While it’s hard to imagine Milan without the mopeds buzzing between its iconic yellow trams and flashy Italian supercars, this is a city that used to run on water, not petrol. Of the many kilometres of canals that used to criss-cross the city, only two main waterways remain: Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese. The area between them and their point of convergence, the Darsena, is now an up-and-coming neighbourhood full of hip – and often hidden – spots. Read on to find out what to do and see here.
Milan’s canal system was originally built to facilitate the construction of the landmarks that have come to define the city over the years. The Duomo? You can thank the canals for that, without which the marble infrastructure may have never reached the city centre. Today, though, you’re more likely to see fellow tourists being ferried up and down the water. During the summer, boat tours depart every hour from Alzaia Naviglio Grande. If you’re after something a little less mainstream, you can choose to cruise the canal on Milan’s first (and only) Venetian Gondola, owned by the Canottieri San Cristoforo – they even offer gondolier lessons.
If you happen on Navigli during the day, it will probably be a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city. As soon as 5pm hits, that all changes, as locals flock to the area’s many canal-side bars, which have in recent years become a hub of the city’s after-work aperitivo culture. Order a drink and enjoy the complimentary small plates – the food is usually delicious and abundant enough to fill you for dinner. This is how the Milanese unwind after work.
Milan boasts beautiful skies at dawn and dusk, but without many open spaces or skyscrapers for vantage points, it would be easy to miss them. The best place to catch the sunset, without a doubt, is over Naviglio Grande, where you can watch the colours bleed into their reflections in the canal. Time your aperitivo just right and get to the top of Naviglio Grande at Viale Gorizia as the sun is just starting to set.
As you walk along Naviglio Grande with the canal on your left and the city centre behind you, make sure to stick your head into the side streets and courtyards to your right to get a taste of the real, old Milan. Inside one, you’re invited to discover how Milan used to look, through a collection of black-and-white photographs of the city over the decades. Another courtyard houses a series of independently owned small art galleries. The courtyards themselves are picture-perfect too, as is the Vicolo dei Lavandai, a pretty little side street that used to be an area for washing clothes.
The Darsena is the body of water that connects Navigli’s two canals today. Recently regenerated, it’s now a popular place for an aperitivo. You can grab a drink at one of the local bars or from one of the many stands that appear on summer evenings and sit along the harbour’s bank, dangling your feet over the water. If you’re there before it closes, make sure to pop into the indoor market on the bank to pick up food to snack on or cook.
As one of the world’s fashion capitals, people come to Milan for the designer boutiques – but venture outside the Quadrilatero della Moda and you’ll find a thriving thrift-store scene. The Navigli area has a particular concentration of offerings. From Corso Porta Ticinese down to Navigli proper, you’ll find a series of independent boutiques, luxury consignment stores and even an Italian army surplus centre on Naviglio Grande. If vintage furniture is more your bag (and you have a big enough suitcase), don’t miss the Mercato dell’Antiquariato that sets up all along the banks of Naviglio Grande and the surrounding streets on the last Sunday of every month.
If the waterside bars at aperitivo hour are too busy for you, there’s a place on Naviglio Grande that you’ll be sure to have all to yourself. Backdoor 43 claims to be the world’s smallest bar, at a mere four square metres (or 43 square feet – and that’s including the bathroom). Be sure to book in advance.
If you’re visiting Italy, you’re going to want gelato – and rightly so. But in Milan, good gelato can be harder to find than in the sunnier southern cities. Here you need to head south too, 15 minutes down Naviglio Grande on foot (or five minutes on the number two tram) until you hit La Gelateria Della Musica, by far the city’s best gelateria, and well worth the walk. You’ll find all your favourite flavours here (under different names, as each one is named after a famous musician), as well as Della Musica specials. The pistachio dark chocolate chip and the basil and lemon flavours are especially worth it.
The street that connects Navigli to the centre of the city is full of attractions. From the statuesque Porta Ticinese monument at the Darsena, it leads you north to the Colonne di San Lorenzo, a group of Roman ruins mainly consisting of 16 Corinthian columns. If the juxtaposition of Milan’s trams rattling through the Roman gate and right past these columns were not striking enough, modern street art butts up with this ancient architecture, too.
You can’t walk half a cobbled mile in Italy without coming across a church, and usually a spectacular one at that. Navigli is no different. The two in the area most worth paying a visit to are the Basilica di San Lorenzo at the top of Corso di Porta Ticinese and Basilica Sant Eustorgio near the bottom of the street. The former is an architectural potpourri of styles from restorations over the last 16 centuries and is as fascinating outside as in. The latter holds a magnificent chapel, with 15th-century frescoes of the Storie di San Pietro Martire by Vincenzo Foppa, and the 14th-century Arca di San Pietro Martire by Giovanni di Balduccio.
Bordering Navigli to the west is the city’s newest design district, Tortona. This is one of the unofficial hubs of the Salone del Mobile design fair in April, but you can head here all year round to explore exhibitions at BASE, Mudec and Armani/Silos.
This article is an updated version of a story created by Sophia Karner.