Glancing around the pedestrians on the streets of Milan, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve unwittingly stumbled into a fashion show. Looking good in Italy’s catwalk city appears to be compulsory. Even the architecture is finely dressed. Milan has gone through a wave of rejuvenation since hosting the World Expo in 2015, with many of the impressive old structures being repurposed into bars, shops, restaurants and cultural centres. There’s more to Milan than fashion and shopping though. Many of the city’s highlights are those that have been in evidence for quite some time.
Milan's magnificent Gothic cathedral, the Duomo, is the third largest church in Europe, dominating the Piazza del Duomo in the heart of the city. Streets either radiate from the Duomo or circle it, highlighting the Duomo’s importance. More than five hundred years in the making, the enormous white marble façade alone is evidence of why tourists continue to flock here.
The 135 spires can be viewed up close on the roof for a fee, and the cathedral contains 3,500 statues. Perhaps the most striking is Saint Bartholomew Flayed (1562) by Marco d'Agrate, with the saint wearing his flayed skin over his shoulders like a stole. It’s somewhat macabre, yet hauntingly beautiful in its flowing lines. Glance upwards into the dome above the apse and a small red light bulb marks the spot where one of the nails reputedly from the Crucifixion of Christ has been placed. You also can’t miss the five-manual, 225-rank pipe-organ, currently the largest organ in Italy.
Within walking distance of the Duomo, along the car-free shopping avenue of the Via Dante, is the Renaissance Castello Sforzesco, once the home of the Sforzesco family who ruled Milan. It now holds a collection of museums, but the real reason to go is to view the Rondanini Pietà, a marble sculpture that Michelangelo worked on from 1552 until the last days of his life in 1564. Never to be finished, the figure of Mary holding up Christ is striking in its simple beauty.
When it’s time for some fresh air, backing onto Castello Sforzesco is Sempione Park, designed by architect Emilio Alemagna, who wanted this green space to frame panoramic views of the stately castle. Aside from being a pleasant place for a stroll, the park is home to a small, outdoor, modern sculpture gallery.
Naturally, no visit to Milan is complete without a visit to its most famous artwork – The Last Supper. Leonardo da Vinci's 15-foot by 29-foot painting of Jesus' last meal with his apostles is located in the refectory of the monastery next to the Santa Maria delle Grazie church, not far from city centre. Book tickets in advance, though – they sell out and can’t be bought on the day – and be aware you’ll only have 15 minutes to take in all of the grandeur of the work.
For something a little more off the beaten path, head to the charming Navigli district. Venice isn’t the only Italian city to boast canals – the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese canals in this neighbourhood were part of a network of waterways constructed to transport goods from the nearby lakes, including marble from Candoglia, which was used to construct the Duomo. Legend has it that Da Vinci helped plan the renovation of the canals, which may explain why it’s such a popular area for art galleries and temporary exhibitions. Navigli is also a happening night spot, with a glut of bars and trattorias drawing in the hipsters, as well as a regular programme of events in the warmer months.
After all that art and culture, it may be time for some retail therapy. Via Monte Napoleone is the shopping aficionados’ destination of choice. Set within Milan's 'rectangle of fashion', it's home to Gucci's flagship store, along with Roberto Cavalli, D&G, Prada, Valentino and Versace and Giorgio Armani. In the words of Bo Derek, “Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping.”
When day turns to night and you’re looking for a bite, Milan will not leave you wanting. Besides the standard pizza and pasta places, the Navigli trattorias dish up delicious risotto alla Milanese, a creamy saffron risotto, or opt for another local favourite, cassoeula, a rich pork and cabbage stew. If you’re craving something completely different, head to Ghe Sem, backed by Gian Marco Senna, one of Milan’s renowned restaurateurs. This funky eatery near the centre in Via Vincenzo Monti serves unique tapas-style dim sum, but with an Italian twist. My pick is the Fassona beef dumpling with caramelised onions, which takes fusion food to a whole new level. The cocktails and desserts at Ghe Sem are also held in high regard, or you can pop into Sugar Pasticceria a few doors down and pick up a beautifully presented pastry or two.
Milan has a little bit of everything: tree-lined streets, historic neighbourhoods, art, parks, buzzing neighbourhoods and beautiful people. It is easily Italy's most sophisticated city, where after-work drinks are an art form and fashion is a way of life.