A wealth of gastronomic delights, culture and history await visitors to northern Italy's sophisticated fashion capital. Simon Calder explores the highlights of Milan, from La Scala to the Last Supper

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

So you can get there before the fashionistas descend for Fashion Week, which starts on 19 February. Milan's regular retail, gastronomic and cultural offerings are enticing enough, but the city also offers you the chance to check out da Vinci's Last Supper for yourself.

TOUCH DOWN

The only convenient airport is Linate, six miles east of the city. Fly from Heathrow on Alitalia (08705 448 259; www.alitalia.co.uk), British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) or BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com); fares for off-peak flights, booked well in advance, are widely available for £80-£100 return; easyJet (0870 600 0000; www.easyJet.com) from Gatwick may be even cheaper. A taxi from Linate costs around €14 (£10) and takes about 15 minutes to reach the centre, outside rush hour. Bus 73 departs frequently to San Babila metro station, handy for the city centre, for the city's flat fare of €1 (£0.70). You must buy the ticket in advance from the tobacconist at the airport, and stamp in when you board the bus; you can use it to connect to other buses or the underground within 75 minutes.

BA and Alitalia also serve the much less convenient Malpensa airport, about 30 miles north-west of the city. You can fly here from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester. The first-class only Malpensa Express (which feels neither first class nor fast) takes about 45 minutes to meander into Milano Nord, which confusingly is west of the city centre. The fare is €9 (£6.50) one way or €12 (£8.50) return; validate your ticket before boarding or face a fine.

From Stansted and Prestwick, Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) serves Orio al Serio airport, 30 miles north-east, close to the town of Bergamo. The fastest way to Milan is the bus that runs roughly hourly (though with some long gaps) for a fare of €6 (£4.50) single, €11 (£8) return. It drops you at Lambrate, inconveniently suburban but on metro line number two.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The cathedral, or duomo , stands at the heart of the city. The tourist office is just south of the duomo's main entrance (00 39 02 7252 4301; www.milanoinfotourist.com); it opens 8.45am-6pm from Monday to Saturday and 9am-4pm on Sundays, but closes daily for lunch between 1 and 2pm. Two metro lines, 1 and 3, meet at Duomo station; you can buy tickets for these at the station for €1 (70p); for buses and trams, look for the sign Vendita Biglietti. But distances between the main points of interest are reasonably short, and - for an Italian city - Milan is pedestrian-friendly, with significant stretches of car-free streets. The fancy part of town is north-east of the Duomo. Brera, to the north-west, has plenty of cafés, bars and culture, though Navigli - to the south-west - is catching up as an entertainment centre. Central Station is a couple of miles north-east, well out of the centre.

TAKE A VIEW

The panorama of the Piazza del Duomo from the platform above the tourist office is slightly disfigured by the scaffolding swathing the cathedral, but the scale and grace of the square is still evident.

CHECK IN

Milan has a dozen five-star hotels, but it also offers plenty of mid-range places to stay. At weekends, rates fall because business travellers stay away; I paid €77 (£55) for a large double room including breakfast at the Hotel Sempione at Via Finocchiaro Aprile 11 (00 39 02 659 8385; www.hotelsempione.it), booked through www.LateRooms.com. The hotel is friendly and functional, and located in a quiet area close to the Giardini Pubblici. For individuality, you will pay a premium - choose the Antica Locanda Solferino, in the Brera district at Via Castelfidardo 2 (00 39 02 657 0129; www.anticalocandasolferino.it). The 11 finely furnished double rooms range in price from €140 (£100) to €190 (£135) with breakfast; four apartments are also available, starting from €200 (£140).

TAKE A RIDE

The clean-up of the duomo has been under way for a couple of years, but the dramatic roof is still accessible. Ascend in the lift on the north side to the top of this late Gothic cathedral to get some fine views of the city between a forest of slender pinnacles topped with statues. The price is €5 (£3.50); for €3.50 (£2.50) you can walk up. Opening hours are 9am-5.30pm daily, but the stairs are closed between 1 and 2pm. When you descend, explore the interior of the duomo - third-largest cathedral in the world after St Peter's in Rome and Seville.

