Milan’s Centro Storico, or historic centre, is where the world's largest Gothic cathedral stands. It’s home to the much-celebrated La Scala opera house, art-filled private mansions, the royal palace, a most elegant shopping arcade, and busy pedestrian boulevards.
Once the Roman city of Mediolanum, though its boundary walls vanished long ago, besides historic sights, the area has a grid of shopping streets around Via Montenapoleone known as the Quadrilatero d’Oro or 'Golden Triangle'. Milan is home to some outrageously expensive boutiques, as well as haute-couture stores and the head offices of all the biggest brand names in international fashion. With so much to see and do, where do you begin? Well, here’s a suggested itinerary.
Start out at 9:30am for the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana and marvel at this treasure trove, which includes Leonardo’s Codex Atlantico -- oversized tomes filled with Leonardo’s sketches, Titian’s Adoration of the Magi, and Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit, amongst others. Bequeathed to the city by art-loving Cardinal Frederico Borromeo, the collection also includes the original cartoon for Raphael’s famed School of Athens, a preparatory drawing for his famous fresco of Greek philosophers with the faces of Renaissance artists.
Next, work your way south to Via Torino and the gem of a church, Santa Maria presso San Satiro, with its 11th-century bell tower, Renaissance chapel, Baroque-style rear façade finished in 1871, and 15th-century interior decorations. Then walk north up Via Torino until you reach the Piazza del Duomo and take a left up towards Via Mecanti to see the raised porticoes of Palazzo della Ragione, a 13th-century broletto (town hall) where a small Xmas fiesta market starts in late November. Now cross the huge Piazza to enjoy the marvels of Italy’s second largest cathedral and explore its roof.
Then head over to the gorgeous liberty-style Zucca (Caffè Miani) for a spot of lunch. At the entrance of Italy’s grandest shopping arcade, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II, was where Verdi and Toscanini would stop by after La Scala shows. Be sure to try its cheese and meat platter, and nothing warms you right up more than a small mug of rich, thick, steamy hot chocolate. Ooh-la-la. For more on what to eat, be sure to read my journal on Lombardy’s culinary delights.
In the afternoon, nourished and filled with renewed energy, exit the arcade at Piazza della Scala, flanked by the famed opera house and Palazzo Marino. The former was built under the aegis of the Austrians and boasts a sumptuous interior, excellent acoustics, and a staggering list of premieres, including Verdi’s Egyptian melodrama Aida (1872), Puccini’s tale of enduring love between a Japanese geisha and American soldier, Madame Butterfly (1904), and Turandot (1926), another Asian tale by Puccini. The latter, Milan’s municipio (city hall), has two distinct façades: a 1553 mannerist one, on Piazza S Fedele, and an 1886-92 neo-classical one, facing La Scala theatre. Behind the city hall is the 1559 Jesuit temple San Fedele, a single nave construction which became the Lombard blueprint for churches built in the counter-Reformation era. After this, walk northeast past the surreal Casa degli Omenoni, Renaissance sculptor Leone Leoni’s palazzo, whose lower level façade is lined with eight giant telamones, which are columns in the form of a male figure.
Turn left next to visit the excellent Museo Poldi-Pezzoli, with its vast collection of arms and armour, displayed in a room designed by Pomodoro in 2000. Then continue north on Via Manzoni, admiring its palazzi and Armani boutique until you come to Milan’s premier shopping venue, Via Montenapoleone. This is where you will likely spend the rest of your day. And in the evening, take a rest break at Cova. Opened by the Faccioli family in 1871 near La Scala and later moved to its present location, it has remained in the family and continues to be the café of choice for the city’s elite. Its in-house pastries, chocolates, and sandwiches are some of the most exquisite in town, and they brew a mean cup of cappuccino to boot.