Published by The Style Line, December 2016
My love affair with Italy has so far neglected Milan, overshadowed in my mind by the allure of Rome, Florence and Venice. I assumed the modish business and fashion capital to be too shiny, cool and organised to sate yearning for a fiery and delicious Italian break.
We arrived mid-fashion week, and the Milanese stereotypes of high style, wealth and power were all well accounted for. Walking from the station to our Airbnb, it struck me that Milan looks more like Frankfurt or Zurich than an Italian city, with its high rise buildings and modern, international feel. All the same, I felt hopelessly compelled to explore and discover all the gorgeous little spots that we planned to visit.
Europe’s capital of design culture famously hosted the World Expo last year, and the spirit of redevelopment still lingers. Even recommendations sung with rejuvenation – we read about so many beautiful but depilated buildings that have been renovated and reborn as new bars, cafes and restaurants: the Prada Foundation is housed in a former distillery, and Europe’s largest contemporary arts museum HangarBicocca used to be a Pirelli factory. It’s refreshing to visit an Italian city that doesn’t rely on its historical past. Unlike its counterparts, Milan feels like it’s just entering it’s heyday, and that’s really exciting.
Between the concrete, the banks and the flagships are the pavement cafes and the neighbourhood restaurants, which cosset and anchor the warm soul of Milan. It’s fair to say that I fell in love with Milan and it’s sanguine approach to ‘a life well lived’ a hundred times a day. These were some of our favourite spots…
Pave – Via Casati, 27
Our favourite cafe for a morning cappuccino and fresh brioche. It’s a laid back affair, with eclectic mismatched chairs, and it always smells amazing as their bread and pastries are baked on the premises.
Fioraio Bianchi – Via Montebello, 7
We stopped at this sweet little cafe as the flowers in the window caught my eye. The space used to be a florist and it’s been stylishly transformed into a pretty lunch / coffee spot. The aperitivo offering looked yummy, too.
Erba Brusca – Alzaia Naviglio Pavese, 286
Navigli is a lively neighbourhood of happy hour bars and restaurants arranged around the city’s remaining canals.There are tons of great places for aperitivo and food, but Erba Brusca is really special. The front overlooks the Naviglio Pavese canal, and at the back is a terrace and beautiful garden with a stream, vegetable garden and orchard. The food is delicious and simple, making use of local, seasonal produce.
Trattoria Masuelli San Marco – Viale Umbria 80
The risotto alla Milanese (cooked with saffron) at this traditional trattoria has got to be the best in the world. I probably think about it every day. The menu hasn’t changed for 20 years, and resting on it’s laurels with heritage cooking clearly pays off, as the place was bustling and packed with locals when we visited.
Bar Basso – Via Plinio, 39, Città Studi
The legendary Negroni Sbagliato was invented here, made with prosecco instead of gin and served in an huge glass with a block of ice. There’s an old-timey vibe here, and the crowd was fittingly old-school Milanese.
Cantine Isola – Via Paolo Sarpi, 30
After checking into our Airbnb in China Town, we happened upon a bar that’s got to be one of my favourite Italian experiences so far. Cantine Isola is a traditional wine bar with floor to ceiling shelves stacked with dusty bottles, slathered in beautiful labels. After a chat with the lovely waiter, we ordered a glass of fruity white from the Veneto region and helped ourselves to delicious bruschetta, cheese and meat from the bar as we browsed the shelves. It was the best lunch and a perfect introduction to Milano – I’d return just to go back to this little place.
Fonderie Milanesi – Via Giovenale, 7
This little bar is tucked away at on a dark backstreet in the building of an old foundry. Candlelit and lively, it’s perfect for a late night Negroni.
Fondazione Prada – Largo Isarco, 2
Splashed across all the design blogs when it opened last year, Fondazione Prada lived up to all expectations. The former distillery has been reimagined by Rem Koolhaas as a De Cirico-esque complex of spaces dedicated to contemporary arts and culture. The golden multi-story tower ‘Haunted House’ is dazzling, and a perfect home for the work of Louise Bourgeois and Robert Gober. In the bar opposite, Wes Anderson has recreated the mood of traditional Milanese cafes with his usual flair. A little bit out of town, but worth it.
Pinacoteca di Brera – Via Brera, 28
The Pintacoteca is home to an incredible collection of works, including masterpieces by Raphael, Caravaggio and Tintoretto. Expecting to stay for an hour, we left reluctantly after several hours as we were hungry for lunch.
HangarBicocca – Via Privata Chiese, 2
The former Pirelli factory is now a monumental space for contemporary art; Turbine Hall–esque in scale and spectacle, and free to visit. Anselm Kiefer’s permanent installation ‘The Seven Heavenly Palaces’ was worth the trip to Milan alone. Made up of seven towers and a number of large-format paintings, I found it extremely moving – it’s one of those works that has to be experienced first hand to be appreciated.
La Triennale di Milano – Viale Emilio Alemagna, 6
Housed in a beautiful 1930s building, the Triennale Design Museum presents the history of Italian design. We went mostly for the incredible bookshop, and wiled away a couple of hours in the rooftop bar overlooking the city’s skyline.