The Most Non-Touristy Experiences in Milan

The former industrial complex that now houses Spirit de Milan, Milan
The former industrial complex that now houses Spirit de Milan, Milan | Courtesy Spirit de Milan
Raphaele Varley

Discover a secret and unusual side of Milan with our anti-tourist travel tips. Roam among pink Chilean flamingos in a quiet Liberty garden, while away the afternoon watching a local bocce match or enjoy traditional Italian equine recipes.

Basilica di San Vittore al Corpo

Located next to the National Museum of Science and Technology (where most of Leonardo Da Vinci’s inventions are housed) in the quiet and affluent Sant’Ambrogio neighbourhood, San Vittore al Corpo is a basilica is a secret gem. Unlike il Duomo, you’re unlikely to find tourist queues here. The facade of the Late Renaissance structure is totally unassuming but the interior is breathtaking. It has an incredibly ornate panelled arch in its main nave with illustrations of those saints whose remains are supposed to be housed here. Its magnificent dome is covered in gilded stucco and frescoes by celebrated Milanese artist Daniele Crespi. Climb the bell tower and enjoy a mesmerizing view over the city.

Birrificio Lambrate

Birrificio Lambrate is a pioneer of the craft beer movement in Italy. Since 1996, this brewpub has been producing non-pasteurized and non-filtered beer for all of Milan to enjoy. The classics crafted all year long include the Ortiga, a golden-style ale, and a smoky stout called the Ghisa. Other beers are only available seasonally or on a special basis. It is located in between Città Studi and the newly hip Lambrate district of East Milan, so it maintains a very friendly, neighbourly atmosphere and there’s no risk of having to pick between Peroni or Carlsberg.

Macelleria e Griglieria Equina ‘Da Vito’

Equine meat as a delicacy can be a divisive conversation in many parts of the world, but for many people in Italy (especially the South) it’s equivalent to cooking with bovine meat. Of course, public opinion varies greatly and is always evolving. In the past, it would have been a cheaper cut of meat than pork or beef, but today the market has declined and it is more of a speciality product. Should you be inclined to sample an equine dish, there is a trusted and long-established equine macelleria in the unremarkable Lorenteggio neighbourhood (just beyond Zona Tortona) that also functions as a small restaurant. You select a cut of meat at the butcher counter and then the chefs will prepare it for you on the spot. It is located inside a covered market that has been running since 1954 and the set-up is simple and sweet (a few metal tables). The prices are incredibly reasonable: donkey carpaccio, 5 euros; foal steak with baked potatoes, 7 euros; glass of wine, 2 euros. It serves lunch Monday to Friday and also dinner on Thursday and Friday evenings. It’s very popular with locals, so you will need to book ahead.

Spirit de Milan

Located in a Bovisa, a periphery neighbourhood/suburb of north Milan, this venue is far from the tourist trail of the historic centre. Spirit de Milan opened in 2015 inside a vast 1920s former industrial building, with the aim of creating an environment that would recapture the social spirit of old 1950s Milan, but in a contemporary way and without nostalgia. The space combines a restaurant, Fabbrica de la Sgagnosa, which serves classic Milanese trattoria dishes with live music and a real dance hall. So, it’s dinner and dancing, but there is also a bar if you want to join later in the evening. They regularly host ‘Holy Swing Night’, an evening dedicated to swing music of the 1940s, and ‘Barbera & Champagne’, a night to rediscover Milan tavern-style singing and music. Be mesmerised by the experienced dancers but rest assured that there are lots of novice folks on the dance floor, too. Nightly, it opens at 7.30pm but the concerts and performances typically start at 10pm. It is a very mixed crowd of Bovisa locals and Milan hipsters, young and old.

Villa Invernizzi

Villa Invernizzi is an Art Nouveau (Stile Liberty) palace that overlooks Corso Venezia in the Porta Venezia neighbourhood. What makes this beautiful villa special is not the architecture but the garden, which is home to flocks of pink flamingos and peacocks. The Villa is not currently open to the public, but you are free to roam the gardens as a peaceful and quirky alternative to Parco Sempione, the famous central park of Milan.

Watch the locals compete at Bocce in Porta Venezia or Tortona

Bocce is the Italian word for boules, and it is a popular sport among the retired residents in Milan. If you spend enough time in Milan, one thing you will notice is that the elderly have a real place in the community, and are active (and often very stylishly dressed) throughout the city. Bocce players are well catered for with clubs and public Bocciofila (boules greens) in most areas. The slow pace of the game reflects the slower pace of life in Italy ( Milan may not be as horizontal as Rome but compared to London or New York, it’s super chilled) and on a sunny day watching a game or two is a very nice way to pass the afternoon. A charming outdoor green is located on Via Giovanni Battista Morgagni in the Porta Venezia neighbourhood. Alternatively, head to Morna, an old-school yet eclectic bar in Zona Tortona. Morna’s outdoor seating area overlooks a Bocciofila so you can enjoy a match whilst you sip on spritz.

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