Milan is a city of contrasts, with areas that are sexy, glamorous and creative and others that are dull, foggy and industrial – and its neighbourhoods are equally distinctive. From romantic Brera to new-generation Isola, here are the coolest areas to visit. Deciding where to live in Milan will depend on your budget and what is important to you as far as the type of environment you are looking for.
Modern urban living
If you like modern urban living with multi-story apartment buildings, areas such as City Life and L’Isola might be your style. Set in the northern part of the city and slightly secluded, Isola (meaning island) used to be one of Milan’s toughest neighbourhoods, with regular police raids. In the early 2000s, as the rents in Brera and Navigli shot up, artists started moving north, drawn by the cheap housing and the village vibe that distinguished the area, despite its roughness. Today, Isola is the trendiest neighborhood in the city, with vibrant nightlife, chic boutiques and fine-dining spots. The 2015 Expo led to the construction of an entirely new area, Porta Nuova, which changed the city’s skyline with its avant-garde skyscrapers, such as Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) and the Unicredit Tower. Yet behind the modern buildings and the glossiness, Isola still holds on to its original character.
The city’s historical center is charming and exciting but can also get very busy, particularly during the summer when the tourist season peaks in Milan. Living in the historical center is an extraordinary experience if you have the budget. The centre of the city with the great Duomo in its heart makes for a great shopping and sightseeing area. The shops on Galleria Vittorio Emanuele up to the ones on Via Montenapoleone will keep you occupied for hours. If you are looking for something central but without tourists, the Magenta area is very central yet calm. Brera used to be Milan’s bohemian neighbourhood, full of artists and poets. Today, it is mostly inhabited by wealthy businesspeople and has lost much of its edge. However, this is still one of the most beautiful areas of Milan, with a romantic atmosphere and old-world architecture.
For the creative type
If you are more of a creative type Tortona is the right place for you. This used to be Milan’s Factory District before the economic crisis in the 1960s. In the 1980s, risk-taking creative businesses began to occupy the empty lofts and today it is a renowned centre of creativity and culture. Several fashion brands have showrooms around Via Tortona. Giorgio Armani is headquartered here.
Porta Romana has two souls: the one closer to the centre, has immaculately kept avenues of distinguished residential buildings, fashion showrooms and fine-dining spots. The other side (closer to the Lodi metro stop) is a vibrant neighbourhood of bars and crafty markets, popular with a yuppie crowd. The industrial fringes of Porta Romana are home to the city’s leading contemporary art destination, Fondazione Prada, a space that host some of the most groundbreaking exhibitions in Italy.
Porta Venezia is the meeting point of the artistic community. You can find several bold art galleries here, as well as the Padiglione D’Arte Contemporanea and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, surrounded by the city’s most romantic park, Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli. Porta Ticinese It has a more alternative feel to it then the rest of the city. Full of the greatest vintage shops and lots of laid-back bars and cafés. With two universities on either sides of the neighbourhood (Statale and Cattolica) it’s definitely a student district. On summer nights this is most evident on Colonne di San Lorenzo, where all the students gather for a drink.
The Navigli neighbourhood, the name means canals, occupies the area southwest of the city, set along and around the banks of the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese. Historically, the waterways were used for trade, but today they bustle with the sound of the many bars and restaurants that line the pavements. The vibe is relaxed and informal but it gets almost rowdy on weekend night with people pouring in its endless restaurants bars and night clubs. On the last Sunday of each month, the banks of the Naviglio Grande are transformed into a thriving antique market selling everything from furniture to old comics.
Paolo Sarpi: Chinatown
Milan’s Chinatown is perhaps not as decorative as its equivalents in New York and London, but it is definitely buzzing. Just north of Parco Sempione (the largest park in the city), it is within walking distance from Brera. The area is a burrow of small streets dotted with red lanterns and residential buildings ranging from traditional case di ringhiera (railing houses) to art-nouveau palazzi. The countless Chinese restaurants range from hole-in-the-wall bun vendors and noodle bars to fine-dining. Fans of Asian cooking should also visit the area’s supermarkets, which offer authentic Asian ingredients.