10 things you didn't know about Milan

There's much to explore in this Italian city

By Silvia Marchetti, CNN
Getty Images via CNN

In the Porta Nuova district of Milan, futuristic architecture integrates green energy -- and incredible sunsets.

(CNN) - Milano -- not much comes to mind outside fashion and perhaps the Duomo, right?

Well, it's time to rethink the biggest city in northern Italy. It offers hidden travel wonders, cool new districts and savory dishes. Milan has a style of its own -- it's unique, cosmopolitan, wild. A city where tradition melds with innovation.

Here are 10 things to know before you visit:

1. The Milanese are workaholics

Locals pride themselves on being the efficient, hard-working class that keeps Italy's economy afloat.

They're always in a rush and think anyone living below the Po River that runs through their region is a "terùn" -- roughly (and offensively!) connoting a lazy person from south of Italy.

Ego problem? Rome may be the political capital, but Milan houses the banks, the stock exchange and the fashion world. It's where Italy's largest chunk of gross domestic product is concentrated.

The Milanese are punctual, so if you reserve a table or have an appointment, make sure you're there on the dot.

2. It's about more than just fashion with a capital F​​​​​​​

For a second, forget about Armani & Co.

Milan's fashion stage doesn't showcase only the big flashy brands and glossy designer boutiques. There are couture artisans and historical family-run ateliers that have passed down through generations the art of hand-making tailored clothes with the highest quality fabrics.

Mutinelli has been making hats since 1888 with premium leather, felt, straw and tweed. Camiceria Ambrosiana, a tailor that made shirts for Italy's royals and actors such as Gary Grant, only uses natural fibers.

Mutinelli: Corso Buenos Aires, 5, 20124 Milano MI, Italy; +39 022 952 3594

Camiceria Ambrosiana: Via Soncino, 1, 20123 Milano MI, Italy; +39 027 200 1818

3. They enjoy Christmas cake all year round​​​​​​​

Panettone is Milan's iconic pastry. It's a round, sweet and soft bread made with raisins and candied fruits, embossed with a festive cross. It's a city symbol. For centuries it was eaten just at Christmas time, but now it's become a gourmet delicacy sold year-round in most pastry shops.

According to legend, it was the product of a mistake. One day a distracted baker's boy dropped eggs, sugar and raisins in the bread dough and made a cake, giving it his name: Pan de Toni, aka Tony's bread.

Pastry chefs are now giving it new twists with passito wine, marron glaçés, pine nuts, apricots, figs, chestnuts, black cherries, pineapple, pears and tropical fruits. T'a Milano sells from 500 grams to 10 kilos panettone sizes.

T'a Milano: Via Clerici, 1, 20121 Milano MI, Italy; +39 02 8738 6130

4. Happy hour is called 'aperitivo'​​​​​​​

Milan's cool lounge bars, wild cocktails and gourmet finger foods set new trends across Italy. Evening drinks time, dubbed "aperitivo," is a ritual.

People rush out of the office and get together to relax. It can last for hours, turning into a small dinner -- as the tipple mixes with the food it becomes an "apericena" (aperitif-dinner).

The Spritz (Prosecco, Aperol, soda), imported by the Austrians during their rule of Italy, is the iconic aperitif served everywhere, but there are plenty of creative twists.

At the Botanical Club, signature drinks include Cookie Monster, employing sambucus flower, and No Deal, a gin fizz with absinthe.

Armani Bamboo Bar revisits classic cocktails in a panoramic roof-top lounge constructed from sleek onyx and black marble retro-illuminated floors.

Other aperitivo spots in heavy rotation are the Navigli district, located along a network of canals, and Milan's thermal baths.

Botanical Club: Via Pastrengo, 11, 20159 Milano MI, Italy; +39 02 3652 3846

Armani Bamboo Bar: Via Alessandro Manzoni, 31, 20121 Milano MI, Italy; +39 028 883 8703

QC Termemilano: Piazzale Medaglie D'Oro, 2, 20135 Milano MI, Italy; +39 025 519 9367

5. Real risotto was born here​​​​​​​

How many times have you had risotto? Chances are it wasn't the real thing.

The one and only original recipe is Risotto alla Milanese, which is yellowish, not white. It's a creamy rice dish that gets its golden color from the addition of saffron.

