Milan Travel Guide: What To Do In Milan's City Center

Milan is a shy city in that it doesn’t come right out and reveal itself the minute you meet, but put in a little effort and it’s apparent it’s one of the most interesting cities in Italy at this moment.

Milan often gets written off as more European than Italian but spend a few days there and you’ll see it’s  a mix of both. The city is a bit more organized and has fewer antiquities than other parts of the country, but it’s home to total treasures from La Scala theater and the Sforza Castle to Da Vinci’s Last Supper and the Duomo.

Why The Historic City Center?

And, thanks to the 2015 Expo that brought nearly 20 million visitors to Milan, the city has entered the spotlight. There are a ton of urban renewal projects, new businesses, and developed across the city to make it thoroughly modern.

Give yourself a few days in Milan so you can not only shop and sightsee in the city center but also explore the less touristy but equally interesting neighborhoods from the chic Brera shopping district to the quirky Chinatown and the always-on Navigli neighborhood.

Before You Go

Where To Stay

Milan is not nearly as touristy as the other major Italian cities — Florence, Rome, and Venice — so you can stay in the center of town without feeling overwhelmed. Here are a few choice spots: 

Total Splurge: Bulgari Hotel

Situated between the famous La Scala theater and the high-end shopping district known as the Quadrliatero della Moda, this hotel is in one of our favorite neighborhoods in Milan. The only problem? It's so gorgeous (especially the terrace) that you might have to force yourself to go outside!

In The Mix: Room Mate Giulia

This Spanish boutique hotel chain is one we turn to time and again when we’re traveling in Europe but their Milan property is my favorites. With a mod-meets-neon décor and a can’t-be-beat location steps from the Duomo, it’s worth every euro.

Chic Design: Hotel Viu

In the past few years the Porta Volta neighborhood — just steps from fashionable Brera, a stone’s throw from the noteworthy Cimitero Monumentale, and near modern Isola — has been modernized and green-ified thanks largely to the Feltrinelli Porta Volta project and is one of the best places outside the history city center to stay. Just a 15 minute walk from the Duomo, the Hotel Viu is a modern boutique hotel with all sorts of perks from a pool to a spa to great food and even a rooftop with a 360° view of the city.

Great Value: Palazzo Segreti

For something a bit smaller — as in just 18 rooms — and smackdab in the city center, check out the Palazzo Segreti. This affordable boutique hotel is minimal in its offerings but has tasteful décor and great service.

What To Cook

  • Risotto alla Milanese: Made with saffron, butter, rice, and lots of stirring, this dish is simple yet so indulgent.
  • Basic Polenta: This is a classic cold weather dish in this corner of Italy.

  • Negroni Sbagliato: Happy hour is practically a sport in Milan and our drink of choice is this twist on the Negroni.

Once You're There

Must-Eat Milanese Food

Here are the dishes/foods that are quintessentially Milanese:

  • Risotto alla Milanese: Milan’s location near the Po Valley means it’s in the middle of Italy’s “rice bowl.” So, while you’ll see pasta on the menu everywhere, the classic carbs would have been rice and polenta. The Milanese style is a nod to the fact that Milan has always been a wealthy city since it uses pricey ingredients — saffron, butter, and sometimes bone marrow.

  • Cotoletta alla Milanese: Like Risotto alla Milanese, you’ll find this breaded veal chop on almost every menu in the city. The one at Trattoria del Nuovo Macello (Via Cesare Lombroso, 20;) is always on point.

  • Polenta: Once the weather gets cold, you’ll find polenta on menus across Milan. Since it’s made with nothing but corn flour and water (or broth), the quality of the corn flour is key to the taste. For some great polenta, hit up the old-school trattoria Masuelli San Marco (Viale Umbria, 80)

  • Panettone: This is a delicious buttery, brioche-y take on fruit cake (way better than what we have stateside) and it comes from Milan. If you want to try it, the bakery Pasticceria Martesana (Via Cardinale Cagliero, 14) serves it pretty much year round.

  • Negroni Sbagliato: Literally translated to “the incorrect Negroni” the story goes that a bartender was trying to make a classic Negroni (equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari) but added Prosecco instead of gin and this drink was born. The classic place to get this drink is the place is was created, the old-school Bar Basso (Via Plinio, 39)

Where To Dinner

Spazio Milano

Tucked into the top of the Mercato del Duomo, it can feel a bit like you might be heading into a food court when you take the escalators up from the Galleria to Spazio. But when you arrive, it’s anything but. The restaurant is associated with the prestigious Romito culinary school and is staffed by young chefs from the program whose cooking feels anything but. Not to mention the view out onto the Piazza del Duomo is only rivaled by the Aperol Terrace (below).

