The bar scene in Milan is defined by aperitivo (happy hour) culture; it’s a tradition that exists throughout Italy, but Milan takes it way beyond the norm. In neighborhoods like the Brera and the Navigli district, the streets are crammed full of bars with tables spilling onto the sidewalks, all offering free food for the price of a drink. Between the hours of 5pm and 8pm most any day of the week (Mondays are hit and miss), you’ll be offered anything from a small plate to a sumptuous buffet, along with popular concoctions like the omnipresent Aperol Spritz. It’s a not-to-be-missed part of visiting this city, and those who are staying for a few nights (or even just one night) should make a point of enjoying it before they leave. You can even take an aperitivo tour to save time and take advantage of a local’s knowledge of where to get the best food and the tastiest cocktails.
The 10 Best Bars in Milan
1.Deseo • Sempione
Near the impressive piece of historical architecture known as the Arco della Pace (Peach Arch) located on the northwest corner of Sempione Park stands a cluster of bars that might offer the best aperitivo in all of Milan. And the best of the bunch is the very swanky and sleek Deseo. Open every night (except some Mondays in winter), the tall room full of cream-colored walls and arched doorways lights up at night with glowing candles and chandeliers that dangle over a truly impressive buffet. You’ll find trout and other favorites from the nearby Lake District, as well as cured meats, cheeses, vegetables, fruits, pastas, and desserts (including several different fondue stations). The bar offers a huge selection of unconventional cocktails and well-known favorites to go with the food, along with both indoor and outdoor seating. The place also does breakfast and lunch along with a Sunday-only brunch that runs from 12-4pm.
Location • +39 02 315 164
2. Cantine Isola • Chinatown
While there is truly stunning wine to be had in Milan, with many of the city’s restaurants offering bottle after bottle of amazing Northern Italian favorites like Barbera and Valpolicella, there’s a surprising lack of bars devoted to it, with the majority leaning in on cheap aperitivo cocktails instead. Thank heaven, then, for Cantina Isola. Here since 1896, the entire space is lined with wine along every wall and stacked into every nook and cranny. The Sarais family is the latest in a long line of owners to nurture the bar’s stock and delve into Italy’s renowned viniculture to surface a combination of great and reasonable options for their patrons to enjoy. Whoever is working behind the counter knows them all, and will let you try literally anything in the store. All the wine makes for very little seating inside, so after you settle on a glass (or a bottle) head to the covered area just outside the door along the main drag of Milan’s Chinatown district and down a plate of aperitivo. If you go on a Tuesday, they often have readings by Milanese poets, written and spoken in an ancient dialect that is unique to Milan.
Location • +39 02 3315 249
3. Camparino Galleria • Duomo
Campari fans: you absolutely must make your way to this bar located right off the huge open square (or piazza) in front of Milan’s famous Duomo. Campari is the namesake of Gaspare Campari, who lived – and also operated a bar and restaurant – in the Vittorio Emauele II Galleria starting in 1867. And while the original Camparino Bar was damaged by Allied bombing in World War II, the Campari family has maintained a presence in the Galleria ever since. This bar shares much of the same original footprint as the original Camparino Bar, and as the brand’s flagship store in Milan, it’s a must-see for any fan of the intensely herbal, bright red concoction. The place is standing room only; you’ll often see Italians in suits leaning up against the bar downing a Negroni while escaping the masses out in the piazza. They do offer small aperitivo plates as well (mostly Thursday-Saturday), but it’s mostly all about the Campari.
Location • +39 02 8646 4435
4. Bar Brera • Brera
Milan’s Brera district is a lovely walking neighborhood and close to many of the city’s most impressive attractions, including the Duomo, the Pinocotecadi Brera, and Sforza Castle. Bar Brera sits right at the front door to the district, right at the corner of Via Brera and the Pinocoteca. It’s utterly unpretentious, with no-nonsense service, inexpensive drinks, and a relaxed, bohemian atmosphere. The best part, however, is the people watching. A stream of art students, tourists, locals grabbing espresso, and whoever else might happen to drop by keep the vibe fun and unpredictable. It’s not the greatest food option in the Brera, but if you’re looking to start the night with a cheap drink and a taste of Milanese street life, this is the place to be. Another bonus: the tables inside are close to outlets you can use to charge a phone, and the WiFi is quite speedy.
