I had no desire to go to Milan. This was largely due to my days working at fashion magazines, when editors would fight over who got to do Paris or New York fashion weeks, keen to avoid the Italian city.
So, when a weekend trip to Milan was suggested, I found myself unenthused. How wrong I was. Certainly, Milan is no Venice or Florence, though it is peppered with the grand architecture, renaissance flourishes and stunning gothic cathedrals. It is also a city that is scarred by the bombardment it suffered during World War Two, with marble cloisters giving way to Haussmann-esque shopping malls and 1950s skyscrapers.
But it is none the poorer for it. It is still unmistakably an Italian city; with all the charm and pace of life one would expect. There are tree-lined avenues, historical monuments and classic Italian piazzas connected by cobbled streets dotted with outdoor cafés, including one which humorously warns its customers not to trust the café next door: ‘Their chef’s name is microwave’.
It is also a somewhat compact city – with the charm of the old town and the style of the new easy to switch between. This makes it an ideal destination for a weekend city break.
We stayed at the Bulgari Milano, the flagship of the jeweller’s lavish hotel collection. It is the embodiment of the high-end brand: cleverly straddling sleek modernism with gilded luxury. The hotel’s USP is its enviable location, nestled in the heart of the historic Brera district and surrounded by palazzos and the city’s Botanical Gardens, which envelop the hotel in lush greenery. Il Giardino is the hotel’s outdoor bar, restaurant and garden. It is a fertile oasis in a city centre, a true rarity, and almost worth a visit in its own right.
On our first night we have drinks on the lawn, sipping champagne under the fading light and mingling with other guests; sitting in the garden’s cosy enclaves, feeling as if we have somehow stumbled upon a rather swanky wedding reception.
We were also lucky enough to dine on one of the inaugural nights of Il Ristorante Niko Romito. The three-Michelin-starred chef has long worked with Bulgari, bringing his sumptuous take on classic Italian cuisine to other outposts, but saving Milan to last.
‘It is one thing serving Italian cooking to people in Dubai,’ he says, when he pops out of the kitchen to doff his chef’s hat to us, ‘It is quite another to cook Italian for Italians.’
He’s palpably nervous, yet he needn’t be. His bread is so sinful it’s no surprise it is made by adding potato. He makes an oyster risotto that somehow manages to be both melt-in-your-mouth delicious and light, and I eat a flaked cod with heritage tomatoes that seems deceptively simple but tastes other-worldly. Run to this restaurant. You will roll back.
On our first day, after indulging in a massage at the Bulgari’s rather swish spa, we decide to explore our surroundings. Luckily, Brera district is an ideal jumping off point; home to La Scala opera house, Museo Manzoni, dedicated to the famous Italian writer’s work, and hidden gems, such as St Joseph’s church; one of the few that survived Napoleon’s penchant for turning Milanese churches into theatres.
We head to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an art nouveau shopping mall that is home to top designer brands, some of the hottest new restaurants in town (check out new haunt Cracco) and the original Campari bar. It is also handily near to other sites of interest, including the majestic Sforza castle and the Palazzo Reale, both great stops for history buffs.
Yet the Duomo is the big draw. The largest church in Italy (and third largest in the world) it is a gothic behemoth that has been subjected to so much reconstruction and restoration over its 600 plus years of existence, that it may not even strictly qualify as gothic anymore. We stroll along the roof and ramparts, noticing hidden extra carvings, like tennis rackets that date to the age of Mussolini, and details from previous Dukes of Milan; the city’s varied history etched into its walls. The interior equals the majesty of the façade, with 52 huge pillars (one for every week of the year) and staggeringly large stained-glass windows.
It’s a pleasant stroll through the Corso Como fashion district, with its aperitivo bars, old shuttered, pastel-hued buildings and sleek modern shopping centres, to view Milan’s modern quarter, Porta Nuova. Though it may leave traditionalists like me somewhat cold, there’s no doubting the ingenuity of Milan’s Bosco Verticale; a residential skyscraper smothered in greenery, aimed at purifying the air around it. It won the prestigious International Highrise Award in 2014.
The surrounding area is awash with great restaurants and cafés. We wander around Corso Como; a curated store, with an attached bar, that is a must for fashion and design bods, pick up coffee at the Muscova district, famed for its great nightlife, and stop for food at Bomba in the Garibaldi district. Inspired by our previous night’s feast, Niko Romito’s street-food restaurant has been recommended to us. Maybe it was my Campari hangover talking, but these ‘bombas’- mini savoury pastries filled with classic Italian sandwich fillings – may just be my new favourite comfort food. It leaves a delicious taste in my mouth as we leave for the airport, as surprising a find as Milan itself.