48 hours in Milan

On the centenary of the death of Milan's most famous past citizen, the city is paying tribute both aurally and visually. Clare Thomson seeks out the high notes


Why go now? Because it is 100 years to the day since the death of Giuseppe Verdi, the great Italian opera composer and perhaps Milan's most distinguished former citizen. In January 1901, the city's streets were covered in straw so as not to disturb the dying maestro in his slumber, and huge crowds turned out for his funeral. Today, Milan's commemorations will be a little more restrained, but the illustrious La Scala opera house is mounting a full Verdi season, and opera buffs can visit an exhibition on his work, life and times at the Palazzo Reale. For more details, read on.

Why go now? Because it is 100 years to the day since the death of Giuseppe Verdi, the great Italian opera composer and perhaps Milan's most distinguished former citizen. In January 1901, the city's streets were covered in straw so as not to disturb the dying maestro in his slumber, and huge crowds turned out for his funeral. Today, Milan's commemorations will be a little more restrained, but the illustrious La Scala opera house is mounting a full Verdi season, and opera buffs can visit an exhibition on his work, life and times at the Palazzo Reale. For more details, read on.

Beam down There's lots of competition from London, with fares below £100, but flights from other UK airports cost much more. Alitalia (0870 544 8259; www.alitalia.com), British Airways (0845 773 3377; www.britishairways.com) and British Midland (0870 60 70 555; www.britishmidland.com) flying from Heathrow; and Go (0845 605 4321; www.go-fly.com) and Buzz (0870 240 7070; www.buzzaway.com) from Stansted. They mostly fly to to Malpensa airport. From Malpensa, an express train (£5 each way) takes 40 minutes to reach Cadorna metro station. Buzz, and some flights on the other airlines, serve the much handier airport, Linate, the 73 bus (£1 each way) takes 50 minutes to arrive at Piazza Babila.

Get your bearings At first, Milan is a confusing place, spreading out in ring-shaped ripples from the eclectic marble cathedral on Piazza del Duomo, but navigation becomes easier when you realise that street numbers on the main roads increase as you go away from town. It's compact for a city of 1.6 million souls, but has trams and a metro system if you're not up to a half-hour hike between sights. From the ground, the most useful reference point is the Castello Sforzesco tower, home of the Sforza dynasty in the 15th century, and a short walk from the Duomo. For a panorama, clamber up the cathedral's 158 steps (OK, take the lift), where you may glimpse the Alps in fine weather. The Tourist Office (1 Via Marconi, 0039 02 7252 4300), is on the Piazza del Duomo, opposite the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Check in The Grand Hotel et de Milan (29, Via Manzoni, 0039 02 723 141, www.grandhoteletdemilan.it) is not the only luxury option in town (pop stars plump for the Four Seasons; politicians prefer the Excelsior Gallia). But as well as having welcomed Caruso, Callas and, er, Kate Moss, it's the place where Verdi drew his last breath - peer at the desk where he penned parts of Otello and Falstaff. Stay in the Verdi suite if you've £1,000 to spare (standard doubles cost from around £277). Cheaper, but just as charming is the Antica Locanda dei Mercante (6 Via San Tomaso, 0039 02 805 4080, reservation@locanda.it), a townhouse treasure with rooms from around £75. Hotel Speronari (4 Via Speronari, 0039 02 8646 1125) is probably the best-located "cheapie" although at £50 a double, it's hardly bargain-basement.

Take a hike Start at the Duomo, goggling at its scores of spires and statues, then enter the Galeria Vittorio Emanuele II, an elaborate 19th-century shopping mall nicknamed "il salotto" (the drawing room) because of its elegant cafés. From here, head northwest to La Scala and stroll along Via Manzoni - named after Alessandro Manzoni, to whom Verdi dedicated his peerless Requiem - past the Grand Hotel. If you can resist Milan's shopping district , go west to Castello Sforzesco, pausing to admire the ingenuity of the fortifications designed by Leonardo da Vinci, and to deplore the forlorn state of the surrounding Parco Sempione, then take Via Dante back to Piazza del Duomo. Save some energy for a moonlight stroll in the canalside Navigli district or the chic but cosy area around Via Brera, packed with courtyards, cobbled lanes and offbeat boutiques.

Icing on the cake Wind up your musical weekend in Milan with a Sunday concert. Check out the classical music listings in Milano Mese, a free booklet in Italian or English (the Italian one has more info), available from the tourist office. The best venues are the frescoed Chiesa di San Maurizio (0039 02 7600 5500) or Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi (0039 02 7621 1101). If you can't get a ticket for La Scala (try booking on 0039 02 860 775; www.lascala.milano.it), pay a visit to Cova , a sophisticated patisserie on the corner of Via Montenapoleone and Via Sant'Andrea, and take home a beautifully sculpted Scala-shaped cake.

A walk in the park The locals joke that the only green you'll find in Milan is on the traffic lights - promising splashes of green on the map often turn out to be miserable triangles of unkempt weeds. Still, you can get a breath of fresh air at Giardino Pubblici, a decently sized park north of the shopping district with sweeping lawns, ponds and pleasantly disordered retreats where swans compete for attention with curiously placed sculptures.

