Milan offers must-see modern attractions in addition to ancient monuments and museums, writes Judy Bryant
South African Garden and Home
I have to admit that I didn’t expect to see vibrantly-coloured pink and orange flamingos (what are they fed?) slap-bang in the middle of Milan. I was peering through a hedge enclosing an elegant villa, and to my surprise saw the long-legged birds stepping delicately around a small pond.
“This was the home of Romeo Invernizzi, who built up a dairy farm into a cheese empire,” explained our guide Caterina. “He and his wife Enrica wanted to give back, so the building became a research foundation. The deal was that the flamingos remained.”
The birds were the first sighting on my Airbnb ‘experience tour’, which I’d booked online on the advice of my tech-savvy daughter. I had caught the metro to Palestro, two stops away from the vast Gothic Duomo cathedral in the city centre, then hovered expectantly near a newsagent’s kiosk. Soon our eclectic group included two psychiatrists (German and Californian) and a British-French designer couple and their daughter.
Caterina, an estate agent and artist, first showed us around the upmarket area known as the Quadrilatero del silenzio – no noisy bars or rowdy students here. We glimpsed hidden gardens and homes of Milan’s industrial bourgeoisie: One building was clad in exquisite Art Nouveau tiles depicting elegant women in flowing dresses. Greenery cascaded from imposing balconies, carved with stately figures.
A quick tram trip took us to the Gelateria della Musica, where each delicious ice-cream is named after a singer. There were three flavours of dense green pistachio alone. (Although my favourite foodie sight in Milan had to be chocolate shoes).
Another highlight on this tour was exploring the Porta Nuova district, the largest urban regeneration area in Europe. It was fascinating to discover how an ancient city is reinventing itself.
The Bosco Verticale (vertical forest) building has two residential towers packed with about 900 trees and 2000 plants. The UniCredit pavilion, hosting cultural events and exhibitions, is a curvaceous wooden structure on the edge of a park, contrasting with the modern glass and steel of the financial and residential blocks.
The next day, I set off early for the Milanese ‘waterfront’ in the Navigli district: a gritty, atmospheric area of old warehouses facing a canal of rather oily water, with the unlikely sight of a gondola moored to the bank.
Café owners shook out table cloths and joggers trotted by as I settled down on a vintage sofa for a coffee and pastry. Later I strolled about and discovered small galleries supporting up-and-coming artists, pubs selling craft beer, and a vintage record shop manned by an elderly hippy and her rescue hound. This is an ideal area to explore with friends in the evening for a casual dinner.
Anyone who loves contemporary art and design has to visit the Prada Foundation. This complex of buildings sensitively incorporates an old distillery, but what strikes you most are the stunning expanses of exposed white concrete and glass.
My first stop was the ‘Haunted House’, an old, narrow, high building with a gilded exterior: The entire golden house gleams and glimmers in the sunlight. Inside you are exposed to art I found quite disturbing – yet fascinating ‒ with its references to body parts and childhood.
This complex offers enormous gallery spaces. The walls, floors and ceilings have beautifully textured and finished surfaces and enclose striking installations, art and sculpture. One room had great red and white upturned toadstools suspended from the ceiling; in another, rain dripped from the top of a large glass box onto an umbrella sheltering two ducks.
Afterwards, trying to absorb this visual inundation, I headed for the Foundation’s Bar Luca. It was a soothing contrast: 1950s-themed formica café tables and chairs in pastel pink, blue and pistachio, gorgeous vintage juke boxes, exquisite dusky pink wallpaper – and surely the best-looking barristas in the entire city.
I devoted another morning to La Triennale di Milano, the city’s design museum. It’s buzzy with enormous glass-fronted walls in the reception area, and you can steep yourself in Italy’s design heritage. I lusted over everything from a 1950s Olivetti typewriter to a Fiat car, a Moka coffee maker to an olive green Vespa.
