In Milan, Italian sophistication awaits any traveller due to the Lombard capital being surrounded by 4 budget airports, each a cheap bus ride away from the centre. We stayed in the Isola district, characterised by creative flair and cheap accommodation, where our Airbnb was more economically sound than a standard hotel room.
As our bus arrived from the airport in the evening, we immediately set off to eat in the fascinating atmosphere of ‘Dry Milano’. Inside, the golden tables were consistently occupied by diners enjoying the finest pizzas for the most reasonable prices, enrapt by an ambience created by dim lighting, contemporary design and free olives. Making our way back, we stopped for a drink directly opposite our apartment at ‘Frida’. Behind its unassuming roadside façade, Frida’s courtyard is constantly filled with people, all enjoying a beverage underneath the vines that hang from the glass ceiling. The nature of the enclosed courtyard means the conversation is amplified to generate a vibrant, welcoming feel, compelling passers-by to investigate the oasis within.
On the first day, we walked up to the ‘Cimitero Monumentale’: a striking 19th century cemetery with a gorgeous chapel, striped in monochrome, and containing multiple ornate tombs of important Milanesi. In danger of lingering, we took the metro to the far south of the city, arriving at ‘Fondazione Prada’: an incredible gallery complex boasting a tower covered in gold leaf; 4 temporary exhibition spaces; a cinema; another tower containing works from Damien Hirst to the Kienholz’s, and the Wes Anderson-designed ‘Bar Luce’ which became our first port of call. ‘Bar Luce’ is a café steeped in the interior legacy of 1950s Milan; pastel greens and pinks, deep browns, art-deco lights, all brought together with their excellent menu. We then took to the rest of the complex, immersing ourselves in works as varied as the art within the Mussolini-era, the dream chambers of Louise Bourgeois, and the enlarged tulips of Jeff Koons. A trip to ‘Fondazione Prada’ would easily be enough to satisfy an entire day for any traveller with the luxury of time, however time was of the essence on our short break and we marched forward into the afternoon.
After having lunch in the university park, the next destination was ‘Museo Novecento’, overlooking the fabulous Piazza del Duomo and offering free or reduced entry throughout its last 2 opening hours. Cleverly situated within the Palazzo dell’Arengario, this gallery is a celebration of Italian masterpieces. The exhibition chronologically showcases futurism, the novecento movement, Italian pop art, kinetic art, ‘Arte Povera’, all leading to the incredible Fontana Hall, where Lucien Fontana’s great works are set to the backdrop of one of the largest cathedrals in the World. Fatigue began to set in towards the end of our visit, and we decided to head back to the apartment before our evening meal. We ventured back to the south of the city to an 18th century farmhouse, affectionately restored in 2012 into ‘Un Posto a Milano’. A sense of serenity is immediate, the restaurant’s two courtyards full of Milanesi dining by candlelight, indulging in the sensational seasonal menu, seemingly miles away from the urban ‘Porta Romana’ district that surrounded us.
As we awoke the next day, we embarked further north to the incredible contemporary art institution of ‘Hangar Bicocca’. Out of the blistering heat we breezed, free of charge, into the former factory and through three eccentric exhibitions, contained within the lofty ceilings that heighten the grandeur of the works on display. Despite the variety of artists that feature here, ‘Hangar Bicocca’s permanent exhibition is undoubtedly what continually drives the public to visit; entering the warehouse, we were dwarfed by 7 astounding, ramshackle towers, which filled the space known as the ‘Navate’, created by German artist Anselm Kiefer. This exhibition is unique to Milan and to this institution due to it being conceived for its opening, making it reason enough to make the journey up to the Bicocca district.
In desperate need of some sustenance, we hurtled towards Chinatown to the understated stylings of ‘oTTo’, sank our respective coffees and went immediately to the nearest carrefour express for some Italian nutrition. Being careful not to let standards slip, we walked into Parco Sempione and ate our bread and cheese in the garden of ‘La Triennale di Milano’, before marvelling at the medieval delight of fortress ‘Castello Sforzesco’ and heading through the Brera district back towards the Duomo. Striding past the imposing cathedral, we opted instead to visit ‘Villa Necci Campaglio’: a fascinating city mansion that mixes both modernist and classical architecture. Originally designed by Piero Portaluppi in the early thirties, but later adapted to remove any fascist connotations, the villa is an exercise in symmetry and cohesion in design; stucco ceilings lit by hidden candescent bulbs, motifs in the banisters and floorboards, private tennis courts and swimming pool, every detail invoking a world of luxury and sublimity.
Moving back to the Piazza del Duomo, we raced to the top floor of la Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and visited ‘Fondazione Prada Osservatorio’, the institution’s second gallery. The gallery benefits from being included in the original ticket price and the luxurious surroundings of the ornate arcade rooftop at eye level, which overshadowed the exhibition that was being showcased at the time of our visit. Not being content with visiting Italy and not having a gelato, we corrected this error at ‘Savini’s’ before taking the metro back to the apartment, readying ourselves for our final meal in the fashion capital.
Deciding to stay within our district of Isola, we were confronted with an abundance of enticing establishments, and eventually chose the relatively new pizzeria of ‘Berbere’. Greeted with the tiled kitchen, we were eventually led into the spacious dining area, furnished utilising Milanese pastel stylings, constructivist artwork and large open windows. The pizza was predictably delicious, with an even tastier cheque, the savings on which we used back in the vine-covered oasis of ‘Frida’. Our time in Milan was whittled down to mere hours, and the next day we found ourselves on the bus to the airport, and the plane back home.
Eat: Dry, Un Posto a Milano, Berbere
Drink: Frida, oTTo, Bar Luce
Visit: Cimiterio Monumentale, Fondazione Prada, Museo 900, Hangar Bicocca, Villa Necchi Campaglio
Be: Piazza del Duomo, Parco Sempione, Isola, Brera
Should have gone to: Colonne di San Lorenzo