It's an early spring morning in Milan. The cosmopolitan hub of Italy's north is awakening with a shot of espresso. Many are bleary-eyed after a whirlwind week celebrating the Salone del Mobile, the world's largest furniture-and-design fair. Outside Palazzo Serbelloni, I'm standing in a queue that's snaking around the neoclassical palace. If its weathered stucco walls could talk, they'd tell tales of the palazzo's notable inhabitants, including Napoleon Bonaparte and King Vittorio Emanuele II. Yet this crowd of international and local style setters and design aficionados (mostly in smart sneakers, not the suede loafers of yore) isn't searching for history; it wants to see something new. And Milan, which suddenly feels like the most forward-thinking city in Italy—a place of big ideas, investment, and innovation, busily spouting new subway lines, cutting-edge hotels, and infrastructure ahead of the 2026 Winter Olympics—is more than ready to oblige.
But the home of Prada, Campari, and da Vinci hasn't always drawn swells of visitors. Until recently, Milan was one of the most bypassed cities in Italy. What's changed? No single thing. Rather, there has been a convergence of sorts—Brexit exiles arriving, new tax incentives for businesses, the city's revamping of a handful of rundown districts. Coming out of the pandemic, Milan, in contrast to other cities around the globe, feels more habitable and inviting than ever, with a thriving cultural scene and a growing number of green spaces. It makes sense that international travelers' eyes have been reopened to it and that a new generation of creatives is calling it home.
Like the design duo Alberto Biagetti and Laura Baldassari, of Atelier Biagetti, whom I meet when I finally make it inside the Piazza Serbelloni for the launch of Louis Vuitton's Objets Nomades, the travel-inspired furniture-and-object exhibition the French luxury brand has mounted annually at Salone since 2013. As part of the collection, the pair is showing Flower Tower, a striking glass totem made of lit rings, all handblown in the Venice area. Their previous designs have included an optometrist-style No Sex mirror and a giant cat sofa, part of a series called Pet Therapy. “Design shouldn't be this unattainable, difficult thing,” says the elegant Baldassari, who was an opera singer and a fine artist before she and Biagetti met and founded their multidisciplinary studio. (She sometimes sings in live installation performances.) “It should be inclusive.”
Indeed, part of the appeal of Salone, Laura says, is that, “Milan opens its doors, and you get this great mix of designers, artists, and musicians.” With their home-headquarters close to the Navigli district, known for its graffiti-lined canals, bars, and vintage clothing shops, they're part of a vibrant creative scene. Later they'll celebrate the fair's closing night at a party hosted by their friend Barnaba Fornasetti, artistic director of the iconic design brand Fornasetti, who indulges in a DJing side hustle at his apartment in northeastern Milan's Città Studi quarter.
Outside, in a stately garden tucked behind Palazzo Serbelloni, a geometric pop-up structure is showcasing fellow exhibitor Marc Newson's Cabinet of Curiosities. The acclaimed Australian industrial designer has reimagined the iconic monogrammed Louis Vuitton travel trunk with an interior of leather-covered cubes. He wanders through the fashionable crowd with an Aperol spritz in hand, greeting friends.
Newson, who has been coming to Milan for more than 30 years, has been a firsthand witness of its metamorphosis from a prosperous industrial hub to a powerhouse of fashion, design, and food. He used to flee to nearby Lake Como to shake off the city's staid provincial air. These days, though, he embraces its cosmopolitan swagger, sometimes in the company of the city's newest residents, like his friend Camille Miceli, artistic director of Emilio Pucci. “My trips to Milan tend to revolve around food now,” Newson says, laughing. “Eating here has got to be up there with Tokyo. It's difficult to eat badly.” He's right: A diverse culinary scene has evolved beyond risotto and caprese, one that has room for cooks like Congolese chef Victoire Gouloubi, who combines her love for Italian food with African cuisine. At Crosta, the half-Mexican chef Simone Lombardi prepares a pizza made with ventricana, a spicy sausage from Abruzzo, that somehow manages to channel the flavor of tacos al pastor.
It's not just the dining options that have shifted. South of the city center, in his apartment in the postindustrial Morivione district, the designer Maximilian Marchesani serves me tea and pink cake from the nearby Bar Luce, designed in Formica and pastels by the director Wes Anderson. Mona, Marchesani's Lagotto Romagnolo poodle, pads around the white open-plan apartment in a 1950s social-housing block designed by the great Milanese architect Arrigo Arrighetti. One room is almost entirely taken up by twisted hazel-tree branches and twigs gathered from parks around Milan, which make up part of Marchesani's dramatic biophilic light sculptures, the stars of his recent solo show at the prestigious Nilufar Gallery.
