“Eccoci, signora!,” my taxi driver announced as he pulled up to a grand baroque facade on 11 Corso Venezia in Milan. I craned my neck to search for an entryway. “A lot of clients are getting dropped off here now. It’s a hotel? Something else?” It’s a hotel, I responded, not entirely convinced until he pointed to the stone walkway that would lead me to the city’s most celebrated new retreat.
I was in town for a few days from my home in Paris to check into the Portrait Milano in the heart of the fashion district—an ideal base for discovering what I had been told was a newfound energy in Milan. While Italy’s second largest city can’t compete with the travel-brochure beauty of Rome or Florence, its appeal lies in its layered patchwork of architectural styles, artistic offerings, and unexpected detail—the private art galleries, shops, and restaurants, offices, and entire residential worlds that exist behind elaborate modernist entryways.
The hotel and its surrounding piazza, restored and accessible to the public for the first time in 20 years, is one of the splashier markers of this energy, yet in true Milanese fashion, remains understated. The hotel occupies the second oldest archiepiscopal seminary in the world, which remained shuttered for more than 30 years until Lungarno’s CEO, Valeriano Antonioli, stumbled upon it, enchanted, in 2013. An equally enchanted Leonardo Ferragamo, chairman of his father’s namesake fashion house and president of the family’s Lungarno Collection of boutique hotels, began restoration on the 16th-century landmark in 2018.
In December 2022, the newly renamed Palazzo del Quadrilatero debuted to local fanfare with Milan’s mayor Giuseppe Sala in attendance, with Lungarno’s latest lodgings, along with an impressive lineup of retail shops and restaurants: the Milanese multibrand concept store Antonia; the new flagship for So-Le Studio, an accessories label by Leonardo Ferragamo’s daughter, Maria Sole; and an outpost for the premium steakhouse chain Beef Bar in the seminary’s former chapel.
While the Ferragamo fashion and hospitality brands operate separately, the Florence-based Lungarno Collection’s foray into the epicenter of Milan’s fashion scene is a logical next step for the expansion and continuing relevance of both. This opening comes shortly after the 95-year-old luxury label brought on the 27-year-old British Caribbean designer Maximilian Davis as creative director, based between Florence and Milan, to infuse a new spirit.
The hotel occupies the second oldest archiepiscopal seminary in the world, which remained shuttered for more than 30 years.
“One of our primary goals is to make the Portrait Milano a center for culture,” explained Antonioli, referring to the regular events with an international tilt that will take place within the historic complex. Ferragamo unveiled its Spring-Summer 2023 collection with a runway show in the middle of the piazza, while an installation by the designer Gabriele Chiave drew crowds during this year’s Design Week. Portrait Milano and the Palazzo del Quadrilatero are among many efforts to help enhance the city’s cultural cachet, making it one of Europe’s most fascinating destinations to visit right now.
Why Milan is one of Europe’s hottest destinations
The early 20th-century Milanese writer Carlo Emilio Gadda once derided Milan as an “ugly and uncoordinated city”—a critique oft-repeated by Italians. But the city—Italy’s business, design, and fashion capital—has worked hard to shake off its reputation as a postwar industrial hub. That began in earnest when it hosted the 2015 World Expo, which paved the way for the restoration of landmarks, cleaned up canals, and erected new buildings in former fringe areas for dynamic cultural projects. The wager worked: That year, the city brought in a record-breaking crowd of 20 million international visitors.
Since then, visitation to Milan has exploded and its momentum continues. The city’s economy grew 2.2 percent in 2022 and is expected to grow 4.8 percent by the end of 2023. On top of being the land of opportunity within Italy, Milan is now on the receiving end of an influx of talent from the United Kingdom in a post-Brexit brain drain, while a more diverse pool of young creatives and entrepreneurs are getting much needed support from the city’s cultural ministry. It’s all contributed to a local real estate boom (which isn’t without its problems, including an increase in cost of living) and a tourism industry that is nearly back to pre-COVID levels—last year, an unprecedented 60 percent of visitors arrived for leisure and not business, according to La Reppublica.
“Milan has always been a lively city, a crossroads of exchanges . . . the privileged destination of many artists,” wrote Tommaso Sacchi, Milan’s councilor for culture and among the youngest and most visible figures in local politics, in one of his many popular Instagram posts. Now, he says, his ambition is to secure Milan as a “culturally polycentric city.” He’s helping to build the Museum of Digital Art, or Museo Arte Digitale (MAD), which will serve as a hub of innovation and experimentation, and the European Library of Information and Culture, a space designed to foster cross-cultural exchange and collaboration.
