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The archetypal Milanese dish, risotto allo zafferano, gets its distinctive colour from saffron, the expensive spice once used by the city’s craftsmen to give stained glass a golden tint. According to legend, the recipe was invented in the 16th century when a master glazier, working on the cathedral’s monumental windows, added it to the risotto at his daughter’s wedding.
The Milanese still have a Midas touch — a fifth of Italy’s gross domestic product is produced in Lombardy, and in 2015 the region had seven of the top 10 districts in Italy by average income, according to data published by newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.
The region’s capital, Milan, was less affected by the 2008 global crisis than most parts of Italy. Now it is one of several cities in Europe hoping to pick up some of the spoils should London’s financial institutions shift their operations elsewhere post-Brexit.
The mayor, Giuseppe Sala, immediately leapt on the outcome of the vote, calling it “an opportunity” for Milan and dangling the idea of a tax-free zone as an incentive to businesses. Meanwhile, Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, who was already making plans to snatch the EU’s European Medicines Agency from London, is also making a play for the European Banking Authority, with the objective of transplanting both headquarters to Milan.
The city is already Italy’s financial hub. It is home to the country’s main stock exchange and Bocconi University, one of the top-rated universities for business and finance in Europe, which help provide a pool of talent. The government has floated the idea of offering passports to Bocconi students from outside the EU.
Milan is also a global fashion capital, with world-class shopping centred on the glossy Quadrilatero d’Oro. Male and female fashion weeks resonate through the city, which pioneered the concept of fashion-themed hotels and restaurants, including venues tagged by Armani, Bulgari, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana.
Each April tens of thousands descend on the city for the ever expanding design fair, Salone del Mobile. International events such as these contribute to a cosmopolitan nightlife, says Clemente Pignatti Morano of Sotheby’s International Realty. A five-star lifestyle worthy of a much larger city is on offer in Milan, which has 15 Michelin-starred restaurants, he says. “The scene is more diverse and more experimental than other Italian cities such as Rome or Florence. It’s more in line with London. For a relatively small city of 1.3m people, Milan is batting out of its league.”
Last year’s Expo fair brought 21m visitors to the city and was a catalyst for infrastructure projects. A third Metro line was completed and areas such as Navigli, the canal district, received a much-needed facelift.
“Milan may be smaller than Rome, and with fewer international visitors, but it’s more business-focused and forward-thinking,” says Rupert Fawcett of Knight Frank.
Milan has plenty of practical advantages for entrepreneurs: fast train links, three airports and ample prime office space. The city has also been attracting more start-ups, thanks to 2013 legislation that facilitates visas, exempts businesses from certain taxes and allows for more flexible employee contracts.
Davide Dattoli, co-founder of Talent Garden, which runs co-working campuses, says that since the Brexit vote he has received “dozens” of emails from Italians who had emigrated to London but now intended to return to Italy, overwhelmingly to Milan. He also reports interest from start-ups from outside the EU, mainly from Asia, that were planning to move to London but are now considering Milan.
House prices have fallen about 20 per cent since the 2008 global downturn. According to Fawcett, prices have largely flattened, climbing very slightly in 2015, by less than 1 per cent. Pignatti Morano agrees: “The recovery in prices will be very gradual. But there is certainly more faith in the market compared with two or three years ago.”
While it is too early to assess the real impact of the EU referendum, it could help reverse the brain drain in Italy, he says, with some London-based Italians already making offers on properties.
The most desirable areas for international investors include the former working-class, now trendy, Isola and wealthy Brera, where Sotheby’s is selling a three-bedroom duplex for €4.4m.
There are larger properties, too. The agency is marketing an eight-bedroom villa with a terrace and garden in the east-central San Babila area for €12.5m.
New properties are available at CityLife, a former industrial zone now being transformed by the construction of residential skyscrapers, including one designed by Zaha Hadid. A two-bedroom Hadid penthouse is on the market for €4.3m through Generali Group, the developer.
While Milan scores highly for lifestyle, investors may be put off by the inefficient bureaucracy and slow judicial system. And, according to European Commission data, just 34 per cent of Italians are able to hold a conversation in English, compared with 90 per cent in the Netherlands, a drawback for global companies that want to recruit locally. “It can be hard for expats who don’t speak Italian to get basic administrative things done,” admits Dattoli.
Despite Milan’s charms, Italy’s leaders may have more work to do before we see an investment gold rush to the city.
Accessibility Milan has three airports and is seven hours by train from Paris and Frankfurt and four hours from Geneva
Regulation In a 2016 World Bank report on the ease of doing business, Italy was ranked 50th out of 190 countries
Infrastructure The Expo last year brought significant investment in transport infrastructure and the site is set to become a technology park
Residential property Redevelopment of brownfield sites at Porta Nuova has provided new apartments
● Stamp duty on a non-primary residence is 9 per cent. Buyers should also allow for estate agency fees of 3 per cent
● Deposits are usually 10 to 20 per cent
What you can buy for . . .
€1m A two-bedroom flat in Porta Nuova
€3m A three-bedroom duplex in a historic building near the city centre
€10m A four-bedroom penthouse with a roof terrace and parking in Brera
More homes at propertylistings.ft.com
Photographs: AWL Images/Getty Images; Alberto Fanelli