While Milan has never been a place that overwhelms with its splendours, it is misguided to consider it the less attractive, industrial stepsister of Venice, Florence and Rome. Inhabited by one of Europe's most sophisticated urban populations, it is very much a city of secrets. Curious travellers – and locals – who take the time to discover her many hidden gems, both old and new, will be surprised.
The best gelato in town can be can be found at Riva Reno, or at the more traditional Sorbetteria Castiglione, both in the Brera district. The most historic enoteca is nearby at Cotti, a favourite hangout of oenophiles and journalists. Another happy discovery is the recently opened Refettorio, located in a palazzo on Via dell'Orso and overlooking a perfectly proportioned courtyard. Go also for the friendly service and locally sourced daily menu.
It is worth the trek to Cornaredo, a town 20 kilometres northwest of Milan, to sample the food of rising young star Davide Oldani. Despite his one Michelin star, Oldani has stuck to his guns, remaining committed to serving the freshest ingredients and innovative cuisine at reasonable prices. He graciously visited with every table on the day we were there. His signature dish, a caramelized onion tart with Grana Padano gelato is not to be missed. Reservations (a month or two in advance) are a must.
The quest for the best espresso ended up being a pilgrimage to a coffee bar and roastery recommended by a native Milanese friend. My taxi driver thought me crazy to be looking for what, in his mind, simply did not exist: a decent coffee anywhere outside of Naples. But when we arrived at Torrefazione Hodeidah on Via Piero della Francesca, which has not changed a bit since it opened in 1946, I was not disappointed. Even my cabbie had to admit it was the best espresso he had ever had in Milan.
Most gardens and terraces in Milan take the form of private rooftops and courtyards, but a few do not require a VIP invitation. My host, a 50-year resident of Milan, accompanied me to a restaurant she had recently visited while on a tour of Milan's first modern office building. Located on the fourth floor, La Terrazza boasts sweeping views of Piazza Cavour and the Giardini Pubblici and feels a world away from the city's buzz. Swiss Corner, a hip and busy spot on the ground floor of the same building, is the perfect perch for an aperitivo and people-watching.
The terrace with the best view of the Duomo at sunset is the rooftop bar at the ultracontemporary and colourful Hotel Boscolo, while the garden of the more understated Hotel Bulgari is unparalleled for its seclusion and luxury. My host was as delighted as I to discover this oasis on a private road located in the middle of everything. The experience of sipping an Aperol Spritz (the preferred libation for Northern Italians in the summertime) in a bucolic setting where birds sing and churchbells ring, is well worth the hefty price tag.
The recently renovated Gallerie d'Italia Piazza Scala is free to explore and small enough to enjoy in an hour or two. Exhibits on mid-20th century Italian spatialism and Emilio Isgro's installation L'ora italiana (Italian Time) are the highlights on the main floor. The Triennale Design Museum will appeal to lovers of contemporary Italian design. It overlooks the gardens of the Castello Sforzesco and has a well-curated bookshop. Canadian photographer Jeff Wall's retrospective Actuality is showing at Milan's foremost and free contemporary art gallery, PAC (Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea), until January.
Antonio Spera's Bikram Milano, the city's only hot yoga studio, is the place to go to rub sweaty shoulders with supermodels striving to keep their weight down, Milanesi who are eager to try something new and cool expats. Classes are offered in both English and Italian. A few doors down is Pizzeria Spontini, serving up slices since 1953, and just the place to retoxify, Italian-style, after class.