Loving Leonardo da Vinci; the hidden delights of Milan after 500 years

Behind the facades… Pic: Nic

It’s Rome’s less flashy little sister and rival and although it may not be as obvious, behind every door is a secret waiting to be discovered in this stylish city, particularly when it comes to its favourite son Leonardo da Vinci.

I visited Milan as a journalist on a press trip on behalf of i newspaper and the following weekend city guide first appeared in the newspaper and on the website HERE

This year is huge for Milan: 2 May marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, and as one of the cities in which he was most prolific, Milan is going all out.

Events will centre round the Castello Sforzesco, which dates back to the 15th century.

It will see exhibitions and the reopening of the restored Sala delle Asse, which Leonardo frescoed to look like a forest.

The Duomo cathedral square, Milan
The Duomo cathedral square, Milan. Pic Nic

The weather is at its best from mid-April to June. July and August are fiercely hot and humid.

Also steer clear of 8-14 May, Milan’s Design Week.

Winter is cold, but can be a beautiful time to see the city, with views, on a clear day, of the snow-covered Alps.

Where to stay

My bedroom, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Milan (press stay) Pic: Nic

Located in the heart of the fashionable Quadrilatero district is the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

Rooms are chic but understated, with floor-to-ceiling windows and exquisite black-and-white photographs of Milan by photographer Antonio Salvador on the wall.

There is two-Michelin-starred dining by Antonio Guida, and the concierge is contactable by Whatsapp 24/7. Doubles from €640 (£580), room only.

The mirror arrangement in the Fornasetti room at Mandarin Oriental, Milan. Pic: Nic

In the Brera district, around the corner from the opera house, Hotel Milano Scala is eco-friendly – carbon-neutral, with a “living” wall, a Smart car for guests, and a roof garden supplying the restaurant – but stylish with it, with stage-themed rooms including feature walls replicating La Scala. Doubles from €159 (£143), B&B.

La Scala theatre, Milan
La Scala theatre. Pic: Nic

The NYX Hotel plays music night and day to remind you how hip Milan is – there’s even a DJ in the lobby. Next to Milano Centrale railway station, it’s a rebellion against beige walls, with movie-themed rooms and a bar called Clash. Doubles from €99 (£89), room only.

How to get around

Milan is well connected, with Flybe, easyJet and BA flying direct from around the UK.

Its two airports are Malpensa and Linate – the latter is nearer the city centre, though the former is better connected.

The Malpensa Express train (€15/£13.50) goes from the airport to Milano Centrale (5), or you can get a bus (€5/£4) from Linate.

Taxis are €90 (£80) from Malpensa, €20 (£18) from Linate.

BikeMi can be borrowed for a small charge, Milan
BikeMi can be borrowed for a small charge. Pic: Nic

Milan is compact and can be seen by walking or using the city’s efficient public transport system, including its old-fashioned trams (€1.50/£1.30 per journey or €4.50/£4 for a day pass).

Taxis are available only at designated ranks – a short trip within the centre costs around €10 (£8).

Milan is also cycling-friendly – flat, with 144km of bike lanes and citybike scheme BikeMi (from €4.50/£4 a day).

For more, see turismo.milano.it.

Saturday: Start the day

Take tram 2 from the Duomo (Italy’s largest church) to Corso Genova, 1km west, where you’ll find Pasticceria Cucchi, best known for the fluffy panettone it’s been making for 70 years.

If that’s too far for breakfast, Pasticceria Covaon Via Montenapoleone is another storied pastry shop – good for a cappuccino, croissant or tiramisu.

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Pic: Nic

Hit the shops Milan’s fashion scene revolves around the Quadrilatero d’Oro, a “golden quadrangle” of streets north-east of the Duomo.

From Piazza Duomo, walk through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – one of Europe’s loveliest shopping arcades, opened in 1877. In the Quadrilatero, you’ll find every designer brand from Prada to Gucci, along Via Montenapoleone and its surrounding streets.

Even if you don’t put your hand in your pocket, it’s well worth soaking up the window displays and watching the fashionistas tottering along the cobbles.

The bohemian Brera area is slightly more affordable, with independent shops in renovated buildings.

Navigli canal system, partyly designed by Leonardo da Vinci
So pretty, Navigli, Milan. Pic: Nic

Foscarini Spazio Brera has incredible design-centric lighting; Clan, in a quiet courtyard, features up-and-coming designers.

Don’t miss

Leonardo spent 20 years in Milan, where he not only painted The Last Supper but also designed the Navigli system of canals, and civil and military architectural works.

The Last Supper is in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

To see it, you’ll need to book two months in advance via legraziemilano.it. Tickets cost €10 plus €2 booking fee (£11).

The Fornasetti House and garden. Pic: Nic

The Codex Atlanticus at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is the largest bound set of Da Vinci writings and sketches in the world, housed in a staggering library within the museum. Entrance €15/£14.

Those drawings come to life with scale models at the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia

The Castello Sforzesco (below) is where he lived and worked, as well as frescoing the Sala delle Asse. Entry €5/£4.50.

Time for a drink

Milan has a strong aperitivo tradition, where pre-dinner drinks are served alongside huge snack buffets.

Rita (11), in the Navigli area, is a classy option where the walls of the bar double as inbuilt shelving for the bottles of booze.

The final unfinished work of Michelangelo – the marble Rondanini Pieta at Castello Sforzesco. Pic: Nic

Dinner reservation

Nearby, the waterfront Osteria al Coniglio Bianco (12) is a rustic-style restaurant featuring classic Milanese dishes such as saffron-infused rice and ravioli stuffed with braised beef, fondue cheese and truffle.

Mains from €14 (£13).

Bar at Osteria al Coniglio Bianco
Bar at Osteria al Coniglio Bianco. Pic: Nic


Go for a walk Walk through the city to Casa Atellani at Corso Magenta, where you’ll find Leonardo’s vineyard – given to him as payment by a customer.

Scientists used DNA to identify the grape he grew here: Malvasia di Candia. Buy a bottle of wine from the vineyard, which was replanted with the grapes in 2015.

Da Vinci’s former vineyard. Pic: Nic

Lunch break Pasticceria Marchesi on Via S.Maria Alla Porta is owned by Prada.

It has fabulous window displays featuring elaborate cakes, sugared almonds and pastries, and it serves sandwiches, too.

Leonardo da Vinci parade, exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry, Milan
Leonardo da Vinci parade, exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry, Milan. Pic: Nic

Eat at the small bar as the locals do – try a turkey croissant.

Time to relax

Get some headspace at the 116-acre Parco Sempione.

A green retreat since the 19th century, the landscaped park sits on the edge of the Castello Sforzesco and is home to sculptures by the likes of Arman and De Chirico.

Have a treat

Vanilla Milano is a small, city-wide chain – try the Via San Giovanni branch – making gelato from premium Italian ingredients.

Decisions, decisions at Vanilla Milano, gelato heaven. Pic: Nic

If it’s cold, try a Milanese-style hot chocolate – more like melted chocolate in a mug.

Ask A Local

Nicola, the friendly bartender. Pic: Nic

Nicola Abruzzese, Barista & bartender “In the evening I go to Brera, where there are so many bars and restaurants. I go to Covino Club Café and Art Café, but we always try to find somewhere new, as there are openings all the time. Tibi is great for aperitivo.”

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Hanging in Da Vinci’s former vineyard. Pic: Nic

I visited Milan as part of an organised press trip sponsored by Mandarin Oriental and commissioned for the i newspaper. 

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