Marchesani belongs to a dynamic new design scene in Milan. “We've had so many great teachers here, but it can be easy to get stuck in history,” he says, chandelier earrings swishing. He's referring to the likes of Gio Ponti, Andrea Branzi, Mario Bellini, Vico Magistretti, the Castiglioni brothers—design giants who have defined Milan. “I'm new to this scene, but it feels like we're starting to evolve again and find a new sort of language. And the city's boom means that more people are looking for collectible design again.”
Recognition has come fast for Marchesani, who hadn't shown any of his work publicly until last year's Alcova, Milan's more indie alternative to Salone. He describes himself as being “driven by curiosity rather than a prevailing aesthetic,” and his works play with forms of nature altered by human tinkering.
Creative playfulness and innovation are infusing the city's fashion scene too, from little ateliers like the workshop run by dressmaker Marta Ferri, who pairs sneakers with her evening wear, to a new breed of thrift store like Bivio, opened by American Hilary Belle Walker. On the rooftop of her attic apartment on Via Larga, Pia Zanardi—wearing a well-loved T-shirt from the Lyford Cay Club in the Bahamas—shows me the spot where she hosts dinner parties overlooking the Duomo. She moved back to Milan to grow her Yali label after stints in Beijing, Shanghai, and New York, where she first worked in a skate shop. The Yali aesthetic is a high-low mix of elegance and street style, from velvet blazers inspired by Chinese tangzhuang coats to psychedelic silk pants, with plans for hoodies and more conventional streetwear in upcoming collections. Despite influences ranging from ’90s punk graphics to filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, Zanardi says it helps to be in the city of Versace, Armani, and Gianfranco Ferré—and not just because she's currently obsessed with vintage Miu Miu and Prada. “I've realized how much energy it gives me to be in this city of fashion production and proper craftspeople, which has always drawn creative people,” she says. “And the cultural mix here is only getting better. It's all happening now.”
Milan's next generation doesn't see itself as being in competition with the fashion houses or design greats but as standing on the shoulders of its forebears—not least because the big labels have often been good for Milan. Near the Porta Romana station in Morivione, where Marchesani lives, the arrival in 2015 (the same year as the game-changing Milan Expo) of the Fondazione Prada, the fashion house's celebrated contemporary art museum, not only signaled an upturn in the area's fortunes but also created a center for avant-garde arts and culture. The area is now full of whimsical spaces, like Bar Luce.
And while Ferragamo will always be a Florentine brand, Leonardo Ferragamo, Salvatore's fifth son, is the brains behind the new Portrait Milano hotel, which has breathed new life into the colonnaded Piazza del Quadrilatero, a 16th-century former seminary in the center of town. Part of the new development, which also includes a bustling outpost of Beefbar, the venerable European steakhouse, is the first store for So-Le Studio, the nascent jewelry-and-handbag brand from Maria Sole Ferragamo, one of Salvatore's granddaughters. In the spirit of his designs (including his iconic wedges made with recycled wine corks), she started her label using leather and brass scraps from Ferragamo's workshops in Tuscany, transforming them into sculptural amulets, ear cuffs, and architectural bags. “Everything here is a bike ride or walk away,” says Maria, who has a studio in the Portello district, once home to Alfa Romeo's first production plant and now the site of galleries and artist collectives. “And in a short distance, there's so much to be inspired by.”
While the city's creatives are on a hot streak, the very fabric of Milan seems to be evolving. Driving past the futuristic circular buildings of the new campus of the Bocconi economics university, designed by the Japanese architecture firm Sanaa, I'm struck by a woman collecting poppy seeds in a meadow of wildflowers planted in front of the school. It fits with a new passion for nature in the city, epitomized by Bosco Verticale, a residential tower by the Milanese architect and urban planner Stefano Boeri, bursting with 21,000 plants and 20 bird species. Now Boeri is a key figure behind Forestami, an urban-forestry project that has already planted 427,475 trees, with the goal of introducing three million by 2030. “When I grew up here, Milan was gray, industrial, and polluted,” Boeri tells me when we meet in his office. “But that's changing.” His happy place to stroll is the Renata Tebaldi community gardens, named after the late Italian soprano. “I can see the magnolias bloom here before they do in the rest of the city. These trees are a unique hybrid—a miracle, a bit like Milan.”
Where to stay
Constructed at the wishes of Cardinal St. Charles Borromeo (whose descendant Carlo Borromeo has a renowned industrial-design studio in Milan), the 16th-century former seminary Portrait Milano is now an opulent hotel that belongs to Leonardo Ferragamo's Lungarno Collection. The 73-room property opens onto a new public piazza, the largest in the city's fashion district, lined with buzzy boutiques and restaurants. Framing the Indro Montanelli Gardens, Milan's oldest park, Casa Cipriani Milano, by the Venetian hospitality icon, recently caused a storm when it opened a members' club in the former Palazzo Bernasconi. Some locals insisted there was no need for such a thing as a membership to dine out, given that the Milanese have socialized in sumptuous palazzi for centuries. A year later, the place is still packed. Guests who stay in one of its 15 rooms and suites have access to all the club has to offer, including the lounge, two restaurants, a pool, and a spa. Its no-photo rule makes it private enough even for the most discreet contessa (or Leonardo DiCaprio, a regular sighting during Fashion Week).
