Maxed out in Milan
Milano, or Milan, is a major fashion capital and we often hear about it in the world of designers, models and glitterati. It is an international business hub and a destination usually skipped by tourists who prefer to head to the triangle of Rome, Florence and Venice. Trust me, there is so much more to this city than you think!
I was last in Milan and its surrounding areas way back in 2005 when I was a young graduate, learning the ropes of the world of gelato and totally fascinated by it. The mornings were all about mixing milk, sugar and fruits to get the gelato display ready for the day and the latter half of the day was about being a tourist.
Being back in this glamorous city recently was so nostalgic for me. However, it has changed tremendously and is buzzing with energy. Very modern and trendy, with a young international vibe, there was so much to take in — the chic architecture, the gourmet food scene, cute little boutiques, the characteristic bars and the beautiful “primavera” or spring weather.
Here’s my personal guide to exploring Milan and its neighbour, Bergamo, in 48 hours, going very local and avoiding the tourist traps!
Day 1: Central Milan and the Brera District
Start your day bright and early with a cappuccino and “cornetto” (croissants with various fillings) at a cafe and head to the “centro” or city centre. Il Duomo is the iconic cathedral and an absolute masterpiece. Head inside if you are keen or enjoy the view from the piazza. Alternatively, move on to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II next door. Another gorgeous piece of architectural brilliance, this is Italy’s oldest active shopping mall and a great place for glam people-watching. In the same visit, I spotted two modelling shoots in progress!
When in Milan do as the Milanese do. Stop for a caffe or espresso shot. Enjoy your coffee with a romantic top view of the Duomo — from the rooftop cafe of the Rinascente department store. There are lovely terrace cafes and mini restaurants offering contemporary cuisines. Ladies, this is the famous fashion district, so if you want to squeeze in a spot of retail therapy, be it window shopping or serious business, stroll through Via Montenapoleone, Via Della Spiga and Via Vittoria Emanuelle.
Indulge in a hearty long lunch tasting the specialities of the Lombardy region — Risotto alla Milanese, Cottoletta alla Milanese, Polenta and Osso Buco. The traditional cuisine here has some German influence and focuses on meat, rice, stews and strong cheeses. It is rich and hearty to help combat the cold and damp climate compared to southern Italy, where pasta and tomatoes take centre stage in the cuisine.
Today, however, you will find restaurants specialising in cuisines from every part of the country. I was surprised by the plethora of sushi bars, ramen restaurants and dim sum places. Asian cuisine seems to have taken the city by storm. The latest gastronomy trend is the fusion of Italian and Japanese flavours and I loved every bit of it!
Digest all that food with a walk through the Brera area, the hub of art and design. The Brera Design District is interesting for those who have an eye for creativity. If you are into art appreciation, stop by the Pinacoteca di Brera, known for its collection of priceless Italian art from centuries. Alternatively, stroll through Via Brera, checking out the quaint little boutiques. Via Fiori Chiari is a little cobblestone street lined with chic cafes and restaurants.
Finally, make your way to the charming Castello Sforzesco, or Sforza Castle and be transported back to the 14th century. This was built by Francesco Sforza, the then Duke of Milan, a character that features in the Netflix series Medici. Having watched this show recently, I was excited to identify the place with the character!
Sometime in between, stop for a gelato at one of the many gelaterias you would pass by. Going out for a gelato is a ritual in Italy. It is not just about eating an ice cream, it is an experience. You really cannot go wrong with gelato in Italy and in all my time that I have spent in this country, I have never been disappointed with my gelato.
By 6pm, it is ‘aperitivo’ time! This is a ritual in Milan where the whole city hits the bars after work, drinking Spritz, a cocktail made of Campari and Prosecco, and nibbling on the elaborate spread of tapas offered. I recommend fitting in at least two stops before settling down to a late dinner.
Some bars and restaurants we tried and recommend include:
Nombr’e the vin, a unique wine bar located in a basement wine cellar; and
Radetzky, an old establishment which is very popular with designers and artists.
There are loads of good choices along Corso Garibaldi and further up on Corso Como, another buzzing area for people-watching. Cross piazza Gae Laurenti, taking in the lively atmosphere and modern architecture and finally settle down to dinner at Ratana. The Risotto alla Milanese made with saffron is famous. It has a relaxed ambience and if you have kids, there is a lovely park outside for them to play in.
Osteria di Brunello in the same area is a chic restaurant we dined at. Highly recommended for a romantic indulgent dinner.
My personal tip: Skip dessert at the restaurant and enjoy a gelato while taking a stroll, or passeggiata, something Italians love to do.
Day 2: Bergamo and the Navigli district
Bergamo is a hidden gem just 45 minutes by train from Milan. The Upper Town (known as Citta Alta) is an old fortified town surrounded by 16th century Venetian walls. Today, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site and the architecture has been preserved from when it was built during the Renaissance.
Get the train from Milano Centrale (the central station) and spend half a day there, indulging in a nice lunch. Once you reach Bergamo station, which is in Citta Bassa (the new town), take the bus to Citta Alta. Walk around the old piazzas, visit the glorious cathedral and stroll down narrow cobblestone streets taking in the architecture and relaxed pace of life. Upscale boutiques and delis as well as centuries-old trattorias and wine bars line the streets.
Take the funicular train further up to the castle for breathtaking views. We really appreciated the sound of silence interspersed with the chirping of birds. Believe me, you will be transformed back to the medieval ages or feel like you are in one of those old movies! If you are a history buff, there is plenty of information and things to explore.
Some of my restaurant recommendations are:
Casual. Don’t be misled by the name! It’s a one Michelin-star creation by top Italian chef Enrico Bartolini. Lunch here was a treat and a very inspiring experience. Every dish is a work of art!
Taverna Colleoni dell’Angelo is at a beautiful location in the Piazza Vecchia and serves excellent food.
Make your way back down slowly on foot, stopping to click Instagrammable pictures on the way, or take the bus back to the station and get onto the next hourly train back to Milan.
Get some rest as you will need energy to enjoy the evening life of Navigli, a district built around canals in South Milan. Head to the Naviglio Grande area (you can take the metro) by 6pm to enjoy the sunset with an aperitivo at one of the many lively bars. This area is also an art lover’s delight with many art galleries showcasing works by young talents.
We tried the Ugo Cocktail Bar, Il Barcone and La Vinera, but the choices are endless and it depends where you get a table. Sip a Negroni, a classic Milanese cocktail, or a glass of Prosecco while you enjoy the gorgeous ambience.
My Personal Tip: Skip dinner and fill up with the delicious aperitivo spread that each place has to offer.
A must-visit for foodies is the grand Eataly, a mecca of gourmet Italian food featuring a huge supermarket, delis, cafe and gourmet restaurants. I went crazy picking up olive oils, aged balsamic and cheeses and pasta of every type. For a stylish meal, book a table at Alice, a one Michelin-star restaurant on the top floor.
Folks, if you are heading to Italy this summer, do try and make Milan part of your itinerary. For those who have no plans, I hope this article inspires you and you save the information for the future. There is lots more of Italian adventures this summer. Stay tuned for news from Sicily next month.
Calcutta girl Natasha Celmi is a culinary specialist and food stylist based in Bangalore. Reach her on Instagram @cucinamiabynatasha or www.cucinamiabynatasha.com