Style and elegance reign on the streets of Italy's fashion capital, writes Shaney Hudson.
There's no way to sugar-coat it: Milan's hotels are overpriced, aimed at business travellers and prices fluctuate wildly if there is a corporate event in town. Good budget choices include Hotel Losanna (Via Piero della Francesca 39, 316 272, hotellosanna.com) with doubles including breakfast from €90. The modern and tastefully decorated Acca Palace (Via Giovanni Nicotera, 646 6239, accapalace.com) has doubles with free Wi-Fi from €84; two-bedroom suites perfect for families start from a bargain €116. Pick of the budget hotel chains is the Hotel Ibis Milano Centro (Via Finocchiaro Aprile 2, 657 0534, ibishotels.com), which offers basic double rooms from €59.
Bed and breakfast Vietnamonamour has four rooms decorated with beautiful Vietnamese furniture, from €80 and a Vietnamese-style cafe (Via Alessandro Pestalozza 7, 7063 4614, vietnamonamour.com). The courteous front desk staff make the difference at the Hotel Sanpi (Via Lazzaro Palazzi 18, 2951 3341, hotelsanpimilano.it), which has good-size classic rooms and a delicious buffet breakfast, from €109. The Hotel Gran Duca di York (Via Moneta 1, 874 863, ducadiyork.com) is set in an 18th-century building in a quiet side street five minutes' walk from the Duomo. Recently renovated, the 33 rooms start from €128. Book well in advance and visit during weekends to guarantee a reasonable rate at most hotels.
With a discreet entrance mere steps from the Duomo, the UNA Maison Milano (Via G. Mazzini 4, 85 605, www.unahotels.it) is more like an exclusive apartment block, with 27 minimalist, all-white rooms and suites from €190. The Four Seasons Milan (Via Gesu 8, 77 088, fourseasons.com/milan) is in a 15th-century former convent near Milan's fashion district. Rooms are decorated in a classical style and wrap around the internal courtyard gardens (from €600). The Rosa Grand is the pick for its modern amenities (Piazza Fontana 3, 88 311, preferredhotels.com) with plush rooms starting from €234.
Not satisfied with just making jewellery, Bulgari (Via Fratelli Gabba 7B, 805 8051, bulgarihotels.com) launched its hotel brand in Milan. Decorated in chocolate and gold hues, the gorgeous designer compound offers a stunning day spa as part of the amenities. Rooms start at €590; the top-floor, one-bedroom Bulgari suite, with fireplace and private terrace, will set you back €5000 a night. However, the seven-star Townhouse Galleria (8905 8297, townhouse.it) is considered Milan's most exclusive hotel. It is in the Vittorio Galleria Emanuele II but this hotel is so exclusive you have to be a guest to know where the unmarked entrance is. Prices for the entry-level Junior Vivaldi suite (with personalised butler service) start from €700 a night.
SHOP & PLAY
For people-watching, head to the Naviglio Grande canal on the last Sunday of the month (8940 9971, navigliogrande.mi.it), where hundreds of antique dealers sell their wares along the canal and crowds spill into the surrounding suburbs. Those after clothes should head to the Mercato Papiniano (Viale Papiniano), which runs on Tuesday mornings and all day on Saturdays — although be prepared to arrive early to nab the best second-hand goods before the fashion-savvy locals get to them. Before Christmas, the oddly named Oh bej, oh bej! Christmas market (Castello Sforzesco, early December) sells festive decorations and gifts.
Nicknamed the Quad d'Oro, which translates loosely as the rectangle of gold, Milan's fashion district consists of four streets (Via Manzoni, Via Monte Napoleone, Via Sant'Andrea, and Villa Spigna), which are home to the best of Italy's fashion houses. Dress to impress at Versace, Valentino, Armani, Chanel, Missoni and Roberto Cavalli, as all have boutiques in the area. Or peek at the cream of the goods at designer department store La Rinascente (Piazza Duomo, 88 521, www.rinascente.it). Those looking to buy gourmet take-home treats should head into Peck (Via Spadori 9, 9902 5335, www.peck.it).
World-renowned opera performances are held at La Scala Theatre (Piazza della Scala, 7200 3744, teatroallascala.org). Crowds are passionate and tickets expensive and scarce, so book in advance. More low-key options include Blue Note (Via Borsieri Pietro 37, 6901 6888, www.bluenotemilano.com), offering live music seven days a week, while Scimmie (Via Ascanio Sforza 49, 8940 2874, www.scimmie.it) in the Naviglio district, attracts a more casual crowd. Closer to the centre, the Santa Tecla Cafe (Via Santa Tecla 3, 8901 5282, santateclacafe.it), near the Duomo, offers live music with early-evening aperitivo in a small lounge venue kitted out in flamboyant gold.
Armani has created an entertainment empire in Milan with Armani Prive (Via Pisoni 1, 6231 2680, armaniprive.it), the nightclub extension of the brand (pictured) opening just before midnight to the well heeled and cashed-up. Alcatraz (Via Valtellina 25, 6901 6352, alcatrazmilano.com) has the most reliable reputation of all Milanese clubs. It's a former industrial factory moonlighting as both a live venue and a club. However, the reigning queen of the good night out is Plastic (Via Umbria 120, 733 996, thisisplastic.com), a decades-old stalwart of the fabulous scene that plays retro tunes. Most clubs shut down during July or August so check online before you go.
SEE & DO
The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci's magnificent work, has survived air raids, renovations and target practice, and is the No.1 attraction in town. Reservations are compulsory and tickets (€6.50, www.cenacolovinciano.net) book out months in advance but can be sourced online for a fee from agents such as viator.com. Decorated with more than 2000 figures, the Duomo (9am-5pm, 7202 2656) has come out from under the scaffolding after a seven-year restoration. You can view the city from its flat roof for €7. Across the piazza is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a stunning steel and glass art deco-style pedestrian walkway and shopping centre rebuilt after being destroyed during the WW II.
