I’d been itching to get back to Italy ever since we moved to Europe. In fact, I’d been itching to get back to Italy ever since I studied abroad in Rome fall of my junior year, twelve years ago. Fall 2018 was packed pretty tight with trips, but we found one final free weekend of the year, mid-November, sandwiched between Paris and Bombay. Plenty of direct trains run daily from Zurich to Milan, so without much thought and zero research, we were booked for 48 hours in Milan.
The journey was easy and comfortable, trains all arriving into the spectacularly beautiful Milano Centrale. A mix of genres, from Art Deco to Art Nouveau, with soaring steel and glass domes sheltering the main platform, the station’s design was a quick reminder that we were in a fashion capital of the world. But as is true with many sites throughout Europe and the world, the history behind the architecture reveals a starker meaning: built in the 1930s, the imposing design of the building’s facade was intended to showcase the dominance of then-Prime Minister Mussolini's fascist regime.
We arrived late on Friday night. Not necessarily late by Italian standards - people were probably just sitting down to dinner - but it was pouring rain and after finding our way to the AirBnB using Milan’s excellent metro system, decided to stay in to give ourselves a fresh Saturday start.
We were staying in the Ticinese quarter, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, in a typical Milanese balcony house. It looked out into a small interior courtyard, which felt cheery despite the weather, the neighbors watering their plants and shaking rugs out the windows of their saffron-colored buildings.
The second we ventured out on Saturday, the nostalgia hit me straight in the face. I never made it this far north during my time in Rome, but there were still so many familiar snippets. The language, of course, that song of a language that lives up to it’s romance even when it’s being shouted, the blue boxes of hazelnut Baci chocolate, the little old Italian ladies with their carts from the market. It was like catching a whiff of a scent, maybe something you couldn’t quite put your finger at first, but then it suddenly transports you to an exact time and place. Italy, I missed you.
This was still a new city, though, and we had lots to explore. We decided against trying to find last minute tickets for Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, so that morning we walked over to see the Duomo and Galleria. Ah-ha. This is where Milan was hiding all the tourists.
It’s understandable, though. Milan’s famed Duomo, a behemoth of a Gothic cathedral, is a sight to behold. Over 3000 statues and gargoyles, rooftop adorned with hundreds of spires, built from blocks of Candoglia marbles all slightly tinted with varying degrees of pink, carved with incredibly intricate detail. It’s impressive from every angle, which you can appreciate if you walk around the entire city block the church encompasses. I only slightly regret not having the patience to wait to go inside, but again, we failed to reserve tickets in advance and the queue was intimidatingly long.
The Galleria (full name Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II after the first King of Italy), the country’s oldest shopping mall, is right off the Duomo plaza and is worth at least a walk through, if only to take in more gorgeous architecture. It’s a really pretty mall! Raunaq began narrating his interpretation of the 2018 winter collection from the display windows of the holy trinity (Louis Vuitton, Prada, Versace), which had me snorting away. Street fashion in Milan, though, is no joke. It’s bright and loud and confident, a striking difference from the monochrome black of New York and the chic “undone-ness” of Paris. It’s fun!
We wandered through the rest of the day, eating and drinking. Thin, crispy focaccia brushed simply with olive oil and sea salt from Focacceria Manuelina, a stand quite curiously located inside a designer sunglasses store. Next, panzerotti from Luini, deep-fried pockets of dough filled with mozzarella and tomato sauce. And lunch, where in landlocked-Milan we found a bustling seafood-sandwich shop famous for a fried octopus panini and raw shellfish, the briny ocean smell bringing salty sunshine to the afternoon’s gray skies.
We walked in and out of art galleries in Brera, stopped for an aperitivo in a wine shop in the middle of Chinatown, ate nocciola gelato. Raunaq had read about a new-ish bar, Bar Luce, designed by Wes Anderson. It was cooler in theory than in execution. I guess there was no avoiding it’s fate as a tourist trap. We had a couple of sub-par cocktails and people-watched for a bit, which mostly went like this: man from Wes Anderson movie takes an Instagrammable-photo of a Wes Anderson pinball machine in a Wes Anderson bar. What was cooler, though, is the building Bar Luce was housed in, the art and culture complex Fondazione Prada. That was something worth checking out tomorrow.
And yes, after all the aforementioned eating and drinking, we got still got pizza for dinner (at Berbere.) When in Rome - er, Milan. Our goal was to check out the scene in Navigli district, the area of town crisscrossed with canals and lined with bar after disco after club. The sidewalks were thronged with people by 11pm. We had eaten what felt like our weight in pizza, and there was no way I would be able to consume the amount of alcohol necessary to make the crowds bearable and/or fun. After popping into a small brewery for some IPAs (I’ll sniff those out anywhere I can. #hoppiness), Raunaq and I made our way through the masses and called it a night.
The wind and the rain picked up on our walk home, and my flimsy travel umbrella was no match. Does anyone else get unreasonably embarrassed when their umbrella flips inside out? I don’t know why, but I do. I was struggling to flip the damn thing back, getting soaked in my struggle, when a tiny old Italian woman walked straight up to me, shouted “STOP!” to my defiant umbrella, and gave it a sharp wallop with her own umbrella. It flipped back immediately, almost shamefully, as if it had been scolded back into form. Raunaq and I couldn’t stop laughing.
If Saturday was all about grazing, Sunday was all about feasting, and Un Posto a Milano was the place to do it. Our train home wasn’t until 7:30 that night, and it felt like we had all the time in the world. It’s been a while since we had a long, leisurely meal like this one. The kind where you don’t even think twice about ordering the bottle instead of a glass because you’ve got the time and you are in no hurry whatsoever.
And oh god, the food. The homemade breadsticks, the cacio e pepe, the eggplant, the five-course dessert tasting menu that turned out to be less of a tasting and more of just five servings of dessert. Raunaq went full-Roman Emperor and had to take a five-minute nap to try and digest all the food halfway through. We ordered double shots of espresso. Our waiter, so impressed by every dished scraped clean, brought us complimentary glasses of limoncello to finish everything off. It was the perfect spot to spend three hours over lunch. We would go back to Milan just to eat here again.
Finally, we made our way back to Fondazione Prada. It’s a culture institution created by the founder of Prada with a bunch of programs supporting the arts, and in 2015, they converted a century-old distillery into a permanent center for Milan. Since we spent so long at lunch, we only had time to visit “Atlas,” the permanent exhibition housed within six levels of the looming concrete Torre building. Quite literally, a tower of art.
One level had a trio of candy-red classic cars, each slightly different. Another had a famous piece by Damien Hirst, “Who’s Afraid of the Dark?,” which he created by gluing thousands of dead flies to a wall-sized canvas. Another installation centered around Jeff Koon’s human-sized aluminum tulips, while the last level took you through a pitch-black sensory deprivation tunnel until you emerged in a room turned upside-down with gigantic mushrooms slowly spinning on the ceiling. It was weird and wonderful.
In a country like Italy where the city competition is truly fierce, I came to appreciate Milan. It feels like an authentically Italian, no-bullshit working city, gritty and filled with contrasts, cool and up-and-coming, with undeniably great food and superb style.