The Classy, Chic — and Cheeky — Side of Milan

By Rick Steves
Naviglio Grande canal, Milan, Italy
The centuries-old canal zone called Naviglio Grande has found new life as a fun nightlife venue. (photo: Rick Steves)
Milan, Italy
Milan’s shopping streets are ideal for both people-watching and window shopping. (photo: Rick Steves)

Milan isn't as charming as Venice, Florence, or Rome, but it's still a vibrant and vital piece of the Italian puzzle. As it's a major transportation hub, you're likely to pass through the city, which deserves — and rewards — at least a few hours' exploration. And for a city of well over a million people, Milan's center is pleasantly compact, with most sights clustered within easy walking distance of the cathedral.

They say that for every church in Rome, there's a bank in Milan. Indeed, the economic success of postwar Italy can be attributed, at least in part, to this city of bankers, publicists, and pasta power-lunchers.

Even though I've been coming to Milan for a long time, I still stumble onto great new sights every time I visit. A recent discovery is the "Big Canal" — the Naviglio Grande. Surprisingly, even though landlocked Milan is far from any major lake or river, the city has a sizable port. Since 1170, a canal has connected Milan with the Mediterranean via the Ticino River, which flows into the Po River on its way to the Adriatic Sea. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci helped further develop the city's canals and designed a modern lock system; you'll find some of his exquisitely detailed drawings for the canals at Milan's Biblioteca Ambrosiana.

Later, during the booming Industrial Age in the 19th century, the canals were used for shipping in the marble and stone needed to make Milan the great city it is. In fact, a canal (filled in during the 1930s) once circled the walls of the city and allowed barges to dock with their stone right at the building site of Milan's grand cathedral.

Today, the old industrial canal district — once squalid and undesirable — is trendy and thriving. Former workers' tenements are being snapped up and renovated by go-getter singles on the career fast track. With lively bars and restaurants lining the canal, this is a great people scene for dinner or evening fun.

Milan might have a reputation as Italy's no-nonsense business and banking capital, but some locals still have a sense of humor. Piazza Affari, at the center of the financial district, is a knot of serious 1930s-era buildings in the heavy fascist style except for the bold modern sculpture of a 36-foot-tall, marble middle finger punctuating the middle of the square.

Is it a towering vulgarism, or a commentary on the Italian fascist salute? (So claims its maker, Maurizio Cattelan — Italy's most famous contemporary artist.) The head of the stock exchange was so offended by the disruption to the view from his Piazza Affari office that he moved to a nearby wing. "L.O.V.E.," as the statue is entitled, was temporary at first. But most Milanese wanted it to stay, and by popular demand, it's now permanent.

For contemporary art that's better behaved, the Museo del Novecento is worth a look. In this beautifully laid-out building, escalators and a spiral ramp whisk visitors through the last century's art, one decade at a time. The capper, though, is the stunning view from the top floor over the gigantic white-marble Gothic cathedral, in all its pointy, prickly glory.

In this fashion-forward city of refined tastes, the people-watching is as entertaining as the window shopping. Fashionistas flock to the up-market shopping zone, the Quadrilateral, where shopping is a solemn business, usually conducted in small boutiques.

[next graf moved from urban north]

The cathedral sits on Piazza del Duomo, Milan's main square. This classic European scene is a popular gathering point. Professionals scurry, fashion-forward kids loiter, and young thieves peruse. Stay a while to survey the square and enjoy some of Europe's best people-watching.

But for a different spin, it's fun to wander the high-concept department store called Excelsior (in the Galleria del Corso). Part design museum, part retail store, and part Las Vegas glitz, this is a hip departure for Milan, where's there's never been a department store quite like this before. Conveyor belts ferry shoppers from one tasteful level to the next to the beat of pulsing music. The $1,000 shirts and designer watches are out of my league, but I'm at home in the gourmet deli in the store's basement, with its artful displays of affordable cheeses, produce, and takeaway foods.

The importance of Milan is nothing new. Three hundred years before Christ, the Romans called this place Mediolanum, or "the central place." By the fourth century AD, it was the capital of the western half of the Roman Empire. After struggling through the early Middle Ages, Milan rose to prominence under the powerful Visconti and Sforza families. By the time the Renaissance hit, the city was called "the New Athens."

Although Milan was something of a cultural center during the Renaissance, the city languished during 400 years of foreign domination (Spain, Austria, France, and more Austria). The bad times finally came to an end in the 19th century, when Milan helped lead Italy to unification (risorgimento) as a modern state.

Even with all of this history, most of the locals seem oblivious to it. They just enjoy being who they are, living modern-day life to the fullest in this most vibrant of Italian cities.