By Gregory Han
Unlike its sisters Rome, Florence, or Venice, Milan isn’t swathed nor defined by its past. As the capital of Lombardy and the second-most populous city in Italy after Rome, Milan unapologetically defines itself as a city of today: modern and lively, occasionally unsightly in its urbanity, it’s a commercial metropolis more interested in the prospects and possibilities of the future rather than perpetuating the glories of its past. Yes, you’ll find remnants of its Roman past and numerous historical buildings to haunt, but as a visitor it’s more likely you’ll remember Milan for its modern offerings, all painted colorfully by the industries of fashion and design. Milan Fashion Week, MIDO Eyewear Show, and Milano Design Week all unfold here, which makes the possibility a visit will coincide with a global convergence of the design community highly likely, making it one of the few cities that can truly claim design as part of its cultural and civic DNA.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Viu Milan
Decorated in greys, beige, and browns, the Hotel Viu embodies many of the same shades of color associated with the generally overcast weather that looms over Milan throughout the year – but stylishly so. Each of the hotel’s 124 rooms are are furnished with a calm elegance in the spirit of Armani Casa: neutral earth tones partnered with the forms of subdued modernity. This hotel isn’t central to the the heart of the city, but it earns extra points for being in walking distance of my favorite Milanese pastry shop, Pavé, located in the adjacent trendy area of Porta Venezia.
Fifty House Milan
There are indeed 50 rooms available at the Fifty House, a boarding house turned boutique hotel festooned with details of brash humor delivered by way of artist, Bisha, whose work plays prominent within both the hotel’s public and private spaces. A classically rendered Leonardo da Vinci Dama con l’ermellino sitting above the hotel mantel isn’t what it initially seems; polka dotted armchairs befitting of Yayoi Kusama offer a comfortable spot for two to find respite, while some of the rooms’ furnishings will undoubtedly tempt a guilty touch. The overall vibe here is Hollywood Regency interpreted through the colorful prism of contemporary Italian art and design. Subtle, it is not, but that’s all part of Fifty House’s charm.
Sina the Gray
If you’re in Milan to soak in il teatro della moda, this hotel’s centrality to the city’s most famous streets and landmarks (“just 100 meters from the Duomo”), alongside its proximity to the Quadrilatero d’Oro – aka the Golden Rectangle – makes Sina the Gray a strategic accommodation pick for those operating under a fashionable itinerary. The hotel’s decor exemplifies Milan’s identifiable design hotel motif: a neutral canvas of travertine enlivened by bright splashes of color, lights, and contrasting patterns of wenge wood. Some rooms even have their own private gym or Turkish bath.
Decorated unmistakably by an Italian eye, the 154 rooms and suites of this hotel wears its local bona fides represented by its mosaics of Bisazza, lighting provided by Artemide, the Driade furnishings, and seats by Meritalia. Be sure to ask for one of the rooms with the astounding view of the nearby Duomo’s Gothic vaults.
Staying in Milan can be an expensive affair, but this affordably tiered hostel offers guests the opportunity to stay within contemporary-decorated rooms inhabiting a beautifully restored Neo-Gothic building (you can bunk together in shared rooms or book one of three private rooms upstairs).
WHERE TO PLAY
Film director Wes Anderson’s eye for design gives the Bar Luce within Fondazione Prada a timeless atmosphere. Photo: Fondazione Prada/Attilio Maranzano
Bar Luce: It was back in 2013 when Wes Anderson directed Castello Cavalcanti, an eight-minute short produced for Prada styled with neon and formica of the 1950s and 60s in full display in the auteur’s signature fashion. Anderson superimpose many of the same stylistic touches onto this architectural recreation of a “typical Milanese cafè” located just outside the doors of the fashion house’s museum. It’s one of my favorite places in Milan to grab a snack and people watch.
Fondazione Achille Castiglioni: There are few names in the history of modern design as renowned as Achille Castiglioni. Even those who don’t recognize the name likely recognizes his work. The architect and furniture designer’s name remains nearly synonymous with modern Italian design, and the native’s shadow still looms across the city today, with design lovers flocking to this four room studio/apartment turned into a museum. The archive of his life’s work is on display, but only to those reserving a spot ahead of time for one of the guided tours, so plan accordingly.
