They say that for every church in Rome, there's a bank in Milan. The economic success of postwar Italy can be attributed, at least in part, to this city of bankers, publicists and pasta power-lunchers.
Even though I've been coming to Milan for a long time, I still
stumble onto great new sights
every time I visit. A recent
discovery is the “Big Canal”
— the Naviglio Grande.
Surprisingly, even though landlocked Milan is far from any major lake or river, the city has a sizable port.
Since 1170, a canal has connected Milan with the Mediterranean via the Ticino River, which flows into the Po River on its way to the Adriatic Sea. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci helped further develop the city's canals and designed a modern lock system; you'll find some of his exquisitely detailed drawings for the canals at Milan's Biblioteca Ambrosiana.
Later, during the booming Industrial Age in the 19th century, the canals were used for shipping in the marble and stone needed to make Milan the great city it is. In fact, a canal (filled in during the 1930s) once circled the walls of the city and allowed barges to dock with their stone right at the building site of Milan's grand cathedral.
Today, the old industrial canal district — once squalid and undesirable — is trendy and thriving. Former workers' tenements are being snapped up and renovated by go-getter singles on the career fast track. With lively bars and restaurants lining the canal, this is a great people scene for dinner or evening fun.
Milan might have a reputation as Italy's no-nonsense business and banking capital, but some locals still have a sense of humor. Piazza Affari, at the center of the financial district, is a knot of serious 1930s-era buildings in the heavy fascist style except for the bold modern sculpture of a 36-foot-tall, marble middle finger punctuating the middle of the square.
Is it a towering vulgarism or a commentary on the Italian fascist salute? (So claims its maker, Maurizio Cattelan — Italy's most famous contemporary artist.) The head of the stock exchange was so offended by the disruption to the view from his Piazza Affari office that he moved to a nearby wing. “L.O.V.E.,” as the statue is entitled, was temporary at first. But most Milanese wanted it to stay, and by popular demand, it's now permanent.
For contemporary art that's better behaved, the Museo del Novecento is worth a look. In this beautifully laid-out building, escalators and a spiral ramp whisk visitors through the past century's art, one decade at a time. The capper, though, is the stunning view from the top floor over the Gothic cathedral, newly gleaming after a head-to-toe restoration.