by Santorini Dave • Updated: December 13, 2018
The Best Areas To Stay in Milan
In contrast to the ruins of Rome or romantic canals of Venice, Milan is a city of industry, long known as a major fashion capital and an easy home base for day trips to the Lakes district and the Alps. Since hosting the 2015 World Expo, however, the city has seen revived enthusiasm and investment toward encouraging tourism. If you know where to stay and what areas to explore, Milan can offer an authentic Italian experience unlike any other.
The city emanates outward in concentric circles, at the heart of which lies the famous Duomo and the Galleria. Most tourist activity and the bulk of the city’s museums and art centers, including the Palazzo Reale and the Pinocotera de Brera, are found nearby. For those willing to stray a little further, the area near Park Sempione and the Arco della Pace (Peace Arch) to the west offers amazing aperitivo (Milan’s version of happy hour) and Sforza Castle – perhaps the city’s most impressive historical treasure. Other attractions include the glistening skyscrapers and haute cuisine of Porta Nuova in the north, the parks and conservatories of Porta Venezia to the east, or the canals and nightlife of the bustling Navigli district in the south.
Getting around is relatively easy, as Milan is mostly flat and of manageable size; the historic city center (Centro Storico), once surrounded by a medieval wall (some small sections of which still exist), can be walked from one end to the other in under an hour. Despite its more modern reputation, Milan is an ancient city with plenty of confusing alleys and misleading side streets, so you will want to give your feet a break if you’re exploring more broadly. Happily, public transit is robust, with a network of trams, buses, and the underground metro system working together to transport you virtually anywhere you’d want to go. And while a taxi can occasionally be helpful, you’ll most often find yourself walking or using public transport to get from place to place.
The Best Places To Stay in Milan
- Most romantic neighborhood: San Lorenzo
Just south and west of the Duomo lies the small, quiet enclave around the ancient columns of Piazza San Lorenzo and the nearby Basilica. It’s a common meeting place for locals gathering with friends or as a starting place for dates out on the town. There are a number of small hotels and hostels nearby and along Corso di Porta Ticinese – lined with impressive street art, a variety of local shops, and charming restaurants offering top-notch Milanese cuisine.
- Best neighborhood for sightseeing: Brera
Immediately northwest of the city center is a tangle of narrow streets known as the Brera. It’s a hugely festive area, with relatively sparse car traffic and a mix of locals and tourists enjoying shops, restaurants and bars, and the Pinocotera de Brera – arguably the city’s most important art museum. The Brera is close to Milan’s most impressive attractions, as well: Castello Cforza, Park Sempione, and the Duomo/Galleria area all a short walk away. Walk a little further just past the castle, and you’ll reach Santa Maria delle Grazie, home of Da Vinci’s famous Last Supper fresco.
- Best neighborhood for nightlife: Navigli District
On the south edge of town, a pair of canals that once transported material to build the city’s Duomo in the city center are now home to Milan’s most vibrant party scene. Lined with dozens of bars, restaurants, and shops, the area was upgraded after the 2015 Expo and connected to the rest of the city via the revamped Porta Ticinese. Locals now pile in every night to enjoy aperitivo, Italy’s version of happy hour. Many bars offer entire buffets of free food (though you have to buy a drink), vying with each other to entice the biggest crowds. Of the two canals, Naviglio Grande is the epicenter, although Naviglio Pavese, the smaller canal to the south, gets its fair share of foot traffic as well. Be sure to explore the side alleys and avenues off the canals themselves; you’ll find many excellent drinking and dining options hiding in the shadows. Those interested in live music and clubs should head to Corso Como in Porta Nuovo district; here you’ll find a variety of electronic music options, as well as the Milan outpost of the New York-based Blue Note jazz nightclub.
- Best neighborhood for food and restaurants: Isola
While great food abounds in Milan, serious foodies should head north to Isola, in the Porta Nuovo area just east of the Cimitere Monumentale. There you will find the Eataly complex, a 4-story emporium devoted to Italian cuisine. Meats, cheeses, pastas, wines, and most everything else is available here, along with dozens of take-and-go options. Many exciting restaurant options are found here as well, with a mix of traditional Milanese fare (including the renowned osso bucco) and newcomers featuring farm-to-table menus and impressive seafood-based creations from Sicilian chefs. For those with bigger wallets, the Montenapoleone area and its Michelin-starred hotel restaurants offer a wealth of options, including world-class sushi at the Armani Hotel’s famed Nobu, and high-end, contemporary Italian at Seta, inside the Mandarin Oriental.