Fashion consumes Milan during the spring-summer and autumn-winter fashion weeks, held in February and September. Attendance is strictly by invitation but there are a number of public events (cameramoda.it). Even if you can't see a performance, a visit to La Scala Theatre Museum allows for an insight into the highly emotional world of opera theatre (Piazza della Scala, 7200 3744, teatroallascala.org) and a glance at the ornate theatre itself. One of the saddest things about Milan is that its galleries and museums are often empty. Worth exploring is the Castello Sforzesco, with seven museums featuring Michelangelo's last unfinished work, the Rondanini Pieta (closed Monday, entry €3, Piazza Castello, 8846 3700, www.milanocastello.it).
Starting in the Piazza Duomo, explore the Duomo and its stunning rooftop view before walking through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II to Piazza della Scala to view the theatre. On the way through the galleria, be sure to spin around on the mosaic of the bull for good luck. From the theatre, if you turn right onto Via Alessandro Manzoni, the road will take you to the famous Quadrilatero d'Oro fashion district. Go left up Via Dante, however, and you'll end up at the Castello Sforzesco, established in 1368. Walk through the castle to the Parco Sempione, Milan's gardens and former hunting reserve. From here, it's a 10-minute walk from the castle to the Santa Maria delle Grazie, where The Last Supper can be viewed.
Follow the leader
To help you get your shop on, coach tours depart from the centre of Milan to far-flung Italian and Swiss designer outlet malls (Foro Bonaparte, 7686 7131, zaniviaggi.it), for €20 return. San Siro Stadium is home to Milan's rival clubs, AC Milan and FC Internazionale. Guided tours of the stadium include entry to the museum and leave every 20 minutes (€12.50, Via Piccolomini 5, 404 2432, sansirotour.com). Local licensed guide Alice Salvagnin (firstname.lastname@example.org, 33 8709 0880*) runs private tours of Milan and is a highly recommended expert on the best in the city. Milan's red double-decker bus tours operate a hop-on, hop-off service taking in the main sights, for €20 (867 131, city-sightseeing.com).
EAT & DRINK
One of the great Milanese experiences is aperitivo, or happy-hour drinks. In a twist on convention, prices go up (to about €7 for a cocktail) but trestle tables of snack foods are placed out for guests to eat as much of as they please — often meaning you won't need dinner later. Places such as Fresco Art (Viale Monte Nero 23, 5412 4675) and Yguana (Via Papa Gregorio 16, 8940 4195) are renowned for serving generous platters of focaccia, pasta and fried Italian snacks. One of the best concentrations of apertivo bars is on Via Casale, which runs off the Naviglio Grande canal, including Kama Sutra (Via Casale 5) and Urban Store (Via Casale 3). Bond (Via Pasquale Paoli, 5810 8375), just over the canal, is another good choice.
One of the city's best secrets is the string of cafes along the seventh-floor outdoor terrace of the La Rinascente department store, including Obika Mozzarella Bar, (885 2453, obika.it). Parallel to the Duomo, sneak in a quick coffee and croissant during breakfast at Maio (885 2455, maiorestaurant.com), where you can spy on elegantly dressed fashion heavyweights having breakfast meetings. Low-fat treats for those wanting to fit into their designer gowns include Juice Bar (juicebar.it) with salads and fresh juice, and the sushi train at My Sushi (885 2456, mysushi.it) on the same floor.
Top of the town
A collaboration between fashion house and high-end sushi chain, Armani Nobu (Via Pesoni, 6231 2645, armaninobu.it) is the lunchtime eatery of choice for those who have worked up an appetite on the Quad d'Oro. Set in the Hotel Enterprise in an intimate and secluded dining space, Sophia's Restaurant (Corso Sempione 91, 3181 8855, www.sophiarestaurant.com) offers a Mediterranean menu that includes a beef fillet with black truffle and beer cheese. Cracco (Via Victor Hugo 4, 876 774, ristorantecracco.it) focuses on experimental interpretations of traditional Italian ingredients such as egg-yolk spaghetti and risotto with lemon, anchovies and cocoa.
By the glass
If you can't afford the threads, you might at least be able to afford the drinks at these designer bars. Just Cavalli (Via Luigi Camoens, 311 817, www.justcavallihollywood.it), designer Roberto Cavalli's watering hole, is in the Parco Sempione and is a favourite summer spot for twilight drinks outdoors. During winter, you might find the fashion crowd curling up in a dark corner of the Dolce & Gabbana Martini Bar, (below, Corso Venezia 15, 7601 1154, www.dolce gabbana.it /martini). 10 Corso Como (Via Corso Como 10, 657 2021, www.fashion cafe.it) is run by a sister of Vogue Italia's editor-in-chief and despite it being slightly overexposed, attracts trendy types day and night.
If the city is too expensive, make like the Milanese and escape to Lake Como. It's less than an hour away by direct train to the water's edge from Milan's Cardona Nord central station. Accommodation is much cheaper than in Milan and trains are frequent and inexpensive, allowing you to experience the best of the city (and the lake) without spending a fortune.
V Australia flies to Milan via Abu Dhabi priced from $1620. 13 82 87, vaustralia.com.au.
Visa and currency
Italian currency is the euro (€1 = 74¢). A 90-day visa is available to Australian passport holders on entry.
The Italian country code is +39, for Milan, 2. To call Milan from abroad, add +392 to the numbers listed, except for those with an asterisk, which just need +39.