HG2 A hedonist's guide to... The UK's best-selling luxury city guide.
Everywhere we love in Milan
Explore the city by district:
Garibaldi and Parco Sempione
Porta Romana and Porta Venezia
The most over-used words in this guide are – unapologetically – chic and elegant. As Italy’s fashion capital (spawning the likes of Giorgio Armani, Prada, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana), Milan is serried with sleek boutiques, smart bars, swanky restaurants and glamorous clubs. Its inhabitants’ discerning tastes have pushed the envelope on design, vetoing foreign chains in favour of independent businesses. Milan is also a gateway to New York, Paris and London, and sets the pace for the rest of Italy. Residents compare it to New York’s Upper East Side, with which it shares a similar sense of sophistication, decadence, snobbery and vanity, and a love of lounge bars, partying and Sunday brunches.
All year round, Milan is one big catwalk show and its residents pay punctilious attention to this season’s fashion. A Milanese souvenir is most likely to be a pair of Prada shoes. However, the city remains notoriously provincial and conservative as it clings to its traditions and conventions: its fashion designers have thankfully filled a void by branching out with hip new bars, spas, restaurants and clubs.
Predictably, budget is not a familiar word in Italy’s richest city (and second largest, with a population of 1.3 million). Milan is also Italy’s financial capital and home to Italy’s stock exchange; its media capital, home to the country's main advertising agencies, four national daily newspapers, major publishing houses and Berlusconi’s media empire; and design capital: with its annual furniture fair, the Salone del Mobile, plus a heritage of eminent architects, Milan has staked out its position as a world-class design centre.
While Milan is dismissed as a cultural destination (buffs would head first to Rome, Florence or Venice), its relatively low count of highlights makes them perfectly manageable in a weekend; its compact size makes it easily negotiable by foot. Aesthetically it’s an eclectic city – some say ugly, because of a heavy industrial influence and arguably ill-judged rapid post-war expansion. Its architecture is a veritable timeline from the Roman Empire to the present, via Romanesque, Renaissance, neoclassical, belle époche and Fascist eras. And Milan certainly has charm, thanks to its canals, cobbled streets and antique tram system, but it also has a dire pollution problem because of its positioning in the wind-free Po Valley and its proliferation of industrial plants.
An ancestry of wealth predicates Milan’s rather snobbish manner, where social strata are regarded as importantly as fashion labels. Thus, ‘Milanese’ is a byword for the middle-class (since that’s the majority in Milan); then there’s the borghesi (bourgeois) and the fighetti, the idle rich offspring of old Milanese money. The Hinterland are those in surrounding suburbia and the terroni (a derogatory term meaning ‘from the soil’) hail from Southern Italy; both are treated as second-class citizens (as indeed are tourists and Milan’s immigrant community from China, Senegal, Sri Lanka, etc.). Of course, willowy international models and imported architects and fashion designers are considered great assets to the city.
Geographically, Milan lends itself well to a lifestyle of country retreats, weekend skiing, and summertime watersports. During the summer, high humidity and temperatures affect a centrifugal force on its residents and the whole city heads out to its border attractions to relax with an aperitivo – another word that repeatedly crops up throughout this book. Aperitivo – or Milan’s daily ritual of after-work drinks and free food – suggests in a word the kind of quality of life that is enjoyed in Milan.
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