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A Rough Guide to Milan. Things to do and see in Brera.

Written by a former resident of Milan with a degree in Economic and Social History.


Brera is a slightly historic area of Milan, not anciently historic or not so classically historic but slightly historic. It's all relative and even its reputation as an old Bohemian quarter is perhaps an overstatement.

It may not rival the Left Bank of Paris but it's certainly strongly associated with art, music and the easy-going ambience of European cafe culture.

The name actually derives from the German word 'Braida' which means a grassy area. Certainly an exaggeration for the modern district although there are little patches of greenery in this haven among the unremitting concrete and steel of Milan.

Brera has its commercial side as well and you will find high fashion and haute couture sitting happily amongst the bistros and restaurants.

But again in purely relative terms as emphasised by the looming skyscrapers of Porta Nuova. This throws a high-rise shadow on the contrasts and reminds us where the real hub of financial activity lies.

Therefore Brera is an oasis of calm compared to the torrid wheeling and dealing of Italy's financial capital. It's the perfect escape from the noise and clamour of the city whirl.

Depending on what time you go there of course. It's a popular attraction for locals and tourists alike and has its busy periods like anywhere else.


If you are on the usual tourist trail then you'll find the area roughly 1 km behind the La Scala Opera house on the immediate north-west side of the city centre.

To the right of the theatre entrance is Via Guiseppe Verdi which leads you on to via Brera. The walk only takes about 5 minutes along the street named after the famous composer.


1. Enjoy the varied architecture and historic buildings.

2. Have a tour around the Pinacoteca and enjoy the art on display.

3. Take a stroll around the streets to soak up the atmosphere.

4. Go on a shopping spree for high fashion and fine arts.

5. Dine out in the evening at one of the many fine restaurants.

Taking the street you walk underneath the balconies of attractive old apartment buildings adorned with window shutters and occasional flower arrangements.

The subtle and exquisite architecture briefly gives way to the bombast of the Casa di Risparmio, a fortress of finance evocative of the power of the Italian banking community.

You'll pass the perfumed air outside the cosmetics shops aside the colour of exclusive clothes stores and busy cafes.

The gentle aromas are welcome in the polluted atmosphere of Milan and the light covering of sooty grime clinging to the otherwise splendid buildings are testament to the car-laden streets of the city.


Rows of parked mopeds and motorbikes also remind you of the ubiquity of the two-wheel in continental Europe.

The architectural charm gives way to grandeur as you arrive at the Palazzo Cusani. This is an early 17th century building formerly owned by rich and powerful Milanese families.

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Now it's an administrative and military centre including a local urban outpost of NATO command. Behind its attractive Roman Baroque facade, which was designed by architect Giovanni Ruggeri, it also houses an Art Gallery.


History and culture on every street

Just ahead of you another long row of bicycles tells you that you are in front of the Brera Academy. This is a red-brick building with a facade designed by Francesco Richini.

A cavern of knowledge and wisdom that conceals a wonderfully classical interior courtyard. This is one of the most visited and popular spots in the district.


Its origins were first a convent called the Order of the Humiliated and then as a Jesuit centre from 1571 when it was established as a seat of education.

It was further slowly developed through the centuries. In particular the 17th and 18th centuries saw major expansions of the site.

For example a Botanical Gardens and a library building were added. Also the Academia di Belle Art was founded in 1776 and contains the Pinacoteca Art Museum.


The 19th century saw the advancement of the Pinacoteca as a centre for the fine arts. Founded in 1809 it houses paintings by masters such as Raphael, Caravaggio and Canova as well as Rembrandt, Van Dyke and Rubens.

Today in the interior some fine statues pay a permanent tribute to the former giants of education and scientific progress in Milan. Learned academics such as the mathematicians Buonaventure Cavalieri and Gabrio Piola, the architect Luigi Cagnola and philosopher Pietro Verri.

The Emperor Napoleon as Mars the Pacifier in Brera in MIlan.

The Emperor Napoleon as Mars the Pacifier in Brera in MIlan.

