When I embarked on my first trip to Italy, several years ago, travel aficionados assured me an inaugural visit should be devoted to Florence, not the hectic capital. I didn’t listen. Maybe I heard Sinatra’s “Three Coins in the Fountain” one time too many, but I chose Rome. I did spend one glorious day and night in Firenze, gawking over the Accademia Gallery and eating bistecca, but I was elated when the train pulled back into Roma.
It should not have surprised me then that after hearing many a person diss Milan—drab and soullessly teeming with skyscrapers-in-progress were common complaints—I fell in love with the country’s second biggest city, spending a day there after a tranquil, uplifting trip to Lake Como.
A magnetic fashion and design scene (at 9 a.m. in my hotel lobby, women, coiffed as if heading out for an aperitivo, comfortably strutted in towering heels) is synonymous with Milan, and so my first stop was the Triennale Design Museum. Situated in quiet Parco Sempione, this sprawling, modern space is a must. Here, I was exposed to the futuristic furniture from Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino, and Paolo Lomazzi, that long-time trifecta of local, avant-garde architects (loved the kitschy, inflatable plastic Blow chair), as well as a survey of Italian graphic arts, from vintage ads for Olivetti typewriters to homegrown political magazines. Relax in the airy café with an espresso and a new find from the well-curated bookstore, and it’s an immersive intro to Milan’s glamorous aura.
Standing inside the Duomo, and then outside Teatro alla Scala, is more powerful than any guidebook photo can capture. Devouring a warm, fried, tomato and mozzarella-filled panzerotti from Luini on the street beside businessmen on lunch break, and later drinking an oversized sbagliato (Campari, sweet vermouth, sparkling wine) at the historic Bar Basso while peering at beautiful, balcony-strewn buildings, soothing rituals so decidedly Milanese, I almost forgot I wasn't a local.