THERE’S A HOT NEW destination—a cultural, culinary and style center—trending in northern Italy. It’s called Milan and it’s been hiding in plain sight for decades beneath its reputation as “Italy’s industrial capital” with countless references to its factories belching gray smoke over gray buildings in gray weather.
That is how Andrew Ferren began his article titled, “Italy’s Hottest New Destination? Yes, Milan”, recently published in The Wall Street Journal. The end of the second sentence transports me back to the first time I visited Milano. Since then, the city has changed tremendously, and–although the grayness never truly goes away–the evolution of the city has been remarkable to witness.
It was a dark, dreary weekend in March 2012, and I had taken the train from Roma (where I was studying) to visit my then boy-who-is-a-friend, now boyfriend. As I exited Stazione Centrale, I was greeted with heavy smog, rain and not so welcoming Milanesi. Suffice it to say, my first.. and second.. and third impressions of Milano were not positive. Every single time I returned, I viewed the city even uglier than when I saw it last.
Everywhere you looked, there was graffiti; and, when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere. On sidewalks. Mailboxes. Building walls. Storefronts. Sides of houses.
It was (and still is, actually) weird.
The weather was always unfavorable during my first few visits as well, which made the Milanesi quite irritable, cementing the stereotype in my head that people in northern Italy are cold and rude. Also, in neighborhoods that have since been gentrified, it wasn’t hard to find prostitutes hanging around city bus stops and on dark roads at 11pm. In fact, at a red light near where Fondazione Prada currently stands, a woman approached Rocco’s car once… with me in the passenger’s seat.
Another aspect that struck me was the lack of historical landmarks. Roma has the Colosseo, Spanish Steps, Fontana di Trevi, Castel Sant’Angelo.. even the freakin’ Vatican! What did Milano have to offer? Il Duomo and La Scala. (Also, da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ lives here!) Pretty cool, but Roma was cooler.
It wasn’t until my fourth and fifth visits that I began to take a great liking to the city. The spring weather had finally arrived, and Rocco brought me to discover different neighborhoods–Sempione, Brera, Porta Nuova, Porta Romana and Navigli to name a few. (Piazza Gae Aulenti did not yet exist, and Darsena was not home to the bustling nightlife it is now.) Sure, the city was rough around the edges and, honestly, wasn’t that pretty to look at; but, I had learned to welcome and appreciate its imperfections. My fascination with and adoration of Milano had officially begun.
Fast forward six years, and Milano has just been awarded the title of Second Best European Destination in 2017. It’s well-deserved, in my opinion. The history, diversity, creative boom, growing skyline and overall sexiness of the city now appeal to everyone–not just models and businessmen. The job market is wide open, and there are abundant opportunities for both students and working professionals alike. The city is well-connected, and public transportation is reliable. Walking the streets, you’ll hear numerous languages and encounter people of all backgrounds, races and religions. I continue to find striking similarities between here and New York City, and–don’t judge me–but, it’s comforting to know that if I am craving a bagel, I will have no issue finding one now! (I’m not saying the ones here are good; I’m just saying they exist, okay?!)
However, and there’s always a ‘however’, I sometimes become nostalgic for the Milano I first visited way back when. The KFC-less Milano. The “urban trend”-less Milano. The Milano that still felt authentically Italian to me. I moved here to get away from the States, but I can’t help but feel like I’m back home sometimes with the numerous Domino’s, California Bakery’s and newly inaugurated Starbucks. The fashion trends. The pop culture references. The English slogans and logos for Italian-run companies.
I get it. Modern Milano is a product of rapid globalization due to increased investment and technological advances in the digital age. It has become an international, English-speaking city. The economy is humming, and the number of both Italians and expatriates relocating here is astounding. As mentioned above, the city has also transformed into a bucket-list destination for tourists from all over the globe. It makes me wonder if Milano will become the next Roma when it comes to overpopulation, among both residents and tourists. I’ve seen what too many people and too little order have done to the capital, and I sincerely hope that never occurs here! I’m happy to report, though, that everything seems to be running smoothly (for now).
So, if you’ve never been to Milano before, consider this your invitation! It’s not as picturesque as Venezia, and its history is slightly less enthralling than that of Roma. There’s much more art to see in Firenze, and the food is unquestionably better in the south. However, Milano offers what most of Italy cannot–choice and opportunity. It is a welcoming and eclectic city that is a perfect balance of business and pleasure, equally gritty and sophisticated. Milano is a hybrid of continuous modernity and long-standing tradition. While I wish the latter would hang on for a little while longer, I’m curious to see where the former takes this wonderful city.