If you’ve ever wondered what to see when you visit Milan, read our alternative guide to Italy’s fashion capital and plan on spending some time in trendy Via Tortona. It’s not amongst the usual lists of things to do in Milan but we think it’s a great way to combine culture and lifestyle and get to the heart of this iconic city.
Beyond the matrix of overhead cables and tramlines of Porta Genova train station, cross a green iron bridge – currently hung with brightly-coloured pairs of trousers – to enter the world of Via Tortona Design District. A former industrial neighbourhood, still marked by the presence of monolithic warehouses and square lots designed to welcome trucks and juggernauts – this is the new creative heart of Milan, and it shows. During Milan Fashion Week (Milano Moda Donna), Milano Design Week and the Salone del Mobile (Milan’s outrageously trendy fashion week for furniture design), you can’t move for models and wannabees jostling to get in to the top showrooms and designer parties. But off season, it’s a calm, interesting neighbourhood incubating some of the city’s (and the country’s) top case della moda, while still paying homage to its industrial roots. Here are 10 reasons to head for Via Tortona when you visit Milan and discover another side to the stylish capital of the north.
1. Visit Milan: Dolce & Gabbana street art
In the spring of 2015, Elton John famously issued a fatwa against Italian fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana following their comments about artificial insemination and gay adoption, creating the hashtag #BoycottDolceGabbana. At the time, Dolce & Gabbana were launching their AW15 collection with the hashtag #DGFamily illustrated by what was perhaps seen as a more traditional family model. While the furore still hasn’t died down, D&G’s street art on Via Tortona, in front of the Deloitte building, perhaps goes a little closer to what (we hope) they intended to say – not all families look alike, and that’s ok!
Found traced on the pavement near via Tortona 25
2. Visit Milan: Cheap, high quality handbag stores
There’s a cluster of no-name leather workshops along this street selling quality leather handbags, man-bags and wallets at excellent prices. I visited M8 and the Temporary Hub at number 16 and was extremely impressed by the quality and style. No, I won’t tell you how many I bought – some things have to remain a state secret!
The Temporary Hub, via Tortona 16
3. Visit Milan: Some of the best boutique hotels in Milan
Via Tortona also happens to boast a couple of the best design hotels in Milan. You can’t stay in the cult nhow Hotel for love nor money during Fashion Week – it’s booked up by fashion royalty and is a prime location for parties and temporary shows. However, on a normal week this 4-star hotel is great place to check in and is surprisingly affordable. My quick nhow Milan review: I loved the spacious rooms and the enormous buffet breakfast. Despite its liveliness, the rooms are dead quiet and the beds divine. Check the Milan Fashion Week dates before booking.
Hotel Magna Pars Suites is an insanely cool design hotel which backs onto via Tortona, boasting a deceptively spacious interior modelled on industrial spaces, rendered deluxe with an all-white choice of decor. Affiliated with Small Luxury Hotels of the World, a stay here is a bit of a treat but will plunge you right into the Via Tortona design ethic (again, probably best to avoid Milan Fashion Week 2016 or the Salone del Mobile 2017 dates though).
4. Visit Milan: The awe-inspiring MUDEC – Milan’s Museum of Culture
MUDEC, Milan’s museum of culture, is actually far more than just a museum. In the early 90s, Milan City Council bought the old Ansaldo industrial plant at Porta Genova to not only preserve the memory of the economic and social processes which have shaped the city’s identity, but also to create a new space for exhibitions, collaborations and workshops.
There’s a nice balance between permanent and temporary collections and it’s a place to set your imagination on fire the next time you visit Milan.
5. Visit Milan: Top aperitivo bars in the Milanese tradition
If you don’t know much about the aperitivo culture in Milan, via Tortona is a great district to get to grips with it. Italy took the French term aperitif – a drink before dining – and blended it with an Italian obsessiveness for eating a little something whenever you consume alcohol (I’m not complaining). It also apparently owes something to the Anglo Saxon tradition of the happy hour, although I’m not totally convinced as this is evidently a much more civilised affair. What it does mean is that when you go for that post-work snifter you’re usually offered a few snacks in Italy, free of charge. This has blown up in Milan to an incredible buffet culture where you can practically dine with the offerings available as you drink. I tried trendy God Save the Food at via Tortona 34 and was really impressed with its healthy buffet, featuring Nicois and chicken salads as well as a range of vegetables, frittatas and nibbles. Cocktails are priced at around €10 but the buffet is free. Imminently opening, look out for the second set of premises for The Botanical Club, Italy’s first Small Batch Gin distillery with American Bar & Bistro, at via Tortona 33, for the next time you visit Milan.
6. Visit Milan: On-Trend Milan boutiques
As you might expect, there’s some great shopping to be done along this street. I liked the KCBeachwear boutique at via Tortona 19, the gorgeous retro sandals and loafers at Bottegatre, via Tortona 12, and the fun bags and accessories of the O Bag store. There are also plenty of temporary stores popping up week in and week out, fitting the street’s fashion warehouse vibe.
KCBeachware boutique, via Tortona 19
7. Visit Milan: Outstanding Italian architecture
From the industrial green iron bridge that takes you from Porta Genova station to Via Tortona, to Deloitte’s striking headquarters at number 25, there are a lot of reasons to look up along this street. Deloitte’s headquarter building was completed in 2004 by Mario Cucinella Architects and it still packs a punch with its bright terracotta-coloured walls against a blue sky.
8. Visit Milan: The iconic HQs of fashion royalty including Armani
Diesel, Ermenegildo Zegna and Armani all have headquarters in this district, and while you used to have to just tiptoe past their addresses in the hope of catching a star glimpse, Armani recently switched things up by opening Armani Silos, part museum, part cultural hub. Here you can gaze upon historical collections and peer into workshops, or book yourself into the digital archive. The avant-garde concrete space somehow perfectly offsets the faded velvet and glorious tailoring of the past. Definitely bookmark this one for the next time you visit Milan.
9. Visit Milan: Some of the best restaurants in Milan
I’d spotted Osteria Delbinari on Yelp before reaching the area and wasn’t disappointed. From the outside, it looks like a down-at-heel eatery which could perhaps seat 20 guests. Inside, it just keeps opening up and up into a fabulous green garden. The food is great and they have professional sommeliers on hand to help you choose the wine, but the restaurant is also extremely reasonably priced and the staff don’t get sniffy if you opt for the house wine (always important). Look out too for the enchanting Les Gitanes Bistro with a refined, essentially Italian menu that tips its hat to France.
10. Visit Milan: The glorious Navigli (canals)
Return back over the green iron bridge and head down via Casale to reach the Naviglio Grande, Milan’s principal canal, the origins of which lie in its industrial past. These days, it’s quiet in the winter but the place to eat and drink in the spring and summer when bars and restaurants rocking a nautical theme open their doors and terraces to the cool local crowd. We like fashionable Mag for a drink or two but explore to see what takes your fancy.