MILAN: It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as the old song goes, particularly in Milan, where — in between fashion weeks — Italy’s design capital turns its style sense to the winter holidays.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at its center, the Piazza del Duomo. While the Milan Duomo needs no more decoration than the 3,400 statues already incorporated into its elaborate Gothic facade, the square itself is very much in season. Merchants set up shop in outdoor chalets that ring the cathedral as part of the Mercantino di Natale, selling roasted chestnuts, rounds of Parmigiano Reggiano and colorful fleece-lined socks. At the center of the square, this year’s “sustainable” Christmas tree, a 37-meter-high steel conical structure of LED lights, towers over it all.
To one side, Rinascente, the legendary Italian department store, is strung with enough lights to rival a palace during wedding season in the Arabian Gulf. Not to be outdone, the neighboring Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II has a Swarovski Christmas tree under a dome of lights for those who prefer to get their retail fix inside Italy’s oldest shopping arcade.
From the square, you can follow the many strings of lights out to the Fashion District, a veritable Valhalla of major labels with shop windows that are worthy of their own walking tour. At Alessi on Via Manzoni, for instance, an animated display of rolling googly eyes is made from black and white plates, with cutlery for eyelashes.
At the heart of the district, Four Seasons Hotel Milano gets in on the game with its annual Urban Chalet pop-up. Its artistic director, Vincenzo Dascanio, has dressed up the hotel’s Sala Camino as a fantastical Alpine chalet, where fondue and strudel are on the seasonal menu.
You might have to fight for a place here among the fashion set during the holiday season, but not if you’re a guest. It’s hard to imagine a better headquarters for a shopping vacation, across the street from Goyard and down the street from Acqua di Parma on Via Gesu.
The hotel, which opened in 1993 as Four Seasons’ second European property, carries its own sense of history. The building is housed in a palazzo that once served as the convent of Santa Maria del Gesu in the 15th century. One of its nods to the past includes an Instagram-worthy indoor lap pool under vaulted ceilings of exposed brick from the building’s original cellar.
That’s not to say it doesn’t come with its own modern features. In my room, the walk-in closet’s lights turn on automatically, the bathroom’s floors are heated, and it is generously equipped with Acqua di Parma amenities and a Dyson blow dryer (this is Milan, after all, where bad hair days simply aren’t allowed).
The room’s windows open onto the inner courtyard, which at this time of year is also decorated with lights and a Christmas tree. The Italianate garden still serves as a place of contemplation, if not strolling the walkways lined with perfectly pruned trees, then through the windows from a breakfast table at La Veranda restaurant.
The hotel makes it almost a shame to venture outside, but the concierge takes care of that, with carefully considered tips about where to go. This resulted in a perfect plate of pasta at Giacoma Arengario, on the third floor of the Museo del Novecento, with a view of the Duomo’s bone-white spires. As the setting sun turned them to gold, an opera singer busking on the street below added to the magic with her Puccini repertoire.
Not even the concierge could secure me a coveted ticket at short notice to see Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie; they did, however, connect me with a tour guide who got me in for a timed viewing of the famous painting. Walking back to the hotel, it’s worth stopping at Pasticceria Marchese’s historic location on Via Santa Maria alla Porta. The bakery opened there in 1824, and particularly at this time of year, there are queues for its rightly famous panettone, Milan’s traditional Christmas bread.
Milan’s holiday season wraps up on January 6, with the Procession of the Magi — an Epiphany custom beginning in the Piazza del Duomo. It celebrates the Three Kings, believed to have journeyed from the Middle East, bearing frankincense and myrrh. Modern-day visitors will likely return with equally desirable mementos.