It was during my second visit to Milan when I walked in pouring rain for an hour to be greeted by the glowing 24-carat gold leaf haunted house visible from the street for the first time; once inside I became quickly became enamored by the entirety of the compound, complete with a seated talking android. Every subsequent visit has been nearly as memorable and rewarded, with the recently opened tower building promising more to explore during the next visit. Photo: Gregory Han
Fondazione Prada: One thing admirable about Milan is the city’s propensity to reuse and reinterpret their city’s older buildings. The Fondazione Prada, situated in a slightly sketchy-industrial section of Milan was once a gin distillery dating from 1910 (note: excellent examples of graffiti line the walls along the streets leading up to the museum entrance); it’s now the stage for the fashion brand’s vision of contemporary art, design, and cinema.
Housed within the former distillery warehouses, laboratories and brewing silos as re-envisioned by Rem Koolhas, Fondazione Prada offers an austere architectural tableau in service of the artwork inside each of the buildings, one that unconsciously motivates exploration (I attribute it to the mix of heights and widths of each building which feel abandoned even with the crowds).
La Triennale Di Milano Design Musem: Even before stepping inside architect Giovanni Muzio’s exemplar of rationalist architecture, I knew the Palazzo dell’Arte was going to be a favorite inside and out. My last visit offered a ridiculous abundance of interests: exhibitions dedicated to the furniture and photography of Ettore Sottsass, the body of work of visionary Rick Owens, and the playful childhood memories of Italian design all under one roof. There’s also a very fine gift shop with design objects and book selection worthy of a visit after finishing your tour. Just arrive here before opening if possible, as lines form early. Also, the adjoining park makes for a highly recommended secondary stroll ‘n sit destination afterward.
WHERE TO SHOP
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Photo by Liza Daly (CC BY 2.0)
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Nicknamed “Il Salotto di Milano”, or Milan’s Living Room, it can feel like the entirety of Milan has gathered under the arched ornamental glass and metal of the city’s storied artery. It’s undeniably a tourist destination, but a prerequisite for any first time visitor, a glamorous thoroughfare bolstered by the presence of many of most storied and recognizable names of haute couture – Versace, Prada, Gucci, Armani, and Louis Vuitton. I make it an imperative to cut across this section of Milan every visit, never disappointed by the grandiosity.
RAW: The Brera design district is where you’ll want to wander for at least one afternoon, and in doing so you’ll likely be tempted to drift inside the modernist interpretation of a cabinet of curiosities on display inside Raw. If you’re partial to the John Derian and Fornasetti aesthetic, this is your shop.
De Padova: Located in the fashionable neighborhood of Corso Venezia, this Milan showroom has already attained legendary status for its curated selection of contemporary furnishings immediately recognizable by the design cognoscenti. Graced with the namesake of its founders Maddalena and Fernando DePadov, the store arguably houses the most prestigious selection of top tier global designs under one roof in Milan. Aspirational and inspirational, even if you can’t afford to purchase anything within, one exits the doors of De Padova feeling a little bit more knowledgeable about design.
Nilufar Depot: It seems appropriate that the Teatro alla Scala is cited by architect Massimiliano Locatelli as the inspiration for this enormous three-story retail space dedicated to the theater of home furnishings. The multi-level vignettes of decorative scenes set the stage for an experience in a fashion very few furniture shops could even dream of offering customers…with astronomical price tags to match.
The charm of some cities are immediately evident and obvious. Milan isn’t one of these destinations. Meaningful gratification here arrives in stages, rewarding those compelled to investigate its smaller streets and outlying neighborhoods, speak to its people, with its best only offered to those patience enough to walk the proverbial extra mile (occasionally literally). The city’s diverse and progressive populace is perhaps its greatest asset, reflected by a Milanese pride for the traditional, yet an openness to reinterpret them in perpetually novel fashion. Milan may be celebrated most for its remarkable sense of style, but it also deserves attention for its accessibility and willingness to envision itself something anew every year, just like the culture of design and fashion it plays home to.
If you’ve traveled to Milan and have any travel recommendations, let us know below so we can check it out for the next trip!