How To Spend A Weekend In Milan

By Lydia Manch Last edited 9 months ago

Last Updated 05 September 2023

How To Spend A Weekend In Milan
Navigli, Milan. Image by Siavash on Unsplash.

Things change fast in a time of coronavirus — check the Italian government advice and venue websites ahead of travel for up to date requirements and opening plans.  

Milan might not be the first place that springs to mind for a romantic getaway or escapist city break. And honestly, it's easy not to fall for the city — it's not the welcoming beauty of Bologna or the compelling, sprawling chaos of Rome. My first visits were underwhelming; spent too much time in the business district and left thinking of Milan as just Canary Wharf with better pizza. It took a close friend moving there a few years back to get me to fall for it, hard — that and the realisation that, a lot like London, it's worth seeking out the neighbourhoods with a high concentration of good times to offer, rather than trying to take on the entire city in one weekend. Here's my pick of things to do in Milan.

Getting to Milan

An easyJet tailfin
Image: Call Me Fred on Unsplash

Flights go regularly from London City (BA and ITA), Heathrow (BA and ITA), Gatwick (BA, Wizz air, easyJet) and Stansted (Ryanair). For easiest access to Milan itself, you'll want to arrive at Linate airport, rather than the much more complicated Malpensa or the calling-it-Milan-is-basically-an-outright-lie Bergamo (both close to some great stuff in their own rights, but a mission from the city).

From Linate airport it's a 20 minute taxi to the Navigli area — so you can be aperitivoing by the canal within three hours of leaving London — or half an hour by shuttle bus to the Piazza del Duomo.

You can also travel by by train from London, about seven hours. Not as arduous or expensive as it sounds — Italian trains are typically punctual, fast, and so cheap compared to the UK train network that you'll feel like you're being trolled.

Milan need to know

The majestic facade of Duomo di Milano. Image: Benjamin Voros on Unsplash.
  • Getting around Milan: It's not a small city, but our favourite parts are clustered together so tidily, you might never need to hit the public transport network. If you do, it's trams (you'll have to buy tickets at a newsagent — look for the Tabaccheria sign, and get the ticket date stamped on the tram), or the metro. Uber's also an option.  
  • Accommodation: Airbnb's hit the city in a huge way, and it's probably where you'll get the most bang for your buck/euro. We'd go for a flat in a Navigli-side building, along the canal — mostly ancient, high-walled blocks with the flats facing an internal courtyard, you can be metres away from some of Milan's best bars, without a whisper of street noise. If you're after a hotel, and willing to spend a fair amount on it, Vico Milano's The One — small, beautiful, lot of textures you want to stroke, and bedrooms so good-looking you might never make it out the door.
  • What to eat and drink: Helpfully, Milan loves to slap its own name onto its local specialities. Look out for risotto alla milanese (parmesan and saffron), ossobuco alla milanese (bone-in, bone marrow-thick veal shank stew), and cotoletta alla milanese (veal cutlet in breadcrumbs, fried in clarified butter). On the drinks front, it has to be a sbagliato: Italian for 'a mistake', it's a negroni, with the gin swapped out for dry prosecco — and you can still go grab one at Bar Basso, where bartender Mirko Stocchetto invented it back in the 70s.

Day One

Canal life

Gorgeous shuttered buildings are reflected in the canal
The Navigli neighbourhood has to be done. Image: Despina Galani on Unsplash.

The Navigli neighbourhood's made up of the long stretch of two canals, Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese, left over from the time when the city was a huge network of waterways. These are the only ones now, and thanks to some regeneration funding in the last decade, they're both lined with bars, trattorias, cafes and a lot of pavement tables.

Our advice? Start with breakfast at one of the little cafe-bars along the canal, aim for lunch at I Capatosta (small, always packed-out Neapolitan pizzeria) or Signorvino (pasta, cured meat platters, huge wine cellar). And spend the time in between wandering along the Navigli, Darsena — the area where the two canals meet — and around its side streets.

Signorvino, Milan. The Milanese take on what constitutes a light, pre-lunch snack for two.
Image: Lydia Manch.

