Milan, the Functional Italian City
Well, Milan, you did it. You’ve managed to capture what only two cities before you have done – my commitment. Only in Rome and Amsterdam have I felt such a strong desire to root myself, to abandon my nomadic ways. Truth be told, the allure of this city caught me completely by surprise. Despite knowing it as the global center for industrial and financial affairs in Italy, I was never inspired to visit. And in fact, as seems to be the case with most serendipitous events, the opportunity materialized with the utmost spontaneity.
Milan is the embodiment of the classic Italian, as portrayed by the outside world: irresistibly charming, effortlessly sophisticated, and endearingly mischievous. Much like New York, the city carries itself with an air of poise and superiority. Perhaps its appeal partially lies in its refusal to fully conform to the Italian way. On one hand, Milan is unmistakably Italian in its behaviors and mannerisms: bars are filled with revolving queues of espresso seekers by day, piazzas are colonized by friends meeting for aperitivos at night, and in August the city is silent, abandoned for seaside alternatives. Yet, this inherent Italianness is counterbalanced by a prosperous, cosmopolitan alter ego. Milan is what you’d get if you spliced Rome and New York: cultured, chic, and enviably gorgeous.
I have yet to see a place that fuses centuries of rich history with the commercial demands of modern age as dynamically as Milan. The city is overflowing with jaw-dropping Gothic and Renaissance structures. While the famous Duomo Cathedral and Castello Sforzesco are remarkable pieces of architecture, they are not to overshadow the numerous piazzas (my favorites being della Scala and Babila), monuments (the marble Leonardo da Vinci statue at Piazza della Scala is stunning), and remote churches knit all across the city. All of this is encapsulated within a contemporary Milan that is constantly striving to meet consumer and industrial needs in fashion, technology and design. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the world’s oldest shopping malls, beautifully embodies this union with luxury shops, restaurants, and cafés lining the intricately sculpted walls of the arcade.
The diversity of this city truly brings it alive, from the multinational people and corporations that it houses down to its very structure. Milan has much to explore, and the experience changes significantly as you move across neighborhoods. Most of the history is located in center city, along with impressive sights such as the view of the entire city from the top of the Duomo. For play and relaxation, there is the scenic Parco Sempione, where you will find ducks, turtles, and people alike basking in the sunshine. My most curious discovery was the slew of modern edifices currently in construction for the upcoming Expo 2015. The area initially struck me as sterile and deserted, but upon closer examination I realized that in addition to being quite striking from a design standpoint, the newly erected buildings remain consistent with the city’s character.
Milan is a haven for Europeans who have become habituated to the Anglo-Saxon way. And by that I mean what I affectionately refer to as the “functional Italians,” those who either spent significant time in Nordic countries or were born (against all Mediterranean odds) with the palette for punctuality and efficiency. This is the first large Italian city I’ve seen where order outweighs chaos, likely due to its strong ties to the multinational corporate world. The Milanese are known to be hard workers, and comparatively speaking, shit gets done here. I saw the beauty and magnificence of Rome espoused with the drive and resilience of New York. Despite juggling various cultural and industrial expectations, Milan is in full control of its identity. And there is nothing sexier than that.