Canal's just one of Milan's many surprises
Surprisingly, even though landlocked Milan is far from any major lake or river, the city has a sizable port. Since 1170, a canal has connected Milan with the Mediterranean via the Ticino River, which flows into the Po River on its way to the Adriatic Sea.
Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci helped further develop the city's canals and designed a modern lock system; you'll find some of his exquisitely detailed drawings for the canals at Milan's Biblioteca Ambrosiana.
Later, during the booming Industrial Age in the 19th century, the canals were used for shipping in the marble and stone needed to make Milan the great city it is.
In fact, a canal (filled in during the 1930s) once circled the walls of the city and allowed barges to dock with their stone right at the building site of Milan's grand cathedral.
Today, the old industrial canal district -- once squalid and undesirable -- is trendy and thriving, with lively bars and restaurants lining the canal.
Milan might have a reputation as Italy's no-nonsense business and banking capital, but some locals still have a sense of humor.
Piazza Affari, at the center of the financial district, is a knot of serious 1930s-era buildings in the heavy fascist style -- except for the bold modern sculpture of a 36-foot-tall, marble middle finger punctuating the middle of the square.
Is it a towering vulgarism, or a commentary on the Italian fascist salute? (So claims its maker, Maurizio Cattelan -- Italy's most famous contemporary artist.)
For contemporary art that's better-behaved, the Museo del Novecento is worth a look. In this beautifully laid-out building, escalators and a spiral ramp whisk visitors through the last century's art, one decade at a time.
The capper, though, is the stunning view from the top floor over the Gothic cathedral, newly gleaming after a head-to-toe restoration.
Fashionistas flock to the up-market shopping zone, the Quadrilateral, where shopping is a solemn business, usually conducted in small boutiques.
But for a different spin, it's fun to wander the high-concept department store called Excelsior (in the Galleria del Corso).
Part design museum, part retail store and part Las Vegas glitz, this is a hip departure for Milan. Conveyor belts ferry shoppers from one tasteful level to the next to the beat of pulsing music.
The $1,000 shirts and designer watches are out of my league, but I'm at home in the gourmet deli in the store's basement, with its artful displays of affordable cheeses, produce and takeaway foods.
Many tourists come to Italy for the past, but Milan is emphatically part of the present.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email email@example.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
© 2013 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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