48 Hours: Milan

With new flights and a spring in its step, this elegant city is all the more appealing, says Simon Calder.

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

As spring takes hold in northern Italy, the cultural and commercial hub is moving outdoors. The city's rich array of attractions blends perfectly with al fresco life. And with two airlines starting up new routes this week from Gatwick, Milan is even easier to reach.

Touch down

The new services on Monarch and Air One – along with numerous existing flights on Alitalia, BA and easyJet – land at Malpensa airport, 30 miles north-west of the city. The Malpensa Express is the main rail link into town, serving Cadorna station (1) in about 40 minutes (€11). An hourly train serves Centrale station (2), and takes 50 minutes (€7).

Linate airport, six miles east of the centre, is served by Alitalia and BA from Heathrow and by easyJet from Gatwick. Bus 73 leaves every 10 minutes, taking 25 minutes to Piazza San Babila (3). Buy a €1.50 ticket in advance from the machine adjacent to the stop, and stamp it in the machine on the bus; you can use the same ticket on connecting public transport within 90 minutes. A non-stop version, the X73 (same fare), runs every 20 minutes on weekdays.

Get your bearings

The focal point of Milan is the Duomo (4), one of the largest cathedrals in the world. From this point, the trendy bar-laden districts of Porta Ticinese and Navigli are to the south, and the more genteel Brera to the north – with a shiny new financial district rising beyond Porta Garibaldi station (5). The centre of Milan's fashion universe, otherwise known as the Quadrilatero d'Oro (Golden Rectangle), is north-east of the Duomo (4).

The western edge of the city centre is marked by Piazza Castello, half-encircling the Castello Sforzesco (6), and location for the tourist office (7) at number 1 (00 39 02 7740 4343; visitamilano.it); open 9am-6pm daily, until 5pm on Sundays.

Check in

For location and style, try the new Palazzo Segreti (8) at Via San Tomaso 8 (00 39 02 4952 9250; palazzosegreti.com), tucked away just off the Via Dante. In the 18 individually styled rooms, earthy tones are offset by splashes of colour. Doubles from €275, B&B.

The Bulgari Hotel (9) is tucked away at Via Privata Fratelli Gabba 7b (00 39 02 805 8051; bulgari hotels.com), a gemstone's throw from the Golden Rectangle; €671 for a double (excluding breakfast).

North of the Giardini Pubblici, at the friendly, family-run three-star Hotel Sempione (10) at via Finocchiaro Aprile 11 (00 39 02 657 0323; www.hotelsempione.it), doubles are €80, room only.

Take a view

The best panorama – sometimes stretching as far as the Alps – is from the roof terraces of the Duomo (4), which you can get to either by climbing just over 250 steps (€6), or by taking the lift (€10) (duomomilano.it); 9am-7pm daily. Afterwards, explore the splendid cathedral itself (7am-7pm daily, admission free, no shorts or big bags).

Day one

Take a hike

From the Duomo (4), walk through the elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (11). You emerge in the Piazza Scala, with the Teatro alla Scala (12) (00 39 02 88 791; teatroallascala.org) – one of the world's premier opera houses – looking surprisingly modest. Walk down the street to the right of the Scala, the Via Verdi, which is lined with boutiques and galleries. It continues north as Via Brera.

Lunch on the run

You hear Bar Brera (13) at Via Brera 22 before you see it – the terrace outside is always lively. Pastries, sandwiches and all kinds of Mediterranean delights are on offer for lunch from Tuesdays to Saturdays.

Cultural afternoon

The marvellous Pinacoteca di Brera (14), part of the palace at Via Brera 28 (00 39 02 7226 3264; www.brera.beniculturali.it; 8.30am-7.15pm daily except Mon; €6), is a showcase for masterpieces by some of the great artists of the 13th to the 20th centuries. Highlights are Mantegna's Lamentation of Christ and Raphael's The Marriage of the Virgin altarpiece. Caravaggio, Piero della Francesca, Rembrandt and Goya are also represented.

