The Milanese are said to think themselves superior to the rest of Italy. Tom Otley tours the fashion capital to find out the truth, and visits Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece along the way
1. Teatro alLa Scala
There are two things that every first-time visitor to Milan must do: visit Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper in the former refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and take in an opera at La Scala. Sadly, these are the two things you won’t be doing in Milan, not unless you have planned several weeks, or possibly several months, in advance. The Da Vinci Code has increased the queues to prohibitive lengths, and La Scala is a popular choice of the Milanese as well as visitors. Instead, make the best of things and visit La Scala Theatre Museum – it’s a fascinating place. Open since 1913 but recently refurbished, it’s full of interesting objects. It tells the history of opera in Milan – and that adds up to a history of opera in Italy. And so, pretty much a history of opera. The highlight of the tour is a peek into the theatre itself from one of the boxes. Teatro alla Scala is at Largo Ghiringhelli 1, Piazza dells Scala, tel +39 02 88 791, teatroallascala.org.
2. The Duomo
All roads lead to the Duomo piazza, and finally its centrepiece is shedding its scaffolding. In place of the forbidding, slightly ominous shadow which loomed over the piazza, the cathedral now looks better than it has for centuries. Instead of the black pollution-scarred exterior, the cleaning has revealed a cream marble that’s so bright in summer you’ll need sunglasses just to look at it. Incredibly, it’s not just a faÃ§ade: the whole building is constructed from marble, mined from the quarries of Gian Galeazzo Visconti (from the Candoglia quarry). Dating from 1386, but only finished five centuries later when Napoleon was crowned king of Italy (yes, it took a Frenchman to finish things), it has the world’s finest stained-glass windows and a lift which takes you to the roof terrace. Entry is free, but you can make a donation (there is a charge to access the terrace). Visit duomomilano.it for more information.
3. Galleria Vittoria Emmanuel II
Another first-timer’s favourite, it’s one of the world’s great 19th-century shopping arcades. Its attractiveness has always been tinged with sadness, though, because the architect, Giuseppe Mengoni, accidentally fell to his death from the roof a few days before it opened in 1878. While you are staring at the floor, observe the intricate tile work including the representation of the four major cities in Italy: the lily (Florence), wolf (Rome), bull (Turin) and the red cross of Milan. There are numerous places around the Galleria for a drink or a bite to eat, from a McDonald’s inside the centre,to the extremely fashionable bar of the Straf hotel, immediately to the south. Perhaps the best choice of all is The Park Bar inside the Park Hyatt on Via Tommaso Grossi. Opened in 2003 in a former bank building, the municipal works around the Hyatt have finally been completed, allowing pavement drinks and a taste of the outstanding martini bar, as well as a comprehensive list of bloody and virgin Marys, or perhaps just an espresso. Visit milan.park.hyatt.com.
4. The Quadrilatero d’Oro
Milan is all about fashion, and the area between Via Monte Napoleone, Via della Spiga and Via Sant’Andrea is a must whether you know something about fashion, or simply regard it as a clever chimera. Much of the area in the “Golden Triangle” is pedestrianised, which makes it easy to negotiate. Think of a brand, and it’s bound to be here: Prada, Armani, Brioni, Ferragamo, Tiffany & Co, Cartier, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana and C=hanel. If you are dressed smartly or stylishly, admittance isn’t a problem, and you can window-shop to your heart’s content, or blow a year’s spending in one afternoon.
5. The Gallery of Modern Art in Villa Reale
From here there are two options if you are restricted to just four hours. Option one is to head north-east to the neoclassical palace, the Villa Reale – otherwise known as Villa Belgiojoso Bonaparte (it was originally built for Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, and occupied by Napoleon as his Milan residence). It reopened this year and is now a lovely space containing several different exhibitions. There is a good collection of Italian painting, representing several different movements. Also present are works by the likes of Corot, Sisley, Manet, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Renoir. The building itself is worth wandering around – particularly the first floor with its fine parquet floor in what must have once been the ballroom. The art is divided into distinct collections – be sure to explore every nook and cranny, even up to the third floor. Across the courtyard is PAC – home to temporary exhibitions of very modern art. There’s a general lack of English language information, but things may change. For the moment, there’s a sense you’ve discovered the place on your own, particularly due to the peaceful environs created by the surrounding landscaped gardens. It’s a welcome respite in Milan. The gallery is on Via Palestro, tel +39 02 7634 0809, villabelgiojosobonaparte.it. Open Tues-Sun 9.30am-1pm and 2pm-5.30pm. Admission is free (for 2006).
6. Brera district
Option two is to head west towards the Brera district, a lovely neighbourhood offering everything Milan does well: café, fashion boutiques and outstanding art galleries. The Pinacoteca di Brera, housed in a 17th-century palazzo built by the Jesuits, could occupy four hours alone, with highlights including the astonishing Mantegna’s Dead Christ, depicting a prostrate Christ viewed from the soles of his feet, and Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. The Bulgari Hotel is also here, in the grounds of a former convent and next to the Brera Botanic Gardens. It is altogether a less frenetic slice of Milan. Visit the gallery at Via Brera, 28, tel +39 02 722 631; brera.beniculturali.it; find out more about the hotel at bulgarihotels.com.