Bracing brunch A stone's throw from the Last Supper, Bar Magenta (13 Via Carducci, 0039 02 805 3808), is a lively turn-of-the-20th-century brasserie and is popular for Sunday snacks, with a good selection of beers on tap. Soak up last night's excesses with a comforting bowl of pasta, or kick-start a healthy day with a plate of fresh, al dente vegetables.

Sunday morning: go to church Santa Maria delle Grazie (Corso Magenta, 0039 02 4801 4248) houses one of the Western world's most influential artworks: Leonardo da Vinci's Cenacolo Vinciano, or Last Supper, painted on to a wall in the refectory in 1497. Conveying a new sense of drama, depth and perspective, it's a revolutionary work that must have stunned its 15th-century viewers (the flat, drab Crucifixion mural on the refectory's other wall gives you some idea of the artistic status quo). After centuries of flooding, neglect and wartime bombing threatened to obliterate the Cenacolo, a painstaking restoration programme began in 1977 and was completed in 1999. Unsurprisingly, it's now a popular tourist attraction, so book at least two days in advance.

Demure dinner The Navigli district is the city's gastronomic heart, with dozens of restaurants lining its cutesy canals: cheese-lovers should head for Osteria dei Formaggi (54 Alzaia Naviglio Grande, 0039 02 8940 9415) for a four-course fix at about £25 a head. Sample the local fare - veal escalopes with lemon butter and risotto alla Milanese, a deliciously savoury fried rice pancake with saffron - at Trattoria Milanese (11 Via Santa Marta, 0039 0202 864 51991 8645 1991), an institution in the heart of the historic quarter. The food is superb (about £10 for a main dish), but you'll be treated as a second-class citizen if you show the slightest hint of being foreign. You'll get a better impression of the Milanese at L'Altra Farmacia (3 Via Rosmini, 0039 02 345 1300), a cosy trattoria-cum-enoteca in Chinatown, with a literary crowd, a fabulous selection of Italian red wines and dishes ranging from delicate carpaccio to gutsy goulash. The owner is as eccentric as he is rotund, and a meal with a bottle of Barolo shouldn't cost more than £30 a head.

Aperitif Il Resentin (24 Via Mercato, 0039 02 875 923) is a quiet, cosy and highly appealing grapperia-cum-wine bar, with reasonably tasteful modern art on its walls, and dark wooden tables, where you can wash down simple but delicious snacks with heady, fruit-flavoured grappa. Alternatively, help set next year's trend by heading north to Chinatown, where the gentrification process is in its early stages, and enjoy a glass or two of red wine with the regulars at Cantine Isola (30 Via Paolo Sarpi, 0039 02 331 5249); a traditional, atmospheric enoteca where you can pick up bottles for home consumption.

Window shopping Even if you can't afford to buy anything, Milan is great for window-shopping, with Fendi, Armani, Gucci et al battling to outdo each other's displays - and the scariness of their sales staff - in the famous Quadrilatero d'Oro, or Golden Quad. Via della Spiga is the most attractive of the glitzy streets that make up this fashion haven, although neighbouring Vias Montenapoleone and Sant'Andrea aren't bad. The sales run until 20 February but, if you can't bear the thought of being brushed aside by fur-clad women in spiky heels, try one of the factory outlets listed in Lo Scoprioccasioni, (sold in bookshops), which offer huge discounts.

Cultural afternoon The exhibition Giuseppe Verdi: l'uomo, l'opera, il mito (Verdi: the Man, his Work and Myth) is showing at the Palazzo Reale until 25 February (0039 02 6208 3868, open Tuesday to Sunday from 9.30am-6.30pm and until 10.30pm on Thursday). It kicks off with a giant bust of the composer, describes his humble origins, includes a reconstruction of rooms in his rural retreat and winds up with a fantastic life-size model of the triumphal scene from Aida, as it was first performed at La Scala in 1872. Aficionados will love the musical scores, stage design illustrations, costumes and period posters. Perhaps more evocative, however, is the Museo Teatro alla Scala, within the opera house, where you can pore over the death masks, portraits and hand moulds of various famous conductors, composers and singers. The highlight, though, is a glimpse of the auditorium itself: stand in a plush, crimson box and imagine yourself onstage before a packed crowd.

Take a ride The green vintage tourist tram, Ciao Milano (0039 02 7200 2584), is a fun, if pricey, way to get around the city's more obvious sights. It costs £10 per person, and you can hop on and off at any of the main sights, although the tram runs only twice a day in winter. If you're more interested in seeing the Milanese in their natural habitat, dive into the metro which is much cheaper at 50p a ride.

Lunch on the run Milan's oldest fast-food joint, Luini (16 Via S Radegonda), is a local institution thanks to its panzerotti: delicious savoury doughnuts stuffed with cheese, spinach or spicy sausage (£1.50). Unfortunately, it's packed at lunchtime. If you can't face the crush, a detour round the Duomo takes you to the local luxury-food emporium, Peck (9 Via Spadari). Here you can glimpse chefs in puffy white hats expertly tweaking pasta dough before you take the high-tech glass lift up to the deluxe snack bar on the first floor. Peck also has a "fast-food" outlet on nearby Via Cantu, but this is currently being refurbished.

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