Quite happy to leave the embroiled politics of national government to Rome, Milan prides itself on being the country's economic, cultural and design capital. This is Italy at its most fashionable self-assured and sophisticated. Yet despite its prestigious museums, excellent restaurants, shopping and magnificent Gothic cathedral, tourists do not think of Milan as an obvious holiday destination - though some do make the pilgrimage just for Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. But anyone interested in contemporary Italian life will want to experience its cafes and clubs, elegant shopping avenues and side-street art galleries.
Nowhere does a cathedral (the Duomo) more distinctly dominate a major city centre. Almost non-stop throughout the day, but especially at that magic moment of the passeggiata, the Piazza del Duomo is one of the liveliest squares in Europe.
People gather around the cafes, kiosks and shopping arcades, the young on their mobile phones confirming evening plans, the pensionati talking football (soccer) and politics, all in the shad
ow of the Duomo (open daily 6.45am-6.45pm). The most .. grandiose of Italy's flamboyant Gothic cathedrals, it was begun
in 1386 by the ruling Visconti family and involved teams of Ital
ian, French, Flemish and German architects and sculptors.
For the best view of that awesomely rich facade, completed in 1813,
and a bristling silhouette of marble pinnacles and statues, stand
in the courtyard of the Palazzo Reale south of the cathedral. (It houses the Cathedral Museum, which displays fine examples of sculpture from the facade.) The cathedral's interior is a vast and noble space divided by 52 soaring columns and stained-glass windows, from the 15th century to the present day.
Give yourself plenty of time for a spectacular walk out on the roof (open daily 9am-5.3Opm). The lift entrance (clearly signposted outside the cathedral) is in the right transept. Wander high above the city turmoil under the flying buttresses and around the statues (2,245 in all) and forest of pinnacles for an unbeatable view of the city.
Leading north from the Piazza del Duomo, the huge cross-shaped shopping arcade of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is a splendid steel and glass monument to the expansive commercial spirit of the 19th century and a prototype of today's shopping mall. Cafes, restaurants, bookshops and boutiques are showcased in its unabashed neo-Renaissance decor.
The Galleria provides a sheltered passage from the Duomo to another holy entity, the revered 18th-century La Scala theatre, high temple of opera. In January 2002, it closed for renovation and until 2005 performances are being held at Teatro degli Arcimboldi, a brand-new theatre in the Bicocca district to the north of the city. The Opera House Museum has been re-housed in Palazzo Busca, Corso Magenta,71.
Milan's most prestigious retail thoroughfare is Via Monte Napoleone, an august parade of neoclassical palazzi and luxury shops. A grid of narrow side streets such as Via Borgospesso, Via Sant' Andrea, Via delia Spiga and Via Bagutta transport you into an elegant and tranquil 18th-century world, graced by the overflow of high-fashion shops, galleries, antique shops and the smartest trattorie.
Around Castello Sforzesco
The massive brick fortress, the Castello Sforzesco (open Tues-Sun 9.30am-5.30pm), situated northwest of the city centre, was built by the Visconti and rebuilt in its present form in the 15th century by Duke Francesco Sforza.
without Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece in the adjoinng refectory, the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, (Via ndosso, southwest of the Castello; open Tues-Fri and Sun til 7.30pm, Sat 8.30am-l1.30pm; reduced winter hours) ''''·coJd be worth a visit as a jewel of Renaissance architecture. _~g to an earlier Gothic design, Donato Bramante –
Pope chief architect in Rome - fashioned a magnificent brick and white stone chancel (tribuna) in 1492. The eful Jines of the rectangular choir and 16-sided cupola are yiewed from the little cloister that he built on the north Inside, stand in the choir to appreciate the full majesty of it all.