- Best neighborhood for local vibe: San Babila and Porta Venezia
Just east of the Centro Storico/Duomo neighborhood and south of the sprawling Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli lies San Babila, a quiet enclave of piazzas and well-to-do Milanese. Fashionably dressed children walk tree-lined streets underneath 17th century porticos to conservatories and art schools, while musicians with instruments on their backs head to classes or nearby gigs. Despite its proximity to the Duomo, most tourists bypass the neighborhood, leaving you free to explore churches, wander small parks, or enjoy some gelato at the shops near the San Babila metro stop and the Basilica di San Carlo al Corso. Another option: Park Sempione, on the other side of town and adjacent to Sforza Castle, is a magnet for locals young and old, from morning to dusk.
- Best neighborhood for a first timer: Piazza del Duomo
Milan has many impressive sights, but nothing beats the Piazza del Duomo, with its huge gothic-inspired cathedral and the looming, baroque Galleria complex that houses the flagship stores for Prada and Bulgari, along with dozens of shops, restaurants and bars. (The Camparini has been serving Campari-based cocktails for over 100 years.) After exploring the Duomo and taking a stroll through the Galleria, a short walk to the north – past row after row of 18th century facades and the historic opera house Teatro alla Scala – takes you to Via Della Spiga; a narrow, Milan’s sole pedestrian-only avenue, full of beautiful and stylish locals, lavish hotels, and world-class window shopping.
- Safest areas of Milan
Milan has come a long way over the last several years, and while some parts of town used to be somewhat risky in terms of pickpockets and property theft, you are now more or less OK anywhere in the city center. The areas east and southeast of the Duomo are the least touristy, with fewer scam artists looking to prey on out-of-towners. Risks are lower too in the north part of the city, all the way up from the shopping district and fancy hotels around Via Della Spiga into Porta Nuovo and the Isola district (although Friday and Saturday nights on Corso Como, near Porta Nuova and Isola, can be obnoxious with drunk revelers out on the town).
- Unsafe areas of Milan
Nowhere in the Milan city center is it truly unsafe, but watch yourself at Central Station. It’s been cleaned up quite a bit over the last decade, but it’s still a hotbed for scam artists looking to offer you “help” while buying train tickets, and unregulated “taxi drivers” who will fleece you on your ride to the hotel. It’s smart to keep an eye out while at the other train stations, as well, including those located at Garibaldi near Isola, and at Cadorna, near Sforza Castle. Other areas in which to be on your guard include neighborhoods outside the city center, particularly the area around San Siro where Milan’s main soccer field is located.
The 4 Best Areas in Milan for Tourists
Piazza del Duomo and Palazzo Reale
Art museums, world-class shopping experiences, cultural landmarks, bars and restaurants; all topped by one massive cathedral. For those stopping in Milan for a short while, it’s the one part of town that can’t be missed. A 10-minute walk past Teatro Della Scala, one of the world’s great opera houses, leads you into the Brera, which features some of Milan’s prettiest narrow streets and most delicious Milanese cuisine.
Just south of Sforza Castle along Corso Magenta are two of Milan’s great treasures: the Civic Archeological Museum, and Santa Maria delle Grazie. The latter houses one of the most famous art works in history—Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Preserved over the centuries through destructive wars, botched restorations, and downright carelessness, its very existence is miraculous, and a must-see while in Milan. Meanwhile, the archeological museum, situated near a small section of the medieval city wall, and containing a Roman dwelling from the 1st century A.D, offers the best insight into the city’s ancient past.
The Navigli District
A short tram ride from the Duomo area takes you to Porta Genova, the doorstep of Milan’s hip Navigli district. Named for the two canals that radiate outward from Porta Ticinese, along which you will find innumerable bars and restaurants, the area also contains festive avenues like Via Valenza and Via Vigevano, packed with locals seeking their evening’s entertainment, as well as shops, nightclubs, and drinking establishments offering endless varieties of aperitivo.
Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli
Either of Milan’s large public parks, Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli or Parco Sempione, offer lovely respites from Milan’s chaotic urban energy, but the Giardini, near Porta Venezia, is most conveniently situated – just a short walk from Via della Spiga and the city’s main shopping area. Marvel at Milan’s fashionable populace and modern vitality, then grab a cappuccino and take it to the Giardini, where you can enjoy a little peace and quiet amid open green spaces, grand water fountains, and outdoor sculptures.