Italy is among Europe’s most popular destinations, and for a reason. This incredibly diverse country has so much to offer – historic sites and cities, sublime food, incredible nature and a lovely climate. Italy has the luxury problem that there’s so much to see (and to taste) that it’s hard to even select the destination for your next Italian get-away. Is it going to be a week in magnificent Rome? A foodie tour of Bologna and Emilia-Romagna? A trip to the mountains and vineyards of Piedmont? A city break in Turin? Or rather a seaside holiday on the Amalfi Coast or Puglia?
Amid all of this, many people tend to overlook one place: Milan. Italians themselves have long dismissed this city as grey, industrial and corporate. And it must be said, compared to other Italian cities, Milan might not be the prettiest. But to be fair, with so much competition around it’s not easy to stand out for your urban beauty in this part of the world.
In recent years, however, Milan has undergone a true transformation. Triggered by the World Expo of 2015, which took place in a newly developed part of the city, historical buildings have been renovated, former industrial sites have been repurposed, old canals are being restored and transport links improved. And the area of the World Expo itself has been turned into a large science and business park.
Add to this the increasing range of international events that take place in the city on a regular basis (think Fashion Week and Design Week, alongside newer initiatives) and you can see why Milan is suddenly not so dull and bland any longer. In fact, I think the city is massively underrated. Here are five reasons that illustrate why:
1. Milan is not all that grey after all
Although many people think that Milan is a grim, industrial city you’ll be surprised to find out it’s actually filled with stunning historical buildings. Of course, there’s the impressive Duomo. But did you know the city has its very own medieval castle? The 15th century Castello Sforzesco was once one of the largest citadels in Europe and is located in the heart of Milan. Just behind it is the green and leafy Sempione park, with beautiful views of the castle and surroundings.
For a dose of pastel-coloured goodness head to the student district of Brera. The local Palazzo Brera houses the famed Fine Arts Academy (and also has a gorgeous botanical garden!). Because of the many students, Brera is a lively district full of cosy bars and restaurants as well as some great shops. This is where the fun happens!
2. The city is (once more) home to the most beautiful shopping mall in the world
Milan equals fashion and so it may come as no surprise that the city is home to the most beautiful shopping mall in the world. The 19th century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of Milan’s major landmarks but had fallen into disrepair by the start of the new millennium. Luckily, fashion houses such as Prada and Versace took it upon themselves to renovate the building and in 2015 it reopened. Returned to its former glory, high end brands are now lining up again to open a store here. A walk through this sumptuous shopping gallery is nothing like your average shopping mall experience. The dazzling mosaic floor is just one of the many breath-taking features.
3. You can get a taste of Venice without leaving town
Since a few years Milan has its own Venetian corner. Just west of the city centre is a network of historic canals and waterways, called Navigli. The Navigli were originally dug for transportation and irrigation but became obsolete in the 1930s and were consequently covered. A few years ago, however, locals started to see their potential as a catalyst for revitalising the area and some of the canals have since been refilled with water. Today, Navgli is a bohemian and artsy (though increasingly popular) neighbourhood full of bars and cafes. You no longer need to leave Milan to get a taste of Venice…
4. Uptight posh is making way for industrial chic
The heart of the city, around the Duomo, is beautiful, but at times might also feel a bit uptight. But Milan is more than just pretentious posh. It’s also innovative and exciting. This face of the city can best be experienced in and around Via Tortona. Hidden behind abandoned railway tracks (cross them at the Passerella Elvira Leonardi Bouyeure) you’ll find a range of former factories and warehouses that have been transformed into art galleries, exhibition spaces and designer shops.
One of these restored factories now houses BASE Milano, a space where art, technology and innovation meet. BASE organises exhibitions, performances and workshops, many of which are free of charge. A bit further down the road is MUDEC, the Museum of Cultures. It’s a wonderful space with interesting exhibitions that tell the story of some of the world’s most intriguing civilisations. During the many international fairs that are hosted in Milan, such as Design Week and Fashion Week, the area around Via Tortona becomes one big showcase of creativity. This is THE place to experience Italian-style cool!
On the other side of town, an abandoned gin distellery near metro station Lodi TIBB has been given a new lease of life by Italian fashion house Prada. The brainchild of designer Miuccia Prada and architect Rem Koolhaas, the new home of Fondazione Prada combines industrial heritage with contemporary architecture. This avant-garde art haven is a must-see for anyone interested in art or architecture (make sure to check out the toilets, too).
5. Milan is leading the way in avant-garde architecture and design
Milan is witnessing an architectural boom as investors are once again pouring money into building new offices and apartments. On the edge of the up and coming neighbourhood of Isola a new district is arising. Literally, because this is the site of some of Milan’s fanciest new skyscrapers. It’s subject to taste, of course, but personally I think it’s all done on a human scale, with an eye for sustainability and the environment. Take Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), for instance. These two towers are from top to bottom covered in greenery, including trees and hanging plants. It makes for a fresh, lush sight.
Not far away from here, close to the shiny new offices of UniCredit and the new local HQ of Microsoft, is Corso Como. This beautiful street may feel worlds away from all the modern architecture around the corner, it does have a strong connection to design. On number 10 you’ll find 10 Corso Como, a large uber cool concept store with some of the most avant-garde fashion, cosmetic and design labels from Italy and beyond. Some of the products on sale are quite niche, but wandering around this place is a real joy. Not least because they also have a wonderful roof top and a lovely courtyard terrace. Perfect for aperitivo.
And if that gets your taste buds going, then Eataly Milan is just a few steps away to satisfy your appetite. This giant indoor food court celebrates everything around Italian food. Be careful, though, because once inside it’s difficult to leave…
So, next time you’re planning a trip to Italy, Milan should defo be on the list!