Sant' Ambrogio's street festival
Milan's festive season kicked off yesterday, on 7 December, when the fashion capital celebrates the feast of Sant'Ambrogio, the city's patron saint, a uniquely Milanese tradition. There's a public holiday on 8 December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception (Festa dell'Immacolata). The long weekend, known here as il ponte (the bridge), is traditionally an event-packed time – a special Mass was held at the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio on 7 December and the market Fiera Degli Oh Bei, Oh Bei is held from 7-11 December in the grounds of Milan's castle, Castello Sforzesco.
The Fiera, whose medieval origins date back to 1288, is a vast street market with hundreds of local arts and handicraft stalls and gastronomic delights. It's a great chance to savour the Christmas atmosphere – and delicacies such as roast chestnuts, mulled wine, castagnaccio (chestnut, raisin and pine kernel cake) – or take your pick from local mustards, hand-knitted woollies, jewellery, toys and sweets.
Take a fashion tour
If you fancy a stroll in Milan's world-famous Fashion Quad, or Golden Quadrilateral, named after the four main fashion streets around Via Montenapoleone, you will find it clearly marked from Piazza San Babila with a "golden rectangle" street sign. This is a chance to experience Milan's fashion mecca, an A-Z of Italian designer stores, from Armani to Zegna. This winter you will spot an H for Hogan's on most young and trendy women's feet in Milan - try on a pair at Hogan (Via Montenapoleone 23, +39 02 7601 1174, hoganworld.com).
Back in the real world, Milan's frantic but affordable shopping miles are Via Torino and Corso Buenos Aires. Slow-paced Via Brera and Via Solferino (Brera area) are browsers' havens, for accessory hunting or finding new inspiration for a chic but funky look. For good-quality, trendy but affordable shoes try Bagatt (Piazza San Marco 1, +39 02 2900 5682, bagatt.it) in Brera. Cavalli e Nastri (Via Brera 2, +39 02 7200 0449, cavallienastri.com) is a retro boutique, where you can find a sassy, second-hand winter coat for €100. The nearby Porta Genova-Navigli canals district is good for edgier looks and ethnic vintage.
Christmas shopping and gift ideas
A good all-round starting point is always La Rinascente (rinascente.it), Milan's best known department store, in Piazza Duomo. Check the homewares in the basement for espresso cup sets, or a Moka pot, the Italian stove-top espresso maker. Easy to take home are also olive wood cutting boards, pasta-cutting implements or a lasagne dish. If you like megastores, Mondadori (negozimondadori.it) is good for books, electronics, gadgets, CD and DVDs. Reproduction posters like the Ricordi selection of early 19th-century opera billboards of La bohème or Rigoletto make good souvenirs. Wait and See (Via Santa Marta 14, +39 02 7208 0195, waitandsee.it) is great for vintage accessories and design objects in every price range.
Try the deparment store food halls for saffron, the vital ingredient for risotto alla Milanese, or vedure sott'olio (preserved vegetables) to serve as Italian antipasti, and the speciality Fairtrade Modica chocolate. In Modica in Sicily, chocolate is made straight from the cacao beans, with no added cocoa butter or soy lecithin. The cocoa is worked on a lava stone slab, and it is heated to no more than 40C so that when the sugar is added it does not melt, giving the grainy texture for which the chocolate is famous. There's a bewildering range to choose from, from traditional vanilla, cinnamon and hot chilli pepper (peperoncino) to nutmeg or white pepper and cardamom.