A premium rice variety called carnaroli is added to veal broth, malga butter made in mountain dairy huts and raspadura, a delicate cheese that was given to the poor in the Middle Ages, leftover from aristocrats' meals. The saffron, imported by Spanish conquerors in the 1500s but grown today in central Italy, gives it an exotic twist. A piece of ossobuco (bone marrow) is used as garnish.

The Milanese are so addicted to risotto that they are nicknamed "risottari" (rice-eaters).

Restaurant Ratanà serves both the traditional recipe and modern twists, with broccoli, bacon and crunchy chili peppers.

Ratanà: Via Gaetano de Castillia, 28, 20124 Milano MI, Italy; +39 02 8712 8855

6. Skyscrapers are part of the landscape

There are new avant-garde districts in Milan, such as Isola-Porta Nuova, where futuristic architecture melds with green energy buildings.

Known as the "New Milan," this area has been built by world-famous starchitects and dubbed Italy's "Little Manhattan."

Guided tours to top highlights include The Spire skyscraper, Piazza Gae Aulenti and the CityLife district designed by Zaha Hadid and The Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), encompassing two residential towers with trees jutting out of glass balconies.

7. Look beyond the Duomo​​​​​​​

Prepare to see more than just the Madunina, the little Madonna statue on top of the Duomo cathedral.

Milan is packed with secret spots (aristocratic mansions tucked away in hidden courtyards) and essential stops (Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" masterpiece showcased at Cenacolo Vinciano).

There are more peculiar sights, too.

The Ambrosiana Library is said to be haunted by the ghost of Lucrezia Borgia, the illegitimate daughter of lascivious Pope Alexander VI. She allegedly had a knack for poisoning her lovers and for sleeping with her own father and brother. A lock of her golden hair that bewitched hundreds of men and inspired the Romantic poets is on display in a glass case alongside two of her pendants. At night, Lucrezia's ghost is said to return to brush the lonely lock.

Ambrosiana Library: Piazza Pio XI, 2, 20123 Milano MI, Italy; +39 0280 6921

8. Underground wonders abound​​​​​​​

Far from the madding crowds of shopaholics lies another, mysterious Milan universe.

Guided tours take visitors to explore crypts, the ancient Roman underground ruins and cold chambers stacked with thousands of skeletons that were once used as hospital graveyards.

Also on the list are the maze of tunnels beneath the Sforzesco Castle and a WWII bunker where locals hid during bombings. Tours are even offered at night to enhance the spooky factor.

Sforzesco Castle: Piazza Castello, 20121 Milano MI, Italy; +39 02 8846 3700

9. This is a party city​​​​​​​

Nightlife rules in Milan. Brands have conquered the stage.

Just Cavalli Restaurant & Club is a flashy nightclub also serving gourmet food. Armani Privé is one of the most élite clubs in town, located in the Fashion Quadrangle, with bronze-colored tables and illuminated walls. Other local haunts include The Club and Old Fashion.

Just Cavalli Milan: Torre Branca, Viale Luigi Camoens, 20121 Milano MI, Italy; +39 0231 1817

Amani Privé: Via Gastone Pisoni, 20121 Milano MI, Italy; +39 026 231 2655

The Club: Corso Garibaldi, 97, 20121 Milano MI, Italy; +39 338 951 5667

Old Fashion: Palazzo dell'Arte, Viale Luigi Camoens, 20121 Milano MI, Italy; +39 02 805 6231

10. There's weird food worth trying​​​​​​​

Milan's niche bistros and deluxe restaurants are highly rated but traditional food still remains in old, family-run establishments.

Cassoeula is an old peasant dish with a funny name, hard to pronounce even for Italians. It requires a palate that's able to appreciate savory, pungent ingredients, as it's made from cabbage and all the leftover parts of pork including ribs, rind, skin, head, ears, nose, trotters and tail, cooked in a casserole with onions, celery, black pepper and carrots.

Legend traces the recipe's origin to a winter day in the Middle Ages that each year marked the end of pig slaughtering season, and was later associated with the feast of Saint Anthony, protector of animals.

Top spots are Masuelli and Trattoria Milanese, which also serves mondeghili, special meat balls made with bread and milk, then fried in butter.

Trattoria Masuelli San Marco: Viale Umbria, 80, 20135, Milano MI, Italy; +39 02 5518 4138

Trattoria Milanese: Viale Gorizia, 30, 20144, Milano MI, Italy; + 39 02 835 7670

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