The centro storico

From Navigli, the centro storico's an easy walk away, where you can admire the Duomo from the outside or, if you're feeling dedicated, take a tour (which you'll need to book in advance, maybe weeks in advance). I'm a church-tour sceptic, but getting to climb around the vast rooftop of the cathedral, with all its crenellations and Renaissance spikes, is actually a tiny lowkey rush. Feels like it shouldn't be allowed, but somehow is?

You can clamber around this rooftop. And that's kind of cool. Image by Jean Giroux, on Unsplash.

For me, the Palazzo Reale — part of the standard Piazza del Duomo tourist trail — is way more effort (cost, queues) than its grand stately home vibes are worth. I'd skip it for the more striking Museo del Novecento next door, and its huge, often surprisingly off-piste collection of 20th century Italian art, and remit to reflect 'Milan's feverish cultural dynamism'.

From there, you can duck into the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, an arcade of shops that's only marginally less grand and flamboyant than the Duomo. You're not here to buy (unless you're into conservative nonna-chic at Ferrero-heir prices), just to do a walk through, eye up the vaulted ceilings, and wait your turn by a mosaic on the floor of a big bull, where you'll spin three times with your heel on its crotch for good luck or amazing sex for three years, depending on who you ask.

Aperitivo in Milan

A glass of negroni
Milan's aperitivo game is strong. Image: Fonderie Milanesi

I have never — jinxing myself badly as I write this — ever had a hangover in Milan, never felt anything but outright glorious the morning after a big night here. My gratitude for that is to the city's aperitivo culture and late night pizzerias, making it easy to abide by the cardinal rules: start eating when you start drinking; don't stop eating till you stop drinking. Scatter your evening with carbs and cured meat platters and tiramisu pitstops.

Milan's aperitivo hour game is strong — buy a drink, get a free (and usually endlessly replenishable) platter of snacks. Most bars are going to be doing something that feels, to a Londoner, unfathomably great, but if you're after a steer, go for Fonderie Milanesi in the Ticinese area or Santeria near Bocconi. Otherwise just wander the Navigli till you see a buffet calling to you.

Wes Anderson's very meta passion project. Image: Bar Luce.

Or abandon the Navigli altogether, for Largo Isarco, the neighbourhood in the south of the city where you'll find Fondazione Prada, an artistic and creative compound with a lofty mission, including a lot of multidisciplinary commissions, residencies, and 'cultural stimuli'. At ground level, that translates into regular exhibitions and installations, and some cinematically serene public spaces and curvilinear buildings, like a vision of a utopian futuristic society filtered through a very 70s prism.

And there's the added attraction of Bar Luce, Wes Anderson's very meta passion project which 'recreates the atmosphere of a typical Milanese cafe' by being, actually, a Milanese cafe. A magnet for Anderson-fans, but a good drinking spot in its own right — Mad Men-esque formica, fiercely strong cocktails, and a scattering of pinball machines. Plus the bonus of a lot of sweets on display above the bar: potentially just to create A Vibe, but accessible if you ask, plaintively.  

Milan nightlife

A rustic looking cafe with greenery in the foreground
Deus: a gently hipster motorbike cafe. Image: Deus Cafe, Isola.

Like all big cities, Milan has massive club nights involving big queues or advance tickets, and no shortage of glossy but vaguely dull places where you need to have a table and bottle service and hi-shine shoes on the men to get in. But unlike London, it also has a very late-night culture that means if you just want to eat a lot, drink, rejoice, catch great DJ sets, and dance in corners of sticky, lowkey, perfect bars with your arms slung around your loved ones till the small hours, you don't need much of a plan or inside intel to make that happen. A few places to start you off, though:

Deus Cafe in Isola's an outpost of the Deus Ex Machina motorbike brand. It comes with a great secluded courtyard for summer evenings, does snacks till the small hours, a negroni the size of a small pony, and a loud, nicely chaotic mishmash of music genres. The entrance isn't obvious from the street, but look for a little residential-looking alleyway off Via Genova Thaon di Revel. Iter, tucked down a side street near Naviglio Grande, does good cocktails, good coffee, and has a steady buzz from 8am till 1.30am. Club Plastic in the south of the city near Corvetto station is open 11pm till 5am on weekends: an iconic queer disco-club-performance space for decades, it's still a big name DJ magnet, with a fetishwear-laced late night scene that Andy Warhol once described as the best club in Europe. And Blitz — on Via Cenisio on the edge of Chinatown — serves dinner till 1.30am, i.e. the Grail. Consider the boundless possibilities of an evening where you can aperitivo at 5.30pm, eat first dinner at 7pm, second dinner at 12.30am, and embark on into the night with all the carbs you need to keep you going till dawn.

