Based on the way Romans describe Milan, you’d think the city was a gray, industrial wasteland lacking in historic monuments, filled with pretentious bankers and snobby fashionistas. At least, that’s what I had been primed to expect. Instead, I found a vibrant city where creative young entrepreneurs embrace heritage brands like Prada and Campari while forging their own paths. Milan may not have the Colosseum or Trevi Fountain, but it boasts 18th-century treasures like La Scala opera house, the 19th- century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (the world’s first shopping mall), and an outstanding wealth of 20th-century architecture and design. And unlike in Rome, where locals avoid tourist hotspots like the plague, Milanese hang out around the Duomo, the Galleria, and other spots in the city center.
Milan has always been one of Italy’s wealthiest cities, but ever since the Expo in 2015, it’s been enjoying a creative renaissance, with areas like the Darsena and Navigli blossoming into the city’s must-visit spots full of hip bars and restaurants, events like Fashion Week (which started today) and the Salone del Mobile drawing tons of visitors from all over the world, and an invigorating energy palpable all around. Ahead, the best places to find Milan’s rich heritage and contemporary design.
Where to Stay
Straf Hotel & Bar: A member of Design Hotels, this uber-sleek bolthole around the corner from the Duomo has a rough-luxe aesthetic, with raw concrete walls, minimalist furniture, and abstract paintings. Some rooms have vintage massage loungers and the hotel encourages sustainability with oversize bottles of soap and lotion in the bathrooms. A hip crowd gathers in the street-facing bar for aperitivo.
Rosa Grand Hotel: The Milan flagship of Starhotels Collezione, which has 29 properties across Italy, Europe, and the U.S., this is another great option near the Duomo. The refurbished interiors exude chic Italian style and three restaurants by Eataly offer both casual and fine dining options.
Where to Eat & Drink
Pasticceria Marchesi: A Milanese classic opened in 1824, this café and pastry shop (now owned by Prada) has a look as sweet as the confections it sells in its three locations. The mint green space with shelves filled with colorful candies seems like something straight out of a Wes Anderson film. Stop by for an espresso (1.30 euros if you drink it standing at the bar) and a pastry or gelato. A word to the wise: Prices rise steeply if you sit at a table with waiter service.
Luini: For a quick cheap lunch (or an afternoon snack), line up at this bakery open since 1949 just behind the Duomo. The thing to order is the panzerotti, lightly fried calzones filled with mozzarella and tomato sauce, ricotta and spinach, or Nutella. There’s no seating so take yours over to the Piazza Duomo for an al fresco treat.
LùBar: A meal at this little restaurant in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna feels like eating in a beautiful greenhouse. Savor Sicilian specialties like arancini and busiate with pesto, tomatoes, and almonds at one of the white-tiled tables surrounded by palm fronds.
Dry Milano: Sleek modern interiors with an artsy video projection on the back wall set the tone for this next-gen pizzeria and cocktail bar, which now has two locations in Milan. The pizzas are deliciously light and almost sort of healthy (at least, you can convince yourself they are). Salads with toppings like green apples and ricotta are the perfect accompaniment.
Langosteria Bistrot: If you want to splurge on a nice meal, this is the place to go for top-notch seafood in the must-visit Navigli area. The style is French bistro-meets-Italian trattoria, with vintage ads decorating the room and a large oyster bar where you can watch the chefs shuck bivalves. Start with a plateau royal or the trio of tartars and then move on to spaghetti alle vongole or linguine with lobster and finish with a palate-cleansing sorbet.
Camparino: Campari fans should make a pilgrimage to this historic bar on the corner of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II overlooking the Duomo. Gaspare Campari originally lived in the Galleria, which is celebrating its 150th birthday this year (and so is Camparino, one of the original tenants). The historic café has been frequented by Milan’s creatives and high society, including Giuseppe Verdi, Puccini, and Toscanini, and is still the perfect spot for people-watching while enjoying a Campari soda or Garibaldi (Campari with orange juice).
Bar Basso: The birthplace of the Negroni Sbagliato (which contains Prosecco instead of gin), this Milanese classic has that retro look that so many New York bars aspire to have, except here it isn’t trying—it just hasn’t changed since the 1960s. It’s also gained quite a following for its massive goblets. A favorite of Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, this place gets packed during Fashion Week. Seek out the bar’s down-to-earth owner, Maurizio Stocchetto, and he’ll regale you with tales of its pre-WWII origins and how his father came to own it.
Rita: In the Navigli area, this bar is tucked away on a side street just off the main canal. You might be tempted to duck into one of the more visible bars, but this place is worth seeking out for its list of creative cocktails, like the Barbados Cooler (white rum, homemade falernum, lime, orzata, and coriander), and the friendly bartenders.
What to Do
Fondazione Prada: Since opening in 2015, the Rem Koolhaus-designed Fondazione Prada has been a must-visit stop in Milan’s art circuit. It’s worth the trip for the eye-catching architecture alone, including a gilded industrial warehouse and Wes Anderson’s whimsical Bar Luce. Check in advance to see what’s on. The permanent collection features works by Louise Bourgeois and Robert Gober but the rest of the exhibits rotate.
Villa Necchi Campiglio: For a glimpse into the life of a wealthy Milanese family, head to this 1930s villa by renowned architect Piero Portalupi filled with treasures by Ginori, Gio Ponti, and De Chirico, which appeared in I Am Love starring Tilda Swinton. Savor some peace and quiet in the manicured garden tucked away in the middle of Milan. Be sure to check the hours—it’s only open for guided tours Wednesday through Sunday.
La Triennale di Milano: Milan’s design museum is a favorite among locals for its excellent exhibitions and rooftop terrace, with cuisine by Michelin-starred chef Stefano Cerveni and views of the city’s new glass skyscrapers peeking out over the trees. Exhibits range from a retrospective of avant-garde architect and designer Ettore Sottsass to Nan Goldin’s "Ballad of Sexual Dependency" to an interactive exhibit of children’s toys.
Parco Sempione: On weekends, do as the Milanese do and stroll through this manicured park with the 15th-century Castello Sforzesco on one end and the Arco della Pace on the other. Conveniently located near the Triennale and Brera, it’s the perfect spot for a picnic or gelato when you need an afternoon break.
Where to Shop
10 Corso Como: Sure, there are now locations in Seoul, Shanghai, and Beijing and a store coming to New York, but it’s worth making a pilgrimage to Carla Sozzani’s original concept store in Milan, which paved the way for lifestyle shops around the world. You’ll find a gallery, bookshop with art and fashion tomes galore, a café, and an intimate hotel with just three suites.
Brera: While, yes, Via della Spiga and the Quadrilatero della Moda are nice for a stroll, if the wares at the designer shops are a bit out of your price range, you should check out Brera instead. In this charming neighborhood north of the Duomo, the cobblestoned streets are lined with small independent boutiques selling handmade jewelry, antiques, clothes, and lots more. This is where you’ll find many of Milan’s young, up-and-coming designers.