Milan – finding a real city beyond the concrete catwalks

written by Greg Dickinson
updated 11/7/2018
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Milan. Where chihuahuas are shepherded around in handbags and the streets double as concrete catwalks. Where high-fashion stores pump out perfume the way that Subways leak doughy aromas in less fabulous cities. It’s understandable that few place Milan, with its shallow reputation, at the top of their Italian city bucket list: Florence trumps for art, Venice triumphs for romance and Rome is in its own realm. But look a little deeper and you'll find Milan has some serious soul. Here are six things to do in Milan to discover the city's true identity.

Marvel at awesome architecture

Milan’s architecture is nothing short of awesome, spanning the Gothic churches, Baroque mansions and Art Nouveau palazzos of the city centre to the stark, modern high-rises in the Porta Nuova financial district. The Duomo cathedral – one of Europe’s most impressive examples of Gothic architecture – stands beside the magnificent, glass-vaulted Galleria, one of the oldest shopping malls on the planet, while just around the corner is La Scala, probably the world’s best-known opera house. In the Porta Nuova district it’s hard to miss the UniCredit Tower, completed in 2012, whose jagged peak can be seen from just about everywhere in the city. Nearby, Stefano Boeri’s “vertical forest” project includes two apartment blocks covered from top to bottom in trees, plants and shrubs, the equivalent of what you’d find in over a hectare of forest.

Ride some retro public transport

Compact and easily navigable, Milan is a lovely city to explore on foot, but there are a number of more creative ways to get around. While most of the tramlines that criss-cross the city are now traversed by silent, modern mechanisms, there's still a charming fleet of rickety 1920s trams – complete with wooden seats and glass lamps – that trundle noisily about (the number 4 route takes in some of the best tourist sights). Alternatively, consider renting a retro bike for the day using the BikeMi system – Milan’s answer to London’s Boris Bikes, just a bit cooler. The city is full of quiet side streets plus some delightful green spaces in the form of Montanelli Gardens and Sempione Park: perfect for a leisurely afternoon of saddle-bound exploration.

Roam the bohemian Navigli Quarter

A couple of kilometres southwest of the city centre lies the bohemian Naviglio canal quarter (much of which was masterminded by Da Vinci). Originally used as part of a trade route between Milan and Genoa, and to transport the unthinkable amount of marble needed to panel the Duomo, the artsy, graffiti-strewn district is now the place to go for the best cafés, restaurants and bars in Milan, many of which flank the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese canals which form the spine of the neighbourhood. There’s also a lively flea market held on the last Sunday of every month, where some four hundred stall-holders flog antiques, comics and general miscellanea against the backdrop of the canal.

© Sergey Dzyuba/Shutterstock

Toast the extended "Happy Hour"

In the early evening, Milanos drop everything to relax with an aperitivo – a pre-dinner drink accompanied by some free nibbles. The custom has become known as the “Happy Hour”, although “Happy Hours” would be more accurate, since it tends to go on from around 6 till 9pm. Traditional fixes include the Negroni (Campari, vermouth and gin), Americano (Campari, vermouth and soda) and Spritz (Aperol or Campari with prosecco), but for something a bit different head to Bar Brasso. It is here that a barman accidentally created the Negroni Sbagliato (or “bungled Negroni”), after reaching for a bottle of spumante instead of the obligatory gin. At Brasso, they set their Negroni Sbagliato apart to this day by serving them in oversized glasses.

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Take a day trip to the lakes

As well as its inner-city draws, Milan serves as a great base for day or weekend trips out to the lakes. A short distance north of the city, the lakes are extravagantly beautiful; many of the great Italian opera composers – from Verdi to Rossini – stayed in villas here to seek inspiration. Lake Garda is Italy’s largest, overlooked by Alps on its northern edge and gentle hills to the south, and is understandably the favourite among tourists, swiftly followed by the equally stunning (or, as some argue, more attractive) Lake Como. For something (usually) a bit quieter, head to lakes Maggiore or Orta slightly further west.

Explore Expo 2015

For one year only, all eyes will be on Milan as it hosts the Universal Exposition – or Expo 2015 – with the theme “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” (May 1–October 31). Shaped like an enormous fish, the 1.1 million square metre site northwest of the city centre will cover a range of themes: the Future Food District promises to explore how technology is changing the way we eat, while a Biodiversity Park will reproduce the world’s ecosystems. For something a bit different, visit Milan from May 22nd to May 25th to experience Piano City 2015 – three hundred simultaneous piano concerts taking place in evocative spots across the city (including some on the aforementioned trams).

Explore more of Milan with the Rough Guide to the Italian Lakes. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. For more information about the Milan Expo 2015, plus travel and accommodation services in Milan and Lombardy, visit

Top image © Thai Breeze/Shutterstock

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written by Greg Dickinson
updated 11/7/2018
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