Milan, the business-focused city in the north of Italy, might not be the first choice when planning an Italian vacation, especially when competing with the winding canals of Venice or history and romance of Florence. But the residential city is having a renaissance of late, chosen to host the 2015 World Expo and named the top city in the world to visit this year by The New York Times. Indeed, there is plenty to see in do in this bustling metropolis, from art and culture to food and shopping. Not to mention, Milan is a great hub to see the rest of Europe for further travels.
WHAT TO DO
It's hard to miss the Duomo (Piazza del Duomo, duomomilano.it), a magnificent, 14th-century gothic structure that looms over a large square and nearby shops. Unlike many other cathedrals in Italy, you can take an elevator to the top of this one. It takes that unique perspective to fully appreciate the detailed marble work and spires on this church. Walk along the roofline to take in 360-degree views of Milan.
Another can't-miss in Milan is Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper," on a wall inside the Santa Maria delle Grazie church (Piazza di Santa Maria delle Grazie, grazieop.it). The famous painting of Jesus and his disciples dates back to the late 15th century and has survived bombings during World War II and the ravages of time, though the paint is peeling due to the dry painting technique da Vinci experimented with. Book tickets early -- they sell out very quickly -- and take a tour if you can for some context to this breathtaking work of art.
WHERE TO EAT
It is very easy to get tempted by restaurants with English-language menus in the convenient touristy areas of Milan. But patient diners who venture off the beaten path will be very highly rewarded. Italians are known for getting simple right, so most meals will not only be better than your average pasta dinner here, but cost surprisingly less than you think, too.
Only a 10-minute walk from the Duomo is Andry (Via Rovello 10), which caters to an exclusively Italian speaking crowd. Try a decadent plate of spaghetti with cream, bitter radicchio and asparagus, or a hearty meat sauce. A shot of limoncello is a nice, sweet way to round out the meal.
A bit farther is Un Posto a Milano (Via Cuccagna 2, unpostoamilano.it), a restaurant in a converted farmstead focused on sustainability. The menu changes seasonally and ingredients come from more than 100 small and medium sized farms. A winter meal here included creamy potatoes with a poached egg, crispy pumpkin chips and a bounty of fresh shaved black truffle (all for just 13 euros).
WHERE TO SHOP
Milan is known for many things, but fashion is no doubt tops. And surprising prices on well-known Italian and European designers await anyone willing to shop around a bit. Many items of clothing are significantly cheaper than they are in America. At Zara, for instance, you might be able to find items for nearly 40% less than what you'd pay in New York.
If you want something a bit more high end, walk along Via Montenapoleone, a quiet shopping strip a few blocks long where you will find Fendi's flagship store, Valentino, Gucci, Bvlgari and more. Take a walk a little farther into the Brera neighborhood for quaint cobblestone streets and small boutiques to duck in and out of.
Spending big euros? You might be able to get a refund on the sales tax. If you spend more than 158 euros at a participating store (look for a Tax Free Shopping sign), ask the store for a tax-free form after your purchase and bring your receipt, filled-out form and unworn new items to customs at the airport for a refund.