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Milan is a city of contrasts, with areas that are sexy, glamorous and creative and others that are dull, foggy and industrial – and its neighbourhoods are equally distinctive. From romantic Brera to new-generation Isola, here are Milan’s coolest neighbourhoods.
Central Milan is dominated by the city’s cathedral, the Duomo, Italy’s largest church and the fifth-largest in the world. Though not technically cool, the Centro Storico still deserves to be on the list because of its multiple attractions. Palazzo Reale (the city’s former Royal Palace) and the Museo del Novecento (dedicated to 20th-century Italian art) are both located right next to the cathedral. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Italy’s oldest active shopping mall since 1861, is also next door. Other landmarks include the Scala Theatre, with its leading opera season and star-studded premieres, and the 15th-century Castello Sforzesco.
Once you’ve paid tribute to the local history, enjoy a stroll in the nearby Quadrilatero della Moda, Milan’s fashion district, where all the big names in the fashion world have their flagship stores. During fashion week this area hosts catwalks and shows and the streets are packed with models, celebrities and street-style photographers chasing the perfect shot.
This used to be Milan’s factory district before the economic crisis in the 1960s. In the 1980s, risk-taking creative businesses began to occupy the empty lofts, and today it is a renowned centre of creativity and culture. Several fashion brands have showrooms around via Tortona. Giorgio Armani is headquartered in Via Bergognone, next to the newly opened Armani/Silos, which showcases some of the brand’s masterpieces. Make sure to visit Mudec (Museo delle Culture), a one of-a-kind blend of art and anthropology hosting world-class exhibitions.
Every year in April, Zona Tortona becomes the centre of Design Week, when the whole street turns into a giant furniture pop-up with a festive vibe.
One of the hidden treasures of the area is LabSolue, a perfume laboratory nestled inside the inner courtyard of the Hotel Magna Pars Suites.
One side of Porta Romana – the one closer to the centre — has immaculately kept avenues of distinguished residential buildings, fashion showrooms and fine-dining spots. The other side (closer to the metro stop Lodi) is a vibrant neighbourhood of bars and crafty markets popular with a yuppie crowd. A favourite with Porta Romana’s moneyed hipsters is Cascina Cuccagna, a former rural spot featuring a leafy garden and a Michelin-approved farm-to-fork restaurant. Another is PotaFiori, a bistro-cum-florist where visitors dine among a magical den of flowers. The industrial fringes of Porta Romana are home to the city’s leading contemporary art destination, Fondazione Prada, designed by Rem Koolhaas and hosting some of the most groundbreaking exhibitions in Italy. The on-site café, Bar Luce, was designed by Wes Anderson.
The city’s most infamous club, Plastic, is also set in the industrial grounds of Porta Romana and so is another, edgier, hotspot for clubbers: Magazzini Generali.
Porta Venezia is the meeting point of the artistic community, which gathers for drinks at The Bar Basso and for parties at Spazio Maiocchi. Yyou can find several bold art galleries here, as well as the PAC (Contemporary Art Pavillon) and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna (Modern Art Gallery), surrounded by the city’s most romantic park, Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli.
The LGBTQ community also gathers around Porta Venezia and the neighbourhood has several gay bars: check out Leccomilano’s creative cocktails, Mono Bar and Pop Bar (a feminine and feminist bar, as the neon sign proudly declares). Surprisingly, the rents in this area are still affordable, so the neighbourhood is mostly inhabited by students and young families. There is also a large Eritrean community in the area, so you can easily find delicious (and cheap) Eritrean restaurants and bakeries.
In via Malpighi 3 there’s a real Art Nouveau architectonic gem: Casa Galimberti.
Set in the northern part of the city and slightly secluded, Isola (meaning ‘island’) used to be one of Milan’s most struggling neighbourhoods, with regular police raids taking place here. In the early 2000s, as the rents in Brera and Navigli became exorbitant, artists and starter-uppers started moving north, drawn to the cheap venues and the village vibe that distinguished the area despite its roughness. Today, Isola is the city’s trendiest neighbourhood, with a vibrant nightlife, chic boutiques and fine-dining spots. The 2015 Expo led to the construction of an entirely new area, Porta Nuova, which changed the city’s skyline with its avant garde skyscrapers, such as Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale and the Unicredit Tower. But behind the modern buildings and the new glossiness, Isola still holds on to its original quirkiness. The area has some fine restaurants and a plethora of cafés serving good coffee and delicious pastries. Nightlife hotspots include bar Frida and jazz club Blue Note.