More inclusivity, young talent, and an openness to foreign ideas are what Caterina Monda, the Italian American cofounder of the art PR firm Metis, finds so exciting about Milan right now. “There’s so much BIPOC creativity rising to the top right now, and the Italian old guard, who have historically supported traditional, tried-and-true names in art and design, is finally investing in it,” she said. She cited Korean designer Jimin Lee of upcycled luxury label J.Cricket, whose showroom sits a few blocks from Portrait Milano; curator and art historian Mistura Allison, who is launching a multidisciplinary artist residency program called Birds of Passage; and the British gallerist Matthew Noble, who focuses on rising Italian and foreign contemporary artists at his space, ArtNoble.
All these projects are unfolding with that same understated approach that anchors the city’s personality. “The Milanese prefer to keep beauty for themselves,” explained Monda.
Portrait Milano: A palazzo reborn
As I sat in the hotel’s library lounge one night with a cocktail, I was struck by the continuous flow of shoppers and curious passersby as they tiptoed through the library. I lost count of the number of times I heard a hushed “così bellissimo!” The city’s well-dressed fashion and design contingent strolled in steadily throughout the night to meet with friends as if it were their private salon.
That’s by design: Styled as a private residence much like Lungarno Collection hotels in Florence and Rome, Portrait Milano is situated in a monumental architectural complex between the Corso Venezia and via Sant’Andrea. The hotel’s building was commissioned in 1565 by the Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, and future Saint Charles. For five centuries, the seminary was used as a boarding school under Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and a military hospital and prison under Napoleon before becoming severely damaged in World War II. Rationalist architect Piero Portaluppi restored it in 1967, but it fell into decline; for about a decade in the 1980s, it housed the offices for the architect Mario Bellini’s atelier.
After years of negotiations with the Catholic Church (the Lungarno Collection’s landlord for the next 30 years), Ferragamo and Antonioli were given the green light for what would become the group’s most ambitious undertaking yet. Lungarno tapped Milanese architect Michele De Lucchi to create a hotel with 73 rooms and suites and two on-site restaurants, as well as a complex of retail shops. He also helped to restore the building’s most spectacular features, from the baroque portico to the 32,000-square-foot piazza and the double colonnaded loggia that surrounds it.
Much like the bones De Lucchi restored to their original grandeur, the interiors designed by the Lungarno Collection’s go-to designer, Michele Bönan, honor Milan’s heritage while also showcasing Florentine craftsmanship. He drew from the glamour of the city’s 1950s parlors and wove in its signature cardinal red and emerald accent colors, especially in the guest rooms, which have midcentury-modern furnishings, black lacquer, bronze and leather door handles, and varnished wood and rattan paneling. Aside from the namesake beauty amenities and prints of patented shoe designs from Salvatore Ferragamo’s archives on guest room walls, the Ferragamo-branded details are kept to a minimum. That feeling of privacy is especially palpable in the 27 rooms located in the enclosed loggia, which has a sanctuary-like silence—a true reflection of a city defined by discretion.
Three things to do on your next trip to Milan
The Dimorecentrale is a new 7,500-square-foot gallery near the Milano Centrale train station in a former railway warehouse. It’s the headquarters for the design and architecture agency of the same name that opened in summer 2022, during the 60th Salone del Mobile. You’ll find 20th-century art and design pieces from Gabriella Crespi, Gio Ponti, and Jean Prouvé, among others, as well as immersive furniture installations featuring the agency’s own work several times a year.
Located in a restored palazzo on the Corso Venezia, the Fondazione Luigi Rovati’s new museum showcases archaeological and artistic collections belonging to the foundation named for the late doctor and entrepreneur Luigi Rovati. Collections range from Etruscan pieces in ceramics, bronze, and gold to artwork by Pablo Picasso, Arturo Martini, and Andy Warhol.
It was in this exact location in 1936 that two pastry chefs first opened the Milanese institution known as Sant Ambroeus, the pasticceria and confetteria perhaps better known for its outposts across New York and in Palm Beach, Florida. The original location has reopened Milan with a refreshed look and feel by Paris-based interiors architect Fabrizio Casiraghi.