Window shopping

Lavori in corso, "work in progress", evident everywhere in Milan, is especially irksome on one of the primary shopping streets, Via Montenapoleone, or "Montenapo". Showcases for luxury brands such as Versace, Prada and the flagship Gucci store (15) are half-hidden while the road is dug up. The parallel Via della Spiga offers Miu Miu, Roberto Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana (16).

To spend rather than merely window-shop, one of the more personal and unusual stores is south of the Duomo (4): for a hand-made handbag, visit Travi (17) at Corso di Porta Ticinese 30 (00 39 02 8940 4202; 9.30am-7.30pm daily except Sundays).

An aperitif

Watch the sun sink over the main square from almost the same viewpoint as you enjoyed at the start of the day, only this time with a glass of prosecco or an Angelo Poretti beer in hand. The open-air Il Bar (00 39 02 885 2454; ilbarmilano.it) is on the seventh floor of the Rinascente (18).

Dining with the locals

At the top of Corso di Porta Ticinese, you can see 16 Corinthian columns from a pagan temple of the 2nd to 3rd century AD – and, behind them, the San Lorenzo alle Colonne, a superb 4th-century basilica.

You can also see ZeroDue (19) at number 6. This stylish restaurant (00 39 02 8942 0241; zeroduemilano.com; open daily except Monday) is named after the dialling code for Milan, 02.

It occupies part of the remains of a 15th-century convent on Roman foundations. Beneath the brick arches, dine on penne alla puttanesca (with tomatoes, capers and olives) for €9, or the house salad, which is laden with chicken, bacon and even blackberries.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The artistic pinnacle of Milan – and arguably Italy – is Leonardo da Vinci's fresco of The Last Supper, painted on the wall of the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (20), in the west of the city. Book by phone (00 39 02 9280 0360) or online at www.cenacolovinciano.net for a 15-minute slot as soon as you buy your flights – don't wait until you arrive in Milan. Tickets are available 8am-7.15pm daily except Mondays and May Day, price €6.

A walk in the park

The 15th-century Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza, was the man responsible for both Santa Maria delle Grazie and the reconstruction of the fortress known as Castello Sforzesco (6) (00 39 02 8846 3700; www.milano castello.it; 7am-6pm daily) at Piazza Castello. The castle houses a collection of museums, but on a fine day your attention will be drawn to the vast, elaborate Parco Sempione – the largest green space in central Milan.

Out to brunch

Feast your way through the €30 Mediterranean buffet, served on Sundays from noon to 4pm, at the Cantina della Vetra (21) at Via Pio IV 3 (00 39 02 8940 3843; www.cantinadellavetra.it). This big, busy and very popular enoteca serves an array of charcuterie, seafood, vegetables and sticky desserts in abundant quantities; the price includes coffee.

Take a ride

Milan has recently acquired a bike-rental scheme, named bikeMi, with stables of bicycles dotted around the city – including one outside the Cantina della Vetra (21). Registering for the day costs €2.50, but as long as you keep each individual hire to less than half an hour there's no further charge to your credit card – you can use a bike as often as you like.

The trams in Milan take you back to a different era – many of the 1920s editions are still running. Buy a €1.50 ticket from a tobacconist or metro station, then hop aboard tram 2 or 14 going north from Largo Carrobbio (22), making sure to stamp the ticket at the machine at the front. It zig-zags north, and you should get off where the lines cross Via Paolo Sarpi (23). Then walk a short way east to the final stop.

The icing on the cake

The collector and entrepreneur Carla Sozzani has created a concept store in a former Fiat garage at 10 Corso Como (24), whose name is also its address (00 39 02 2901 3581; www.10corsocomo.com). In a shady courtyard full of greenery, art, home furnishings, books, music and clothes are sold under one roof, alongside a restaurant (half of which spills out into the courtyard) which serves modern Italian fusion food. There is an excellent (and free) gallery.

Additional research by William Severs.

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