‘That colour is the colour of now,’ says my mother as she points to bright orange blossom on a stroll through the dazzling gardens. We’ve only been in Milan a few hours but have immersed ourselves wholly in the fashion scene and immediately pick out the shade popping up in shoes, bags, dresses and jackets.
There’s something comforting and old-fashioned about a shopping weekend where the sole purpose is to fall in love with beautiful things and buy them – without the click of a mouse. Throw in a flight to Milan plus precious time with your mother and instantly it’s a more spoiling experience.
Italy’s second city feels less epic than Paris; marry that with the innate refinement and elegance of the Milanese of every age to make it a gentler place to explore, more relaxing somehow. Post pandemic neither of us fancy jostling crowds or browsing stores alongside sharp-elbowed tourists.
Armed with a map of designer boutiques, the fashion district is easily covered in a day or two with stops for an aperitivo and lunch. We start at the iconic department store Rinascente for an amuse bouche of exciting designers, displayed as casually as in a high street so you can freely hold up a Gucci dress for size or feel the weight of an Armani jacket. Shoes of every shape and colour, with roll, razor sharp or kitten heels beckon at each corner.
We break for light lunch in the conservatory of the Lu bar next to the gallery of modern art and Giardino della Villa Belgiojoso Bonaparte. After that we stroll arm in arm past the Versailles planters of pink camellia on Via Della Spiga and Via Montenapoleone where the real surprise is how non-hostile designer boutiques are to browsers: Prada, Ferragamo, Missoni, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace… Only one queue spotted– for Loro Piana – where a silk navy and white sweater costs well over a thousand pounds.
Sarah Hartley and her mother explore Milan’s fashion district. Pictured is Galleria Vittorio, the city’s famous shopping arcade
Sarah strolls down Via Montenapoleone (above) where she finds a flurry of designer stores
Big names aside, luxury vintage can be found too at Madame Pauline Vintage and Cavalli e nastri but of the little boutiques, the hardest to resist was La Double J with rails of geometric print silk dresses.
Milan is having a hotel moment – with luxury hotels Bulgari, Baglioni and Cipriani joining the Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and Armani. Portrait Milano, which opened in late 2022 to much Milanese fanfare, is an oasis of calm hidden in the heart of the fashion quarter. The former 16th century seminary with peaceful quadrangle had been shuttered for 30 years – still owned by the church it is now leased to the Ferragamo family as the largest in their Lungarno hotel collection.
Church bells chime as we amble past the jewellery and fashion boutiques in the colonnade on this balmy March afternoon. We take tea on the terrace, served by first-rate staff (who even brought my mother some fresh ginger to chew as she fought a cough) before indulging in sublime people-watching, prosecco to hand. Of course, we expect Italian women to be beautiful but it is the men, as ever, who astound. Well into white hair territory, no matter their status, they bristle, immaculately turned out in pristine clothes, shoes highly polished. We sigh.
Inside Portrait Milano architect and designer Michele Bonnan has worked three colours: the red of Milan and ecclesiastical robes, cream and black. Dark wood, textured leather and modern upholstery nods to the hotel’s previous life, while the original stairs remain, as does some statuary in the walled garden overlooked by the restaurant. Breakfast is a buffet of fine patisserie and charcuterie with strong coffee and juices. At night, the cool bar is a social magnet (but not loud!) and hosts the city’s elite – financial and physical.
Our wonderfully designed suite gives living space, dressing room, bathroom and bedroom. A wooden terrace, hidden from view runs the length of it with white loungers perfect for secluded sunbathing. A patent drawing of a Salvatore Ferragamo shoe design is mirrored in art work – photographs of innovative shape shoes designed in the Forties look so modern.
More than a thousand beautiful books are artfully placed around the hotel in the reception, the library bar and suites, each one enticing. – I’ve already ordered a couple (The history of dogs in photography and Salvatore Ferragamo’s autobiography.
Yet it is the bathroom which sums up the quintessentially sophisticated Milanese. Heated floors, wall to wall thick dove and white marble, with taps, mirrored doors and walls, to sparkle and flatter. And there in the loo, the ugliest of necessities are concealed in shiny little cupboards in the wall – loo roll and brush. Genius.
Detailed touches include the twisted rope door handles which although appear to be carved from wood are in fact leather, made by local artisans. Forget the usual shoe shine sponge – here a leather tubular case can be unbuttoned to reveal neat polish, brush and sponge.
Stylish oasis: Sarah stays in a ‘wonderfully designed’ suite at Portrait Milano (pictured)
A colourful display of shoes in one of the city’s store windows
A lavish spa will open later this year plus a gourmet restaurant. Plans are also in place for a roof terrace lounge and after dinner club. It is early days to spot trends but guests are so far drawn from the US, Asian and Middle East markets.
Dinner has to be at Da Giacomo, a landmark of Milanese food and hospitality a short taxi hop away. Expect heavy white tablecloths and cutlery, a fine wine list and traditional menu. Fresh anchovies with shallots, pine nuts and raisins, is followed by seafood gnocchi and Amalfi lemon and saffron risotto. We don’t manage pudding although the night before at the hotel, the Milanese tiramisu (without the sponge) was sensational. Make like a Milanese for Sunday lunch at Osteria del Binari, a traditional trattoria or elevate the sophistication (and bill) at La Briciola, while fish lovers head to Langosteria, considered the city’s best fish restaurant.
Book online tickets for the Duomo, the largest church in Italy, with its spectacularly detailed windows. Take the lift to the roof and on clear days you can see the Alps.
A final – and some might say essential – treat is the add-on of a greeter at Gatwick. Kay Bradford cheerily escorted us through security, to the lounge and then gate, cutting through crowds on our way out and return. ‘Be more Milan,’ my mother instructed me, wafting without worry.
Two nights’ B&B at Portrait Milano based on two sharing, with return flights, private transfers, airport meet and greet and guided shopping tour, from £1,780pp (originaltravel.co.uk or 020 3582 4990).