Rome has the Coliseum. Pisa has its leaning tower. And Milan has – the Via della Spiga.
Milan actually has its share of cultural treasures, from the Teatro Alla Scala, to the magnificent Duomo, to the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie where Leonardo Da Vinci painted The Last Supper.
But Italy’s second-largest city is still perhaps best known as one of the fashion capitals of the world, and that makes it a prime spot for marathon shopping.
To make sure you hit the highlights, consider a shopping tour. Viator, a tour provider, has five options, including a private three-hour tour.
Late last year, I opted for the private excursion. At twilight, personal shopper, Anna Maria Lamanna, met her fashion tourists in the Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s central plaza at the threshold of its storied, gothic cathedral.
In just a few steps, we found ourselves at Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Milan’s shopping strip. It was as festive as it was fashionable, teeming with eager shoppers on a cool Wednesday evening.
The dollar has been relatively weak against the Euro, and for the best bargains, U.S. shoppers would likely need to hop a bus or train to the suburbs where they could browse the outlets. (Viator also offers a few outlet-bound excursions.) But in several of the stores on and around Corso Vittorio Emanuele, clothes weren’t much pricier than their U.S. counterparts
One of the first stops was la Rinascente, a department store similar to Saks Fifth Ave. or Bloomingdales, where you can peruse the sartorial offerings of various designers and pick up a quick purse or skirt if you need to get fabulous in a hurry.
Tour guide Anna Maria Lamanna checks out the merchandise at Motivi. (Photo: Charisse Jones, USA TODAY)
Then there was Motivi, a trendy shop targeting the same young women who might frequent Zara or H&M back in the U.S. (Those stores are also in Milan). A pale green turtleneck, made of wool and alpaca, had a tag of roughly 69 euros, while a chic jacket could be yours for little more than 179 euros. Note that Italian clothing sizes are different, so a size 6 blouse in the U.S. will generally be a 42 at a shop in Milan.
One of the most striking aspects to shopping in Italy is the fabric quality at your fingertips. The wool is softer, the cashmere and angora more luxurious.
“We have the best fabrics in the world,” says Lamanna, noting that the proximity of various textile makers has helped make Milan a magnet for top designers, from Georgio Armani to Dolce and Gabbana. After all, she explains, that’s where the designs paraded on the runway begin. “The first thing is choosing fabrics for every collection,” says Lamanna.
In some shops, your fingertips might be the closest you come to actually feeling a garment. Customers are not always able to try on clothing, though shopkeepers on this particular tour were warm and amenable. “You can try on,” said one sales person. “No problem.”
Vergelio, is one of the most respected Italian shoe companies. The store carries various labels, from Valentino to Tod’s, but it also offers its own brand, renowned for its craftsmanship and comfort. The home brand also tends to cost a bit less – 200 euros for a pair of simple, elegant pumps for instance as compared to 470 euros for a pair from Tod’s.
For a dazzling, unique shopping experience, venture into Excelsior, a multi-story department store built in a one-time theater that proves more of a cinematic experience than a run-of the mill retail jaunt.
Black and white scenes of Milan unspool on the store’s walls as you ride by on escalators that are a tilted version of an airport’s automatic walkways, a somewhat futuristic version of the traditional moving staircases you’d find at, say, Macy’s.
Excelsior’s cellar is a tourist’s delight, filled with tastes of Italy to ferry back home – from prosciutto aged like wine to panettone. Fruits, meats and cheeses are arrayed like an art display. Meanwhile, wines are secreted in a glassed-in section that resembles a sleek, clubby lounge. The store has its own wine expert to guide customers through the dozens of bottles.
Upstairs, the clothing and accessories aren’t for the bargain hunter. A pair of buttery smooth leather gloves costs 72 euros. A gorgeous caramel-colored fedora made by legendary hatmaker Borsalino, sells for 150 euros. And that hooded black cape by Valentino made of 100% wool? That’ll set you back 3,000 euros.
The store might be a little off-putting to tourists, its rococo layout a bit tricky to navigate. On the first floor for instance, the makeup was displayed next to a selection of home fragrances, making it easy to mistakenly spritz your wrist with a perfume that’s actually meant for the living room couch.
“Not all people can understand this place,” Lamanna said, noting that the store’s design, like its aesthetic, is akin to a glamorous sound stage. “You have to imagine your movie.”
And if you brought your canine on vacation, your best pal can accompany you on your shopping jaunt since dogs are allowed in even the ritziest shops.
After a day of power-shopping, plan to head back to La Rinascente and its rooftop bar where you can sip an espresso or glass of prosecco as you gaze out at the Duomo.