Milan attractions: shopping, canals, markets, greatest art, churches, historical buildings
Milan is divided into 9 municipal areas (which used to be 20) that the local authority has identified with numbers but can easily be described in terms of their precise characteristics and particular history. Here are some of the main neighbourhoods and their attractions, not strictly following the municipal subdivisions.
The Historical Centre is Milan’s city centre. Here are: Piazza del Duomo (the Cathedral Square), which is the real heart of the city, with the Cathedral (Duomo), which is Christendom’s third biggest church, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which opens from the square, and its surroundings, including the posh San Babila district; the so-called quadrilateral of fashion, the area with the highest concentration of fashion shops, which boasts the most prestigious streets in the fashion district, Via della Spiga and Via Montenapoleone; Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle) and Via Dante between Piazza Castello and Duomo; Piazza della Scala with the famous opera theatre; Via Torino going southward from the Duomo; Parco Sempione, just behind Castello Sforzesco; Corso di Porta Vittoria and surroundings; Corso di Porta Romana; Corso Magenta. As common in cities, central Milan is mostly home to offices, stores and service buildings, but there are also residential parts.
Just north of the historical centre, starting from Piazza San Babila, is Corso Venezia and near streets, filled with ancient aristocratic palaces, sometimes still lived in, sometimes converted into upmarket offices. This area, Porta Venezia, has public gardens and parks; it is a tranquil district, characterized by lovely buildings in Art Deco style. Porta Venezia gardens, Giardini Pubblici, are a small park, among Milan’s most beautiful green spaces. Further north is Corso Buenos Aires, one of the main shopping thoroughfares of Milan, an elegant and lively road of stores and boutique shops, and by night one of Milan’s roads with most traffic. This area is full of bars, restaurants, pizzerias, and there is a colorful open air street market.
On the opposite side, in the south-west of the centre, Porta Magenta is a broad area whose main thoroughfare is Corso Magenta, that goes west from the city centre just south of Piazza Castello and ends at Porta Magenta, where Corso Vercelli begins. Corso Magenta is very rich and elegant, with stunning palaces, prestigious residential buildings and spectacular hidden gardens, which also line the side streets and alleys separating the Corso from Via Torino. You must not forget that in the vicinity in Zona Cordusio is Milan’s financial heart, with the Italian Stock Exchange, the Palazzo della Borsa, built in 1931, in Piazza Affari. Due to its narrow streets and lack of parking space, this area is better travelled in by public transport, which is good and efficient.
This district, vibrant and full of life during the day for the frantic activity of offices, banks and lots of students of the nearby Catholic University (Universita’ Cattolica del Sacro Cuore), is quiet in the evening.
Like in other central areas, in recent years residential properties have had skyrocketing price increases which have led to their being more and more converted into luxury company offices.
In Corso Magenta is the Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, with Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco The Last Supper in its refectory. Worth a visit to Milan just to see this.
The Magenta area is roughly delimited by Parco Sempione east, the beautiful Via XX Settembre north, Via De Amicis south, and Corso Vercelli west. The latter is very different, a shopping street with plenty of stores and several department stores of all kinds for every budget and taste, some of which extremely upmarket. At night a few bars, restaurants and cinemas are the only signs of life. Further north, east of one of the two grounds of the Fiera di Milano, FieraMilanoCity, is Corso Sempione, another major thoroughfare and elegant tree-lined avenue, leading from Parco Sempione to the Arco della Pace. Mainly residential, very quiet, smart, with few shops.
South of the Porta Magenta quarter is the trendy Genova-Navigli district. This area, crossed by the rails of Porta Genova Station, is brimming with bars and venues and shops of all sorts. Corso Genova in this area is another major shopping street. On the west side of the rails is the Zona Tortona, world renowned for creativity, fashion and design. Here the streets of Via Tortona, Via Savona and Via Bergognone are being totally redeveloped, with former industrial buildings being bought and converted into studios by fashion and design people: this has produced an upgrading of the area into a desirable, sought after district and has also led to a new night life for it.
The Genova-Navigli quarter contains the Navigli, Milan’s canal system. Here is what one once the city’s docks, the Darsena. Milan has several artificial canals, of which the main are theNaviglio Grande and the Naviglio Pavese. Milanese canals were once a wide network, started in the 12th century, used extensively until the late 1800s for transport of both passengers and goods. Till the early 20th century Milan was penetrated by waterways and barges, which even reached close to the city centre.
There is something reminiscent of Venice in this. The Naviglio Grande between Milano and Turbigo still shows clearly the great riches that the canals made possible with their trade: the many beautiful, wealthy palaces, the churches of every age and style, the wrought iron bridges, the villages, the ancient farmhouses that accompany its course are witness to that.
Today some canals are still full of water. Their banks are picturesque and very lively. People come here especially after dark, for a drink or to listen to live music in one of the many nightclubs. Open markets are held alongside the canals, especially antiquarian markets on the Naviglio Grande. The Navigli are close to the access to some major motorways, including the one to Genoa.
East of the Navigli is a neighbourhood which is very lively both day and night, the Ticinese, one of central Milan’s most characteristic districts which has maintained much of its working class nature, with many typical craft workshops, small boutiques, picturesque restaurants and traditional cafes all along Corso di Porta Ticinese street. This area used to be home to factory workers and many of the original residents and their families still live here, in the so-called “case di ringhiera”, houses with balcony railings overlooking the inner yards, usually well-preserved. But more middle class, well-off families, students and professional people have now settled in this historical quarter of the city, attracted by its newly-found fashionable appeal. The area extends west along Via Torino and Corso Genova to reach the Navigli. Via Torino goes from Piazza del Duomo to the Genova-Navigli and Ticinese quarters, and is one of Milan’s main shopping streets, with stores for all budgets.
Which fine art museums should a first time visitor to Milan start with? Pinacoteca di Brera, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Museo Poldi Pezzoli.
Milan’s centre is not so big that you cannot walk from one landmark to another. You can get easily from Pinacoteca Ambrosiana to Palazzo della Ragione, from La Scala Theatre to Museo Poldi Pezzoli, from Castello Sforzesco to Pinacoteca di Brera, from the Duomo to Palazzo Reale, from Santa Maria delle Grazie to Sant’Ambrogio churches. Even the Central Railway Station, Stazione Centrale, is in walking distance from the hustle and bustle of the shopping streets, art treasures, galleries and historical buildings of the city centre. The Underground (or Subway) system of urban transport, called Metropolitana, is also efficient, and is Italy’s most extensive. There are many metro stations all over central Milan, recognizable by the big white “M” in a red background. Other means of public transport are buses and the characteristic trams (or trolleys), disappeared from most Italian cities but still present in Milan.
Italian Mini Dictionary
Grande Milano = Greater Milan
Meneghino [pron. with the g as in ‘get’] = Another term for Milanese,
derived from a local character of Commedia dell’Arte
Via [pron. veeah] = Street or road
Corso = Major street in a town or city