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Italy's financial capital scrubs up in renaissance to rival Rome and Venice


A boat sails along the The Naviglio Gran Canal in Milan

A boat sails along the The Naviglio Gran Canal in Milan


A boat sails along the The Naviglio Gran Canal in Milan

Long the ugly sister to Florence, Venice and Rome, Italy's business capital Milan is enjoying a renaissance, its once drab skyline coming to life and a new creative vibrancy emerging.

Host of the 2015 Expo, Milan has taken advantage of the World Fair to rejuvenate its image, attracting new investment in a makeover that officials hope might mark the start of a broader revival for the whole country.

The sleek headquarters of Italian bank Unicredit, the centrepiece of one of several new developments that dot the northern city, is a state-of-the-art reminder of Milan's status as a financial hub.

And while the gothic Duomo cathedral and Galleria shopping arcade recall past glories, modern ventures -- such as the "Vertical Forest" apartment blocks whose balconies bloom with trees and plants -- point to a newfound confidence.

Milan has absorbed more than half of all investment in business real estate in Italy in the first half of this year, while tourism has grown faster over the past six years than in Italy's other big cities.

Despite appearances, Milan is not immune from Italy's bureaucracy, corruption and weak economic growth.

Unadjusted gross domestic product per capita in the Lombardy region around Milan fell 1.4pc between 2008 and 2013 and the once powerful industrial hinterland has been battered by competition from China.

But other areas suffered far worse after the European debt crisis and Milan seems to have regained its drive, unlike scandal-plagued Rome.

"Rome is very dirty and badly looked after, it hardly seems like a capital city. Milan would have been a better capital," said Vicente Perez, 52, a tourist from Madrid.

Next to the Duomo, the glass-vaulted Galleria has been cleaned up in a project co-funded by luxury firms Prada and Versace and publisher Feltrinelli in the sort of public-private partnership that Italy is increasingly relying on to safeguard its crumbling heritage.

The Galleria restoration was finished in time for the Expo, a six-month showcase for products and technology from around the world that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has shown off to an array of global leaders.

Cost overruns, delays and graft overshadowed the start of the fair, but city governor for tourism Franco D'Alfonso said ticket sales are on track to reach between 18 million and an original target of more than 20 million.

Some businesses in the city centre are nonetheless unhappy, saying their trade has been cannibalised by Expo, which lies on the outskirts, and by some 184 new bars, restaurants and ice cream shops which have opened over the last 18 months.

But many are celebrating the overall rise in tourism, which began well before Expo, with the number of overnight visitors increasing. The global financial crisis cost the city business tourists.

But the corporate side might finally be stirring once again.

Milan soaked up 59pc of all investments in business real estate in Italy in the first half of this year, including some €900m from the Qatari sovereign wealth fund.