Milan may be small, but each district has a unique character, and as an international hub of fashion and design, there is no shortage of hip and stylish places to hang out. From new generation Isola and Zona Tortona to timeless Brera, explore the coolest neighbourhoods in the city.
Every April, Zona Tortona becomes the centre of Design Week, with the creative glitterati of the design world attending vernissage events and furniture pop-ups. Stylish crowds descend again during Fashion Week. As a result of this attention, many appealing watering holes, restaurants and boutiques have been set up, so now the neighbourhood is in vogue all year. Try Cafè del Binari, God Save the Food, Boccino and The Botanical Club. Historically, Zona Tortona was Milan’s factory district, but the economic crisis in the 1960s left most of the buildings derelict. Drawn to the light and space of these empty, lofty buildings, risk-taking creative businesses began to occupy the area in the 1980s. Today, it is renowned as a centre of creativity and culture: Moncler, Herno and Ermenegildo Zegna all have showrooms or offices in Zona Tortona, and then there is Armani/Silos, a museum dedicated to the history of the label; Museo delle Culture di Milano (MUDEC), designed by architect David Chipperfield, has become a destination gallery with blockbuster exhibitions from the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Frida Kahlo; cult arthouse cinema, Cinema Mexico, screens classic films from all eras as well as new indie releases. The list could go on, but the most important thing to mention is Zona Tortona’s slightly remote location – tucked away in the southwest of the city means that this neighbourhood is calmly and quietly cool.
One side of Porta Romana is immaculately kept avenues of distinguished apartment buildings that house some of Milan’s wealthiest residents, but the other side (closer to Lodi) is a vibrant neighbourhood with bars, restaurants and shops frequented by cool yuppies. Expect a classic enoteca next door to a Ramen bar, and know that it’s not as polished as somewhere like Brera. On Via Lodovico Muratori you will find beautiful people drinking and dining, often spilling on to the narrow street on weekend evenings. A daytime favourite for Porta Romana’s moneyed hipsters is Cascina Cuggina, a farm-to-fork restaurant with a rustic piazza and leafy garden. Another is PotaFiori, a bistro-cum-florist where you dine among a magical den of flowers. The more industrial fringes of Porta Romana are home to the city’s leading contemporary art destination, Fondazione Prada, and the infamous nightclub, Plastic.
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Porta Venezia is a mix of old, working Milan and preppy, international Milan. The commercial shopping strip Corso Buenos Aires cuts through the centre of district and unless you want to spend your holiday shopping at Zara and H&M, it is best avoided. However, the grid of smaller streets that criss-cross on either side of Corso Buenos Aires are lovely – here you will find bold galleries (the infamous Giò Marconi gallery and the new Spazzio Maiocchi), second-hand designer shops and many fashionable bars and cafés. There is a large Eritrean population in the area so you can easily find delicious Eritrean restaurants and bakeries. The city’s most romantic park, Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli, is in Porta Venezia and leads to the impressive Galleria d’Arte Moderna and contemporary art space PAC. The gallery café, LùBar, is incredibly chic, with a palm-court-inspired design and outdoor seating in the gallery courtyard. Much of the architecture in this northeasterly neighbourhood is slightly different than the rest of the city. Many of the buildings are in dark, unplastered stone, with ornate Art Nouveau detailing. A real gem can be found on Via Malpighi.
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A former working class district of the city, in recent years Isola has been radically regenerated. As suggested by its name, the area was previously considered cut-off from the centre of Milan – it sits just behind the railway tracks that run through Porta Garibaldi Train Station. Since the arrival of the purple metro line from 2013–2015, the ‘Island’ is now very well connected; great restaurants and bars followed (Frida is particularly good) and Isola is now considered one of the coolest new places to live. Historically, the cheap rent drew artists and other creative industries to the area, which is reflected in the character of the neighbourhood, including many graffiti murals – check out Via Carmagnola and Angelo della Pergola in particular. Isola’s proximity to the banking district of Milan also means there has been lots of property development, which makes for diverse architecture – shiny skyscrapers and apartment blocks (including Stefano Boeri’s ‘vertical forest’) alongside classic 19th century residences.
Milan’s Chinatown is not as decorative as its equivalents in New York and London, but it is definitely a buzzing and unique area of Milan. Just north of the central Parco Sempione and walking distance from Brera, Chinatown is in a very smart part of town. The wide, tree-lined boulevards of Sempione give way to a burrow of small streets dotted with red lanterns. The plethora of Chinese restaurants range from hole-in-the-wall bun vendors to fine restaurants, with fast-paced noodle bars in between. Fans of Asian cooking also venture to the area for the supermarkets offering specialist Asian ingredients. But there is also more than just Chinese food on offer; minimalist all-day café/bar/restaurant oTTo is an example of one of the many great modern venues that are making their home near Via Paolo Sarpi, the main thoroughfare of the neighbourhood.
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There is nothing edgy or avant-garde about Brera, but it’s just so chic it has to be included in this list. Located in the historic centre, but with no hint of the chaos of Duomo, Brera epitomises everyone’s romantic vision of life in a European city. The apartment buildings are elegant, the public buildings grand, and on the corner of every cobbled street is an old-world pasticciera, luxury retailer or fine restaurant. In addition to the public museums Pinacoteca di Brera and Museo del Risorgimento, there are also many sleek commercial gallery and design spaces. Brera residents are some of the wealthiest and most stylish in Milan, from old-school suited men walking their grey weimaraners to young, street-style couples pushing designer prams you’ll see out at brunch looking impeccable. Head to Via Montenapoleone for all of the top designer stores, the small streets adjacent to Via Brera for bohemian cafés and Orto Botanico Brera for relaxing. Watch this video for more ideas on what to see and do in the area.
Navigli is an area in the southwest of the city formed around a group of canals (with Navigli Grande at the centre) dating from as early as 1179. Historically, the waterways were used for trade, but today they bustle with the sound of the many bars and restaurants that line the pavements. This part of the city has a different feel to the centre of Milan – the buildings are painted in rusty hues of yellow and pink, and narrow side streets can lead you to both vine-covered courtyards or graffiti-covered walls; the vibe is relaxed. Discover cafés tucked away underneath charming case di ringhiera (the traditional workers’ houses characterised by iron railings). On the first Sunday of each month, Navigli Grande is transformed into a thriving antique market, selling everything from furniture to comic books. Via Vigevano that leads to Porta Genova station is home to many chic vintage and contemporary clothing shops. Be wary of visiting Navigli on weekend evenings when the weekday, stylish Milanese taking aperitivo after work are replaced with droves of tourists and suburban youths looking for a night out.