However in the middle, surrounded by the classical porticos, is the main statue. It is Canova's tribute to the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Except that far from being the 'Little General' he is depicted as Mars the Pacifier, the Roman God of War. A bronze relic of the time of French imperial domination of Northern Italy in the early 19th century.

Today the young inheritors of the academic legacy sit in the sun or under the shade of the pillared arcades.

It's the perfect meeting place for the inspired youth of the student population and the impassioned art enthusiasts to gather.


Food and drink Italian style

Returning to the streets a plush Gucci store of consumer consumption faces onto the Academy. The building temporarily imposes its modernity, unless you linger to do some window-shopping.

Nearby, in contrast, an old gentleman sings along to classical music streaming out of a ghetto blaster. You may also hear the strains of violin strings echoing through the streets and lanes as cultured buskers often ply their trade in Brera.

Continuing on your walk you come to the 'Bar Brera' on the corner. This announces that you have arrived in the gastronomical heart of Milan. When you are in Italy then sampling the delicacies is always a must.

This is where the Milanese urban social-set come to feed and to mingle. A Saturday afternoon sees the place at its busiest. If you don't mind a little hustle here and some bustle there then you'll enjoy the atmosphere.


Within the narrow confines of Brera are crammed tables serving al fresco food and drink to the clientele. So it's a great opportunity for people-watching and for soaking up the scene.

But be careful about your order at the table as some unscrupulous patrons may try to hoodwink the unobservant. If your not on your toes you might get less than you expected.


We were lunching at a restaurant, which will remain unnamed, where they tried to pass us off with cheap sparkling wine instead of a fine bouquet from the vineyards of Italy. The effervescent bubbles were an obvious giveaway.

Also my steak sandwich almost qualified as a vegetarian snack. I discovered the meat hiding under the lettuce. As Irish comedian Frank Carson once joked when asked by a waiter "How did you find your steak?" he replied "I'm a detective!"

Payback time was when one of our party revealed herself in her role as a concierge at a quality 4-star hotel in Milan. Business cards and apologies were offered but no guarantee of promotion or new clientele in return.


The bad taste doesn't extend to the air as luckily there are many pedestrian areas so the notorious pollution of Milan is kept mostly at bay. Although the tobacco addicts, replenished with the relatively cheap price of a packet of twenty, will care much less.

The sound of cutlery on crockery, the clink of wine glass raised in a 'Brindisi' add to the aroma of a quality espresso, some freshly-bake bread and the more than occasional cigarette to complete the bombardment of the senses.


But if you want to escape the clamour of the packed thoroughfares then this is still possible. If you step away from the main streets and off the beaten track you can find some quiet areas.

The Botanic Gardens offer refuge and there is also a shaded public garden area on a short path leading towards the Montenapoleone Metro station which is at the eastern fringe of Brera.


To be absolutely sure you can take a walk early in the morning. Or perhaps during the week on a summer evening when most of the Milanese have gone home.

In the backgroud the city hum is ever present.

But in those relatively silent lanes and empty courtyards your footsteps will echo off the walls. A slightly claustrophobic stage with the narrowness of the way but protected from the hot sun. So you can relax and find time to take in the pleasures and enjoy the surroundings.

Fun, fashion and the fashionistas

But after this brief respite we return to the normal scene in the streets on a busy day. Casual but smart fashions, enigmatic sunglasses and expensive accessories provide the visual backdrop to the chatter of gossip and small talk.


For the more affluent there are the popular Corso Garibaldi and Corso Como on the periphery of Brera. Popular but expensive and full of a variety of independent and idiosyncratic shops and stores.


Corso Como especially is pleasant to stroll through. After you walk under the arch of the Porta Garibaldi you may be met by the cool air freshened by the street fountains.

Perfect on those hot and stifling summer days in the city as the temperatures can be particularly overbearing even to the usually acclimatised Milanese.

Back in Brera proper in the via Pontaccio among the line of shops lies the building 'Il Ponte' which is a stand-out feature. Although not as it would appear at first glance.