The area has also become famous for second-hand shops that stock vintage designer pieces. People from all over the city come to Ambreous and Live in Vintage to shop for Chanel bags and Ferragamo shoes.
Milan’s Chinatown is perhaps not as decorative as its equivalents in New York and London, but it is definitely a buzzing and unique area. Just North of Parco Sempione (the largest park in the city) and within walking distance from Brera, it occupies a very smart spot of the city. The area is a burrow of small streets dotted with red lanterns and residential buildings ranging from traditional case di ringhiera to Art Nouveau palazzis. The plethora of Chinese restaurants run from hole-in-the-wall bun vendors to fine dining and fast-paced noodle bars. Fans of Asian cooking should also visit the area’s supermarkets, offering special Asian ingredients. Chinatown is also known for affordable shopping, from colourful knick-knacks to authentic kimonos and lacquered furniture. In the early mornings, you’ll find stylists and photographers buying props for their next photo shoot.
Many modern venues are making their home near Via Paolo Sarpi, one of which is minimalist all-day café Otto. Walking distance from Paolo Sarpi is Fabbrica del Vapore, a former steam factory converted into a creative hub.
Brera used to be Milan’s bohemian neighbourhood, full of artists and poets. Today, it is mostly inhabited by wealthy businesspeople and has lost most of its avant garde edge. The old ateliers have turned into sleek art galleries and the Bar Jamaica, once a meeting point for intellectuals, now serves pricey cocktails in a fancy setting. However, it is still one of the most beautiful areas of Milan, with a romantic atmosphere and old-world architecture, perfect for a diner à deux or a solitary walk in the Botanical Garden, one of the city’s best-kept secrets. If you’re looking for design furniture, don’t miss Robertaebasta, an internationally respected design retailer. The neighbourhood’s central street, Via Brera, is almost entirely dedicated to artistic perfumery: you can find the scented creations of Diptyque, Le Labo and other niche brands here.
In Via Brera you’ll also find the old picture gallery, Pinacoteca, and the Accademia di Belle Arti, Milan’s art school. The colourful crowd of art students gives a glimpse of how Brera used to be.
The Navigli neighbourhood occupies the area southwest of the city, set along and around the banks of two canals, Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese. Historically, the waterways were used for trade, but today they bustle with the sound of the many bars and restaurants that line the pavements. The buildings are painted in rusty hues of yellow and pink, and narrow side streets can lead you to both vine-covered courtyards and graffiti-covered walls. The vibe is relaxed and informal. Here you can find cafés tucked away underneath charming case di ringhiera (traditional workers’ houses, characterised by iron railings), dusty bookshops (such as Il Libraccio), arty boutiques and many of the city’s creative hubs. Grab a bite at Taglio, an upgraded trattoria that also serves speciality coffee, or taste Berberé’s gourmet pizza.
On the first Sunday of each month, the banks of the Naviglio Grande are transformed into a thriving antique market selling everything from furniture to old comics.
NoLo stands for North of Loreto (Loreto being another part of the city), and it is a fascinating example of how an area can change. The graphic design studio La Tigre conceived the name, inspired by New York’s SoHo. Just like Isola, NoLo used to be squalid and impoverished. Unlike in Isola, though, there haven’t been any institutional redevelopment projects, no trendy openings and no major gentrification. The neighbourhood, still home to the working class and many immigrants, made itself cool by organising cultural activities and promoting local businesses. And it worked – today, NoLo is described as multicultural, creative, friendly and up-and-coming: Milan’s first and only social district, analysed and studied by sociologists around the world.
NoLo offers an eclectic dining scene, from Asian restaurants, such as Le Nove Scodelle, to the Mediterranean cuisine of Mezzé. You can also enjoy some traditional Italian food at Trattoria Abele, or at the newly opened Tipografia Alimentare. There are also some well-known gay-friendly bars and restaurants – NoLoSo and Ghe Pensi Mi are among the local community’s favourites.