- READ ALSO: Ten things to do in Italy in December
Milan's annual Christmas celebrations kicked off on December 6th with the official lighting of the Sky Italia Christmas tree in Piazza del Duomo.
December 7th is the Festa di Sant'Ambrogio, feast of Saint Ambrose and a local public holiday. Saint Ambrose is the patron saint of the city and was the fourth-century bishop of Milan responsible for the construction of various city churches, including the Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio.
The evening of December 7th marks the traditional opening of the season at Teatro alla Scala, as Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, directed by Riccardo Chailly, takes to the stage and opera-goers are out in their finery.
The following day is also a national holiday – the Feast of the Immaculate Conception – thus making it a long weekend of festivities here in Milan.
Photo: Rachael Martin
If you're in the city, then chances are you'll be heading to the annual Oh Bej! Oh Bej! market (Piazza Castello, via Gadio and Piazza del Cannone, until December 10th). Try the local speciality firunatt – roast chestnuts on a string – and stock up on Christmas gifts non-edible and edible, not least panettone.
Christmas in Milan is still all about the panettone: despite the fact that the sweet bread may be famous (and available) worldwide, there is still something very special about eating it in Milan, where it all began.
One legend states that it is pan de' Toni – Toni's bread. He burnt the dessert for a banquet at the court of Ludovico the Moor, a 15th-century duke of Milan, so he improvised. The result was panettone, an immediate success.
Other Christmas markets are the Christmas Village in Piazza Gae Aulenti (until January 7th) and the Darsena Christmas Village (until January 6th), each with an ice rink. Both are worth a visit, but the Navigli canals around Darsena are particularly suggestive at Christmas time. Head to the Tortona design district while you're down there for chic gifts.
This weekend also sees the last days of Artigiano in Fiera with artisans from all over the world (Fiera Milano Rho, until December 10th). There's also the Wunder Mrkt at Cargo&HighTech, (via privata Meucci 43, December 9th and 10th), where you'll find vintage clothes, art, design, music and food with an activities corner for kids.
Don't miss the Funk Off concerts organized by Umbria Jazz in the Piazza del Duomo (December 9th and 10th at 12.30 and 17.30). The performers will take to the square in the style of a New Orleans marching band – hardly Milanese, but just enjoy the music and take in the ambiance of the cathedral square.
And don't forget to stop by the nearby Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and see the sparkling Swarovski Christmas tree. Look up and marvel at the lights in the dome – and if you're there this evening, you can watch the opera from La Scala live on screen.
Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
On the cultural side, Palazzo Reale has two photography exhibitions: there's fashion photographer Paolo Roversi (until December 17th) and James Nachtwey's Memoria, a reflection upon war (until March 4th).
Finally, if you want to enjoy a view that brings together some of the best of all that is Milanese, visit the Museo del Novecento. Dedicated to 20th-century art, it has works by international and Italian and artists, but when the lights have come on at Christmas time it has what is – in my opinion – one of the most beautiful views of Milan.
Head up to the room where Lucio Fontana's Structure in Neon is on show. Above you and reflected in the mirror are the swirls of Fontana's light installation. To the right you have the gothic cathedral, straight ahead is the 19th-century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and below is the Piazza del Duomo in all its vastness – and with its newly inaugurated Christmas tree.
This is Milan, and it's beautiful.