Most of the visual delights are hidden inside. It contains the 'Casa d'Aste' art museum and through the archway is a fine interior courtyard designed in the Lombard Barrochetto style.

The facade is more bland and almost suggests a selfish coveting of the finer side of architecture by the old family elites. Such beauty not to be shared with the masses outside it seems.

Things to do in Brera in the evenings

But if you still prefer the quiet life then an evening 'passegiatta' on the cobbles is recommended.

You may also come across a fortune-teller plying her trade out in the street. She has obviously been expecting you while she sits with a glass of wine at her candle-lit table.

But remember that even in the later hours Milan often still has a hot and humid climate. This is exacerbated by its built-up and concentrated street plan.


Therefore even a welcome breeze from the northern mountains may not filter effectively through the roads and alleyways.

It will certainly not be enough to carry away the mosquitoes who can be a nightmare in the summer. So don't forget to carry repellent in your bag and you won't be caught out.


There are many fine restaurants in the area and among the best are 'L'Osteria' the 'Nabucco' and the 'Pizzeria Napoletano' which are in via Fiori Chiara. In the afternoon the gentle refrain of some laid-back Jazz soothed out of the pizzeria.

Continuing around the corner there is the 'Sans Egal' French restaurant in Vicolo Fiori and opposite 'Il Cestino' in via Madonnina.


Nearby is via Formentini which is a quiet area and offers a very relaxed dining experience. Set in an open courtyard this cul-de-sac is off the main streets.

The old facade of the former church of San Carpoforo dominates one end. It's now used for cultural activities by the Academia delle Belle Arti.

To the side of the old church is the 'Rosso di Brera' restaurant which offers traditional Italian fare like bruschetta with sausage or 'panzanella' which is a Tuscan salad.

Further over on the north side of Brera is the 'Stendhal' in via Ancona which offers excellent meals and also has a covered garden area. Expensive but a quality experience.

Basilica San Simpliciano

Basilica San Simpliciano

On the western fringes of Brera is the Basilica San Simpliciano. Named after a bishop of Milan it was originally built in the 3rd century A.D. by St Ambrose.

But its current Romanesque appearance comes from 12th and 13th century restorations. It is in Piazza Simpliciano just off Corso Garibaldi on the northern edge of Brera

It is one of the oldest churches designed in the Latin cross design. It has a four-bay nave and two aisles with a transept divided into two aisles.

Many renovations have occurred through the centuries including Renaissance windows in the bell tower and 19th century modifications to the facade

Basilica San Marco

Basilica San Marco

A similar church in fabric and style is the Basilica of San Marco. This was originally a 13th century Augustinian institution. Therefore has examples of fine arts relating to the order.

It is another red brick building having been restored throughout the years, especially in the 17th century. It is in Piazza San Marco next to via Fatebenefratelli on the fringes of Brera. It often enjoys a splendid warm bathe in the afternoon sunlight coming from the west.

With a bell tower and large stone portal it is a photogenic reminder of the past and also has small statues of three saints above its entrance.

Many artworks inside were inspired by St Augustine including frescoes and there are also important historical manuscripts. A 14th century crucifix surrounded by angels is particularly interesting and worth seeing.


Brera Design District

The area as a whole is also known as Brera Design District. It's a real mecca for the arts in the city. There are many arts and crafts shops, galleries and even ordinary retail stores where you can buy fine examples.

In both commercial and cultural terms it's an important international centre where creativity and development are highly encouraged.

But all through the year Brera has that flavour of the arts and the air of creativity is ever present in its ambience. Every spring it holds a festival lasting a few days which celebrates Milan Design Week.

On a whistle stop tour of Milan on your short city break there may not be a long time to see everything. The city has a lot to boast about and certainly the Piazza Duomo is the centre of attraction especially with its magnificent cathedral.

But the fashion and financial capital of Italy with its old industrial past largely gone has much more and Brera is worth a visit. Even if only for a quiet stroll or alternatively to mingle with the social set to wine and dine or simply enjoy a coffee break.

But if you linger much longer you can enjoy the history, the art and all the culture that Brera has to offer.


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