant hams, vats of olive oil and chocolate waterfalls, or mainlining piadine flatbread in the eateries along its perimeter. You nurse a prosecco, serenaded by a trio of electric guitarists with gray Afros and a liberal approach to the question of tone.
Next, you stroll down the pedestrian shopping strip Corso Como, emerging into Piazza Gae Aulenti, Porta Nuova’s central plaza, which—a plaque informs you—is meant to serve as a contemporary Roman forum. Eyeing the undulating UniCredit Tower, a young man in front of you cries: “I feel nothing!” Judging by the square’s many pop-up bars, and the happy chatterers therein, he’s in the minority.
An endless elevated walkway deposits you at Ristorante Berton, Friuli-born chef Andrea Berton’s sleek testament to restraint. Surrounded by men in thick-rimmed glasses (a Fashion Week hangover), you polish off six first-rate courses, including a dish of baby scallops and licorice that resembles a Yayoi Kusama dot painting. And that, you decide, is enough conceptual flair for one day. You head back to your hotel and the soothing strains of classical piano drifting through the lobby.