La Triennale also offers pop-up art, architectural and photographic exhibitions. In one installation, a dozen men stood beside ironing boards doing the ironing while in the park-like grounds there was a camera-flash frenzy as a music star was ushered out a side door into a revving 4×4.
Afterwards I walked in the Sempione Park, which offering jogging trails and a zone for Milan’s pampered pooches to run free of their designer leads.
Naturally, in addition to such modern discoveries, Milan offers treasures accumulated over centuries.
The vast square outside the Duomo (work began in the 14th century) is the meeting place for locals planning to stroll, shop, enjoy lunch – and take great selfies. The cathedral took 500 years to construct, and its huge roof is crowned with over a hundred spires, plus statues and gargoyles. It’s the perfect place to join the pigeons in the shade of an imposing statue, and people-watch.
Across the square lies the Museum of Contemporary Art, offering good views of the Duomo roof and the piazza below. Nearby, you’ll also spot the neo-classical La Scala opera house and the ornate Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade, opened in 1877. While the prices put most merchandise out of reach, gaze up at the glass and metal domed roof and down at the mosaic floors representing subjects from art to industry.
Another popular destination is the Sforzesco Castle, former home of the Duke of Milan. I crossed the moat and wandered about the ochre and cream buildings and courtyards. Should you have sufficient time, it houses a dozen specialist museums on subjects ranging from antique furniture to musical instruments.
Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper mural can be viewed south-west of the city centre, in a beautiful 15th century convent – do book ahead.
With Milan being a fashion and design hub, the shops are beautifully styled. I loved the Fornasetti outlet – a brand well-known for its black and white plates depicting faces. Each room had a different colour scheme and theme (one had a polka-dot ceiling) and you could swoon over both vintage objects and bespoke designs.
Porta Garibaldi is a stylish area with excellent shops, bars and restaurants. I peeped in the 10 Corso Como boutique hotel, design shop and gallery created by former Vogue Italia editor Carla Sozzani, and also spotted the first bricks and mortar outlet of fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni – ten million Instagram followers.
In the same area, the Eataly brand flagship is a must-visit: Three storeys of Slow Food-inspired groceries, a bakery, wine shop, cookery books, sit-down dining and take-aways. ‘Octopuses’ made of round white paper Chinese lanterns, trailing blue and purple paper ‘tendrils’, were suspended above the seafood area.
I adored browsing the shelves of olive oil and the cooking utensils that you never knew you needed, and enjoyed a glass of wine and slice of pizza at one of the many in-store food stations.
On my last day I walked from my tiny Airbnb loft to the Cadorno metro stop, to catch the airport train. I considered Milan’s contrasts: An old tram tailored in chic black and white Armani advertising, scooting through city gates dating back to the Middle Ages; a serene Madonna and child in a square filled with designer brands; a glass skyscraper reflecting a mediaeval bell tower.
At the metro stop I took a last look at a public artwork comprising an enormous, vertical metal ‘needle’. Its ‘eye’ was threaded with bright strands in the colours of the metro line, and a ‘knot’ emerged in a nearby fountain. For me, it summed up the industry, flair and fun of Milan.
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PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Getting there: Judy Bryant flew from Cape Town to Milan on Emirates Airlines. Accommodation: Airbnb loft R1185/night.
When to go: May and September offer good weather and fewer tourists.
Visas: South Africans need a Schengen visa https://www.capago.eu/
Currency: The currency is the Euro. At €1-R16: cappuccino €1.50 (R24), cheese roll €5.50 (R88), sit-down pasta €12 (R192).
GOOD TO KNOW
Transport: Milan metro pack of 10 standard tickets €13.50 (R135) at any metro stop.
Italian design: Triennale Design Museum, then stroll in the Sempione Park.
Foodie heaven: Eataly flagship, Piazza Venticinque Aprile, Porta Garibaldi.
Contemporary art: Prada Foundation, 2 Largo Isarco, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cool canal district: Metro station Genova, walk to Navigli district.