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Episode #232: Secret Milan – A Local’s Guide

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Stylish Milan, in the North of Italy, often receives short shrift compared to Italy’s more famous tourist cities. We aim to address this oversight by sharing some of the secrets of this cosmopolitan Italian city, from art collections tucked away in historic buildings to serene green spaces perfect for a leisurely stroll. We step off the beaten path in Milan, away from the main attractions to explore the lesser-known gems and get a local’s insider tips for some amazing attractions and eateries both traditional and innovative.

Show notes
In this episode, we talk to Inga de Boer who is from the Netherlands but has called Milan her home since 2015. Inga has led a variety of tours of Milan and her background as an architect comes in handy, with the city being a leading example of old and new architecture working together. Milan is not as well known as many other places in Italy and can be a little more complex to navigate but you will definitely be rewarded. The city is known for its magnificent cathedral, fashion and shopping but having a real focus on style, design and innovation, the city is home to incredible art, impressive architecture and fantastic cuisine.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Inge is originally from the Netherlands. She and her husband decided that they would like to spend a year abroad and ended up in Milan, mainly because of the 2015 World Exhibition and she has been there ever since
  2. She had a great experience working in an Italian company, though it has its downsides too, she decided to go freelance and began to offer different tours through the city of Milan
  3. She used to do Milan food tours, which she loved but it could be quite difficult to organize because of the collaboration with the local vendors
  4. After covid stopped tours for a while, she decided to change things up and she now organizes tours through the city of Milan, but with the focus being on more general tours, and introductions to the city of Milan. She also likes to focus on architecture, because she graduated in architecture. She does her tours in English as well as Dutch
  5. She has written two travel guides, one for Milan and one for Lake Como in her native language of Dutch. This means she has made great discoveries while doing research in Milan and also nearby Lake Como, where she likes to go to and spend time on the weekends
  6. She has also created a self-guided game called Secret City Trails. You play the game on your web browser and is a great way to find last-minute fun activities in Milan and the city of Como
  7. It is great to do a tour in Milan with someone who knows a lot about architecture because it is an interesting city with magnificent old buildings and some stunning new structures. They have a strong design focus when considering all new projects in the city and you see the best of the old and the new coming together
  8. There is some really important contemporary architecture and big developments like the Bosco Verticale (vertical forest) by Stefano Boeri and also City Life, which has three contemporary office towers as well as residential buildings, all designed by star architects like Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind
  9. Some visitors report being a little bit disappointed with Milan after they have visited Rome, Florence, and Venice. This may be that they are expecting a similar old-world style, with older architecture, but actually Milan lost a lot of buildings during the war and Milan always also always been a very wealthy city, having no trouble, back in the day, demolishing old buildings and constructing new ones in order to remain up to date with the rest of the world
  10. They have fewer piazzas than other cities because after the Second World War, the municipality decided to construct new taller buildings high rise on these damaged squares, It is not a high-rise city like New York, but compared to other Italian cities there are more taller and more modern buildings
  11. Some people come to Milan not expecting much as they have heard the only things to see are the Duomo, the Galleria, and the Castello, and they visit also, of course, to go shopping. But there is a lot more to Milan, it just might not be so obvious – it is a little more complex to navigate
  12. Because with Milan it is more complicated to understand where you have to go, it is a good idea to research and prepare before a visit
  13. Or take a tour with a guide who can show you the best places in the city, and explain the stories behind everything, to help you to better understand the city, where things are often not self-explanatory
  14. It can be difficult to get a real taste of a place unless you’re there with a local, whether that’s a friend or a guide. On this podcast, we love to get locals on board to tell us about what there is to do and see in their city – all those special hidden gems
  15. Katy was delighted to reconnect with Inge, who she’d been on tour with back in 2019. On that tour, Inga introduced her to a particular store she will never forget. The chocolate shop, Zaini, has amazing chocolate and the design of the store is amazing, with a large, vintage Espresso machine