Partners in design
The unveiling of Louis Vuitton's latest Objets Nomades collection is a must for any Salone del Mobile visitor: Lines snake, selfies are snapped, and cocktails are sipped as guests gawk at the luxury brand's latest travel-inspired set of high-concept furniture. For the past 11 years, the legendary French company has worked with a roll call of leading designers, including Patricia Urquiola, India Mahdavi, Atelier Oï, and the Campana brothers, creators of the fabulous swinging Cocoon chair, which this year was updated in a silver-mosaicked, disco-ball-inspired edition that immediately began hurtling around social media. Another big Salone 2023 reveal from LV: the Cabinet of Curiosities by Australian designer Marc Newson, a longtime collaborator of the brand. His latest transforms the label's iconic trunk into a functional piece of furniture. Newson says the magic happens when you open it, and indeed inside is a portable Wunderkammer: Nineteen leather-covered cubes in three sizes (the removable cubes can be configured in countless different combinations) provide a showcase for books, collectibles, or whatever whimsical curios you feel like displaying.
Where to eat and drink
The fashion and design crowds tend to go for classics like Langosteria, a seafood-centric stunner in the Design District, or La Latteria, a crammed nonna's dining room where Signora Maria's handful of tables are always full during Design Week. Fashion designer Pia Zanardi avoids the see-and-be-seen pressure in favor of Alla Collina Pistoiese, for the Gori family's famous Tuscan fare in a wood-paneled dining room. Industrial designer Marc Newson prefers Rigolo, another Tuscan classic (since 1958), with four themed rooms heaving with books and crammed with art—much of it by Milanese luminaries who swapped their work for dishes like minigonne pasta with Tuscan sausage sauce. Bar Quadronno, where the panini was invented in 1964, still doubles as the fashion crowd's aperitivo spot—it is beloved by Miuccia Prada and Matthieu Blazy, Bottega Veneta's creative director, who named a bag after it. Newer highlights include 28 Posti, where chefs Andrea Zazzara and Franco Salvatore do Mediterranean locavorism in a minimal space with furniture crafted by local prison inmates; LùBarino, a kiosk offshoot of the beloved greenhouse restaurant LùBar, serving Sicilian small plates and aperitivi in a beautiful Brera piazza; and the new Milanese outpost of Monte Carlo–born Beefbar, serving Kobe bresaola inside a former seminary reimagined by designers du jour Humbert & Poyet. For a very different vibe, designer Maximilian Marchesani recommends Unseen, in the eastern Feltre district—a place of inventive cocktails, inspired by the vaporwave electro scene.
“You must visit during Salone” is a common refrain from the Milanese. Such is the infectious buzz that surrounds the Salone del Mobile, a.k.a. Design Week, a.k.a. the greatest design show on Earth. The fair began in 1961 as a gathering of local furniture manufacturers to promote Italian design and production, with the goal of turning Milan into a design destination. It worked; six decades in and Salone is the city's most anticipated annual event, a marathon of exhibitions, installations, and cocktail parties scattered across the city each spring. For a week, usually in April, Milan becomes a sort of grand showroom, a place to quite literally see the future–the current trends, yes, but also, as the show has expanded to include more emerging designers, the generation that will shape the trends of the future. But Salone is so much more than a trade show; as Maria Porro, the fair's current (and first woman) president, puts it, “Salone is a creative meeting of minds and multiple microcosms.” And she's right—architects, furniture makers, interior decorators, journalists, and other design and art aficionados converge for the event, held in a sprawling fairground outside the city center, as well as in countless ateliers, historic palazzi, and brutalist landmarks—not to mention in Bar Basso, Salone's unofficial social hub, where showgoers have been gathering for negronis and conversation since 1967.
Where to shop
Bivio, opened by American Hilary Belle Walker, has been a thrift pioneer, carrying big-brand finds like Missoni wrap skirts and gold Prada boots. Another American fashion muse, the illustrator and artist Jenny Walton, recommends the vintage-jewelry house Gioielleria Pennisi, with whom she's collaborating on a collection of hairpins. The most stylish Milanese carry their La Scala tickets in fold wallets from Valextra, a chic leather brand with a sublimely minimal store by British designer John Pawson, while the neon-signposted Marsèll Paradise provides space for local artists and quirky coffee-table tomes alongside its collection of beautifully handcrafted shoes.
This article appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler