What Milan lacks in surface charm, it makes up for with hidden treasures. Architectural writer Michael Webb takes us on walking tour of one his favorite European cities.
Best-known for trade fairs and La Scala–the Everest of opera houses–it also boasts the grandest of covered arcades and the spikiest of Gothic cathedrals, a veritable porcupine of white stone. It was founded by the Romans and flourished as a medieval city-state, but it now appears overwhelmingly modern and industrious. For Italophiles, Florence vies with Venice, everyone adores Siena, and Rome is the ne plus ultra. For them, Milan seems as unglamorous as a stout chaperone, keeping a watchful eye on the pretty girls at the party.
In reality, the coolest kids are in Milan, modeling for the leading fashion houses, or shopping the impossibly chic boutiques of the Quadrilatero–the priciest few blocks in a city that oozes wealth. It’s a challenge to dress up and browse these elegant showcases, exploring hidden courtyards, and lingering over a Campari at a smart café. It costs nothing to catch an exhibition at the Milan City Museum, housed in the Palazzo Morando, and you can test your resolve by not buying a thing. If you are profligate, you’ll carry your tote bags back to the Four Seasons, the Bulgari, or the soon-to-open Armani Hotel. However, the fun place to stay if you can score one of the 13 rooms, is the Antica Locanda Solferino (Via Castelfidardo 2). It’s a funky pensione, established in 1926 and barely changed since then, located in the Brera district on the edge of downtown. In a city full of soulless business hotels, this is an oasis of old-fashioned charm—a bit like staying in the home of an eccentric friend.
If you saw the movie I am Love, starring Tilda Swinton as the unhinged Russian wife of an Italian entrepreneur (and if you didn’t, you should), you’ll be curious to see the Villa Necchi Campiglio (Via Mozart 14; 02 7643 0121), which served as the principal location. Built in the 1930s for a family that manufactured sewing machines, it is now a house-museum that’s open for tours. It’s an odd hybrid of progressive and retro design. The gray marble foyer is banded with brass, and the polished wood staircase has a zig-zag balustrade. Sliding doors of nickel silver with mirror glass inserts divide the dining room from the winter garden. Be sure to make a reservation for lunch in the tented restaurant: delicious food and rather absent-minded service. Afterwards, it’s worth strolling around the neighborhood to explore the curious mix of buildings from the first half of the last century, which range from sleek to wildly over-the-top apartment towers. Around the corner from the villa, at Via Luigi A. Melagari 4, is the showroom for San Lorenzo, a contemporary silversmith that sells jewelry and tableware designed by Tobia Scarpa, Massimo and Leila Vignelli, Benedetta Tagliabue and other top Italian designers.
Milan claims to be the capital of modern design and, though the glory days are past, the city abounds in showrooms and stages great exhibitions at the Palazzo Triennale (Viale Alemagna 6), a modernist gem of 1933 that’s tucked away in a park. For the current exhibition, running through January, architect Alessandro Mendini selected 800 emblematic objects, ranging from stuffed animals to a vintage Alfa Romeo, by way of classics and kitsch. It’s fascinating to see how well the Olivetti Lettera 22 portable typewriter, an icon of the 1950s, holds its own in this eclectic array.
Close by is the studio of the late, great Achille Castiglione (Piazza Castello 27) which is open for tours. Established in 1964, it is a mix of meticulous organization and a magpie hoard. Achille loved found objects, transforming a hinged sewing box into a bedside table, and appropriating tractor seats and saddles for seating. A rower’s seat becomes a three-legged stool, a jelly mold morphs into a hat, and a lamp was inspired by a fold-up hunting cup. His spirit lives on. “If you are not curious, forget it,” he said.
Eating is taken very seriously in Milan. For a light lunch and a spectacular view of the cathedral, head to the 7th floor terrace of La Rinascente (Via Santa Radegonda 3; 885 2454) Italy’s premier department store. Another good choice, for crudo (the freshest raw fish) is Da Claudio (Via Cusoni 1; 805 6857). And you can eat well at the Galleria Rossana Orlandi (Via Matteo Bandello 16; 467 447) a new contemporary art gallery off the Corso Magenta. For dinner, there’s an embarrassment of riches. Personal favorites include L’Ulmet (Via Disciplini and Via Olmetto; 8645 2718), Boecc (Piazza Belgioioso 2; 7602 0224), Bebel (Via San Marco 38; 657 1658) and Alla Cucina delle Langhe (Corso Como 6; 655 4279). Buon appetito!
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