Museums and Galleries

  • Milan has lots of museums and galleries with a really diverse selection
  • There is a type of museum known as Casa Museo, which translates to house museum. These are often houses that belonged to wealthy Milanese families, now opened to the public and beautifully decorated with lots of fine detail and impressive art collections
  • A recommended Casa Museo to visit is Poldi Pezzoli, which is very close to the Scala Opera House
  • Another is Bagatti Valsecchi which is in the vicinity of the Quadrilatero della Moda – the fashion neighborhood
  • If contemporary art is your thing, Milan has many fantastic options. There is the Triennale Design Museum, with a focus mainly on design
  • Similarly, the ADI Design Museum centers around design and here they display the winners of the Compasso d’Oro – a famous design prize in Italy
  • The Fondazione Prada is home to contemporary art but is worth a visit even for its outstanding setting. Designed by Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas (studio OMA), it is set in a refurbished, old distillery, with the addition of modern buildings on the complex. It houses the contemporary art collection of the Prada family as well as having a variety of  contemporary exhibitions
  • The complex for the architecture and the onsite cafe alone are enough to warrant a visit. The cafe is designed by director Wes Anderson and it has a strong aesthetic that fans of his films, and anyone who just likes design will enjoy. It also has great coffee and cake
  • Another couple of places that you should visit in Milan are the Pinacoteca di Brera or the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Both contain beautiful collections of historical paintings from the 13th century onwards including Italian paintings from the likes of Caravaggio, Tintoretto and Rafael – not to be missed by art lovers
  • These galleries are not like the Uffizi Gallery which gets so busy that you can end up squished into those around you. You can experience these places with amazing pieces of art with very few other people around

Green space

  • You can visit the Orto Botanico, otherwise known as the botanical garden, six days a week and on Sundays it is free entry. It’s a small botanical garden, but it is a great example of what a green city Milan is
  • This green space used to be part of the convent that existed in the historical center of the city. The convents used these gardens for growing food for the inhabitants, as well as the people of Milan
  • The nuns grew medicinal herbs there in order to help people with their ailments
  • They also used to grow grapes for winemaking. Back in the day, everyone (including children) used to drink wine to quench their thirst because people didn’t have access to clean drinking water. The wine was very dry and not nice to drink at all
  • The Botanical Gardens are really worth a visit, even if it is just for a 10-minute break to get away from the chaos of the city

Churches

  • There are lots of churches in Milan which are definitely worth a visit. There are a number of really old churches dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries –  so around 1,500 years old
  • A particularly beautiful church is the San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, nicknamed ‘the Sistine Chapel of Milan’ because of all the incredible interior decoration. These were done by Bernardino Luini and his sons. Bernardino Luini was a student of Leonardo da Vinci, so was an important painter who was known mainly locally to Milan and Lombardy
  • When the Medici were ruling in Florence, Milan had the Visconti and the Sforza families who tried to compete with the Medici
  • At this time the Milanese people tended to be mostly worried about people attacking them from the northern parts of Europe – Austria, Switzerland, France, etc. The city had been occupied by the Austrians, French and Spanish so has had lots of influence from foreign cultures
  • San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore is separated into two parts. Firstly, when you enter as a visitor from the street you have the main part of the church. Then down a small passageway, you get to the area dedicated to the nuns who used to live there. The nuns were not allowed to mix with other people, so there was no visual connection between their part of the church and the main part

