Strategically located at the gateway to the Italian peninsula, Milan and the surrounding region of Lombardy have been the subject of constant disputes over the centuries.
Established in 400 BCE by Celtic Insubres, Milan was subsequently conquered by Romans, who declared it the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 293 AD. In 1492, the French King Louis XII laid claim to Milan, capturing it from the Swiss mercenaries who defended the city. Thirty years later, it fell into the hands of the Austrian Habsburgs, and for the next three centuries pinged back and forth between French, Spanish, and Austrian rule. In 1859, after a protracted period of political squabbling, Milan was incorporated into the Kingdom of Sardinia, which was renamed the Kingdom of Italy two years later.
Rapid industrialization elevated Milan’s wealth and status, and in the 1950s and 1960s, the city became the country’s leading financial center. In the 1980s, the world began to take notice of Milan’s textile export and clothing industry, and designers such as Armani, Versace, and Dolce & Gabbana placed the city firmly on the fashion map. Today Milan is home to 1.3 million residents and is threatening Paris's century-old status as the world’s capital of haute couture, or high fashion.
It is said that all roads lead to Rome, but in Milan, all roads lead to the Duomo di Milano, the world’s fourth-largest cathedral, which took a staggering five centuries to complete. Milan’s streets either radiate from the Duomo or circle it, revealing that it occupies what was the city's most central location during Roman times. The Gothic architecture of the Duomo comprises 135 spires and 3,500 marble statues complete with a golden Madonna, or Madunina, on top of the spire, a symbol of the city. Visitors can climb to the top of the roof for a commanding view of the area, and on a clear day, the Alps.
The Duomo is located on the central Piazza del Duomo, which is surrounded by a number of other iconic buildings. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is an extremely upscale shopping mall that connects the Piazza del Duomo with the Piazza della Scala. The arcade blends an elegant combination of iron and glass and was officially opened in 1867 by Vittorio Emanuele II, king of a recently unified Italy.
Adjacent to the Galleria is another Milanese landmark: the imposing Teatro alla Scala. This opera house, opened in 1778, is one of the world’s leading opera and ballet theaters and over the past two centuries has welcomed some of Italy’s greatest artists.
Other attractions include the 15th-century church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. While the church is beautiful in its own right, it is the refectory’s fresco of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper that is responsible for drawing crowds and earning the church its UNESCO World Heritage status.
Food in Milan is generally excellent; however, steer clear of the tourist areas as standards are noticeably lower and prices are considerably higher.
Typically Milanese dishes include ossobuco—a stew of braised veal shanks—and risotto alla Milanese— a rice dish prepared with saffron, onions, and white wine. Lombardy, and therefore Milan, is well known for its dairy produce, so expect plenty of butter, cream, and cheese. The city is also the birthplace of Panettone, a dry fruit cake traditionally given as a gift at Christmas.
Nightlife in Milan is vibrant. Most bars and restaurants serve aperitivo (a buffet of antipasti, free with drinks) between 6 and 9 pm; this is a Milanese institution. These venues tend to close around midnight, at which time the energetic move on to the nightclubs (discoteca), which stay open till 4 am. Milan’s fashionistas and beautiful people can usually be found hanging out in a number of fashion-label bars and clubs, with the Brera Gallery, Navigli, and San Lorenzo areas being particularly popular.
Forty kilometers north of Milan is Lake Como, Italy’s third-largest lake. A retreat for aristocrats since Roman times, the surrounding area is a popular tourist attraction with numerous villas and palaces lining the shore. A superb venue for sailing, windsurfing, and celebrity spotting, the lake also features beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife.