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 a surprisingly authentic Italian experience.
The city emanates outward in concentric circles, at the heart of which lies the famous Piazza Duomo with its cathedral and historic shopping 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
- Best neighborhood for sightseeing: Brera
Immediately northwest of the city center is a tangle of narrow streets known as the Brera. It’s a trendy 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 Sforza, Park Sempione, and the Duomo/Galleria area all a short walk away. A little further past the castle is Santa Maria delle Grazie, home of Da Vinci’s famous Last Supper fresco.
- 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 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: Porta Nuovo
While great food abounds in Milan, serious foodies should head north to 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 7 Best Neighborhoods in Milan for Tourists
1. Duomo & San Babila
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, this is the one part of town that can’t be missed. Any Milanese experience should start at the Piazza del Duomo, a breathtaking square with its huge gothic-inspired cathedral, the glittering Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade, the royal palace, and a fascist-era palace flanking the Martini tower. From the Duomo, stroll through the Galleria to the Piazza della Scala to see the world’s greatest opera house up close, or head east up the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II to San Babila, a quiet enclave of piazzas and well-to-do Milanese where you can get away from the tourist hubbub.
Best Hotels near Piazza del Duomo & San Babila
Immediately northwest of the city center is a tangle of narrow streets known as the Brera. The old artists’ quarter, it’s a hugely festive area, with relatively sparse traffic and a mix of locals and tourists enjoying the shops, restaurants, and bars. Its crowning glory is the Pinocotera di Brera – arguably the city’s most important art museum. Brera is wedged between the Quad (in case you need more shopping), and the wonderful Parco Sempione, whose many attractions could easily take up a day or more. The unmissable Castello Sforzesco provides a gateway to the park, whether you visit the many museums inside or not. Built by the Sforza family, who – along with their predecessors, the Viscontis – ruled Milan like royals for centuries, the castle today houses some of the city’s most important museums (fantastic for kids). The park also has the imposing Arco della Pace, leading to a glorious boulevard lined with bars and restaurants (perfect for the aperitivo), the Branco viewing tower, and the Triennial design museum, which showcases the city’s fabulous design legacy.
Best Hotels near Brera & Parco Sempione
3. Zona Magenta
Just southwest of Sforza Castle, the Zona Magenta neighborhood has three of Milan’s great treasures: the Civic Archeological Museum, the Science and Technology Museum, and the Santa Maria delle Grazie church, which houses one of the most famous art works in history – Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Meanwhile, the Civic Archeological Museum, situated near a small section of the medieval city wall and featuring a Roman dwelling from the 1st century, offers a fabulous insight into the city’s ancient past.
Best Hotels near Zona Magenta
4. Navigli & San Lorenzo
A 10-minute stroll southwest from the Duomo brings you to San Lorenzo and the ancient Porta Ticinese gateway, which leads south to Milan’s bustling Navigli district. During aperitivo hour, San Lorenzo’s striking Basilica and Roman columns are a common meeting place for locals before strolling down Corso di Porta Ticinese – lined with street art, independent boutiques, and gelaterias – towards the navigli, the picturesque canals that run through the area and out to the countryside. No visit to Milan is complete without spending a bit of time in Navigli. Not only can you spend hours wandering the towpaths and finding cute boutiques and flower-filled courtyards filled with artist studios, but at night, it becomes the beating heart of Milan’s nightlife as the restaurants and bars fill up and spill out onto the streets. Start at the Porta Ticinese arch on the Piazza Ventiquattro Maggio and wander around the Darsena (dock). Of the two canals leading off it, the Naviglio Grande towards the Porta Genova Metro station is the epicenter, although Naviglio Pavese, the smaller canal to the south, gets its fair share of foot traffic as well. For those who want to explore the area more, head to the uber-trendy Zona Tortona, where you’ll find one of Milan’s best museums, the Museo delle Culture (Mudec), which draws big name exhibitions and has a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Best Hotels near Navigli & San Lorenzo
5. Quadrilatero d’Oro
World class shopping and elegant streets: this part of Milan encapsulates what makes this city stand shoulder-to-shoulder with London, New York, and Paris as a city of the world. Most famous is the ‘Golden Quad’, aka Quadrilatero della Moda or Montenapoleone after the Metro station at its heart. Milan’s ‘Quad’ refers to the four streets – Via Montenapoleone, Via Manzoni, Corso Venezia, and Via della Spiga – that bound Milan’s premiere shopping district, whose streets are filled with the biggest names in fashion and accessories in the world (not to mention the uber-luxe food and accommodation options to complement the experience).
Best Hotels near Quadrilatero d’Oro
6. Porta Nuova & Porta Garibaldi
Serious foodies should head to the Porta Garibaldi area, just east of the Cimitero Monumentale (which itself is fabulous for a stroll). There you will find Eataly Smeraldo, a massive emporium devoted to Italian cuisine, with cheese, meat, and fish counters and dozens of food options to eat on the go, as well as a great pizzeria and a Michelin-starred restaurant, VIVA. For those wanting to continue a foodie tour, head southwest to Chinatown. For nightlife, try pedestrianized Corso Como, which leads up to a cluster of modern skyscrapers, or the area around Porta Nuova. For those who like to have their finger on a city’s pulse, head to the Isola neighborhood, north of Porta Garibaldi station, where you’ll find the Italian outpost of New York’s famous Blue Note jazz cafe and all the trendiest bar and restaurant openings.
Best Hotels near Porto Nuova & Porta Garibaldi
7. Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli & Stazione Centrale
Just north of the Quad, the Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli offers a place where you can enjoy a little peace and quiet amid open green spaces, grand water fountains, and outdoor sculptures, leading to the Porta Venezia neighborhood, which, as well as being the city’s main gay neighborhood, offers wonderful drinking and dining options for all. The splendid Central Station building is worth strolling by if you did not come into the city this way. Taking up nearly a whole block, the 1931 fascist-era building is still one of the largest stations in Europe.
Best Hotels near Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli & Stazione Centrale
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