Milan is a city of many faces. Some visitors highlight the gorgeous grand buildings such as the Duomo and the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II in the center, while to others, the slightly bland, industrial side along the outskirts stands out. There are streets that resemble Paris and those that brim with southern Italian charm. But one neighborhood everybody agrees on is Navigli.
Navigli, pronounced more like Navili with the G being nearly perfectly silent, lies in the south of the center of Milan. It’s a mere 20-odd-minute walk, or a briefer — although not much briefer — tram ride (tram number 2) from the Duomo. This once somewhat neglected but since rejuvenated working-class, or as they say “gentrified,” neighborhood is more akin to Venice with its canals and colorful houses.
If you miss the quarters of old Rome, where one restaurant or café stands by the next, or have a longing for a bright, colorful district, Navigli is the place where you can feel right there in Italy, with people eating by the canalside and beautiful buildings hiding even more gorgeous courtyards.
The Canal Setting
Milan does not have one obvious river running through it. Instead, there are a few canals that used to be essential for the transportation of cargo in the olden days. These canals — called navigli from the word for “canal” or “navigation” — formed a network that was partially conceived by Leonardo da Vinci, who spent some years in Milan busy painting The Last Supper, among other activities.
In the old days, it is said that Milan was very much like a landlocked Venice, riddled with a myriad of tiny interconnecting canals. Today, the majority of the smaller canals have disappeared, with road and rail transportation having taken over, but there are still a few lovely examples in this district. These canals are a draw for locals and tourists alike, allowing you to stroll along the waterside, experience the scenic setting, and enjoy not only a unique neighborhood but also the many smaller attractions hidden alongside the canals.
Pro Tip: Why not start off with a canal boat tour, learning a bit more about their history, and then retracing the tour on foot, sauntering and stopping along the quays?
The Colorful Houses
With many colorful Italian coastal towns and cities such as Rome famous for its burnt orange hues, Milan can look a little bland at first glance. But arrive at Navigli Grande, the most famous canal, and you’ll eat your words. Here, each house is prettier than the next, all reflecting in the calm canal waters in a plethora of pastel colors. Some are overgrown with wisteria or vines, others show off shutters and grand wooden doors, and some have inviting-looking balconies and roof terraces. And each one is a photographer’s dream.
Pro Tip: Are you a photographer? Then join a photographers’ tour through Navigli, not only taking in the colorful houses but many of the more hidden delights of the neighborhood.
The Superb Restaurants
Italian cuisine is undoubtedly the world’s favorite food. From pasta to pizza, aperitivo antipasti to wine, you can eat non-stop in Italy. Well, I can, at least, and frequently do just that. And when in Milan, this is the neighborhood to come and eat in. Countless restaurants, cafés, and bars line the sides of the canals and the Darsena Basin. You will be spoilt for choice. And despite being popular with tourists, there are also plenty of locals taking advantage of the various eateries, and the food is good. The terraces are tempting for views of the surroundings and the people meandering past, but also look inside the small restaurants as the buildings tend to be historical and achingly charming inside.
Look out for the famous risotto alla Milanese, a very simple rice dish flavored with saffron, which, despite looking maybe a little bland, is surprisingly tasty. Or, if you need a bit of protein with your dish, choose the ossobuco, which is a piece of veal on the bone served with the risotto alla Milanese. And then there are, of course, the various pasta dishes. When in Italy, north or south, you really cannot go wrong with any pasta dish. Try and find some pasta served with ragu, the northern Italian version of bolognese (originating in Bologna), which has since spread across the world.
Pro Tip: My firm favorite place to eat is the restaurant Bugande located within the beautiful boutique hotel Maison Borella, where the interior is even prettier than the garden and terrace setting.
The Hidden Courtyards
I have to admit that one of my favorite things to do when exploring a new-to-me city or neighborhood is to peek into doorways, sneak into small alleys, and explore courtyards. I have even been known to follow locals into a place when they opened what looked like a promising door. If you are also so inclined, here you will hit the jackpot. I swear that behind each large wooden door in Navigli is a treasure hidden from sight. Luckily, if you want to stay on the right side of the law, or at least be polite, there are also plenty of courtyards open to the public. From simply gorgeous but secret gardens, there are also yards filled with small antique shops or art galleries. My favorite courtyard must be the one you’ll enter underneath the painting of Mary, next to the Atelier Lagana, a gallery at the top of Navigli Grande. All burnt orange-hued buildings overgrown with greenery, inside, there are antique shops, little galleries, artisan stores, and cobbled grounds — a setting that has not changed in centuries.
Pro Tip: Luckily, Milan is well aware of these attractive secret places. If you’d like to explore further and hear some of the history from a local as you go, you can join a walking tour where you’ll be shown some of the courtyards and terraces you might not be able to find — or have access to — on your own.
I love markets, and wherever I travel, I search them out. Be they fresh produce markets, flea markets, or antique markets, I sometimes — if I can — time my visit to coincide with some of the more important ones. Markets are somewhere where the locals, as well as tourists, come together in their search for either fresh produce, good food ingredients, or other treasures — be they art and décor, or vintage clothing and knickknacks.
In Navigli, you get it all. Every Saturday, there is a flea market along the canals offering a huge variety of vintage clothing (including some seriously beautiful jackets and coats from a few decades ago). On every last Sunday of the month, the same route is taken over by high-quality antique dealers, tempting you with Italian home décor from eras long gone. You’ll also find art and furniture, which will have you finding out about shipping costs for things too large to take home on the plane.
On the opposite side of the Darsena Basin, you’ll find a selection of food market stalls to tempt you. From fruit to cheese and baked goods, there are also plenty of little cafés perfect for a lighter meal.
Pro Tip: The large square by the arch is a popular spot to spend a long, lazy evening. Head to the terrace of the Le Trottoir alla darsena. On the terrace, you can watch the world go by and listen to the street musicians.