Alice

Yes, this restaurant is in located on the top floor of an old theater. And, yes, that theater is now Eataly Milan but that’s all the more reason to go. The restaurant was originally opened in 2007 by chef Viviana Varese and sommelierSandra Ciciriello but relocated to Eataly in 2014. The one-star Michelin restaurant focuses on farm-to-table produce but never takes itself too seriously. 

Taglio

One of the things that Milan does best? Riding that line between old school Italian traditions and modern mentality. Taglio is a restaurant that does just that with dishes that are familiar — from Risotto Milanese to stuffed zucchini blossoms — updated with farm-fresh produce and contemporary twists. 

Where To Aperitivo

Aperitivo isn’t merely the Italian answer to Happy Hour but really a total ritual and Milan leans into the tradition. Come Happy Hour, you can head to many bars for a drink (often served with a few choice appetizers) but here are my picks:

Aperol Terrace

Look, if you’re visiting Milan and it’s warm out, you’re probably going to want two things: an Aperol Spritz and an alfresco view of the Duomo. The folks at Aperol made both those things a possibility with the chic, albeit often packed and a bit pricey, Aperol Terrace but it’s hard to pass up the view. 

Bar Basso

Opened right after World War II, Bar Basso is a classic Milanese Bar. It’s also credited with making my favorite twist on the Negroni, the Negroni Sbagliato or the “incorrect Negroni,” which is a Negroni made with prosecco instead of gin. So, obviously the play is to head to Bar Basso and try the drink where it was created.

Mag Cafe

The Navigli neighborhood is pretty much always busy come night time with everyone from university students to professionals hopping between bars and restaurants. For aperitivo in the area, it’s hard to do better than than Mag Café where the Parisian chic atmosphere is only topped by the quality of the cocktails.

Where To Shop

It’s pretty much sacrilege to head to a fashion capital like Milan and not shop. You could and should hit up the high end stores on Via Montenapoleone or in the Galleria, but definitely make time to go here too:

10 Corso Como

Credited as the O.G. concept store, 10 Corso Como has been around more than 25 years and yet is every bit as interesting as ever. Handing out among the art gallery, restaurant, store, and the mini hotel, you could spend hours here and love every minute. 

Cavalli e Nastri

If you’re going to shop in Milan, you pretty much have to shop at the vintage mecca that is Cavalli e Nastri. And make sure you give yourself plenty of time to wander the surrounding neighborhood of Brera because is one of our favorite places for boutique shopping in the city. 

Excelsior

If you only shop in one spot in Milan, have it been Excelsior. To call this place a department store is accurate but also deceiving as it way more design forward than any department store we’ve seen. We love it as much for the vibes as we do the massive gourmet store.

Where To Lookout

Here are the place you can get a spectacular view of Milan: 

Ceresio 7

At the top of the DSquared offices, Ceresio 7 has a view that spans from the city center to the newer Isola neighborhood. With a pool and stunning décor, it’s as perfect a place for a light summer lunch as for a full aperitivo.

Radio Rooftop Milan

Set on the roof of the ME Il Duca Melia hotel in Piazza della Repubblica, Radio Rooftop is continuously one of the most sought-after aperitivo spots in town. Yes, the scene can get to be a bit much and the drinks a bit too pricey but the views make it all worth while. 

Caffe Triennale

At the edge of the Parco Sempione is the modern art space known as Triennale and the rooftop has a great view over the majority of the park. Go for a coffee break during the day or reserve a spot at the Terrazza Triennale for dinner.  

Make Sure To...

  • Book ahead if you want to see an opera at Teatro La Scala
  • Book even farther ahead if you want to see Da Vinci's Last Supper
  • Make time one early morning to climb to the Duomo rooftop for an amazing view
  • Take the street car at least once
  • Make time to shop the neighborhoods of Brera, 5 Vie, and the Quadrilatero 

Day Trips

  • Do a classic day trip to Lake Como
  • Head to Piedmont for some wine tasting
  • Head to Brescia to see their amazing architecture

Our Favorite Locals

More Milan On Salt & Wind

ANDIAMO IN ITALIA!

We have a total crush on all things Milan right this very moment and that’s why we're leading small boutique trips to Lombardy (including Milan, Brescia, and Lake Iseo) starting this October. Click here to learn more and we hope to see you there!


Published September 2017

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