Day Two

Ruins and churches

Ruins of an old church with corinthian pillars
Colonne di San Lorenzo. Image: Warburg in Creative Commons.

Like a lot of Italian cities, Milan's beautifully casual about its ancient ruins, with the towering Colonne di San Lorenzo high up there for nonchalant, Just Stumbled Across This Ancient Glory, NBD feels. A short walk from Navigli up the Corso di Porta Ticinese, on a small open square, bring a coffee and your breakfast cannoli (a small but visionary movement we're trying to take mainstream), and embed for an hour or two of people watching. If you're not all churched out from the Duomo, the Basilica di Sant'Eustorgio nearby is a working church with an open-door policy that makes it easy to explore both the lavish chapel and the big gardens — often used as an exhibition space — without feeling like a heathen trespasser.

Towers, trees and museums

Vertical buildings smothered in greenery
Image: Mattia Spotti on Unsplash

From the Colonne, it's a short walk north-ish to Porta Nuova, to the Bosco Verticale ('vertical forest'). The two towers — 18 and 26 floors — have about 950 trees and plants built into the façade, able to convert around 20,000 kg of carbon a year. Opened in 2014, architect Stefano Boeri's project was the first of its size or ambition in Europe — and even without the context, the minimalist starkness of the building underneath and the greenery climbing it gives it a gorgeously weird mix of verdant, intentional living and dystopian future, trees-reconquering-the-concrete vibe.

If you're feeling low on museum time, you'll also be near the Museo della Permanente collection of 19th-21st century Italian art, and the trippier Museo delle Illusioni, dedicated to optical illusions — infinity rooms, vortex tunnels, and installations that mess with your sense of distance.

(While you're in the hood, Pizzium Isola does fast, cheap pizza Napoletana. If you have more willpower than us, think about forgoing their tiramisu in favour of a pitstop back nearer Navigli at the historic Gelateria Orsi — keeping the citizens of Milan in chocolate gelato and, weirdly, marrons glacés, since 1936.)

Dinner in Milan

Not a bad little garden. Image: Osteria Del Binari.

I can personally vouch for the great value and loveliness of L'altro Luca & Andrea, Il Brutto Anatroccolo on Via Evangelista Torricelli, and Osteria Del Binari (if it's warm enough, book for the garden — all trellises, vines and scattered candlelight) — all within about 10 minutes of Navigli.

If you're looking to drop special-occasion cash for dinner, there's Torre, the Fondazione Prada restaurant: comes with views across the city, a terrace for warm evenings, and a menu with the sort of prices you'd expect to go with the white-tablecloth, high-design decor. For somewhere more laid back, the street food at Macelleria Popolare is a chance to check out the Milanese take on nose-to-tail food — expect a lot of tripe, heart, and assorted offal, with a few less intense options (meatballs, cured meat boards), for offal refuseniks.

Tbh we'd find it hard to pass up the more trad, less high-concept loveliness of one of the osterias lining the Navigli side streets — Osteria Conchetta (among the big attractions, the flaming vodka penne, set alight and served from a huge wheel of grana padano, or their cotoletta a orecchio di elefante — elephant's ear cutlet, not far from the cotoletta alla milanese but hammered thinner and enormous), or the rowdy, candlelit Damm'atrà.

On the list for next time...

Woody mountains in a lovely rich red colour
Image: Sergio Rota on Unsplash

If you're staying longer, Milan's an ideal jumping off place to explore Lombardy from. Head out to Lago di Como or Lago Maggiore in the summer, and spend a day or two skimming over pristine, deep-blue waters on a motorboat, sliding into them whenever you need to cool off, and stopping off at tiny, lakeside trattorias for grilled perch caught within the hour.