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 TWO | Milan’s status as a design capital doesn’t just rest on skyscrapers and showrooms; its historic monuments were just as innovative in their day. This classical spirit drives you to the iconic Pasticceria Marchesi, which has been serving up pastries since 1824. Following tradition, you settle up first, then wait as an angelic white-haired lady hands you cannoncini—cream-filled puff pastry horns. At the café’s tiny bar, women with la Rinascente shopping bags drown out the clink of porcelain, nibbling their confections with a restraint you can’t muster.
Sugar level high, you speed-shuffle down Corso Magenta to Santa Maria delle Grazie, home to “The Last Supper,” or “Il Cenacolo”—Leonardo da Vinci’s depiction of Christ breaking bread and brokering betrayal. Your guide, Alice, who runs Viator’s art tour, steers you through the Dominican convent’s hidden cloister. You spot a monk in flowing white robes studying a Bible. “They always tell me I should talk less and pray more,” says Alice in a respectful whisper.
Hushed reverence seems the apt response as you stand before the painting. Unlike the fresco opposite, Leonardo’s work was applied directly onto dry wall, which is the reason for its fragility (and your 15-minute viewing slot), but also for its celebrated vividness. You note how light from the refectory windows suffuses the painting’s edge, seeming to expand the room’s dimensions. Alice nods and says, “It’s the Renaissance doing 3-D.”
Art and religion also intersect at San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, whose low-key exterior belies the splendor inside: a seamless patchwork of luminous 16th-century devotional paintings. Next, you make your way to the dazzling Santa Maria presso San Satiro, off Via Torino, whose sole devotee is a businessman, head bowed, a briefcase at his feet. Your final stop on the tour is San Giovanni in Conca, Milan’s last remaining Romanesque crypt, surreally hidden beneath the traffic-clogged Piazza Missori.
La Latteria, on Via San Marco, is equally overlooked by guidebooks. Old milk stores of its kind are dying out, but the blue-tiled, eight-table joint—covered in pictures of flowers—overflows. “Congratulations,” booms a regular as you take your seat. “You’ve found Milan’s last authentic restaurant!” You try the signature Crudaiola All Arturo Con Burgul, an assortment of market-fresh vegetables with glugs of olive oil and bulgur wheat, and follow it up with ice cream and stewed apples. Given the no-reservations policy, newcomers rush your table as you exit.
As you approach the second hotel of your stay, the Bulgari, you are overtaken by brash supercars racing up its private lane. Beyond the hotel gates, though, you find verdant grounds adjoining the city’s Orto Botanico and interiors of oak, bronze and matte black marble. Bulgari’s first foray into the hotel field is a surprisingly calming space—not least its plush basement spa, where you enjoy an hour-long massage before dipping into the golden, mosaic-lined pool.
Italians are known for their ability to take it easy, and there’s no better example of this impulse than the Duomo. The cathedral, characterized by a mish-mash of styles and influences, took nearly six centuries to complete (locals call it their “never-ending story”). On the roof, amid a forest of spires, you are treated to a view of Milan’s equally eclectic skyline, dominated by the Modernist monolith the Pirelli Tower and the bulging, buttressed Torre Velasca, famous for taking Brutalist architecture to new heights.
You see pigeons dive-bombing shoppers as you enter the crucifix-shaped Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which opened in 1867 and is said to be the world’s oldest mall. Campari was invented below the mall’s glass-vaulted roof, so you order the carmine-colored beverage at Camparino in Galleria, which sets you up for a whirlwind perusal of the futurist art in Museo del Novocento, a quick totter across Piazza del Duomo.
Dinner is at the colorful Giacomo Arengario, located at the top of the museum’s Guggenheim-like spiral ramp. You have seared tuna steak served with umami-rich asparagus parmigiano, which you munch while taking in an epic close-up view of the Duomo. Back outside, you are surprised to find yourself alone, gazing up at the astonishingly dense concentration of spires. Happy voices lure you back toward the terrace bars lining the shopping arcade. There’s time for one more Campari before bed.