Location • +39 02 877 091
5. Luca e Andrea • Navigli
There are no shortage of bars in the Navigli area of Milan, but it’s tough to walk past Luca e Andrea without being lured in by its smiling patrons and warm burgundy walls. The staff is uncommonly friendly (which isn’t always the case in the Navigli bar scene), and the combination of well-balanced cocktails, indoor-outdoor seating, and food that is a cut above the usual apertivo fare makes this an approachable and fun place to settle into no matter the season. Bonus: unlike most bars in Milan which tend to only have four-top tables for patrons, there are actually stools at the bar here, making for a more sociable atmosphere if you’re on your own.
Location • +39 02 5810 1142
6. La Chiesetta • Chinatown
During World War II, almost 70% of the buildings in Milan were destroyed in Allied bombing raids, making a historic bar like La Chiesetta a rarity. Located in a nearly thousand-year-old nun’s convent (though nobody seems to know its age exactly), the building miraculously survived the raids, and its Gothic arches stand out amid the more updated and rebuilt architecture surrounding them. Inside you will find dimly-lit tables and walls filled with frescoes (a few of which are originals) as well as a round bar toward the back tended by staff who are happy to teach you all about the building’s history. The service can be rather leisurely in the course of all that storytelling, but it just gives you more time to take in the ambience and enjoy the irony of a dive bar in such an unusual setting. Light snacks are available, but it’s not a great aperitivo destination; consider it more as a post- (or pre-) dinner destination.
Location • +39 33 9796 9095
7. Nottingham Forest • Monforte
At Nottingham Forest, it’s all about presentation. The small space (definitely not good for large groups) is literally packed to the rafters with a vaguely tropical array of hammocks, fronds, and nautical knickknacks. It’s unclear what it has to do with a forest, or Robin Hood for that matter, but it sure is a fun place to have a drink. The menu is similarly packed, with pages and pages of whimsical descriptions for the house cocktails (menus are available in both English and Italian). That whimsy extends to the drinks themselves, which are built for maximum visual effect. The “Long Box,” for instance, is a rye-based concoction that comes served in a humidor-like wooden case, which the waiter ceremoniously opens to expose plumes of aromatic smoke. There’s a long bar with stools available, a rarity in Milan, which makes for great people-watching (or meeting) if you can tear your eyes away from the wild décor. Just be sure and get dinner beforehand, as there’s no room for a kitchen, and no (or at least sparse) aperitivo. No WiFi either, so prepare to use precious international data – or just put your phone away and enjoy the kitsch.
Location • no phone
8. Bar STRAF • Duomo
The area around the Duomo is full of overpriced restaurant and bar options that locals and savvy travelers tend to avoid. Not so with the bar at the boutique STRAFhotel. It’s a common spot for locals to meet up for an outing in the city center, particularly around the aperitivo hour. Locals mix with out-of-towners in the outdoor seating area regardless of the weather – umbrellas, comfy couches, and smartly-placed heaters make it enjoyable year-round. Art adorns the indoor space that manages to be both industrial and warm, with large windows that face one of the busy side streets just off the Duomo’s main piazza. While the menu does have a few mains, it leans more heavily into inexpensive quick bites like soups and cheeses; perfect for sightseers taking a quick pit stop. There are musical events hosted here most nights, with a mix of DJs and live acts to entertain patrons while they sip on fancy cocktails, affordable by-the-glass wines, or just a well-executed Aperol Spritz.
Location • +39 02 8050 8715
9. Champagne Socialist • Porta Venezia
Milan has undergone an extensive makeover in recent years to become a more tourist-focused destination, but it’s still a gritty town compared to other destinations in Italy. Champagne Socialist wears that grit proudly with an unfussy vibe, even as they serve you an excellent Barbera with your above-average aperitivo plate. The décor alludes to the war-torn history of the city with a bombed-out basement aesthetic full of peeling paint and scrawled phrases on the walls inspired by graffiti and Russian-style propaganda. This is a place for locals who love wine, as well as the younger, hipper clientele that have flocked to the Porta Venezia neighborhood in recent years. But nobody is here just to be cool, and tourists, while rare, are welcomed by the friendly staff. Those looking to explore Milan’s more soulful side will be happy they made the trip.