TAKE A HIKE

Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, the pedestrian street going east from the duomo is a melange of pavement cafés, stylish shops and inspired architecture, interrupted by the massive domed church of San Carlo. Pause for an ice cream at Tre Gazzelle, a busy gelateria at number 22. Head north-west along Via San Paolo and bear left at Piazza Meda to meander through to the Piazza della Scala, facing the magnificent theatre. Go south into the gracious Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a glass-roofed arcade with elegant shops and cafés. Back on the main square, turn right to aim for the ancient market square, Piazza Mercanti. From here you can wander down to Via Spadari and the amazing Peck store, which sells ham in industrial quantities on the ground floor, wine in the basement and coffee on the first floor.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

If you don't fancy lunch at Peck, grab a slice or two of pizza from one of the many vendors in the city centre.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The Pinacoteca di Brera at Via Brera 28 (00 39 02 894 21 146) is one of Italy's finest art galleries. It includes works by Rembrandt, Picasso and Caravaggio; Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin altarpiece is perhaps the highlight. The gallery opens 8.30am-7.15pm daily except Monday, admission €5 (£3.50).

WINDOW SHOPPING

To become a victim of intimidation by fashion, walk along Via della Spiga, the parallel Via Monte Napoleone and Via San Andrea, which links the three of them. This is not an area where you can find a pint of milk and a loaf of bread. The Florence-founded firm Gucci has been at Via Monte Napoleone 5 since 1951. Prada started in 1913 as a leatherware shop in Milan, and now has a few stores in the area. Also at Via Monte Napoleone 11 you can find a boutique of the late Gianni Versace who despite his southern Italian origins established himself as the fashion king in the Eighties in Milan. Almost all shops shut on Sundays, and Monday morning.

AN APERITIF

In the south-west of the city, the Navigli area is a good place to start the evening. At the Birreria La Fontanella at Alzaia Navigli Pavese 6, you can drink the local Menabrea lager while admiring the canal view.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

The Brera area is a fine place to dine out - particularly if you want to join the locals in grazing at a bar rather than ordering the full Milanese monty in one of the city's opulent restaurants. On Via Brera itself, tables spill out from the Bar Brera at number 27 (00 39 02 877 091); all kinds of Mediterranean delights are on offer.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The hottest ticket in town is for the 15th-century Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie (00 39 02 8942 1146, www.cenacolovinciano.it) on Corso Magenta - the location for Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. Freezing the moment where Jesus said "One of you will betray me" took four years to complete, and will take you a day or two to organise a visit. The most beautiful refectory wall in Christendom is open to the public 8.15am-7.30pm daily except Monday, to get in you must book on the number above at least a day in advance; the line is open 9am-6pm from Monday to Friday, 9am-2pm on Saturdays, and English is spoken. When you finally get through, you can reserve a ticket that costs €6.50 (£5), plus a €1.50 (£1) booking fee. While you are there, it is well worth looking inside the austere but exquisite Basilica Sanctuario, which was built for the Dominicans between 1463 and 1483.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Try a cornetto (croissant) dunked in cappuccino at the most appealing pasticceria in town: Marchesi at Via Santa Maria alla Porta 11a (00 39 02 87 67 30). The venue was established in 1824. It opens 8am-1pm on Sundays (7am-8pm on other days).

A WALK IN THE PARK

The Renaissance-style Castello Sforzesco stands within impressive grounds. The castle was begun in 1368 by Galeazzo ll Visconti (family ancestors of the late Italian film director Luchino Visconti) as part of the city's fortifications. The castle is open daily from 9am to 5.30pm.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

The Cimitero Monumental is a magnificent compendium of mortality. The cemetery is full of elaborate architecture and works of art including a sculpture of the Last Supper. It opens 8.30am-5.30pm daily except Monday.

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