Fashion Week descends on Milan this week (19-25 September) with all the Italian houses holding events in private venues across the "Quadrilatero della Moda" or Fashion District. Over the past 25 years, Milan has emerged as one of the four cities that dominate world fashion. The hub of Italian couture is a remarkably small area north-east of the Gothic cathedral, and is a good way to get to know Milan. This is a working city whose sights need seeking out.
Start at Piazza San Babila, a busy intersection that used to lie just outside Milan's medieval walls. In the Middle Ages, merchants had to declare their goods at this gate before entering the city. The red brick church of San Babila (00 39 02 7639 4297) dates back to 1095.
From here you can enter the Fashion District up Via Bagutta. This street of restaurants and antiques shops was a poor bohemian area in the 1930s, frequented by artists. As you emerge on Via Sant'Andrea, Palazzo Morando is on the left, containing a very good museum of costume (00 39 02 8846 5933; costumemodaimmagine.mi.it). Vogue is staging a fashion event here, open to the public, from 21-24 September.
Walk to the intersection with Via Monte Napoleone for espresso (€1) at Caffe Cova (00 39 02 7600 5599; past icceriacova.it). This stylish sequence of rooms opened in 1829. In those days Monte Napoleone was where the aristocracy of Lombardy built its townhouses. Who would have guessed that it would one day become the most fashionable addresses for a new kind of Italian aristocracy, the Milanese couturier? Today this street is so important it even has its own glossy magazine, Monte Napoleone, and Cova is where the fashion press congregates during Fashion Week.
Now turn about and head east down Via Sant'Andrea past Chanel, Hermès, Miu Miu and Gianfranco Ferré. Crossing Via Senato and passing along Via San Primo, the Baroque building on your left is Palazzo del Senato, with its convex façade. A statue by Joan Miró stands outside.
At the intersection with the busy Corso Venezia look for the plaque on the Banca Commerciale Italiana, which commemorates the birthplace of Count Luigi Torelli, the man who hoisted a large Italian tricolour on top of the Duomo during the fight for independence in 1848.
Across Corso Venezia, weave through to Via dei Cappuccini. This area is one block after another of gorgeous early 20th-century apartments. The best is at the intersection of Cappuccini and Via Vivaio: Palazzo Berri-Meregalli (1914) was designed by Giulio Arata of Piacenza. These apartments are an unrepentant mishmash of Liberty style, oriental mosaics, statuary, cantilevers and frescos.
Turn left up Viale Piave and immediately, on the opposite side of the road, at Number 24 is a former cinema still called the Metropol. This now belongs to Dolce & Gabbana who converted it into its showroom for use during Fashion Week. Further up Viale Piave is the Hotel Diana Majestic (00 39 022 0581; sheratondianamajestic.com). Three sets of unmarked black double doors on the corner with Via Lambro signal the entrance to Gucci's private Fashion Week showrooms.
Crossing Piazza Guglielmo Oberdan, note the massive 19th-century ceremonial gates of Porta Venezia. These mark the beginning of Corso Buenos Aires, which contains about 350 fashion outlets, the highest concentration of clothing stores in Europe. Serious shoppers should divert now.
Turning back towards the city centre, enter the Giardini Pubblici, opened outside the old city walls in 1790. Here, between the park's trees, is where Alberta Ferretti stages her shows in a marquee. Keeping to the right of the Natural History Museum (00 39 02 8846 3280; comune.milano.it), see if you can spot the statue to General Giuseppe Sirtori. Sirtori was a comrade of Garibaldi who fought during the unification of Italy and died in 1874.
Emerge in Piazza Cavour and go through the 12th-century city gates known as Archi di Porta Nuova. Heading towards the city centre down Via Manzoni, the Armani Hotel Manzoni (00 39 02 8883 8888; armanihotels.com) is on your right. Here you can live the style in a hotel where every piece of furniture has been personally chosen by Giorgio Armani. Turn right in front of the Grand Hotel et de Milan (00 39 02 723 141; grandhotel etdemilan) where Giuseppe Verdi died in 1901. In the 1970s at the beginning of the Italian ligna pronto (prêt-à-porter) movement, many fashion houses presented their first shows in this hotel.
Head towards Via Borgonuovo and you'll pass the Armani Bookstore and Café (00 39 02 723 18600; armani.com). At 11 Via Borgonuovo stands a 17th-century palace that is now the headquarters of Armani. Here the "Divine Giorgio", a former Milanese medical student, will be presenting private views next week.
Galleria del Corso is a little brother to the stately Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Last year it was converted into a café, multi-store, recording studio, multiplex cinema and the Ambassador Hotel (00 39 02 7602 0241; ambasciatorihotel.it), where doubles start at €202.50 (£162), room only.
This autumn, Daniele Confalonieri of Hotel Principe di Savoia (00 39 02 62301; hotelprincipedisavoia.com) is offering Passion Night, a vodka-based cocktail which was created for last week’s 2012 Vogue Fashion Night Out, at €20 (£16) a glass.
Railbookers (020-3327 2439; railbookers.com) offers short breaks to Milan from £389 per person, including rail travel from London St Pancras via Paris and two nights’ B&B accommodation.
In the heart of the Fashion District, the Four Seasons (00 39 02 77088; fourseasons.com/Milan) at Via Gesu 6/8 offers double rooms from €676 (£542), room only.