Elegance all around

My kind of place The northern Italian city has a style and grandeur that always seems to impress, John Brunton writes.

The Piazza del Duomo is a good starting place to experience the pleasures of Milan.
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When I first came to live in Italy, it was a tough choice to decide between Milan and Venice. Although the Serenissima won out in the end, Milan has become one of my favourite destinations for a fun weekend. Milan can rightly claim to be the fashion capital of Europe: more concentrated on design than Paris, more timeless than the swinging trends that pass through London. Fashion permeates every facet of life in the bustling capital of northern Italy. You see it not just in the endless couture boutiques, cutting-edge furniture showrooms, luxury hotels, elegant cocktail bars and chic restaurants, but also out on the streets, in the Milanese themselves, who have a natural elegance that sets them apart from other Italians.

For sure, many people come here for a single reason - to go shopping. Well, you won't be disappointed, because the city has something for everyone, from budget shoppers hunting down bargains in off-the-beaten-track outlet stores to platinum-card clients who never move out of the elite Montenapoleone neighbourhood, passing from the flagship showrooms of the likes of Valentino or Prada to Missoni or Moschino. But there is an awful lot more to Milan than shopping. For cultural sightseeing, you will discover the most imposing cathedral in all Italy, the grand medieval Sforza castle, the fabulous art collection of masterpieces by Caravaggio, Raphael, Piero della Francesca and Mantegna in the Pinoteca di Brera. Jump aboard the trademark yellow Milanese trams and head over to a wonderful neighbourhood, the Navigli, grouped around a pretty canal, where you'll find antique stores open during the day, traditional trattorias and funky bars at night.

The arbiter of style here is the Four Seasons Milano (www.fourseasons.com/milan; 00 39 02 77088). More than just a hotel, this is the critical meeting point for glamorous people, and whether you join the celebrity clientele and book a suite, are invited to an exclusive fashion cocktail, or dine in the gourmet Il Teatro restaurant, there is always a palpable buzz here. Double rooms cost from US$922 (Dh3,386), not including breakfast. Fashionistas looking for a good deal can also check in at the newly-opened and desperately hip Maison Moschino (www.maisonmoschino.com; 00 39 02 29009858), where doubles cost from $285 (Dh1,046) including breakfast.

Even though I've been here dozens of times, I still always begin a visit to Milan by heading straight to the Piazza del Duomo, dominated by the incredible facade of the world's largest Gothic cathedral. The interior is impressive, but the best idea is to slip round to a side door, where a lift whisks you right up to the roof. Here, you can literally walk across the whole of the cathedral, and the panoramic views are breathtaking.

Back in the piazza, on one side there is the excellent Contemporary Art Museum housed in the Palazzo Reale, the Royal Palace, which hosts cutting-edge art and photographic exhibitions. And on the other side a grand entrance takes you into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a magnificent glass-domed arcaded gallery that, when it was built in 1864, could claim to be the first-ever shopping mall. This may no longer be the ultimate shopping address, but "il salone di Milano", as it is known, remains the favourite meeting place of the city's movers and shakers.

The key concept to understand in Milan is the "aperitivo". Milanese society revolves around the early evening aperitivo, be it for after-work bankers and brokers, fashion designers and the media crowd, or artists, students and actors. The idea is simple: you pay a seemingly expensive $10 (Dh37) for a drink - be it a Negroni cocktail, sparkling Prosecco or a simple fruit juice - but included in the price is an extravagant buffet that often means you don't need to go on to a restaurant for dinner later. Every part of town has its own particular aperitivo bar. Fashion shoppers should try the historic Oxa Tearoom on Via Montenapoleone or head over to Roberto Cavalli's own place, Just Cavalli Cafe (Torre Branca, Viale Camoens) where models hang out at the Ron Arad-designed bar on antelope-skin upholstered stools. Classical music lovers can check out the Caffe Scala (Via Santa Margherita 14) just by the opera house, and for the ultimate party night out there is Il Gattopardo Cafe (Via Piero della Francesca 47), a 200-year-old deconsecrated chapel with a soaring cupola that has been converted into the city's hottest club.

There are plenty of trendy places to dine, but if you reserve in only one place then it has to be the timeless Bebel's Ristorante (Via San Marco 38, 00 39 02 6571658), rarely featured in guidebooks but the ideal spot to taste authentic Milanese cuisine, from the silky saffron flavour of a "risotto alla Milanese" to the tangy tomato and succulent veal that makes the perfect "osso bucco". Expect to pay around $45 (Dh165) for dinner.

It is easy to believe that shopping in Milan begins and ends in the "Quadrilatero d'Oro", an area of luxury couture showrooms bounded by Via Montenapoleone, Via Manzoni, Via della Spiga and Via Sant'Andrea. Housed in a contrasting mix of beautifully restored ancient palazzi and state-of-the-art minimalist designer spaces, you can choose between famous Italian brands like Gianfranco Ferre, Loro Piana, Gucci, Anna Molinari's Blumarine, Dolce & Gabbana and Romeo Gigli, or more internationally renowned names like John Galliano, Junia Watanabe and Dries van Noten, which you'll find all under one roof at Banner (Via Sant'Andrea 8). Armani is pretty much everywhere - they have six stores dotted around town - though the flagship is definitely the vast Armani Via Manzoni (Via Manzoni 31). For those interested in interiors, visit the showrooms of two of Italy's most iconic design names - Alessi (Corso Matteotti 9) and Artemide (Corso Monforte 19).

Milan is football crazy, so on derby day avoid bars screening matches as tempers can run high when AC Milan, owned by Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, play Inter Milan.

Brave the inevitable long queues to view one of Italy's most famous paintings, the recently restored Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, displayed in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent. Afterwards, be sure to wander round the romantic gardens and cloisters.