The concept of aperitivo hour took off in the 1920s in Milan, which is the birthplace of the bitter spirit Campari. You can enjoy aperitivo all over Italy, but in Milan, it’s a ritual and they do it best – between the hours of 6pm and 8pm, the whole city seems to be enjoying a spritz. Divided by neighbourhood and recommended by locals, here are the best bars to go to.
N’Ombra de Vin
Restaurant, Wine Bar, Wine Seller, European, Italian, $$$
N’Ombra de Vin is an excellent, French-inspired enoteca housed in the former refectory of Augustinian Friars of the Romanesque Basilica of San Marco, situated next door. The cavernous underground space is beautifully finished – Thonet style chairs are clustered around large tables set beneath the lofty, vaulted stone ceiling. It typically draws a very stylish Brera crowd.
This restaurant is located within the enchanting interior courtyard of Museo Bagatti Valsecchi, the former residence of the barons and brothers Fausto and Giuseppe Valsecchi; in the 19th century, they decided to entirely restructure their family home in neo-Renaissance style. The courtyard feels particularly Mediterranean, replete with Doric columns, elaborate mosaic floor and potted citrus trees. It is a little oasis of calm hidden away from the main streets and here aperitivo is served on white linen by discreet waiters. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner but the bistro/bar is open all day to offer breakfast and drinks.
This is a real hole-in-the-wall on a quiet street in the southwest of zone one. It’s an old-school dive bar and therefore wonderfully unpretentious. There’s no website and no reservation@ email address, just lots of loyal Milanese customers enjoying the bar’s stellar cocktails. Aperitivo here is simple, typically just crisps and maybe some olives.
The legendary Bar Basso, Milan | Courtesy Bar Basso Photo: Andrea Zani
Bar Basso, is supposedly where the infamous Negroni Sbagliato was invented and therefore is king of cocktails at aperitivo hour. This legendary bar first opened in 1947 and has been a lively meeting place for creative characters ever since. Today, it is a favourite with designers in town for the annual Salone di Mobile. The dated interior is exactly as a classic cocktail den should be, relaxed but also elegant.
DRY (which has two locations) has a simple and effective concept: excellent Neapolitan pizza with excellent cocktails. The design of the bar-cum-restaurant is more complex. At the Viale Vittorio Veneto space, Milan/Shanghai creative studio, Vudafieri Saverino Partners expertly channel 1960s nightclub and minimalist Japanese design to create a sophisticated and seductive environment.
Bar, Boutique Hotel Restaurant, Cafe, Italian, European, $$$
Dine and drink al fresco at Un Posto a Milano | Courtesy Un Posto a Milano Photo: The Frank Story
Escape the city at Un Posto a Milano, a rustic farmhouse in the heart of the trendy and well-heeled Porta Romana district. The building has been lovingly converted into a farm-to-fork restaurant, guest house and cultural event space. The restaurant and bar, Cascina Cuccagna, opens onto a leafy courtyard and garden so it’s a particularly special place to have aperitivo when the sun is shining. Cascina Cuccagna promises ‘seasonal foods, vegetarian and vegan options, quality raw materials, and traditional Italian dishes (occasionally revisited)’. This philosophy also applies to their aperitivo nibbles.
A Martini Master resident at Lacerba cocktail bar, Milan | Courtesy Lacerba
This bar takes its name from the 1913 Florentine Futurist magazine, and the décor pays homage to Italy’s 20th-century art scene at large. Vintage Campari advertisements hang next to Boccioni-esque paintings. Period features, industrial fittings and eccentric maximalist design details make for a great late-night atmosphere. Aperitivo is served buffet style and is nothing spectacular, but the cocktails more than make up for it. The adjacent restaurant specialises in seafood.
There are lots of terrible bars in the Navigli, typically falling into the mould of plastic menus, greasy, all-you-can-eat aperitivo buffets and bad lighting, but UGO is no such place. Arguably it has the best looking and friendliest bartenders in the neighbourhood. Drinks are served with a typical array of charcuterie but more delicate than most: Sicilian nocellara olives, soft mortadella, fresh bruschetta… Sit inside the warmly lit parlour or outside under umbrellas on the lively, cobbled Via Corsica. This place is frequented by cool yuppies.
Morna is old-school yet eclectic, much like its absolutely charming staff. The heavy wood and marble bar has beer on tap and a solid selection of wines by the glass for aperitivo hour, which are served with generous snacks. Morna is particularly great in spring/summer because it is next to a ‘Bocciofila’, the Italian word for a boules green. Zona Tortona’s fashionable workers and residents sip on a spritz outside whilst watching a game of Bocce.
The Botanical Club on Via Tortona 33, Milan | Courtesy The Botanical Club
Launching in 2015, The Botanical Club was the first ever Italian micro-distillery for gin. The distillery has three bar/restaurant locations in Milan, but the Via Tortona location is arguably the best. Alongside the bespoke Botanical Club cocktail menu there is also a solid wine list which includes some organic options. The food menu, like the chic interior design, takes inspiration from the South Pacific and features dishes like poke; this is especially refreshing at aperitivo hour! During the week it attracts both the financiers of neighbouring Deloitte and the fashionable crowd from the surrounding design and fashion studios.
Owned by fashion house Dsquared2 and furnished by Studio Dimore (the globally renowned design duo celebrated for their period-inspired maximalism) Ceresio7 is one of the most stylish locations in the city. The bar, restaurant and pool are located in the penthouse of a skyscraper with unparalleled views of the city. Elegance and glamour aside, watching the sunset over Milan is what makes aperitivo at Ceresio7 great.
Fine Dining, Nightlife, Quiet, Rooftop, Modern, Outdoors, Stylish
Wine Bar, Wine Seller, Italian, $$$
Aperitivo hour at Cantine Isola in Chinatown, Milan | Courtesy Cantine Isola
This historic wine bar opened in 1896 and its current owner is every bit as passionate about the wine and its customers as when it opened. A heart-warming history on the cantine’s website tells its origin story – for the bar’s inauguration, the founder placed an announcement in Filippo Turati’s magazine La Battaglia: he offered an invitation to ‘companions’ rather than just customers. There is a very wide selection of bottles available by the glass and also a lot of international options, which is quite rare in Italy! Cantine Isola is at once traditional and sophisticated, yet young and informal. During the warmer months, it is the epicentre of the lively via Paolo Sarpi – drinkers enjoy their wine outside whilst perched on old crates.
The restaurant oTTo in Chinatown, Milan | Courtesy oTTo
oTTo, the minimalist all-day café/bar/restaurant, is an example of one of the many great modern venues that are making their home on Via Paolo Sarpi, the main thoroughfare of up-and-coming Chinatown. The simple white space is gallery-like but finished with mid-century furniture and covered in plants; large glass windows lead to a warmly lit deck where guests drink late into the night. oTTo strays from the typical aperitivo model – instead of complimentary nibbles or a buffet you pay for well-conceived sharing boards or ‘squares’. The bread is freshly baked and the olives are delicious so it’s definitely worth it. They don’t have draught beers but you can try their exclusive bottled oTTo IPA.
Bar, Restaurant, Grocery Store, Coffee Shop, Italian, Northern European, $$$
Radetzky has a prime corner spot on Corso Garibaldi and has been a Milanese favourite for post-work drinks since it opened in 1988. The design by architect Florenzia Costa centres around large, modernist windows that open on to the street and is finished with sleek 1930s furniture. Its patrons – designers, architects, the fashion crowd – are similarly stylish. Aperitivo begins at 7pm; the kitchen stays open as late as the bar.