Location • +39 02 2047 295
10. Mag Cafe • Navigli
Dark and stuffed full of bizarre clutter – along with a lot of high-end liquor – the Mag Café used to be a pharmacy, and the long menu of cocktail options almost seems like it was created by a mad scientist. Dozens of house specialties are available here, usually with esoteric descriptions that make it hard to know exactly what you might end up with (although the main spirits involved are usually made clear). No matter; whatever you go with, it’s highly likely it will be expertly rendered by the excellent bar staff, who manage an always-crowded room with flair and good humor. Be prepared to wait a bit for your drink however, as the kind of fancy mixology practiced here takes time to prepare. Happily, there is plenty to entertain you as you enjoy one of the most sociable bars in all of Milan. Wander around and check out the curios stacked in every corner, or just sit back in a cushy antique chair and take in the speakeasy-like ambience. The place also does a popular weekend breakfast and of course, this being Milan, daily aperitivo.
Location • +39 02 3956 2875
More Great Milan Bars
11. B Cafe • Duomo & San Babila
The bare brick walls and quirky decor give this place a hipster vibe, but the staff is welcoming and cocktails are cheap. There’s often live jazz both here and at sister B Restaurant around the corner.
Location • +39 02 8909 3317
12. Bodega del Tasca • Navigli & San Lorenzo
Spanish tapas bar-restaurant that heaves with locals during the aperitivo.
Location • +39 02 8378 721
13. El Tombon de San Marc • Brera
Lavishly renovated classic bar with opulent cocktails and a simple menu of Milanese classics and salads.
Location • +39 02 6599 507
14. N’Ombra de Vin • Brera
Historic wine cellar that has served everyone from Mozart to Napoleon over the years; one of Milan’s favorite restaurant-bars, specializing in rare wines and cured meats.
Location • +39 02 6599 650
15. Bar Magenta • Zona Magenta
An art nouveau wonder and total Milanese institution, serving good meals and cheap drinks. Open 7:30 am-2 am (or later).
Location • +39 02 8053 808
16. Armani Bamboo Bar • Quadrilatero d’Oro
Where better to drink when shopping in Milan than at the Armani Hotel? Its Bamboo Bar is classy, cool, and spacious, with views over the Quad towards the Duomo.
Location • +39 02 8883 8702
17. Al Coccio • Navigli
Fabulous canalside beerhouse where you can order from the many draft beer options by the liter. Fun food options too.
Location • no phone
18. UGO Cocktail Bar • Navigli
Quirky bar just off the Naviglio Grande on the popular Via Casale. The interiors feel like an English stately home, while the delicious cocktails are circus-themed. Reserve if you need a table as this place gets packed. Closed Mondays.
Location • +39 02 3981 1557
19. Tutti Fritti • San Lorenzo
Craft beer and fried food in a quirky, grungy-camp bar with plenty of strange objects to gaze at and rock music on the playlist.
Location • +390289052541
20. The Spirit • Porta Romana
Exquisite, arty cocktails by dapper mixologists in a deco-luxe-fantasy speakeasy-esque basement bar.
Location • +39 02 8457 0612
21. El Brellin • Navigli
Great atmosphere inside or out at this picturesque canalside bar-restaurant, right alongside the old fork in the canal where washerwomen used to do laundry; excellent cocktails and good food, too.
Location • +39 02 5810 1351
22. The Doping Club • Navigli
Expect hip locals dressed to impress as mixologists dressed as dandies create inventive and classy cocktails (a strict “no Mojitos, Long Island Iced Teas, or energy drinks” policy is maintained). Open evenings and for Sunday brunch with live jazz (reservations needed).
Location • +39 02 8941 5901
23. Bottega del Vino La Coloniale • San Vittore
This authentic bodega is a wine shop and deli during the day and a bar at night. Very old fashioned, but always heaving with locals for the great atmosphere.
Location • +39 02 5810 2346
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