Food

  • Risotto is one of the things you must try when you are in Milan, and especially the Risotto Milanese, to which they add saffron, so is a beautiful yellow color
  • Originally, the saffron, which still today is an expensive ingredient, would come from Iran and the Middle East, but it arrived in Italy around the 14th century. In Sicily, their climate is similar to North Africa, so is good for growing it. Today, there are even some young producers in the Milan area, and there’s research ongoing into the best ways of growing it in this cooler climate
  • There is a romantic legend about the story of saffron, which is probably not true, but a nice story nonetheless. It says that there used to be a Flemish painter working on the stained glass of the Duomo who had a student, who would add Saffron to the paint in order to get more vibrant colors. The daughter of his teacher/maestro was getting married, and they were having risotto as one of the dishes at the celebrations.  The student decided to add saffron to the risotto as a wedding present for the daughter, creating this beautiful golden, yellow color – representing a happy life. It is probably not true because they actually are fairly sure saffron in risotto was introduced a couple of centuries after they finished the stained glass of the Duomo, but it is a lovely story anyway 
  • Besides the traditional dishes in Milan, there are also lots of opportunities in Milan to enjoy some more contemporary food. Milan has a lot of food entrepreneurs trying to innovate with food
  • Milan is known for coffee and there are some really good specialty coffee bars
  • Orso Nero is near the Porta Venezia area, which is unknown to most tourists, but great to head to for breakfast, dinner or drinks because it has lots of restaurants and bars
  • A slightly more famous cafe is Cafeza. This is run by a Brazilian guy who has lived in Milan for a while and then decided to open a specialty coffee store and roast his own coffee. He selects the beans from the farmers in Brazil, so really knows the origins of his products. There are three coffee bars around the city to choose from
  • The specialty coffee bars, are likely to recommend to a first-time visitor, to have an Espresso without adding any sugar – so you can taste what it is like in its original state. Then after a couple of sips, if it is too strong, then you can add some sugar
  • These coffee bars mainly serve traditional Italian coffee – Espresso, Espresso Macchiato, which is completely different than a Latte Macchiato because it only has a spot of milk
  • Another difference in an Italian coffee shop to say the US or Australia, is that a takeaway coffee was not really a thing at all in the past. After the pandemic, it started to happen and became a little more normal, but spending a few minutes in a bar to drink your coffee is still part of the Italian culture. You have a chat with the barman, maybe about the soccer game from the night before or about your plans for the next vacation, and then you go back to work or continue with your grocery shopping or whatever you were heading out to do
  • Cascina Cuccagna is a wonderful example of Milan’s relationship to the agricultural land that surrounds the city. Cascina is the northern Italian word for a farm. This place used to be a farm that was only 20 minutes on foot from the Piazza del Duomo. It has now been transformed into a cultural center, but they also have a really nice restaurant in which they use local ingredients and provide really nice dishes for a fair price. Besides the delicious food, it’s got a lovely atmosphere and in summer, you can eat outside in their garden
  • Living in Italy, Inge has found people to be really social. Even though the Milanese have a reputation for always being in a hurry, being a bit rude or arrogant – when you dig deeper you find there are lots of people working as a volunteer or who are contributing in various ways to charity or community projects
  • Dispensa Degustazione e Ristoro is a restaurant close to Porta Garibaldi. They are using mainly local and seasonal ingredients. Most of the food is vegetarian, but if they use meat or fish, they use really good quality products. It’s part of a building that used to be the Casa dei Artisti (the house of the artists) and they still have artists in residence there and have an exhibition space
  • They also have a small bottega, so you can buy local products there and they organize occasional farmers’ markets. Alongside the restaurant, they have a really nice outdoor space surrounded by greenery
  • Milan has an international vibe and it is somewhere people are always innovating around traditional things – combining tradition with technology to create something new and amazing
  • A bakery that opened in the last decade is from the now famous Davide Longoni – who despite not being very old is thought of as the grandfather of new bakers in the city. Bakers making bread like sourdough bread, going back to using high-quality ingredients
  • Picking the flour at the farms, usually local but definitely Italian with organic ingredients, and using whole grains to create a quality bread
  • Le Polvéri is a nice, small bakery near the Navigli area – which is an area nice to visit to enjoy dinner or drinks by the canal. There are some not-so-great touristy restaurants there but also a lot of hidden gems. Le Polveri has two stores, the second is a little bit more outside of the center, in the Southwest of Milan, where you can sit to eat and enjoy a delicious breakfast – with sweet pastries, brioche and French-style croissants. You can also have lunch as well as aperitivo there
  • Another really nice bakery is Forno di Lambrate. It’s in the Lambrate neighborhood to the east of the city center. This is run by a guy who left his finance job in London and reinvented himself back home in Italy as a baker. Many young Italians go abroad because they think there are better prospects, salaries, work hours, etc, but it is very common that at some point they realize that they miss living in Italy but to go back they often need to reinvent themselves and change careers. It is great to see people following their passions and in this case, it has ended up with an incredible bakery

