Venice might be the city that first comes to mind when you hear “Italy” and “canals,” but Milan’s lively Navigli district is also defined by its waterways. The canals, known locally as navigli, have a long practical history but the former industrial neighbourhood south of the Duomo has now been transformed into one of the coolest parts of the city.
While most of Milan has a reputation for high fashion, the navigli have a more bohemian and artistic vibe. The neighbourhood, which covers the area surrounding the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese canals near Porta Genova, is full of restaurants, bars and vintage shops set along the water. With beautiful scenery and lots of outdoor cafes, it is one of the best areas in the city to wander in the afternoon before grabbing a sunset spritz to kick off an evening of drinks and dining in true Milanese style.
Here is what to see drink and eat to experience Milan’s Navigli neighbourhood like a local:
Navigli’s must see
The Navigli neighborhood is best known for its nightlife, but when I visit during the day, I like to stop in to see some of the historic spots that make the area special. Before grabbing a drink along the outdoor tables that line the canals, make sure you check thes places out.
1. Washerwoman’s alley
Walk through the picturesque Vicolo dei Lavandai which runs off of Naviglio Grande. The colourful street is one of the prettiest in the area and gets the name “Washerwoman’s alley” because it was where the women in the neighbourhood would come to scrub clothes on the stone slabs that can be found along the lane.
2. Basilica di San Lorenzo church
Visit the Basilica di San Lorenzo (Corso di Porta Ticinese 35) to admire one of Milan’s oldest churches. Dating back to the 4th century, the church was built on top of the remains of an old Roman amphitheatre. Step into the beautiful Byzantine St. Aquilino chapel for frescoes that date back more than 1,500 years.
Remember that Milan’s canals were first built in the 12th century to connect the growing city to the Po River for easy access to food and goods from the countryside. When Leonardo Da Vinci came to the city to work on The Last Supper, he also played a hand in helping to dream up a series of dams to keep the canals flowing smoothly. The artistic engineer designed the canal locks for the Naviglio di San Marco basin, which can still be seen today.
4. Art galleries
When I need something a bit more contemporary, I explore the art galleries that line Naviglio Grande. The modern art spaces often feature younger artists, and Miradoli Arte Contemporanea (Alzaia Naviglio Grande, 54) in particular always has new talent on display.
(Centro Artistico Alik Cavaliere) 📷 8redpoppies
Navigli unmissable taste-bud treats
After working up an appetite by checking a bit of culture off the list, settle in at a table to fuel the rest of your Navigli explorations. A major destination for the city’s foodies, there is no shortage of choices in the neighborhood:
1. That’s Bakery
For an early start, pop into ‘That’s Bakery’ (via Vigevano, 41) for breakfast. Located between the Porta Genoa metro and Navigli Grande, the café serves everything from apple pancakes to Croque Madames, but I love the homemade brioches filled with Nutella best of all.
2. Macelleria Populare Con Cucina
Any Milan neighbourhood will have a local market, but the Navigli area’s Mercato Comunale di piazza XXIV Maggio is unique because one of the butchers not only sells meat to take home, but will also grill it on the spot. My favourite thing to order at the stall, called “Macelleria Populare Con Cucina,” are the sizzling arrosticini.
3. Trattoria Madonnina
Want to keep it local? ‘Trattoria Madonnina’ (via Gentilino, 6) is an authentic restaurant serving food from the Lombardy region (where Milan is located). Be sure to ask for a table outside because the osso buco tastes even better in the open air.
4. Ciaccia coi Ciccioli
For delicious plates of Tuscan cheese and meats, I book a table at Ciaccia coi Ciccioli (Via Gian Giacomo Mora 5). The cute restaurant is ideal for lingering over a glass Chianti before exploring the bars along the water.
5. La Gelateria della Musica ice cream
Finally, there are now a few outposts of the popular ice cream shop La Gelateria della Musica, but the original location is in Navigli at Via Giovanni Enrico Pestalozzi, 4. Head there for flavors like salted caramel and pistachio gelato that is decadently creamy.
Navigli’s Best Bars
The Navigli neighbourhood is really best after sunset, when young crowds start to wind their way along the canals in search of aperitivo. Meant to stimulate the appetite before dinner, aperitivo is the time-honoured tradition of getting free food with your happy hour drink. Usually served between the hours of 6 pm and 8 pm, most bars will set out a carb-heavy buffet or serve individual small plates with every cocktail. Traditionally, aperitivi drinks tended to use a base of bitter alcohol (think of the classic Campari Spritz), but these days there are no rules about what to order as your end-of-day beverage.
1. Capetown Café
One of the more generous aperitivo buffets can be found at ‘Capetown Café’ (via Vigevano, 3). The happy hour food, which is primarily meat and cheese, draws in packs of locals. The crowd gets even livelier later in the night while sipping on beers and Moscow Mules, which are particularly good here.
You can’t talk about drinks along the navigli without thinking of ‘Ugo’ (Via Corsico, 12). The menu is chockfull of creative cocktails, which in turns keeps the bar brimming with beautiful people. Ugo also has outdoor tables and small snacks are served during aperitivo hours. This is without a doubt one of the best places to grab a drink in all of Milan.
I also love ‘Rita'(via Angelo Fumagalli, 1) for complex cocktails at their cool rounded bar. The prices are a tiny bit above average but totally worth it for the quality of the drinks (and the nibbles like small pizzas and veggies that come for aperitivo).
4. MAG Café
For a more intimate drink, I beeline to ‘MAG Café'(ripa di Porta Ticinese, 43), a cozy bar with a bohemian design and plenty of crushed velvet armchairs to settle into for a conversation over a glass of wine.
Navigli’s Top Shop’s
Leave the designer window shopping to the busy streets in central Milan and come to the Navigli neighborhood to browse for more unique purchases at these stores and markets:
1. Vintage Flea Market
Time your visit for the last Sunday of every month when the Mercatone dell’Antiquariato (vintage flea market) rolls into the neighbourhood. The temporary stalls set up shop for the day all along Navigli Grande.
2. Pourquoi Moi Vintage
When I am craving some retro goods in between flea market trips, I head to ‘Pourquoi Moi Vintage’ (Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 27), which has a great selection of clothes from the 1970s. A few doors down, ‘Guendj’ specialises in vintage leather jackets.
For artisan pieces, don’t miss ‘Salvatore+Marie’ (Via Vigevano, 33). The small shop offers goods ranging from earrings to tableware that is all designed by the Sardinian-Irish duo that runs the pretty space.
4. Mafalda 86
My favourite place to accessorise is at ‘Mafalda 86’ on Via Tortona, 19. The shop sells chic retro-inspired eyeglass frames and sunglasses that are handmade in Italy’s Abruzzo region.
❓ Have you visited Navigli? What was your favourite part about this neighbourhood? Comment below and let us know 👇
About the author
Originally from California, Natalie Kennedy moved to Italy and fell in love with the food and an Irish man (in that order). She never managed to leave and now spends her days exploring the cobblestone streets between breaks for coffee, gelato and pasta. You can follow along on her blog, Instagram and Facebook.