How to spend a day in Milan

  • Inge’s ideal day in Milan would start with going for a nice breakfast. She lives in the northeast side of the city center in an area called Nolo, north of Loretto and is an ‘up and coming’ neighborhood, so she doesn’t have to go far for a great breakfast
  • There is a really nice pastry store in Nolo called Fola. They have great coffee, roasted in Milan. Inge would go there for an Espresso and a nice croissant – maybe read a book or a newspaper and chill out
  • Being Dutch, Inga would then like to hop on her bike to get to other parts of the city. Milan is perfect for this as it is such a flat city. The infrastructure isn’t yet completely adapted to bikes, and there are not quite so many bike lanes, but if you know where to take care, it’s a perfect way to go around – especially as you never get stuck in traffic and parking is easy
  • Inge would cycle past the Bosco Verticale and the beautiful park around it called Biblioteca degli Alberi. A contemporary park, but very beautiful and well-maintained
  • She would also have a walk around the Orto Botanico, and then visit either the Pinacoteca di Brera which is such a big museum so there’s always something to discover, or the Museo del Novecento. This museum next to the Duomo has an art collection from the 20th century. An important collection of art from the Futurists, a movement that came out of Milan in the last century
  • For lunch, she might have pasta, even though it’s not a very traditional food for Milan, it is is of course a cosmopolitan city so there are plenty of food options from all over Italy (and the world). There are some nice places where they make good fresh pasta at a good price
  • In the afternoon, she would take to wandering around on foot and perhaps go to the Cinque Via (Five Streets) area. This area is similar to Brera. Brera is very well known and popular with tourists, Cinque Vie is less discovered, so it’s quieter, but you have art galleries, some with lovely courtyards. There are some smaller, unique stores and some bars too
  • Another interesting thing about this neighborhood is that there are both some Roman ruins and some architecture from the fascist period – a difficult period in Italy’s history but as an architect, Inge appreciates some of the buildings from this time – the rational architecture.
  • Recently Katy and Inge met up in Milan and went to the Milano Centrale Mercato Centrale. This is in the central station, Milano Centrale, which is worth a visit itself for its impressive architecture
  • The Mercato Centrale is on the ground floor on the west side of this huge station building. It is like a food court, though has a very different feel and layout than many you will have visited before
  • It has about 20 stalls of different producers. There are local producers like the bakery Davide Longoni, and a local craft beer company – Birrificio Lambrate, and they also have some Asian food stalls. You can eat fish, meats, pasta, gelato – you can order wherever you want and then find a seat to enjoy it
  • It’s the perfect place to have a bite before getting a train out or when you arrive into Milan
  • You might need to work a little bit harder in Milan to uncover some of these amazing places, but it’s well worth it
  • Some of the coffee shops, bars and restaurants have great designs and real attention to detail, so along with fantastic food you can enjoy all the fantastic settings

More on Inge

  • The Secret City Trails are available on the website secretcitytrails.com. You select the city – which at the moment is Milan and 55 other European cities, including Como and Bellagio
  • All trails can be played in English, and other languages are available
  • It is a very easy, low-priced way of discovering Milan. You can buy it and get started immediately and discover places which are unknown, even by the Milanese
  • Inge’s website is mainly focused on the Dutch and is called Milaan met local – but you can get in touch with her if you’re interested in a tour which she can do in English too
  • Katy loved Inge’s tour and she appreciated the attention to detail, discovering the canals and their history and getting to try delicious food. Her tours offer an interesting combination of history, food, culture, and of course, architecture

About our guest – Inge de Boer

Inge is a Dutchie who studied architecture. Since 2012 she has lived in Milan.

After an interesting work experience with Expo Milano 2015 – the universal exhibition that took place in Milan – she started to work as a freelance project manager on the organization of tours, cultural events and activities related to food and (green) cities. 

She used to organize a food tour through Milan in which she explained the history of the city through the lens of food. The tour was loved by the participants (and it’s how she met Untold Italy founder Katy!) but unfortunately COVID threw everything upside down.

She now runs different tours that show you known and lesser-known parts of the town. You can either book a tour with her or go on one of her self-guided Secret City Trails that she has developed for Milan, Como and Bellagio. She has also written a travel guide for both Milan as well as Lake Como. Both are available in Dutch.

You can find Inge on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

Food and Drink

Resources

  • Milan World Expo 2015 – World Fair hosted in Milan
  • Compasso d’Oro – Italian industrial design award
  • Zaha Hadid – the late Iranian-British architect famous for an array of stunning buildings around the world
  • Daniel Libeskind – Polish-American architect, artist, professor and set designer
  • Rem Koolhaas – architect from Studio OM
  • Bernardino Luini – artist who was a student of Leonardo Di Vinci
  • Visconti and the Sforza families – Milan was ruled by the Visconti family from 1277 to 1447 and then by the Sforza family from 1450
  • Futurism – artistic movement originating in Italy in the early 20th century. It emphasizes technology and youth, and features things like cars, planes, and industrial cities

Resources from Untold Italy

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